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Thursday, April 26, 2007

one of the great isolatos

She enters history like the protagonist of an 18th century picaresque novel:

‘One evening in the month of September 1731, a girl nine or ten years old, pressed, as it would seem, by thirst, entered about twilight into Songi, a village situated four or five leagues south of Chalons in Champagne. She had nothing on her feet: her body was covered with rags and skins: her hair with a gourd leaf; and her face and hands were black as a Negroe’s. She was armed with a short baton, thicker at one end than the other like a club. Those who first observed her took to their heels, crying out, ‘There is the devil.” And indeed her dress and colour might very well suggest this idea to the country people. Happiest were they who could soonest secure their doors and windows; but one of them, thinking, perhaps, that the devil was afraid of dogs, set loose upon her a bull dog with an iron collar. The little savage seeing him advancing in a fury, kept her ground without flinching, grasping her little club with both hands, and stretching herself to one side, in order to give greater scope to her blow. Perceiving the dog within her reach, she discharged such a terrible blow on his head as laid him dead at her feet. Elated with her victory, she jumped several times over the dead carcase of the dog. Then she tried to open a door, which not being able to effect, she ran back to the country towards the river, and mounting a tree, fell quietly asleep.”

This is from the English translation that was commissioned by James Burnett, Lord Monboddo. Monboddo is one of those bit players – he had a reputation for eccentricity, built upon his massive multi-volume books that extended the Edinburgh enlightenment’s story of progress as the essence of history to natural history. Monbaddo, famously, thought orangutans were another species of human being – which was not really as odd as it seems, given that Linnaeus himself carved out a special category for wild boys and girls, homo sapiens ferus. And Monboddo had a strong suspicion that people might be born with tails. Or at least that is the legend, which makes Monboddo a crazy Scots Rousseau, crawling around, Nebuchadnezzar like, on all fours.

Michael Newton, in Savage Girls and Wild Boys, devotes a chapter to the Burnett-Memmie Le Blanc story. You can also find Julia Duthwaite’s essay, Rewriting the Savage: The Extraordinary Fictions of the "Wild Girl of Champagne” here As Douthwaite points out, the whole story of Memmie is wrapped in mystification, including the supposed memoir, written by her friend, Madame Hecquet. Madame Hecquet could be the daughter of Dr. Hecquet, who was famous earlier in the century, or she could not exist at all. She could be, and was suspected to be, a proxy for Charles de la Condamine. In Newton’s account, the translation of Hecquet’s work was done by William Robertson, James Burnett’s secretary, in 1765. When Burnett met her, through the offices of Condamine, Memmie Le Blanc was making her living as a curiosity – although in some sense she was still a nun. Burnett, curious as always about primitive man, must have been steered to Memmie, since the Hecquet book, according to Newton, was not selling – in fact, it was part of Memmie’s act to sell copies of it.

Monboddo wrote the preface to the translation of the Memoir. He makes a bee line between Memmie as a Man Friday and Memmie as the Lockean specimen, the subject who had, by good fortunate, befallen some subtraction on the path to human development – the metaphysician’s freak, in short. The preface is genial, and even gives Memmie’s Paris address, for those wanting to see her and put a penny in her box. Monboddo concedes that “the vulgar will be entertained with this relation much as they are with the history of Robinson Crusoe; but to the philosopher it will appear matter of curious speculation; and he will draw from it consequences not so obvious to the generality of readers. He will observe with amazement the progression of our species from an animal so wild, to men such as we. He will see, evidently, that though man is by his natural bent and inclination disposed to society, like many other animals, yet he is not be natural necessity social, nor obliged to live upon a joint stock, like ants or bees; but is enabled, by his natural powers, to provide for his own subsistence, as much as any other animal, and more than most, as his means of subsistence are more various.”

This fascinates LI – for isn’t it the devil of the spirit of capitalism that it is a system which forces men out of the autarkic state, in which all is barter for immediate use, or home production, into the world of monetary exchange – while at the same time defining his essence as being able “to provide for his own subsistence, as much as any other animal” by himself? The economic man, who stands, like Robinson Crusoe, at the very beginning of the labour process, contains this primordial twist like the sons of Adam contain original sin. And that twist comes out of the figuration of that inseparable and damned couple, the colonizer and the native, the European and the savage. So to have a savage retrace the original colonization is, to say the least, interesting.

And that is the story of Memmie, at least as Monboddo sees it. Born, he speculates, among the Huron (who he knows from the tales of an erudite traveler – although this account is contradicted, somewhat, by Monboddo’s insistance on the whiteness of Memmie’s skin), she was captured, while in a canoe, by a ship of unnamed Europeans, her face was blacked, and she was sold as a slave somewhere in the Carribbean. A white Indian in blackface, she was re-embarked for unknown reasons in a ship that foundered on the French shore. She escaped, and helped her girlfriend, a Negro girl, escape. Here things get murky. This black girl was seen when Memmie was first spotted, and there are some odd hints that Memmie might have beaten her to death and eaten her – but then again, there is an account that she sheltered her and the girl got sick. She is out of the picture by the time Monboddo meets Memmie, that's for sure. In any case, what we have here is a game of substitutes of an ingenious kind – the white for the Indian, the Indian for the black, Friday for Robinson Crusoe, Europe for the deserted island. For a moment, history goes, if not backwards, at least in a sort of spin.

More in a future post

ps – oddly, Robinson Crusoe never marked me. I assume I read it, or some abridgment, when I was a boy, but I don’t have the memory of it that I have of Gulliver’s travels. So I’ve been reading it this week, and finding it very surprising. The most surprising thing is the echo I catch of Kafka’s The Burrow. I’ve looked about and found some references to Defoe in the Kafka literature, but it is always about the island in the Penal Colony. But more impressive, to me, is Robinson Crusoe’s alternations between spasms of labour and spasms of fear – in particular, after he spots the imprint of a naked foot on the beach – and the same alternation experienced by the creature in the burrow. That creature attributes his ceaseless scrabbling and his moments of collapse to the need to defend himself:

“I have to have the possibility of an immediate exit passage, for in spite of all my watchfulness, can’t I be attacked from some wholly unexpected side? I live in the innermost part of my house in peace, and in the meant time, slowly and quietly, the enemy is boring towards me from somewhere.”

Crusoe has similar feelings.

“But now I come to a new scene of my life. It happened one day,
about noon, going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with
the print of a man's naked foot on the shore, which was very plain
to be seen on the sand. I stood like one thunderstruck, or as if I
had seen an apparition. …

When I came to my castle (for so I think I called it ever after
this), I fled into it like one pursued. Whether I went over by the
ladder, as first contrived, or went in at the hole in the rock,
which I had called a door, I cannot remember; no, nor could I
remember the next morning, for never frightened hare fled to cover,
or fox to earth, with more terror of mind than I to this retreat.

I slept none that night; the farther I was from the occasion of my
fright, the greater my apprehensions were, which is something
contrary to the nature of such things, and especially to the usual
practice of all creatures in fear; but I was so embarrassed with my
own frightful ideas of the thing, that I formed nothing but dismal
imaginations to myself, even though I was now a great way off.
Sometimes I fancied it must be the devil, and reason joined in with
me in this supposition, for how should any other thing in human
shape come into the place? Where was the vessel that brought them?
What marks were there of any other footstep? And how was it
possible a man should come there?”

These passages precede a long description of Crusoe’s stratagems in creating a wholly disguised place to hide. As in The Burrow, working in panic is expressed by a confused sense of time. Where Crusoe has accounted for his time up until this point with as much exactitude as he has accounted for his tools, his firearms, his goats, his crops, and all the troublesome implements he has to make himself. But after seeing the footprint, it is a little difficult to understand the passage of the years. Similarly, the creature in the burrow, building out its tunnels, sometimes starts up from sleep and begins to work madly:

“… than I hurry, then I fly, than I have no time to calculate; for I just want to carry out a new, wholly exact plan, grasp arbitrarily what I find with my teeth, slink, carry, sigh, moan, stumble and only some irrelevant alterations of the present circumstances, that seem to me so very dangerous, will satisfy me.”

Perhaps the echoes are to be expected – Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is so diffused in our culture that he is pretty much everywhere that you want to find him. Still, the parallels are striking.


Anonymous said...



Anonymous said...

Thanks, Mr. Paine.