the civilizing mission: Tahiti/Samoa

A thesis is the poetry of logic, and it usually ends up, x eyed and down, strangled by detail. Or at least this is my conclusion after hearing many many details in many many papers at the History of Science Society conference. It jolted me, since my own essay in the making, attacking the triumph of happiness, sometimes seems so mired in the Enlightenment underground, so intent on picking up odd writers, that it seems bent on disappointing my original inspiration, which was to strike a blow against a cultural dominant that is leading us to ruin. So, I need a bit of air and a leap ahead, which is why LI’s post today is about Andy Martin’s Willing Women: Samoa, Tahiti, and the Western Imagination, published in the Raritan in 1997.

It is a superclever essay, since Martin takes Bougainville’s Voyage – an important Enlightenment text – as the background to dissect the famous controversy about Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa – another famous text, this one coming out of the ‘mongrel modernism’ of the twenties. Mead was accused of gross fraud by an Australian anthropologist in the 1980s, Derek Freeman – but it wasn’t just Mead who was accused, here. Rather, Freeman rightly saw Mead as representative of the cultural relativism and liberalism of her time – from a vulgar Hegelian viewpoint, you could say that American liberalism springs from the synthesis of twenties liberations (cultural and sexual) and the thirties economic rationality (FDR’s patchwork Keynesianism). Freeman is a bit of a hero on the right, and Mead more than a bit of a devil.

“Mead's scenario of love in the South Seas, "under the palm trees" in her own phrase, started to unravel in the 1980s, when an Australian, Derek Freeman, denounced her narrative as a myth {Margaret Mead and Samoa, 1983). In his account, Samoan culture was in fact rigid, male-dominated, hierarchical, fundamentalist, fixated on premarital virginity. He even brought forward, as evidence, one of Mead's own sources who confessed—sixty-odd years after the event—that she and her friends had freely misled Mead by telling her what she wanted to hear, stories of innumerable moonlit rendezvous and sultry perfumed liaisons. In truth they remained strict conformists to the Samoan moral code. Mead herself later admitted she had been hoaxed.”

Martin begins his essay with a variation of the classic Freudian question, what do women want – in this case, what did Mead want? Want, of course, is fated to produce doppelgangers and decoys, generating a black market in which authenticity is traded for mockery and vice versa. It is zoned for irony. In this case, the irony is that what the women of Samoa wanted in telling Mead what she wanted to hear, supposedly. Martin is a little too comfortable changing the locus of the controversy to Tahiti – the shift is justified by the reference to the “South Seas”, and the easiness comes to haunt this essay, as I will point out later – but I don’t think he is totally wrong to make the shift. Martin starts with an account of Bougainville’s ten day stay in Tahiti. Bougainville came there in a ship named, appropriately, Boudeuse - ‘literally, "Sulky Woman" or "Kissing Couch"’ – and his description of this landfall as a sexual paradise became, of course, a topos for the crossed destinies of Rousseau and Sade, for the nobility of the natural and the unnaturalness of nobility.

Martin’s essay is a nice attempt to survey the metaphorical implication of ‘Tahiti’ – viewing it as not simply a metaphor attached and functioning in a Western orientalist metaphoric, but as a catalyst that joins together one view of women’s desire (a view that Martin, rather hastily, identifies with Freud’s discovery, via Dora, that the unconscious never says ‘no’), with orientalism itself. Tahiti touches Napoleon and Flaubert’s Egypt and transforms them into Cythera – Bougainville’s own metaphor for Tahiti. Flaubert’s Egypt leads us from Madame Bovary to Gauguin - back to the real Tahiti. Gauguin leads us back to rape. And rape leads us to Sade, whose texts contain woman as the object who cannot be raped – since women are fated always to say yes, even when they say no. The problem with this account of rape is, obviously, that it takes raped to be defined by a judicial notion which is surely, if anything, a product of the liberal patriarchy which is, at the same time, being accused by Martin of generating the unrapeable, infinitely submissive, infinitely wanting woman. One theme is entangled with another, but Martin, working through the margins, comes to affirm the patriarchal gestures of a rightwinger like Freeman and – in a bizarre coda concerning Martin’s own sexual object, Brigitte Bardot – Bardot, whose autobiography is disconcertingly thrown into this mix.

Thus, though LI can say that both Martin and myself are operating under the baleful moon of deconstruction - we are brothers under the skin - I cannot fully endorse Martin’s elaboration of his theme.

Only men and boys can truly seem to be raped [in Sade], since they frequently put up more than token resistance, whereas, in the case of girls and women, sex, however coercive and even fatal, is always ultimately consensual. The Sadeian would-be rapist is invariably irritated, provoked, outraged by this apparently irrepressible fountain of feminine pleasure and desire. The sexual criminal can therefore always reasonably assert, in Sade, that no crime has been committed since he was only responding to an implicit invitation: all along he has done nothing but provide the supply to her demand.

Suppressed by Napoleon, marginalized as erotica, Sade's texts can now be seen to constitute the archetype of the nineteenth-century novel in Erance. Erom Madame de Stael through to Colette, the novels written by women constitute a series of variations, suh-Juliette, on the uninhibited woman. Novels written by men tend to subscribe more to the model of Justine, taking an initially more passive woman and forcing her to show her true and more predatory colors. One reason, I would contend, why Elaubert's Madame Bovary is often represented as the greatest of nineteenth-century novels is that it is the most flagrantly Sadeian of afl texts in the period.”

It is a bold thing to elaborate a contrarian thesis that you then take to be operating, unconsciously, among the community at large all the time – Martin is contending not only that his reading of Sade is right, but that the Sadeian impulse is so dominant that it determines unconsciously the judgments of the critical community. Sade so dominates that you will notice it is Sade in particular who Napoleon bans - rather than, as was the case, a whole group of erotic writers from the eighteenth century. By this means, Sade becomes so central that the critic, apparently, like the women of Tahiti, can’t say no to Sade, even if they appear not to be thinking of him at all. Derridian histories become problematic in the instance in which they forget their own overdeterminations. There is no, so to speak, control on the catalyzing power of Tahiti in Martin’s metaphoric chain. Still, Martin is right, I think, to see Bougainville’s Tahiti as the background to Mead’s Samoa.

“Bougainvillea, the brilliantly colored vine (named by Commerson. Botanist Royal aboard the Boudeuse) that Bougainville brought back from the tropical South, takes root and flowers in Europe. At the same time there springs up a whole Bougainvillean crop of ideas, which we can loosely bundle under the heading of "Southism," that bursts out in the nineteenth-century novel and the paintings of Gauguin. The Bougainvifle-Gauguin axis becomes the center of gravity of a pertod, from Rousseau to Mead, which proudly thrusts up fantasies of willing women like the figurehead of a ship. That hazy catchall concept of phallogocentrism can be understood, I would
argue, as the revelation of a secret orgiastic theory about the desires of women, especially young girls, for men.”

LI has found it hard to say what women want, in my thesis about the change in emotional customs brought about by the great transformation. I’ve made several false starts. My sense that volupte acts as the ‘center of gravity’ of the seventeenth century prehension of the Enlightenment bonheur thesis has been influenced by the fact that so many women took their intellectual places as advocates and opponents of voluptĂ© – and that the women who advocated it were writing in the wake of Gassendi’s re-introduction of Epicurus to the high cultural scene. But so many women makes for… how many women? My sample size will always be unrepresentative, insofar as it is hard to know just what samples to take, what the variables are that influence them, etc.

That Martin seems to naively accept Freeman’s account of Mead, and Bardot’s account of her younger self, tells us that he definitely needed to counterweight his own quest for the catalyzing effects of Tahiti. Such is the power of poetry that some of Martin’s instances are irresistible:

“At the end of the eighteenth century, the poet and revolutionary Camille Desmoulins spoke of his desire to "compose a Tahiti of the heart" as he was carted off to the guillotine.”

But Martin's thesis, which aligns Desmoulins, Napoleon, Freud and Mead in a massive denial of rape, seems to me not to be the center of gravity of Orientalism. One way to bring this out is to read Martin's article against this piece in the Summer, 2006 issue of Ethnohistory by Paul Shankman, which goes over the Freeman-Mead controversy one more time. His article makes for an interesting twist on Martin’s thesis, for it is possible, on re-reading it, to see that Martin is making an argument that is imbricated with a standard apologetic for imperialism – that the Europeans abolished barbaric customs that oppressed women. The suttee is one. The abolition of the public defloration of virgins in Samoa, or taupou, is another. This is a quote from Mead:

Mead noted that by the 1920s the taupou and many other aspects of Samoan tradition had changed appreciably.

‘ Deviations from chastity were formerly punished in the case of girls by a very severe beating and a stigmatising shaving of the head. Missionaries have discouraged the beating and head shaving, but failed to substitute as forceful an inducement to circumspect conduct. The girl whose sex activities are frowned upon by her family is in a far better position than that of her great-grandmother. The navy has prohibited, the church has interdicted the defloration ceremony, formerly an inseparable part of the marriages of girls of rank; and thus the most potent inducement to virginity has been abolished. If for these cruel and primitive methods of enforcing a stricter regime there had been substituted a religious system which seriously branded the sex offender, or a legal system which prosecuted and punished her, then the new hybrid civilisation might have been as heavily fraught with possibilities of conflict as the old civilisation undoubtedly was. (Mead 1928: 273–74)’”

Reading Shankman as a sort of counter-reading of Martin is interesting, especially in the light of Martin’s 90s-ish take on feminism, rape and Freud (Martin goes so far as to agree with Masson), which, as we can see from the past seven years, is consistent with using feminism as the avant garde justification for America’s imperial policy – precisely toward that Orient which, in Martin’s view, is Napoleon’s unrapeable female. There's a well known history of viewing the imperial power as the guardian of the native female, but it is not to be found in Martin – rather, it is disguised by a trendy extension of the Sadean template to all of Europe. The rape ideology then infects Mead and the cultural relativists. And, to give us a sort of ultimate 90s-ish trompe l’oeil effect, Martin prominently features the memories of older women, looking back at their younger selves and telling the truth about those selves – the Samoan women Freeman quotes, and the older B.B.

Shankman, however, reverses the nineties trope by quoting the younger Freeman, whose dissertation, arising from his fieldwork in Samoa in 1948, actually tallies with Mead’s picture of Samoa, and disagrees with Freeman’s later assertion that the intervention of the missionaries was not inconsistent with the native Samoan ethos, which never countenanced the free sexual behavior Mead claimed that she had discovered from her informants. Younger selves and older selves, here: a variable that is too often underconceptualized, or simply omitted, in our narratives.

Shankman has engaged in a lot of controversy with Freeman, as is evident from his paper. However, in his defense of Mead’s credibility, he quotes from Freeman’s 1948 thesis on our topic: rape and unrapeability.

reeman continues his discussion of marriage by reporting that ‘‘most avaga’’[elopement marriages] begin with a moetotolo, or ‘‘sleep crawling.’’ ‘‘Sleep crawling’’ refers to a practice in which a young man silently slips into the young woman’s house at night and, without awakening the household sleeping all around them, engages in sex with her. It is one form that clandestine relationships take and may be part of courtship. It is also dangerous for the young man, who, if caught, could be severely beaten and his family fined. Nevertheless, Freeman (1948: 208) comments that ‘‘in many instances a moetotolo is achieved with the connivance of the girl concerned.’’ That is, despite the risk involved to the boy and possibly to herself, the girl may have encouraged the relationship. Here Freeman is suggesting that in many cases the relationshipwas consensual and that the girl might be willing, a point made in somewhat more detail by ethnographer Tim O’Meara (1996: 108).

In Freeman’s published description of avaga in Margaret Mead and Samoa (1983: 240), he reiterates that girls may ‘‘actively encourage’’ their own seduction. However, Freeman now defines moetotolo exclusively as forcible ‘‘surreptitious rape’’ (244), in which the young man clandestinely crawls into a girl’s house and manually deflowers her in symbolic imitation of the pre-European defloration ceremony. In fact, Freeman argues that moetotolo is characterized by aggression and that Mead misinterpreted this custom (245), stating that:

“The intention of the sleep crawler is, in fact, to creep into the house in which a female virgin is sleeping, and before she has awoken to rape her manually by inserting one or two fingers in her vagina, an action
patterned on the ceremonial defloration of a taupou.”

This is all rather fascinating. To disentagle the the politics of rape and consent, of subjects and objects, of the construction of a legal system that punishes rape in the context of a culture that tends towards liberal ‘relativism’ gives us the contradictions and stresses of our current imperialist fiasco. That fiasco depends, muchly, on its refusal ever to take ‘women’ or ‘men’ as anything but unified and compartmentalized categories. That compartmentlization allows for disengaging them from the other variables of their social life - notably, their social and economic position in society - and allows us to gain a compartmentalized truth. What has puzzled me about the discourse of the last seven years is that the Enlightenment, the springtime of cultural relativism, has become a codeword for universalism. And that the feminist strike against patriarchy has been seized as a buttress of imperialism. From universal values to a nice little bombing raid on Iran is another hop skip and a jump through catalytic metaphors that I will save for some later post.