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Monday, December 08, 2008

Tahitian overture

LI has so far concentrated on Therese Heyne’s side of the Heyne-Forster-Meyer triangle. However, I've wanted to harken to Swedenborg's entrance, so embarrassing to those who like their intellectual history straight. Although not a perfect parallel, you could make a case that, just as Spinoza is the hidden enlightenment eminence, so,too, Swedenborg and Mesmer are hidden eminences in that covert history of the passions in the nineteenth century, an underground rumble among the network of enlightenment philosophes, and the prophet of free love afterwards, with with Henry James, Sr., becoming his chief expositor in the U.S. And if that certain mixture of the spiritual and the sex drive embarrasses your true enlightened public much more than open mechanistic libertinism ever did – there is another track leading into free love, a rational track. It is at this point that the wide world enters Gottingen with tortured look of Georg Foster's face, that survivor of scurvy. Georg Forster and his father, Johann Reinhold, sailed with Captain Cook on his second voyage in the South Seas as scientists. JR’s Observations and Georg’s Voyage around the World were much read and praised, the latter coming out first in English a few month’s before Cook’s own account.

Above all, the South Sea islands, for 18th century Europeans, meant the Isle of Cythera, the Eldorado of all the old boys, as Baudelaire would say in the nineteenth century – Tahiti. Here, it was possible to think of angelic sex, a perpetual spring of virginity and fucking, in which the latter never negates the other. Tahiti was the fashion in the literary public of the 1780s. Caroline Michaelis, that ever present woman, created a sensation in Gottingen, strolling about in the Tapa that had been brought back for her by Forster. Christian Williams in Erotische Paradies gives both Forsters credit for casting a critical eye on the imperialist dream of the South Seas as a kind of paradise. Although of course Georg and his father’s accounts are couched in the language of progress, by which, as the native’s powers and resources are stripped from him, his time is stolen as well. It appears he is living in European time, and thus is both a contemporary and an ancestor. This is what was meant by stealing souls.

Still, Forster’s version of progress had an interesting marker. Civilization in the South Seas was symbolized by the treatment of women. The better women were treated, the higher the civilization.

‘The more debased the situation of a nation is, and of course the more remote from civilization, the more harshly we found the women treated… and they are looked upon as being calculated for the mere satisfaction of brutal appetites, nor treated better than beasts of burden, without being allowed to have the least will of their own: which incontestably proves how much men, in a degenerated and savage state, are inclined to oppress the weaker party.” (Quoted 131)

The signs of debasement are not only shown by the mistreatment of women – children striking their mothers, for instance – but in the looks of the women. According to this schema, the Tahitians are eminently civilized – the women are beautiful and powerful – while the women on other South Sea Islands are ugly and oppressed. A sidelight on IT’s theory of ugly women, perhaps, in as much as the dichotomy between the ugly and the beautiful replays the war of civilizations. So of one Melanesian island, JR Forster writes: “The females are generally thin, a few only have tolerable features: the rest are ill-favored, though their shape and limbs are not without proportion. Their knees are equally enlarged with those of the men…”

But this ugliness and oppression have another side. In a prevision of Hegel’s master slave relationship, Forster observes that the situation of the women, just because ‘they have been early taught to suppress the flights of passion; cooler reflexion, gentleness and every method for obtaining approbation and for winning the good-will of others have taken their place” – makes them accessible to the “first dawnings of civilization”. What is lacking is the ruse and the rebellion.

Georg Forster took these experiences and ideas into his unfortunate marriage to Therese Heyne.

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