“Just look at P…, he continued, when she plays Daphne, and, chased by Apollo, turns to look at him – her soul sits in the turmoil of the small of her back; she bends, as though she wanted to break, as a naiad out of the school of Bernini. Look at the young F., then, when he, as Paris, stands among the three Goddesses and hands the apple to Venus. His entire soul sits (it is a shock to see it) in his elbow.

Such mistakes, he added, disconnectedly, are unavoidable, since we ate from the Tree of Knowledge. Paradise is still locked up and the Cherub is behind us; we must make a trip around the world, and see whether perhaps it isn’t still open somewhere in the back.” – Kleist, On the Marionette Theater.

I have danced in these threads so far without, astonishingly enough, mentioning Paradise. But now is the time. Daphne crouches, Paris extends the apple. Once upon a time, when Eve was not coy, the animals could talk, and an island floated up to the people, trailing a cloud above it, on which the Gods were standing. Paradise, of course, it was always a question of Paradise in the Encounter.

… So what was he thinking, sitting there in 1707. There – in Amsterdam? In Copenhagen? As he took up the quill, was he thinking that he had never ceased traveling? That it was all as if he had never gotten out of that infinite forest, that it was still ceaselessly snowing, as he had first seen it from the deck of a boat, leaving debts he could hardly understand behind him, status, college, a dead father tracked down and staked through the heart by the immovability of a society that knew nothing of progress but everything about prestige. The ancients feuded with the moderns on the torrents of the Pau. Lom d’arc, Baron of Lahontan, his father, cleared the Adour River up to Bayonne. He’d never seen a river like the St. Lawrence. Rivers ran fatally through his life.

Did he think that the blizzard of snow and the forest were mirror images one of the other, both wildernesses through which only the most artful entity, the Manitou, could dodge?

The tricks you learn. Looking at his hand, the souvenir of the stump where his little finger used to be. Left for the filthy bottomdwellers at some Wisconsin portage…

According to his biographer and self appointed judge, Joseph-Edmund Roy, the Baron de Lahontan’s father had exhausted his own resources and a great part of his life in the work of clearing the river. In the end, he succeeded, making Bayonne a commercial port. His reward was to be sued for debt, and to fail, in turn, to collect the debts owed him.

Lahontan. Lahontan was a small village which, at one time, was comprised in the territory held by Montaigne's family. Montaigne mentions it as a funny, primitive place. Peculiarly cut off. The story is that the village kept its own customs, generation after generation, until an outsider married into the place, and introduced all the modern troubles: lawsuits, doctors, exchange.

In the shadow of the Pyrenees. He was eight years old when his father died. The son of the second wife.

17. Baron de Lahontan was seventeen when he first saw New France. Ten years later, he turned his back on it for the last time, a convoluted quarrel such as he always seemed to be getting into. Deserting his post to take sail on a ship that he bribed to drop him off on the Portugese shore. By then, he was suffering from a bit of persecution complex about returning to France. Afraid of being seized for debt, or insubordination. He’d made enemies, god knows. The Sieur de Pontchartrain paid men to silence the like of small fry nobility.

“On the 23 Jume 1699, the parliament in Paris issued an arrest – a warrant – in this affair. It is enough to say that the text of the warrant mentons more than 150 summonses, requests, replies, sustainments, contradictions, arres and sentences, without counting the production of supplementary motions. We find more than sixty parties intervening. They come from Paris, Tours, Rouen and every corner of Bearn. The procedures, which began in 1664, were continued annually up to 1699 when the warrant on the distribution of money was issued, but in 1789, the city of Bayonne was still fighting with the creditors of the Lahontan family.”

Perhaps it is a winter morning. The day is cloudy. He sets his pen to the foolscape. The expriest will visit him later in the day, and they will go over the dialogue. Ex-priest, but still a priest – not the kind of creature he likes. Something about them leaves him breathless with hostility. And the ex-priest was common, there was no denying it. Some peddler’s boy, he imagined. He remembers getting out of a tough spot in Spain, no money for the inn, using the gestures he’d observed used by the Jesuits among the Huron, and the gestures, too, that the local healer used, setting himself up as a montebank, paying the bill, getting a coach. The baron-medecin. Out of Moliere and Don Quixotte. Now, he receives, under a cover name, money from a family friend, which he invests in bills of exchange, creaming off a certain percentage for himself.

He’ll last be seen hunting. In a forest on an estate in Luxemberg. Leibniz mentions him. Leibniz the pious man, Lahontan the libertine sceptic. What is broken in the network, what we don’t see. Only blind guesses.

The snow comes down day after day. He learns an Algonquin tongue. Reads Petronious. Lascivious scenes before going to sleep. A priest, one day, comes into his room, spots the book, seizes it and tears it into shreds. He will always resent this insult.

Did he dine with Bayle? When Adorio arose before him, the Huron philosophe. Who had visions of the undoing of his people in every baptism and ever poxy corpse. Or who was the pious Indian leader who died in Montreal and was given a Christian funeral. What do you know about people?

Lahontan had once wanted to discover something. The Long River. A foolish ambition to garner the kind of prestige that LaSalle, that madman, had gained. His party sailing past a burned out post he never noticed, a post that had been set up by Lasalle in Missouri, where a trunk was emblazoned with the words that would continue eternally return to whisper in select ears in the Artificial Paradise: Nous sommes tous des sauvages.

The Black Robes, impressing the Hurons with the announcement that the world turned around the sun. Meanwhile, back in Lahontan, a man who professed to believe that the world turned around the sun, if anyone had been so foolishly inclined to contradict the evidence of his senses, would have been visited by the priests and the local authorities and would, assuredly, recant. Civilization – not a word in general use. Citizen. Not a word in general use. Subject – ah, subjects. To turn the savages into subjects of the king. That was the project. A word undergoing some strange rhetorical stress, subject.

The ex priest, they say, added details only a cleric would know. Citations from Origen – would the 30 year old Lahontan have read Origen? And of course distance buries everything, even the Huron chief who is disallowed, as time goes by, his own critique of European civilization. No, they would speak in childish metaphors. No religion, these people. Cruel torturers. Will do anything their women tell them to do.

8 Nov. 1710

I hope you will pardon the liberty I take in imposing on your goodness for a subject about which I am going to speak to you.

My friend Bierling asked me, by a letter expressly for that purpose, if the Baron de Lahontan with his voyage and his dialogues is something imaginary and invented, like this Sadeur [the fictional protagonist of Gabriel who has been among the Australian savages and who reports to us their costumes and conversations, or if this is a real man who has been in America and who has spoken to a real savage named Adario. For one judges that an entire people living tranquilly among themselves without magistrates, without trials, without quarrels, is something as incredible as those hermaphrodite Australians. The discourse of Adoria has confirmed these people in their Pyrrhonism.

You will ask me, Mademoiselle, what relevance does this have for me, and shouldn’t I address M. de Lahontan himself. I will tell you why. One wants to know if Lahontan is a real and substantial man. As he was dangerously ill this summer, he could be dead (God forbid), the gout may have risen and killed him since, or he could have been saved through the application of the horns of some dear more savage than the savage animals which are respected in America.

One may perhaps judge that I have a secret reason and that the first serves only as a pretext. But say what you will, only be content with the subject of my letter. If monsieur le Baron of Lahontan is well, as I don’t doubt, he won’t be angry to have become a problem like Homer or more like Orpheus…”

- G.W.F. Leibniz

And so he sits there – where? – scratching on foolscape, the perpetual refugee. As new as the subject, as new as the citizen. Whose home moved out from under him. An island appeared, it trailed clouds, the gods disembarked, and they distributed holy objects.


Anonymous said…