The myth of the noble European

It is, of course, much too late in the day to call back the myth of the myth of the noble savage.

Curiously, attacking the myth of the noble savage seems to be a sport that every generation of historians engage in. Yet, the sport is curiously foreshortened, on the principle of the White magic: As without, so NOT within. The White magic is so powerful that the historians who operate within this principle seemingly are unaware of it – unaware that they are taking as a norm a certain view of European “civilization” which, in actuality, was a rare thing in 16th and 17th century Europe. In fact, it might not be a thing at all.

Some progress here has been made. As Terry Ellingson has pointed out, the term noble did not originally mean “morally elevated” when applied to the Indians. The first appearance of the phrase “noble savage” in English occurs early in the 17th century, in a translation of Marc Lescarbot’s account of French Canada. Why did Lescarbot call the Indians he met noble? Because they hunted, a privilege legally reserved, with some exceptions, to the nobility.

“Upon this privilege is formed the right of hunting, the noblest of all rights that be in the use of man, seeing that God is the author of it. And therefore no marvel if Kings and their nobility have reserved it unto them, by a well-concluding reason that, if they command unto men, with far better reason may they command unto beasts…

Hunting, then, having been granted unto man by a heavenly privilege, the savages through all the West Indies do exercise themselves therein without distinction of persons, not having that fair order established in these parts whereby some are born for the government of the people and the defense of the country, others for the exercising of arts and the tillage of the ground, in such sort that by a fair economy everyone liveth in safety. [Quote Ellingson, 2001: 23]

However, among the mass of accounts of the savage (accounts that are invaluable as records of the first encounter, which were subsequently – and anachronistically - criticized from a latter vantage point, by which time disease, warfare, trade and technology had done their work), there soon appeared a divide, at least among the French. The main French writers were Jesuits, and as an early twentieth century historian, Gilbert Chinard, remarked, the Jesuits were torn between the Christian imperative to depict heathen monsters, and a classical training that allowed them to spot the eerie congruities between classical Mediterranean civilizations and the Indian peoples. Et ego in arcadia was alive beneath the cassock. Hence, a dualism in the representation of the savage.

This, then, is one layer of the myth. Another layer – a layer that has to do with our principle, and the building of the myth of the myth of the noble savage – involves movements which were happening on both sides of the Atlantic at the same time. Take, for instance, the privatization of women.

Jesuits settled among the Montagnais-Naskapi people in the 1650s and 1660s, and left descriptions of this tribe of Algonquin speaking hunter gatherers who they encountered on the banks of the St. Lawrence river. These reports are summed up by Karen Anderson as follows:

In the early years of their contact with the Jesuits, Montagnais-Naskapi men and women were reported to have had an equal right to free choice in marriage and divorce and to initiate sex or to reject a suitor. Both men and women controlled their own work, and the Jesuits remarked that both knew just what they were supposed to do:”Neither meddles with the other.” Women decided when to move camps. The choice of plans, of undertakings, of plans, of journeys, of winterings,” the Jesuit missionary Paul Le Jeune reported, “lies in nearly every instance in the hands of the housewife.” Men left the arrangements of household affairs to the women, who distributed both their own and their husband’s produce without any interference. “I have never seen my host,” Le Jeune commented, “ask a giddy young women that he had with him what became of the provisions, although they were disappearing very fast.” “Women,” he further remarked, “have great power… A man may promise you something and if he does not keep his promise, he thinks himself sufficiently excused if he tells you that his wife did not wish him to do it.”

All this was soon to change with the Jesuits’ plan to convert the Montagnais-Naskapi to Christianity and to turn them into settled agriculturalists and, ultimately, French citizens.”
[Anderson, Commodity Exchange and Subordination: Montagnais-Naskapi and Huron Women, 1600-1650 Karen Anderson, Signs, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Autumn, 1985), pp. 48-62]

If we look at a history of women in, say, England during the same period, one finds the same process at work. Alice Clarke, in her seminal The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (1919) records the complex process by which women were both forced out of trades and traditional routines in agriculture and urban areas, while at the same time laborers in agriculture and urban trades were being squeezed. This resulted in the inevitable disjunction between the necessity to work – for women – and the image that working outside of the home was shameful – for women.

Thus, where Allan records an increase in the brutality to which women of the Montagnais-Naskapi were subjected (a social fact that rides in tandem with the special resistance of Indian women in the St. Lawrence valley to Christianity - contra the myth of Christian missionaries coming in on humanizing missions, women saw very well that the death of the beliefs of the culture was the end of life as they knew it), Clarke records the expulsion of poor women from the social body in England:

“No one doubted that it was somebody's duty to care for the poor, but arrangements for relief were strictly parochial and the fear of incurring unlimited future responsibilities led English parishioners to strange lengths of cruelty and callousness. The fact that a woman was soon to have a baby, instead of appealing to their chivalry, seemed to them the best
reason for turning her out of her house and driving her from the village, even when a hedge was her only refuge.

The once lusty young woman who had formerly done a hard day's work with the men at harvesting was broken by this life. It is said of an army that it fights upon its stomach. These women faced the grim battle of life, laden with the heavy burden of childbearing,
seldom knowing what it meant to have enough to eat. Is it surprising that courage often
failed and they sank into the spiritless, dismal ranks of miserable beings met in the pages of Quarter Sessions Records, who are constantly being forwarded from one parish to another.

Such women, enfeebled in mind and body, could not hope to earn more than the twopence a day and their food which is assessed as the maximum rate for women
workers in the hay harvest. On the contrary, judging from the account books of the period, they often received only one penny a day for their labour. Significant of their feebleness is the Norfolk assessment which reads, " Women and such impotent persons
that weed corne, or other such like Labourers 2d with meate and drinke, 6d without." 1 Such wages may have sufficed for the infirm and old, but they meant starvation for the woman with a young family depending on her for food. And what chance of health and
virtue existed for the children of these enfeebled starving women?” [89]

Once your eyes are opened by black magic to the communication of within and without, one notices a continuity of movements in the Transatlantic communities. This isn’t to say that the movements were entirely in synch. For instance, George Eisen has picked up accounts of sports, among the Indians, that indicate a sense of fair play still lacking among the English.

“A difference between the European and American style of sporting was readily emphasized by all observers. Sports and games were vigorous and violent affairs among the Indians as well as among the English. Nevertheless, English sports, not yet pervaded by the concept of fair play, were often rough and tumble pastimes in which a wide range of activities bordering on foul play were permitted. Contests of the Indians were conducted in an atmosphere of correctness and mutual respect. Cheating was almost unknown among them. One may compare the contemporary English and French sporting scene with the observation of Father Lalemant. In witnessing a Huron feast, the Jesuit wrote that, "everything was done with such moderation and reserve that - at least, in watching them - one could never have thought that he was in the midst of an assemblage of Barbarians, - so much respect did they pay to one another, even while contending for the victory" (Thwaites 1896-1901:23:221-223). For English spectators, the Indian football was perhaps the most familiar pursuit. The chroniclers repeatedly noted the fact that the English style of the game was violent and sometimes unfair. Spelman's, Strachey's, and Williams' testimonies clearly indicated this fact. Henry Spelman, a member of Captain Smith's expedition to Powhaton's country wrote that the Indians "never fight nor pull one another doune" (Spelman 1872:114). Strachey, the first Secretary of Virginia, also presented a curious comparison between the American and European codes of conduct in the course of the game: "they never strike up one another's heeles, as we do, not accompting that praiseworthie to purchase a goale by such an advantage" (Strachey 1849:84). In 1686, Dunton observed a football game in Agawam. He, too, elaborated on the difference: "Neither were they to apt to trip one anothers heels and quarrel, as I have seen 'em in England" (Dunton 1966:285). A contemporary of Strachey, William Wood, made valuable observations on football as played by the Indians of Massachusetts. His work, New Englands Prospect, is an account of Indian life as the author saw it between 1629 and 1633. "Before they come to this sport, [football] ," wrote the observant Puritan, "they paint themselves, even as when they goe to warre, in pollicie to prevent future mischiefe, because no man should know him that moved his patience or accidentally hurt his person, taking away the occasion of studying revenge.”

[George Eisen, Voyageurs, Black-Robes, Saints, and Indians Ethnohistory, , Vol. 24, No. 3 (Summer, 1977), pp. 191-205]

To return, then, to Sade. I have presented Sade so far from Klossowski’s viewpoint. Klossowski sees the system of counter-generality in Sade; what he doesn’t see, or what he mutes, is the Voltairian irony. It is that irony that takes the Christian, rather than the libertine, interpretation of other cultures – or rather, to return to the duality spotted by Chinard, Sade takes the image of the heathen as a monster as his template, even though he was well aware that there was another image – in fact, an image that exists in libertine literature, which made extensive use of ethnography. Here, Sade is not the systematist – instead, he is the traditional enlightenment philosophe. The strategy of the philosophe, from the Persian letters to Voltaire, is to take a normal case – the case for pious belief, for instance - and presses it to the most extreme of conclusions. If God kills his son, isn’t it permitted for human fathers to do the same? If God descended on the Virgin Mary and impregnated her, doesn’t that allow sex outside of wedlock – indeed, doesn’t it allow rape? The system of counter-generality is utopian and messianic; the nuances of irony are cautionary, ambiguous, and novelistic.

But what is this libertine tradition of ethnography? Which takes us back to the Baron Lahontan. As one commentator puts it, Lahontan was Dom Juan in America.


Anonymous said…
Smashing article. This is truly fantastic.

Minor correction; the Naskapi and the Montagnais are two different tribes. The Jesuit "settled" (read: stayed for exceedingly short periods of time, during which they attempted to teach songs, baptise, and turn the natives from their evil ways) among both tribes, though the Montagnais moreso.
The Naskapi were contacted by protestant missionaries from the north, through the Hudson Bay Company, though the goals and results were similar.

Good work!
roger said…
Thanks for the info, Benjamin.
One of the problems in figuring out what was happening with the French/Indian encounter in the 17th century is that the Indian nations were as on the move, in some ways, as the French. Or so I am finding. Which makes the French testimony about the nations a little unreliable.
Anonymous said…
You're exactly right. On the move... or decimated, one of the two.

The Montagnais have the distinction of being one of the first tribes the Europeans contacted with in Canada. Their population went all the way down to a couple thousand in the 1800's.

The Naskapi have the distinction of being the very last tribe to be contacted. They followed caribou herds (confined to Northern Quebec), and caribou, for some reason, had the tendency to avoid the areas where Europeans settled.