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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

world class felix culpa

Gabriel Foigny was an underground man of the classical age – a drunk, a lech, an ex-priest. He fled from a monastery in France, where the bonds of chastity were evidently too tight for him, to the Protestant freedom of Geneva, in the 1660s. There he found a job as a teacher – his attempt to go on preaching under the new dispensation was discouraged when he appeared in church drunk – and married a low class slut who proceeded to cheat on him. Being an educated man, he turned his hand to the market for reading matter. First, he created playing cards of a kind, on which there were prayers – or perhaps Tarot signs. Then, in 1676, he published a manuscript he had been ‘given”, La Terre Ausrale. Later on, he admitted that he wrote it himself – by this time he was on the hop again, leaving behind a pregnant maidservant and a set of angry Genevan ministers. The TA is an account of a colonial Sinbad the sailor who ends up, after various adventures in Africa and Portugal, cast up on the Australian shore. Australia, here, is not to be confused with the continent of that name – it was more like More’s Utopia than Van Dieman’s discovery. The account of the naturals of Australia is accompanied by a dialogue between the protagonist and one of their sages. Through this sage, Foigny expressed, as Geoffrey Atkinson put it, his “open and secret revolt against society and its institutions.” [39]

Such a revolt, to be radical, must go back to the very root of society. That, of course, is paradise. Society begins in the annihilation of paradise, as readers of Genesis know. Or I should say, its annihilation for humans – for it is part of the magic of the story that the Garden of Eden is not abolished by the Lord. It exists, but it exists, now, outside of human existence. It is barred. Thus, no sentence in human history has had the effect of Adam’s communication to God that he and Eve are naked. For, as God immediately replies, “who told thee that thou wast naked?” It is one of those moments for which Joyce, in Finnegan’s Wake, devised his long sentence-words, dividing one Viconian epoch from another: “The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonneronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr”.

But if we go around the world, as Kleist’s dramaturge suggests, perhaps we can get in the back way. Foigny’s sage-sauvage is, as Atkinson writes, ‘filled with horror at the idea of wearing clothes”. He cannot be persuaded that clothing is an aid to morality – comparing the Europeans to “little children who no longer know an object as soon as it is covered with a veil.” [63] As without, so within. The colonial process – or the civilizing process – puts into relief superstition as its privileged target, while its subjects, the subjected, gaze with disbelief at the superstitions of the civilizers. Ultimately, what was this, for the Europeans, but the rejection of that peculiar moment in Genesis, when God, for once, stops being a politician or a magician – when he makes clothing of skin for his creatures. As he once made Adam of clay, the act of a worldmaker, so he now clothes them, the act of a colonizer – but colonizer in the most intimate sense. There is no more intimate act ever attributed to Yahweh than this: ‘Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skin, and clothed them.” As though Adam’s announcement made the seals fall from God’s eyes, too. The intimacy in this act is in its superfluity: after all, having condemned humans to labor – and the sexes to division of labor – there’s no reason that Adam and Eve could not have made their own clothes. What kind of divine necessity is on display, here? What kind of cosmic discomfort? We know that the Gods, other Gods, can be moved by human nakedness – can be stirred to desire. Per Ganymede, per Leda, per Daphne, per every metamorphosis, every skin that goes on and every skin that comes off.

These things are in the background against which Lahontan’s Dialogues was read. The problem the early twentieth century readers had with Lahontan’s “noble savage” – an idea that gets its political coloring from early twentieth century conservatism - is increased by Adario’s “obscenity’, for Lahontan has his natural sage speak about the “shameful parts”. The Europeans were very interested in the covering up or not of the shameful parts – in 1509, in the description of the seven naturals that were taken to Rouen, either from Newfoundland or from a boat that was found adrift on the ocean, Eusebius, the chronicler, makes sure to record that the savages wore a belt, to which was attached a purse like vestment for covering up the shameful parts.

Yet the Iroquois and Huron boys, to the often expressed dismay of the missionaries, went about naked. The dialogue between Adario and Lahontan approaches this topic from the point of view not of the naked boys themselves, but of the effect of this nudity on the girls. Lahontan, following in the conventions of the Europeans, connects the power of Huron women to their power of choice. Adario finds the European objection at once absurd and typical – for the notion that the fathers should have power over the girls stems, ultimately, from the power of the mine and thine among the Europeans. Adario’s explanation of the rules of sexual alliance seems to be confirmed by other writers on the Hurons. Women were not forced to marry men chosen by their parents, but they were forced to obey rules against marrying relatives. And the marriage bond was not indissoluble. Adario remarks that after forty, women don’t marry again, not wanting, after that, to have children. Lahontan has two things to say about the Huron system: that the women show cruelty by aborting unwanted children, and that they must give up nudity: “For the privilege of your boys to go about nude causes a terrible rapine [ravage] in the hearts of your girls. For , not being made of bronze, they can’t help it if, at the aspect of members that I dare not name, they go into rut on certain occasions when the rascals [coquins] show that nature is neither dead nor ungrateful to them.” [93]

Rise and fall. Adario, while sympathetic to the argument against abortion [which seems to mean, as well, infanticide], is scornful of the argument against nude children. Far from being a bad thing, it helps girls decide if they want the “big thing” which he won’t name or the medium or small – and he assures Lahontan that the caprices of women are such that the big thing won’t monopolize all hearts. Some want strength, some want spirit, some want big shameful parts.

But this is his judgment of the Europeans:

‘ I agree that the peoples among whom are introduced the mine and the thine have good reason for hiding not only their virile parts, but still all the members of the body. For what would be the good of the silver and gold of the French, if they don’t employ it to adorn themselves in rich garments? Since it is only by the clothing that one makes an estate of people. Isn’t it a great advantage for a Frenchman to be able to hide some natural default under beautiful clothing? Believe me, nudity is only shocking to those people who have property in goods. An ugly man among you, a badly built one discovers the secret of being beautiful and well made with a beautiful wig, and gilded dress, under which one can’t distinguish the thighs and the artificial buttocks from the natural ones.” [92-93]

Thus, briefly, one turns the world around. But the world is moving, all the time, right face forward, with wig and artificial buttocks in tow.


P.M.Lawrence said...

"The intimacy in this act is in its superfluity: after all, having condemned humans to labor - and the sexes to division of labor - there's no reason that Adam and Eve could not have made their own clothes".

Not so; there's an issue of Robinson Crusoe economics here. They needed sufficient of the basics to survive and keep themselves going while they produced more of the same ("When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" - a seditious verse from the time of the Peasant's Revolt). Aprons of fig leaves wouldn't have sufficed.

This is connected to an old superstition, related by Robert Graves in his The Isles Of Unwisdom, that God provided the first smith, Tubal Cain, with the first tongs. This was to account for a chicken and egg technological bootstrapping problem, that while people knew how to improvise well enough to make other tools using simpler things, they knew no way to make tongs without the use of yet earlier tongs.

roger said...

Mr. Lawrence, I don't understand. Technically, I guess, everything God told them would be incomprehensible - how would a woman understand pregnancy if it had never happened in the world before? But clothes would seem to be a simpler matter - plucking leaves and such.
So where does the problem come in?

P.M.Lawrence said...

Consider the aprons of fig leaves Adam and Eve had already managed to achieve by their own devices. Compare and contrast these with the fur garments they were given to start them off. The former would not have sufficed for protection against winter and foul weather, and they would have been hard put to it to have cobbled anything more substantial together before they perished from exposure ("first catch your hare", and that). So the starter stock they were given was no mere act of supererogation but a very necessary thing.

By the bye, had you ever heard the first palindrome? "Madam, I'm Adam". The second was the reply, "Eve".