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Friday, November 25, 2011

the naked and the busy: Rousseau2

In Kleist's essay, On the Marionette Theater, Kleist presents a dialogue between himself and a marionette master concerning theater and the relation of the marionette to the human actor. The master voices the idea that even human actors display their souls not in their voices but in the bodies and their movements.

"Just look at that girl who dances Daphne", he went on. "Pursued by Apollo, she turns to look at him. At this moment her soul appears to be in the small of her back. As she bends, she look as if she's going to break, like a naiad after the school of Bernini. Or take that young fellow who dances Paris when he's standing among the three goddesses and offering the apple to Venus. His soul is in fact located (and it's a frightful thing to see) in his elbow."

These examples are not neutral - they gather and explode in his next passage:

" Misconceptions like this are unavoidable," he said, " now that we've eaten of the tree of knowledge. But Paradise is locked and bolted, and the cherubim stands behind us. We have to go on and make the journey round the world to see if it is perhaps open somewhere at the back."

That methodological circumnavigation, in search of the back door to paradise, is how I intend to pursue this investigation of Rousseau - and in fact, ultimately, all investigations. A paradisial truth that comes by way of the serpent's path, that is what is going on here.

In that spirit, let's take up one of Rousseau's predecessors in the European tradition of imagining the other.

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, ever skin that goes on and every skin that comes off.

If we are to understand the world of the primitive man of Rousseau's Discours on Inequality, we have to look through the eye of the needle of the European man that Rousseau saw all around him - a man whose chief economic industry lay in making clothes or textiles. Nudity, which is characteristic of that early man, is also characteristic of a certain kind of leisure. And it is with this symbol that we may as well start.

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