a note on perfection - Foigny, Rousseau

Foigny’s Terre Austral is a utopian Robinsinade before Robinson was conceived. Like Cyrano de Bergerac’s Voyage to the Moon, it mixes satire with libertine philosophy – of a kind – in such a way that text continually questions its own register. The narrator, Sadeur, who has the bad fortune to have been born a hermaphrodite in Europe, saves himself from shipwreck and lands in Australia – the land that is the polar opposite of Europe – only to discover a society of hermaphrodites who strangle those children that are born abnormally – that is, with one sex only. Somehow, these hermaphrodites have also perfected a form of parthenogenesis, which has the effect that every member of the society can enjoy a perfect solitude, save for the love they bestow upon their children. All, in this society, are equal. All are also naked.

The narrator is, of course, shocked at these things, and in turn shocks the Australians by wearing clothes. All of which leads to threat to put him to do, and a series of dialogues between him and one of the wisest Australians about society, sexuality, and … perfection.

The perfect has long been meditated in Europe, and assimilated into the Christian religion. As Foigny was writing in Geneva, Leibniz was publishing philosophical texts that used the idea of perfection to explain the order among all possible worlds. Foigny’s text is, in one register, a similar exploration of perfection, and in another register, a satire of it.

Thus, the wise Australian at one point explains the emotional customs of the Australians with reference to their sexual autarky as follows:

“As for us, we are total human beings, and there is none among us who does not show all the parties of our nature with all its perfections: this is the reason we live without these animal ardors one for the other, and we cannot even listen to talk about it. This is the reason, again, that we can live alone, as though having need of nothing. Ultimately, this is the reason that we are happy [contents] and that our loves have nothing charnel about them.”

The two semantic extremes at work here are the animal and the perfect. Human perfection, according to the Australians, is wrapped up in distancing the human in all things from the animal. Which reminds the narrator of Western theology: “I couldn’t hear the worlds of this man without being reminded about what our theology teaches of the production of the second person of the holy trinity, and of all the effects outside of the Divine. I had ceaselessly meditated on the great principles of our philosophy, “that the more perfect a being is, the less it has need to act.” In this case, the less it had need to feel.

The perfection of the Australians is a sort of mirror of the idea of perfection in European philosophy, but what that mirror shows is a society that is the opposite of the European, and that is, for the European reader, horrifying.

I have no evidence that Rousseau read Foigny, but certainly the renegade preacher was known to Bayle. In history, the ludicrous invariably shadows the serious, so it is not really that surprising that as Leibniz built the great baroque structure of the theodyssey, in which perfection is used a kind of cosmological rule to reconcile all possibilities and realizations, in a shabbier intellectual neighborhood, the discourse of perfection was used to discuss sex and shitting among the hermaphrodite Australians.

In the Discourse on Inequality, perfection becomes a verb – to perfect – in the best enlightenment manner. It is one of Rousseau’s chief conceptual instruments for creating his own conjectural history of the foundation of society. But to take the term as a synonym for progress, or to take it as having a wholly favorable meaning, is no doubt a mistake, one that leads inevitably to much exegetical anguish.