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More on the myth of the myth of the noble savage

It is hard to cut through the scrim. While the Jesuits were trying to impress the Hurons with the latest discoveries in natural philosophy, in 1677, the police in Paris were arresting Magdelaine de la Grange and charging her, at that moment, with murder and forging a marriage certificate between herself and the lawyer she was living with. This was the beginning, it turned out, of the "Affair of Poisons", in which the highly civilized nobility of Louis XIV's court were found to be frequenters of fortune tellers, back ally witches, and implorers, upon the right occasion, of the devil. The affair was investigated by men who assembled in a room in which all the walls were shrouded with black cloth, and the testimonies were elicited by torture.

It is the latter culture that historians call the civilized one, as opposed to the savages of New France. Why? Historians are like shopkeepers in a Mafia dominated section of Queens – they are overly impressed with guns. Civilization equals a lotta guns. Savages on the one side, the urban society with books and guns on the other. In this divide, it is the soft Westerner who praises the lifestyle of the savages as having any advantage over the civilized. Thus, one puts down the myth that they were ecologically aware. The myth that they were gentle. This or that myth. The iconoclasm, however, never gets out of hand – there is not putting down of the myth that the civilized were civilized. Thus, contact testimony to the stature of the Indians (a very good indicator of well being), or the non-hierarchized religious organization of certain Indian nations, or the political and personal power females in certain Indian nations enjoyed is ignored. To emphasize these things is to see the savages through a “soft” focus. It is to lose track of civilization.

Of course, historians of the Americas often are astonishingly ill informed about the history of the European societies, and view European protagonists as, of course, agents who have experienced the city, the mechanical philosophy, the horse, uh, mathematics and all the rest of it. That the Copernican system would have astonished most of the inhabitants of Paris and certainly most of the inhabitants of Lahontan – a little region near the Pyrenees – is something quite beyond the myth of the noble savage argument.

James P. Ronda, in 1977, published a charming article entitled "We Are Well As We Are": An Indian Critique of Seventeenth-Century Christian Missions”, in which he quotes testimony that was sent back in the Jesuit Relations – a sort of newsletter of the missionaries in New France. When the Jesuits came among the Huron to announce the good news and generally accelerate the civilizing process, The Hurons listened with the utmost politeness – which had something to do with the guns, and something to do with wanting allies in the raids against the Iroquois. This paragraph is so lovely it makes me melt:

“Hurons, both converts and traditionalists, found the doctrines of sin and guilt confusing. "How . .. do we sin?" asked one man. "As for me, I do not recognize any sins."'2 When the missionaries attempted to explain how one could sin even in one's thoughts, they often encountered utter disbelief. "As for me, I do not know what it is to have bad thoughts," replied one old man. "Our usual thoughts are, 'that is where I shall go,' and 'Now that we are going to trade, I sometimes think that they would do me a great favor when I go down to Kebec, by giving me a fine large kettle for a robe that I have.' "13 Even among converts the missionaries met considerable resistance to the ideas of sin and guilt. When a recently converted Huron came to confess, the missionaries rejoiced: "He was about to accuse himself," they thought, "of having violated what the Father had taught." They were soon disappointed, however, for the convert came rather to accuse another Indian of stealing his cap. He had assumed that this "confession" would win him another cap from the Jesuit.”

That one old Huron man neatly sums up a whole line of thought in Beyond Good and Evil.

“Indians tended to view the conceptions of heaven and hell with even less regard. The Huron, Montagnais, and New England native Americans all Indians tended to view the conceptions of heaven and hell with even less regard. The Huron, Montagnais, and New England native Americans all anticipated an afterlife but assumed that it would be spent in morally neutral surroundings, not in a place of heavenly reward or hellish punishment. The Hurons spoke of a "village of souls" populated by the spirits of the dead. Life in those villages was believed to resemble life on earth with its daily round of eating, hunting, farming, and war-making. Missionary efforts to impress Indians with the delights of heaven met with disbelief and derision. Because the Jesuits described heaven in European material terms, the Hurons concluded that heaven was only for the French. When one Huron was asked why she refused to accept the offer of eternal life, she characteristically replied, "I have no acquaintances there, and the French who are there would not care to give me anything to eat.""15 The father of a recently deceased convert child urged the missionaries to dress her in French garments for burial so that she would be recognized as a European and permitted entrance into heaven.'6 Most native Americans rejected the European heaven, desiring to go where their ancestors were. The mission compounded this rejection by telling potential converts that heaven contained neither grain fields nor trading places, neither tobacco nor sexual activity-surely a dreary prospect. Some Indians resented the notion that one had to die in order to enjoy the blessings of conversion, while others observed that an everlasting life without marriage or labor was a highly undesirable fate.'7 Missionaries provoked an even stronger negative response when they preached about everlasting punishment in a fiery hell. The hell the Jesuits described must have profoundly affected their Indian listeners, for the Huron and Montagnais were no strangers to the horrors it was said to contain. The torture by fire of captured warriors was a customary part of Iroquoian warfare, and Huron and Montagnais men knew that such would be their fate if they fell into enemy hands. They themselves practiced torture rituals on their own captives, applying burning brands and glowing coals to the bodies of the condemned before execution. Men and women who had participated in such events must have responded emphatically to the idea of hell. But the evidence suggests that most responded in disbelief. Though the torments of hell were all too imaginable, they were rejected because they seemed to serve no useful purpose. In fact, the most common objection to the Christian hell was that it only lessened the delights of earthly life. "If thou wishest to speak to me of Hell, go out of my Cabin at once," exclaimed one Huron. "Such thoughts disturb my rest, and cause me uneasiness amid my pleasures." Hurons resented what seemed to them a Christian obsession with death and punishment. This resentment may have sprung from Huron anxiety about death and about the uneasy relationship between the living and the spirits of the dead.'8 Whether or not disturbed by this prospect, one Huron spoke for many when he said simply, "I am content to be damned.''19

Other native Americans went beyond rejecting hell as an unpleasant place to question the basic Christian assumptions about postmortem punishment. "We have no such apprehension as you have," said a Huron, "of a good and bad Mansion after this life, provided for the good and bad Souls; for we cannot tell whether every thing that appears faulty to Men, is so in the Eyes of God."20”

Given these responses, it is peculiar that Baron Lahontan’s dialogues with Adario, in actuality a Huron named Kondiaronk, have been almost unanimously judged by historians as gross fictions, attributing words to this Huron that could never have come out of his mouth. After all, the argument runs, many of those words are sharp criticisms of religion in the vein of Bayle himself – and the Indians obviously weren’t capable of such complex concepts. Or so say those who are anxious, very anxious, to use the “myth of the noble savage” to close down the discussion of the Encounter. If you run the myth of the myth of the savage to earth, you will find that it arose in a painfully familiar context in the early twentieth century. One of its most influential designers was a historian and literary critic named Gilbert Chinard. Chinard began writing in France before World War I, and settled in the U.S. after the war. He was prolific. And, from the beginning, he was carrying a torch for an essentially reactionary political philosophy. Chinard’s thesis was that Lahontan created the noble savage myth which was appropriated by Rousseau, and used to spread a diseased notion of egalitarianism of which the dire effects were seen in the Revolution. It is interesting that a thesis which, in 1913, was so obviously attuned to a certain political current in France. Chinard was basically a reactionary modernist, with all the identifying marks: the attack on Rousseau as the precursor of a dangerous romanticism; the nostalgia for a certain image of the ancien regime; the notion of classicism as clarity; the almost hysterical language about the French Revolution. From the Action Francais to T.S. Eliot, these were themes of the radical conservative program. Translated to the U.S., these themes really became pertinent after World War II, in the Cold War reaction to the 30s leftist culture. Partly the success of the myth of the savage was due to Chinard himself, who loomed largely in the study of colonial and revolutionary Americo-Franco relations between the wars. He published both in French and English, and was a brilliant scholar of the colonial/Revolutionary period, one of the few scholars with a grasp of the full trans-Atlantic scene in which the intellectual history of the Enlightenment unfolded. In this history, certain testimonies were given weight, and certain were tossed out. Lahontan, whose works – to give Chinard his due – were edited and republished by Chinard, was dismissed without, evidently, first hand reading. For instance, this is George R. Healy in an article from 1958 entitled, The French Jesuits and the Idea of the Noble Savage, in which one is astonished to read this: “The men most influential in popularizing the notion of savagery as a condition superior to contemporary civilization – Lahontan and Rousseau, for example – were surely more given to the manufacture of titillative paradox than to research among the hard sociological facts.” As if George R. Healy had ever met a 17th century Huron or spoken his language, or drank chocolate in an eighteenth century Parisian salon. If anybody had a comparative sense of ‘civilization’ vs. ‘savagery’ in 1707, it was surely Lahontan, who spent his young adult years in French Canada, learned a Algonquin tongue, and eventually escaped from duty in French Canada by bribing a vessel to take him to Portugal, from which he made his way, avoiding France, to the Netherlands – surely not in a tenured cloud, but probably paying carriage drivers and staying in flea infested inns where every night’s sleep was among the hard sociological facts.

Mais assez! Now that we have done a little work with a battering ram, let’s get down to Lahontan’s life.


Anonymous said…
'When one Huron was asked why she refused to accept the offer of eternal life, she characteristically replied, "I have no acquaintances there, and the French who are there would not care to give me anything to eat."'

I have somewhere heard that, when the Spanish were about to burn a native chief in the West Indies and a priest approached him to suggest that repentance would - eventually - win him a place in Heaven, he declined saying that he did not wish to go there as he might find Christians there.

I have also heard that Japan presented missionaries with the same cultural incomprehension of the concepts of sin and inherent failure.