Saturday, February 09, 2008

In the land of 8 foot high hermaphroditic Australians

I have a one-off lecture to give on Gulliver’s Travels, with a focus on Lilliput. Seeing the familiar map locating Lilliput and Blefuscu to the west of Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) triggered me to try ‘Australis’ in the EEBO title keywords search (thinking of ‘Terra Australis Incognita’).

This threw up the usual mixture of things, and led to me start reading A new discovery of Terra incognita Australis, or, The southern world, by James Sadeur, a French-man, who being cast there by a shipwrack, lived 35 years in that country and gives a particular description of the manners, customs, religion, laws, studies and wars of those southern people, and of some animals peculiar to that place ... translated from the French copy (1693).

Now, of course reports purportedly from people who have survived shipwrecks are always suspicious, but Gabriel de Foigny’s narrative (for he was the author masking behind Sadeur) starts in the usual deadpan way, then does its shipwreck with authenticating details, like his being unable to uncurl his fingers from the plank that kept him afloat in the sea. In my happy ignorance, then, I started reading this narrative as people once must have started reading the similarly straight-looking Gulliver’s Travels, maybe ready for the moment that confirmed the inevitable background suspicion that this traveler is a liar like others (‘perhaps I should be hardly believed; at least a severe Critick would be apt to think I enlarged a little, a Travellers are often suspected to do’, says Gulliver, with an obvious pun, in Brobdingnag), but still able to relish to the full that complete revaluation of the narrative, when the author finally betrays what game he is playing; when what was being received as ‘lying like the truth’ is grasped instead as an extravagant thought experiment. That moment comes rapidly in Gulliver, while de Foigney’s narrative rambles towards extraordinariness. But get there it certainly does.

Well, I was scanning the EEBO page images, of a densely inked quarto, at some speed (I think I was looking for giants or pigmies), so I may have been exceptionally slow on the uptake. But it was pleasant to stumble over a text that was completely unknown to me, but which has (it turns out) quite a bit of scholarship about it, among those scholars who do fantastical travels, utopias, and the like.

Reading it with no preconceptions from relevant scholarship, I was of course gratified most by the startling declaration that all the Australians are about 8 feet high and hermaphrodites. I’d seen this motif of hermaphroditism before in Joseph Hall’s Mundus Alter et Idem, and I suppose it may be a recurrent thing triggered in the first place by genuine accounts of the gender-neutral folk the first Europeans found quietly accepted in the native communities of Florida. The text I was reading gives a surprising twist to this: Sadeur is baffled about their physical mechanisms of reproduction: ‘In all the time that I was there, I could never discover how Generation-work was performed amongst them.’ Instead of his own discoveries of a ‘deviant’ sexuality in the natives, Sadeur is put under irresistible philosophical pressure by one sage old Australian who befriends and teaches him. (I should say that language problems are not just set aside: these hyper-rational beings have a graspable language whose radical simplicity and directness stems from a system of (monosyllabic) word formation based on the observable and elemental qualities of things.) The Australian sees the European as a ‘half-man’, a defective example of humanity: “Thou canst never reconcile the use of reason with the exclusion of both sexes in one person … it is certain, that both Sexes are necessary for the perfection of an nature Man … As you seem to keep a kind of medium between Man and Beast, I believe I do you no injury in calling you half-Men”.

Like Gulliver among the Houyhnhnms, Sadeur suffers a complete philosophical bouleversement: here is the sage chiding him about the habitual European distinctions between the sexes:

Thou hast advanced that the Father and Mother act together to produce it; thou hast made me apprehend, that the Mother is the most nearly concern’d in it; from whence is it then this thou concludest the Father ought to be lookt upon as the Principle cause? I found myself shock’t by the Discourse of this Old man; and although I cou’d not consent to his reason, which overturn’d all our Laws, I cou’d not hinder my self from making a thousand reflections, and confessing that they treated that Sex with so much severity, from whom all Mankind receiv’d so many obligations: My thoughts furnish’d me then with an hundred reasons to maintain what my Philosopher had asserted; I found my self forc’d to believe that this great power which man had usurped over Women, was rather the effect of an odious Tyranny, than a Legitimate Authority.”

While de Foigney’s narrator remains year after year completely in the dark about the propagation of these perfect and rational beings, they are repulsed by his one inadvertent revelation of his own single gender: “It happen’d another time, about six months after my arrival, that the extraordinary Caresses of the Brethren, caused some unruly motions in me, which some of them perceiving, were so very much scandalized at it, that they left me with great indignation.”

A similar veil is drawn over the god of the Australians, locally only ever referred to as ‘the incomprehensible’: “There is no Subject more curious and secret among the Australians, than that of their Religion.” This version of de Foigney’s fable is apparently based on a bowdlerised text (or so I learn from the EMLS review of a new edition of the original, linked to below).

For the other aspects of this fantasy Australia, there is euthanasia, as in More: “there is never held any Assembly at the Heb, at which there is not twenty or thirty Persons that demand the Liberty to return to their rest”. (Those wishing to die consume an overdose of the local panacea, the ‘fruit of rest’, and for the one time in their lives sing and dance among this nation of austere agelasts. This is ignored politely: the partakers then die. Also, they are vegetarians from a radical persuasion of the elevation and difference of their own species: “A Beast is a thing so much beneath us, that it were better for a Man not to be at all, than to debase his noble nature, so far as to adulterate it with the mixture of a Beast, by making it his Food.”

Like the Utopians of More, they fight with all the unchivalrous determination of pure rationalists. During his long stay, Sadeur witnesses their vicious war against the human ‘Fondins’ by ‘the Brethren’, which is carried to an extreme beyond genocide: after wiping out the Fondin population, the Brethren excavate and then inundate the whole island territory of their enemies.

This terrifying people make hopeless prospects for European colonisation. They are seen wiping out a European fleet and over-confident invasion force, but also, as More’s Utopia, they are incorruptible:

“There is no likelihood of bringing them to a Compliance, by the allurements of Gain, or Rewards, or of Pleasure, nor any practical means left for us to overcome that strange aversion they have for us, which is so great, that they cannot endure to hear us mentioned, without declaring the passion they have to destroy us. And then besides those things that we usually carry into the newly discovered Countries, and which procure us access to their Inhabitants, pass in the esteem of the Australians, for Childrens Play-things, and meer trifles, and baubles; they look upon our Gawdy Stuffs, and richest Silks, as Spiders Webs, they know not so much as what the names of Gold and Silver signify.”

Our narrator had tried briefly to intervene in the killing of a Fondin woman and her two beautiful daughters: in disgrace for this, manages to fly from the island by means of a large bird, and so escapes back to Madagascar.

De Foigney’s book, even in this censored early version, intrigued me. It lacks the settled stance of the best philosophical tales, switching too conspicuously between yarn and pedagogic dialogue (though I suppose the mixed style is to be expected in such works). Most of all, I relished that initial generic uncertainty in my reading. Though I will never recapture that indeterminacy, I have ordered a copy of David Fausset’s new edition and complete translation.

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