Discovering the Exotic in the Eighteenth Century/La découverte de l’exotique au 18e siècle John Patrick Greene Department of Modern Languages

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Discovering the Exotic in the Eighteenth Century/La découverte de l’exotique au 18e siècle

John Patrick Greene

Department of Modern Languages, University of Louisville


“Discovering the Exotic in the Eighteenth Century” takes students on a literary and cultural voyage of discovery to the South Pacific. Just as all successful expeditions require careful preparation, so the first four weeks of the semester-long course will examine the historical and cultural context of the Exotic in the 18th-c. (including a discussion of the concept of the ‘noble savage’) before embarking on a journey through the maritime narratives of two of the most celebrated French Enlightenment explorers: Louis-Antoine de Bougainville and Jean-François de Lapérouse. Integrating philosophical treatises, maritime narratives, works of fiction,18th-c. iconography of native populations, a feature film, documentaries and the opportunity to interact via the internet with experts in the field, the course discusses key questions which are as relevant today as they were in the 18th century:

  1. What were 18th-c. conceptions of ‘Otherness’?

  2. How were the explorers Bougainville and Lapérouse influenced by the ideas of the philosophes and other male and female writers and thinkers?

  3. How do the explorers’ ideas evolve over the course of their travels?

  4. Discovering the Other and the affirmation of the Self? What do these discoveries mean for our present day students?

Through its concentration on the South Pacific (as opposed to more studied areas such as, say, North America) the course aims to highlight the truly global nature of 18th-century interactions.

Course rationale:

Courses meeting programmatic requirements for cultural diversity credit are being encouraged at my large, urban, state institution. As they broaden the students’ cultural awareness and interest, such courses are seen as a vital part of undergraduate recruitment and retention. “Discovering the Exotic” has been prepared with these issues in mind and will be taught in the Fall of 2007.

Course structure:

In order to clearly situate the context, the first four weeks of the course will be spent discussing ‘the Exotic’ in the 18th century. Even if the word itself exists in French since the 16th century and the concept of the ‘noble savage’ is present in the work of Montaigne, it is in the 18th century, with its technical improvements in navigation, that one perceives a genuine thirst for knowledge of hitherto unknown peoples, albeit often for commercial and political reasons. Even if the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch had developed trade links for some time, in the 18th century one sees the competition of the two great powers of the period: Britain and France. What Captain Cook is to the British imagination, Bougainville and Lapérouse are to French popular consciousness. Bougainville’s two-and-a-half year circumnavigation (1766-69) was responsible in no small part for the wave of South Sea mania which spread through Europe in the late 18th century. The Lapérouse expedition (1785-88) set forth with the noblest of Enlightenment ideals but foundered on a reef at the island of Vanikoro with the loss of all hands.

From weeks 2-4 we shall discuss French Enlightenment perceptions of Otherness and will refer to the writings of Lahontan (The Dialogues of Lahontan with an American Savage 1703); Rousseau (especially the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality 1755 which discusses the happiness of man in the state of nature); Voltaire (Candide 1759); Diderot (Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville 1798); Mme de Graffigny (Letters from a Peruvian Woman 1747); the Abbé Raynal (History of the Two Indies 1772); Mme d’Epinay (Letters to the Abbé Galiani 1769-72); as well as Buffon (Histoire Naturelle 1749-1804). Extracts from these key works will be presented in an instructor course pack (see attached syllabus for more detail). Secondary sources for this section of the course will include extracts from Michèle Duchet’s Anthropologie et histoire au siècle des Lumières (1995).

In week 5, the works of modern thinkers on the question of Otherness, such as Homi Bhabha (Nation and Narration 1990), Claude Levi-Strauss (Tristes tropiques 1955), Edward Saïd (Orientalism 1978), and Tzvetan Todorov (Nous et les autres 1989) will also be presented to flesh out current thoughts on these issues.

One of the great problems that we face in the 21st century is an appreciation of the challenges faced by these expeditions and their reactions when reaching these unknown lands and their peoples. In order to attempt to sensitize the students to this question, during week 6 we shall watch and discuss Roger Donaldson’s 1984 film, The Bounty starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins. While the earlier film versions of the story of the Mutiny on the Bounty are arguably better movies, they tend to focus more on the conflict between Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian and less on the impact of the stay on Tahiti and the interaction with the Tahitians which comes to the fore in the latter version.

From week 7 shall then continue with extracts of Bougainville and Lapérouse’s maritime narratives (which are both available in modern paperback editions) while examining how these explorers are influenced by the ideas of the philosophes, what they themselves bring to a discussion of ‘the Exotic’, and how their ideas evolve during their journeys. In week 9 we shall discuss the experiences of a very unique member of the Bougainville expedition: Jeanne Baret, the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. Disguised as a male servant to Philibert Commerson (Bougainville’s botanist), Baret’s true identity was discovered during the stay on Tahiti. We shall pose the question of how this presence of disguised ‘Otherness’ within the party impacted upon the expedition, and will consider how Baret’s assumption of a male disguise may be read as emblematic of women’s official exclusion from the male preserves of exploration and scientific discovery during the period.

From week 10 we shall move on to explore the Lapérouse expedition which is all the more interesting because its fate has remained a mystery for so long. Louis XVI famously enquired ‘any news of Lapérouse?’ shortly before his execution and the disappearance of the party has caught the imagination of the French for over two centuries. An important visual component of the course will be the week 11 discussion of selected engravings by Duché de Vancy, the official artist of the Lapérouse party, which were sent back to France at earlier stops during the voyage and published in L’Atlas du voyage de La Pérouse in 1797. These images constitute a valuable addition to the written narrative and open up another perspective, this time visual, for the issues under discussion. For example, the illustration below shows a representation of the French interaction with the inhabitants of Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Issues raised include a eurocentric commentary on the difference between European and native behaviors and morality, the fetishization of the body of the Other and issues of the implied male gaze, among others. Students will be directed to the thousands of images in the Rex Nan Kivell Collection (at the Australian National Library) which can be viewed on the web and will be asked to make a presentation on an image of their choice from the period under consideration. (

Since 1980, seven expeditions have set forth with the goal of excavating the sites of the Lapérouse shipwrecks in a quest to discover the fate of the survivors. With this in mind, weeks 12-14 of the course will concentrate on bringing the students home to the 21st century. Since 2000, French film-maker Yves Bourgeois has made three award-winning documentaries on the subject which have been shown on primetime French television. All of the major media sources in France closely followed the activites of the latest expedition which took place in April/May 2005. Screening his documentaries in the class underscores the present-day interest in the Lapérouse story. I have also been able to set up links with Michel Laffon of the Lapérouse Association of Albi-France (a participant in all of the recent expeditions) to discuss via the internet his experiences as well as the interactions between 21st-century French explorers and the native inhabitants of the island of Vanikoro. I have also established similar internet links with experts such as Stephen Thompson at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney and Alain Morgat at the French Naval Archives in Vincennes (Paris) in order to promote direct student interaction with international researchers. Week 15 will be used to draw together thoughts and ideas from the semester.

Other student activities for the semester will include keeping a journal or log book of their experiences in the course and term papers will allow them the possibility to imagine native responses to the French arrivals, the perceptions of individual French crew members, as well as more traditional activities such as textual and image analysis and historical and cultural background. In class, students will be encouraged to take positions on the questions under discussion.

Course adapatability:

The course described above has been developed to be taught in French to a group of advanced undergraduates but it does have the advantage of being easily transposed into several other courses:

  1. The course can be taught “as is” in English, retaining the majority of the readings, thanks, most especially to the excellent recent translations of both Bougainville’s and Lapérouse’s journals by John Dunmore. Taught in English, the course could be part of the Humanities course offerings at my institution and would have the advantage of drawing a larger pool of interested students.

  2. The same questions could be discussed from an English perspective. Behn (Oroonoko) Defoe (Robinson Crusoe), Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), Johnson (Rasselas) and Pope (An Essay on Man) could replace the French writers and the voyages of James Cook could replace those of Bougainville and Lapérouse. The other elements of the course involving internet discussions with experts could be adapted and the only element to be eliminated would be the French documentaries which are, as yet, only available without subtitles.

  3. A combination of both English and French perceptions of this issue would, of course, open up the discussion to the difference between the cross-Channel perspectives of this question.

Français 599: La découverte de l'exotique au 18e siècle
(sample syllabus for advanced undergraduate class)
Dr. John Greene
Bougainville, Voyage autour du monde par la frégate la Boudeuse et la flûte l'Etoile (1771-72)

Lapérouse, Voyage autour du monde sur l'Astrolabe et la Boussole (1797)

Anthologie qui comprend des extraits de:
A. Auteurs du 18e siècle:
Lahontan, Dialogues de M. le baron de Lahontan et d'un Sauvage dans l'Amérique (1703)

Rousseau, Discours sur l'origine de l'inégalité (1755)

Mme de Graffigny, Lettres d’une péruvienne (1747)

Voltaire, Candide (1759)

Buffon, Histoire naturelle (1749-1804)

Mme d’Epinay, Correspondance avec l’Abbé Galiani (1769-72)

Diderot, Supplément au voyage de Bougainville (1798)

l'Abbé Raynal, Histoire philosophique et politique des deux Indes (1772)

B. Critiques modernes:
Duchet, Michèle. Anthropologie et histoire au siècle des Lumières (1995)

Bhabha, Homi. Nation and Narration (1990)

Levi-Strauss, Claude. Tristes tropiques (1955)

Said, Edward. Orientalism (1978)

Todorov, Tzvetan. Nous et les autres (1989)
Donaldson, Roger. The Bounty (1984) disponible sur DVD

Bourgeois, Yves. L’Incroyable Aventure de Monsieur de Lapérouse, DVD de 3 documentaires, Paris: Warner Home Video France, 2005

Ce cours propose aux étudiants un voyage littéraire et culturel dans les mers du sud au 18e siècle. Tout d'abord, il faudra situer le contexte, donc on va parler de l'exotique au 18e s. Même si le mot existe en français depuis le 16e s. et le mythe ou le phénomène du bon sauvage existe dans la littérature française depuis Montaigne, c'est au 18e s. avec les développements de la navigation que l'on perçoit une véritable soif de connaissance des terres et des peuples auparavant inconnus. Même si les Espagnols, les Portugais et les Hollandais exploitaient depuis longtemps les avantages commerciaux et politiques de ces contacts, au 18e s. on voit la croissance d'une concurrence entre les deux grandes puissances de l'époque, à savoir la France et l'Angleterre.
Tout comme, pour un voyage réussi, il faut soigneusement faire des préparations, on va passer les quatre premières semaines du cours à situer le contexte historique et philosophique: c'est à dire, comment est-ce que l'on percevait les gens de pays lointains? Pour cela, on va examiner ce phénomène du 'bon sauvage', tel qu'il est représenté dans les écrits de Lahontan et surtout de Rousseau, dans le Discours sur l'origine de l'inégalité qui décrit le bonheur de l'homme dans l'état de nature. On va examiner aussi les réflexions de Mme de Graffigny dans Lettres d’une Péruvienne, de Voltaire dans Candide, de Mme d’Epinay dans sa Correspondance avec l’Abbé Galiani et de Diderot dans le Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville. On passera aussi du temps sur l'Histoire des deux Indes de l'Abbé Raynal et des extraits du tome XI de l'Histoire naturelle de Buffon, où ce dernier constate "qu'on descend par degrés assez insensibles des nations les plus éclairées, les plus polies, à des peuples moins industrieux, de ceux-ci à des autres plus grossiers, mais encore soumis à des rois, à des lois; et de ces hommes grossiers aux sauvages."
Tous ces écrivains méditent sur la nature de l'homme - une des grandes préoccupations du siècle des lumières. Notre discussion préliminaire va essayer de cerner comment 'l'autre' était perçu au 18e. s. Puis, on examinera cette question sous l’optique des critiques actuels tels que Bhaba, Lévi-Strauss, Said et Todorov. Ensuite, on abordera des extraits des récits maritimes de Bougainville et de Lapérouse, tout en examinant comment ces deux explorateurs sont influencés ou non par les idées des philosophes, ce qu'ils apportent à la discussion de l'exotique et de la nature de l'homme et comment leurs idées évoluent au cours de leurs voyages.
Un des gros problèmes que nous avons au nouveau millénaire est comment apprécier la situation des équipages du 18e et leurs réactions en abordant les terres et peuples inconnus. Pour tenter de sensibiliser les étudiants à la situation des marins du 18 e., on va regarder le film Bounty et aussi au moins un documentaire réalisé par Yves Bourgeois pour l'émission de télévision française intitulée Thalassa qui examine les hypothèses de ce qui est arrivé à l'expédition de Lapérouse, disparue dans des conditions tragiques sur Vanikoro.
Programme du semestre:
semaine nº 1 introduction--autour du mythe du 'bon sauvage', contexte historique et littéraire des contacts entre indigènes et Européens
semaine nº 2 Lahontan, Rousseau, Mme de Graffigny
semaine nº 3 D'autres approches: Voltaire, Buffon, Mme d’Epinay
semaine nº 4 Discours anti-colonialiste: Diderot, l'Abbé Raynal
semaine nº 5 Contexte moderne: Bhaba, Lévi-Strauss, Said, Todorov

semaine nº 6 Film: The Bounty

semaine nº 7 Bougainville
semaine nº 8 Bougainville
semaine nº 9 Bougainville/histoire de Jeanne Baret
semaine nº 10 Lapérouse
semaine nº 11 Lapérouse/iconographie de Duché de Vancy
semaine nº 12 Lapérouse/contacts avec experts I (M. Laffon)
semaine nº 13 Lapérouse/ Documentaire: L’Incroyable Aventure de Lapérouse
semaine nº 14 Lapérouse/contacts avec experts II (S. Thompson, A. Morgat)
semaine nº 15 conclusion

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