«By Robert Hilliker M. A., Brown University, 2003 B. A., University of British Columbia, 2000 Thesis Submitted in partial fulfillment of the ...»
“LIKE A BLANK SLATE” Custom, as we saw it portrayed by Montaigne and Bacon, is a force that can work both for and against social and political cohesion. For Montaigne, however, this force cannot by any means be brought under the control of reason—in truth, as the process of “accoustumance hebete nos sens” (1.23.109), it is reason that becomes subject to the power of custom.67 Thus any attempt to manage custom is, for Montaigne, more apt to produce civil disorder than to reduce it. Bacon, too, is wary of such forays into social engineering, echoing Montaigne’s concerns in his essay “Of Seditions and Troubles,” where he notes that the “alteration of law and customs” can lead to the revolt of the people by, paradoxically, “join[ing] and knitt[ing] them in common cause” (104).68 Despite their various differences, then, Montaigne and Bacon share a fear of custom’s capacity to provoke the disintegration of a body politic and, likewise, an association of custom with written or code law. Yet, as Ullrich Langer notes, Montaigne goes further than Bacon on this point, radically collapsing the distinction between customary law and code law by suggesting that “laws vary as much as customs” and thus are equally the product of a “local, contingent phenomenon” (89-90).
“habit stupefies our senses” (1.23.94).
A similar concern is expressed in his anonymously published Brief Discourse Touching the Happie Union of the Three Kingdomes of England and Scotland, where he advises King James that “a consent in [manners] is to be sought industriously; but, not to bee inforced. For, nothing amongst people, breedes so much pertinacie, in houlding their customes, as suddaine and violent offer to remoove them” (C3[r]).
“foundation so weak” (1.23.101) Perhaps the best indication of how radically Lescarbot’s ethnographic writings reconfigure Montaigne’s notion of custom is in his turning to quasi-synonyms like “mœurs” and “façon de vivre”—“mores” and “mode [literally “fashion”] of living”—that take the legal meanings of “coutume” out of play and thereby neutralize key associations with institutional government and, more significantly, with writing. This “custom in sheep’s clothing,” as presented by Lescarbot, is still capable of producing difference, but it also provides an opportunity for differences to be erased, a means by which the native inhabitants of the Americas can be converted to European practices. While human diversity disorients and at moments even disgusts Montaigne, Lescarbot carefully parses and organizes it to produce a comforting sense of unity in diversity. This is not to say that he ignores how marvelous and threatening the customs of the Native Americans can seem to their European audience, but rather that he carefully negates the threat these customs present by showing how much the two groups actually have in common. Where their practices do in fact differ, Lescarbot offers the transformative power of custom as a means of correcting them, thus enabling the creation of a unified society of Old and “New” French.
Lescarbot facilitates this symbolic assimilation through his frequent portrayal of the Native Americans of New France, the Micmacs or “Souriquois,” in direct opposition to the Brazilian natives, the Topinamba, as “semblable à tableau nud” (3.6.352)—“like a blank slate”—upon which the French can inscribe their own national customs. Lescarbot explicitly links this blankness to the lack of alphabetical writing, while he uses the possession of writing as a justification for intellectual and political dominion. Thus in his chapter “Des lettres” Lescarbot argues that the French, not the Phoenicians, were the originators of the alphabet, since Xenophon says that the Greeks received their letters from the Galatians—and as Lescarbot has it: “Galates[:] c’est à dire Gaullois” (3.6.370)—a rhetorical move that positions the French as the source of all European learning. The Native Americans are, as Montaigne notes, members of a world “si nouveau et si enfant qu’on luy apprend encore son a, b, c” (3.6.909), but where Montaigne sees this as a reason to leave them be Lescarbot sees it as a call to arms.70 Lescarbot reasons that since the French are the originators of the alphabet, they are also the European people best suited to civilize the Native Americans, and thereby collapses any distinction between studii and imperii, knowledge and political authority.
Lescarbot’s motif of the universal in the particular pervades the sixth book of his Histoire. What that book ultimately performs is nothing less than a contextualization of the social practices of all human societies within a single narrative timeline framed by life and death—”[U]ne pareille entrée est à tous à la vie, et une pareille issuë.” (3.6.346)71— and containing a series of necessary intervening steps: being clothed and fed, learning to speak, getting married, going to war, and so on. Within this broad framework, however, Lescarbot also takes note of more specific similarities between the peoples of New and Old France, often citing classical, Biblical, or more recent historical sources to provide an added authority to his assertions of similarity where none would seem, initially, to appear. Thus, in a discussion of how the natives of New France wear their hair long, he “so new and so infantile that it is still being taught its A B C” (3.6.842) “The same entry is given to all in life, and the same exit.” notes that this was the practice of many early French kings, as evidenced by their being named “Chevelus” or “Hairy” (3.6.377). By placing this strange practice in France’s own history, Lescarbot contains its strangeness, making it no more foreign than one’s own ancestors.
The very motif of the universal in the particular announces Lescarbot’s own “inscription” in a particular intellectual tradition and its attendant practices, positioning him as the inheritor of a body of ethnographic writing that traces its roots back through Jose de Acosta to Pliny the Elder. From these authors Lescarbot borrows his carefully calibrated comparative method, designed to reduce and contain the difference of the Americas within the frame of classical and Biblical history, and, simultaneously, to distinguish between “good” and “bad” populations located (at least geographically speaking) within the French nation and its nascent colonies.
The rhetorical power of this gesture is hardly limited to explaining away superficial differences like hairstyles; in Lescarbot’s able hands, even an extremely threatening practice like cannibalism can be contained. The Micmacs and the Penobscots (Lescarbot calls them the “Armouchiquois”) were widely suspected to engage in cannibalism, a suspicion grounded in accounts of Jacques Cartier’s voyages up the St. Lawrence River.
Lescarbot assuages these concerns by pointing out that these groups actually engage in scalping, a practice that, at first glance, hardly seems much better. His trump card, however, is that this custom, as gruesome as it may seem, was in fact practiced by the Ancient Gauls. Thus Lescarbot establishes a parallel between the progenitors of the French nation and the Micmacs, subtly implying the ease with which a people can learn to forego barbarous rituals in favor of more civilized ones. And given that the Old French themselves once engaged in such a practice, who better than them to correct it in the natives of New France?
Of course, for Montaigne such a notion would have been anathema; he emphasized the relative freedom of the Native American from irrational customs, and was, in fact, much afraid that “nous [Européens] aurons bien fort hasté sa declinaison et sa ruyne par nostre contagion” (3.6.910).72 But Lescarbot is convinced that the French can harness the power of acculturation for the good of the Native Americans, especially the Micmacs. This is most evident in his discussion of Native American religious practices. Lescarbot asserts that the Micmac have no religious customs or rituals, which makes them far better candidates for colonization than the Brazilians, who worship the sun and the moon. He compares them to a tabula rasa—“un tableau nud”—which, “n’est[ant] imbu d’aucune mauvaise opinion[,] est beaucoup plus susceptible à la vraye adoration” (3.6.352).73 This figure is hardly accidental, since the trope of writing as identity formation structures Lescarbot’s understanding of acculturation.
This understanding is what drives the, at first glance, bizarre development of his chapter on letters, which moves from noting the absence of writing among the Native Americans, to arguing that the French themselves first devised the alphabet used by the Greeks, to “I am much afraid that we [Europeans] shall have greatly hastened the decline and ruin of this new world by our contagion” (3.6.842).
“And what’s more, those who have imbibed no ill opinions are more susceptible to true adoration than others.” insisting on the dual mission of Henri IV to restore French learning to its former glory while simultaneously colonizing the Americas. Of course, Lescarbot is hardly the only author during the seventeenth century to make such a bold connection between learning, colonization, and the Americas. Bacon, too, as Bauer has shown, symbolically linked the development of scientific knowledge with the voyages of discovery, and in his essay, “Of Plantations,” and his New Atlantis, he provides an important link between earlier Renaissance utopias by More and Campanella and the utopian aims of later political philosophers, such as Hobbes, Berkeley, and Locke, who came to see America as a literally blank land, or terra nullis, upon which Europeans could inscribe, at least in theory, a perfectly rational political state.
Placing Bacon’s utopian vision alongside Lescarbot’s, however, makes clear the nationalistic impulses that often lurk behind such universalism. Lescarbot’s argument for colonization is explicitly predicated on the proven cultural superiority of the French nation, and his “Théâtre de Neptune” serves to bolster this argument by giving a further instance of successful acculturation produced by a ritual performance that symbolically incorporates the Micmacs into French society.
Of course, the rhetorical slight of hand that undergirds Lescarbot’s case for French superiority—“Galates[:] c’est à dire Gaullois” —may strike us as transparent sophistry, but then a sophisticated and learned tone is much of what lends Lescarbot and Morton’s theories their rhetorical force. Part of what is so fascinating about the work of these two authors is how we can see an almost medieval concept of auctoritas—that is, an authority grounded in the canonical texts of the Biblical and Classical traditions—alongside a newly-articulated and still-developing rhetoric of experience as a source of authority. A third ground for authority, closely aligned with the first, is also present in the appeals both authors make to social rank as a source of authority. In Lescarbot’s work, however, this discourse is only implied by his focus on figures like his patron, Poutrincourt, and Membertou, the Grand Sagamos, or “Great Chief,” of the Micmacs, while Morton is explicit and insistent throughout New English Canaan about his status as an educated gentleman and the credibility this lends to his writings.
This insistence on status sets Morton apart from many of his contemporary promoters of colonization, who, as Paul Lindholdt has argued, preferred to emphasize the limits of their knowledge in order “to offset [their] outrageous materials with a humble tone” (62).
Morton, however, was nothing like the “typical promoter,” as is especially manifest in the vehemence of his polemical engagement with William Wood’s New England Prospect, which resonates throughout the entire New English Canaan. Wood’s book was one of the early seventeenth century’s most popular and respected colonial promotion tracts.
For this reason alone, Morton would want to attack it in order to further his own arguments, but, since Wood was also part of the advance party for the Puritans who came to settle Massachusetts Bay, Morton had an added incentive to do so: his attack on Wood becomes, by proxy, an attack on the Puritan’s theocratic vision of colonization.
The most provocative and resonant of these attacks lies in Morton’s attempt to account for the origin of the Native Americans. Solving the problem of the origins of these people, as readers of Montaigne’s essay “Des cannibals” well know, was a concern for many early modern Europeans who wrote about the Americas. After all, the Bible was held to account for all the diverse peoples of the world: they descended from Noah and his three sons—Shem, Ham, and Japheth. And yet here was a group of people who seemed to have been lost to history, unaccounted for by the Bible. Various theories were put forward to try to account for this mystery, often resituating them in this Biblical tradition by attributing their disappearance from history to an early migration from either Asia or Africa, though others looked to classical sources—Plato and Xenophon, for example—in search of evidence of their descent from Europeans, Asians, or Africans.
Morton, in the first book of his New English Canaan, wades directly into this debate, taking full advantage of this opportunity to establish his intellectual superiority over his colonial competitors. He begins by rejecting one of the more common theories, which claimed that the Native Americans were descended from Tartars who had traveled from Northeast Asia to Northwestern America and dispersed thence over the continent. But this proves less interesting to him than Wood’s claim that the Native Americans were in fact produced from “the gleanings of all nations” (Morton 21), as evidenced by the range of sounds in their language, which echo, at different times, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.