«By Robert Hilliker M. A., Brown University, 2003 B. A., University of British Columbia, 2000 Thesis Submitted in partial fulfillment of the ...»
And yet, Lafitau quickly qualifies his appreciation of contemporary native customs by noting that “[l]e Commerce des Européans a beaucoup fait perdre aux Sauvages de leurs anciennes Coûtumes, et alteré leurs Mœurs” such that he has to extrapolate about their pre-contact customs by referring to early written accounts by other Europeans (1.25).150 “whether the men who lived there were of the race of Adam” (1.48) “travel narratives [that] depicted them to us as people without any sentiment of religion” (1.28) “a religion, pure and holy in itself and in its origin … emanating from God who gave it to our first fathers” (1.34) “comparison of the customs and folkways of the nations”; “universal patterns which, in spite of their distance from each other and slight means of communication, the fathers of the people had kept alive without alteration and transmitted to their children” (1.54) “The trade with European nations has made the Indians lose many of their ancient folkways and altered their ways of living” (1.41).
At the same time, in a section with the apparently unironic marginal notation “Ce qu’on peut tirer des Sauvages touchant leur origine” (1.92-93),151 Lafitau discounts whatever evidence the Native Americans themselves might be able to offer about their origins, stating that their “[t]radition sacrée... passant de bouche en bouche, reçoit dans toutes quelque alteration, et dégenere en fables si absurdes, qu’on ne peut avoir qu’une peine extrême à les rapporter” (1.93).152 In fact, Lafitau ultimately casts aside any attempt to create a complete and unbroken history of the migrations that led to the population of the Americas, preferring to simply amass a body of evidence supporting the general supposition of their origin in the “Old World.” As Motsch emphasizes, Lafitau’s “first times” are likewise an intellectual construct that “ne correspondent à aucune période historique connue” (Lafitau 61).153 Instead, they consist of Lafitau’s own conjectures based on the writings of antiquity about a wide range of peoples, from the Greeks and Romans to the Egyptians and Israelites. Lafitau’s work thereby proves to be as much about writing as it is about using customs and ritual practices as a method of extending the reach of history beyond the written record to the furthest bounds of human existence. In other words, Lafitau’s work consists of an elaborate fabric of comparisons—between contemporary Native Americans and ancient “What can be Learned from the Indians about their Origin” (1.81) “sacred tradition … passing from mouth to mouth, changes as it passes on, and degenerates into myths so absurd that one can only very reluctantly rely upon them” (1.81) “[They] do not correspond to any known historical period” (translation mine). Interestingly, Mather uses the phrase “dernier temps” or “last times” in his Une grande voix du ciel à la France (A Great Voice from Heaven to France), a brief pamphlet he composed, published, and sought to have distributed in France. Mather’s sense of this term balances well with Lafitau’s of “premier temps,” since the context (“Le Purgatoire est une erreur et un Abus inventé par des Esprits Abuseurs aux derniers temps”; “Purgatory is an error and an abuse invented by Abusive Souls of the last times”) implies that “derniers temps” refers to the time of humankind in its fallen state (17).
peoples as well as between contemporary Native Americans and what has been written about them—that supplement one another in order to produce an overwhelming sense of the unassailability of Lafitau’s thesis.
Lafitau’s second chapter, in which he works his way through a variety of theories about the Old World origins of Native Americans, offers an excellent example of Lafitau’s method at work, highlighting the quasi-scientific aspects of his method, including his painstaking thoroughness and his reliance on probability in instances where documentary evidence is lacking or suspect. In it he systematically works his way through the conjectures of various contemporary and antique authors, carefully weighing them one by one. Thus he begins by insisting that while the ancients likely had some knowledge of America, it has nothing to do with the Atlantis mentioned in Plato’s Timeus or the Phyrgia of Aelian, or even the prophecy voiced in Seneca’s Medea, all of which he counts as fables that were recognized as such by their authors (1.29/1.43). He spends a little more time on the opinion put forward by Diodorus Sicilus in his Bibliothecae Historicae that the Phoenicians had settled there and been followed by the Tyrrhenians, which he judges to be “plus positive et plus assurée” (1.30).154 Lafitau then moves on to more contemporary theories, such as those of Hugo Grotius, Johanne de Laet, and Marc Lescarbot, which ultimately lead him to a general conclusion that “l’opinion la plus universellement suivie et la plus probable, est celle qui fait passer toutes ces Nations dans l’Amerique par les terres de l’Asie” (1.38), a statement that shows how Lafitau carefully measures his words to fit with probability and common “more positive and assured” (1.43) sense.155 He then goes on to point out that America may well be contiguous with Asia in the extreme northwest of the continent, though he does not want to “approfondir par de simples conjectures une chose qui ne peut être éclaircie que par la découverte même” (1.38), which further shows Lafitau’s preference for empirically verifiable conjectures.156 Having exhausted the documentary sources that might serve to provide a direct lineage for the Native Americans from an “Old World” source, Lafitau summarily rejects Native American oral traditions in returning to his point that a comparison of customs is the best way to demonstrate the common origin of all peoples, since they have been “conservées chez la plûpart sans aucune alteration, ou du moins sans une alteration fort sensible malgré leur distance et leur peu de communication” (1.48).157 He further insists that we can distinguish groups of related peoples by isolating “traits distinctifs et Caracteristiques” (1.49).158 Leaving aside for the moment the apparent contradiction between his disparate valuation of oral and behavioral evidence, this gives us a clear picture of Lafitau’s method: reasoned conjecture based on documentary sources checked against empirically verifiable evidence.
Where Lafitau carefully examines all manner of hypotheses before putting aside his consideration of the “Old World” origins of Native Americans, Mather sidesteps the “The view the most universally accepted and the most probable is that which makes all these nations come to America by way of Asia” (1.46).
“I ought not to try to prove by simple conjecture a thing upon which light can be cast only by exploration” (1.46).
“among these customs, there were universal patterns which, in spite of their distance from each other and slight means of communication, the fathers of the people had kept alive without alteration and transmitted to their children” (1.54) “distinctive and characteristic traits” (1.55) question of lineage altogether, “contentedly allow[ing] that America … was altogether unknown to the penmen of the Holy Scriptures” (41). This statement is wholly consonant with Mather’s express intent to “WRITE the WONDERS of the CHRISTIAN RELGION, flying from the depravations of Europe, to the American Strand” (25). Mather’s entire project is predicated on the belief that writing is a divine activity that serves to prove one’s status as a member of the elect, as well as to guarantee the elect status of one’s own nation. As I noted in the last chapter, Nicholas Noyes’ prefatory poem makes the contrast between the hyper-literate Mather and his unlettered Native American counterparts explicit. But we might equally well cite any of the nine other introductory poems that accompanied Mather’s text, all of which reference Mather’s ability to make the dead live again in his writings, an ability implicitly akin to God’s to provide an eternal “second” life after a person’s physical death.
Having cited copiously from Greek and Roman authorities on the virtues of historical writing in his introduction to the Magnalia, Mather singles out “Church History” as deserving of the “palm,” in particular because it provides unparalleled examples by which Christians can guide their lives and actions (28). Mather then notes that “the great Moses” was the “the first-born of all historians” and shifts into an anaphoric chronicle of the historians of all ages: “Let any person of good sense peruse …Herodotus… Let him then peruse Thucydides… Let him next revolve Xenophon… Let him from thence proceed onto Diodorus Siculus… Let him hereupon consult Polybius… Let him from hence pass onto Livy… [etc.]” (28-29). The continuous character of this list, emphasized by his use of anaphora, tells us a great deal about Mather’s vision of history as a coherent textual fabric that can allow one to retrace the progress of human history—or rather, given Mather’s Puritan outlook, its decline.
In fact, Mather quite explicitly indicates that his goal for the Magnalia is not merely to preserve the lives and actions of the New England Puritans, but to provide an example of a people who have managed to use their own learning and knowledge of history in order to maintain a more properly Christian way of life: “Thus, I do not say, that the Churches of New-England are the most regular that can be; yet I do say, and am sure, that they are very like unto those that were in the first ages of Christianity [and that] the first Age was the Golden Age: to return unto that, will make a man Protestant, and, I may add, a Puritan” (27). Mather thus anticipates Lafitau’s belief that the people of America will provide the mechanism by which Europeans can rediscover the practices and rituals of “premier temps,” differing only in his identification of which American people is to be the source of this insight.
However, despite the bald chauvinism of his conviction that Puritan New England is the focal point of ecclesiastical history, Mather shares Lafitau’s penchant for citing sources whose religious beliefs differ greatly from his own. He cites not only a great number of ancient Greeks and Romans, but several Spanish Catholic authors as well. This helps to support Mather’s insistence that he “ha[s] done the part of an impartial historian [and] endeavoured, with all good conscience, to decline this writing merely for a party” that has characterized much contemporary historical writing (29). Though he qualifies this statement of impartiality by noting that he is “not of the opinion that one cannot merit the name of an impartial historian, except he write bare matters of fact without all reflection” (29), his methodology supports his claim of objectivity inasmuch as he devotes a great portion of his text to the reproduction of primary source documents ranging from legal statutes to personal correspondence.
In fact, Mather explicitly indicates that he regarded his project as a kind of divine anthology, incorporating the sum of all human learning, not merely that of the New
I considered that multitudes of particular texts had, especially of later years, been more notably illustrated in the scattered books of learned men, than in any of the ordinary [Biblical] commentators. And I considered that the treasures of illustration for the Bible, dispersed in many hundred volumes, might be fetched all together by a labour that would resolve to conquer all things (33) As this passage clearly shows, Mather’s ambitions for his Magnalia, like those of Lafitau for his Mœurs, were nothing less than universal.
“TOTALIZING AND RATIONALIZING OUR EXPERIENCE OF THE SOCIAL”Their extreme religious orthodoxy may seem to place Mather and Lafitau apart from the mainstream of early Enlightenment scientific thought, but neither is in the least dismissive of contemporary intellectual developments. Lafitau was a skilled naturalist, as demonstrated by his work on ginseng, and Mather read widely in human anatomy and chemistry, as evidenced by his notes on the works of Robert Boyle and others in his voluminous commonplace books, the Quotidiana, which run to five quarto volumes of roughly one hundred and thirty pages each. While modern commentators have occasionally balked at the apparent contradiction between these religious and scientific pursuits, both of these authors were very much creatures of their times, and they saw their scientific pursuits as a necessary complement to their religious vocations.159 Thus Mather and Lafitau show a great deal of interest in the latest scientific discoveries in their writings, and feel compelled to respond to them as they defend their respective visions of orthodox Christianity precisely because they see scientific inquiry as the best means to a knowledge of God and His creation. Not only the argument but the form of their work can be seen as rooted in this compulsion to make natural science serve theology.
While Mather and Lafitau’s differing attitudes towards Native Americans would seem to be echoed in their respective choice of genre, their shared interest in the latest scientific developments causes them to appeal to the authority of a genre that supersedes both ethnography and history: the system. As Clifford Siskin notes in an essay, “The Year of the System,” that has done much to recuperate this genre as worthy of literary analysis, we tend to think of the system today as an expression for “totalizing and rationalizing our experience of the social,” rather than a genre as such (9). However, Siskin is right to insist that we must consider it as a genre, not only because of its importance in Mather’s scientific endeavors and interests have attracted a great deal of critical attention over the course of several decades, beginning some hundred years ago with the work of George Lyman Kittredge on Mather’s relations with the British Royal Society, running through Theodore Hornberger’s demonstration (in the 1930s) of Mather’s debts to his contemporaries Robert Boyle and John Ray (“The Date, the Source, and the Significance of Cotton Mather’s Interest in Science,” American Literature. 6.4 (Jan 1935): 413and culminating in work by Jeffrey Jeske (“Cotton Mather: Phyisco-Theologian,” Journal of the
History of Ideas. 47.4 (1986): 583-594) and Winton Solberg (“Science and Religion in Early America: