«By Robert Hilliker M. A., Brown University, 2003 B. A., University of British Columbia, 2000 Thesis Submitted in partial fulfillment of the ...»
And this is where custom comes back into the picture. Custom, according to the humanist scholars of the Renaissance, was a force that, as Montaigne puts it, “hebete nos sens” (1.23.109), and thereby is able “de nous saisir et empieter de telle sorte, qu’à peine soit-il en nous de nous r’avoir de sa prinse et de r’entrer en nous, pour discourir et raisonner de ses ordonnances” (1.23.115).179 What’s more, the nature of custom was multiply and to mutate, producing social and religious strife as it increased the differences between people. In a brilliant rhetorical move, however, Mather and Lafitau blame the very proliferation of custom itself upon the fall from grace. Thus Mather, in a sermon on the danger of “Evil Customes,” argues that “all Unregenerate people, are ACCUSTOMED TO DO EVIL; are under the power of Evil Custome” and that “the Original Sin, which we are born withal, is a Complication of all Sinful Habits” (197).
Lafitau, for his part, avers that all pagan religions bear “une telle conformité dans le culte avec celui de la Religion véritable, qu’il semble que presque tout l’essential a été pris dans le même fonds” (1.9), using his comparative analysis of customs to trace that origin back beyond Moses to Adam and Eve (1.10-13/1.32-33).180 In his understanding of custom, Mather pinpoints the very concern that drove the
Reformation itself, which is well expressed by a passage he recorded in his Quotidiana:
that “the church was gradually corrupted, as in her Doctrines, so in her worship; an infinity of ceremonies, by degrees insensibly sliding in; one eminent man perhaps invented and practiced a certain action, which he used himself … others being led by his exemple, performed the same, and others again imitated them, till at length, the Action became a Tradition, and custome” ([45.89]). The aim of Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana, then, was wholly in keeping with the aim of the Reformation: to return to, in his words, “the profession of the purest Religion … lost, in the loss of primitive “stupefied the senses” (1.23.94); “seize and ensnare us in such a way that it is hardly within our power to get ourselves back out of its grip and return ourselves to reflect and reason about its ordinances” (1.23.100) “such conformity in forms of worship with those of true religion that it seems that almost all its essential points have been based on the same foundation” (1.30-31) principles, and the primitive practices, upon which it was first established” (40). As Lafitau’s work demonstrates even more clearly than Mather’s, the system itself empowers the analysis of custom as a means of restoring that primal condition through the mechanism of the empirical method itself, which relies on the power of reason to abstract meanings from raw data.
That Lafitau should share Mather’s obsession with reestablishing the original practices of the Christian church may not fit with our conventional understanding of the Protestant/Catholic divide, yet recent criticism has suggested that the effects of the Counter-Reformation upon Catholic theological and institutional practice mirrored those of the Reformation upon Protestant practice in many respects—a feature of the CounterReformation that Montaigne noticed at its very beginning (1.23.119-120/1.23.105).
For both Mather and Lafitau, then, the path up (or back) to God requires them to produce a coherent and global vision of the human world in order to correctly—that is, reasonably—ascertain those rituals and practices that correspond to those of the early church. The process of reasoning—and its adjunct, alphabetic writing—allows them to reconstruct, from both historical and anthropological evidence, what those practices must have been, but it requires that they come to regard Native Americans as unlettered savages lost in the depths of pre-history, and thus incapable of the kind of reasoning needed to become subjects of history rather than subject to it. Thus, while Andreas Motsch has argued that anthropological discourse and historical discourse both “partageant … la notion d’un temps unique, linéaire et progressif” (“Temps anthropologique” 196),181 the work of Mather and Lafitau suggests that time in these discourses is both linear and parabolic, tracing, on the one hand, civilized humanity’s progress from the fall from grace through to its final regeneration and, on the other, the perpetual fall of the savage.
“DID THE SPANIARDS DEFEAT THE INDIANS BY MEANS OF SIGNS?”As Anthony Pagden notes in his foreword to a recent reissue of the English translation of Tzvetan Todorov’s classic text, “[s]ince its publication in 1982, The Conquest of America has aroused a great deal of controversy” (ix). The basic thesis of Todorov’s work, which marked a major shift in his own critical focus, is that “la conquête de l’Amérique … annonce et fonde notre identité présente” because it forced European society to truly take account of human alterity, a process which culminated in the victory of “civilisation occidentale” over the indigenous peoples of South America “grâce à sa supériorité dans la communication humaine” (14, 255).182 Thus, the main critique of his work has been “the supposition that Todorov is merely re-enforcing a myth of European superiority the Spaniards themselves had initiated” (Pagden xi). Pagden defends the text, stating that “Todorov’s objective was thus to understand the process of conquest in order to prevent it, in order to recognize it when we encounter it today” (xii), and I fully accept that this is Todorov’s objective. However, we might say the same thing of Beverly or Lafitau “share the notion of a unique, linear, and progressive time” (translation mine) “the conquest of America … heralds and establishes our present identity” (4); “Western civilization has conquered … because of its superiority in human communication” (251) (though it would be much harder to say it of Mather, given his frequent, vitriolic rhetorical attacks on Native American peoples).
Fairly early in the book, Todorov poses the question that drives his analysis: “[l]es Espagnols auraient-ils triomphé sur les Indiens à l’aide des signes” (68)?183 Given our reading of Mather and Lafitau, we will have no trouble answering this question for Todorov—victory goes to the holders of the alphabet, just as Marc Lescarbot had expected it would (Histoire 3.6.370-371)—and yet, it is especially striking to see how closely Todorov’s analysis and his method hew to that of Mather and Lafitau. Deborah Root offers, in “The Imperial Signifier,” a critique of La conquête that strikes me as especially even-handed, since she grants (as I do) every point that Pagden makes in Todorov’s defense. In that essay, Root carefully demonstrates how “Todorov’s understanding of the radical difference between ‘Indian’ and European culture rests on three interrelated notions he believes pre-Columbian native society exhibits: a concept of time which was almost completely past-oriented, a profound social conformity, and a cultural stasis which rendered change nearly impossible” (201): in other words, precisely those qualities that an anthropologist following in Lafitau’s footsteps would be inclined to recognize in it. Meanwhile, Todorov treats the Spanish conquerors as modern individuals, making “European conventions and ‘rituals’ … invisible” through “his silence” while he reduces the “Aztecs [to] a list of traits and abstract qualities” (Root 204, 205). Thus, as Pagden puts it, “Todorov has argued that European logos has conquered mythos—reason has triumphed over fable—as language has taken the place of ritual and “Did the Spaniards defeat the Indians by means of signs?” (62) divination” (xii). Or, as we might put it, the Baconian conception of custom as a natural force that can be harnessed to the betterment of humankind by the empirical method has triumphed over the Montagnian notion that meddling in matters of custom can only lead to social strife—except, of course, that it is hardly as simple as this.
At the conclusion of the previous chapter, I suggested that the writings of Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Mary Rowlandson chart out two broad lines by which identity would be conceived in the eighteenth century: on the one hand, Radisson’s cosmopolitanism, grounded in a broadly-conceived principle of “interest”; on the other, Rowlandson’s binaristic chauvinism, grounded in the identification of nation with familial “relations.” Both of these lines work their way through the writings of Mather and Lafitau—in fact, we can readily identify both of these lines of thought in the work of Bercovitch and Todorov as well. What is surprising, though, is how these lines have combined here to produce a cosmopolitan universalism that still demands that the world be divided into a hierarchically ordered “us” and “them.” More surprising still is the troubling idea to which all four authors seemingly accede: that Native Americans had, in one fashion or another, to be jettisoned into the void of pre-history in order to pave the way for the emergence of the modern Euro-American.
And it is precisely this accession that we must recognize and challenge if we are to perform the kind of critical analysis that Todorov would like for us to do. Like Todorov, Bercovitch appeals to a principle of ongoing dialogue as an ideal that provides “the prospect of achieving an Americanist criticism worthy of our time” (Rites 376). Yet his monolithic model of American society, based on a Geertzian notion of culture as a coherent ideological totality (see Rites 362), emphasizes the process by which dialogue results in consensus, rather than the material effects of dissensus, not to mention the latter’s ongoing presence, regardless of the efficacy of dialogue. This insistence on consensus is the core of the cultural pluralism that, as I have already noted, Leonard Tennenhouse criticizes in his review of Bercovitch’s The Cambridge History of American Literature for “effectively conceal[ing] the exclusions and hierarchies that enable specific groups of people to formulate … notions of community” (219-20).
This concealment is akin to the “slate-wiping” tactics of many of the colonial authors I have examined here, from Lescarbot to Rowlandson to Mather and Lafitau: in order to produce a theoretically all-inclusive whole it replaces multiplicity with a binary. In the course of this chapter and this project, I hope that I have demonstrated the virtues of a Montaignian approach—that is, one that observes differences without seeking to assimilate, negate, or subordinate them—as much as I have charted the development of a series of binaries—savage/civilized, orality/writing, anthropology/history—that managed to reduce that key Montaignian term of custom to a mere datum, as capable of showing Bercovitch and Todorov the superiority of Euro-American culture as it is of telling Mather and Lafitau how far a given people has fallen from grace.
[W]hence came all these people? they are a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes. From this promiscuous breed, that race now called Americans has arisen. … [U]rged by a variety of motives, here they came. Every thing has tended to regenerate them;
new laws, a new mode of living, a new social system; here they are become men: in Europe they were as so many useless plants, wanting vegitative mould, and refreshing showers; they withered, and were mowed down by want, hunger, and war; but now by the power of transplantation, like all other plants they have taken root and flourished!
–– J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, Letters from an American Farmer (49-50) J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur is in many ways ideal for concluding my analysis of the role of custom in the colonization of North America and indicating something of the future course of those figures and concepts that emerge in custom’s wake. In his travels he embodies the continually intersecting trajectories of England, France, and North America during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Born in Normandy in 1735, Crèvecœur arrived in French Canada in the 1750s and enrolled in the militia, rising to the rank of Lieutenant. In 1759, after the defeat of the French army in the French and Indian (or Seven Years) War, he moved to New York, where he married, became a practicing surveyor and a landowning farmer, and composed the majority of his famous Letters from an American Farmer. During the Revolutionary War, he fled with his eldest son to England and then to France, whence he returned to America after the conclusion of the war to serve as the French Consul in New York.
The Letters, first published in English in 1782 and then in French in 1784, touch upon many of the same concerns that animated the writings of those earlier North American colonists I have examined in previous chapters—what does it mean to live in a “new world”? How is one to negotiate one’s relationship with the metropole? With the native inhabitants? And, most importantly of all, what is it that binds people together in a community with a shared identity? Crèvecœur resorts to many of the same rhetorical strategies in his quest to answer these vexing questions—like Bradstreet he suggests that North America can offer succor to a troubled Europe, like Rowlandson and Mather he effectively writes Native Americans out of the future of the continent (at least until the final letter, where his authorial persona, “Farmer John,” decides to hide among them to escape the vicissitudes of the Revolutionary War), like many of them he places the family at the conceptual center of the nation, and like Lafitau he uses ethnographic writing as a method of identifying universal human traits through the examination of the particularities of individual communities. Yet, as the operative simile in my epigraph indicates, all this leads Crèvecœur to a radically different answer to my final question from any of the earlier colonists I have considered. The character of human societies, for Crèvecœur, is formed in direct response to their environment, most especially their natural environment: people are like plants, according to their soil they either wither and waste or take root and flourish.