XX Congress of ICSH Sydney 2005

Activity: Participating in or organising an eventParticipation in conferenceAcademic

Maria Tilburg, van - Speaker

    The reports of the discovery of Tahiti were widely read in Enlightenment circles of late 18th century Europe. The accounts of Bougainville and other French explorers were considered relevant to the discussion of the ‘true nature’ of mankind. Especially the permissive attitude towards sexuality presented excellent examples for Enlightenment authors advocating a new sexual morality. The interest of the European public was not merely intellectually motivated. It was also stirred by the remarkable reception bestowed upon the French explorers. The sexual pleasures offered to the French caused excitement. So far, historians have hardly paid attention to this phenomenon, implying this was ‘only natural’ - considering the (male) readership. It has been questioned, however, by the contemporary (male) author Diderot, namely in his comment upon Bougainville’s travelogue. What did Diderot see, what other authors did not take serious? Both Bougainville’s Voyage autour du monde (1771) and Diderot’s Supplément au voyage de Bougainville (1772) are central to our understanding of the Enlightenment discussion on Pacific cultures: the first describes Tahitian society with reference to Enlightenment discourse, while the second mirrors the intellectual as well as the more carnal interest of the European public. On the level of the content Diderot explores the possibility of a sexual morality based on natural law. At the same time, however, he gives a wry comment on the interest of the public in the matters discussed. This can be inferred from his discussion of the reception of the French. On the one hand, he gives meaning to Tahitian hospitality in terms of Enlightenment discourse. And on the other, he mirrors the sexual attraction of Tahiti for the French - explorers and readers alike. In his style Diderot mimics Bougainville’s description of his encounters with Tahitian women. These show a very circuitous style, resulting in the evocation of eroticism rather than in a factual account of the actual proceedings. Diderot uses similar narrative devices to suggest differences between the sexes rather than describing the sexual roles of Tahitian men and women. In doing so, Diderot exposes the centrality of gender in the European construction of ‘Tahiti’. When reading accounts of foreign cultures, historians and literary critics are attentive to the diverging ways in which people are ‘othered’. They tend to attribute this awareness to Saïd’s Orientalism (1975). As a consequence, they imply that being sensitive to ‘othering’ is a modern phenomenon. This ain’t necessarily so: Diderot’s Supplément may be read as a deconstruction of sexuality and gender in Bougainville’s travelogue.

    XX Congress of ICSH Sydney 2005

    Location of eventUniversity of New South Wales
    Degree of recognitionInternational event

    Event: Conference

    ID: 17418882