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  • Bernardin de Saint-Pierre
  • Simon Davies

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1737–1814) has for generations of readers been the author of Paul et Virginie. Yet Bernardin would have been dismayed that his reputation should rest on this tale alone. Bernardin saw himself as possessing encyclopedic knowledge, encompassing botany, zoology, astronomy, physics, theology, and philosophy He distilled this knowledge into texts that defy generic categorization, their hybridity reflecting his synthetic rather than analytic mindset. His goal was to educate his reader, to act as a guide in what he considered a divinely organized universe.

Recent years have witnessed a substantial increase in the evaluation of Bernardin’s writings.1 Malcolm Cook’s Bernardin de Saint-Pierre: A Life of Culture (2006), the first biography for a century, highlights key elements in his development.2 We see his struggle to make a living, his negotiations with the book trade, and his transition from a social outsider to an insider. Cook’s subtitle demolishes any idea that Bernardin was a solitary untouched by the concerns of his age. Three volumes of conference proceedings have enhanced our contextual understanding of him.3 Editions of neglected writings have brought his work to a wider public,4 as have several inédits.5 The first annotated edition of his correspondence — more than 2700 letters — is nearing completion.6 [End Page 220]

Travel was crucial for Bernardin’s development. After the Seven Years War he followed countless fortune-seekers in travelling through Holland and Germany to reach Russia and Poland.7 His observations were incorporated into mémoires, which were composed for career advancement and not for publication. They offered Bernardin, in Alain Guyot’s words, l’occasion d’aborder l’écriture viatique et sont ponctués de nombreuses comparaisons à caractère classificatoire’.8 In 1773 he published the Voyage à l’île de France.9 Guyot observes that this work ‘n’ en fait pas encore un texte littéraire, mais plus tout à fait un ouvrage de savoir tel que l’on pouvait l’entendre à l’époque’.10 This text prefigures recurrent features in Bernardin’s work.11 However, the depiction of Mauritius contrasts sharply with that in Paul et Virginie. Jean-Michel Racault deems the work ‘une entreprise de démystification, noting that Bernardin ‘sait voir et ait voir’.12 Frank Lestringant situates the Voyage in the tradition of travel writing, concluding that it constitutes ‘une méditation laïcisée sur le Paradis perdu et sur la Chute, où la peinture accusatrice de la société esclavagiste est parfaitement à sa place, comme le symptôme le plus flagrant de la décadence de l’humanité depuis l’Éden originel’.13 Its reception may have been aided by the illustrations, with its frontispiece showing a well-dressed European accompanied by a dog facing a slave. Vladimir Kapor suggests that the anonymous figure could be Bernardin himself.14 Discussions of the Voyage often ignore the fact that its author also dealt with Africa. Hélène Cussac stresses that Bernardin devoured travellers’ tales and repeated negative comments about native populations.15

The experience of travel permeated Bernardin’s writings. He portrayed landscapes with the training of an engineer.16 Bernardin has always been lauded or his [End Page 221] evocations of flora and fauna, for creating new ways of seeing, and for introducing ‘exotic’ terms into literary discourse.17 Joanna Stalnaker asserts that Bernardin, in the Études de la nature (1784), ‘intended not just to invent a new language for description but also to set a new course for the study of nature’.18 She defines his method as that of ‘describing unfamiliar objects by making analogies to familiar ones, with the emphasis on the shared sensations evoked by the two objects’.19 For Bernardin, nature was not fallen but was a ‘moral good’.20 However, recent scholarship has emphasized a further dimension to his portrayal of nature: its similarities with ecological thinking Bernardin proclaimed the essential harmony of nature, envisaging ‘la nature comme un ensemble unique dont tous les éléments font système et dont aucune partie ne saurait être étudiée isolément’.21 For him, man is the primary beneficiary of this system: ‘L...


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pp. 220-227
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