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Performance Anxieties: Grief and Theatre in European Writing on Tahiti

From: Eighteenth-Century Studies
Volume 41, Number 2, Winter 2008
pp. 149-164 | 10.1353/ecs.2008.0012


This essay investigates a prevalent skepticism about the veracity of Oceanic sentiments, evident in accounts of early contact in Tahiti. It places this skepticism in the context of broader philosophical concerns about the capacity of individuals to evaluate the emotions of others as genuine or false. It focuses on Tahitian mourning, which incorporates an element of excess, including practices of self-mutilation, whose ethical value must be negotiated within European accounts. Adducing the insights of eighteenth-century performance theory, the essay argues that the dismissal of such practices as false theatrics involves a justification of comparative European reserve that chimes with contemporary philosophical writing on the emotions, in seeking to invest performativity with suspicion.

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