The Yale Journal of Criticism 13.2 (2000) 229-265
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French Cultural Imperialism and the Aesthetics of Extinction
Jenine Abboushi Dallal
Just before recounting the ancient history and his present tour of Carthage in Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem, Chateaubriand ruminates upon the indefatigable French national character that "ne peut s'effacer" [cannot wear off]. 1 Significantly, this observation conjures up memories of his visit sixteen years earlier (in 1791) to the American frontier and his first sight of a compatriot among the Indians. This moment occurs, he tells us, when his guide leads him to a forest within Iroquois territory where he encounters
. . . une vingtaine de Sauvages, hommes et femmes, barbouillés comme des sorciers, le corps demi-nu, les oreilles découpées, des plumes de corbeau sur la tête, et des anneaux passés dans les narines. Un petit Français poudré et frisé comme autrefois, habit vert pomme, veste de droguet, jabot et manchette de mousseline, raclait un violon de poche, et faisait danser Madelon Friquet à ces Iroquois. M. Violet (c'était son nom). . . . tenant son petit violon entre son menton et sa poitrine, accordait l'instrument fatal; il criait en iroquois: A vos places! Et toute la troupe sautait comme une bande de démons. (398-99)
. . . some twenty savages, men and women, painted like sorcerers, their bodies half-naked, ears slit, crow feathers on their heads, rings through their nostrils. A small Frenchman with powdered and curled hair as in bygone days, wearing an apple-green coat with a drugget vest, muslin jabot and cuffs, was scraping at his pocket violin and making these Iroquois dance "Madelon Friquet." Monsieur Violet (such was his name). . . . holding his little violin between chin and chest, tuned the fatal instrument, and cried out in Iroquois: To your places! And the entire troop bounded forward like a pack of demons.
M. Violet, Chateaubriand explains, is "le nouvel Orphée" [a new Orpheus] whose resolve it was to teach "les beaux-arts aux Américains," to carry "la civilisation jusque chez les hordes errantes du Nouveau-Monde" [civilization even unto the errant hordes of the New World].
At first glance, this may seem a rather commonplace colonial account of civilizing the natives. What is strange about it, however, is that M. Violet's cultural offering is archaic, trivial, and steeped in almost comic inconsequentiality. "Ces messieurs Sauvages et ces dames Sauvagesses," as he calls them, are indelibly marked not for regeneration but extinction and damnation: "demons" of the underworld, their [End Page 229] bodies are fragmented and perforated, "half-naked" and replete with slits and holes. They are, furthermore, instructed not by a beacon of a grand and ascending nation but by a throwback, a lowly vestige of an empire in retreat. Having served as a scullion under General Rochambeau during the American Revolution, M. Violet stayed on after the departure of the French army and is now dressed in antiquated, pseudo-courtly attire to teach "les sauvages" to dance to a ditty. 2
Yet Chateaubriand deliberately transposes these ironies. In another account of the same scene in his Mémoires, he writes that he was "cruellement humilié" [cruelly humiliated] by this experience. The source of his antipathy, however, is not the apparent debasement or inanity of "la mission civilisatrice," but the unavailability of Rousseau's "noble sauvage" untainted by civilization. 3 In contrast, in the Itinéraire he offers M. Violet's project as an example of the tenacity of the French "génie" that persists despite and by virtue of the material loss of empire: "voilà ce que c'est que le génie des peuples" [this is what comes of a people's genius]. Chateaubriand quite seriously links the French cultural project, of which he considers his own work exemplary, to that of M. Violet: "nous dansâmes donc aussi sur les débris de Carthage" [so we too danced over the ruins of Carthage] (399). Indeed Chateaubriand likewise fancies himself something of a relic. He remarks, in the preface to Itinéraire...