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Eighteenth-Century Life 26.3 (2002) 181-201

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Exotic Botany

Alexandra Cook
University of Hong Kong


Foods out of Season and Nature Disturbed

In Emile, de ou l'Education. Rousseau prescribes an ideal diet, contrasting it with the contemporary predilection for exotic foods cultivated in Europe. This diet appreciates each food's unique character:

If I wanted to taste a dish from the end of the earth, I would,1 like Apicius, rather seek it out there than have it brought to me. For the most exquisite dishes always lack a seasoning that cannot be brought with them and that no cook can give them: the air of the climate that produced them... . Nothing is more insipid than early fruits or vegetables; it is only at great expense that some rich man of Paris with his stoves and hothouses succeeds in having bad vegetables and bad fruits on his table the whole year round.2

Exotic or unnaturally grown foods constitute a particular case of a broader phenomenon—namely, the deformation of the natural order that renders that order monstrous: "Everything is good, coming from the hands of the author of things: everything degenerates in the hands of man ..., [who] disfigures everything: he loves deformity, monsters. He wants nothing as it was made by nature" ( OC. 4:245). 3 To be disfigured nature must have an order, or at least an identifiable character; but this is not the place to explore Rousseau's notions of natural order and their role in his philosophy. Rather, I examine the philosophical import of Rousseau's criticism of [End Page 181] a specific type of disfigurement of nature, namely naturalization or what I shall call "exotic botany"—the transplanting of a species from its indigenous clime to another, especially into Europe but also from Europe to the colonies and between the colonies, sometimes via Europe, as in the case of coffee. This undertaking had many purposes including, first and foremost, profit; but, as Rousseau stresses, naturalization not only satisfied the desire for display in the gardens of the rich and powerful, but also satisfied the curiosity of virtuosi and natural philosophers. 4 Unlike many of his contemporaries, Rousseau questions the value of naturalization, noting that it yields "often very false observations." 5

Rousseau's critique of exotic botany operates at two levels. On one it engages with other botanists such as Carolus Linnaeus, Nicolaus Joseph von Jacquin, and André Thouin about the proper constitution and horticultural practice of botanical gardens, in which naturalization experiments admittedly produced degenerated imported species. On a more philosophical level, Rousseau understands exotic botany as one of many manipulations of nature that produce such monstrosities as the multiplication of petals to produce a showy, but sterile, flower ( CW. 8:133, 156). Whereas Sir Francis Bacon had argued in his New Atlantis.(1627) that it is man's duty to transform nature for the "benefit and use of life" as an act of charity, 6 Rousseau holds that human manipulations of nature create monstrosities, an idea that supplies a powerful metaphor for his view that man enslaves both men and nature from motives of greed and vanity; and his critique of transplantation also fits within a long-term perspective that allows us to see the prescience of his concerns about exotic botany.

Naturalization undertaken for economic and imperial purposes often had devastating effects on humans and their environments. As one historian observes, "colonial ecological interventions ... exercised a far more profound influence over more people than the more conspicuous and dramatic aspects of colonial rule that have traditionally preoccupied historians." 7 The ecological history of the Antipodes, for example, offers numerous negative effects of apparently benign plants such as gorse (used in England for hedgerows) that "smother and kill native vegetation" in the new climate. 8 Furthermore, because Europeans naturalized sugar, cotton, and indigo on a vast scale under the slave-based plantation system, naturalization had social and political effects. Slavery and other forms of organized servitude have left a legacy of violence, inequality, and racism: the reorganization of species...


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