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Eighteenth-Century Life 26.3 (2002) 31-44

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The Exotic and the Creative Imagination in the 1690s:
Charles Perrault's Les Hommes illustres

D. J. Culpin
University of St. Andrews


French attitudes to the exotic in the 1690s illustrate a significant shift in European sensibility. The decade stands midway between two major works of literature that treat a potentially exotic subject in very different manners: Racine's tragedy Bajazet (1672), though set in a harem in Constantinople, has little sense of local color, and the mores of the characters are predominantly those of the playwright's Parisian audience, whereas Montesquieu's Lettres persanes (1721), partially set in Usbek's harem in Ispahan, the ancient capital of Persia, captures a sense of otherness and evokes an imaginative excitement in response to "exotic" features such as sensuality and cruelty. A considerable shift in sensibility took place during the fifty years that separate these works, and Charles Perrault's text Les Hommes illustres qui ont paru en France pendant ce siècle is a good barometer of what was happening at the halfway point. 1

Les Hommes illustres is among Perrault's least-known works. Published in two volumes in 1696 and 1700, with a second edition also in 1700, it consists of biographies ("éloges historiques") of one hundred famous Frenchmen who had died during the course of the seventeenth century, each accompanied by an engraved portrait. The biographies are divided into five sections: churchmen, military leaders, statesmen, scholars and men of letters, and artisans (including painters and architects). As a modern in the [End Page 31] Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes, Perrault was open to new ideas; nevertheless, he shared the political and religious conservatism of France's ruling elite. During the period 1663-82, when he enjoyed the patronage of Colbert, the secretary of state, he had also been closely in touch with the latest developments in foreign affairs, whether military, commercial, or artistic. The panorama of French society that Perrault provides, therefore, offers a fascinating snapshot of contemporary attitudes to a variety of subjects, including "the exotic."

However, there is, at the outset, a terminological difficulty to be overcome: what in Perrault's day was meant by exotique? Although the term is absent from the first edition of the Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française (1694), according to Furetière's Dictionnaire Universel (1690), "Il ne se dit que dans le dogmatique, et signifie 'Etranger.' Il ne se faut pas servir de termes 'exotiques' ou barbares." Exotique conveyed none of our modern sense of imaginative excitement in response to foreignness—which explains why Perrault did not employ it in Les Hommes illustres; rather, that connotation was available in the word curieux, which Perrault did use. One aspect of what we understand by exotique was captured by étranger, but the sense of excitement experienced in response to the foreign was not adequately conveyed by either fabuleux (which, as both Furetière and the Academy Dictionary indicate, meant primarily "inventé," and is little used by Perrault) or merveilleux (which, for contemporary dictionaries as for Perrault, meant above all "digne d'admiration"). The word that most nearly suggests our modern concept of the exotic, then, and which occurs with some frequency in Les Hommes illustres is curieux, which, according to Furetière, "se dit ... de la chose rare qui a été ramassée, ou remarquée par l'homme curieux." Using the ideas conveyed by étranger and curieux as the focus of our inquiry, three questions will be considered: (1) What, on the basis of this text, did Perrault know about foreign exploration, travel, and discovery? (2) What was his attitude to the foreign? (3) How far does he anticipate the imaginative excitement, experienced in response to the exotic, that became more fully developed in the eighteenth century?

The scope of Perrault's geographical knowledge, encompassing the New World, Asia, and the Middle East, was extensive. Taken as a whole, the biographical notices of Les Hommes illustres evoke three parts of the globe&#8212...


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