- Revolutions of Taste:Mon Odyssée and the Aesthetic Inheritance of Saint-Domingue
In the midst of the Haitian Revolution, a young white Saint-Dominguan creole obtains military leave in order to join his friends for an evening featuring "danse, festin, musique et cetera" ("dance, feasting, music etc.").1 After devouring "tout ce qu'il y a de plus délicieux" ("all that is most delicious"), the soldier and his group decide to cap their revelry with a sumptuous breakfast, only to receive news that a battalion of black revolutionaries has intercepted and eaten their hoped-for repast (Pillet, Mon Odyssée 211).2 Hungry, furious, and now frightened, the pleasure seekers begin their journey home. Riding back through a thickly wooded ravine, the creoles stumble across a Tempest-like apparition: a rich spread of delicacies lies on the grass, including "un pâté froid, dont la vaste cir-conférence renferme de nombreuses victimes" ("a cold pâté, the wide circumference of which imprisons many victims"), and "une dinde énorme peut à peine contenir les truffes dont elle est farcie" ("an enormous turkey that can hardly hold the truffles with which it is stuffed"; MO 219). These pleasures of the table suggest violence in their very excess—"victims" comprise the massive pâté—while also subsuming this aggression into the idealized character of the picnic scene. Real violence has no place in this ravine, where the raison d'être is to entertain and indulge. Although the shadowy presence of revolutionaries signals the impending collapse of Saint-Domingue, the fantasy of a lavish, self-perpetuating meal enables the creole and his companions to exclude the revolution as [End Page 1] significant to their act of colonial consumption. There is nothing to see here but their feast.
This forest banquet scene appears in Jean-Paul Pillet's Mon Odyssée, a memoir of the young creole's experiences in revolutionary Saint-Domingue and his later life as an entertainer and taste-maker in the postrevolutionary US.3 His account illustrates how creole hierarchies and values coincide with emergent US desires for exceptionalism, revealing how white Americans' fascination with Saint-Domingue and its aesthetic culture shaped their understanding of what it means to be an exceptional nation. Like many other Saint-Dominguan creoles of his time, Pillet believes in the remarkable nature of his particular society.4 Throughout his memoir, he exalts creole consumption and taste, developing an aesthetic language that he uses to promote Saint-Domingue's unique status within the colonial world, as well as to denounce the destruction wrought by the Haitian Revolution. Upon arriving in the US as an exile, he exports this discourse of creole taste—and its encoded aesthetic and racial hierarchies—to a white US elite eager to appear more cultured and exceptional on a global stage. By framing the cultivation of taste as a gateway to global power, Pillet offers Americans a creole mode of exceptionalism that depends on luxury rather than equality, thereby demonstrating how the colonial Caribbean continued to shape the young republic during its so-called nationalist moment.
My definition of "taste," here and throughout this essay, is intentionally capacious. Building on work by Simon Gikandi and others who understand taste as a tool of political alignment, I consider taste as both a bodily sensation and an act of judgment.5 For Pillet, the physical realities of taste—including what you eat, where, and with whom—are never far from mind. At the same time, taste is also the primary frame he uses to discuss the aesthetic structures that support wealthy, influential colonial societies. Pillet's focus on matters of taste rather than the unfolding Haitian Revolution may, at first, register Michel-Rolph Trouillot's field-defining argument that white colonists found the prospect of black freedom "unthinkable" (72–73). Yet his belief that creoles have the right to experience pleasure, even in the midst of armed conflict, invites another critical frame for understanding this text—Jacques Rancière's theorizing of surplus and the distribution of the sensible.
For Rancière, surplus "set[s] out a question . . . about who is included," referring to that which is excepted...