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Through Strangers' Eyes

Through Strangers' Eyes: Fictional Foreigners in Old Regime France

Sylvie Romanowski
Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Purdue University Press
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  • Book Info
    Through Strangers' Eyes
    Book Description:

    In the eighteenth century, a type of novel flourished showing naive outsiders who come to Europe and are amazed at what they see. Foreign travelers first set foot in Europe in the sixteenth century and are memorably present in Montaigne's essay Des Cannibales. The genre was made popular in France by Montesquieu's novel Lettres persanes. Considering the "stranger" as a figure of ambiguity, Sylvie Romanowski explains why the genre was so useful to the Enlightenment. The question of why showing ambiguous stranger is important in that period is addressed in the book's introduction by setting the Enlightenment in the historical context of the seventeenth century. Romanowski then examines Montaigne's Des Cannibales, showing how these first "outsiders" relate to their eighteenth-century successors. She next considers Montesquieu's Lettres persanes in its entirety, studying the voices of the men, the women, and the eunuchs. She also studies other examples of the genre. The author closes with a discussion of the philosophical tension, ongoing in Western thought, between skeptics and those who, refusing skepticism, seek firm foundations for knowledge, this draws connections between the sixteenth century, and our "postmodern" era.

    eISBN: 978-1-61249-082-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-ix)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. x-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Note on References
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Introduction Ambiguous and Useful Strangers
    (pp. 1-14)

    Numerous imaginary strangers come calling from the ends of the earth to eighteenth-century Europe: from Turkey, China, Siam, Persia, Peru, Africa, and America, they come, observe, and criticize. The most famous of them were Usbek and Rica, Montesquieu’s Persian noblemen who flee persecution in their homeland and resolve to instruct themselves in European manners and culture. Since these are not real foreigners writing, but European authors, this is really an exercise of the imagination both about the home culture and about the foreigner’s culture that filters the home culture. Long before these fictive travelers came to European shores, some real...

  7. Part 1 Montaigne’s Cannibals
    • Chapter One Montaigne’s Unknowable Cannibals
      (pp. 17-38)

      The Enlightenment’s emphasis on the necessity of individual knowledge and the impact of that emphasis on society in general has its roots in the larger movements of philosophy and science occurring in the Renaissance. As successive crises overturned the previously accepted religious and philosophical dogmas of medieval culture, new ways of viewing the world took hold. The Protestant Reformation attacked the institutions and the dogmas of the Catholic Church; the Copernican revolution decentered the earth and challenged the anthropocentric view of the universe; and the new scientific, mechanistic thought battled the Aristotelian system. New discoveries in other continents decentered Europe...

  8. Part 2 Montesquieu’s Persians
    • Chapter Two The Men’s Quest for Knowledge: The Impossibility of Transcendence
      (pp. 41-64)

      Although theLettres persanesand its author are usually considered as belonging to the eighteenth century, they are actually both on the cusp of the Enlightenment. Montesquieu had a foot in both cultures. Born eleven years before the end of the seventeenth century, he was about 26 years old when Louis XIV’s death definitively marked the passing of an era and 32 years old when his novel was published, already a mature age for that period—and the novel itself starts before the monarch’s death.

      The first three decades of the eighteenth century—the end of the Louis XIV era...

    • Chapter Three Women’s Knowledge: The Temptation of Equality
      (pp. 65-84)

      Where do women fit into this general scheme? Kant has a telling sentence in the essay “What Is Enlightenment?” : “The guardians who have so benevolently taken over the supervision of men have carefully seen to it that the far greatest part of them (including the entire fair sex) regard taking the step to maturity as very dangerous, not to mention difficult” (35).¹ “Women’s knowledge” can be understood in two ways: women as subjects of knowledge, and women as objects of (other people’s) knowledge. The ambiguity of my title suggests that there is an interaction between what women themselves were...

    • Chapter Four Who Are the Eunuchs?
      (pp. 85-117)

      Paul Valéry asks the question “Mais qui m’expliquera tous ces eunuques?” and speculates, “Je ne doute pas qu’il n’y ait une secrète et profonde raison de la présence presque obligée de ces personnages si cruellement séparés de bien des choses, et en quelque sorte d’eux-mêmes” (73). Ever since Valéry’s time, critics have asked the same question about the meaning of the eunuchs in Montesquieu’s novel and offered various answers.¹ From the eighteenth-century travel accounts read by Montesquieu down to our own time, eunuchs and castrati have continued to be the object of curiosity and speculation.² Accounts of the eunuchs’ role...

    • Chapter Five Montesquieu’s “Introduction” and “Réflexions,” and the Question of the “Secret Chain”
      (pp. 118-132)

      To bring this analysis of the novel to a close, I would like to consider two texts that surround theLettres persanes: the “Introduction” (7–9), which accompanied the novel in 1721, and the well-known retrospective statement, the “Quelques Réflexions sur lesLettres persanes” (3–5) published in 1754.

      The importance of preliminary texts is no longer to be ignored especially after Gérard Genette’s monumental studySeuils, although Genette limits himself to a taxonomy, albeit thorough and detailed, of all the possible types of accompanying texts, titles, postfaces, notes, etc. But, as Lorraine Piroux has demonstrated in her study that...

  9. Part 3 Graffigny’s Elusive Peruvian
    • Chapter Six Graffigny’s Lettres d’une Péruvienne: Giving (and) Reading
      (pp. 135-182)

      Françoise de Graffigny’s epistolary novel begins with two important preliminary texts, an “Avertissement” and an “Introduction historique auxLettres Péruviennes,” which are an integral part of the novel and as such merit a more prolonged look than the usual quick reading accorded to such paratexts. In both these texts, Graffigny foregrounds the role of the reader. In the first prefatory text, she emphasizes the importance of active reading, the intervention of the reader, without which the text’s meaning cannot come into being. In the second, however, she puts the reader in the role of resisting the dominant Western European culture,...

  10. Part 4 Nature Affirmed and Nature Denied
    • Chapter Seven Voltaire’s L’Ingénu and Claire de Duras’s Ourika: The Aristocracy’s Betrayals
      (pp. 185-209)

      This chapter will conclude the study by focusing on two works that have a stranger as chief protagonist, but have diametrically opposed philosophical positions regarding nature and society. On the surface, these authors and these texts seem very different. Voltaire and Claire de Duras are two figures who could be considered exemplary: one of the most central, prolific, and dominant male figures of the Enlightenment, and a woman from the highest ranks of her society who lived to see both the last years of that period and its brutal destruction, and who played a limited public role as the author...

  11. Conclusion Ambiguous Strangers and the Legacy of the Enlightenment
    (pp. 210-218)

    The purpose of this study was to survey in detail the best-known examples of the naive outsider novels that caught the imagination of the period, and along the way to consider how these novels, far from being only works of satire, raised profound questions about subjectivity, gender relations, social prejudice, and the knowability of nature. To conclude this study, I will focus first on the genre as a whole and its place in its historical context, then offer some broader reflections on the legacy of the Enlightenment for our own period.

    The genre of the naive outsider novel was certainly...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 219-232)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 233-252)
  14. Index
    (pp. 253-258)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 259-259)