Montaigne and the Cannibals: Toward a Redefinition of Exoticism

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Essay Excerpt

To use "exotic" and "exoticism" in a reading of Montaigne's Essays- unless exclusively for purposes of opposition, which is not the case here-is thus to make him endorse and assume a number of traits (a whole tradition in fact) that might not apply. However, what I am proposing is that although the term "exoticism" is already invested with a set of connotations that seem to confine it in already delineated periods and semantic zones, it nevertheless contains the essential characteristics of the more generic "representation of otherness" in Western texts: a hovering between two tendencies that can be summarized as exemplification and experimentation. The first, a tendency to inscribe the foreign as an exemplar against the background of Center-elaborated [2] systems, a background against which the Other, at the extreme of that tendency, ultimately disappears, buried under the weight of what otherness was only there to illustrate-as incertain reductive anthropologies or even "high-powered" ones (cf. Sontag 1961:77); the second, a tendency that is stamped by the individual will to affirm itself through exploration (literal or metaphorical) of the foreign, discovering (or recovering) material that confirms and strengthens individuality rather than illustrate systems; paradoxically,this tendency, at its extreme, sometimes results in the "loss of Self" or "merging with the Other" that is sometimes referred to as "madness"-gone the way of Kurtz, Ahab, and others who do not return.

In the following reading of Montaigne I examine these two tendencies and their attendant markers by focusing on what can be called the aporia of exoticism (which is only one variant of the more generic aporia of representation in general): to what extent can a Western subject represent a foreign subject without automatically producing exoticism, that is, without eliminating himself, and without eliminating the subject of his discourse? (Celestin, 293-294)

About the Author

Roger Celestin is a Porfessor at the University of Connecticut. His areas of specialty are as follows:20th Century French Literature and Culture, the French Enlightenment, Theory and Criticism, Travel Literature, Film.


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