Part of the Palgrave Studies in Cultural and Intellectual History book series (CIH)


The collective imaginary of eighteenth-century France was populated—one might even say haunted—by a vast array of exotic Others. Throughout the literature of the period, foreign characters, including a Huron chief (Lahontan), Persian gentlemen (Montesquieu), Chinese mandarins (d’Argens), an Incan princess (Mme. de Graffigny), and a Tahitian elder (Diderot), drew contrasts between French Old Regime society and the customs and mores of their supposed homelands, usually to the detriment of the former. Political theorists used crosscultural comparisons, invoking Oriental despotism (Montesquieu again), the noble savage (Rousseau), or the Confucian bureaucratic order (Quesnay and the Physiocrats) to make broader points about government, natural law, and human nature. French readers avidly devoured published narratives of travels to distant lands, and men of letters compiled, recycled, and commented on such texts in a growing corpus of cross-cultural discourse.1 In addition to these textual representations, French learned society and the broader public alike marveled at exotic visitors to France, such as the Ottoman ambassador Mehmed Efendi, the albino African child identified only as the nègre blanc, and perhaps most of all, the Tahitian Aotourou, brought to France by Louis-Antoine de Bougainville in the course of his voyage around the world.


Eighteenth Century Distant Land Discursive Field Enlightenment Project Colonial Empire 
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  1. 1.
    For the eighteenth-century fascination with travel literature, see René Pomeau, “Voyages et lumières dans la littérature française du XVIIIe siède” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 57 (1967), 1269–1289;Google Scholar
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© David Allen Harvey 2012

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