Enlightenment Utopias, Fall 2014

literary thought experiments of the 17th and 18th centuries

Secondary Source: “Candide Shoots the Monkey Lovers: Representing Black Men in Eighteenth-Century Visual Culture”

by Sophia Natasha Sunseri

Bellhouse, Mary. “Candide Shoots the Monkey Lovers: Representing Black Men in Eighteenth-Century French Visual Culture.” Political Theory 34.6 (2006). 741-784.



In this reading, Bellhouse explores the visual construction of black male identity in France during the long eighteenth century. She conveys how European perceptions of black men changed drastically after the Haitian Revolution of 1791, in which slaves rebelled against their owners. Prior to the Revolution, artists often depicted black men as inferior and child-like whereas after, they depicted them as violent and virile. Bellhouse delves deeper into this distinction by comparing two sets of illustrations of Voltaire’s Candide, which were both drawn by Jean-Michael Moreau. The first set was composed before the revolution, in 1787, and the second was composed after, in 1803. The differences that emerge between the two ultimately reflect a growing cultural anxiety about interracial relations between Europeans and blacks during this time.

From the late seventeenth century until 1789, black men were portrayed as emasculated in French visual culture. When they appeared in paintings and illustrations, they often embodied one of two roles: exotic servants in metropolitan France or plantation slaves in the colonies. It was not uncommon for them to be depicted as infantilized, servile, or maimed. Atoine Coypel’s painting, Young Black Holding a Basket of Fruit and a Young Woman Stroking a Dog (1682) is a prime example. In this work, a sumptuously attired dark skinned boy dons a white turban adorned with feathers, emphasizing his otherness. The black man-as-child was thus presented as relatively harmless: he was not yet regarded as sexually threatening “and the emergent taboo of the black man and white woman [was] avoided” (744).

After the 1790s, however, portrayals of black men as inferior and dependent were replaced by images of black men as violent and sexually threatening. Such images included: “oversized genitalia” as well as depictions of black men as “…armed attacker[s] …and bestial rapist[s] who chase after white women” (742). This shift in visual representation can be attributed to cultural anxiety that came about as a byproduct of the Haitian Revolution. The uprising resulted in many horrific atrocities, news of which eventually made its way to Europe. Anxiety increased in France as reports of black men raping white women circulated.

The change in the way in which black men were visually represented is exemplified in Moreau’s illustrations of Candide.

Moreau’s 1787 illustrations depict black men as non-threatening. One scene that Moreau chose to portray is the episode in Chapter 19 when Candide and Cacambo visit Surinam and encounter a maimed slave. Moreau’s illustration endows Candide with several phallic artifacts suggesting masculine prowess: a walking stick, a rifle, upright legs. The slave, by contrast, is lying down horizontally in the shadows, his peg leg and crutch visible. As Bellhouse surmises: “In Moreau’s illustrations, light skin colour is linked to multiple signifiers of ‘phallic’ power, while dark skin is linked to dismemberment” (758).

 Moreau’s 1803 illustrations are markedly more violent than his 1787 illustrations. In one of them, Candide is shown navigating his way through a field of white bodies that have been scorched, raped, and disemboweled.

Of particular interest to Bellhouse, however, is the scene in which Candide shoots the Monkey Lovers. Here, Moreau revises aspects of Voltaire’s narrative. In Voltaire’s text from 1759, Candide risks being cannibalized but in Moreau’s illustration from 1803, he is portrayed as saving the young women from immanent danger. Moreau’s depiction of skin colour and European facial features were also decisions of his own making. Rather than depict the “naked girls” as indigenous, as Voltaire does, Moreau depicts them as European-looking. He also makes the monkeys appear especially menacing—an interpretation that sharply juxtaposes earlier illustrations by artists such as Charles Monnet whose 1776 illustrations portray the monkeys’ faces as “benign” (774). Monnet’s monkeys are “pictured with prominent tails, [that] look like toys. One monkey is almost smiling” (776). Interestingly, Moreau’s monkeys from the 1803 illustrations are given darker fur than the monkeys in his 1787 set and are drawn to look more muscular. By the time in which Moreau selected the monkey scene for illustration, debates about cross-species breeding had been complicated by intensifying anxiety about interracial sexuality and by years of war in what is now Haiti. The mixing of races in Haiti produced many contentious and heated debates, which are made apparent in comparing Moreau’s two sets of illustrations.

Two Ideas for Paper Proposals: Mind/Place in Rasselas Vs. Deferred Violence in GT

by Sophia Natasha Sunseri

For my final paper, I would like to further explore Rasselas, focusing on the relationship between mind and place (throughout my reading, I was constantly reminded of the following quote from Milton: “The mind is its own place, and in itself Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”). Within Johnson’s text, obtaining a broader knowledge of the external world seems paradoxically linked to retreating inward. Rasselas’ venture into the outside world, when he leaves the Happy Valley, is prefigured by “solitary walks and silent meditation” (6). His bouts of “solitary thought” and his eagerness to “retire[d] gladly to privacy” are what ultimately lead to him “picturing …to himself that world which he had never seen” (7).
The mind/place binary also comes into play when Imlac and Rasselas are discussing why Europeans are more “powerful” (21) than Asians and Africans. Imlac links Europe’s dominance to “knowledge” and wisdom (21) (and not physical prowess or might). In this instance, Imlac draws a connection between mental fortitude and colonialist expansion.
I wonder whether we could interpret the interplay between mind and place in biographical terms, based on what we discussed of Johnson’s life in class. It seems significant that as Johnson’s own mother was facing imminent death, Johnson had his protagonist flee from the Happy Valley, a Garden of Eden- type place, teeming with life. The text’s preoccupation with the mind (and reason) also seems relevant in light of Johnson’s own physical disabilities.
Another idea I had for a paper topic – wholly unrelated: exploring representations of deferred violence in Gulliver’s Travels, focusing on the Houhynmns and their inability to arrive at a definitive conclusion with regard to exterminating the Yahoos. I am particularly drawn to the formal and rhetorical functions of such representations. One way in which the Houhynms manage to seduce Gulliver –to be so persuasive—is through the repetition of deferred violence. Through these acts of repetition and deferral, Gulliver gradually becomes inculcated with the idea that the Yahoos are less-than the Houhynmns and somehow deserving of whatever violence they may have enacted against them.

Does one topic seem more engaging/original than the other?


5 Questions in Response to Gulliver’s Travels

by Sophia Natasha Sunseri

5 Questions in Response to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels

  1. Throughout Swift’s novel, references to the human body—and its various functions—abound. In particular, the text seems especially preoccupied with the scatological. In Part 1, for example, Gulliver tells us that he had been “extremely pressed by the necessities of nature,” causing him to “discharge[d]” his body of an “uneasy load” (35).* Later, he urinates on the Queen’s palace in Lilliput to extinguish a fire (Part 2), describes how the scientists in Lagado turn excrement into food (Part 3), and makes it known that the Yahoos hurl feces at one another (Part 4).

In emphasizing the body/the scatological, is Swift merely trying to entertain his readers? Or, he is making a larger point about aspects of our non-   corporeal selves, that is, the spiritual and/or intellectual? How might the latter fit into an Enlightenment context?

  1. Building off of the last question, what are we to make of the ways in which the female body is represented? Gulliver frequently discusses women’s bodies in terms that are less than complimentary. For instance, when Gulliver encounters a nurse breastfeeding, he remarks: “I must confess no object ever disgusted me so much as the sight of her monstrous breast” (97/Part 2). And later, upon seeing a beggar-woman, he states: “There was a woman with cancer in her breast, swelled to a monstrous size, full of holes, in two or three of which I could have easily crept, and covered my whole body” (117/Part 2).

Significantly, such descriptions occur in the land of Brobdingnag, where everything is enlarged, as though seen through a microscopic lens. Thus, it  can be inferred that Swift may be satirizing various scientific innovations of his time, including the microscope. As Chloe Houston confirms in her essay,       “Utopia, Dystopia or Anti-utopia?”, “…scientific experiments…become objects of ridicule” (429) in Swift’s novel. If this is the case, why does Swift choose to express his scientific critique in terms that are gendered?

  1. What is the significance of Gulliver addressing the reader? It is not uncommon for Gulliver to say things like, “It was necessary to give the reader this information, without which he would be at the same loss with me,” (163/Ch. 2, Part 3). How do comments like this function rhetorically?
  1. What does Swift’s portrayal of the relationship between people and animals suggest? Throughout Gulliver’s Travels, people are often compared to, or contrasted with, animals. In Part One, for example, as Gulliver prepares to leave Blefuscu, he states that he will take: “six cows and two bulls alive, with as many ewes and rams, intending to carry them into my own country, to propagate the breed…. I would gladly have taken a dozen of the natives, but this was a thing the Emperor would by no means permit” (82).   What are the colonial, economic, and/or philosophical implications of such comparisons?
  1. In God, Gulliver, and Genocide Claude Rawson comments on a letter that Swift wrote to Pope, in which Swift expresses a “death-dealing sentiment about humans, sufficiently establishing that it isn’t ‘for real’, but in a way near enough.” Rawson writes that, “The words express with unusual explicitness the mixture of meaning it, not meaning it, and not not meaning it” (262). Rawson’s observation underscores the ambiguous nature of Swift’s writing—and of satirical writing in general.  In what ways is the elusiveness of Swift’s satire potentially troubling or problematic, and in what ways does it potentially succeed?

*Page numbers refer to the following edition of Gulliver’s Travels:

 Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2003.

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