Tuesday, September 20, 2005

More Penguins

Tahitians lived in bliss with lives free of material needs and in a blissful state of moral obliviousness. In the mid-eighteenth century their isolation was interrupted when a group of empire penguins, who had swam from Antarctica, landed on their shores and attempted to convert the indigenous people to their morality (as well as establish foundations for future imperial penguin rule).

OK, that was complete BS. The penguins found Tahiti too far and too warm and never completed their journey. It was the French who visited Tahiti, and after attempting to civilize Tahitians, fantasized about screwing it over (that is, made it part of their empire). A few artists braved the ‘indecency’ to bask in the warmth of open, subaltern sexuality, only to return to France a few years later with venereal diseases.

Religious conservatives’ attachment to March of the Penguins has a familiar ring to it. Since Tacitus westerners have morality a northward orientation. In cold climate of northern Europe families incubated virtue in order to survive. Montesquieu systematized the connection between location, climate and morality in The Spirit of the Laws: cultures that are pushed towards greater cooperation to survive in harsh landscapes are more capable of living under rule of law; in forgiving landscapes law must be maintained by force. Of course, the former were located in Europe, the latter in Africa and the tropics.

Never mind that neither place was really the land of abundance that Europeans imagined. The African environment was harsh, a chronic under-population prevented exploitation. The imagined moral geography prevailed: Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North was a story of survival, his Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (a collaboration with FW Murnau) focused on sexual license.

Bringing empire penguins to Tahiti – that is, to uphold the cold as an environment in which virtue is born – reminds me of Diderot’s Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville. Louise Antoine de Bougainville had claimed Tahiti for Louis XVI when he circumnavigated the world in 1766-69. The subsequent account of the voyage was a hit, describing Tahitian society as a paradise of abundance and open sexuality. It horrified some, titillated others.

Diderot’s Supplement, a work of fiction, brought some critical perspective to both Bougainville’s voyage and to Europeans’ perception of their own morality. Diderot argued that the Tahitians had a code of sexual conduct that was effectively based on their traditions. A different morality, not an absent one. (His intent was to establish that European sexuality practices did not engender the best or most practical ethics).

In particular, Diderot wrote that the society required men and women to stay together for the duration that the woman was capable of conceiving. From the beginning of one menstrual cycle to the next, men and women were monogamous. If the woman conceive, then the couple remained together for the duration of pregnancy. Once those periods ended, the two were free to pursue other mates. Sexual practices solidified the man’s responsibility towards the woman and the child, and provided a support network for the woman.

Ironically, the sexual practices of Diderot’s Tahitians, so loose in their ways, resemble those of the emperor penguins, so upright! But I doubt that the Tahitians would appeal to religious conservatives as examples of morality. (I wish, however, they could see the particular Frenchness of love that the movie portrays.)

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