Imaginary worlds, David Mackay and Lydia Wevers

The Southern Land, Known
Gabriel de Foigny, David Fausett (trans and ed)
Syracuse University Press, no price given
ISBN 08156 25715

Writing the New World. Imaginary Voyages and Utopias of the Great Southern Land
David Fausett
Syracuse University Press, no price given
ISBN 08156 25863

Speculation about the great southern land dates from almost the earliest recorded history and derives from the ancient Greek belief that in order to maintain the equilibrium of a spherical earth there had to be a landmass in the south to balance the weight of known lands in the north. Until Captain James Cook’s voyages the idea of a great southern land generated numerous imaginary and utopian accounts of a terra australis incognita as well as many actual attempts to discover a southern continent, driven by commercial and geographic interests. It is the connection between writing, geography and what he calls the “austral theme” prior to Cook’s explorations of 1772‑1775 that is the subject of Fausett’s Writing the New World.

Fausett’s discussion centres on three book‑length utopias of the latter seventeenth century ‑ The History of the Sevarites, The Mighty Kingdom of Krinke Kesmes, and The Southern Land, Known ‑ and sets these discussions in the much wider context of real and imaginary voyages to the great south land and the kind of utopian writing which led to Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe. (There is a whole genre of this kind of shipwreck writing which Fausett refers to as Robinsonades.) The attraction of the great south land for writers of fiction was its usefulness as a site of allegory and of polemics, a place from which to attack the status quo and imagine alternatives. This was especially attractive in a century of revolution and conflict. While the south remained empirically unknown, it could form the narrative basis for philosophical and ideological inquiry while also remaining exotic. Of course, once documented, voyages began to produce a body of knowledge about the south and its value as a speculative site sharply reduced.

Gabriel de Foigny’s The Southern Land, Known is here in English translation for the first time. Very loosely based on the writings of Pedro Fernandez de Quiros who claimed to have found the southern continent in 1605‑6, it is a series of adventures undergone by Jacques Sadeur, “conceived in America and born upon the ocean”, including a number of shipwrecks in early life, a form of training which prepares him for his climactic journey to the south land, also commenced in shipwreck. After a violent storm off Madagascar, Sadeur saves himself by clinging so tightly to a plank for several days he can’t unfurl his fingers (a parody of crucifixion as Fausett points out). He is attacked by ferocious fish and then, still on his plank, giant birds, which he defeats in a battle which tears his clothes to shreds. Fainting from pain, he awakes to find himself being helped by an “Australian coast guard”, who put themselves out to help him because (a) he is naked ‑ clothes are a deceitful disguise, (b) he has conquered the giant birds, a traditional and feared enemy, and (c) he is a hermaphrodite, like them. Any “halfmen” who land up in the south land are otherwise killed instantly. The rest of Sadeur’s narrative is an account of this hermaphroditic society and his eventual expulsion/ escape.

Compared to Gulliver’s Travels Sadeur’s visit to the great south land seems a pretty mechanical working out of some of the teleological and philosophical problems of seventeenth-century Europe. Most of the narrative is reported conversation he has with his philosopher and protector, Suain, who explains the Australians’ beliefs and way of life, and with whom he argues. Suain’s explanation of hermaphrodism for example, is a straightforward attempt to erase dualism and exclude difference. The Australians form a monoculture and even the landscape has been homogenised, levelled into an even escarpment with a uniform climate. Their nudity is a moral transparency and there is no aspect of their lives not rigorously structured.

It is not hard to see in de Foigny’s creation of such a homogenous, ordered and rationalist world a response to the circumstances of his own life which Fausett outlines in his introduction. A Franciscan monk from northern France, he was unfrocked for dissolute behaviour, went to Switzerland and became a protestant where he encountered an even more severe moral code, married more than once and eventually returned to die in a Catholic monastery.

Sadeur’s own expulsion from Australia occurs because when some female prisoners are taken in the course of a war with hostile neighbours (the Fundians, who are like Europeans ‑ this is not an unthreatened utopia) he is “overcome with love” and attempts to rape one of them. De Foigny’s representation of what Fausett calls cultural semiotics lacks the vitality and interesting imaginative detail of Gulliver’s Travels. This is nowhere more evident than when he names the geography of the new land ‑ one example will do: “At the foot of these mountains can be found the following regions: Curf, extending from the mountains as far as Huff; followed by Gurf, Durf, Iurf and Sur… In the middle part of the country… are found Hum, Sum, Burd, Purd, Rurf, Furf, Iurf and Pulg”. (p39)

The whole narrative has this kind of flattening and deadening objective as if de Foigny’s aim is to render everything two‑dimensional. No sex, no conflict (except with the aggressive Fundians) no clothes, no language, no hills, only reasonable and considered debate. Australians do garden, however, which overcomes the art/nature divide as the Australians have only to mix up a little earth with the juice of the miraculous balf plant to be able to produce a live bird or countless other natural phenomena. And in some ways they are ahead of their time managing to achieve what Dr Kellogg could only aspire to in the nineteenth century with his Sanitarium products, namely the perfect nutritional formula eliminating any further need for the body to manufacture waste products ‑ no excretion!

But this is precisely the problem with de Foigny’s utopia, as it is with most utopian writing ‑ flawed humanity with all its bodily and metaphysical weaknesses is so much more interesting and imperfect individuals make for better narrative than obedient collectives. The interest that Fausett claims for this book is more apparent as a theoretical statement applied to a broad field than it is in the case of the particular curiosity of de Foigny’s text: “The exotic, whether as fact or fiction, exposes an allegorical loading that is common to all discourse. The history and theory of it bear… on that of cultural and semiotic processes generally.” (Writing the New World, p2) True, but if the idealised, imagined alternative to a troubled religious life in seventeenth-century Europe is the flat homogeneity of Sadeur’s Australia it doesn’t seem much of an improvement.

A more interesting question is the connection of utopian writing like de Foigny’s to contemporary empirical knowledge of the Australian continent and this is what Fausett’s book addresses. In Writing the New World Fausett’s account of actual voyages, particularly those of the Dutch to the west coast of Australia in the seventeenth century, is mixed in with the transformations of the great south land over a long history of imaginative writing from home of the monstrous and fabulous to a landscape of inversions, the other side of the boundaries by which European society kept itself in shape. It is interesting to see how many of these utopias are based on gender or sexual behaviour modification, social and sexual hierarchy (in de Foigny’s text Sadeur is brought to realise the heinous way women are treated in Europe) and economic restructuring, usually towards some form of communism.

In fact most utopian writing paid little heed to the substance of discovery, being satisfied with only the vaguest hints as to location. Climate, landforms and cultures were largely ignored in accounts such as de Foigny’s. The commercially driven officers of the Dutch East India Company found little of interest in the barren coast of Western Australia and the Gulf of Carpentaria, but this did not limit its potential for utopian writers.

This imaginative traffic went in two directions, for in the age of eighteenth‑century discovery supposedly scientific accounts of known and unknown lands incorporated speculative and mythical components. The geographer Alexander Dalrymple, writing at the time of Cook, envisaged terra australis as a land of 50 million people which would be rich in bullion, spices and other trading commodities. James Mario Matra, a crew member on Cook’s Endeavour, had visited the coast of New South Wales in 1770, but in arguing for the settlement of the region in the 1780s he identified it as a place which would grow a full range of tropical temperature crops, including cotton, spices, sugar, tobacco, as well as containing gold, diamonds and other precious stones. Some early French and British accounts of the Tahitians hopelessly romanticised their culture. The scientist Joseph Banks was even optimistic that the introduction of the Tahitian breadfruit plant to the West Indies would carry with it some of the life and culture of the people.

Writing the New World is an interesting book. Its exploration of the conjunction between geographical exploration and utopian writing about the southern land and framing these as cultural discourse is a suggestive new historicism. One has to be a real fan of utopian writing to regard most utopian texts as more than passing curiosities, but to read them in the context of historical discovery of Australia, the speculation, secrecy and misinformation which surrounded Dutch commercial exploration of the west coast and other journeys in the Pacific is to see them in their most interesting and reflexive context. So many utopian texts are modelled exclusively on the sermon that it is refreshing to think of them as a product of the cracks appearing in the known world.

It is not easy to visualise who the readers of these books are, though. Beyond the fact that Fausett is an expatriate New Zealander, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of connection with New Zealand. Tasman’s discovery of 1642 did not isolate the country from terra australis so that in the minds of utopian writers it was subsumed within that land mass. It appears here only in a bizarre footnote which suggests that de Foigny’s description of a large bird was probably based on the moa ‑ something which Europe was not to learn about for more than 150 years after the publication of The Southern Land, Known. It was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that New Zealand became the site of land-based utopias.

David Mackay is Dean of Arts at Victoria University of Wellington. Lydia Wevers is currently teaching at the University of Sydney.

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Posted in Fiction and Review
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