Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
French and Francophone World Studies
My research traces the evolution of the French vision of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas by establishing a genealogy of mythic paradigms which frame how French and Quebecois authors understand the Amerindian from 1534 to present. Myth informs French visions of the Amerindian from the earliest periods of contact until the present day. My research reveals the existence of a mythic representational genealogy in the history of French (and Quebecois) letters. Through the written word, reiterations of mythologies of the Native lead to the creation of a crystallized French cultural imaginary of the Amerindian which circumscribes possibilities for reciprocal understandings between French (European) and Native peoples. The Noble and Ignoble Savage, the Ecological Savage (which I also refer to as the nexus of Nature and Native), the Vanishing Indian, and Going Native are the mythologies and narrative technologies that have mediated (and continue to mediate) French thinking about the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Not only have these mythic paradigms determined literary representation, but they have also inordinately influenced the articulation of scientific truth about the Amerindian and the concretization of Native ontological difference from a Eurocentric perspective. The inextricable link between representation and praxis, confirmed by my insights into the mythic origins of scientific discourses (Buffon, Durkheim, Lévi-Strauss), cannot be underemphasized.
The original myths in that genealogy are the Ignoble and Noble Savage. The Ignoble Savage myth presents the Amerindian as non-human, animal, or monster, in both moral and physical descriptions. The Noble Savage is an idealized portrait of the purity and innocence of Native peoples that Europeans connect to a simpler time and way of life, often seen as belonging to the past. Texts written by Michel de Montaigne and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are instrumental in the creation and propagation of this myth. An important consequence of the Noble and Ignoble Savage myths is an association of the Native with Nature in the French mind, what I refer to as the French cultural imaginary of the Amerindian. The link between the Indigenous peoples of the Americas and Nature is a recurring theme in French texts that represent the Amerindian. The mythologies of the Noble and Ignoble Savage, including the association of the Amerindian with the environment or world of the non-human animal, influence early modern philosophical, religious, scientific and literary images of the Amerindian in French.
In the nineteenth century, the mythic paradigm of the Vanishing Indian becomes the prevailing vision of the Amerindian. Originating in the Noble Savage, the myth of the Vanishing Indian presents the Native as extinct or nearing extinction; images are often characterized by nostalgia and guilt. The inevitability of the disappearance of the Amerindian is a logic that informs representations of the Native in Chateaubriand’s writing and in French Western novels.
In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, French and Quebecois authors engage in the myth of Going Native. Following the metaphorical disappearance of the Amerindian according to the Vanishing Indian framework, French and French-Canadian characters undertake journeys of self-actualization that are catalyzed by contact with the (myths of the) Native. Through mythologized knowledge of the Native, non-Native characters are transformed into truer versions of themselves. Representations of androgynous and homosexual Native sexualities are significant elements in many narratives of Going Native, which I interpret through a queer critique.
In addition to literary forays, my dissertation focuses on how myths of the Native are presented in French texts that claim to produce scientific truth. In the eighteenth century, the field of natural history uses images of the Native that echo the logic of the Ignoble Savage myth. In the nineteenth century, one of the foundational texts of the discipline of sociology utilizes images of Amerindian gender ambiguity to formulate a distinction between primitive and modern peoples. In my conclusion, I examine how the mythologies traced throughout the study influence the father of structural anthropology in his text Tristes tropiques.
Amerindian, Ecocriticism, First Nations, French, Literature, Quebecois
Copyright 2016 James Boucher