Journey to Nowhere


Lesley Blanch: Pierre Loti: The Legendary Romantic; Helen and Kurt Wolff Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; San Diego.


In the end, nothing is more boring than adventure. Once the newness has worn off, foreign landscapes, forbidden loves, and bizarre rituals prove less stimulating than familiar settings, ordinary people, and well-worn traditions. This is why the greatest writers have consistently been provincialists, in the best sense of the word. Even in the works of the cosmopolitan Henry James, the reader finds the social, geographic, and ethical boundaries of a “province” in which James made his permanent home after moving from America.



Though talented, Julien Marie Viaud — known to his readers as Pierre Loti-never became a great writer precisely because in his restlessly romantic search for adventure he never found a people, place, or faith that he could fully call his own. Bearing an assumed name, attired in high heels and makeup, often in Oriental costume, he refused to accept as a “home” even his natural identity. (“I was not my type,” he said.) Leaving his provincial birthplace of Rochefort for the French navy as a young man, he circled the globe pursuing scenic diversion and amorous excitement (with both sexes), while neglecting his wife.


France, “to make us savour — to the point of intoxication, of delirium, of stupor, even — the bitter flavour of exotic loves.” But intoxication eventually passes and sobriety returns; consequently, Loti’s works are “largely forgotten” today. Lesley Blanch argues that this is so because “the flavour of travel is lost” in our modem jet age. But perhaps the real reason for the current neglect of Loti’s work is not that modern transportation has shrunk the world, but rather that the world view with which Loti sailed about was hopelessly contracted and self-centered in the first place. Despite all of his voyaging, despite all of his crossing of boundaries of every sort, Loti failed to escape from the narrowness of his own narrow egotism. The fabric of his art was rich with imported threads, but it was woven on the tiny loom of the self. As a result all of his traveling now fails to move us to any place that satisfies our hearts or minds. Maybe if he had spent more time in Rochefort with his spouse and countrymen, Loti might have reached some place modern readers would still find worth visiting. (BC) cc



Venusberg on the Hudson


Lawrence Foster: Religion and Sexuality, The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community;University of Illinois Press; Urbana and Chicago.


There was definitely something strange going on in the U.S. during the 1830’s and 1840’s. One after another, eccentric social and religious movements seemed to spring up overnight like exotic mushrooms. Spiritualism, women’s rights, abolitionism, and bizarre religious sects swept across the Northeast. New experimental communities were set up: Fourierist phalansteries, the Transcendentalist Brook Farm, the Universalist Hopedale, the gathered communities of Shakers, and — most successfully — the Oneida Community of Perfectionists and the Mormon settlements of Nauvoo, Illinois, and the Utah Territory. Despite the apparent diversity there are certain features common to most of these groups. Most basic was their desire to found a new, perfect society, an earthly paradise, in which the troubled individual would be submerged into the greater community. None of the groups was content with any variety of Christian orthodoxy — even the most conservative were liberal interpreters of the Scriptures. Nearly all of them exercised a rigid control over the sexual life of their members. The Shakers simply suppressed it, while the Mormons and Perfectionists experimented with alternate marriage forms. It is this relationship between religion and sexuality that Lawrence Foster explores.


Why did these movements develop when they did and where they did — in western New York State? Foster rejects a simpleminded economic answer in favor of a social explanation: the expansion of America in the decades after the Revolution “could not help but place special strains on family life and relations between the sexes.” Unfortunately, Foster offers little or no evidence to substantiate his modest thesis. What he does provide is a coherent and readable account of three religious movements with a special emphasis on their sexual innovations. The celibacy of the Shakers, the polygamy of the Mormons, and the complex (we should now say open or swinging) marriages at Oneida were all designed to buttress the social stability and solidify the sense of community. The individual was the enemy. By imposing a new form of corporate life which deemphasized ordinary conjugal ties, these religious communes hoped to eliminate the sexual pressures which they believed were the cause of social disruption.


In Practice, it was not quite so simple. John Humphrey Noyes, the founder of the Perfectionists, was a complex case. Like many liberal theologians since, the timid Noyes always managed to find religious sanctions for his philandering. Still, there was more to his theory than hypocrisy.   His peculiar   system of complex marriage, coitus reservatus, and selective breeding was aimed at reducing sexual tensions and rivalries. As far as Noyes was concerned, the only two workable systems were his own and the sexual denial of the Shakers. Ordinary life, because of its imperfections, was not good enough.  Even Mormon polygamy, although it put a serious strain on many converts, tended to reduce rather than enhance the sexual excitement within the household. Most men cannot be as devoted to four wives as they would be to one. The same is true of the wives. In the Mormon communities — as in most of the 19th­century utopias — women tended to play a larger role than was customary in American society.


Foster finds a great deal of good in these movements. With­ out minimizing the potential dangers, he emphasizes their “healthy, restorative side.” The early 19th century was a time of crisis. Industrialization, the movement West, and the disintegration of religious authority seemed to leave a spiritual vacuum which could only be filled by the promise of perfection. The strange sexual arrangements adopted by millennialist sects were only strategies for dealing with social crisis. Every society in transition has recourse to “liminal” rituals as devices for bridging the gap between the old world and the new. These rituals are analogous to the initiation rites that mark the passage of a child into an adult: confirmation, bar mitzvah, going off to college.


All this is so and yet, even if we concede the accuracy of Foster’s analysis, problems remain. For one thing, he fails to recognize sufficiently that the Mormons have endured and succeeded, at least in part, because of their normal family life. In the end, his defense of the Shakers and the Perfectionists could just as well be applied to the Hog Farm commune or the People’s Temple. America now, as in the 1830’s, is troubled by the feeling that progress and prosperity are not enough. Now, as then, the unlettered classes are being stirred up by outlandish preachers like Jim Jones and Sun Myung Moon. Our ‘children go a whoring after the strange gods of Daishonin Buddhism, Est, and personal growth movements. Once again, the mainstream churches have given up preaching the Gospel in favor of philosophizing about nuclear war, social change, and revolution. It is one thing to admit that we have gone astray and another to find much good to say about the wolves that are preying upon the lost sheep.


It is important to remember that whole areas of the country and segments of society can remain untouched by religious exoticism. In the 1850’s George Fitzhugh pointed out that the very same group of exhausted Puritans that were turning to Unitarianism and Transcendentalism were also the prime victims of socialist and millennialist movements. It is the vague, liberal (and liberation) theology of our churches that sets the stage for each new company of would be Antichrists. Southern Baptists, old-fashioned Catholics, and conservative Lutherans do not offer up their children as sacrifice to the Unification Church. Perhaps the real lesson we can take away from Foster’s study is “Teach your children well.”   cc



Historical Hypocrisy


Benjamin F. Martin: The Hypocrisy of Justice in the Belle Epoque;Louisiana State University; Baton Rouge.


The Dreyfus case shocked the world in the 1890’s. The persecution of an innocent military officer and the outburst of anti­ Semitism which the trials occasioned were seen as a travesty of French law and the legal he attempts to prove that French justice was at best a sometime thing, subject to the influence of wealth, power, and the emotional appeals of beautiful women.


The cases make fascinating reading, but Martin must know very little of the world in his own time if he can find anything unusual in corrupt politicians, inept policemen, and unfaithful wives. “Justice departed so far from its ideals that it was seen not as an opportunity for the strict application of the law but for a system of rewards and punishments meted out in accordance with an idiosyncratic view of social utility.” Such a condemnation could be applied to our own judicial system more fairly than to France at the turn of the century.


In at least one of the three trials, the accused would certainly be set free today; in another, the most probable verdict would be not guilty by reason of insanity. So what is the point? The real point is to degrade the French bourgeoisie and by implication the American middle class. These smug and sober capitalists were in fact decadent and corrupt. We know this because three not-very-nice ladies managed to cheat justice. What a book Martin could write on John Hinckley or Teddy Kennedy.    cc