:: Article

The Unrequited Gaze of François Péron

By Jake Spears.

In his Counterhistory of Visuality, Nicholas Mirzoeff tells us that François Péron—the first to seek the occupational title of anthropologist, only to be determined a zoologist in his own time—set sail in 1799 “in search of a different narrative of history, rights, and the means of representation.” It is worth considering the background we are provided for this misapprehended voyage: the burgeoning intellectual class of France, the ideals of the Revolution, the brutality of the Reign of Terror which dispirited the cause, and the ensuing rise of Napoleon… That aphorism of Rousseau – man is born free – seemed to have lost any resonance in the din of the Emperor’s fervor. Surely, these same intellectuals believed, their country had taken a dire misstep from the direction of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Not wanting to feel so debilitated, they organized the Society for the Observation of Man, which commissioned Péron to find those who were born free and make an account of these inherent human rights that had been conspicuously forsaken in France—a mission that came out of much despair and the instinctive hope that it might reinvigorate the foundering cause of human dignity.

Mirzoeff’s conclusion is also one we should take seriously: while previously Europeans had managed hegemony over slave populations in a manner of oversight, in which the slave-owner mastered his slaves not with any superior knowledge, but by his ability to oversee the operations of a plantation and instill obedience through the perceived threat of constant surveillance, Péron set out to do something entirely new. He wanted to observe, collect data and specimens, and classify. And in doing so, he created a system in which a dominating position was founded on superior knowledge of the other. However, a different narrative emerges with more careful attention to the biography of the one who first looked at the world with an anthropological gaze and his impetuous nature, and it should be kept in mind that François sailed the seas more out of resentment than relish.

 

The son of a harness maker, François Péron was born in 1775 in Cérilly. In the wake of the Revolution, he was conscripted into the Revolutionary Wars—Europe’s first veritable instance of nationalistic zealotry—only to be captured by Prussian forces in 1792 and held prisoner for several years. When he finally returned home in the spring of 1795, it was with the loss of sight in one eye. The cause of this has been disputed, though likely it was the conditions of war and long exposure to cold which hastened an ailment Péron had since childhood. In Cérilly, he briefly held a provincial clerical position before gaining acceptance to medical school in Paris. He moved to the capital at the age of twenty-three.

In Paris, Péron took up residence at no. 367 rue du cloître Saint-Benoît. It was a five-story tenement with only a footpath through wild grass that led to the Sorbonne. It was there, living on one of those tiny rues, with their unexpected perspectives, which would later be destroyed to make way for Haussman’s broad boulevards, that he met Oriane Duval. There is no record of how the two met, but Péron tells of the meetings they would have at cafés in the evening when he found time to set aside his studies, and, eventually, every Sunday when they took afternoon promenades. While this may sound overly bourgeois, an imaginative reader of Péron journals aboard the Naturalist will conclude the two were passionate. He writes:

that which a happy lover savors rapturously on the palpitating bosom of his mistress is undeniably one of the most profound sensations and the most voluptuous one can experience.

Beyond that, the intimate details of their rendezvous are uncertain. All we have are those scattered reflections and digressions that Péron lapsed into when journaling his voyage. It does appear that the medical student began to devote more time to Duval and less to his studies. He was pleased by this course of events, or at least unperturbed by his academic negligence, as his courtship became more intense and the focus of his ambition. We can deduce from Péron’s journals that he had grown too attached to Duval, perhaps to a suffocating degree. In an early entry from his voyage he somewhat banally declared, “I want to see the world.” Inconsequential, yes, but he went on:

If she has refused my eyes, then it remains for no one. When our eyes met I felt no need for the world, but now it seems that to see anything less would be incommensurate. To look someone else in the eyes has become a torment. I wish only to look and take in. It was only her eyes met mine.

These lines bear the aspirations of a poet, weighed down by his prosaic, or perhaps scientific, outlook. It is also of note that he frequently refers to his own eyes, though he only had sight in one. From several other passages of Péron’s, including an unsent ‘Letter to A Friend,’ we can deduce that she had betrayed him, and not only once but thrice.

Alas! You know such a voyage is far from my tastes, contrary to my inclination… Scarce time has gone past and all our projects, our joint plans, have disappeared. That you could love not just another, but three who are not me. I resigned myself to nothing but the expanse of the sea. Ready to leave you for so long, perhaps forever, with such profound bitterness. We dreamt together of happiness, you alone have indulged in it.

Even more bizarrely—and Péron is never clear on this—while he does make account of three different men, he only speaks of one fateful night. “The night in which I was no longer seen.”

Péron ceased to attend any of the lectures for his doctorate and was soon seeking to gain influence in the Society for the Observation of Man and petitioning to join the team of researchers aboard the Naturaliste under the command of Captain Baudin—a man of the sea whose greatest talent was his ability to accept seafaring commissions indiscriminately, be they for exploration, escorting cargo, or slave driving. The two became ideological rivals on the voyage with many tête-à-têtes along the way. At sea, Baudin often mocked the young scientist for his absolute reliance on mechanical instruments for his observations. In his journal, Baudin often chided Péron for his reluctance to rely on his senses.

Citizen Péron carries his thermometer and measuring band on his person always, as if the one were his hand and the other his eyes. He even plugs his ear with a horn in doubt of his own ability to hear. He checks the sextant more than I do, as if the chief purpose of the devise were for scientific discovery and not the ship’s navigation.

Péron complained to his Captain one morning that the ship must lower its mast more frequently for him to get more accurate readings of the equatorial waters. That afternoon, taking temperature readings of samples in the port head, Baudin reports a mishap that he seemed take some relish in recording:

The ship was forced to take a harsh turn and a wave came up on the head, overwhelming Citizen Péron and washing his observation book and thermometer overboard. The accident caused him no apparent harm, but he believed himself to be drowned beyond hope. So when the water which had entered the head ran out again, he was quite amazed not only to find himself alive, but still in the same place, for he had thought himself washed right out to sea.

Unfortunately, Péron’s suggestions about sleeping conditions and food preservation went unheeded by Baudin, which lead to the devastating loss of lives among the crew.

 

While the Naturaliste was primarily tasked with mapping the coast of New South Wales, the ship’s scientists scrutinized and catalogued over 100,000 specimens, including a live kangaroo sent to France for exhibition. It was only after earning the privilege to be dispatched on explorations of his own choosing that Péron proceeded according the aspirations of the Society for the Observation of Man, scouring the shores of Van Diemen’s Land in search of those fabled free aboriginals. His search led him through the D’Entrecasteaux Channel where, after sighting the smoke of a fire on an island, he decided to land with a small party. Péron cavalierly attempted to communicate with his “specimens” in gestures, using signs he had recently acquired at the newly established Place for the Deaf in Paris, which was taught as a universal language. Frustrated with their ignorance, Péron fell back on the little Polynesian he was confidant of, but this also proved unhelpful. Finally, it was the Tyreddeme tribe’s curious inspection of the young naturalist’s genitals that opened a field of exchange between the two groups.

 

Unlike the many explorations that preceded it, which relied heavily on classical antiquity and European painting, and inevitably tried to place every group of peoples as the ancestors of some Old Testament tribe, Péron scrupulously observed his subjects. He took cranioscopic measurements of their skulls in the manner of Franz Joseph Gall, recorded their hygienic and sexual mores in obsessive detail, and catalogued the tools and totems with an imaginative discernment. It was Péron’s intention to develop a “habit of observation” through which he could become objective in his attempt to see aborigines in their natural state. His attempts have been ridiculed by those who contrast Péron’s claim to objectivity against his pre-determined aim to see the Tyreddeme as the “Zero-Pointe of Civilisation.”

Indeed, we can read in Péron’s journals of his insistence that he knew the Tyreddeme peoples better than themselves. And this is as far as Mirzoeff is willing to take the matter: Péron created a system in which a dominating position was founded on superior knowledge of the other. We know Péron attests to this himself:

They seek to interpret my look. They observe us closely, but do not comprehend our nature or import. Everything they see us do is shrouded in mystery to them, and always their suspicions of us are unfavorable.

We can perceive the threat of violence implicit in Péron’s entry here, as Mirzoeff stresses. But he fails to ask why Péron felt threatened by the return of their gaze. For him it is enough to conclude that Péron’s reason was none other than to create the Western anthropological gaze which has objectified the Other. But if we explore the same entry a little further, we can begin to speculate that the wouldbe anthropologist’s reasons were perhaps more personal:

What they fail to understand is that my eyes only look out and one can never see in.

This too, of course, can be read to underline Mirzoeff’s critical work, but to do so would render his argument something of a petitio principii. Instead, let us imagine that Péron looked at the world through a one-way mirror not because he wanted to cultivate an imperial habit, but because he had abnegated from the burdens of being seen. The ability to look into Péron’s eyes was retracted by Duval’s refusal to look back into his. We must conjecture: Péron had narrowed his field of vision to one woman. His passion became so intense that it was only when Duval returned his gaze that Péron’s existence was recognized. Somewhere in a forlorn Parisian tenement, Péron must have interrupted Duval as she divested herself of his gaze and lost her own in the excess of three others. He stood in the doorway of some shabby apartment, squinted to make out the candle-lit flesh, and demanded the sight of his lover. Duval denied François the ability to exchange a glance of love. It left him bereft of exchanging a mutual glance at all.

 

It was inevitable that this journey, no matter the findings, would claim itself a success. While Péron’s journals reveal a disillusionment in Rousseau’s ideals, finding “a vice common to all savages who lack property and civilization,” his official account of the voyage tells a different story:

[the Tyreddeme are] the faithful trustees for the fundamental rights of the human species, he preserves them intact in their basic completeness… It is among these people, then, that we are able to discover the precious rights which we have lost following the upheavals among peoples and the depravity I have suffered.

But it is only a matter of inequity that his field work—the first anthropological report—became the prominent account of the Naturaliste’s voyage: he was the only leading researcher to have survived and returned to France. Baudin fell ill of tuberculosis on the return journey; he stopped at the island of Mauritius, the home of the Dodo, where he died in 1804. Péron’s research and findings became the official account in his first published volume, written in 1807. Péron succumbed to syphilis in 1810 while writing the second volume of his voyage. He died at home in Cérilly, where according to a close friend, “his illness plunged him into a kind of meditation, to lie in wait for death, to observe it.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jake Spears is a writer from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He currently lives in France, where he teaches English at the Université de Strasbourg. His work has been shortlisted for Desperate Literature’s Short Fiction Prize, and it subsequently appeared in Eleven Stories 2019. He received his MFA from the University of Pittsburgh.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 21st, 2020.