Science Fiction Studies

#10 = Volume 3, Part 3 = November 1976

Christie V. McDonald

The Reading and Writing of Utopia in Denis Diderot’s Supplément au voyage de Bougainville

Roland Barthes has suggested that utopia is familiar to every writer because his task—or his pleasure—is to bestow meaning through the exercise of his writing, and he cannot do this without the alternation of values, a dialectical movement akin to that of a yes/no opposition.1 Such is the polarity between nature and culture in Diderot’s Supplément au voyage de Bougainuille in which the description of Tahiti (a "natural" society) becomes a springboard for critique of (the then) present day European culture. Indeed, the binary opposition between the two poles effectively seems to produce a moral statement about culture and thus generates a meaning within the text, and yet something seems to go awry when the apparent simplicity of the thematic statement is not borne out at other levels of the text. In the heterogeneous and plural meanings produced within this single work we find an acute questioning of the relationship between utopia, the problem of origins, and the text as writing.

The banal opposition between nature and culture in the 18th century bespeaks of a continuing preoccupation with origins—whether those of the self, of language, or society—which constitutes not only the initial but the crucial phases of the utopian process. Within this opposition, present-day society (be it ours or Diderot’s) partakes of the artifice of culture and thus estranges man from his true inner self, whereas "nature" emblematically signals the return to both the individual and the collective transparency of man’s being. The meaningful difference between the two is similar to the contradiction engendered in traditional utopias between the reader’s observable society and its opposite, the newly discovered or ideal society. It is the negative relationship—that of contradiction and antithesis—rather than the concept of perfection which interests us here. Utopia, it would seem, arises from a series of oppositions—here/elsewhere, real/imaginary, etc.—which constitutes the fundamental contradiction.

The Supplément au voyage de Bougainville consists of five parts (each in dialogue form) in the editions standard since 1935, but of four parts in earlier editions.2 In Part 1 two interlocutors ("A" and "B") discuss Bougainville’s 1771 non-fictional narrative of his voyage round the world3 and prepare to read through together a "supplement" to it. Part 2 begins the reading with the speech of an elder Tahitian who, in addressing Bougainville, deplores both the intrusion of the European colonizers and the ill effects of their corrupting ways. In Parts 3-4 Orou, a Tahitian, engages his European guest, the Almoner, in a conversation which ranges from religious beliefs to differing sexual mores. Part 5 (Part 4 of the earlier editions) presents the final dialogue between "A" and "B" in which they comment and elaborate upon the preceding conversations.

Diderot clearly sets up the binary opposition between nature and culture in the distinction between Tahiti and Europe. Yet there is no single continuous narration to guide the reader; rather, the oppositions are created through a series of dialogues in which the voices align themselves according to one side or the other. In addition, each protagonist takes a dual role: he speaks both as an individual in his own voice and as a representative of the collectivity to which he belongs. It can be said that at one level dialogue requires interlocutors and, minimally, an addresser and an addressee ("destinateur" and "destinataire"). Emile Benveniste has shown that the first-person pronoun "I" can never be isolated from the implicit second-person "thou" ("je"/"tu"). He has shown further that one presupposes the other in opposition to the third-person (or, as he says, non-person) pronoun "he"/"she"/"it."4 For Benveniste it is this reciprocity between "I" and "thou" which makes possible all social bonds. That is, language is the sole means by which one may reach another, and "society in its turn only holds together through the common use of signs of communication."5 Ideally, then, there should be a rigorous continuity between the premises which underlie the individual speech act and those which subtend the larger political structure. But it is precisely here that the coherence of Diderot’s text breaks down; it is in the curious asymmetry between the presuppositions concerning individual speech and the more explicit ideological statement that the Supplement indicates preoccupations other than the strictly moral ones. Thus the debate relating to colonization and sexual freedom is but the surface of an exploration, by far more troubling, of the relationship between interlocutors and the social context (present or future) in which language as communication remains possible.

The two subtitles of the work, which in English would be Dialogue Between A and B and On the Disadvantage of Linking Moral Ideas to Certain Physical Actions, indicate priorities within the text. The work is above all a fictional supplement to Bougainville’s narrative. Yet whereas Bougainville’s autobiographical account is rendered by a single narrator, Diderot’s recap splinters into two voices, "A" and "B," who in turn introduce others. Finally, the actual dispute is a moral one.

The presentation of the opposition between nature and culture cannot be dissociated from the complex network of voices through which it becomes manifest and whose function is neither identical nor complementary. The fragmentation of the dialogues, alternating between the "A" and "B" conversation and the inner or interspersed dialogues (between the Old Man and his implicit addressee, Bougainville, on the one hand, and Orou and the Almoner, on the other), puts into question any cohesive thematic meaning of the work. A more detailed—though extremely brief —discussion is necessary to demonstrate this.

The first part of the text, entitled "judgment of Bougainville’s Voyage," opens with a most anodyne conversation between "A" and "B" about the weather. "A" says: "This superbly starred arch under which we met yesterday, and which seemed to guarantee a beautiful day, has not kept its word" (455/§1),6 This remark initiates a discussion which is at once the beginning of the text that we are reading and also the continuation of another text, the tale of Madame de la Carlière—a short story written by Diderot during the same year.7 Since the beginning is indeed less a beginning than a continuation, the protagonists tacitly evoke reflection upon their dialogue as the re-writing, or re-inscription, of another’s discourse—even if, in this case, the other text is Diderot’s own. In themselves the interlocutors appear divested of psychological characteristics, for the reader knows and learns nothing about them; their anonymity is total. What is striking is that, in addition to their roles as continuators of a displaced dialogue, they are also readers both of Bougainville’s voyage and the Supplement as well, and as such they remain indispensable to one another. The necessity for their mutual presence becomes explicit when "B" refuses to give a copy of the Supplement to "A," insisting that they read together. In this manner the dialogue between them serves to introduce and conclude the episode of the Supplement that we are reading. From time to time the voice of an anonymous narrator intrudes, but far from the surreptitious intervention of a unifying authorial voice, these fragmentary interruptions only further weaken the coherence of the dialogues.

Such dispersion would seem to disallow the notion of subjectivity within the so-called "characters" because of a constant movement from subject to subject and the ensuing dislocation within the axis of the speaking voice. The quest for origins focuses less on the concept of an internal world which is to be discovered and highly prized, than upon the social relationships which insure social cohesion and communication. Any such statement concerning the individual subject (as self) must have immediate consequences for the corresponding ideological position. Here the status of the referent is of particular importance because access to it comes only through the interlocutors. Let us concentrate for a moment on the representation of Tahiti as the Old Man portrays it in his speech. Addressing his compatriots he invites them to rejoice in the departure of the Europeans, and he then delivers an attack upon the corruption so inveterate in the society of the colonizers that it could not but contaminate the Tahitians’ happiness. The entire speech, or harangue as it is called, is constructed upon antitheses destined to evoke Tahiti in strict contrast to European society: happiness/unhappiness, freedom/slavery, health/illness, life/death. However, the rhetoric of antithesis only partially masks a twisting of the nature/culture polarity since the so-called opposition consists more precisely of a moral gradation between two differing societies: one is healthy and hence closer to nature, while the other is corrupt and therefore further removed from nature. Finally, the Old Man speaks neither about nature nor even about Tahitian society. Rather, his discourse projects an ideological critique of the excesses and abuses of society as an institution which, far from rejecting civilization, tends to confirm the value of the social structure; the norm is actually reinforced by the focus on transgression.

Yet, although the referent, and the reference points, seem well delineated in the Supplement, they constantly overlap and interfere with one another: first, there is the voyage which Bougainville recounts in his own work; the Supplement then takes up the narration of this same voyage through the dialogue; lastly, Tahiti is described by the Old Man in opposition to Bougainville’s society. By maintaining a constant distance from any realistic representation of Tahiti, and by playing upon the multiple sources of the work (ranging from Bougainville’s text to Rousseau’s Second Discourse), the text calls attention to its own fictive status and becomes thereby self-referential. The seemingly innocuous deviation from the nature/culture opposition signals a radical questioning of any referent exterior to the text. Just as the Old Man is not a true primitive, his harangue is not written in his own language, for indeed his discourse betrays "ideas and turns of speech which are European" (459/§2). Not only has there allegedly been translation from Tahitian to Spanish and then to French, but the text clearly does not seek to rehabilitate traces of a more ‘natural’ language. The Old Man may speak in the name of his society, but he does so in a classical and artificial discourse meaningful only within that society which he would so bitterly oppose.

In contrast to the Old Man, who purports to be the spokesman for all Tahiti, Orou and the Almoner—interlocutors of part three—speak both in their own right and their own names, and yet the function of their dialogue is every bit as socially motivated as that of the Old Man. Each speaker takes a position which diametrically opposes that of his interlocutor on moral questions (marriage, adultery, incest), but the dialogue never pretends to be grounded in a subjectivity—and hence also an intersubjective relationship—which goes beyond language. One interlocutor views himself in his difference to the other only in order to assure social communication. In this manner the opposition between Tahiti and Europe, as it is recapitulated within the dialogue between Orou and the Almoner, serves less as a genetic quest for man’s inner reality than as a privileged moment in which language reflects the mechanisms of its own functioning. The question of phylogenesis, as that of ontogenesis, is for example quickly disposed of when "A" asks how Bougainville would explain the origin of certain particularities of nature, and "B" responds that Bougainville "explains nothing; he is merely a witness" (459/§1). At the same time, however, though he declares impossible the knowledge of man’s primitive history, "B" does recognize the compelling attraction of all questions of origin. At the mere sight of certain places—in this case the island called Lanciers—"there is no one who would not wonder who had placed man here; what kind of communication men might once have had with the rest of their species; what became of them when they multiplied within the confines of a small space" (460/§1).

A certain symmetry does arise in the confrontation between Tahiti and Europe as it is evoked within the respective dialogues of the Old Man and Orou, for the discussion in both cases emphasizes the crucial problem of property. For example, in the Old Man’s speech images of illness, corruption and contamination by colonialism dominate as he demonstrates how the purity of Tahitian culture has been infected by the irruption of property—of the "mine and yours" syndrome. Orou, on the other hand, in his dialogue with the Almoner, puts into question the institutions of European culture and, in particular, marriage as a symptom of the decay of civilization. Then "B" explains that marriage too is a question of property: "It is man’s tyranny that has converted the possession of women into property" (509/§4).

Not only is there symmetry between the two inner dialogues but also an inverse relationship connecting the individual voice (Bougainville and Orou have proper names) to the collective voice (the Old Man and the Almoner, each as representative of his society):

NATURE                         CULTURE

The Old Man                    [Bougainville]

Orou                                 The Almoner

Each word, each sentence uttered by an interlocutor takes on meaning only in relation to the person whom he addresses and who is at the same time his opposite. This reciprocal exchange leads directly to another one, the spatial opposition between Tahiti and Europe. Thus the dialogue recapitulates the process of utopian antithesis by integrating the axis of the referent to the process of uttering (what Benveniste calls ‘énonciation’) by the individual speaker, and everything would seem to function smoothly: as the subject speaks he implicitly reflects upon the opposition between Tahiti and Europe which in turn opens up the larger question of communication as the foundation of all society.

The lack of an intersubjective model as the external structure which would define language internally is not without paradox here. It is not clear in the Supplement, for example, under what conditions social discourse becomes possible. It would seem, moreover, that the symmetrical and ordered oppositions within the interspersed dialogues (all those excluding "A" and "B") assure the continuation of a social language which never totally puts itself into question. The moral contradiction between Tahiti and Europe leaves culture pretty much intact—corrected, reprimanded perhaps, but never totally censured. The constant maintenance of a distance between Tahiti and Europe, as between the self and other in dialogue, belies a desire for unity which is analogous to the ideal of a mapa mundi (‘mappemonde’ or global map) of knowledge. Diderot evokes this image in the article entitled "The Encyclopedia" from the Encyclopedia itself. The image of the map to convey not only the possibility for progress through knowledge but also the very project of the text (entitled the Encyclopedia) indicates the importance of assemblage and unification as a means of mastery. "B" never loses sight of this implicit desire, for he says: "The act of ordering is always the act of making oneself the master of others" (512/§4). Finally, the inner dialogues, which fit neatly into the division between Tahiti and Europe, can be read as the fictive history of a division internal to man. "B" declares: "There existed a natural man: an artificial man was introduced into this man; and there occurred within the cave a continual war which lasts throughout life" (512/§4). Such a fall from unity implies, of course, the possibility of redemption.

The dialogue between "A" and "B" is different from the inner dialogues; it disperses meaning with a seeming alacrity while the others seek unity, a moral statement, from the firm opposition between Tahiti and Europe. A brief sketch of the ideological implications corresponding to the two levels of dialogue will suggest at least a partial explanation for the asymmetry between them.

The dialogues between the Old Man and Orou remain firmly anchored within the polarity nature/culture (however mitigated the opposition may have become in its moral ramifications) which generates a whole series of antitheses closely allied to those mentioned earlier: absence/presence, before/after, etc. This notion of dialogue implies, as its extension or prolongation, a concept of utopia that depends upon an internal necessity of distance.8 Diderot’s presentation of Tahitian customs figures as a moral critique of European culture with no pretense to any revolutionary change, for the vision of a culture open to progress and evolution depends upon the traditional model of the city—an image evoked explicitly by Diderot in the article "Encyclopedia." Dialogue must presuppose language as communication within such a logocentric system in order to make possible the ideal of reciprocity between moral geography and discourse. Both of these apparently converge at the focal point: the book which we are reading. However, it becomes increasingly clear that, within the spatial sphere of the text and through the explicit reflexion of "A" and "B" upon the act of reading, a kind of dispersion takes place which irremediably disrupts the ideal of unity.

There is no exact counterpart to the schematic opposition which comes out of the dialogues between the Old Man and Orou within the dialogue between "A" and "B" since theirs does not split according to the same ideological distinctions. Though "A" and "B" may at certain moments show a penchant for one or the other position, neither takes a strong line, and when it comes to opting in favor either of civilization or the free reign of the instincts (in any case an illusion since Tahiti also has its taboos), "B" tallies things up and retreats to a position of moral prudence, not to say indecision:9 "Let us imitate the good almoner, a monk in France, a primitive in Tahiti" (515/§4). As for the relationship between the two interlocutors, questions are asked, answers given, but in the last analysis one is hard put to distinguish between the two. In addition to the lack of psychological depth in these "characters," their dialogue cannot lead to any reconciliation of the voices since they seem to merge and separate indifferently. Indeed, their voices, like their sentences, seem strangely seated both inside the text which we are reading and outside of the text which they themselves are reading (a book of the very same title). Thus paradoxically situated within and without the text, they become agents of a constantly displaced meaning whereby the reality of any referent is repeatedly short-circuited and subverted. "B" states equivocally: "This is not a fable; and you would have no doubt about Bougainville’s sincerity if you knew the supplement to his voyage" (464/§1). We may decode this as follows: that we will learn to read properly not through this most decipherable text of Bougainville’s but rather through the one which is inscribed in it, the Supplement. For the act of reading cannot be dissociated from the act of writing here.

This interference or interruption—within the dialogue between "A" and "B"—in the emission of a distinct ideological meaning corresponds implicitly to the definition which Louis Marin proposes for the term ‘utopique’ and which, for us, is the second level of utopia. Marin situates the definition for this term, on the one hand, at a neutral point that falls into neither one or the other of the poles of the utopian contradiction (or antithesis) and, on the other hand, in the "plural"—that is, what he considers to be the dispersed field of utopian discourse.10 The slippage of utopia into its adjectival form (‘utopique’) signals a model quite radically different from the well-ordered and transparent city which emerges from the harmonious oscillation of opposites; it would seem, on the contrary, to reject the binary system and call for a new revolutionary practice. For such a slippage suggests a movement within which transcendent truth and meaning are no longer the absolute guarantors for either language of the individual subject, in search of his own origins, or for society as the reflection of an Other reality beyond this world. This second sense of utopia is then the unhinging or deconstruction of the first.

What is most fascinating about the Supplement, and this holds true for other texts by Diderot as well, is that it not only Conveys the two separate levels but holds them in a state of tension, a state of impossible co_existence, and it does so with unrelenting persistence. The lack of distinction between "A" and "B" indicates quite strongly that the critical and conceptual apparatus of the speaking subject does not function at the same level as within the other dialogues: theirs is a false critique, a false synthesis, and it is asymmetrical to the polarity between Tahiti and Europe. However, the more evident this becomes, the more evident it is too that the reader cannot reduce the asymmetry to a simple antithetical confrontation: the positions are simply not "totalizable." Thus if in a sense the text called the Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage speaks of utopia, in another sense utopia is a manifestation of the text, and textuality, which, it would seem, plays itself to the limit by oddly refusing to recognize (and thus to resolve) the consequences of its own functioning. Or is the meaning perhaps elsewhere? In any event, the trap is set, for to ask if one has seen what Diderot wanted us to see is to seek out a single voice in an irreducible plurality of voices, a unity in dispersion.


1. Barthes refers to the concept of utopia not only in this traditional sense—generated by paradigmatic oppositions—but also in the new sense which he ascribes to it: that sense immanent in the Text as writing. See Barthes par lui-même (Paris 1975), and also S/Z (Paris 1973), for the important concepts of "readability" and "writability" ("le lisible" and "le scriptible").

2. The text was completed in its first form in 1771, and though intended for Grimm’s Correspondance littéraire it was not published at that time; the state of this first version is not known. The work was published finally in 1796 in its revised form by Vauxelles, and this was the established text from Naigeen (1798) to Assézat (1875). Later work by Viktor Johanssen on a Leningrad manuscript revealed important additions (presumably made in 1778-79), the most notable being the digression about Miss Polly Baker; this latter manuscript was the one edited by Gilbert Chinard (see Note 7).

3. Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, Voyage auteur du monde (Paris 1771).

4. See "De la subjectivité dans le langage," (Problemes de linguistique générale I (Paris 1966), 258-67.

5. Ibid. II (Paris 1974), 91.

6. 455/§1=page 455 of Denis Diderot, Supplément au voyage de Bougainville (Paris: Garnier, 1961) or Part I in presumably any four-part edition. All quotations from the Supplement in this essay are from the cited edition in my own translation. Editorial Note. There are several translations as Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage: the one I have used in editing this essay is in Diderot, Interpreter of Nature: Selected Writings, ed. Jonathan Kemp, tr. Jean Stewart and Jonathan Kemp (UK 1937), pp 146-91. —RDM.

7. Denis Diderot, Supplément au voyage de Bougainville, ed. Gilbert Chinard (Paris 1935), pp 46-48. Chinard cites other similarities between the two texts and concludes that they seem to be variations on the same theme.

8. For Saint Augustine, in the City of God, two cities were formed from the love of the sons of Adam: the city of men who love God and the city of men whose love has turned away from God. The two cities are eternal, but in the middle there exists a neutral space where man passes the duration of his life, though he belongs, by predestination, to one or the other of the two eternal cities even during his stay on earth. The city of God comprises truth, good, order, and peace while the city of the damned incorporates error, evil, disorder, confusion. In short, one is the repudiation of the other.

9. I would like to express my gratitude to Norbert Spehner for his remarks on this subject.

10. Utopiques: jeux d’espace (Paris 1973), p 9.



In S/Z and Barthes par lui-mème, Roland Barthes has suggested that utopia is every writer’s province: his task—or his pleasure—is to bestow meaning, and he cannot do this without an alteration of values, a dialectical movement similar to that of a yes / no opposition. Such is the polarity between nature and culture in Diderot’s Supplément au voyage de Bougainville: the description of Tahiti (a "natural" society) becomes a springboard for critique of contemporary European culture. Yet something seems to go awry when the apparent simplicity of Diderot’s thematic statements are not borne out on other levels of the text. In the heterogenous and plural meanings produced within this single work, we find an acute questioning of the relationship between utopia, the problem of origins, and the text as writing. To ask if one has seen what Diderot wanted us to see is to seek out a single voice in an irreducible plurality of voices, a unity in dispersion.

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