"The Dawn of Everything" has been hailed as a masterpiece. But a careful reading of its look at the Enlightenment exposes concerning mistakes.
Mr Bell - an expert in the field of early modern France - attests to the fact that the young French soldier with the elaborately aristocratic name of Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce, Baron Lahontan" did factually travel "extensively in North America and learned Native American languages." He further stipulates that the native intellect Kandiaronk "almost certainly met" the Frenchman who would go on to write of his adventures in North America in Dialogues with a Savage.
And yet, Mr Bell pronounces that the book produced is fiction more on the order of Jonathan Swift (whom he first thinks of as Daniel Defoe) in the land of Lilliput. Why? Doesn't Lahontan's book sound more like a reflective travelogue writer like, Paul Theroux, Jan Morris, Bruce Chatwin, VS Naipaul. He was there; he "almost certainly" met with Kandiaronk.
Further, Mr Bell backs up this genre twisting by relying on the Canadian scholar John Steckley, whom Mr Bell himself quotes on the book: “Although some turns of phrase sound Native, and may have been lifted from Kandiaronk's speeches…" Somehow Mr Bell finds Mr Steckley to be in his corner in taking the Dialogues to be fiction because Lahontan presented the material like a Frenchman of his time - complete with the literary features of his time.
Lastly, Mr Bell, feeling buoyed by Mr Steckly, has no patience for a female scholar of native Senecan descent… who simply intensifies Mr Steckley's plain point that Lahontan quotes Kandiaronk. Of Barbara Alice Mann, he says, "she argues that in fact a 'beguiled Lahontan' took elaborate notes as he conversed with Kandiaronk." He even quotes at length her reasons for making such a claim, from Lahonton himself! "“When I was in the village of this [Native] American, I took on the agreeable task of carefully noting all his arguments..."
But Mr Bell wont have it. He thinks Lahontan - of whom, he stipulates, toured 17th century North America and almost certainly met Kandiaron - is making it up. Because other 17th century writers made their stuff up.
And here is where Mr Bell throws on his covering patchwork blanket and claims that Lahontan is really making up a Gulliver who is making it all up.
No wonder Ms Mann says that scholars like Mr Bell express “flat dismissal” of the Dialogues with a subtext of racism and a “western sneer.”
Mr Bell is hoisted on his own petard by his own text!
"...perilously close to scholarly malpractice."? How much more peril will it take to call it what it is -- leftist propaganda? The notion that native Americans are actually responsible for American democracy is an old chestnut of the folk left. I've been hearing it from your average street hippie for 40 years. It's part of their mythology. So, it's not surprising leftist "academics" would take it up to bolster their cult brand. The bigger problem is, their cult is taking over academia. Kudos to Bell and others for taking them on. But the task of rousting them from the arena of Reason will be long and hard. Let's start by denying them the esteemed title of "scholar." The clowns who wrote this book, along with Kendi, Hannah-Jones, et al, are political provocateurs. Nothing more.
No doubt this book is provocative -- and it should be controversial. It frequently wanders into an enthusiastic and tendentious celebration of the allegedly better angels of past societies. But it's easy to detect these excesses and put them aside. More importantly, it connects a lot of dots in the archaeological record for lay persons like me, notably in its accounts of the societies of the pre-Columbian Americas. Finally, I think it asks the right questions about the history and often-presumed patterns of state formation, which are too often taken for granted by scholars, like Fukuyama, who began his two-volume Origins of Political Order with what I thought at the time was an overly simplistic assumption about early human societies. My sense is that these conventional over-simplifications need rebuttal and that the authors are probably going to be proven more right than wrong as archeologists reconstruct pre-history with better tools at their disposal.
As to more recent history, David Bell's critique is persuasive. I sensed that Graeber and Wengrow turned up the volume when it came to the Enlightenment. That made me suspicious. and Bell confirms my suspicions.
All in all, as I worked through this work, I felt I was back in a college dorm bull session with some newcomers from another campus who were really smart and entertaining but not to be completely trusted.
Interesting; thanks David. I remember reading the Atlantic article you referenced and being somewhat offput by the opening paragraph fawning over Graeber's "genius". It gave the impression of a sort of "reverse ad-hominem" - setting the reader up to perceive that they were about to read something more akin to divine revelation than simply an unconventional viewpoint worthy of due consideration and scrutiny.
Not being anything close to a scholar of history, I had never heard of Graeber, so I suppose it was a good thing that his "legend" was lost on me. He may well be a genius, but the exposition on how the author came to be of this opinion made me wonder if he was simply more of a fast-talker - the kind that dazzles people in person with idiosyncratic analyses and theories that may or may not stand up to more patient inquiry. Makes for fascinating reading, I suppose, but personally I get a much bigger thrill from a good, pretense-puncturing debunking.
So, thanks. 😊
Good stuff, Prof. Bell.
< contrary to what social scientists insist, that humans still have “the freedom to shape *entirely* new social realities.” >
Insofar as social scientists actually *insist* on this freedom to shape *entirely* new social realities, might such "insistence" hinge on suspicion about the meaning of "entirely"?