“Enlightening Encounters: The Parisian Salon and the Mughal Seraglio”
Faith E. Beasley, Dartmouth College
This paper is drawn from my current book project, “Exotic Encounters: Versailles Meets the Taj Mahal,” in which I identify and explore the traces that exposure to “les Indes orientales” left on the cultural artifacts and mindset of France’s “Grand Siècle” and the early Enlightenment. I focus on the salon of Marguerite de La Sablière, which was a particularly vibrant and diverse intellectual community frequented by some of France’s most well known writers, intellectuals, political figures, and philosophers. Some of classical France’s most well-known literary works, such as Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves and La Fontaine’s Fables, were produced in La Sablière’s salon. I argue that the central figure in this salon, and La Sablière’s mentor and tutor was not Jean de La Fontaine, with whom she is usually identified, but François Bernier, who spent over ten years in India from 1659-1669. While a member of La Sablière’s salon, Bernier composed his Histoire de la dernière révolution des états du Grand Mogol, published by Barbin in 1670. Later that same year Bernier published a second volume consisting of “Les Evénements particuliers,” a text that describes the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s court, and a letter to Colbert regarding India. The following year Bernier published his Suite des Mémoires du sieur Bernier sur l’empire du Grand Mogol, which consists of letters to La Mothe le Vayer, Chapelain, Chapelle, and M. de Merveilles. I recreate the hypothetical but plausible conversations between Bernier and the diverse and prolific group of interlocutors in La Sablière’s salon.
To judge by the texts that emanated from La Sablière’s salon, one particular conversation was likely devoted to the role of women in both French and Indian society. In this paper I explore this encounter between Paris and Agra/Delhi, focusing on the salon and the seraglio within these city spaces. I argue that the intellectual as well as economic commerce that developed between these female-dominated spaces had an impact on the way India was constructed in the French as well as European imaginary, an impact that was felt well beyond the walls of the salons and seraglios and that affected early Enlightenment thought in ways that have yet to be acknowledged.