The current document is a book review of an edition published in 1772.
Our passion for ideal narratives is founded on that innate curiosity which is the instinctive instrument of knowledge. Were a school boy asked why he should lose his sleep to read Robinson Cruso [sic], he could only answer that it was because he liked the book. A philosopher would acquaint him with the reason why he liked it. He would tell him that, as a human being, who had originally that being to support by his own industry, he would naturally find himself interested in the distresses of another human being, who was represented as cast on a desolate island, and obliged to subsist by the expedients of invention; because he would lay up those expedients for his own use, in case of the like circumstances befalling himself.
The book before us is quite as ideal as Robinson Cruso, but it has a very different style of merit. It abounds with character, sentiment, and philosophical observation.
The traveller is the son of an English merchant, who being imprudent enough not to consult his boy's genius and temper with respect to his education and his future appointment in life, threw him into a situation that was extremely disagreeable to him, in consequence of which, at a very early period, he makes his escape from his pedantic tutor, and goes on board a vessel bound for the East Indies.
Naturally sensible and affectionate, the distresses which, he conceives, his family must feel from this elopement, affect him as he loses sight of his native shore. With little provision, and without prospect of more, he suffers too for himself, and gives way to melancholy and despair.
This conduct is observed by a benevolent young gentleman, the son of a capital English merchant, who, by his kind solicitations, obtains a perfect knowledge of his situation, and offers his friendship and assistance.
The philosophical consolations he offers him, when afflicted with the idea of leaving his family and his country, do honour to his understanding. "Observe, my dear Henry, said he, the immensity of this ocean on which we said, and the vault of heaven above us. One would imagine, that we were the only created beings, the only inhabitants of this wide extent of space. Alas! we are but a little distance from the Continent, which the feebleness of our eyes and the curvity of the sea makes us unable to discover. From hence conceive the vast size of this our globe, or rather of the universe; for this earth is, in comparison of that, no more than a grain of sand. The researches of the philosophical mind, however, adds he, end not here: they stretch beyond the weakness of the senses, and by the analogy of geometrical reasoning have travelled far beyond the sphere of sight. In this inaccessible variety of real, or possible existence, the mind is at length lost. It may stretch far forward by the measure of proportions, but it knows not where either to seek or fix the limits of creation."
"And in this immensity of being what then is man? - The object of the universal Creator's providence? The object of his care, as if he were the only work of his hands? - Astonishing! but true - What sentiments of gratitude, what impressions of humility towards the father of nature should not this consideration suggest? - Think then, my dear friend, how little you have lost by leaving your father's house, and putting yourself in the hands of Providence, who has the ministers of his bounty in every department of the creation, and can make them the instruments of your support into whatever region you may go, as much as your father was that instrument at home."
The same spirit of virtue and good sense appears in the observations he makes, when the two friends are thrown by shipwreck on a desert island, and are obliged to subsist on fish, wild fruits and water.
"We are now, my dear Henry, in the situation of the first race of men, whose food was the produce of the chace, or of the net, and whose only beverage was the spring. Strangers, however, they were to ambition, to rapine, and disorderly inclinations. They had no desires but such as were dictated by the voice of nature, and when those were satisfied, their spirit was at rest. We cannot therefore call ourselves less happy than they were. On the contrary, we enjoy the advantages which associated life has, in the long process of ages, produced, (the advantages of knowledge and invention, I mean) without suffering the inconveniences that society brings along with it. Happy should we be, could this easy tranquillity attend us to the close of life. But that, I fear, is inconsistent with human inconstancy. To live long satisfied within the limited pursuits of nature will hardly be possible for those, on whom the improvements of society have impressed strong ideas of artificial wants. Yet I assure you, my dear friend, that this reflection gives me little pain - I suffer more from another; from considering that I am here cut off from the exquisite pleasure of being useful to mankind. I have received many advantages from society, and consequently I owe much to it, but here I am an insolvent debtor. It is true I am exculpated by impossibility, but that impossibility gives me pain."
We may regret that a person who can think in this manner should be lost to society, but we cannot feel much uneasiness for a situation which has such strength of mind, and such fortitude to support it.
The archetype of this work must have been the famous travels of Lemuel Gulliver; and as in that performance, so, likewise, in the imaginary voyages before us, we have much useful satire laid up for the human species; without the invidious mode of making that species the immediate object of flagellation.
Italian productions are not, in general, remarkable for humour. We have met with few books of that cast in their language, - the very singular burlesque of Ariosto's celebrated poem, and a few letters in prose, excepted. But we have here a good deal of dry, deep, chastised humour, somewhat in the manner of Swift, and in some few places, not much more delicate. However, to say that an Author writes like Swift, is, in any case, a compliment, and there is certainly in this work great merit and depth of thinking.
A fine situation occurs when the poor young traveller supposes he has lost his friend, in this solitary island. His friend has left him for a while, to go in pursuit of natural curiosities, and did not return at the appointed time. The circumstance is related in that unaffected kind of narrative which always makes its way to the heart.
Chap. VI. Vol. I
"One morning my only companion and friend went in quest of some curious insects which the island produced, and left me on the shore to seek the provision of the day. Happy enough I found myself in the thought of surprising him on his return with such a dinner as, in our desolate abode, he had never tasted. I found near the shore a variety of shell-fish, and it occurred to me that there might possibly be oysters, which I remembered to have heard him say he was particularly fond of. After a long search I met with them. I had the pleasure to find them of an exquisite flavour, and superior to any thing of the kind I had ever tasted. By means of a net likewise, which we had made, I caught a fish of an extraordinary size, and , delighted as you will easily suppose, with this twofold success, I hasted to our cave to prepare my friend a favourite dinner."
This is perfectly natural. There is an innocent vanity, or rather complacency, which is awakened by the indulgence of an extraordinary benevolence. But let us hear how our young adventurer proceeds in his tale.
"When my friend should come weary from his researches, what joy did I promise myself in setting before him an extraordinary repast! At mid-day I lighted my fire with more than common alacrity to cook my fish; for about that time it was usual for him to return. Every thing was ready, but he did not appear. I waited with patience another hour, with solicitude a second, with anxiety a third. Grief then took place. I concluded my friend was lost."
"The supreme Being only knows with what fervour, at this crisis, I called upon his name. Known it is to him too that my heart had never before felt equal anguish. I called aloud upon my friend. I beheld him, in imagination, dashed in pieces in a fall from some precipice, devoured by some wild beast, or however, destroyed by some accident. Should the heart of my Reader be open to the impressions of humanity, he will be sensible of all the horrors of my situation, of all the dreadful images which such deplorable circumstances could bring before me. My only guardian and support I imagined to be lost. - My friend to whom gratitude, interest, affection, all the moral ties of humanity bound me, my friend, without whom life would become an insupportable burthen, irrecoverably lost! The dismal idea, though groundless, still hangs with horror on my mind. All sustenance I neglected - I sat solitary on the shore; at the motion of every leaf in the breeze I looked around me; in every whisper of air I heard the foot of my friend. - Vain illusions, that threw weight into the scale of despair! Expectation, so tantalizing to him who looks for any great happiness, to me was agony, and let him who knows what that friendship is, in which is centered self-preservation and every felicity of life, judge of my situation!"
"Night came on; and I now gave myself up to absolute despair. My eyes, instead of being closed in sleep, were swelled with tears, - the melancholy, but the only relief of incessant anguish!"
"At length the morning opened - the last day, in which I supposed, I should see the sun: for had it been naturally possible to have survived my friend, it would not have been morally so; I was determined not to survive him. That remorse, indeed, which accompanies impious actions and designs contrary to the spirit of religion, broke in upon my desperate thoughts: but when the passions are at a certain pitch, every rational sentiment is overborne, and the swelling tide is kept up by its own violence. Despair soon succeeded the pious reflections which the transient illumination of reason had awakened."
"In this dreadful state I passed the morning, when the sound of human footsteps, near the mouth of my cave, made my heart ready to bound out of my bosom. It was my friend! - It was not joy that I felt - it was agony. The life that grief had failed to snatch from me, was in greater danger from a different sensation. In embracing him, I well remember that I frequently withdrew my arms, and stepped back to see whether it was really my friend, or a vision, a phantom that I was embracing."
This is certainly very fine, because very natural painting. - Not so, in our opinion is the nonchalance of the philosophical speech which the recovered friend makes on his return, and we shall therefore take no farther notice of it.
The cause of his stay was the discovery of a curious country, in quest of which the two solitary friends leave their cave the day following. He it is that we find the first traits of the Author's imitation of Swift. The country is a land of apes, and thus the scene opens:
"On passing the first barriers of this beautiful vale, we discovered two filthy apes, the male and female, seated on a wooden bench, near the entrance of their habitation. - Merciful God! how we were astonished! The female was dressed in a coarse gown and petticoat, and had on her head something of a cap made of palm leaves. The male-ape (the Lord knows how he came by it) had got a Scots plaid, which covered him from top to toe; but his head was bare."
"When these good people saw us, they expressed some surprize, rose from their seats, examined us with great attention, and when we naturally expected something extraordinary from this particular curiosity of theirs, we had the mortification to find them burst into a violent fit of laughter. My little vanity, I own, was offended. The female, in particular, was very liberal of her scoffs, and had not my friend suggested to me that an untimely delicacy and sense of honour might, in such a country, and among such a people, be attended with fatal consequences, I should certainly have expressed my resentment in no very peaceable manner. But prudence prevailed, and I waited in hopes of returning measure for measure in a more harmless way."
"The female ape now gave a loud and articulate call, at the sound of which a whole tribe of apes of both sexes and all ages assembled at the gate of the court yards. The comic scene was now heightened to the utmost. Some looked at us and laughed; some examined our white perukes, supposing them to be our natural hair, others lay hold of and chattered about our cloaths. - The whole of their observations was attended with those bursts of laughter and ridiculous surprise, which folly always expresses, when any thing new, or uncommon is presented to its view. - One of the young apes had a switch in his hand, and from a peculiar instinct began to beat our legs and arms, just as the children of our species have done by them."
"Curious was it to see two men brought up in the most polished country in Europe, which is certainly the most cultivated quarter of the world, become the sport of animals, universally esteemed the vilest and most detestable creatures in the universe."
"Let this be a lesson to those haughty spirits who disdain a proper condescension to those whom providence has placed in superior stations! Let it teach them the necessity of conforming to that general subordination which supports the system of society."
"Another little ape ran to the hog-trough, and taking out some rotten pears threw them to us to eat - a plain proof with me, that they took us for brute animals. My friend was of the same opinion, and, for fear of mischievous consequences, gave them to understand that we were rational creatures, by making signs for a different kind of food, and solliciting a lodging for the night."
"Upon this, an old female ape, that seemed to be the oracle of the society, concluded, and made her conclusion known to the rest, that we were certainly sorcerers; that it would be proper to have us bound, in consequence of which we should return to our original shape, and become perfectly harmless. But as it was necessary to consider this minutely, the whole family was assembled. We knew not the subject of their deliberations. My friend imputed it to fear. Since they have discovered, said he, that we have the gift of reason, they are afraid of us. 'Tis no unfavourable omen. This fear will, in time be changed into confidence, and friendship will follow of course."
From this extract, the Reader will easily see that moral satire and sentimental observations are the immediate objects of these volumes; which, however, though pregnant with much good sense, are, in our opinion, too prolix; possibly, too tedious.
Seriman's Viaggi di Enrico Wanton and related works
Kiernan, Suzanne. (2002). The Exotic and the Normative in Viaggi di Enrico Wanton alle Terre Australi Incognite by Zaccaria Seriman. Eighteenth-Century Life 26(3): 58-77. Seriman, Zaccaria. 1749. Viaggi di Enrico Wanton alle terre incognite Australi ed al paese delle scimie, ne' quali si spiegano il carattere, li costumi, le scienze e la polizia di quegli straordinari abitanti. Tradotti da un manoscritto inglese. 2 vols. Venice: Giovanni Targier. Seriman, Zaccaria. 1756. Viaggi di Enrico Wanton alle terre incognite australi ed al paese delle scimmie, tradotti da un manoscritto Inglese. 2 vols. Naples: Alessio Pellecchia Seriman, Zaccaria. 1764. Viaggi di Enrico Wanton alle terre incognite Australi, ed ai regni delle scimie, e de cinocefali. Nuovamente tradotti da un manoscritto inglese. 4 vols. Berne (Venice): s.n. Seriman, Zaccaria. 1772. Della viaggi di Enrico Wanton alle terre Australi. 4 vols. London: T. Brewman. Biancardi, Giovanni. 2005. "I viaggi di Enrico Wanton", Charta (75): http://www.novacharta.it/rivista.php?numero=75 White, Donald Maxwell. 1961. Zaccaria Seriman (1709-1784) and the "Viaggi di Enrico Wanton"; a contribution to the study of the enlightment in Italy. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
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