“There is nothing else but grace and measure,
Richness, quietness, and pleasure.”
Baudelaire, Invitation to the Voyage
The thinly populated Marquesas are a remote volcanic archipelago of 20 islands, the farthest from any continent in the world: 500 miles south of the equator, 880 miles northeast of Tahiti and 4,350 miles west of Peru. They were claimed in 1595 by a Spanish explorer who named them after his patron, visited in 1774 by Captain James Cook (later eaten by cannibals in Hawaii) and invaded in 1797 by the first English missionaries. Colonised by the French in 1842, they remain part of French Polynesia. Between 1842 and 1901 two intrepid authors, Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson, and the artist Paul Gauguin visited the Marquesas. Conditions changed in the 60 years between the first and last of these visits. Each traveller had a different reaction, but all three helped to create the myth of the Marquesas as a tropical paradise.
Charles Roberts Anderson wrote in Melville in the South Seas (1939): “The natives of the Marquesas Islands, among the most primitive of the Polynesians, fiercely resisted the aggressions and allurements of European civilisation.” In one notorious episode, they lured a ship into a secluded bay and massacred all the sailors. The missionaries had no success in converting the people, and one missionary’s wife was publicly stripped naked. The last of the ineffectual proselytisers had withdrawn from the islands before Melville arrived.
In his narrative Typee (1846), his first and most successful book, Melville explains his reasons for jumping ship at the Marquesas. He had spent 18 months on a whaler, where “the usage on board of her was tyrannical; the sick had been inhumanly neglected; the provisions had been doled out in scanty allowance; and her cruizes were unreasonably protracted.” In July 1842 he spent four weeks (not, as he claimed, four months) on the largest island of Nuku Hiva and risked his life among the cannibals.
In the opening pages Melville (1819-91) evokes his major theme, the uneasy mixture of attractive and repulsive qualities: the spectacular scenery, physical beauty and innate goodness of the Noble Savages, despite their sexual license, savage battles and cruel customs: “The Marquesas! What strange visions of outlandish things does the very name spirit up! Naked houris—cannibal banquets—groves of cocoa-nut—coral reefs—tattooed chiefs—and bamboo temples; sunny valleys planted with bread-fruit trees—carved canoes dancing on the flashing blue waters—savage woodlands guarded by horrible idols—heathenish rites and human sacrifices.”
After enduring many hardships, Melville and his trusty shipmate Toby finally descend a steep rock-face hundreds of feet high by swinging themselves from thick creeper to creeper with terrifying gaps between them. (Errol Flynn demonstrated this exploit in movies by swinging from his ship’s ropes to board a pirate vessel.)
When Melville enters their valley, the fearful Typee cannibals, surprisingly gentle and generous, treat him to an indulgent captivity and he seems to have found the paradise he was seeking.
Typee anticipates the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski’s enticing Sexual Life of Savages (1929). Melville describes how, as their ship approached the beach after a long and sexually starved sea voyage, a flotilla of bare-breasted nymphs swim out, swarm aboard and are rapturously received by the lusty crew:
What a sight for us bachelor sailors! how avoid so dire a temptation? For who could think of tumbling these artless creatures overboard, when they had swam miles to welcome us?
Their appearance perfectly amazed me; their extreme youth, the light clear brown of their complexions, their delicate features, and inexpressibly graceful figures, their softly moulded limbs, and free unstudied action, seemed as strange as beautiful. . . .
Our ship was now wholly given up to every species of riot and debauchery. Not the feeblest barrier was interposed between the unholy passions of the crew and their unlimited gratification.
In fact, the women who approached the sailors are not artless and unstudied but swim out to the ship, freely offer their favors and seduce the sailors. Melville titillates his readers by drawing a discreet veil over these orgies and pretending to disapprove while eagerly participating in them.
Melville’s idealised companion, the fair Fayaway, is chastely absent from this crude and unseemly scene. Her unusual name suggests the short-lived Fadeaway, the exotic Faraway (and even the soothing Far Rockaway on Long Island, which Christopher Isherwood thought was the most romantic place-name in the world). Melville ecstatically observes: “Her free pliant figure was the very perfection of female grace and beauty. . . The face of this girl was a rounded oval, and each feature as perfectly formed. . . . Her full lips, when parted with a smile, disclosed teeth of dazzling whiteness.” She had strange and unusual blue eyes, and when she bent over her long dark hair fell over and “hid from view her lovely bosom” that delightfully reappeared when she stood erect. “The skin of this young creature, from continual ablutions and the use of mollifying ointments, was inconceivably smooth and soft.” Like Eve before the Fall, Fayaway is uninhibited by a Christian sense of sin and frees the 23-year-old Melville from his puritanical repression. Gauguin would capture this languid physical perfection in his paintings.
On the same page as he describes these orgies, and despite the tempting “nymphs”, Melville blames European civilisation—represented, unfortunately, by the nearby rotten ship—for corrupting the islanders: “Alas for the poor savages when exposed to the influence of these polluting examples! Unsophisticated and confiding, they are easily led into every vice, and humanity weeps over the ruin thus remorselessly inflicted upon them by their European civilizers.” The even more brutal crimes of the Europeans matched the massacre of the sailors. Many petty traders navigating the Pacific, he furiously records, had committed “a series of cold-blooded robberies, kidnappings and murders, the iniquity of which might be considered almost sufficient to sink her guilty timbers to the bottom of the sea.”
Tattooing on the island, another visible sign of savagery, is an operation between religious observance and superstitious idolatry. Melville resists the constant pressure to beautify himself and bond with the tribe in this, to him repugnant, way. Finally, to satisfy the chiefs and avoid permanent ruination of his face with oblique stripes and mystic triangles, he agrees to have both arms tattooed from wrist to shoulder. (A custom previously confined to Polynesians, sailors and criminals, tattoos today decorate and deform the younger generation; and even well-dressed middle-class matrons in quest of primitive thrills now masochistically mark themselves for life.)
The anthropologist Sir James Frazer quoted Typee with approval in several articles, and in The Golden Bough described ritual murder in the Marquesas: “there was a class of men who were deified in their lifetime. . . . Human sacrifices were offered to them to avert their wrath. . . . [The god would] call for two or three human victims at a time. They were always brought, for the terror he inspired was extreme.” Frazer doesn’t say if the corpses were eaten. But Charles Anderson reports that the Marquesans “had practiced cannibalism as a religious ceremony on the bodies of slain enemies . . . with the purpose of wreaking vengeance and of acquiring the virtues of the deceased.” Cannibalism is still practised today in Papua New Guinea, and in the bloodthirsty wars in Liberia and the Congo.
The ostensibly delightful life in Typee is undercut by the cannibalism of the ferocious warriors. Melville maintains suspense in the book by wondering if he will get a friendly reception, or be a “long pig” fattened for a cannibal feast and boiled like missionaries in a huge black pot. Though he surely cannot suffer if he’s eaten after death, Melville is paradoxically more afraid of being consumed than being killed.
Melville first escapes from his ship; then escapes from the cannibals, “gourmandisers of human flesh,” and is rescued by another ship. A whaler looking for additional crew appears on the coast and the natives agree to trade their captive for valuable articles. He gives the possibly pregnant Fayaway (whom he can’t take with him) a sad farewell embrace, and when his escorts start to fight with each other he flees in a boat. Pursued by warriors with knives between their teeth, he grabs a boathook, stabs his pursuer in the throat and rows out to the waiting ship. Once he’s aboard the Julia Melville’s infected leg, which never heals on the island, quickly begins to get better. His sore leg shows that he is not suited for life with the Typees, and he has no desire to remain in their paradise.
Nearly 80 years later, D. H. Lawrence exploded the traditional view of the Pacific islands begun by Melville. He stopped in Tahiti en route to Australia in August 1922 and was completely disillusioned. “Papeete is a poor sort of place,” he wrote, “mostly Chinese, natives in European clothes, and fat. We motored out—again beautiful to look at, but I never want to stay in the tropics. There is a sort of sickliness about them, smell of cocoa-nut oil and sort of palm-tree, reptile nausea. . . . They are supposed to be the earthly paradises: these South Sea Isles. You can have ’em.” Lawrence described the island—disgusting, oily and reptilian—in terms of visceral sickness and nausea. The intense heat and humidity, the antithesis of the healing alpine air he needed to recover, exacerbated his tuberculosis and made him feel miserable.
In his brilliant chapter on Typee and its successor Oomo in Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), Lawrence again rejected the myth of the tropical paradise and thought it was impossible to recapture the lost Edenic innocence: “those islands in the middle of the Pacific are the most unbearable places on earth. . . . Melville couldn’t go back: and Gauguin couldn’t really go back: and I know now that I could never go back. Back towards the past, savage life. . . . Try to go back to the savages, and you feel as if your very soul was decomposing inside you.”
Lawrence said he was drawn to the South Seas by Robert Louis Stevenson’s writing—just as Stevenson had been drawn there by Melville’s Typee—but he added, “if I go to Samoa, it will be to forget, not to remember.” Stevenson (1850-94) wrote that Melville had “touched the South Seas with genius,” but boasted in a letter, “I will tell you more of the South Seas after my few months than any other writer has done—except Herman Melville perhaps.” Melville had escaped from his ship and from the cannibals; Stevenson had escaped from Western civilisation to these high mountains and deep valleys. Melville, obsessed with survival, had lived with the people and taken part in their lives. Stevenson, observing their society in a rather patronising manner, recorded his experiences for his next book.
In San Francisco he chartered the Casco, a 95-foot, two-masted schooner, built of teak and with opulent fittings. He traveled with a captain and five crew, the two Mrs Stevensons (his mother and his wife), his Aunt Maggie and his bespectacled stepson Lloyd Osbourne, known as Glass-Eyes. So there was no possibility of his romance with a Fayaway. He spent five weeks, from July 28 to September 1, 1888, on the Marquesas. When they encountered rough seas while sailing between the islands, the passengers were swung and tossed together for 40 miserable hours, “the mate was thrown down and had his head cut open; the captain was sick on deck; the cook sick in the galley.”
Stevenson found the islands exceptionally alluring and declared, “no part of the world exerts the same attractive power upon the visitor. . . . The sense of isolation was profound and refreshing.” It seemed as if he had been transported to the land of Lord Tennyson’s “Lotus-Eaters”:
All round the coast the languid air did swoon,
Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.
Full-faced above the valley stood the moon;
And like a downward smoke, the slender stream
Along the cliff to fall and pause and fall did seem.
He found the people as attractive as the scenery: “The eyes of all Polynesians are large, luminous and melting; they are like the eyes of animals and some Italians . . . . The race is perhaps the handsomest extant. Six feet is about the middle height of males; they are strongly muscled, free from fat, swift in action, graceful in repose.”
Writing in the Victorian era and more critical than Melville of the Marquesans, Stevenson emphasised the contrast between their negative and positive qualities. They were sad, debauched, backward and barbarous, but also reserved and dignified, fond of and tolerant with their children. Fascinated by their outlandish customs, he noted that whenever he tried to take a photograph of a chief standing alone, “his successor placed himself unbidden by his side” and, staking his future claim to the throne, refused to move. Invited on board the ship, one woman pulled up her dress and, with cries of wonder and delight, rubbed her bare buttocks on its soft velvet cushions.
The music and singing, dancing and drumming, were dithyrambic: “the singers kept up their long-drawn, lugubrious, ululating song; in time, too, the dancers, tricked out in singular finery, stepped, leaped, swayed and gesticulated—their plumed fingers fluttering in the air like butterflies.” Restricted by taboos affecting every aspect of their lives, the natives were fearful of ghosts and the dark. The principal crime was theft; punishing the suspect by confinement in a solitary dungeon was “torture inexpressible” and soon extracted a pathetic confession. Many people were addicted to opium, imported to stupefy the Chinese coolies who worked on the coconut and banana plantations. Strangest of all, the natives caught fish and ate them alive and wriggling.
Since Stevenson, unlike Melville, was not forcibly tattooed, he admired the skin art whose elaborations signified rank. One white man desperately wanted to wed a “High Chiefess,” who declared “she could never marry a man who was untattooed; it looked so naked.” But when he submitted to that exquisite torture to satisfy her whim and was inked from head to foot, “the fickle fair one could never behold him from that day except with laughter.” Stevenson mocked the man for weakly acquiescing to her manipulative charm.
Stevenson described the increasing influence on the Marquesas of the French rulers and foreign missionaries, who had scarcely existed in Melville’s time. In 1842 the French colonised the Marquesans, who hated them for abolishing the hereditary chiefs and building roads that desecrated the tombs of their ancestors. Nevertheless, Stevenson praised the colonial rulers: “The French are certainly a good-natured people, and make easy masters.” Like Stevenson himself, “they are besides inclined to view the Marquesans with an eye of humorous indulgence.”
The Marquesans also resisted the missionaries who abused their rivals and lamented their failure to recruit converts. Stevenson lamented their forcible extinction of traditional culture on the more receptive Polynesian islands: “sorcery, polygamy, human sacrifice and tobacco-smoking have been prohibited, the [un]dress of the native has been modified, and himself warned in strong terms against rival sects of Christianity. . . . The Catholics in Mangareva [French Polynesia] . . . the Protestants in Hawaii, have rendered life in a more or less degree unliveable to their converts.” The idols of their past were now long-buried in the luxuriant jungle.
Stevenson’s dominant theme was that “change of habit is bloodier than a bombardment. . . Where there have been fewest changes, important or unimportant, salutary or hurtful, there the race survives. Where there have been most, important or unimportant, salutary or hurtful, there it perishes.” Yet in a striking contradiction, he finally concluded: “The missionaries are the best and the most useful whites in the Pacific.” They were certainly more useful than the marauding whalers who kidnapped the women and carried them off for sexual slavery on their cruises. The European invaders brought fatal diseases that almost wiped out the defenseless people. Elephantiasis, leprosy, syphilis, tuberculosis and especially smallpox reduced the population of Nuku Hiva, in only 40 years, from a pre-colonial 60,000 to only 400 in 1864.
Like Melville, Stevenson was most interested in reporting his vicarious sexual experiences and the grisly details of cannibalism. He’s intrigued by a half-naked woman whose old age clashed with her “erect and youthful” breasts. He also observed the unusual modesty of a young girl bathing naked in a stream, and was amused “ lto see with what alacrity and real alarm she bounded on her many-coloured under-clothes. Even in these daughters of cannibals shame was eloquent.” By contrast, when he saw an empty school he was told that the whole student body had taken a lubricious field trip “to the woods, and lived there for a fortnight in promiscuous liberty.”
Stevenson was never in serious danger. When he first arrived with three women and the natives swarmed aboard his ship, he knew nothing of his guests and feared his family would all be butchered for an all-white-meat feast. The “inveterate savages” and “greatest cannibals of all,” were constantly engaged in fratricidal ambuscades. He dreaded the ceremonies and hearing the cries of the helpless victims, and was told about particularly horrible murders. After a man had his axe sharpened he was seized, his weapon was turned against him and “his head and arm stricken from his body.” When a girl appeared in search of her father, the brutes severed her head with a blunt knife while “the blood spurted in fountains and painted them from head to foot.”
Cannibalism in the Marquesas, like the salubrious climate yet dangerous landscape, is paradoxical: “man-eating among kindly men, child-murder among child-lovers.” He thinks that vengeance was the main motive for this horrid practice, but ignores the belief that one could absorb the vital powers of the dead. He expresses de rigueur revulsion, but offers a feeble defense of this custom. He claims that Western consumers of carcasses “make much the same appearance in the eyes of the Buddhist and the vegetarian.” He also defensively declares that “to cut a man’s flesh after he is dead is far less hateful than to oppress him whilst he lives; and even the victims of their appetite were gently used in life and suddenly and painlessly despatched at last”—with a blunt knife and a fountain of blood (my italics). He detested on sight and felt a more visceral “repugnance and nausea” for an “incurable cannibal grandee”, whose favorite morsel was the human hand, than he did for all the other eaters of man.
Disease was even more pernicious in that morbid society where “the thought of death is uppermost in the mind of the Marquesan.” Death rampaged amid bountiful food, and there was a spiritual reverence for the dead but a strange unconcern for the impending death of the living. In this tragic landscape Stevenson, suffering from his devastating tuberculosis, encountered a grim but picturesque native who represented—like a morbid monk in his coffin or a passive, fatalistic Buddhist—the race lurching toward extinction: “In the time of the small-pox, an old man was seized with the disease; he had no thought of recovery; had his grave dug by a wayside, and lived in it for near a fortnight, eating, drinking and smoking with the passers-by, talking mostly of his end, and equally concerned for himself and careless of the friends whom he infected.”
Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), disgusted by the overwhelming French influence in Tahiti, where he’d lived for eight years, sought a purer culture closer to his dreams. On September 16, 1901, after a three-day boat trip, he reached the more remote Marquesan island of Hiva Oa, 100 miles southeast of Melville and Stevenson’s Nuku Hiva. Gauguin explained: “It was time to push off to some more primitive place with fewer colonial officials. . . . They were the only islands where the native culture and artistic traditions had survived. . . . There were landscapes to discover—new and more primitive sources of inspiration.” He lamented that “artists have lost all their savagery, all their instincts, one might say their imagination,” and longed to recover these vital qualities in a pristine world. Bengt Danielsson’s Gauguin in the South Seas (1964) adds another sexual and pathological motive: “It was in fact the [syphilitic and ulcerated] sores which made him leave Tahiti, because no woman there would sleep with him any more.”
The village of Atuona on the south coast had 500 people, Catholic and Protestant missions, five shops and two Chinese bakeries. The traders, both Chinese and European, blatantly robbed the innocent natives. Gauguin bought land from the Catholic Bishop Joseph Martin, who’d persuaded his converts to leave their property to the Church, and built what he called his “House of Pleasure” whose provocative name suggested a brothel. The breezy two-story residence, 40 by 18 feet, had walls of woven bamboo, roof of coconut leaves, and stood on stilts six feet above the ground. It was decorated with reproductions of paintings, including Albrecht Dürer’s Knight, Death and the Devil and Hans Holbein’s Portrait of the Artist’s Family. The pièces de résistance were 45 pornographic photographs that Gauguin had bought in Port Said, Egypt, on the voyage out. In November he settled into his new home with a cook, two idle servants, a dog and a cat.
To distance himself from the few French officials and bond with the islanders, Gauguin went native. He exposed his bandaged legs like a leper displaying his wounds. George Shackelford writes in Gauguin Tahiti (2004) that he “wore the very original dress of a complete Maori, a colored pareu [sarong] about the hips, his torso covered with a Tahitian shirt, his feet nearly always bare.” He soon acquired friends and drinking companions: Reiner, a French planter; Emile Frébault, a former infantry sergeant turned trader; Ben Varney, an American whose shop was conveniently located across the road; Tioka, the native carpenter and helper, who’d built his house; and Ky Dong, a Vietnamese prince and revolutionary, who’d been exiled to Devil’s Island but slipped off the boat at the more appealing Atuona.
In November Gauguin also acquired Vaeoho, his attractive 14-year-old mistress. His memoir of his life before and after Tahiti, Avant et Après — a series of scattered dreamlike notes written in 1903 but not published until 1923 — describes sex with his adolescent lover: “At night my wife seeks my caresses. She knows I am afraid of her and she abuses my fear. Both of us, wild creatures ourselves, lead a life full of fear and bravado, joy and grief, strength and weakness. At night, by the light of oil lamps, half suffocated by the animal stenches,” he watches the crowd looking at prisoners being whipped. His sexual relations were intensified by masochistic pleasure in and out of bed. In March 1902, six months after arriving, Gauguin emphasised his isolation and seemed completely contented: “You can’t imagine the tranquil life I have here in my solitude, completely alone, surrounded by foliage. I badly needed this rest, well away from all those colonial officials in Tahiti. I praise my decision daily.”
But a few disasters inevitably occurred. In May 1902 the Croix du Sud (“Southern Cross”) steamship that made the three-day voyage from Papeete was caught in a heavy squall and completely wrecked on a coral reef. All hands were saved, but there was no imported food, mail, money or art supplies for three months. More dangerously, in January 1903 a cyclone flooded the village but spared Gauguin’s house. His poetic letter described its sudden appearance and devastating effect, as if the gods were angry: “At my window here in the Marquesas, in Atuona, everything grows dark, the dances are over, the soft melodies have died away. But they are not replaced by silence. Crescendo, the wind zigzags in the branches, the great dance begins, the cyclone is in full swing. Olympus enters the game, Jupiter sends us all his thunderbolts, the Titans roll the rocks, the river overflows.”
Conditions had deteriorated in the 60 years since Melville’s visit: the French and two competing missions had tightened their grip. The islands had become more Westernised; traditional culture had been nearly extinguished; and the people, defenseless against foreign diseases, were dying out. Gauguin told his embittered wife, living in Denmark with their five children, how the most barbaric practice had been eliminated: “In former times the natives were cannibals; and the missionaries introduced the pig, whose flesh tastes like that of a human being, to break them of this bad habit.”
In August 1902 Vaeoho left Gauguin to have their baby in her parents’ home, and the child was born in September. When she did not return, Bishop Martin (also rumoured to keep a mistress) was determined to prevent Gauguin from capturing another schoolgirl. Gauguin lustily defended himself by degrading his enemy and declaring: “The bishop is an old rabbit, while I am a very tough and sometimes hoarse old cock. If I say the rabbit started it I shall be telling the truth. To want to make me take the oath of chastity is really a bit thick.”
Gauguin also infuriated the officials by refusing to pay taxes, which brought no local benefits, and told the natives not to pay them. This was merely the first shot across the bow during his intense quarrel with the island’s authorities. He urged the natives to withdraw their children from French schools, which alienated them from their families and condemned their cultural traditions. He thought “the natives are lucky to have me as their protector, for so far the settlers, who are all poor, earning their living as traders, have always been afraid to antagonise the gendarmes and so have kept silent.”
He’d once been fined for bathing naked in a local stream. Now he forcefully argued that it was absurd to try “to govern a population of primitive and ignorant natives in a remote South Sea island under French laws and ordinances.” The officials counterattacked by describing Gauguin as a drunken and belligerent sexual predator, who “defends all the native vices, sees in these savage scenes no more than a simple amusement necessary to the well-being of the natives.” The colonials took revenge in March 1903 when the troublesome Gauguin accused the local governor of taking bribes. The provocateur was charged with libel (though he’d actually committed slander), fined 500 francs and sentenced to three months in prison. He planned to appeal to the higher court in Papeete, but died before his case could be heard.
Paul Theroux, who’d visited Hiva Oa in 1990, noted in The Happy Isles of Oceania (1992) that “the islands had endured sixty years of colonial rule, and yet in Gauguin’s paintings—in the fragrant vision he created for himself—Polynesia is inviolate.” Gauguin brought the words of Melville and Stevenson to life with golden-skinned models and riotous colors, intensity of feeling and clarity of vision. Two masterpieces of the Marquesan years equal the best paintings he’d done in his Tahitian prime. In the mysterious and evocative Primitive Tales (1902) two women, with full lips and wide noses, are seated in the foreground, their heads, legs and bare breast touching. The lighter complexioned one on the right has long and unusual red hair; the slightly darker one on the left is seated in a traditional Buddhist pose. They are surrounded by a vaporous grey-white mist that swirls in the background, and by exotic trees, fruit and flowers. Behind and hunched over the women, Shackelford observes, “sits a monster: a man with bare taloned feet and fox red hair and beard.” He wears a blue missionary gown with frilled white cuffs and, hand contemplatively holding his chin, stares at the women with large slanting green eyes. He seems to be listening intently to their primitive tales and calm spiritual message that might make him more human. (With red hair and beard, blunt nose and intense stare, the monster looks remarkably like D. H. Lawrence.)
The vivid, brilliantly colored idyllic setting of The Bathers (1902) also suggests nostalgia for a soon-to-be-lost paradise. The picture recedes from the shimmering pink foreground and thick woods to a sandy beach, turbulent blue and white-capped ocean waves, and a distant sky streaked with wispy clouds. In the background, the image of two men paddling a bouncing canoe in the rough surf is trisected by three bare and curving tree trunks. In the foreground, dotted with white cottony flowers that echo the breaking waves and drifting clouds, Gauguin portrays a broad-shouldered, bare chested, bronze-colored, long-haired, rather androgynous man. With hands on his hips, he seems ready to take off his white and colored sarong (which echoes the red of the flowering tree behind him) and dive into the high-surf ocean. His naked brown bright-eyed male child looks up on his right. A white she-goat and two adults—one standing with a masklike face and yellow sarong, the other crouching and half hidden on the ground—appear on his left. (This picture, once the prized possession of Errol Flynn, is now privately owned and difficult to see, cloistered by Stephen Wynn in his Las Vegas casino.)
Plagued by illness on Hiva Oa, Gauguin sent despairing descriptions of his chronic condition: “I am no longer the Gauguin of old. . . . Eczema of both feet has caused me so much suffering.” He had severe pain in his legs, frightening palpitations and general debility. In the last terrible year poor health had made him miserable, listless and alone. In a striking contrast to his earlier letter, Gauguin lamented, a month before his death, “My eyesight seems to be going and I cannot walk. I am very ill.” His biographer David Sweetman writes that his “flesh decayed under the ravages of an incurable disease.” Nevertheless, he bravely tried to overcome the agony and continue to create: “even if I am unable to recover my health, it would not be so disastrous so long as the pain would stop for a little. My brain keeps on working, and I shall resume my work so as to try in all soberness to complete what I have begun. In fact, that is the only reason why I refrain in my more desperate moments from blowing my brains out.”
To alleviate the constant pain Gauguin got drunk every night, took laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol) and injected himself with dangerous amounts of morphine. He’d given his vials and syringe to a friend for safekeeping, but begged to have them back when he could no longer bear the agony. On May 8, 1903, aged 54, he died from an overdose of morphine. His body was placed in a rough-hewn coffin and he was hastily buried (a necessity in the tropics) in the hilltop cemetery below the mountain peaks. His implacable enemy Bishop Joseph Martin, with a notable absence of Christian charity, declared: “The only newsworthy event here has been the sudden death of a contemptible individual named Gauguin, a reputed artist but an enemy of God and everything that is decent.”
All three travellers sought and found, were inspired by and portrayed, a lost paradise. In 1842 Melville—pursuing adventure, danger and sex—lived with the cannibals for four weeks and then escaped on a passing ship. In 1888 Stevenson, on a chartered ship with his family and crew, spent five weeks in the Marquesas and then settled permanently in Samoa, where he died in 1894. The syphilitic but still creative Gauguin spent his last 20 months in the Marquesas, which in 1903 became the last refuge of the dying man.
These travellers escaped Western civilization and the harsh northern climate; searched for a dolce far niente, a sweet and simple life with sexual freedom. But they were horrified by the cannibalism; and despised the French colonials, the competitive missionaries and the rapacious traders, who destroyed the traditional culture and wiped out most of the people. Yet the myth endured through the persistent dream of finding paradise and the power of sensual art. As Sweetman observes, “the new myth of Gauguin did the most to revive the old myth of the tropical Eden in the South Seas.”
Jeffrey Meyers, FRSL, has published Painting and the Novel, The Enemy: A Biography of Wyndham Lewis, Impressionist Quartet, Modigliani: A Life and Alex Colville: The Mystery of the Real. His book on his writer-friend James Salter will be out in spring 2024.
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