Aesthetic Autonomy and Disinterested Pleasure


Vol. 1, No. 5 (2012)

Aesthetic Autonomy and Disinterested Pleasure in Georg Forster’s Voyage ’round the World

by  Sally Hatch Gray


In August of 1773, after a grueling journey to Antarctica aboard British Captain James Cook’s Resolution, and second circumnavigation from 1772 to 1775, the sailors were eager to reach warmer climes. For young Prussian naturalist, Georg Forster, seeing the sunrise over island of Tahiti for the first time was enchanting, as he described a perfumed land with green-clothed mountains. The sensuous experience becomes sexual as the island’s natives dive naked around the boat for trinkets. Yet Forster makes a careful distinction between the distanced voyeurism of the more educated naturalists and officers and the common sailors’ engagement in prostitution. This paper shows how Forster’s description of the voyeur’s disinterested pleasure in response to interactions with actual women may be fruitfully interpreted as a performance of Friedrich Schiller’s aesthetic education as presented in his 1795 treatise, On the aesthetic Education of Man in a Series of Letters. The island women become the actual objects training the eyes of the aesthetically educated European voyeurs. Forster’s inadvertent aesthetics leads his open-minded and empirical science to a world of illusion. And, in the end, the effective abandonment of any real advancement in the lives of the South Sea Islanders as a measure for Forster’s scientific endeavors in natural history mirrors Schiller’s abandonment of any practical, political freedom at the end of his Letters.

Full text article available here.

Text copyright 2012 Sally Hatch Gray

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