Jack’s Naughty Bits: Paul Gauguin, Noa Noa

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Jack's Naughty Bits

Paul GAUGUIN, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? 1897 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

can’t say that I’m the biggest fan of Paul Gauguin, but I know no better title of a painting
than that of his enormous masterwork Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where
Are We Going?
I first saw Gauguin’s sprawling mural at a poignant crossroads in my
adolescent life, and the title’s questions resonated through me with a painful and
probing intensity. The effect has not waned. Simply stated, Gauguin’s questions are as
fundamental as you can get, and in a quick stroke encapsulate the miracle and mystery
of being sentiently alive.


Perhaps it’s no wonder: in his early forties, Gauguin left France to go to Tahiti
and live among the “savages.” He shed his European clothes and mores, and developed
the quasi-wisdom of the white man gone native. I say quasi-, because the path to
enlightenment is unlikely to include an idealization of one’s surroundings, yet clearly the
isolation and estrangement one feels living in a truly alien culture does give us
perspective on the otherwise invisible fabric of our selves. Amid his untroubled, often
embarrassing, embrace of the “primitive,” Gauguin does expose a lot about the culture he
came from, and even more about himself.


All this is chronicled is Gauguin’s memoir Noa Noa, first published in
1897 and then again, in a somewhat different version, in 1901. In the scene below,
Gauguin butts up against the very questions his painting asks, finding his sense of
identity beginning to quaver. While being led through the forest by a naked young male,
he starts to have unexpected amorous thoughts. He tries to explain it away, saying that
Tahitian culture blurs the distinction between the sexes, but, even so, he can’t help but
ask himself where his illicit thoughts were coming from. Gauguin never returns to the
homoeroticism of the passage, nor to its curious overlaying of personal and societal
prohibitions. It seems that Gauguin never acted on his lust, but what held him back: self
or society? He went to Tahiti to embrace the natural, and found himself desiring the
“unnatural.” Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

* * *

From Noa Noa by Paul Gauguin

translated by O.F. Theis

Both of us went naked, the white and blue paréo around the loins, hatchet
in hand . . . My guide seemed to follow the trail by smell rather than by sight, for the
ground was covered by a splendid confusion of plants, leaves, and flowers which wholly
took possession of space.


And in this forest, this solitude, this silence were we two — he, a very young man, and
I, almost an old man from whose soul many illusions had fallen and whose body was tired
from countless efforts, upon whom lay the long and fatal heritage of the vices of a morally
and physically corrupt society.


With the suppleness of an animal and the graceful litheness of an androgyne he walked a
few paces in advance of me. And it seemed to me that I saw incarnated in him, palpitating
and living, all the magnificent plant-life which surrounded us. From it in him, through him
there became disengaged and emanated a powerful perfume of beauty.


Was it really a human being walking there ahead of me? Was it the naive friend by
whose combined simplicity and complexity I had been so attracted? Was it not rather the
Forest itself, the living Forest, without sex — and yet alluring?


Among peoples that go naked, as among animals, the difference between the sexes is
less accentuated than in our climates. Thanks to our cinctures and corsets we have
succeeded in making an artificial being out of woman. She is an anomaly, and Nature
herself, obedient to the laws of heredity, aids us in complicating and enervating her. We
carefully keep her in a state of nervous weakness and muscular inferiority, and in guarding
her from fatigue, we take away from her possibilities of development. Thus modeled on a
bizarre ideal of slenderness to which, strangely enough, we continue to adhere, our women
have nothing in common with us, and this, perhaps, may not be without grave moral and
social disadvantages.


On Tahiti the breezes from forest and sea strengthen the lungs, they broaden the
shoulders and hips. Neither men nor women are sheltered from the rays of the sun nor the
pebbles of the seashore. Together they engage in the same tasks with the same activity or
the same indolence. There is something virile in the women and something feminine in the


This similarity of the sexes make their relations the easier. Their continual state of
nakedness has kept their minds free from the dangerous preoccupation with the “mystery”
and from the excessive stress which among civilized people is laid upon the “happy
accident” and the clandestine and sadistic colors of love. It has given their manners a
natural innocence, a perfect purity. Man and woman are comrades, friends rather than
lovers, dwelling together almost without cease, in pain as in pleasure, and even the very
idea of vice is unknown to them.


In spite of all this lessening in sexual differences, why was it that there suddenly rose in
the soul of a member of an old civilization, a horrible thought? Why, in all this
drunkenness of lights and perfumes with its enchantment of newness and unknown


The fever throbbed in my temples and my knees shook . . .
With tranquil eyes and ever uniform pace my companion went on. He was wholly
without suspicion; I alone was bearing the burden of an evil conscience.

© The Noonday Press