Tuesday, 4 August 2009

The Allure of Orientalism

The Middle East has always held a strange, alien fascination for the West. In fact, it has been a monumental journey in the West's global, multicultural awareness for us to even be able to write about us in terms of being "the West"... "The East", be it Near, Middle or Far, came first, defined by its geographical relationship to Europe. Even then, "the West" initially described the colonies in their geographic relationship to Europe, which has only come to mean all of the Euro-American world by the United States of America's eclipsing Europe as the dominant cultural, economic, military and colonial power. That may be the topic for another post, however.

Both the oldest and the last extant Athenian dramas deal with the relationship of Europe to the Orient: Aeschylus' The Persians and Euripides' The Bacchae. The former articulates the military competition between these two poles that persists to this very day, framed by Aeschylus as the Persians' woe over the defeat of King Xerxes. The latter exploits our unending, commingling feelings of fascination and dread at perceived Middle Eastern mystery, sensuality and heathen blasphemy... A strange, exotic mix that is as appeal ling now in Western Neo-Paganism's worship of Isis as it was in the Ancient Roman's Mystery Religions of the same.

Europe's troubled relationship with the Middle East continued through the Romans' conquests of Saharan Africa, Islam's conquests of Spain and Crusaders' conquests of Jerusalem. The modern age of Orientalism, however, may be properly said to have begun with Napoleon's conquest of Egypt in 1798. Along with the troops that were meant to secure the Little General's place as the heir to Alexander the Great, there came a legion of artists, scientists and poets who charted the Land of the Pharaohs for an increasingly literate and information-hungry public. The 22 volumes of Descriptions de L'Egypte brought the intangibles back to them, while French soldiers carted off hundreds of artifacts, obelisks and tablets that even to this day litter the Louvre, the Sorbonne, and the streets of Paris.

Some 50 years later, Sir Richard Francis Burton would do his own part by donning a disguise and putting his life in considerable danger to violate the sacred mysteries of the Hajj. From his adventures came imagination-capturing tomes like A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah, The Book of One Thousand Nights and A Night and the Kama Sutra. Shortly before Burton, the English Romantics were entranced by Ozymandias, Kubla Kahn and the hazy smoke of opium. After him, the Orient consumed European houses inside and out, from Orientalist interior design to Indo-Saracenic and Moorish Revival architecture like Prince Edward's Royal Pavillion at Brighton.

Orientalism would receive another boost in the heady days of the Roaring Twenties. A 1919 rape fantasy novel by Edith Maude Hull became Rudolph Valentino's most famous role in the 1921 film The Sheik. The 1926 sequel The Son of the Shiek would also become Valentino's last, posthumous picture. Doulgas Fairbanks tried his hand at a more wholesome foray into the Middle East with the 1924 fantasy Thief of Baghdad. One year after the release of The Shiek, Howard Carter would make history with the discovery of the last great, undiscovered and unpillaged pharaonic tomb, belonging to the boy-king Tutankhamun. This front page headline news in turn inspired Universal Studios to round out their burgeoning selection of monsters with 1932's The Mummy.

The late Edward Said wrote, in his epochal critique Orientalism:
By the middle of the nineteenth century Orientalism was as vast a treasure-house of learning as one could imagine. There are two excellent indices of this new, triumphant eclecticism. One is the encyclopedic description of Orientalism roughly from 1764 to 1850 given by Raymond Schwab in his La Renaissance orientale. Quite aside from the scientific discoveries of things Oriental made by learned professionals during this period in Europe, there was the virtual epidemic of Orientalia affecting every major poet, essayist, and philosopher of the period. Schwab's notion is that "Oriental" identifies an amateur or professional enthusiasm for everything Asiatic, which was wonderfully synonymous with the exotic, the mysterious, the profound, the seminal...

Said continues on the subject of this enthusiasm:
In the depths of this Oriental stage stands a prodigious cultural repertoire whose individual items evoke a fabulously rich world: the Sphinx, Cleopatra, Eden, Troy, Sodom and Gomorrah, Astarte, Isis and Osiris, Sheba, Babylon, the Genii, the Magi, Nineveh, Prester John, Mahomet, and dozens more; settings, in some cases names only, half-imagined, half-known; monsters, devils, heroes; terrors, pleasures, desires. The European imagination was nourished extensively from this repertoire...

This fascination is what Said, quoting V.G. Kiernan, calls "Europe's collective day-dream of the Orient."

For Said, a Palestinian, that collective daydream was the means by which the West has perpetually victimized the Middle East. The Orient is exoticized, turned inexorably into The Other. We hope that he could forgive our study of Orientalism, which is fascinating in itself and admittedly nostalgic as an aesthetic. To be clear, Orientalism does not, and never did even in its original form, have much to do with the actual lives and people and history of the Middle East. But this is true of any of our nostalgias, be it for the 19th century, the 1930's, 50's, 60's, or 80's. "Retro" is two-steps removed: once removed by its distance from the movement it is nostalgic about, and again by the removal of that movement from the reality of its subject. The study of actual Middle Eastern history and the harsher reality of Victorian and Edwardian encounters with "the Oriental" in hegemonic imperialism will be studies for another time. For the present, it is the romantic myth of that encounter developed by Westerners that is our subject.

We are a weblog that is indulgently Romantic and, without guilt or self-reproach, consciously so. Romanticism may on one hand be naive, idealistic, or in its darkest misuses even racist and imperialist, but it can also be a conscious choice about how one wishes to approach the world. It depends, perhaps, on whether the breed of Romanticism is a means to shrink away from the world or a provocation to explore it. If the latter, then the study of Orientalism and its images - like the study of any movement, author and image of the Victorian Era - can be joined with appreciation of the genuine culture and accomplishments of that region that still seems even to modern Western eyes to be incomprehensibly mysterious and ancient.

1 comment:

Richard Harrison said...

And then there is the period devoted to the fall of Constantinople and the influence of the Ottoman Empire on Christian Europe - good stuff.