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Module 1: The Empire and Orientalism in Romantic Literature

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In this lesson, we look at Byron’s Turkish Tales: The Giaour (1813), The Bride of Abydos (1813), The Corsair (1814), Lara (1814), The Siege of Corinth (1815), and Parisina (1815). Byron is indulging in the popular English / European taste for the Orient and especially for vulnerable Asian women, Muslim and other heroes, evil Orientals etc. These include the vulnerable Asian woman, the fascinating Hijab-bound, nearly invisible, Muslim woman, evil Orientals, etc. We have seen precursors to this in previous sessions on Carathis, Vathek’s mother in William Beckford’s novel Vathek. “The Giaour” set in the Balkans is a love triangle. It showcases the clash between a Muslim (Hassan) and the Christian (the Giaour) over Leila, who is one of Hassan’s wives/slaves. The Giaour tries to save Leila. Hassan ties her in a sack and she is thrown into the sea as a punishment for her adultery. When the Giaour fails, he joins a band of Albanian brigands, ambushes Hassan and kills him. It is full of stereotypes of Muslim women. Leila is meek and submissive and beautiful, at least initially. Oh! who young Leila’s glance could read And keep that portion of his creed Which saith, that woman is but dust, A soulless toy for tyrant’s lust? The Giaour (the Muslim name for an infidel which Byron appropriate from his period) is stereotyped as demonic and evil. Having looked at how the Arab woman is stereotyped, here is a description of the white Christian person. If ever evil angel bore The form of mortal, such he wore. ----- Though like a demon of the night He pass'd, and vanish'd from my sight, So this is the evil of the place as well. This is the atmosphere of religion, the atmosphere of the place seeping into the person. One of the things you recognize about Romantic Orientalism is that the place is mystical and magical but so are the people. It is difficult to distinguish between points of origin where this kind of stereotype’s focus lies. The Muslim section of the poem ends with the fisherman’s curse upon the Giaour. And fire unquench’d, unquenchableAround-within-thy heart shall dwell, Nor car can hear, nor tongue can tell The tortures of that inward hell!- But first, on earth as Vampire sent, Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent; Then ghastly haunt thy native place, And suck the blood of all thy race, There from thy daughter, sister, wife, At midnight drain the stream of life; Then follows a battle over Leila, and Byron’s depiction of violence is singularly bloody. Of sabres clashing, foemen flying, Wrongs avenged, and Moslem dying. On cliff he hath been known to stand, And rave as to some bloody hand Fresh sever'd from its parent limb, Invisible to all but him, Which beckons onward to his grave, And lures to leap into the wave. When Leila sacrifices herself, the Giaour appears to endorse it as righteous. This is because of her infidelity towards Hassan. Yet did he but what I had done Had she been false to more than one. Faithless to him - he gave the blow ; But true to me - I laid him low : Howe’er deserved her doom might be, Her treachery was truth to me The work is seen as a traditional Romantic Orientalist text. As Meyer says, [The Giaour] must therefore be read as part of the cultural apparatus whereby the Orient is contained and rep resented by ideological frameworks that serve both to incite confrontation and to seal off contestation within the larger structures of imperial history. But more recent evaluations have found a greater degree of ambiguity in Byron’s representations of the East/Turkey. That is, this continues in some sense the Homi Bhabha argument about fetish and phobia. We need to read these texts, the Turkish Tales as a cultural apparatus where the Orient is defined. To stereotype somebody is to contain them. What do I mean by this? Once you have categorized a person or stereotyped a person, the person becomes predictable, in your view - may or may not be true. That is if you expect the black man to behave in a certain way, the African woman to behave in a certain way, you have contained them, you have limited them, so they are no longer a threat. Because you fear what you do not understand, but once you have stereotyped, it you believe you understand, you limit it. Thus Meyer says that these are ideological frameworks that incite confrontation and seal off contestation. The Romantic Orientalist texts are actually working from within this paradigm of containment and to seal off contestation in some way possible. More recent evaluations have found a greater degree of ambiguity in Byron’srepresentations of the East and Turkey. Others are arguing that Byron has something more going on in his texts. For instance Yuan has argued, The gothic harbors within itself a crucial self- reflexivity through which the British orientalist poet can disclose the construction of narrative as an exercise of power that seeks to define and thereby colonize the other, even as its spectral effects are recruited to stage the failure of that same imperial will to power. That is, narrative itself it seen as a strategy of containment. So iIt is not just stereotyping, but the gothic as a method of enclosing, encompassing what is not known, where narrative itself is a form of colonization and it is part of the imperial will to power. For newer critics and in newer studies, poems like The Giaour is an indictment of both European and Ottoman imperialism, suggesting that all empires are built on violence. This is an important argument Byron does not focus solely on the East or Turkey of the Moslem as evil. What it shows is that the East is evil, yes, is violent yes, but it is matched by the violence of the west. In short, what he saying is all empires, all imperial processes are violent. So it is not that that the East is particularly demonic or particularly evil. What he’s saying is that all of these imperial structures are inherently demonic, inherently evil. Romantic Orientalism, as we have seen, captures the East in a certain way but it develops certain attitudes towards the East as well: the vulnerable woman, the nasty, demonic African woman or demonic Moslem woman. It speaks about the Other, but it also speaks about their own anxieties, which is why Nigel Leask’s book, British Romantic Writers and the East: Anxieties of Empire makes this very important argument that these are not just mechanisms of representation. They are mechanisms of dealing with your own cultural anxieties. This again connects to arguments made by Homi Bhabha, where the stereotype is not a sign of confidence, it is a sign of anxiety. You create a stereotype because you are afraid and uncertain of them. Romantic Orientalism is a deeply divided, deeply ambivalent response to the East. While they were stereotyping and categorizing the East, they were also doing so out of a sense of anxiety.