Loading
Notes
Study Reminders
Support
Text Version

The Empire and Orientalism: An Introduction

Set your study reminders

We will email you at these times to remind you to study.
  • Monday

    -

    7am

    +

    Tuesday

    -

    7am

    +

    Wednesday

    -

    7am

    +

    Thursday

    -

    7am

    +

    Friday

    -

    7am

    +

    Saturday

    -

    7am

    +

    Sunday

    -

    7am

    +

We will begin with an introduction to Romanticism, the Empire and the racial cultural Other. The exotic East, the seductive houri-like Eastern/Arab woman, the corrupting influence of this East, the cruel Muslim tyrant, the deceiving Indian… These stereotypes populating English Romantic literature are instances of Romantic Orientalism. But stereotypes apart, these are also bits of literary evidence of the period’s general curiosity about and an interest in other cultures. When we look at the texts from this period, roughly 1750 to about 1850, you will see texts about China, the Far East, India, the Arab world, Constantinople, Istanbul and other places which have entered the English literary canon. This interest and curiosity about the other nations was fuelled by translations of texts from Indian and Oriental languages, William Jones’ translations, for example, and the availability of the Arabian Nights, the BhagavadGita and others in translation. But there was also a lot of news coverage of events in the East which appeared in the English papers, for instance, the Anglo-Mysore wars with Tipu Sultan and Hyder Ali commonly appeared in The London Times and other periodicals. Traveller accounts also fed back into the English social imagination. Commodities, of course, from the 17th century, tea, cocoa, entered via mercantilism into the English household. So, in short, what you need to understand is that the literary interest in the East, in the non-European other, in Asia and other places was supplemented by the arrival of commodities from these places, from carpets to tea. Also, people of different races entered the English and European imagination. The British also put together very learned societies such as the Asiatic Society of Calcutta founded in 1784, and there was a serial publication of volumes such as the Asiatic Researches which compiled information about the poetry of the East, the religion of the East, the architecture of the East and so and so forth. As we see, there is a very large cultural apparatus of knowledge-making about the East that fuels the Romantic interest in the East. The Empire’s rise in the last decades of the 18th century is more or less coterminous with the rise of the Romantic movement. Let us look at two quick summaries of the period’s linkage with India/ Empire. The first is by Saree Makdisi who writes: Even if the Empire was not the only area of concern, it was certainly something of an obsession throughout the Romantic period. With the notable exception of William Blake, every single major writer in the period (and most minor ones as well) had at least a passing flirtation with imperialism or its major cultural manifestation, Orientalism. Many authors (e.g. Lord Byron, Robert Southey, Jane Austen, Walter Scott, Charlotte Dacre, Percy Shelley, Elizabeth Hamilton, Tom Moore, Walter Savage Landor) had significant imperialist or Orientalist works, if not long-standing, career-long engagements with the East. Moreover, the interest in imperialism invested virtually all areas of cultural productions, including those that at first glance ought to have nothing to do with the empire (such as arguments for and against the rights of man and of woman, as country-house novels, or even the most seemingly withdrawn and other-worldly forms of nature poetry). The second one is a citation from W. W. Norton and Company, available on their website. Romantic Orientalism is a recurrence of recognizable elements of Asian and African place names, historical and legendary people, religions, philosophies, art, architecture, interior decoration, costume and the like in the writings of the British Romantics. You can look for the article here: https://www.norton.com/college/english/nael/romantic/topic_4/welcome.htm That is the large span of what the Romantic Orientalist tendency is. The East was a part of the social imagination of the English and the Europeans. It occurs in the form of commodities, people, and literary themes, so there are three components to this. The commodities like coffee, tea and china pottery would be one component. One might refer here to Charles Lamb’s famous essay “Old China”. It also occurs in the form of people who move from India and other parts of the world and travel through Britain. William Hazlitt’s famous essay “Indian Jugglers” would be a great study of this. There are also other products such as opium which enter the English imagination. Many of you know Coleridge’s interest in the substance. Thomas De Quincey’s extraordinary exploration of it in the form of The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater is all a part of the Romantic Orientalist project. We shall restrict ourselves to select themes here in the representations of the Empire, the distant Other and cultural difference: erotic geography, effeminate Easterners, commodification. To many, the Orient represented an erotic geography – what Felicity Nussbaum aptly termed the ‘torrid zones’, or ‘porno-tropics’, referring to European representations of the climatic conditions, the supposed hypersexed nature of the natives and the excessive fecundity of its women (1995). This erotic geography was often embodied in numerous sketches of the Oriental woman, the seraglio and the harem. Oriental excess revolves around the women. For example, here is William Beckford’s Gothic tale, Vathek (1786) and its representation of Carathis, Vathek’s mother, represented as somebody well versed in the dark arts and satanic magic, and a purveyor of exotica. By secret stairs, known only to herself and her son, she first repaired to the mysterious recesses in which were deposited the mummies that had been brought from the catacombs of the ancient Pharaohs. Of these she ordered several to be taken. From thence she resorted to a gallery, where, under the guard of fifty female negroes, mute, and blind of the right eye, were preserved the oil of the most venomous serpents, rhinoceros’ horns, and woods of a subtle and penetrating odour, procured from the interior of the Indies, together with a thousand other horrible rarieties. This collection had been formed for a purpose like the present, by Carathis herself, from a presentiment that she might one day enjoy some intercourse with the infernal powers, to whom she had ever been passionately attached, and to whose taste she was no stranger. Now here is Byron is Don Juan (Canto IV) where an Arab woman is described as follows: large dark eye show’d deep Passion’s force, Though sleeping like a lion near a source. The Easterner is full of secrecy and guile, like Carathis, but is also therefore a strong temptation. The seductive East is a commonplace trope in the literature of this period. Both Western masculinity and femininity are at risk from the seductive Arab/Moor/Indian. In Zofloya the Moor seduces, over a period of time, Victoria. Here is an exemplification of the theme of the ‘porno-tropic’ from Dacre’s Zofloya: Never till this moment, had she been so near the person of the Moor—such powerful fascination dwelt around him, that she felt incapable of with- drawing from his arms; yet ashamed, (for Victoria was still proud) and blushing at her feelings, when she remembered that Zofloya, however he appeared was but a menial slave ... she sought but vainly, to repress them; for no sooner ... did she behold that beautiful and majestic visage, that towering and graceful form, than all thought of his inferiority vanished, and the ravished sense, spuming at the calumnious idea, confessed him a being of superior order. Note that she is ashamed but she is also fascinated, unable to control herself. What Dacre is suggesting here is an overwhelming sensuality of the native and the white woman mesmerized by it. The eroticized Other that we see in Beckford, Dacre and other texts represents a certain envy and anxiety over what the Westerner saw as a feminine or feminized civilization, with touches of the magical and the mystical. See, for example, Felicia Hemans’ representation here from one of her famous poems England and Spain. Its fairy-palace and enchanted bowers; There all Arabian fiction e’er could tell, Of potent genii or of wizards spell. We might actually say that these three lines encompass everything one finds in Romantic Orientalism. There is magic, there is Arabia, there is a sense of the mystical and the mysterious fairy palace, enchanted bowers, and there are wizards as well. In other instances, the Arab harem is a prison for the woman, and this kind of treatment of women is sanctioned by Islam, in texts such as Byron’s The Giaour. This is a trope that shows the Arab world as always anti-woman. It also gives the Romantic poet/author to create the stereotype of the vulnerable woman requiring rescue: We see a politics of pity playing out in such texts where the brown woman needs to be rescued by the white man. Let us look at an illustrative excerpt from Byron’s The Giaour. his creed, Which saith that woman is but dust, A soulless toy for tyrant’s lust. We have quoted this on an earlier occasion as part of the politics of representation in the Romantic writers. We see here the image of a vulnerable woman trapped in an anti-woman, patriarchal and oppressive society. In Moore’s Lalla Rookh, Hafed courts the Emir’s daughter Hinda by climbing into her tower. Hinda’s home is depicted almost like a prison: So, Hinda, have thy face and mind Like holy mysteries, lain enshrined. And, O, what transport for a lover To lift the veil that shades them o’er! Here it is the practice of gender segregation itself that renders the woman vulnerable. A standard model for the representation of the Oriental woman, especially the Indian one, was that of the vulnerable, oppressed and exploited but chaste, religious and devoted woman. We see an instance of this in the work of William Hodges, the official painter appointed by Warren Hastings to travel through India and put together his account of it with images and writing. He published Travels in India as part of this project. Hodges’ visual representation of the widows of India portrayed them as docile, heads bowed and vulnerable. The vulnerable Oriental woman provided the justification for the Westerner’s rescue mission. The porno-tropic is also a space of deep emotions, especially among its women. For example, here is Byron’s Gulbeyez in Don Juan: Her rage was but a minute’s, and ‘t was well— A moment’s more had slain her; but the while It lasted ‘t was like a short glimpse of hell: Nought ‘s more sublime than energetic bile, Though horrible to see yet grand to tell, Like ocean warring ‘gainst a rocky isle; And the deep passions flashing through her form Made her a beautiful embodied storm. A vulgar tempest ‘t were to a typhoon To match a common fury with her rage, And yet she did not want to reach the moon, Like moderate Hotspur on the immortal page; Her anger pitch’d into a lower tune, Perhaps the fault of her soft sex and age— Her wish was but to ‘kill, kill, kill,’ like Lear’s, And then her thirst of blood was quench’d in tears. A storm it raged, and like the storm it pass’d, Pass’d without words—in fact she could not speak; And then her sex’s shame broke in at last, A sentiment till then in her but weak, But now it flow’d in natural and fast, As water through an unexpected leak; For she felt humbled—and humiliation Is sometimes good for people in her station. The woman portrayed here is tempestuous, passionate, over-fertile, over-sexed native woman. Let us now turn to Sidney Owenson’s The Missionary: When he beheld her receiving the homage of a deity, all lovely as she was, she awakened no other sentiment in his breast than a pious indignation, natural to his religious zeal, at beholding human reason so subdued by human imposition. What we find here is the idea that the Indian woman or the Arab woman is subdued because the social order of her society, especially religion, is oppressive. This view was central to the European perception of the East in the Romantic period. Wordsworth’s ‘The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman’, published in the Lyrical Ballads, also focuses on the vulnerable Indian woman, abandoned to die while her tribe marches onward. In Robert Southey’s ‘Dirge of the American Widow’ its protagonist is a (Native) Indian woman who seeks the ‘vengeance of anguish’. Part mourning, part furious diatribe, the poem presents an injured Indian woman who refuses to be just a widow. A slightly different version of the vulnerable woman figures in Felicia Hemans’ ‘The Indian City’. What makes this poem interesting is that Maimuna, the Muslim woman protagonist of the poem, rises up to lead an army. Having looked at the portrayal of women, we now move on quickly to looking at masculinities. Three principal modes of dealing with Other masculinities might be seen in the English literature of the 1750–1900 period. In one mode, we see an exaggerated European masculinity in the adventure fiction of Haggard, Ballantyne and Kipling. In the second the racial-cultural Other was reduced to an effeminate, emasculated creature such as Beckford’s Gulchenrouz (in Vathek). A third mode is of an English masculinity rendered vulnerable and uncertain in the colonial context. Byron’s giaour in the poem of the same title revolves around an assertion of masculine ego. Hassan kills Leila for her infidelity and then the Venetian (Christian) giaour, who was Leila’s lover, hunts down the (Muslim) Hassan. The giaour’s masculinity is a troubled one: He stood – some dread was on his face, Soon hatred settled in its place: It rose not with the reddening flush Of transient anger’s hasty blush, But pale as marble o’er the tomb, Whose ghastly whiteness aids its gloom. His brow was bent, his eye was glazed; He raised his arm, and fiercely raised, And sternly shook his hand on high, As doubting to return or fly. There also occurs the English representation of the effeminate nature of the Oriental male. The construction of the effeminate nature of the Oriental man was studied famously by Revathi Krishnaswamy in Effeminism: The Economy of Colonial Desire. The weakness and effeminacy of the native men was then used to justify colonial presence in the colonies. Gulchenrouz could write in various characters with precision, and paint upon vellum the most elegant arabesques that fancy could devise. His sweet voice accompanied the lute in the most enchanting manner; and when he sung the loves of Megnoun and Leileh, or some unfortunate lovers of ancient days, tears insensibly overflowed the cheeks of his auditors. The verses he com- posed (for like Megnoun, he too was a poet) inspired that unresisting languor so frequently fatal to the female heart. The women all doated upon him, for though he had passed his thirteenth year, they still detained him in the harem. His dancing was light as the antique gossamer waved by the zephyrs of spring; but his arms which twined so gracefully with those of the young girls in the dance, could neither dart the lance in the chase, nor curb the steeds that pastured his uncle’s domains ... Both had the same tastes and amusements; the same long languishing looks; the same tresses; the same fair complexions; and when Gulchenrouz appeared in the dress of his cousin, he seemed to be more feminine than even herself. If at any time he left the harem to visit Fakreddin, it was with all the bashfulness of a fawn that consciously ventures from the lair of its dam; he was however wanton enough to mock the solemn old grey-beards to whom he was subject, though sure to be rated without mercy in return. Whenever this happened, he would plunge into the recesses of the harem, and sobbing take refuge in the arms of Nouronihar, who loved even his faults beyond the virtues of others. What you can understand from this is: there are specific stereotypes of men and women in the Romantic era. This is not innocent description. It constructs the East in a certain way. By positing the natives, particularly women, as delicate, vulnerable, needing protection, the British were able to justify colonial rule as benevolent protection. This trope of rescuing the brown woman is repeated into the 20th century as well. For instance, when the “war on terror” was declared, Cherie Blair, the then wife of the then Prime Minister of England, Tony Blair, expressed concern for poor Afghani women and the need to rescue them from the Taliban. This trope of the vulnerable non-European woman has continued for a very long time. It is a part of the social imaginary of the English itself.