literature / OTTW

On Tap This Week: The Oriental, the Exotic

I’m currently chewing through a really great (so far) book by a scholar at Duke. It’s part of the scholarly interest in how/why novels “came about” as a genre. There’s a sort of prevailing focus on the sphere of domestic fiction and realism, which looks at the everyday, the every-man, and the middle class (see: Ian Watt). But Srinivas Aravamudan comes at the issue from a slightly different angle, arguing for so-called Oriental tales as an important piece of the puzzle of the “rise of the novel”. He’s also, of course, in dialogue with Edward Said’s Orientalism, which highlighted the West’s practice of defining and controlling the Orient as “other” and exotic in an imperial world.

jean-etienne liotard

“Marie-Adelaide de France dressed as a Turk” by Jean-Etienne Liotard, 1753, oil on canvas

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“This book argues that imaginative fiction, just as much as scholarly disquisitions or mainstream philology, defined European understandings of cultures that were seemingly foreign but that shared the past in ways that needed expert explanation. Oriental tales, pseudoethnographies, sexual fantasies, and political utopias speculated about a largely imaginary East…oriental tales featured attempts to criticize European cultural practices as irrational by reference to non-European observers; they projected Europe onto the Orient and vice versa in order to make larger inductions about sexuality, religion, and politics; and they expressed a strong desire to understand civilizational differences both relativistically and universally. Did a universal human nature exist, or were there only incommensurable cultural varieties with their relative value systems? Many of these fictional accounts imagined the Orient as superior to the Occident, even as they titillated European readers with armchair voyagings and vicarious imaginings that sometimes bore little relation to realities in those countries…”

From Srinivas Aravamudan’s Enlightenment Orientalism (2012, University of Chicago Press)

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Also: I realize that so far I have skewed this OTTW feature toward my 18th century studies…more variety to come, I promise!

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