Orientalism, historiography and travel writing

February 23, 2013

“Peacocks flew south while wild geese glided north
I left you with eyebrows furrowed and tears running down.”

– Li Mengyang, “The Song of an Abandoned Woman”

Edward Said coined the term “Orientalism” to expose an intellectual tradition of looking at far-away places as a dreamscape where our unfulfilled dreams should, by rights, come to life. If a princess of Jerusalem says in Kingdom of Heaven, “in the east, between one person and another, there is only light,” as far west as the Atlantic are dreams of the same kind.


Wide Sargasso Sea, the prequel to Jane Eyre

But even within the westernmost European milieu, there have always been romantic histories that put the author’s imagination, and his audience’s ideals and aesthetics, ahead of mundane facts about other countries’ politics. Take Schiller’s account of the Dutch revolts against Spanish imperialism, using just enough scenic detail about unfamiliar places to bring grand, rhetorical images of the past to life:

Nothing is more natural than the transition from civil liberty to religious freedom. Individuals … whose minds have been enlightened by activity, and feelings expanded by the enjoyments of life; whose natural courage has been exalted by internal security and prosperity … will be the first to emancipate themselves …

Italy, it might be objected, [was then] the seat of the greatest intellectual culture … But to a romantic people, whom a warm and lovely sky, a luxurious, ever young and ever smiling nature, and the multifarious witcheries of art, … keenly susceptible of sensuous enjoyment, that form of religion must naturally have been better adapted, which by its splendid pomp captivates the senses, by its mysterious enigmas opens an unbounded range to the fancy; and which, through the most picturesque forms, labors to insinuate important doctrines into the soul.

On the contrary, to a people whom the ordinary employments of civil life have drawn down to an unpoetical reality, who live more in plain notions than in images, and who cultivate their common sense at the expense of their imagination – to such a people that creed will best recommend itself which dreads not investigation, which lays less stress on mysticism than on morals, and which is rather to be understood than to be dwelt upon in meditation.

The History of the Revolt of the Netherlands

This style of remembering the past may be disloyal to the messiness of the facts, but it has a good deal to do with why anyone is the least bit curious about the past in the first place, by introducing a tableaux vivant on which light from the same sun “must have” played.

Saint Lucian poet Derek Walcott credits 19th century writers like Walt Whitman with teaching “the new world” further West not to dignify its own history this way, to abandon the style in which Americans “produced a literature of recrimination and despair, a literature of revenge written by the descendants of slaves or a literature of remorse written by the descendants of masters. Because this literature serves historical truth, it yellows into polemic or evaporates into pathos.”

Better, Walcott argues, if one “neither explains nor forgives history [and] refuses to recognize it as a creative or culpable force.” Whitman and Neruda, insisting on an Adamic vision of man in America, “reject this sense of history .. In their exuberance he is still capable of enormous wonder.”

Perhaps there is little danger in looking back. “Yet he has paid his accounts to Greece and Rome and walks in a world without monuments and ruins. They exhort him against the fearful magnet of older civilizations. .. Violence is felt with the simultaneity of history. So the death of a gaucho does not merely repeat, but is, the death of Caesar.”

An academic trained in historiography struggles to find some other thread to follow, and misses this egalitarian bent to the social memory of the Western hemisphere looking hard for polity in the plot. But not all well-worn paths have been exhausted in the archives. Chakrabarty argues one does not simply resort to “a simplistic, out-of-hand rejection of modernity, liberal values, universals, science, reason, grand narratives, totalizing explanations, and so on…”

He would rather pick up the machinery of “othering” civilizations conscientiously, and turn it experimentally against European intellectual authority, than renounce historical romances with their tourist-abroad attitudes altogether.


So, do we recognize the room when we change the light?

A poet translating himself from Russian like Joseph Brodsky might find “a crossing to another place, an accommodation of temperament, a shadowing of sensibility as the original poem pauses at the frontier where every proffered credential must be carefully, even cruelly, examined, .. an ordinary experience, if one thinks of the original verse as being merely an equivalent rendered by interlinears, then heightened, touched up, like a fake passport photo.”

In this sense, the reversal of orientation Chakrabarty proposes for “othering” everyday life, rendering Europe’s local history exotic and quaint, with all the unforgiving rigor of Enlightenment-era skepticism, is a very natural one. Temporal distance makes this easier than contemporary anthropology in the researcher’s own society. Self-scrutiny among the neighbors feels risky, compared to meditations on the letters of the dead. Do you want to know your audience that well?

For some reason, literary translation is already abundant.

The Western tradition can find itself selectively interpreted in Oriental hands, just as the Eastern landscape has been markedly distorted through Western eyes. Edmund Kostka’s Schiller in Russian Literature is a delightful glimpse at this process, capturing giants like Dostoyevsky in their schoolboy years (reading Schiller in secret), and showing how their own work reinterprets his exotic imported German idealism with a thoroughly Russian sensibility.

Seek ecstasy and frenzy, we are told, for while
we breathe the moistened air and drink the heady wine
we are the mystics of religious life, and fine
feelings for mankind will flow from us, and Christian
faith will soon deliver us, through that same passion.
There is a Dionysus in Christ, fierce and free
of hunger, teaching out of superfluity.
The soul’s inebriation is the source of good,
and in our wildness is confession understood.
Give us a leader of gorgeously-wreathed dancers,
deliver us from the crescendo of hunger
for a great accomplishment, take us far beyond
the creation of need to where the gods respond
to a fathomless golden bowl overflowing
with magical sentiment, giving and singing,
by making holidays of holy sacraments,
and sanctifying oaths on books of testament.
Lead us on to the West, corrupted and divine,
let us survive to see another lighted shrine.

To a Westerner, on the other hand, the Russia that received Schiller was an anachronism of European life.

Oscar Wilde said this of 19th century life in Russia: “A few Russian artists have realized themselves in Art; in a fiction that is mediaeval in character, because its dominant note is the realization of men through suffering. … A Nihilist who rejects all authority, because he knows authority to be evil, and welcomes all pain, because through that he realizes his personality, is a real Christian. To him the Christian ideal is a true thing.”


Pushkin, whose Eugene Onegin read Schiller and Goethe

Through the fascination with Schiller’s romanticism that generations of great Russian writers shared, this relatively obscure German poet enjoyed a Russian legacy that would find a way to stand tall even under Stalin.

His great translator for a generation of Russian novelists was an actor appearing frequently in The Robbers, and through the same play, Russia’s Schiller has been retained as a literary icon in the world socialist tradition to this day, although the poet’s plays are largely forgotten in the West.

Formerly a communist herself, Doris Lessing has argued that the story of salvation through pain in Christianity was absorbed by the communist rhetoric she learned in Southern Africa, during one of the more obscure wars in the fabled heart of darkness. Only in hindsight did it seem silly to her that communism had been promising young radicals that purges and collective sacrifice could pay the price for not just a better world, but a utopian social order. She had been taught to hope that through collective action, all could live peaceably, prosper, and experience a world without crime or discrimination.

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