Mar 12, 2016
Poetic (mis)representations of the Orient: A study of Shelley, Hugo and Goethe’s Involvements with Islam
“In vain do we struggle ... to convey the rhythms and
contours, the feel of this inner life, not only the feel of our
emotions, of our joy or our grief, but the feel of our thinking
too, its involutions and convolutions, its ramifications and
tensions ... It eludes all language save the language of art”
(Elizabeth. M. Wilkinson)
The wilderness has a mysterious tongue
Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild,
So solemn, so serene, that man may be,
But for such a faith, with nature reconciled.
Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
Large codes of fraud and woes, not understood
By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel. (11.76-83)
(Shelley, "Mont Blanc" (1816))
“I have not been able to discover any period in European or American history since the middle Ages in which Islam was generally discussed or thought about outside a framework created by passion, prejudice, and political interests. This may not seem a surprising discovery, but included in it is the entire gamut of scholarly and scientific disciplines which, since the early nineteenth century, have either called themselves collectively the discipline of Orientalism, or have tried systematically to deal with the Orient.”
(Edward Said, Covering Islam, p. 23.)
The state of Art:
In a powerful book entitled The Oriental Renaissance: Europe’s Rediscovery of India and the East, 1680-1880 (1984), the French writer Raymond Schwab, with the pen of a historian, ventured to label the European Romantic Movement (1798-1824) as the “Oriental Renaissance”. According to him, this is not a second Renaissance but “the first, belatedly reaching its logical culmination.” The Orient is no longer “a fantasy of blasé cosmopolitans who turned their gaze toward faraway places” (my life of Anquetil) causing Europe to discover, and lose sight of, the Orient because of the purely mythic history representing it as a fabulous other world and the erroneous desire to find “analogous classicisms.” With the Romantic Movement, however, here
is one of the rare times when the forming of a new atmosphere can be
perceived: as a result of certain repeated conjunctions of personnel and resources,
a thrust in the unconscious of one or two generations, little by little a widening
historical vision expanded the horizon of creative thinkers and allowed a
reminting of the current coin of ideas. Henceforth the world would be one where
Sanskrit and linguistics, even for those unaware of them, would have changed
images peopling time and space.
(The Oriental Renaissance, trans. G. Patterson-Black
And V. Reinking, Columbia University Press, pp. 16.)
Indeed, Romantic writers paid particular attention and looked to the Orient, which usually meant the Islamic world familiar to European readers of the translation of the Arabian Nights. Coleridge, for example, adopted a rhapsodic visionary style associated with the poetry of oriental nations (consider his poem Kubla Khan for instance). In his ‘Essay on the Poetry of the Eastern Nations’ of 1772, Sir William Jones had argued that whereas European culture was marked by reason, Oriental culture exemplified imagination in a superior degree. Jones believed that by the study of Oriental literature: ‘European writers would be furnished with a new set of images and similitudes’ (Jones, Works, 1799, pp. 547-8). Jones complained that European writers have ‘subsisted too long on the perpetual repetition of the same images, and incessant allusions to the same fables’. Thus his essays and translations of Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic literature were indeed instrumental in creating a literary taste for things Oriental.
Orientalism, then, is intrinsic to Romanticism. Two important questions are to be asked in this respect: What is the historical meaning of the powerful Romantic leaning to the orient? Is this an oriental escapism or rather a ‘widening vision expanding the horizon of creative thinkers hence a reminting of the current coin of ideas?’ (Raymond Schwab). If we content ourselves with the answer provided by Edward Said in his book Orientalism (1978) contending that it is precisely the question of imperialism that lies at the bottom of the Romantic fascination with the Orient, we will, accordingly, overlook, rather than highlight, what poetic representations of the Islamic Orient can serve as an indispensable matrix for the re-examination of such aesthetically fundamental issues as the PURPOSE of POETRY, the VALUE of MIMESIS and the RELATIONSHIP between NATURE and ART (consider Emily A. Haddad’s book Orientalist Poetics: The Islamic Middle East in Nineteenth-century English and French Poetry, 2002).
The Orient, the Islamic Orient precisely, We must say, was not approached by the Romantics as an end in itself but, as Said astutely demonstrated in Orientalism (1987), as a stereotyped source of fantasy—a muse which is subsumed into the Romantic poetic project and, finally, abandoned for the stable referents of Europe’s reality. In general terms, Said tells us in his book Covering Islam that he has not
been able to discover any period in European or American history
since the middle Ages in which Islam was generally discussed or
thought about outside a framework created by passion, prejudice,
and political interests. This may not seem a surprising discovery,
but included in it is the entire gamut of scholarly and scientific
disciplines which, since the early nineteenth century, have either
called themselves collectively the discipline of Orientalism, or have
tried systematically to deal with the Orient.
(Edward Said, Covering Islam, p. 23.)
As the intellectual outcome of the European affiliation of power with knowledge, Orientalism is a Western cultural phenomenon which is particularly related to the colonial and post-colonial reception of the Orient, its people and history. Orientalism, states Edward W. Said, is "a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, 'us') and the strange (the orient, the East, 'them')."(1) As the "strong" and the "familiar" entity, the West finds it automatic and, at times, imperative that "the Oriental is contained and represented by dominating frameworks." However, as we shall see when we consider the Orientalist Romantic output of nineteenth-century English, French and German poetry, not all Orientalists were driven by imperialist agendas of domination and exploitation. Orientalism has “changed its character to the point where it is now used in antithesis to its original meaning” (Tansley, Rethinking Orientalism). Most often, Romantic writers were sincere and empathetic for the Orient. They were not, to be sure, some gung-ho empire-builders. They often contemplated the Orient with a certain ambivalence, with fear as well as fascination. We should therefore be “on the lookout for anxieties rather than principled opposition to empire in the literature of the period” (Nigel Leask, Colonialism and the exotic, 1996).
The Romantic vision of the Orient in general and Islam in particular can by no means be homogenized but should, nevertheless, be invoked to make it possible for us, Orientals and Muslims, to re-read our past through a revisionist and negotiated perspective the aim of which is to enrich our culture and history.
This dissertation will seek to read and revisit the Orientalist works of such Romantic poets as P. B. Shelley, V. Hugo and Goethe in their evocations of the Orient in general and Islam in particular.
As the title of this dissertation renders in focus, The Orient (the Islamic Orient) is not only represented but also misrepresented. Orientalist poems have always been viewed as ‘artefacts of European attitudes towards the East, the Islamic Middle East and the Orient in general.
In its theoretical part, this dissertation will mainly draw upon the work of Edward Said even as it will react upon it. Then, such influential critics and philosophers as Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser and Emmanuel Levinas will also be useful throughout the different stages of this dissertation. As for the corpus to be studied, critical attention will be paid to the tools used by the New Critical school in its reading of poetry.
This memoir will comprise five chapters. The introduction will aim at highlighting the background of Romantic Orientalism and Islam. Then, each of the three chapters will avail itself to the reading of the three poets we have proposed respectively; P. B. Shelley, V. Hugo and Goethe. The common thread between them is, of course, that of the evocation of the Orient and Islam. It will finally be the conclusion bringing together the different elements of the Romantic vision of Islam and suggesting further readings and rethinking of Orientalism.
The nineteenth-century historiographic and literary Orientalist output is highly rewarding, not only because it shows us the image of our past through a different and biased perspective, but also because Orientalist motives and compulsions, distortions and prejudices, provide the Oriental writers with the counter-compulsion and with the incentive to research his own history in an enlightened and objective manner. “Orientalists have offered us foreign perspectives and coercive challenges which have enriched our approaches to our culture and history.”
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