To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Reconfiguring Romanticism (21): Some Orientalisms

with Jeffrey C. Robinson

One must not turn one’s back on the mysterious and the unknown. The rare moments when myth consents to grab you by the throat . . . to seek entry among the everyday facts of life . . . ; the hallucinated minutes that can nonetheless be measured with a watch, whose ticking then resounds over the years: none of this ought to be neglected” (V. Segalen).

The subversive gap in the nineteenth-century colonialist drive for control over non-European peoples appeared in the domain of culture, & particularly of poetry. That is, “orientalism” had a double inflection: the colonization of peoples mostly from the Middle East, North Africa, & India but including China & the Far East, & the objectivizing of the exotic Other. Yet the sheer acknowledgement of the Other instilled a vision of what Victor Segalen, writing from the 1870s onward, called “le divers” & produced in readers the capacity to revel in these multiple differences. At the end of the eighteenth century the plethora of new information about the East “put into doubt the basic legitimacy of the Christian state and cut to the heart of anxieties about European power and identity” (Nigel Leask). If governments thought of the outcome of colonialism as appropriation of other cultures & economies, poets, often inventing or emulating the Other’s voice, would typically seize the “orientalist” occasion as the horizon beyond the familiar, the locus, in Emily Dickinson’s phrase, of the “unreportable place,” unknown myths, unknown subjectivities.

The East not only represented diversity, it also—in the hands of Sir William Jones, Gottfried Herder, Friedrich & August Schlegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, & others—contained “the sources” of religion & language in the West: for example, Friedrich Schlegel, Germany’s first competent Sanskritist, looked to India for the origin of European languages, & his brother August saw Indian religion as the likely source underlying all religions. Goethe’s interest in Islam & Emerson’s in Hinduism are further instances of the pervasive attraction of western poets to eastern spirituality. Nowhere, exclaimed the Indic encyclopedist Friedrich Majer, has the “eternal, infinite, self-sustaining Being” (here called Brahma) been described “in more beautiful truth and splendour than in those bewitching countries that in all probability were the cradle of humanity and the first workshop of God on earth.” This turn toward origins fed the Romantic drive for the recovery of basic human energies, the sources of life made inaccessible through centuries of kings & through modern bourgeois society. In this regard orientalism joined with the resurgence of interest in Grecoroman & Hebraic myths & images (included here is Byron’s Hebrew Melodies—a culture & people then often viewed as oriental), with a notable stress on myths of passion & the erotic. Drawing on sources from Indian religion, Friedrich Schlegel launched (at times in the spirit of Blake, whose figure of Asia in The Book of Los, is here included) a compelling account of visionary Romantic poetics. The Indian “doctrine of Emanation” Schlegel wrote, includes “the eternal progressive development of the Divinity, and of universal spiritual animation.” And he continued: “True [modern] poetry [emerges] when art has annexed so much to the original germ, becomes so only when it breathes a kindred spirit with those old heathen fictions, or because it springs from them.” Such poetry “contemplate[s] the inner life of that mythology.”

The section that follows this prologue includes the following works:

William Blake
From The Book of Los: Asia

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Arabian Ballad

George Gordon, Lord Byron
From The Giaour: Leila As Gazelle
From Hebrew Melodies Ancient & Modern: The Wild Gazelle

Victor Hugo
From Les Orientales: Bounaberdi

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Walt Whitman
From Passage to India

Charles Baudelaire
L’Invitation au Voyage

Victor Segalen
From Stelae: Roadside Stelae

[From Poems for the Millennium, Volume 3:The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry, scheduled for publication in January 2009. Earlier excerpts from Volume 3 appeared on June 11, June 18, June 24, July 6, July 13, July 21, July 29, August 7, August 16, September 7, September 22, October 3, October 9, October 20, & November 27. The full table of contents for volume 3 can be found at]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

But by extracting songs, hymns, chants from other cultures and placing them in a decontextualized setting, Ethnopoetics only replicated what was done, in the visual arts, in American and European museums: appropriation. And, to be honest, a kind of commodification. The turning of another culture's sacred texts into a Western cultural commodity, here lyric poetry.