A Defense of Romanticism

By J.F. Sullivan

Edward Said

That Edward Said’s book Orientalism is a classic is not in dispute.  That it is still relevant today is also clear; this 1978 text and its subsequent editions have been used by countless classrooms and is a required book in no less than (but possibly more than) three courses this semester at Georgia State University alone.  Its continued relevance is a testament to the degree with which the conversation about Orientalism rages on.  Regardless of anyone’s particular feelings about the book or its arguments, it has to be credited (at least in part) with a profound shift in the academic and public discussions about colonialism, imperialism, and the value of the emic (insider) perspective.  It is difficult to say how much of the book’s value lies in the text itself or what has been done with it by others.  While I think Said correctly identified the problem of Orientalism and its relationship to discourses of power, namely the collective (and potentially domineering) imagination vis-à-vis the Orient, its peoples and its relative value; after more than 25 years since its initial publication, it is now questionable whether his identification of the problem of Orientalism has inspired many beneficial results.

Indeed it is possible that the after effects and unintended consequences that came in the wake of Said’s book may have done more to negatively impact perceptions of the Orient (specifically the Middle East) than it was intended to help.  Anyone even superficially examining the rhetoric as well as the images or representations of Muslims, Arabs, Middle Easterners etc. in America today, may see no real signs of any enlightened thinking or greater understanding of the peoples or cultures of the so-called orient, even this many years after Said’s treatise.

Astonishingly, the wake of Said’s Orientalism may have led to the hindrance of a key element of cultural understanding which might have proved helpful in abating some of the oppositional rhetoric and cultural conflict which has fueled negative sentiments between both the Middle East and the “West” but also may have mitigated some of the rhetoric and actual violence perpetrated on, and following, the events of 9/11.

The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones, in an intriguing opinion piece written in response to criticism of an exhibition held at London’s Tate Britain Art Gallery entitled The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting, criticized Said and his treatise, along with the damage he believes was done to the western appreciation and understanding of the Middle East, thus producing some of the rampant Islamaphobia going on in the West.

Today the West is bleakly incurious about the history of Islam, its art, peoples and learning.  There’s a blank wall of terror.  This wall has been strengthened by Said’s book because it closes down a crucial way for cultures to encounter one another: it closes down romanticism.

Jones’ observation is a simple but potent one.  As he continues,

Europeans and Americans in the 19th century knew more about the cultures of the Middle East than we do now.  They read the Tales of the 1001 Arabian Nights and dreamt of the Alhambra.  Was this just a complacent Imperialist celebration of power, based on the contrast between nostalgia for the great Oriental past and contempt for the Arab present?  No, I think there was real curiosity and admiration.  But where has it gone?

What Jones points out is that in the attempt to respond to the Orientalism that Said illuminated, we may have thrown the baby out with the bath water.  While Jones treats Said more harshly than I think he deserves, the point is well taken.  Does romanticism play a role in cultural understanding which helps to alleviate phobias and stereotypes?  I would argue that it does.

Romanticism is not history and was never intended to be taken literally or understood to be historically accurate.  What it does do is inspire.  Many who would go on to become some of the greatest of Orientalist scholars were raised on a diet of travel writing, art, and fantastic and exotic stories about the oriental world (again primarily the Middle East). This was not a new phenomenon however.  The same fantasies that inspired scholars to seek the orient were not dissimilar from the attitudes and fantasies about the Greeks that inspired scholars and philosophers to study ancient Greek culture and also pursue its treasures both literal and figurative.  This manner of inspiration continues to this day.

Many modern martial artists and Asian Studies aficionados acquired their first flash of inspiration from Bruce Lee, Saturday morning kung fu theatre, and stories of ninjas and samurai.  Not an insignificant number of archaeologists under the age of 45 may have received their first push toward their discipline of study from Indiana Jones.  In the same way, many modern day Islamacists and Middle Eastern Studies scholars (myself, and Said by his own admission included) were inspired by the art and stories collected and created by those who would now be caught in Said’s Orientalist net.

The same holds true for the general public.  Just as romantic art and stories inspired scholars to begin the study of people and places, so were everyday travelers and armchair students.  Romantic ideas inspired travel along with a desire for history, stories, and art related to these exotic and inspirational places.  Fascination often leads to interest which can also lead to a fundamental form of knowledge and appreciation (even if it is not entirely accurate).  The missing ingredient that prevents romanticism from turning into the kind of Orientalism that bothered Said is ethical responsibility.  It is incumbent upon the scholar or the lay student to understand that romantic portrayals are not history or anthropology.  Romanticism creates the fantasy and the air of specialness which is then tempered by actual knowledge.

In his article, Jones mentions Jean-Leon Gerome’s The Snake Charmer (which was also used as the cover for the paperback version of Said’s book).  This work is a hodge-podge of Middle Eastern and Asian elements – faux Arabic script, carpets, representative figures from across the Islamic world, diverse representative styles of dress and ornamentation, which incorporate all the elements of a classic Orientalist work.  Were this image to be viewed historically or culturally it would appear disconnected, misrepresentative and potentially offensive.  But, if the image is seen as a romantic portrayal of a collage of inspirational elements, then we can feel free to revel in its wonder and bask in its fantasy.  It may not be a true and correct picture, and it should not be considered as such, but if it does its job, it would inspire someone long enough to seek out a true and correct picture which could even instill the desire to impart understanding and appreciation to others.  Indiana Jones does not represent real archaeology any more than House resembles a real doctor or Starsky and Hutch real cops, but the inspiration of these fictions might lead to real practitioners who retain the sense of excitement needed to love their work and the ethical responsibility needed to do it well.  In the end, I think Jones is correct to indicate that we lose something when we lose romanticism.

In truth, if we seek information or knowledge about someone, someplace, or something, without having an inherent appreciation for it, aren’t we more likely to miss its key aspects or nuances in favor of a preconceived opinion (especially if that opinion is already negative)?  No one ever set off on a dangerous journey of discovery to seek something that they believed was devoid of value or specialness.

Filed Under: Culture & ArtFeaturedJ.F. Sullivan


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