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Romantic Imperialism

by Saree Makdisi

Chapter 5: Domesticating exoticism: transformations of Britain's Orient, 1785-1835

  In other words, what I am delimiting here is a fundamental political and epistemic shift from an Enlightenment "discourse" of otherness to a more properly modern and evolutionary one: a rupture symbolically marked by the contrast between, on the one hand, Burke and Jones, and, on the other hand, Mill and Macaulay (read as exemplary figures). This transition, in part, contributes towards the ambivalence, anxiety, and uneasiness of some of the writers in this period, in very similar ways to those in which it contributes towards the realignment of British colonial and imperial policies, fantasies, and ideologies. This is not to say that Enlightenment or romantic attitudes, fantasies, desires, and tropes do not appear much later in the nineteenth century, or even on into the twentieth, for they do. But following the emergence of what Homi Bhabha calls "the discourse of colonialism" (though again I would qualifiy this as distinctly the discourse of modern colonialism), such attitudes and tropes would be largely residual afterglows.[66] 

  Billie Melman, contesting what she describes as Said's "androcentric" account of Orientalism, proposes "an alternative, gender-specific discourse on the Middle East, one which evolved alongside the dominant discussion, which nowadays is described as Orientalism." [67] Melman argues that "in the eighteenth century there emerged an alternative view of the Orient which developed, during the nineteenth century, alongside the dominant one. The new view, which is expressed in more diverse images that are in many ways more complex than the orientalist topos, is found in the mammoth body of writings by women travellers to and residents in, the Middle East." [68] Part, though not all, of the distinction that I have been making in these pages between pre-modern and modern Orientalism, Melman argues in terms of an opposition between male and female writing on the Orient. As a result, historical shifts and ruptures within each of the gendered paradigms that she distinguishes, as well as historical overlaps and continuities between her two paradigms, are almost totally obliterated. Thus, many of the signs that she argues are characteristic of "women's" domesticating Orientalism can be found in James Mill, in Robert Southey, in Thomas Macaulay, in William Jones, in Edmund Burke.[69] Gender constructions and identities do indeed have important roles to play in the shifts in modes of Orientalism, but Melman ends up decontextualizing gender and dehistoricizing it. But despite all this, Melman's book, which is based on readings of a huge range of women's texts, throws open an important avenue for discussion. In her conclusion, Melman argues that by the end of the nineteenth century,  

    The Orient came to be the opposite of a rational and rationalizing West, superior and identified as "masculine." The oriental female apothosized that Orient's "otherness." But, as I hope I have shown . . . the image of the different was never monolithic and, certainly, not androcentric. Women travellers, missionaries and writers did not perceive the oriental woman as the absolutely alien, the ultimate "other." Rather oriental women became the feminine West's recognisable image in the mirror. The haremlik was not the ne plus ultra of an exotic décor, but a place comparable to the bourgeois home. And even alien landscapes were domesticated and feminised, by evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike. Of course, the reconstruction of the Orient cannot and should not be separated from the construction of the notion of Empire and from modern Imperialism. Nonetheless the processes outlined in this book should be related primarily to the Bildung of individuals, the evolution of class culture and to concepts of gender and feminine sexuality.[70]

  The trouble with this assessment is that it was not historically confined to English women's attitudes towards the Orient, although this tendency towards the (imaginary) domestication of the other constitutes a central pillar in the modern ideologies of empire that began emerging in the early nineteenth century. In this sense, the "civilizing mission" of modern British imperialism can be seen as one of planetary "domestication," through which England's unfolding domestic sphere could be extended to the entire world - or rather, through which the entire world could be absorbed into the bosom of gentle English domesticity. Despite her important insights into this, Melman is methodologically trapped by her insistence on this domesticating outlook as a peculiarly female phenomenon; whereas I would argue that it is a specifically modern phenomenon, characteristic of later nineteenth-century discourses on the Oriental other.

  In this sense, the civilizing virtue that the later empire ascribed to itself is actually one of a class- as well as gender-oriented "domestication," through which crude and unsophisticated others could be tamed and slowly raised to the heights of a (constructed) feminine and bourgeois English domesticity: an ideal which Nancy Armstrong argues was constructed around the modern bourgeois subject, who, she suggests, was "first and foremost a woman." [71] In addition to the more familiar construction of a violent and punitive imperialism (which is always "lurking in the wings"), the process of colonization could also be presented to the world (and to England itself ) as one of gentility, domesticity, affection, and nurturance: "To have found a great people sunk in the lowest depths of slavery and superstition, to have ruled them so as to have made them desirous and capable of all the privileges of citizens, would indeed be a title to glory all our own." [72] The mission that Macaulay here defines as that of the British empire is, indeed, exactly analagous to the role of the bourgeois household in preparing individual citizens for the hard realities of the public sphere; only the "home" for Macaulay is a British colony - a colony ideally constructed as a large-scale bourgeois "intérieur," so that the discourses of race, class, and gender become inextricably connected.

  Here Mary Poovey's suggestive reading of Florence Nightingale is particularly illuminating. Poovey argues that, in the period following the failed Indian Revolution of 1857, Nightingale persistently presented India as if it were the "brute" working-class soldier whose "treatment" (which was more than a strictly-speaking "medical" treatment) she deals with in her notes on nursing during the Crimean War. Thus, Poovey writes, "the two discourses actually employed exactly the same terms in different social registers: the patient (read: India, the poor) is really a brute (a native, a working-class man) who must be cured (colonized, civilized) by an efficient head nurse cum bourgeois mother (England, middle-class women)." She adds that "the ultimate goal in both projects is a tidy society where there is 'no waste of material or force or space,' where 'we learn to have patience with our circumstances and ourselves,' where 'we become more disciplined, more content to work where we are placed.' In both cases, surveillance, discipline, and good administration are the keys to this transformation; in each case, a housewifely, regal, classless woman presides." [73] Thus, just as a constructed gender discourse could be mobilized for an assessment and justification of class constructs and attitudes, "conquest and colonial rule could also be written as the government of love, which was superintended by a motherly monarch." [74]

  In the next chapter, I will consider at greater length some of the implications of this emergent modern Orientalism and particularly its intersection with discourses of "improvement," transformation, and domestication. In the meantime, I want to reiterate that this new formation never went unopposed by alternative constructions and images of the Orient and of British imperialism. Certain romantic writers, such as Byron (whom I will consider more closely in the next chapter), radically opposed such a cult of domesticity and its translation into imperial ideology. For Byron, the Orient was precisely a place from which to escape such ideologies and their attendant privileging of the modern and theEuropean. In particular, Byron's Orient ("the greenest island of my imagination," he once wrote [75]) was a place to which one could flee from English domesticity, from Christianity, from modernity: a space from which one could critique these emergent constructions, and in which one could celebrate alternatives to them (not least the unrestrainedly masculine, which also underlies Scott's libidinal investment of a pre-domesticated/"feminized" Highlands, as well as the avowedly male homosociality of "the East"). By the middle and late nineteenth century, such views as these would be residual reminders of a different construction and representation (and libidinal investment) of the Orient; but they can be found, for instance, in Kipling's Kim,in Conrad's Lord Jim, in Burton's Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, in Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

  Perhaps the shift that I have been describing here is related to the distinction that Anne Mellor and others have suggested, between the loosely defined conceptual structures of "masculine" and "feminine" (not male and female) romanticisms, and particularly for the cultural project underlying the shifts in the patterns and ideological justifications for nineteenth-century British colonialism (some of which I have just suggested).[76] Mellor makes a provisional distinction between the ideologies of a "masculine" romanticism (which she argues is partly predicated on the constructed assumption of an often violent antagonism between self and other) and a "feminine" romanticism (predicated on a construction of self that is "fluid, absorptive, responsive, with permeable ego boundaries," and hence a constructed self that can assimilate its other). Might there be a correspondence between what Mellor calls this "masculine" romanticism, which is not at all restricted to male writers, and certain non-transformative notions of empire (e.g., William Jones, Edmund Burke); and, on the other hand, Mellor's "feminine" romanticism, again not restricted to women writers, and later (modern) views of empire (e.g., Nightingale, Macaulay), which stress the maternal and nurturing duties of Victorian Britain towards her colonies? If this is the case, then what Mellor proposes as a secondary or subaltern cultural form or literary/ideological structure in the romantic period ("feminine" romanticism) would, together with its attendant constructs of fluid and absorptive subjectivity, shift to prominence in the Victorian period. Admittedly, this actually goes far beyond what Mellor argues, and even distorts her argument altogether by recontextualizing it and reorienting what seems to be the originally privileged or dominant ideology of "masculine" romanticism (with its attraction to immutable difference). The latter can now be seen to have gradually faded away into the nineteenth century, as one mode of imperialism replaced another.

  In one sense, this shift also marks a transition from the symbolic production of difference to the symbolic production not so much of identity as of a practically infinite range of hybridities;[77] signaling the end of a quest for otherness and a troubled beginning of a new quest for sameness. With this double transition, the Orient ceases to be a site of immutable difference, and becomes instead a space to be cleansed, purged, and re-written - a symbolic space for the representation and contestation of Western and European concerns, values and desires, rather than their unchangeable and libidinally charged opposites. In the next chapter, I will consider this spatial reinvention of the Orient and of the colonial other in greater detail, through two emblematic literary texts: the second canto of Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, and Shelley's poem, Alastor; or, the Spirit of Solitude.

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