Gothic and the Oriental Renaissance Transgressive Boundaries

Gothic and the Oriental Renaissance Transgressive Boundaries
© Photograph by Bruce Walker

The Gothic is frequently identified with two obsessions: a concern with otherness and alterity, and a compulsion to explore socially aberrant desires and transgress boundaries. It is also a mode that disdains generic purity and embraces hybridity, hence the dismay it inspired in many eighteenth-century neo-classicist critics scornful of its mixing of genres, its stylistic excesses, its troubling popularity and its resolute illegitimacy.

All these generic hallmarks of Gothic can be seen in its febrile intertwining with that other, older eighteenth-century and Romantic mode, Orientalism. The Gothic and the Oriental manifest a shared concern with representing the alien and the other to European cultures, yet it is also a truism of Gothic and Orientalist criticism that both may be used as a means of representing the dark, irrational and monstrous at the heart of British society.

The despotism and violence of Gothic and Orientalist narratives often reflect on the iniquities of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century patriarchal and bourgeois ideologies, especially the power of men over women. Both Gothic and Oriental were crucial modes by which British nationality and subjectivity were constructed (Sage 1988; Schmitt 1997).

They were also notable modes in which authors used exoticism and excess to explore alternative or unstable sexual identities and desires. Despite the frequently oppressive, often unconvincing surface moralism common to both genres, such narratives were able vicariously to employ exoticism to represent non-heteronormative desires and practices, safely distanced from the reality of an often-savage eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century social and legal repression.

The Romantic period has sometimes been described as an “Oriental Renaissance” as the growing European fascination with, and discovery of, Eastern languages, literatures and commodities such as tea, silks and porcelain fuelled the imaginations of writers and readers with Eastern or Oriental subjects.

Both Gothic and Romanticism developed from Orientalism. In particular, the translation of the collection of popular Arabian and Persian tales — Alf layla wa layla, known in English as ‘The Thousand and One Nights or The Arabian Nights’ by Antoine Galland — into French (1704) and by others into English (1712 onwards) firmly established the British cultural fascination with the East (Schwab 1984; Leask 1992; Sardar 1999; Macfie 2002; Ballaster 2005; Hoeveler and Cass 2006; Makdisi and Nussbaum 2008; Cavaliero 2010; Garcia 2012).

These tales were profoundly influential upon European writers. They established the idea of an Eastern world in which magic and the supernatural were prevalent. It was a world of cruel and despotic rulers, beautiful persecuted princesses, genies and djinns and paradisiacal gardens, the abiding symbol of which was the seraglio or harem, with its sensual indulgences and voluptuous delights (Kabbani 1986).

‘The Thousand and One Nights or The Arabian Nights’ employed a framing narrative in which Scheherazade spins every night an unfinished tale to entrance the misogynistic and bloodthirsty Sultan Scharhriar, thus deferring and preventing her execution for the thousand and one nights of the collection’s title.

This, combined with the complex narrative embedding of tales within tales, was highly influential on the narrative structure of the Gothic tale. Such tales were numerous as the century wore on, penned by such notable writers as Samuel Johnson, John Hawkesworth, Frances Sheridan and many more (Ballaster 2005).

Srinivas Aravamudan has even claimed that the Oriental tale should be regarded as the major fictional mode of the eighteenth-century, though displaced by an unwarranted critical privileging of the rise of bourgeois domestic and realistic fiction (Aravamuddan 2012).

This fascination with the East was intensified with the increasing British involvement with India throughout the century. Sir William Jones, the chief justice of the Supreme Court at Bengal, was responsible, with his fellow Orientalists in the Royal Asiatic Society (founded 1787), for a series of translations of Persian (the official language of the Mogul Court) and Sanscrit texts.

Jones, who also produced his own Orientalist verse, regarded the East as a new source of imaginative and creative renewal, and his writings and translations profoundly influenced Romantic writers such as Coleridge and P. B. Shelley.

Contemporary post-colonial criticism, however, has eschewed a reading of Romantic Orientalism as either the sympathetic engagement with other cultures or as mere escapist exoticism.

Edward Said and those who follow him argued that Europeans constructed the East as a negative stereotype against which to define their own self-image as rational, modern, scientific, enlightened and progressive, as a means of justifying to themselves their increasing military and colonial domination of those territories, especially Islamic Egypt, the Levant, Arabia and the Ottoman Empire (Said 1978; Sardar 1999).

It is no accident, of course, that Oriental Gothic came of age just as Britain acquired more and more territory in India, and was increasingly involved in the global power politics of the East as the Ottoman Empire entered its long period of slow decline.

Orientalism as a scholarly discipline — that is, the study of the languages, beliefs and cultures of Eastern peoples — was coterminous with this process, and informed the cultural products of the age in the form of substantial annotations derived from allegedly authoritative sources of travellers, historians and linguists.

From its inception, Gothic was heavily imbricated in the Oriental. David Porter has argued that the Gothic style was virtually interchangeable in architecture, interior design and landscape gardening with that craze for all things Chinese, known as Chinoiserie or the “Chinese Taste” (Porter 2011).

Chinoiserie, with its irregularities and studied wildness, was increasingly defined in opposition to the balance, order and harmony of neo-classicism and the Palladian style in architecture; it was also frequently identified and, as often, confused with the mid-to-late eighteenth-century revival of interest in the medieval that we now know as “Gothic”.

The irregularity and exoticism of Chinoiserie easily harmonised with the taste for the irrational and supernatural that became a hallmark of the Gothic aesthetic. As a contributor to The World in 1776 commented, “how much of late we are improved by architecture; not merely by the adoption of what we call Chinese, nor by the restoration of what we call Gothic; but by a happy mixture of both. From Hyde Park to Shoreditch scarce a chandler’s shop or an oyster-stall but has embellishments of this kind […] almost everywhere, all is Chinese or Gothic” (qtd. in Porter 2011: 125).

Not only were Gothic and Chinoiserie defined by their sense of irrationality and whimsy, they were both illegitimate hybrid or mixed modes capable of being combined in monstrous and unusual forms and part of a dangerous and infectious cultural obsession with the exotic and unusual. Most of all, Chinoiserie was concerned with interior decoration, wallpaper, lacquer work, furniture, silks and hangings, porcelain and tea services.

This orientalist Gothic Chinoiserie would notably resurface in 1821 when Thomas De Quincey notoriously recounted his terrifying opium nightmares pursued by a cancerous crocodile amid Egyptian, Indian and generally Asiatic horrors in his ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’.

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