Emily A. Haddad’s study of the influence of orientalism on European poetics is a timely reminder of the long-standing tendency of the West to stereo-type the Islamic Middle East. In this case, the stereotypes are seen to have what may be an unexpected effect: In Orientalist Poetics: The Islamic Middle East in Nineteenth-Century English and French Poetry, Haddad argues that orientalism was essential to English and French poetic developments through the nineteenth century. Perceived by European orientalists as entirely non-representational, Islamic art was a stimulus to consideration of alternatives to a mimetic poetics. Furthermore, since it was inaccessible to empirical verification, the Orient as a subject was a site for destabilization of the convention of mimesis. Most significantly, the Islamic Middle East was seen by nine-teenth-century European poets as “ontologically unnatural” (2002, 9) in environment, morality, and spirituality, thus serving as an ideal subject for poetry whose makers were exploring the role of nature as poetry’s one best subject and its point of origin. In short, as model and source, the Orient and orientalism provided the opportunity for poetic experimentation which culminated in a revolutionary aesthetics: “Nineteenth-century poetics’ evolution towards a stance of art for art’s sake owes both its origin and its progression in large part to … the Orient’s supposedly inherent artfulness …”(10).
Haddad isn’t interested in detailing a distinction between French and English orientalisms, though she comments on the value of countering the “totalizing, monolithic orientalism” of Edward Said (2002, 54). Instead, her study elucidates the role played by European orientalism in the debate over crucial questions of poetics: edification vs./and entertainment, (mis)representation, and the (un)natural subject of poetry. Organized into four chapters which are further subdivided into extremely short sections (two to seven pages each), her book traces the complicated route of the evolution of romanticism in the works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Southey, Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset,William Wordsworth, and others, and then the post-romantic poetics of, primarily, William Wordsworth, Theophile Gautier, Mathew Arnold, Alfred Tennyson, and Oscar Wilde. Plentiful footnotes position Haddad within the current critical scene and offer avenues for more indepth research, and a cumulative rhetoric reminds the reader that patience may lead to greater rewards than will immediate gratification of the desire to identify a writer’s argument.
Shelley’s The Revolt of Islam and Southey’s Thalaba the Destroyer are the grounds on which Haddad explores the convention of poetry’s function as pedagogy through pleasure. Haddad points to Shelley’s appropriation of the Romantics’ Orient–ahistorical, exotic, and thus available for idealization–in order to instruct his readers in his vision of a bloodless revolution of love. She shows how The Revolt of Islam feeds on conventional associations of Islam with tyranny, slavery, and violence and their vehicles of religion and sexism, and how, with 1001 Nights as its model for structure and images, it masks Shelley’s (denied) pedagogy in pleasure while also allowing him to reject a poetics of mimesis. Southey, on the other hand, by grounding his poetry in extensive research, could claim an instructive purpose as well as a representational style, but his use of imaginative excess and Arabesque ornament as integral to his poem’s structure, his construction of foreignness as a hermeneutic category, and his reference to orientalist material as a resource undermine his poem’s mimesis and complicate its position in the debate over poetic imitation and poetry’s purpose.
More specifically in terms of representation, Haddad examines the “aesthetic compromise” (2002, 55) with neoclassicism reached by Hugo in Les Orientales and the parodic orientalism with which Musset responded to Hugo and challenged mimesis in “Namouna: conte oriental,” Hugo offered orientalism as a poetic methodology, an intellectual mode of engagement, that asserted the Orient as a proper subject for poetry. The result is a poetics conceived in dream–the Orient, after all, was accessed through orientalism–and therefore an unacknowledged break with representation. Hugo’s representation turns out to be a re-presentation of orientalist conventions of form and an imitation of his own creative process, in which the Orient is not an end in itself but a stereotyped source of fantasy–a muse which is subsumed into the poetic project and, finally, abandoned for the stable referents of Europe’s reality.
Midway, Haddad makes a distinction fundamental to her argument: that between representation, or the expression of an empirical reality, and referentiality, expression of what is imagined. She makes a convincing case for the radical disruption of mimesis by Musset’s representation of representation as inadequate to its purposes, and thus his advocating of a complete turn to a referentiality giving fantasy an ontological and literary status equal to that of reality. She demonstrates how, “eprived (or freed?) of its privileged relationship with reality, representation degenerates (or evolves?) into a referentiality” that can no longer be rooted in any kind of truth (2002, 95).
In the second half of her book, Haddad addresses the impact of orientalism on the issue of nature as poetry’s origin, finding that as “nature’s other” (2002, 103) the Orient functioned as the key factor in a subversion of mimesis when it displaced nature as poetry’s source. She teases out, in the works of Wordsworth, Southey, Arnold, Tennyson, Wilde, and others an evolving philosophy of human relationship with nature and the poetic methodology, form, and content it comprised. Tracing the conflating of nature and human nature through nineteenth-century poetry, Haddad shows how the uneven path of orientalist treatments of the Middle Eastern landscape led to a romantic poetics of sentimental expression inspired by Europe’s ideal nature, to the replacement of mimesis by semiosis when signifier was delinked from already-textualized signified, and then to the Victorian rejection of nature as a standard for and the origin of poetry within the orientalist medium of Middle Eastern nature’s antagonistic relation to the human. Lacking the elements of the sublime, the Middle Eastern landscape initially emphasized, by contrast and by inherent lack, the inspirational capacity of the European environment; with the art for art’s sake movement, the specific stereotypes of the Orient receded from poetic philosophy, leaving artfulness itself a “suppressed” orientalism (155) that depended on an assumed essential affinity between the Orient and art. By the end of the century, the Orient needn’t even be mentioned; it has become “an invisible center of gravity” (201) of English and French poetics.
Haddad’s readings of the poems are thorough (perhaps even repetitive in the final chapter), and she shows us the reaction of contemporary critics to the development of orientalist poetics, yielding a densely textured analysis that requires serious concentration and is well worth the effort. She offers no simplistic construction of orientalism in European poetics but rather a smart, engaging study that adds depth and interest to her predecessors’ work in the field.