Enlightenment Orientalism: Resisting the Rise of the Novel

Enlightenment Orientalism: Resisting the Rise of the Novel

by Srinivas Aravamudan

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Srinivas Aravamudan here reveals how Oriental tales, pseudo-ethnographies, sexual fantasies, and political satires took Europe by storm during the eighteenth century. Naming this body of fiction Enlightenment Orientalism, he poses a range of urgent questions that uncovers the interdependence of Oriental tales and domestic fiction, thereby challenging standard scholarly narratives about the rise of the novel.

More than mere exoticism, Oriental tales fascinated ordinary readers as well as intellectuals, taking the fancy of philosophers such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Diderot in France, and writers such as Defoe, Swift, and Goldsmith in Britain. Aravamudan shows that Enlightenment Orientalism was a significant movement that criticized irrational European practices even while sympathetically bridging differences among civilizations. A sophisticated reinterpretation of the history of the novel, Enlightenment Orientalism is sure to be welcomed as a landmark work in eighteenth-century studies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226024509
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/11/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 360
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Srinivas Aravamudan is professor of English, Romance studies, and in the literature program at Duke University.

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Resisting the Rise of the Novel


Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-02449-3

Chapter One

Fiction/Translation/Transculturation: Marana, Behn, Galland, Defoe

A unitary language is not something given [dan] but is always in essence posited [zadan]—and at every moment of its linguistic life it is opposed to the realities of heteroglossia. But at the same time it makes its real presence felt as a force for overcoming this heteroglossia, imposing specific limits to it, guaranteeing a certain maximum of mutual understanding and crystallizing into a real, although still relative, unity—the unity of the reigning conversational (everyday) and literary language, "correct language." ... Thus a unitary language gives expression to forces working toward concrete verbal and ideological unification and centralization, which develop in vital connection with the processes of sociopolitical and cultural centralization. —Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays (1981)

As a country became civilized, their [sic] narrations were methodized, and moderated to probability. —Clara Reeve, The Progress of Romance (1785)

Clara Reeve's tract on the novel-romance distinction suggests that cultural progress improves narrative techniques; civilization normalizes expectations and prioritizes realism. If reality is understood as repeating itself, narratives also begin to favor predictable characters. While Reeve's admission naturalizes realism, Mikhail Bakhtin does not assume what needs to be proved, asking whether a unitary language of national realism is "not something given but ... always in essence posited." If nations arose as cultural formations through powerful discourses and practices, the fictions of Enlightenment Orientalism remained a weak counterforce outside the stabilizing forces hinted at by Reeve and Bakhtin. Lateral networks of fiction existed beyond political boundaries. In fact, given the wide circulation of ancient and medieval fiction, it is puzzling that so many literary historians approach the emergence of the modern novel within an exclusionary national paradigm.

Bakhtin's writings document a history of Western prosaics that has bedeviled the last half-century of novel theory. Despite warnings to the contrary by the most acute of his readers, Bakhtin has been popularized as an unqualified celebrator of the novel's "rise," and his literary archaeology of prose genres has been read as an unabashed teleology of progress resulting in the apotheosis of the novel as a particularly versatile inheritor of all that went before. It is therefore worth recalling that novel is the name Bakhtin gives to "whatever force is at work within a given literary system to reveal the limits, and the artificial constraints of that system." In other words, a term such as novel is useful only insofar as it puts a static hierarchy of genres into a dynamic and transformative interrelationship. Bakhtin's ambivalent identifications of carnival, laughter, and generalized irreverence recognize the prophylactic power of ritual, the interplay between a unitary discourse of "sociopolitical and cultural centralization," and the heteroglossia that this unity dominates. Why is it then that historians of the English novel gleefully use Bakhtin to document those aspects of the incipient novel that are polyglot and transgeneric in their subversion of epic, romance, and poetic modes but become suddenly partisan and forgetful when the usurper is installed on the throne in full regalia and declared the legitimate heir? If Bakhtin's admonitions were to be carried through to their logical conclusion, novel might denote those genres that are excluded by artificial constraints but continue their subversive productivity. By excluding also-rans in favor of the winner, the institution of the novel legitimizes itself at the expense of the principle of generic transgression, which elevated the novel in the first place. Revisionist histories of autochthonous creation, whether of the English novel or of Romanticism's emphasis on originality, are modern reflexes, whereas epic often circulated stories of bastardy and usurpation. Rather than restrict the signification of novel, we might silently imagine that, to make sense, such a term needs to include and also contend with the narrative genres of Enlightenment Orientalism that this book explores.

In contrast to celebratory accounts of the English novel, I propose that various fictions, including oriental tales and surveillance chronicles, are provisional instances of the translational and transcultural aspects of the multitudinous outside, excluded by acts of enclosure around the novel. Against the protocols of a national realism that renders the domestic novel as central, the oriental tale and its sister genres, such as the surveillance chronicle, paradoxically indicate (but do not fully exhaust) heteroglossia and unfinalizability. In particular, the surveillance chronicle (commonly known as spy fiction) performs the broader functions of pseudoethnography, while the Arabian Nights story collection translated by Antoine Galland from Arabic into French exemplifies the universality of narrative alongside the titillating effects produced by cultural exoticism. With accompanying tropes of satirical detachment, pseudoethnographic perspectivalism, and alienated self-reflexivity, these fictions intimate several of the structural traits of Enlightenment Orientalism.


Bakhtin's idea of the "chronotope," borrowed from biology, helps us realize how particular genres, considered ex post facto, enable but also constrain experience. The interrelation of space-time in the chronotope saturates the novelistic event. As Bakhtin explains, the chronotope "provides the ground essential for the showing-forth, the representability of events." By this measure, a geography of novelization—or indeed fictionalization— appears very different from a history of a specific national genre deemed the novel. Much has been said regarding the anachronistic naming of early English fiction as "the novel" even though several practitioners, including Behn, Defoe, Fielding, and Smollett, produced polemics against various versions of "romance," claiming to write "true histories," "adventures," "fortunes and misfortunes," "lives," "comic-epic poems in prose," and "a large diffused picture, comprehending the characters of life, disposed in different groups, and exhibited in different attitudes, for the purpose of an uniform plan." It is also relevant that the term novel, used in the sense of a fiction dealing with familiar and realistic everyday events, in contrast to romance as distant, idealized, and fantastical, was first used by William Congreve in his preface to Incognita in 1692, but rarely repeated until Clara Reeve latched on to roughly the same definition almost a century later, in 1785.

The term novel was also used sporadically to signal the Italian novella and also the French nouvelle or petite histoire—short stories rather than full-length novels. The tautology of "the" English novel as celebrated by recent critics must be dismantled. John Richetti's commonsense definition makes the novel out to be "a long prose narrative about largely fictional if usually realistic characters and plausible events." Note the hedging and balancing—"largely fictional ... usually realistic." "Plausible" adds ballast to the side of realism, just in case a dose of the fictional equal to that of the realist was about to take readers off to the heady lands of Cockaigne. J. Paul Hunter calls the English novel "the story of a present-day individual in a recognizable social and cultural context." Recognizable to whom? And why should it be wedded to the singular subgenre of (pseudo)biography, when Bakhtin combines biography and autobiography as just one of at least eight types of novel? And even if those problems were resolved (in an unsatisfactorily conservative fashion) as nationally, linguistically, sociologically, and culturally overdetermined, do all novels then fall from grace and become romances as times change and the recognizability of contexts vanishes?

Autobiography and biography form one of three types within Bakhtinian "Novels Without Emergence," the other two being "the travel novel" and "the novel of ordeal." There are five more types listed as "Novels of Emergence," including "the idyllic-cyclical chronotope," the bildungsroman, "didactic-pedagogical novels," "novels of historic emergence," and an unnamed type that includes David Copperfield and Tom Jones as examples. It has also been pointed out, time and again, that the novel/romance distinction is much harder to make in terms of any major European national tradition other than the English: le roman, der Roman, and il romanzo designated continuously from the past to the present in French, German, and Italian what in English is termed "the novel," and hence implicitly "not-the-romance." Evaluating these other non-English traditions, one can still document generic change in terms of divergent continuities, rather than the sharp discontinuities that English novel–promoters are wont to make in order to justify the shift toward the parochial descriptive realism of the English novel as opposed to the most full-blown and antirealist romances. It is just as revealing that about 36 percent of novels read in Britain between 1660 and 1770 were translations of French fictions. While this fact has been taken to suggest that the novel was a Franco-British affair rather than an exclusively English one, earlier Renaissance English fiction included major influences from Spanish and Italian sources, not to mention the internal dialogue with ancient Greek and Roman fiction and Near Eastern sources. It would be much better for investigations into the history of the novel to operate under the premise that fictions seem largely indifferent to the question of national origin until the mid-eighteenth century.

The first full-fledged European treatise on the history of prose fiction, Traité de l'origine des romans, by the bishop of Avranches, Abbé PierreDaniel Huet, serves as a transcultural reminder that later Anglocentric teleologies tend to forget. Huet's definitive treatise allows a reintegration of national realism and Enlightenment Orientalism. Appended to Madame de Lafayette's fiction Zayde, in 1670, the treatise was subject to polemic attack by various critics for its xenotropisms. A lot depends on how one translates Huet's central term Roman (always capitalized in his text). Those who argue that the novel was not yet fully invented until the 1740s would prefer to call his subject romance, whereas Margaret Doody prefers to translate Huet's references to le roman as "the novel," especially as the term in French never underwent the shift that the English tradition has decreed retroactively. Huet's wide and lateral geography of the genre imposes a solution for the origin of fiction that could very well be characterized as an anatopism (or a spatial displacement) compared to the more frequent anachronism involved in the backward projections and false expectations of novel criticism. "The first beginnings of this pleasant amusement of idle innocents [des honestes paresseux]," according to Huet, "have to be found in faraway countries and in remote Antiquity." Huet's formulations provide a refreshing alternative—that of Enlightenment Orientalism— to the nationalist paradigm for novel criticism.

Huet's definition of romances makes them out to be "fictions of amorous exploits written in Prose with artistry, for the pleasure and edification of their readers" (4). He teeters between the descriptive and the prescriptive, adding that if it is not clear whether these works are about love or in prose, they certainly ought to be amatory and prosaic (5). Huet distinguishes fictions from true histories (histoires véritables), but this distinction is more of degree than of kind, with histories being "largely true and only partly false, whereas, on the contrary, romances are true in some parts but false on the whole" (8). Just as the difference between romans and histoires is relative, the distinctions between prose and poetry reveal definitional moves made later between novel and romance:

Petronius says that poems signify through indirection, by divine intervention, and by free and strong expressions, so much so that they are mostly taken to be Oracles that come forth full of fury rather than as an exact and faithful narration; Romances are simpler, less elevated, less figurative in their invention and expression. Poems have more of the marvelous, and contain as well the verisimilar; Romances have more of the verisimilar, even though they also have sometimes [elements of] the marvelous. Poems are more rule-bound, and more constrained in their ordering, and contain less subject matter, events, and episodes; Romances contain more, because being less elevated and figurative, they affect the mind less, and give it room to load up with a much larger number of different ideas. (7)

By foreshadowing the novel-romance debates and anchoring them in verse-prose differences, Huet follows Aristotle, who argued that tragedy's plausibility was increased if it was based on historical accounts of the fall of the high and mighty, though this feature was not obligatory. So too romances are more credible ("la fiction totale de l'argument est plus reçevable") when their characters are of middling status ("de mediocre fortune"), as in the romans comiques, rather than when they tell of princes and conquerors who carry out distinguished and memorable exploits (9–10). For Huet, the exploits of the great do not pass muster in these narratives because readers wonder why these actions had been hidden from the historical record thus far. The lives of the less important appear verisimilar even if outside the literary mainstream. Of course, eighteenth-century Britons were not the first to document everyday realities; Huet (and Bakhtin later) sees this impetus expressed very early in Lucius Apuleius's The Golden Ass. Fables, on the other hand, are described as entirely without verisimilitude, along with allegories and parables. These earlier fictional forms are identified with a raft of peoples who are responsible for the non-European origins of fiction—the Egyptians, the Arabs, the Persians, the Medes, the Syrians, and others.

Huet's treatise is speculative and progressive. Finding their world to be teeming with many forms of pleasurable lying, the Greeks and the Romans improved on the materials they were given. Sometimes history degenerated into fiction for want of evidence. Huet affirms a world composed of multiple forms of fiction that are universally desired, arrived at through fairly different routes. In one of the most evocative passages of the treatise, he argues that mimetic fictions are needed whether in poverty or plenty:

As when in need, we feed our bodies with roots and herbs when we lack bread; just so, when the knowledge of truth, which is the natural and proper food of the human mind, is lacking, we feed it with lies, which are imitations of truth. And as in plenty, to sate our appetites, we often forgo bread and everyday meats and search for ragouts; so even when our minds know truth, they leave study and contemplation in order to be entertained by the picture of truth, which is lies, because the picture and the imitation are, according to Aristotle, often more satisfying than the truth itself. (80–81)

According to Huet, the mind has a natural desire for fiction (Aristotelian phantasmata) as well as for new knowledge. Stories do their work through the moral psychology of the reader. While some naive readers are taken in by the shell of the narration, the sophisticated who penetrate beyond the surface can still savor the pleasure of the fictional framework (86). Ultimately, Huet commends romances as "silent teachers [precepteurs muets] who continue the work of schoolteachers; they instruct us to speak and live in a much more practical and persuasive manner than the schoolteachers did; and in the manner of Horace's view of Homer's Iliad, that taught morality better and more solidly than the best Philosophers were able to" (96). Turning to Madame de Lafayette's Zayde, which preceded the treatise, Huet concludes that posterity will not know whether this work was "a History or a Romance" (99). Huet's teleology may indeed lead to bourgeois realism, but he is also amply aware of the lateral connections that fiction can make to other spaces and places.


Excerpted from ENLIGHTENMENT ORIENTALISM by SRINIVAS ARAVAMUDAN Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures
Acknowledgments Introduction: Enlightenment Orientalism
Part 1 Pseudoethnographies

1 Fiction/Translation/Transculturation
  Marana, Behn, Galland, Defoe
2 Oriental Singularity
  Montesquieu, Goldsmith, Hamilton
Part 2 Transcultural Allegories

3 Discoveries of New Worlds, Talking Animals, and Remote Nations
  Fontenelle, Bidpai, Swift, Voltaire 4 Libertine Orientalism
  Prévost, Crébillon, Diderot 5 The Oriental Tale as Transcultural Allegory
  Manley, Haywood, Sheridan, Smollett
Conclusion: Sindbad and Scheherezade, or Benjamin and Joyce

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