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  • From Bath House to Parliament Building: The Ambivalence of Colonial Desire
  • Cristofer Scarboro

For the late nineteenth century British observer, the junket from the Vienna station across the Danube (or Carpathians) to points in the Balkans created and journied across several boundaries—civilization and barbarity; history and timelessness; repression and oppression. Travel to the Balkans, made increasingly proximate by the spread of railways, laid bare the stark disjuncture between the geographic and temporal distances of the peninsula to Europe.[1] British correspondents who traveled the Ottoman Europe were alternately appalled and enraptured by the state of affairs there detailing the conflicted nature of colonial desire: the allure and repulsion of poverty and picturesqueness, of progress and timelessness. This paper investigates those twin desires in British accounts of the European Ottoman Empire from 1870–1913 in The Times of London, The Contemporary Review, and The Fortnightly Review and the seductions of imaginary colonialism at play in the fields of the Balkans.

Maria Todorova introduces her work, Imagining the Balkans, with the question; “Balkanism and Orientalism: are they different categories?”[2] For Todorova any similarities between the two discourses are rooted in what Edward Said terms the “general crisis of representation.”[3] Todorova’s model is clearly indebted to Said. Both Orientalism and Balkanism are discourses born of unequal power relationships which grant the power to name and create narratives to Western Europeans. For Said the power relationship inherent in contact between East and West, under the auspices of colonialism and post-colonialism, allowed colonial agents to collect, arrange and implement ‘knowledge’ of the ‘Orient.’ Thus, “knowledge of the Orient, because generated out of strength, in a sense creates the Orient, the Oriental and his world. The point is that in each of these cases the Oriental is contained and represented by dominating frameworks” [italics in original].[4] The conjunction of this uneven power dynamic between the colonial/post-colonial domination of the Orient, and its handmaid knowledge-coding project, creates a static, fully knowable, Oriental space. Within this space Orientalism emerges as a powerful discourse for “dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient.”[5]

For Todorova, Balkanism is similarly a process in which, through the arrangement of knowledge about the Balkans by European experts, the Balkans are imagined, fashioned and bounded by their conversation with the West. As Larry Wolff has shown, Western European authors’ use of Eastern Europe as a setting of backwardness and savagery against which to measure the civilization of the West has a long tradition.[6] Beyond this shared fate as defined interlocutors, however, Todorova views the two discourses as very different. Todorova bases her differentiation on what she terms the concreteness of the Balkans as a geographical and historical entity. Her description of the geographical/historical concreteness of the Balkans as a category of analysis hinges on the ‘fact’ that the Balkans are in Europe. “While Orientalism deals with a difference between (imputed) types, Balkanism treats the difference within one type.”[7] Thus Todorova argues, to western European writers, the Balkans have always represented an “incomplete self,” an imperfect, half civilized European—a dynamic that made the transformation of the Balkans in the late nineteenth Century both more urgent and melancholy.

Despite this difference both discourses should be understood as colonial in their desire for the transformation of the spaces and subjects under western purview and the ambivalences inherent in enacting this transformation. Like the Orient, the Balkans offered the British reader a timeless space in which to craft colonial fantasies. The British were inexorably drawn to observe their incomplete self, while the observation itself elicited the strong desire alternately to transform their Balkan subjects into more ‘complete selves’ while experiencing the voyeuristic thrill of observing their timeless (half) other.[8] As they rescued from Oriental depravity—turning the sensual, backward Turkish bath into the modern, ordered parliament building—the British reader cast a wistful gaze over his shoulder towards barbarism.

The periodicals for this study were chosen to represent as manageably large sample of middle class public opinion as possible—reflecting organs affiliated in spirit with the major political parties. Despite the variation between the Contemporary and Fortnightly Review and the Times of London...

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