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  • Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in the Hammam: Masquerade, Womanliness, and Levantinization
  • Srinivas Aravamudan

Forth rush the Levant and the Ponent Windes.

— Milton, Paradise Lost (10.704)

Based on a journey to the Ottoman Empire undertaken during the years 1716–18, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s travel letters were first published in their entirety in 1763. The author had died the previous year. Montagu’s stay at Constantinople with her husband Edward Wortley who had been appointed Ambassador to the Sublime Porte, provides the central focus of the travel letters. But as her reflections range widely across the culture and geography of the Eastern Mediterranean, a more inclusive title seems appropriate. Amongst various titles given to this collection by editors over the ages, I find that given by J. A. St. John in 1838, Letters from the Levant, During the Embassy to Constantinople, 1716–18, more suggestive than The Turkish Embassy Letters. 1

“Levant” broadly signifies the Orient (more precisely the Eastern Mediterranean) and its exotic appeal for Europe as the land of the rising sun. On the other hand, “levantinization” is the term islamophobes have sometimes used for the cultural contamination of European values by supposedly degenerate Levantine influences. However, it will be my claim that levantinization is both an investigative tool and a utopian projection of Montagu’s that anticipates a positive cultural outcome. Letters from the Levant inaugurates a phantasmatic partial identification with Turkish aristocratic womanhood. The specific fantasy, in this case, is not so much the activity of an already-existing subject, as the performative dispersion of the subject into several identificatory positions. The subject inhabits the position of both desiring subject and object, thereby reconfiguring itself. 2

Additionally, a title such as Letters from the Levant enables a parallel reading of several calculated intellectual wagers made through [End Page 69] the subject’s identificatory dispersal. Montagu places and then hedges her cultural bets in a manner that could be reminiscent of eighteenth-century gamesters who “ran a levant,” or “threw a levant.” To run or throw a levant was to make a bet with the intention of absconding if it was lost. 3 My reading suggests that the aristocratic Montagu uses her ample intellectual “credit” for the purposes of an utopian levantinization. The objective of Montagu’s highly speculative intellectual wagers is the task of crosscultural apprehension. By interpreting Montagu’s Levantine writings according to a trope that suggests intellectual wagering without accountability, I hope to connect levantinization to the larger processes of dynamic interaction between colonialist and anticolonial figuration that I call tropicalization. 4

Montagu’s embellished letters, purportedly written on several occasions to historical individuals such as Lady Mar, Alexander Pope, the Abbé Conti, and other addressees, synthesize the writer’s personal interests with the broader appeal of intellectual commentary. The empiricist epistemology of the traveler interacts with the revisionary and relativist “feminism” of the woman-scholar; the neoclassical antiquarianism of the humanist intersects with remarks on early eighteenth-century fashion from a society lady. One of the primary experiences of the Levant for Montagu came through sustained interactions with the aristocratic women of the Ottoman empire within their sexually segregated milieu. These women’s pleasing alterity and seemingly unfettered agency are inferred by Montagu from their spatial autonomy. She interprets the aristocratic women she meets as already free rather than waiting for emancipation like their European counterparts. Therefore, Montagu’s guarantee of epistemological veracity is complicated by several risky rhetorical wagers. This complication can be explained by recognizing, as Cynthia Lowenthal points out, that Montagu drew her epistolary models of female experience from the performance-oriented context of the theater rather than the newer bourgeois discourse of female domesticity legitimated by the novel. 5

This article concentrates on three interlocking stages that structure the interaction between the epistemological and the rhetorical modes in Letters from the Levant. In the first and most easily identifiable step, Montagu visualizes a secular anthropologizing stance towards cultures, similar to many other post-Renaissance appreciations of the arbitrary norms that undergird cultural meaning and identity. Such a perception replaces the existing bias of a simple [End Page 70] ethnocentricism in favor of the observer’s culture with an...

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