Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.3&4 (2001) 601-605
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Harems of the Mind:
Passages of Western Art and Literature
Harems of the Mind: Passages of Western Art and Literature. By Ruth Bernard Yeazell. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. Pp. 336. $35.00 (cloth).
Ruth Bernard Yeazell's Harems of the Mind is a study of representations of the harem within Western cultures. Encyclopedic in its wealth of examples, it contains fifty-nine striking illustrations (many in color) and is a remarkably interdisciplinary work. In twenty-two brief chapters, Yeazell examines a variety of cultural texts in several languages (though mostly English and French), including paintings, plays, poetry, travel narratives, novels, correspondence, and operas. Harems of the Mind is thus a work that will be of interest to specialists in a number of fields: literature, art history, and [End Page 601] colonial studies as well as studies of gender and sexuality. The texts she analyzes include Racine's Bajazet, Montesquieu's Lettres persanes, Mozart's Entführung aus dem Serail, Rossini's Italiana in Algeri, the Orientalist paintings of Ingres and Delacroix, the Victorian paintings of John Frederick Lewis, Pierre Loti's Aziyadé and Les Désenchantées, Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's letters, Sade's pornography, Lord Byron's Orientalist writings, and Delarivier Manley's Almyna. Her careful readings of these and other texts allow her to examine from every possible angle the images that "the harem" has conjured up for Westerners. In many ways, Yeazell's harem seems to be a microcosm of the Western construction of the Orient described by Edward W. Said in Orientalism (New York: Random House, 1978) over twenty years ago. The harem, like the Orient it belongs to, is more a figment of the imagination than an actual place. In other ways, however, Yeazell questions or nuances Said's founding text.
Yeazell carefully distinguishes between Western fantasies of the harem and its role in Muslim contexts. She points out that "[t]he word 'harem' derives from the Arabic for 'forbidden' or 'sacred,' and has come to refer both to the women themselves, who remain inviolable by adopting the veil when they venture outside, and to the part of the dwelling reserved for their use" (p. 1). Although in theory every household has a harem, only a minute portion of harems includes more than one wife. Westerners, however, have persisted in envisioning harems as containing an unlimited number of female sexual partners. It is less the case that these misconceptions have no basis in reality than that Westerners modeled every imaginary harem after their vision of the Ottoman sultan's. Another misconception about the harem is reflected in the very way the West names it: "[T]he English 'seraglio,' like the French sérail, comes from the Italian serraglio, a word born of etymological confusion between the Turco-Persian for palace, saray, and the Italian serrare, to lock up or enclose. Westerners imagined, in other words, that to be locked up was part of the very definition of an Eastern palace" (p. 59). Time after time, even when contradicted by "reality," Europeans persisted in their fantasies. What counted more was not what they saw when they visited the East but the previous imaginings they quoted to articulate their own visions. Even though writers who were able to enter actual harems did announce their disappointment with the "real thing," this disappointment was repeated time after time, as was the claim to have been where no man had been before. As Yeazell writes, "lifting the veil . . . became in its turn another fiction of the harem" (p. 203). Since the fantasy of the harem is first and foremost a fantasy of voyeurism, Yeazell's consideration of the visual representations of the harem in painting complements our understanding of this fantasy of unveiling and contributes to the work begun by Malek Alloula in The Colonial Harem (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1986). [End Page 602]
According to Said, Orientalism...