- Enlightenment Orientalism: Resisting the Rise of the Novel by Srinivas Aravamudan
Srinivas Aravamudan’s Enlightenment Orientalism challenges the critical understanding, articulated forcefully by Ian Watt’s Rise of the Novel, that the only significant form of prose narrative developed in the eighteenth century is the English national-realist novel. Aravamudan argues that this “rise of the novel” confers academic authority on a retrospective view—which he suggests is generated from the vantage point of nineteenth-century imperialism—that “singles out the novel’s domestic origins and ignores the great success” of contemporary “sister genres,” like the oriental tale or pseudeoethnography, libertine fantasy, and political utopias, all of which were international in scope and transcultural in practice (20). Aravamudan argues for the imaginative power and critical range of his prime example, the oriental tale, but his claims apply also to other forms of eighteenth-century prose fiction that have been dismissed as lesser genres. For him, anglocentric critics placed the domestic novel “in the ascendant, not necessarily because of any inherent formal virtues but to favor national parochialism” (20). In their literary histories, the novel, along with the idea of modernity to which it laid claim, became an English export; what they repressed is the origin of a dazzling array of fictional forms in places in the “East” (India and Persia, for instance), and their translation into and dissemination across North Africa and Europe via languages like Arabic.
Aravamudan follows Luiz Costa Lima in arguing that after the mid-eighteenth century, the novel “drove out (or absorbed) all other prose fictional genres” (22). Readers were educated—by novelists and by critics—to value “mimetic data” in novels, and to think of “credibility and verisimilitude” as the prime features of “novelistic activity.” The “multiplicity of fictional languages within the novel” was reduced even as its cultural value was enhanced, and “novelistic fiction contracted itself considerably from a large canvas to the small-bore world of national realism” (23). Fiction and the newspapers developed the normative, “single calendrical time” with which the nation computed its modernity; as such fiction became “a propagandistic tool” of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English national culture, fantasy was devalued and marginalized into genres like the gothic (25). For Aravamudan, the critical project now is to recover the diversity of fictional forms in this period, rather than to stay content with celebrating the progress of the novel alone.
A great many successful eighteenth-century writers wrote oriental tales, Aravamudan points out, which should not be surprising, given that writers experiment with different genres of prose fiction in order to explore pressing questions. More importantly for his overarching argument, the oriental tale is a prime example of what he styles “Enlightenment Orientalism,” that is, the circulation of story forms and ideas from the East that became the basis for transcultural allegories crucial to the contemporary search for a “philosophical universalism.” [End Page 198] There are many examples of such philo-orientalism: the polyglot Bible, William Temple’s arguments that ancient Greek learning derived from Phoenecia and Egypt, the literary vogue for translations of ibn Tufayl’s Hayy bin Yaqzan, the great interest in “Arabic science, philosophy, and literature during the period of the Royal Society” (15). For Aravamudan, such instances offer proof that “the purview of seventeenth-century Enlightenment Orientalism was indistinguishable from what we call classical studies today, and inseparable from universalist and cosmopolitan aspirations” (14).
Aravamudan ranges widely in his reanimation of the fictions of Enlightenment Orientalism. He focuses on fictional forms that are resolutely transcultural both in the stories they tell and, via translations, in their formative impact on multiple national literary traditions. For instance, he reads Giovanni Paolo Marana’s The Turkish Spy to show that the “surveillance chronicle,” with its commitment to ethnographic observation, was a “resilient pan-European translatio” that fed into the fictions of Aphra Behn and Daniel Defoe, two English writers who themselves had been government spies! Similarly, Antoine Galland’s translation of the Arabic Alf layla wa-layla as the Mille et une nuits, as...