Old Worlds: Egypt, Southwest Asia, India, and Russia in Early Modern English Writing by John Michael Archer (review)
- Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies
- University of California, Los Angeles, Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies
- Volume 34, 2003
- pp. 199-201
- Additional Information
REVIEWS 199 transcendental nature of the literary experience often speaks most eloquently when given the chance to speak for itself. CHERYL GOLDSTEIN, Comparative Literature, UCLA John Michael Archer, Old Worlds: Egypt, Southwest Asia, India, and Russia in Early Modern English Writing (Stanford: Stanford University Press 2001) 241 pp. John Michael Archer analyzes how the interpretation and portrayal of GraecoRoman antiquity and the classical and biblical periods in sixteenth- and seventeenth -century England affected the subsequent Western perception of Egypt, southwest Asia, India, and Russia. The reader is taken on a trip from Egypt to India, where travel accounts, geographical works, and classical histories contribute to the formation of perspectives about the “old worlds.” Archer focuses on how sixteenth- and seventeenth-century authors were influenced by classical works and how they chose to reinterpret history, creating new but ambivalent perspectives on the classical world. Archer argues in his introduction that despite the exciting discovery of the “New World” in the fifteenth century, European literature, and English literature in particular, tended to focus on images of the “Old World,” Europe, Africa , and Asia. This trend mimicked the economic preoccupations of the English , who, while the Spanish and Portuguese focused their economic efforts on the New World, were free to go eastward to Mesopotamia, Babylon, and India. Narrative fiction, plays, and poems in the eighteenth century drew upon firsthand travel accounts to create a new interpretation of the orient that Edward Said has called “imaginative geography.” Europe became part of both the Old World and the New World, creating a sense of confusion. Archer contends that the Native American was categorized as “Indian” not as a result of a mistake or a misunderstanding but rather as the result of an ideology of the imposition of European power in both worlds. There was a sense of separation of economy, of cultures, hierarchy and race. A redefinition of a woman’s role in society followed. Women of colonized territories were “naturalized,” while European women were “socialized,” thus devaluing and segregating the social and economic roles of all women. A world economical system became defined not by the conglomeration of politically defined units but rather across changing and growing units. Archer proposes that this economic system should be viewed as a “restructuring of preexistent world economies” (7) and not as radically new systems. As such the terms core and periphery become broad and unstable terms. By redefining their economic role in the world, Europeans also redefined their image of themselves as well as perceptions of the East. Concepts of what is real and “reality” are blurred by distinctions of “correspondence and substance” (14). The European ’s inability to understand the meanings, language, culture, and independent history, of those he is conquering lead to the creation of correspondences, assumptions and attributions which in turn create a image of what is perceived to be real. Chapter 1 is an exploration of how translated versions of classical works influenced the western author’s point of view of ancient Egypt and its relationship to other classical peoples such as Greece. He argues that Herodotus’s His- REVIEWS 200 tories and Diodorus Sicilus’s Library of History and Heliodorus’s Ethiopica, which was translated into English by Thomas Underdowne in 1587, were readily available to European authors and greatly influenced the perspectives of the “other” in Europe. He explains that the term “Ethiopia” was not only used to refer to a specific people within a geographical context but also to denote peoples in general who were considered to have developed separately from other classical peoples. Similarities in the writing system and moments when “Ethiopian ” and an “Egyptian” shared the same history were systematically overlooked . The term “Ethiopia” began to be used to refer to peoples from subSaharan Africa all the way to the India. Archer suggests that translations of these classical works, as well as contemporary travel accounts, influenced Philip Sidney’s Arcadia and Shakespeare’s later plays, especially Antony and Cleopatra, and produced a growing ambivalence towards Egypt’s place in history . In chapter 2, “Milton and the Fall of Asia,” Archer discusses how Southwest Asia was revered as the “seat of human community” (65), while at the same time...