Nineteenth Century French Studies 32.3 & 4 (2004) 362-365
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Joan DelPlato's study of over one hundred seventy nineteenth-century French and British pictures that envision the "multiple wives" of the colonized polygamous Islamic East is a welcome addition to the rapidly expanding scholarship in the humanities on European Orientalism. It is the first book to focus exclusively on visual representations of "the harem." (Ruth Bernard Yeazell's Harems of the Mind: Passages of Western Art and Literature, 2000, considered both texts and pictures.) Quotes bracket "the harem" throughout DelPlato's book to honor the author's fundamental claim about its fictitiousness: "the topic and term are western inventions" (12) and "the harem was a rich, unfixed symbol" (238). Following the line of inquiry inaugurated by Edward Said's bellwether 1978 Orientalism, a repudiation of the [End Page 362] existence of a "true Orient" lying behind the web of period Orientalist writings (a relentlessly-citational, Foucauldian discourse), DelPlato's book regards "the harem," a major nineteenth-century European preoccupation, to be chimerical and ideological, and also treats "the harem" and "the harem woman" as metonyms for "The Orient" tout court.
But DelPlato's appraisal of manifold power relations finds anxiety rather than authority in this group of Orientalist representations, and she consequently lays claim to a post-Saidian postcolonial standpoint: a "refusal to accept the terms of dominance inherent in the naming (or picturing) of the eastern Other by a western artist" (13). And her approach is resolutely anti-positivist (14): "... what is captured in this collection of British and French representations is not the truth of the institution but many historically specific views of it imbued with fears about difference in culture, race, religion, class and gender - made more manageable through the pleasure of representation." DelPlato's consequent wish to eschew a pursuit of the "truth" about "the harem" proves nonetheless difficult to sustain in a study that is also rigorously "factual," filled with painstaking descriptions of apposite events and social institutions as well as the debates that raged around them. Her observation (30) that the book "is a study of British and French misunderstanding of the harem" is an exemplary contradiction of her declared disbelief in "real harems."
Her reasons for restricting her study to British and French examples, while benefiting from the historical logic of pitched period colonial activity and competition between the two countries, and following Said's own (somewhat controversial) limitation to texts from the same nations, would have nonetheless benefited from her own forthright and more detailed justification. And the status of the comparison between art works from the two nations is also sometimes hard to grasp, described in some cases as competitive and different, while in others as parts of the same aesthetic traditions.
Chapter 1, "Introduction," surveys the reasons that nineteenth-century British and French persons became interested in and preoccupied with the harem, and intro-duces the categories of analysis that dominate the ensuing chapters: international relations particularly regarding colonialist interventions in the Arab world, viewer identities, domestic class and gender politics, and racial relations at home and abroad. The introduction thus lays out the lineaments of the argument that structures the entire study: "the harem" is a hinge that linked the East to the West in the nineteenth century, and its scrutiny can help to unsettle East/West polarities, and to illuminate and underscore the paradox of what could be called the cross-cultural dialectics of the harem.
The remaining chapters mix socio-political data with image analysis constituting a very rich mix, but one that is sometimes hard going, not least because the data tend to precede and determine the art works discussed, such that the art works are largely positioned as "images of..." insofar as an event or ideational construct is usually discussed prior to the images that "represent" the issue at hand. Indeed this procedure complicates her disavowal of...