- Enlightenment Orientalism: Resisting the Rise of the Novel by Srinivas Aravamudan
Has the Enlightenment—as the historical threshold for the philosophical positions, institutional events, and epistemological infrastructures that we associate with modernity—been too hastily tied to Orientalism and European imperialism and to the political oppressions they enabled well into the twentieth century? Although Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) focuses mainly on Europe’s self-serving nineteenth-century version of instrumentalized knowledge, the account resonates with critiques that implicate the Enlightenment, including Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s account of its quick march to fascism and death camps in the twentieth century and Michel Foucault’s critique of the Enlightenment as a façade for will-to-power. Given this powerful critical alliance lined up against the so-called age of awakening, Srinivas Aravamudan’s characterization of his book, Enlightenment Orientalism, as a “heretical” exercise is perhaps not just tongue in cheek (3). Rather, it is an acknowledgment of the widespread influence Said’s work in particular, and postcolonial studies in general, has had over the years in the reevaluation of European thought. While postcolonial scholars may find Aravamudan’s introductory hypothesis—that Enlightenment interrogation was not just “bent on the domination of the other but also aimed at mutual understanding across cultural differences”—provocative, this is not news to scholars of the early modern era (3). For decades, scholars of the Renaissance and the eighteenth century have complained about the mistaken and anachronistic use of the terms of nineteenth-century imperialism for East-West encounters of an earlier time. Where Aravamudan’s work goes further than these existing criticisms of the totalizing binaries of a monolithic Orientalism is in the solid research that unearths a dizzying range of genres within which a complex self-scrutiny of Europe was under way and that details the strategies [End Page 136] through which imaginative fiction (rather than scientific, philosophical, historical, or ethnographic discourse) constituted a powerful anti-foundationalist strain in the European Enlightenment. In this comparative study, Aravamudan shows that eighteenth-century English and French fiction in a variety of modes—Oriental tales, pseudoethnographies, sexual fantasies, and political satires—were engaged in a contest with what would later emerge as the canonical forms of domestic realism. The book demonstrates that Orientalist fiction was much more than a tool for othering the non-European; in effect it produced a counter-Enlightenment of sorts by challenging the tenets of social and epistemological realism—a discourse that, in engendering scientific rationalism, empiricism, and skepticism, is now widely regarded as a key legacy of the Enlightenment. Rich intertextual readings produce hitherto unacknowledged genetic traces and new genealogies: from Giovanni Paolo Marana’s spy fiction and Antoine Galland’s Arabian Nights’ Entertainments to Aphra Behn’s and Daniel Defoe’s continuations of these genres, from Montesquieu’s Persian Letters to the writings of Oliver Goldsmith and Elizabeth Hamilton, and from the work of Fontanelle through to Swift and Voltaire.
The book is divided into two parts: the first half deals with pseudo-ethnographies or narratives that rely exclusively on the theme of the external foreigner delivering home truths, which thus install a critic of European culture as an “embodied externality” (29). The second half of the book discusses the proliferation of Oriental tales as transcultural allegories where the generic experimentation of the Enlightenment looks beyond national realism and identity politics and moves into the bizarre and the fascinating: interplanetary adventures, beast fables, it-narratives, and scandal chronicles. Although Aravamudan’s book depends heavily on archival research, narrative exposition, and historical detail, the discussion benefits immensely from the theoretical glossing that provides, on various occasions, not only new terminology for future research but also a revaluation of terms that have been considerably exhausted by postcolonial critique. Terms such as exoticism, theriophily, xenophilia, and xenophobia will take on renewed potential for literary analysis after this book.
Aravamudan rejects arguments that institutionalize novelistic realism as the “telos” of eighteenth-century fiction and, in so doing...