- The Homoerotics of Orientalism by Joseph A. Boone
Joseph Boone’s The Homoerotics of Orientalism is an ambitious, encyclopedic study of four centuries of literature, along with some history and visual culture produced in Anglo-Europe, the Islamicate world, and the United States. The book is an astounding tour de force—a study of a great range of textual and visual artifacts that probe the “deep history of homoerotic fascination and homophobic aspersion” in the popular genre and intellectual discourse of Orientalism. Boone examines the homoerotics of Orientalism in terms of both real and imagined geographies and historical periods traced through a variety of literary genres and visual mediums. He explores fiction, diaries, travel literature, and ethnographical writing, but also erotica, pornography, advertising, and cartoons, and he provides analyses of visual representations in painting, photography, film, and digital media. He is admirably interested in such texts’ “subtle ideological layerings and their psychological compulsions that compel the narrative inscription in the first place” (xxv). The author has approached his subject with intense curiosity, deep erudition, and cross-cultural sensitivity. Although primarily an academic study, the text is highly accessible to the nonspecialist of literary as well as visual analysis.
Boone warns of the pitfalls of projecting Western fantasies of sexuality onto cultures different from our own. He is reluctant to make essentialized claims about same-sex activity as it is studied in texts throughout the book, and he is deeply concerned about contributing inadvertently to the “globalization of gay identity” as one of many pernicious forms of Western colonialism. But if there is a fundamental thesis about his understanding of these texts about modern same-sex desire, it is clearly poststructuralist. To use Boone’s words about Lawrence Durrell’s Justine from the Alexandria Quartet: “All desire is unfixed, that there is no necessary link between sexual instinct and object choice; the only ‘natural’ objects of our desire are those that our fantasies construct” (207).
Particularly impressive is Boone’s treatment of canonical Orientalist literary texts and his rereading of them with an awareness of the multiple dynamics of male-male love. That is, he is not only interested in identifying such love through texts but also keen on discerning to what cultural, aesthetic, and ideological purposes such desires are put across both real and imaginary geographies and historical periods. Pierre Loti’s Aziyade, for example, can no longer be a novel about a military officer’s love affair with the female Aziyade of the harem—the heteroerotic Oriental fantasy par excellence. Thanks to Boone’s deft working, it is instead a novel about homoerotic “drift.” He provides a convincing rethinking of the novel’s covert and brooding elements, its emptiness and lack of fulfillment. [End Page 514]
As a literary scholar, Boone brings a wealth of training and knowledge from that field to close readings of texts as well as to theories of narrative, all of which are carefully related to his overall thesis and upheld through what he has identified as a “contrapuntal” methodology. The latter constitutes his sustained game plan of paralleling and contrasting Eastern and Western texts—that is, “listening to the echo-effects” that such texts create. The ramifications and results of such readings take place between and within the binarisms, for example, of East/West, homosexual/heterosexual, Jew/Muslim, colonizer/colonized.
Boone’s book is admirably bold in bringing together so many kinds of texts. But there are contradictions as a result of such suturing. He has clearly indicated that his is not a work of history or art history—with good reason, as no scholar can be expected to master fully the conventions of other disciplines. In his lengthy introduction he has acknowledged that a work of such breadth, “ranging as it does from tales of capture by Algerian corsairs to postmodernist examples of Iranian art” (xxviii), has been a major challenge to write. And he seems aware of issues of historicity when he writes about the seven tropes...