- Radical Orientalism: Rights, Reform, and Romanticism by Gerard Cohen-Vrignaud
During his maiden speech in the House of Lords in 1812, Lord Byron protested, in defense of the Luddite frame-breakers, "I have been in some of the most oppressed provinces of Turkey, but never under the most despotic of infidel governments, did I behold such a squalid wretchedness as I have seen since my [End Page 174] return in the very heart of a Christian country." In this dense but insightful study, Gerard Cohen-Vrignaud identifies Byron's argument as a species of "radical orientalism," a highly effective satirical strategy employed by liberals to undermine hegemonic claims that the British constitution enshrined its subjects' rights to liberty and property. Cohen-Vrignaud argues that orientalist abuse of the government "was the equivalent of the 'Jacobin' label applied to radicals: an exoticizing discourse that stigmatized its political opponents as 'foreign' in their 'designing' ambitions" (p. 74). The book's scope is generous, addressing periodicals, pamphlets, parodies, reformist tracts, and political philosophy, as well as literary works by William Thomas Beckford, Byron, and the Shelleys. It thus builds on Marilyn Butler's suggestion that literary orients in this period were often "lightly allegorized, defamiliarized versions of the British state" (p. 2–3).
With the book's subtitle, "Rights, Reform, and Romanticism," Cohen-Vrignaud suggests that orientalist tropes "served reformers to convey specific political and economic critiques and advance particular rights" (p. 17). Chapter 1 is concerned with the right to protection from arbitrary state violence, proposing that Oriental and Gothic fictions supported a call for a constitutional framework to protect the citizen: the argument is developed in a fine reading of Byron's Corsair, whose hero Conrad is faced with the terrible Ottoman punishment of impalement. Chapter 2 examines the right to peaceful mass protest, especially fraught in the era of Peterloo, and of "oriental" atrocities committed by "British janissaries": much of the chapter focuses on Shelley's The Revolt of Islam. Chapters 3 and 4 turn to property rights and economics, developing an argument about oriental excess and fiscal imprudence, demonstrated in relation to Shelley's Swellfoot the Tyrant and Byron's Sardanapalus. These latter chapters reveal a gulf opening up between the normative and critical concerns of radical orientalism and its more ambivalent literary articulations: for example, perverse (or sometimes "queer") enjoyments of "cruel and unusual romance," such as eroticized subjugation or the "effeminizing" Ottoman punishment of impalement. Chapter 4 examines Mary Shelley's gloomy narrative of an oriental plague that ravages the world, which, in the end, follows Byron's Sardanapalus in demurring "from the masculinist model of economic individualism" (p. 22). The final chapter focuses on Byron's "infidelity" as an extreme form of liberal individualism. For conservative contemporaries, Byron's "satanic" threat lay in spreading infidelity among working-class readers, by rejecting political loyalties as well as by promoting "an eroticism detached from sanctified and contractual monogamy," including "nonheteronormative erotic options" (p. 190). The book concludes with a fascinating queer reading of "infidel sexuality" in Lara, in which an account of the Turkish Icoglan (catamite) sheds light on the enigma of the page Kaled's gender and identity. Cohen-Vrignaud leaves us pondering the case of Byron as "the Grand Turk of Parnassus," the problematic association between Byronic hedonism and despotism, and the reverse colonization of western liberalism by "oriental" values. [End Page 175]
In returning to a "metropolitan" reading of Romantic orientalism, Cohen-Vrignaud consciously distances himself from prevailing accounts, especially my own and Sari Makdisi's, both of us influenced by Edward Said's linking of orientalism to imperial designs. Such readings, Cohen-Vrignaud argues, "neglect the East's domestic role" and ignore the fact that "radical orientalists" often manifest sympathy for the oppressed eastern subjects of vilified sultans, pashas, and deys. True, but this assertion overlooks the fact that such sympathy was a significant element in the "liberatory" claims of much colonial discourse, what Marx called its "sharp philanthropy." Citing Eric Lott's work on American...