- L ’Orientale allégorie: Le conte oriental au XVIIIe siècle (1704–1774) [The Oriental Allegory: The Oriental Tale in the XVIIIth Century (1704–1774)] by Jean-François Perrin
From Antoine Galland’s 1704 Les Mille et une nuit (The Thousand and One Nights) to Voltaire’s 1774 Le Taureau blanc (The White Bull), French Oriental tales were a genre without a proper critical study. Jean-François Perrin has filled that gap in fairy-tale and eighteenth-century studies. Drawing on the wealth of knowledge he has accrued since founding Féeries (Fairy Play), an online journal dedicated to eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century tales, Perrin establishes the Western Oriental tale as an eclectic genre whose core texts share common ground in the Nights but [End Page 356] exhibit vastly different poetic styles. The book argues that, once Galland reworked Oriental tales in salon French with a reputation for flippant double entendre, he set the stage for a wild Enlightenment romp with Eastern allegory, from hybrid montages to libertine and parodic satires (15). In a parade of wit that Perrin considers a vogue within the fairy-tale vogue launched in the 1690s, we meet writers as diverse as Antoine Hamilton, François Pétis de la Croix, Thomas Gueullette, Crébillon fils, Jacques Cazotte, Louis de Cahusac, Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, among others. The book conversely offers new insight into the global impact of the Nights by identifying it as the catalyst of a wholesale reconfiguration of the literary landscape in France (59).
The first part of the book, “Genèses,” provides an overview of the conte oriental à la française (French Oriental tale) as Perrin will treat it, with chapters on its main progenitors, Antoine Galland, Hamilton, and Voltaire. Part 2, “Poétiques,” takes up four styles that exemplify the literary ingenuity of writers that transformed Middle Eastern and Asian tales into French Enlightenment allegory. In part 3, “Problématiques,” Perrin explores four topics mined from the French Oriental tale—the nature of enchantment and the participation of the reader, reincarnation, gender politics, and the science of sleep—against the backdrop of eighteenth-century intellectual history.
In contradistinction to Edward Saïd, Perrin considers the Nights an early ethnographic project (272). Galland, a learned Orientalist, translated stories from the East to teach “un savoir authentique des réalités orientales” (authentic knowledge of Eastern realities) to the uninitiated Westerner and fashioned the Orient as a mirror of European ideas and values (32). Writers Perrin would call imitators took up what Voltaire would dub the “Mille et un” (thousand and one) framing device and spun it to marvelously diverse purposes. Like Galland, Pétis de la Croix (Les Mille et un jour [The Thousand and One Days], 1710–12) and Gueullette (Les Mille et un quart d’heures [The Thousand and One Hours], 1733) both had extensive knowledge of the East—Pétis traveled and Gueullette read voraciously—and showcased it in the sophisticated humor of the French literary tale and the serial structure of the Nights. Drawing real-world influence “de tous les rayons de la bibliothèque” (from library books, 156), Gueullette, for example, created pastiches of the East, what Perrin calls “paradoxical fictions” (265). One of them, his Contes chinois (Chinese Tales, 1723) features as its framing device a narrator who recounts all of his reincarnated lives.
A second line of imitators, beginning with Hamilton’s tales published posthumously in 1730 and up through Voltaire and Rousseau, ironized and satirized Galland’s “style allégorique à l’orientale” (allegorical Oriental style, 16). These Hamiltonesque tales are antipedagogical satires of the [End Page 357] East (36). They weigh down the core features of the Nights—its frame, its décor, its interpolated coherence—with extravagant features of European romance to produce fantastical, libertine, and absurd storylines filled with every manner of persiflage, from burlesque parody (Hamilton) to oversexed furniture (Crébillon fils).