- Romanticism, Orientalism, Orientation
The problem of Romantic representations of the literary "Orient" or "East" needs to be redressed. In this essay, I argue that Romanticism's future orientations can and should be steered toward multiracial and multiethnic voices, both real and imagined. But if the "Orient" and "East" are neither real nor accepted signifiers anymore, what do we do with them in the world of Romantic criticism and scholarship? [End Page 134] As floating signifiers of cultural confusion, textual violence, and critical erasure, how do we let go of these cultural misnomers and produce globalized approaches to Romantic literature and criticism?
A first step lies in reviewing canonized Romantic authors' corpuses for more holistic studies of their cultural representations, including second-generation Romantics like Percy Bysshe Shelley, Felicia Hemans, and Lord Byron. From Lord Byron's minimally taught Eastern Tales (1813–1816) to Percy Bysshe Shelley's The Revolt of Islam (1818), there is a preponderance of Orientalist representations and constructions of the "Orient" or "East" that belie geography and facticity. For example, in the final canto of Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, the initial setting of Venice is personified as a sensual woman figure with "spoils of nations, and the exhaustless East."1 Only a few years earlier in his Eastern Tale "Lara" (1814), Byron writes of the eponymous, ethnically ambiguous hero lying limp and silent, about to die: Lara then rose his hand and "pointed to the East."2 Orientalist deployments like these occur throughout Romantic literature. These moments mark a pivotal moment in Romantic literature when poetry moves from aesthetic to political act. This shift moves the task of the poet beyond individual experience to collective representation of other peoples, places, and cultures. This shift lacks adequate scholarship to account for its propagation of largely sedimented comparative and culturalstudies approaches to the field of Romanticism.3
Sara Ahmed writes in Queer Phenomenology, "We might not be able to imagine the world without dividing the world into hemispheres, which are themselves created by the intersection of lines (the equator and the prime meridian), even when we know that there are other ways of inhabiting the world."4 What happens when we redirect our lines of reading along new lines, borders, and orientations—those that fail to fit neatly into the cardinal directions of North, South, East, and West? In asking this question, we refuse to overlook Romantic Orientalist [End Page 135] deployments as inconsequential to the field and its cultural and oftentimes racist aspects. We restate our understanding of cultural appellations like "the Orient"/"East" as a problematic etymological heritage that needs to be remediated within updated discourses. Then, we can better recall a legacy of literature oriented around white male subjects and reorient our cultural repertoires toward multinational, multiracial, and multiethnic spaces beyond the "Big Six." From Immanuel Kant's question, "What Does It Mean to Orient Oneself in Thought?" (1786) to the question of the exact locale of the "Orient" or "East" in Romantic literature, the ambiguity of location and perspective in cultural representations is a phenomenological but also an epistemic question of continuing importance to Romantic reading practices.
Joey S. Kim is a Visiting Assistant Professor of global nineteenthcentury literature at the University of Toledo.
1. Lord Byron, Complete Poetical Works, ed. Jerome McGann, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980–93), III, IV.2, lines 15–16. All quotations are from this edition, hereafter BCPW.
2. Byron, BCPW, III, II, line 467.
3. See also, Andrew Warren, The Orient and the Young Romantics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
4. Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 13.