Orientalism and literary transfers
For the last thirty years, the problem of the literary relationship between the Orient and the West during the expansion of European colonialisms, from the Indian subcontinent to East Asia, from the Levant to North Africa, has been inextricably linked to Edward Said's (1935–2003) theoretical framework. While it is essential if one wants to analyze the "invention" of the Orient by the West, it should not be forgotten that his work did not intend at all to study the complex phenomena of cross-fertilization of forms and genres between the literary cultures of Europe and the Americas on the one hand, and the Middle East on the other. On the contrary, the point was precisely to analyze the appearance of orientalism as a western discourse, that is, to show the historical structuring of knowledge developed in Europe during the Enlightenment into a network of images and representations that could be used to support colonial ambitions, most notably in France and England, over an area that Europeans themselves defined as oriental, whenever it suited their own purposes.
Investigating the problem of literary transfers between the Orient and the West means shifting this framework slightly, in order to allow the establishment of pre- and postcolonial national literatures in each of the cultural areas involved in this cross-construction, to be seen in a new and fruitful light, particularly in the Muslim world, from India to the Middle East and the Maghreb. Furthermore, studying the relationship between European and oriental literatures represents an opportunity to look back on the aesthetic foundations of orientalism itself, seen as a specifically European phenomenon. Taking into account the often very ancient exchange of themes, techniques and literary motifs between Europe and Arab Muslim countries, one can see clearly that the creation of a world imagined as oriental, from the 17th to the 20th century, actually shows a willingness by European nations to distance themselves from them. These cultural phenomena were made into external objects of study, and thus strategically designated as opposites, even though there existed common philosophical and artistic foundations between the two areas.
More than an alius, a radical Other, the Muslim Orient has long represented for the medieval Christian West an alter, a symbolic opposite whose existence is absolutely necessary to one's own self-definition. Régis Poulet (born 1966) suggested, well before strategies of domination of a weakened and exploited Other were set up, that there might be in this dual structure the persistence of a world view based on the ancient myth of the androgyne. The Orient and the West were, to each other, two inseparable sides of a whole universe.1 Poulet thus emphasizes the way Christian and Muslim civilizations historically shared the same dual world view, founded on a cosmology first derived from Neoplatonism and then from Aristotelianism. The reality of these shared philosophical and religious foundations can alternatively explain the shock that resulted from the discovery of the radical otherness of Far Eastern cultures, from the 15th to the 18th century in western Europe, in the Middle Ages in the Arab world.2
Thus, the contrasted relationships that the literatures of western Europe formed with China, India or Japan, on the one hand, and with the much closer literatures of the Arab world on the other, shed an interesting light on the dissemination of oriental themes that developed from the 17th century on – that is, right at the moment when Ottoman conquests in the Mediterranean started to slow down and then stopped altogether, and when European countries started expanding overseas. With the expulsion of the Moors from Spain in 1609, no part of the European continent was shared between Christianity and Islam for the first time in many centuries. Similarly, the ancient and medieval sharing of themes, motifs and literary techniques between the Orient and the West disappeared as such from the history of literary modernity, which from then on was based on a canon of vernacular works specific to each nation. And if these had a common origin, as the numerous quarrels of the ancients and the moderns serve to remind, it was to be found in a classical Greco-Roman corpus that was increasingly thought of as occidental. Consequently, the oriental part of the literary, philosophical, medical or religious culture of western Europe, being separated from national cultural identities – this was particularly true of Spain, where from the 16th century on only the Christian and Castilian part of its history was recognized –, and being also definitely dismissed by the various European classicisms of the 17th and 18th century, had to be rediscovered from the outside, associated with a fascination that was directly linked to its foreignness. Related to the images, the knowledge and the new texts brought to Europe by the travelogues and the scientific expeditions to the Maghreb, the Levant, to the Indian subcontinent and to Asia, it became a proper discourse. Orientalism, i.e. the representation of an exotic otherness used to define a modernity shared by the colonial nations of western Europe, seems to come right out of this process of cultural separation.
The stages of a literary transfer: the example of the Arabic fairy tale
The fairy tale, which first symbolized oriental inspiration in the European literatures of the 18th century, and then became the central element in the development of the orientalist aesthetic in the 18th and 20th century, exemplifies perfectly this complex phenomenon. From the 12th to the 16th century, European fairy tale traditions borrowed narrative motifs from Arabic stories, which themselves had been inspired by Persian or Indian stories. This constant flow, helped in part by the propagation, during the Middle Ages, of collections of exempla from Spain to Italy, then to England, France or Germany, sped up dramatically following the widespread diffusion of the great Italian novellieri, as demonstrated by the analysis of the sources of Boccaccio's (1313–1375) Decameron. By the same token, elements that came out of collections of animal fables with sapiential or political purposes – the "Mirror for princes", such as the collection Kalila wa Dimna – moved freely, for a long time, between major Muslim cultural centers of North Africa and the literatures of Christian Europe, via Al-Andalus Spain.3
During the second Italian Renaissance, however, these motifs were increasingly christianized, particularly in Spain, as a cultural cleansing followed the end of the Reconquista and carried on all through the 16th century. Even though this transformation of the literary traditions towards a purely Christian and western identity was nearly total, a few motifs kept on displaying their ancient cultural hybridity, most notably through the toponyms of the Mediterranean spaces in which their stories were set, or in the persistence of certain narrative structures typical of the Medieval exempla. As a whole, this hybridity had already faded away in the French and English collections of tales, short stories and fables of the 17th century, as they assimilated more and more influences from antiquity and classicism. This is even truer in the case of sapiential structures. The origin of these motifs, felt to be foreign, was thus cast out to the border areas, the commercial centres and the great ports of Christian Europe. The stories that form the core of Shakespeare's theatre, for example, are deemed to be "Italian". The same is true of Jean de la Fontaine's (1621–1695) tales, in the 17th century.
Against this classical and wholly westernized background, the tales and fables from India, Persia or the Arab world, rediscovered and translated by the orientalists, starting in the middle of the 17th century, stand out as an entirely new and exotic vein. La Fontaine, for example, introduced in his second collection of Fables choisies (1668) a series of stories inspired by the "Apologues of Bidpai". It is in this context of a great fascination with the Orient that Antoine Galland (1646–1715), who had already been translating the travels of Sindbad, began translating at the end of the century the first volumes of a manuscript dating from the 14th century and which contained the greater part of the Les Mille et Une Nuits (One Thousand and One Nights).4
Antoine Galland very obviously frenchified the tales of Les Mille et Une Nuits, in order to adapt its moral and religious strangeness to the classical tastes of the court of Louis XIV (1638–1715). This represents the third stage in this process of literary transfer: the "familiarizing" translation of a text presented as being of foreign origins. Galland does not only add notes to give the equivalent of the Muslim cultural facts in the universe of the tales' reception (the call of the muezzin being, according to him, "like our bells"). He also strikes from his version the parts of the tales he considers, aesthetically speaking, impossible to integrate within his model. He thus removes the long and frequent poetical passages inserted within the narrative, because they are, in his opinion, too foreign to be fully appreciated by his expected readership.
Arab tales were in great demand because of their exoticism, but in order to really enjoy them, their readers had to refer themselves to deeper universal, cultural and aesthetic constants to compare them, through the hypothesis of a common literary memory, to their own western civilization, so as to salute its evolution and/or to bemoan its decadence. As early as 1670, Pierre-Daniel Huet (1630–1721) had theorized in his Lettre-traité sur l'origine des romans, which prefaced the novel Zayde published anonymously by Madame de Lafayette, the hypothesis of an oriental origin to the spirit of fiction and literary invention. This cleared the way for a massive transfer of Arab, Turkish, Indian and Persian tales to the European literary imagination. From then on, these tales would not only serve as a repository of motifs, but also as a fertile generic framework that could be put to other uses – so much so that the oriental tale would come to be known as a "French invention" typical of the years 1700–1730.5
There is no need to retell the story of the success of Galland's translation. It quickly spread throughout Europe, was translated into all European languages, and set off an unprecedented oriental fad. The idea of simply imitating the originals was soon abandoned, but several main features were upheld: recognizable narrative elements (the tale as frame, toponyms, space-time, setting, plot fragments), the distinctive logic of the Nights (the absence of moral recompense for the "good" characters, the incentive given to creativity and to entertainment over exemplarity, etc.) and the fabulous aesthetic peculiar to the tales chosen by Galland for his translation (shape-shifting, genies, magical objects, etc.).
This stage of the literary transfer, in which western Europe rediscovers and assimilates an oriental corpus that was at first considered foreign but is quickly integrated into its aesthetic universe, was soon followed by the next stage, as early as the mid-18th century: the return to the point of origin of the transfer and the search for the original object, which was allegedly deformed by the process of translation and adaptation that made it famous. In the case of the Nights, this turned into an erudite quest for the original manuscripts, with the intent to produce a culturally and historically authentic collection of Arab tales, because Antoine Galland's classical French version was now considered obsolete.6 Egyptian and Syrian scholars soon joined in, as for them, this process represented a reappropriation of a mutilated legacy.
During this period, French, German, English and Dutch orientalists tried to outdo each other in looking for a complete version of the Nights, before undertaking a series of new translations of the manuscripts which, in many cases, had been compiled by scholars in Damascus and Cairo. These translations came out at intervals throughout the 18th and 19th century. They chiefly attempted to recreate the tone of the original tales, reinserting the poetical passages omitted by Galland and emphasizing deliberately the somewhat earthy language and loose morals of these medieval stories. It is this last, stylistic characteristic that subsequently became prominent in Europe, while it was conversely toned down in modern Arabic versions. The reason for this is that it was directly associated, in literary criticism as well as in European practices of translation and imitation, to the eroticized and feminized image of an Arab Muslim world which was the subject of conquest fantasies for the English and French colonial imaginations. Thus, the versions published by Richard Burton (1821–1890) in English (Arabian Nights, 1884) and by Joseph-Charles Mardrus (1868–1949) in France (Les Mille Nuits et une nuit, 1898–1904) both suited the prevailing orientalizing, libertine inspiration in post-romantic literature at the end of the 19th century.
This alternation, which is typical of the movement of literary transfers, between a tendency towards cultural assimilation and an erudite or aesthetic attempt to put at a distance the object whose ability to inspire is periodically renewed by the "rediscovery" of its uncanniness, continued during the 20th century. The Nights enjoyed lasting success in the performing arts – ballet, theater, mime in the 1910's and 1920's, and then in the movies. In this respect, Pier Paolo Pasolini's (1922–1975) film, Il Fiore delle mille e una notte (1974) is particularly remarkable for its deconstruction of this swinging pendulum, from the point of view of a lucid postcolonial critique of transfer processes. Even though a part of the movie's aesthetic could be interpreted at first glance as a return to the heavily eroticized fin-de-siècle orientalism reminiscient of Mardrus, the fact that the film was shot in Ethiopia and in Syria produces a sense of displacement, since it does not use the re-created, fake sets customarily associated with Arab tales. Indeed, these fake sets often implicitly grant to the western world the privilege of modernity, shown (even if it is to deplore it) as "adult" and rational, whereas the fantasized Arab world appears as puerile and fantastical. Pasolini, in his series of adaptations of ancient and medieval works that belong to the European literary canon but that were shot in Africa or in the Near East7 – Il Fiore is part of La Trilogia della Vita, along with the Decamerone (1971) and I Racconti di Canterbury (1972) – does exactly the opposite: he deconstructs the system of oppositions, shared by all modern literatures, between western modernity and eastern archaism, between high and low cultures, between physical eroticism and idealistic dreaminess.
The "Oriental Renaissance" in poetry
The frequent return, in western literatures, to a representation of the Orient as the point of origin of civilisation, and therefore as the symbolic birthplace – and as the place of re-birth, of renaissance – of poetic inspiration, has become a classic mode of denouncing orientalism. Here too, an examination of the literary transfers between the Orient and the West can help to give a specific meaning to this complex topic. It should probably not be reduced to its sole fantastical function, as has often been the case in postcolonial criticism. Following Raymond Schwab's (1884–1956) work and Edward Said's,8 on the emergence of a theory of linguistic archeology that made "India Mater" the birthplace of the languages known as "indo-european" during the 18th century, but also on the development of a general philosophy of history which considered, as did Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), the movement of civilisation as a grand evolution from East to West,9 this criticism included all the cultures of India, the Middle East and the Maghreb within a process of metaphysical symbolization that resulted in their becoming unreal or in their being dismissed to humanity's distant past. The traditional image of the Orient as the cradle of humanity thus became a decisive factor in establishing a discourse that gave western European nations a monopoly on modernity – a modernity that, consequently, would have to be imposed upon colonized territories. On the other hand, the European movement which R. Schwab called the "Oriental Renaissance" and which started in Germany in the writings of August Wilhelm von Schlegel (1767–1845), Friedrich von Schlegel (1772–1829), Novalis (1772–1801) or Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), and which determined in France the fascination for the Far East of Alphonse de Lamartine (1790–1869) and Jules Michelet (1798–1874), played an important role, along with recently discovered philosophies and religions (Confucianism, Buddhism and Zen Buddhism, Taoism), in the elaboration of the project of regenerating a spent European civilization. In this context, "l'idée avicennienne selon laquelle l'Orient est la patrie de l'âme et de toute civilisation fut réactualisée par le premier Romantisme allemand qui la popularisa jusqu'au XXe siècle: ce fut l'époque des Morgenlandfahrt (Hermann Hesse, 1932) et autre Pèlerinage aux sources (Lanza del Vasto 1943)".10 The world's bipolarity implied that the cultural uncanniness would be turned by the West into a specular fantasy.
Yet, it is by no means certain that the characterization, most notably in poetry, of oriental literatures as tutelary figures and as the source of the development of vernacular literatures in Europe, did in fact construct the oriental Other into a represented object unable to represent itself or into a purely fantasized object. On the contrary, the literary transfer from the Orient to the West, whether it is depicted as historical, as a forthcoming poetic project or as part of a recurrent regeneration of depleted inspiration, has the very concrete effect of putting the Eastern author (Persian, Indian, Arab, Andalusian, Syrian) in the position of a technical subject of the literary word, thus making conceivable an effective renewal of the possible representations of the world.
Most meaningful in this regard is the lyric tradition of inserting within the enonciation of a book of poetry the imitated manner of an oriental poet renowned for inventing a type of inspiration or a particular poetic form. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), for example, famously set his West-Östlicher Divan under the aegis of the Persian poet Hafez (1326–1390), whom he had just discovered in the translation (1812) of Joseph Hammer-Purgstall (1774–1856). To concretely imitate foreign poetics – to use the same versification schemes, to transpose different generic frameworks, to import new metaphoric associations to replace those set of figures that have become depleted in German – can in itself be fertile. But beyond that, Goethe's book created a new source of inspiration by attempting to reach the very identity of the poet, because he represents an authorial figure, a producer of a unique poetic outlook on the world, which was at first fixed in a particular universe but could be applied to others. It should be noted that the gesture of recreating a foreign poetics has been quite familiar to western lyric genres since the Renaissance. It fits in with the well known principle of imitating creatively ancient and modern masters, and the tradition of writing sonnets in the manner of Petrarch relates to this as well.11 But this gesture comes along at the exact moment when the thought of romantic poetic creation detaches itself from the classical notion of imitation, and begins favouring instead the values of invention and spontaneous inspiration, both born out of a direct involvement of the poet in the world.
The Persian author served both as subject and as object of inspiration for Goethe, just like the the poets from Al-Andalus for Victor Hugo (1802–1885) or Washington Irving (1783–1859). Without a doubt, poetic orientalism in the 19th century functioned no differently than painted or decorative orientalism, in that it represented the world of the Other through typical images and characteristic scenes taken from the history of Arab presence in Europe as well as from the stylized description of an objectified and unmoving exotic place. Yet, the figure of the Arab or Indian poet-storyteller keeps coming back as a source of fictional inspiration in the case of imaginative literature or of poetic inspiration in the case of lyric writing. Let us not forget that Scheherazade is first and foremost considered an author. This shows that the remembrance of a literary transfer from the Orient to the West permeates, in the same way as the Greek and Latin legacies in modern vernacular languages, the internal memory of the literatures of Europe, under the guise of a mythical story told periodically.
Literary echos of the Fall of Granada: story of loss, story of origins
The most telling example of the complexity of the functions attributed to this myth is certainly the history of poetical and narrative representations of the fall of Granada and of the withdrawal of the Arabs from Europe during the following century. Indeed, as early as the 16th century, Hispano-Moorish romances – anonymous poems that celebrate the Reconquista and the conflicts between Christian Castilians and Moorish knights over the last few remaining Spanish Arab strongholds – would have this singular characteristic of presenting the loss and conquest of cities from the point of view, alternately, of the Christians and of the Muslims. This feature has helped establish, since the end of the 16th century, the sorrowful legend of the fall of Granada and of the loss of part of Spain's cultural roots. Yet, this characteristic owed nothing to translation – we now know that most of these poems, which pretend to be Spanish versions of Arab originals, were most likely written directly by Christian authors living in provinces that had been reconquered long ago – nor to the manifestation of an influence or of a legacy. The production of romances seems in fact to be the result of a natural hybridization of the cultures from which they stem, and which were gradually hidden and denied.12 That is why these poems recall the words of the last Moors: they put them at a distance, display them as traces, shadows of a lost reality. In celebrating the defeat of the Moors, the popular corpus of the romances became deeply associated with Spanish national identity. Similarly, at the beginning of the 17th century, the works of Miguel de Cervantès Saavedras (1547–1616) provided a clear example that attributing a historical narrative or the plot of a novel to a mythic "Saracen chronicler" really is a fictionalization of these Arab authors. Long the sole possessors of Arab-Andalusian literary culture, they had become mere "characters" of writers.
During the Romantic era, the romances were rediscovered, in Spain but also in England and in France, and this distinctive evolution continued, in the form of a erudite and poetic recomposition of what had long been left unsaid, because history had long been controlled by the victors. This can be seen in the works of Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo (1856–1912) and Ramón Menéndez Pidal (1869–1968). We know today that the scholarly search for the Arab originals of these romances was bound to fail. But the literary career of the motif had been launched, from the Aventures du dernier Abencérage (1826) by François-René de Chateaubriand (1768–1848) to Victor Hugo's Les Orientales (1829) and Washington Irving's Tales of the Alhambra (1832). This is the precise point at which cultural history integrated this motif within all the other elements typical of literary orientalism. In this regard, it only adds one more component to the archaic characterization of an oriental identity that might, in an aesthetic sense, be held in high esteem but that is materially and strategically disparaged. Conversely, it is also called upon to help write an alternative history, a Benjaminian counter-history: history as seen from the perspective of the losers, that encompasses what the official history sets aside – which is precisely the role that literature claims for itself.
This remains true in the 20th century. In France, the poet Louis Aragon (1897–1982) used the same device in the vast narrative poem called Le Fou d'Elsa (1963). In it, epic stories about the fall of Granada alternate with poems which are largely inspired by classical Arab and medieval Arab-Andalusian poetry.13 Just like Goethe, Aragon attributed his poetical voice, that lyrical "I" who sings of his love for Elsa, to the imaginary works of a lost authorial figure, a poet named Medjnoûn (the Fool), transcribed by a disciple. Even as the voice of the Fou d'Elsa refers to an anterior oriental voice which served as inspiration (Djâmi's poem titled Les Amours de Medjnoûn et Layla), the meaning of each historical or personal event of the epic tale can be infered from the projected shadows of past events – in this particular case, the fall of Granada and its occupation by the Catholic Kings stands for the defeat of France in 1940 and its occupation by the Germans, and the exile of the poet and of the scribe Zayd after the fall of the Nasrid dynasty stands for the evocation of the travels of the modern Elsa in Andalusia.
For Aragon, this complex system reflected the clear-headed functioning of a memory that lies within the poetic view of the world, and the associative and allegorical logic of the literary voice competed with the narrative of official histories, always subject to the demands of a political reinvention of the past. Within this system, great meaning can be ascribed to the scholarly reuse of motifs from the great classical Bedouin odes and from Imru' al-Qays ibn Huǧr al-Kindī (497–545), of the forms typical of medieval Arab-Andalusian lyric poetry – in particular the zadjal (14th century) of Muhammad ibn Yūsuf Ibn Zamrak (1333–1393) – and finally of the themes of the romancero morisco. Aragon's use of Arab poetic inspiration introduces a cultural discrepancy which does not fit into any decorative art – like the arabesque when it is used as a graphic motif but taken out of its original context – or into any simple metaphoric structure through which the Orient only acts as a circuitous means by which the West tries to define itself. Indeed, this discrepancy serves as an attempt to restore poetry's own voice, to assert its right and it own capability to describe reality.
The art of the Other: from transcendence to counterpoint
The process of literary transfer from the Orient to the West, and more precisely, the emphasis put by European authors on the debts owed to the works of a foreign poet by alluding to them in their own poetry, throws a light on the meaning of an important aspect of orientalism, which Edward Said defined based on Raymond Schwab's arguments: "It is as if, having once settled on the Orient as a locale suitable for incarnating the infinite in a finite shape, Europe could not stop the practice".14 This description of the Orient as the geographic pole of the universe's transcendence, often tacking it ethnographically on oriental populations by granting them a primitive religiosity that has been surpassed by western modernity, only really makes sense in the context of the colonial discourse, as a process that established an unreal space, one that is simplified, unified and globally mythified. However, as Regis Poulet pointed out,15 this discourse does not deal exclusively, nor even mainly with the countries of the Middle East or the Near East colonized by the West, because it is even more directly involved with the Far East, since its fundamental foreignness, rediscovered in the 19th century, lent itself particularly well to this symbolic polarization. Besides, the example of poetics borrowed from the Orient that we have described shows that this process does not only function, as far as the arts are concerned, as an act of power or as an ideological oversimplification of the universe of the Other. Arab, Persian or Indian poetics, as well as Chinese art or Japanese theatre, act as transcendent poles within an art that displays the loss of its own capability to create allegories and which is often founded on the awareness of a loss of sacred sentiments. That is why resorting to the representation of the Orient mostly conformed, in the context of the "Oriental Renaissance", to a fantasy of recovering this sacred aspect of life that had been lost as the world became more and more de-christianized. But the process took a very radical turn indeed, just as the final reference to the existence of the sacred in life disappeared. This resulted in a one-dimensional universe, in which the Orient was no longer a stop along the way that lead to God, but a pure manifestation, valid in itself, of the otherness sought out by an art of the counterpoint. It is the reference to the art of the Other, to its independent and distant existence, perceptible thanks to the importation of poetic techniques that demonstrate the relentless diversity of visions of the world, which itself becomes in turn the new shape of transcendence.
The example of the movement between the Orient and the West between the 17th and the 20th century is therefore both typical of the way literary transfers between two spaces generally function, and distinctive, since this movement takes part to a degree in the construction of an ideologically powerful discourse – in this case, the orientalist discourse of the colonial era. Studying this movement makes it possible to re-evaluate some of the oppositions that structure orientalism's cultural matrix in support of a strategy of power, most notably between a written, scholarly corpus and a popular oral tradition, between subjects and objects of representation, between modernity and archaism, or between the material world and transcendent space. Thus, it demonstrates to what extent literary texts contribute to the development of fields of knowledge, of which they often are the most powerful cultural support. But it also emphasizes their specific roles that can never be reduced to a cultural product conditioned by the field of knowledge to which it belongs.