Enjoy Your Orientalism!

May 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

I had great expectations for Marina Warner’s Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights. Great, great expectations that fell flat and left me sobbing on the floor, tearing at my hair. Great big tears.

No, okay. Not really. It left me tired, basically. Like… GREAT SIGHS OF EXHAUSTION. My review is in up at Pop Matters, and here is a little bit of my rant review:

Warner’s Stranger Magic, for the most part, proves the point Said makes in Orientalism: “How then to recognise individuality and to reconcile it with its intelligent, and by no means passive or merely dictational, general and hegemonic context?” She proves this point by leaving this question well alone in her own inquiries. For example, when she talks about Danish-born Melchior Lorck and his art, she’s careful to note that in his stylised illustrations, “he seems sensitive to the Islamic prohibition on lifelikeness in representation”. Perhaps he was. And yet, the political implications of Lorck’s presence among Muslims in Istanbul, where he worked as a spy for Archduke Ferdinand I’s mission, are simply glossed over. He was there, Warner tells us in a brief sentence, “to gather information about the Ottoman enemy”.

Stranger Magic shows us that Europe was full of individuals with particular sensitivity or sympathy to the people, practices, and religion of the Orient, and sometimes Warner comes across as wanting her readers to see these individuals as nothing more than passionate or dreamy individuals developing modes of self-expression through foreign myth and fairy tales, or indulging in a few peccadilloes. Perhaps, in many cases, these were simply that: “In numerous letters, Goethe praises the Nights, showing how the stories revealed to him how to give free play to his imagination, and to pass beyond reason’s boundaries in order to express its ideals more fully.”

That’s great for Goethe, I’m thinking, but it also speaks to deeper implications that Warner sets out to investigate in her project, but whose ramifications she doesn’t fully explore: that of the popularity of the Arabian Nights during the time of Enlightenment, when reason and rationality exerted a hegemonic force. European audiences devoured the Arabian Nights, Warner posits, because it was an avenue for magical thinking, a place where the European imagination could go and play. But the Arabian Nights also came out of an actual place, a place that, as Said’sOrientalism shows us, has long been Europe’s “cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other.”

Because I’m reading Capital at the moment, the bits I found most interesting were the bits on “thing-narratives”, as Warner refers to them, about objects and things imbued with magic or the idea of it. There are some interesting ideas here, like when Warner talks about magic as a means out of the “anonymous sameness of commodities”:

Thing-narratives often hone in on the virtue of goods per se, and choose to dramatise the weird independent life of money which goods command.

Also interesting was her short detour into magic and mass consumption in Europe, where department stores in 19th-century France borrowed the language and the imagery “of the fabulous East” to incite desire among its consumers. It’s interesting to think about that in relation to imperialism; first as plunder, then as exoticism.

Unfortunately, these bits of interest were most brief indeed, so it didn’t do much to soothe my irritation. And I was, as you can probably tell from the review, GREATLY IRRITATED.

I also lose my shit in a minor way at a Maria Bustillos piece in this review. I didn’t want to lose my shit at that particular piece, especially since Bustillos is apparently a well-regarded writer and ohnoes what if I’m being too critical, but you know? Sometimes shit is lost.

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