William Beckford’s "Vathek" and Edward W. Said’s Concept of Orientalism

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2014 18 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works


Table of contents:

1. Introduction

2. Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism

3. Typical features of Orientalism in Vathek
3.1 Violence and Evilness
3.2 Homoeroticism
3.3 Sensuality
3.4 Religion

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The purpose of this present survey is to investigate features of Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism in William Beckford’s Vathek. It intends to examine how far Beckford’s novel reflects the standardization and cultural stereotyping that have helped to intensify the grasp of the imaginative demonology of the mysterious East (Said, 2003:26). Therefore I will at first present an introduction of Said’s concept of Orientalism, in order to be able to distinguish features of Orientalism in Beckford’s novel in the main body of my term paper. The main focus will be on: Violence and evilness, homoeroticism, sensuality and religion. The most important sources for my term paper are evidently Edward Said’s book Orientalism, which has been first published in 1978, and William Beckford’s novel Vathek (1786), which was originally written in French and translated into English by Reverent Samuel Henley (Khrisat, 2001: 192). Even though many scholars seem to have studied Said’s notion of Orientalism in the scope of literary works, like for example Eric Meyer and Bernard Lewis, there seem to exist few researches which are merely based on Orientalism in Vathek. However, the most important resource for this paper is Muna Al-Alwana’s survey about Orientalism in Beckford’s novel, next to Jeffrey Cass’s study, who has investigated Vathek in respect to Orientalism and Homoeroticism. The most important resource for this paper is Muna Al- Alwana’s survey.

Because of the British fascination of the mysterious Orient, Orientalism became increasingly pervasive and accessible within the British literature during the 18th and 19th centuries (see Schaar, 2000: 182). The interest in the Orient mainly developed due to several translations of the most popular tales from the East. The most famous and influential texts were the Arabian Nights, which were being published in English between 1704-1712 (Khrisat, 2001:187). Due to the vogue of Orientalism, it became increasingly dominant in literary works. Therefore Said assumes that authors like Beckford, Byron, Moore and Goethe used Orientalism as an outlet to their concerns in “Gothic Tales, pseudo-medieval idylls, visions of barbaric splendour and cruelty [...] sensuality, promise, terror, sublimity, idyllic pleasure, intense energy” (Said, 2003: 118). Thus, the Oriental tale flourished in the 18th and 19th century and therefore many famous Oriental tales were published; Like for example the Tales of the Genni (1764) written by Reverend James Ridley, Montesquieu’s The Persian Letter (1721) as well as Beckford’s Vathek (1786), which is considered to be the first romantic work of prose fiction promoting Orientalism (see Queijan and Zouk) In Vathek, William Beckford combines Orientalism with the Gothic genre; On one hand the novel seems to be an Oriental tale due to its setting, characters and the depiction of the Oriental culture, on the other hand it exhibits common features which are related to the Gothic genre: supernatural activity, terror and sublime horror. According to the Norton Anthology of English Literature Gothic novels and Oriental tales can share the same features:

Exotic settings, supernatural happenings, and deliberate extravagance of event, character, behaviour, emotion, and speech — an extravagance sometimes countered by wry humour even to the point of buffoonery ... Pleasurable terror and pleasurable exoticism are kindred experiences, with unreality and strangeness at the root of both. (Norton Anthology Online) Beckford’s imaginative view of the Orient is actually based on his knowledge of the East. At a young age he had travelled to Switzerland and Venice, where he was able to come into contact with Orientals. Instead of going to school, he was taught by private tutors at his house in Fonthill: He was taught music by Mozart and highly influenced by Alexander Cozens who taught him Eastern literature and art (see Melville, 1910: 18-22). At his time in Fonthill Beckford began to become increasingly fascinated by the exotic and idyllic life of the Orient, due to his passion for Oriental tales like the Arabian Nights, which “had fired his youthful mind and held his imagination captive; their influence over him never waned all the days of his life” (Ibid.: 21). Hence, the Arabian Nights inspired him to write his own Oriental tale by the age of 22 (see ibid: 22).

Much of the Orientalist impetus behind Vathek derives from the Arabian Nights, a tale in which Haroun- al Rashid is the protagonist and the grandfather of the actual Vathek (see Queijan and Zouk). Therefore Beckford’s protagonist is based on a real historical character: Al- Wathek, the ninth Caliph of the Abassid dynasty who reigned from 815-846 A.D. Just like Vathek he known for his passion for food, music, poetry, astronomy and logic (see Khrisat: 189).

Beckford’s Vathek is a cruel and despotic leader who devotes himself to the services of Eblis, with the intention to receive Soliman’s talismans that govern the world. In order to acquire these talismans Vathek and mother commit one crime after another in order to please the Giaour’s demands. On his journey towards the ruins of Istakar, he falls in love with the beautiful princess Nouronihar, who admires his luxury possessions and grandeur. After abandoning her father and her fiancé, Nouronihar accompanies Vathek because she also seeks for the supernatural powers of the talismans. When Vathek and his entourage finally arrive at the Halls of Eblis, instead of getting their reward, they are damned to wander in hell for eternity.

2. Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism

In his book Orientalism Edward Said challenges the concepts of Orientalism or rather what the Westerners believed the Orient to be like. His notion of the Orient is mainly covers the Middle East, thus the Arab world (Lewis, 2000: 258). With the help of approaches from the French discourse theory, in particular Michel Foucault’s texts, and other scientific reports by British and French scientists and writers, Said analysed the perception of the Orient in literature and established his thesis that it was primarily a colonialist construction for the Other (Ibid.).

Since antiquity, Europe looked at the East with some fear, greed and curiosity (see Said, 2003: 252). Biased representations of the East have already occurred since antiquity, even though they had mostly been very romantic and innocent. It was perceived as a “place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.”(Said, 2003: 1) However, this romantic view changed when the first colonisers conquered the East.

With the start of colonisation the Europeans (predominantly the French and the British) increasingly came into contact with the lesser developed Eastern countries (see ibid.: 41). Due to their alien and exotic culture they stared to establish the science of Orientalism: A study of the people from the Orient, dominated by imperatives and ideological biases apparently suited for the East. Orientalism can be seen as an image for the Orient expressed through an entire system of thought and scholarship. According to Said, Orientalism is “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) the ‘Occident’.” (Ibid.: 2). Thus he claims that the Europeans divided the world into two parts: ‘The Orient’ and ‘the Occident’, or in other words ‘the East’ and ‘the West’. Together with this artificial boundary they have invented certain characteristic to define the Oriental culture and especially its people. They determined the Orient to be uncivilized, irrational, primitive and inferior. Or in fact, the Easterners were displayed to be everything the Europeans were not. Therefore the Orientals develop into a phenomenon possessing generalised characteristics and thus, stereotypes of the Oriental became engrained the Western’s minds (see Schaar, 2000: 182).

Orientalism became even more popular when European Orientalists, scholars of the Orient, began to write about these generalised attributes they associated with the Orientals (see Said, 2003: 21). The East has been perceived by the Orientalists as an image of otherness, of the alien, of the unknown, and therefore they felt the need establish as science explaining the mysteries of the East. They invented stereotypical and artificial characteristics for Orientals and introduced their conceptions of the East to the Western audience in scientific reports, travel accounts, art and literary texts. These sources became “the lenses through which the Orient was experienced, and they shape the language, perception and form of the encounter between East and West” (Ibid.: 58). Hence, they had power over the Orientals by determining their reputation (see Said, Shattered Myths: 93). Said therefore argues that all Western accounts, especially literary or scientific texts about the Orient do not simply attempt to add to the knowledge about the Oriental culture and its people, but rather try to produce an image and a tradition of the Orient which the Europeans believed to be true. This therefore infused a bias in the European attitude towards the Orientals (see Said, 2003: 4). However, Said critically remarks that the Western image of the Orient had in fact little to do with the ‘real’ Orient. He asserts that all predications and assertions about the Orient are pervaded with imaginary conceptions and prejudices, shaped by ideological positions and not based on real factual knowledge:

No one has ever devised a method for detaching the scholar from the circumstances of life, from the fact of his own involvement (conscious or unconscious) with a class, a set of beliefs, a social position, or from the mere activity of being a member of a society. (Ibid.: 10) This also indicates that Orientalists texts are always more about the West than about the Orient. According to him, the Westerners wanted to emphasis they superiority by characterising, representing and producing the Orient, as well as by dominating them politically. Therefore Said claims the European notion of the Orient to be “less a place than a topos”. (Ibid.: 177).

The Orient was not only believed to be very exotic and alien, but also considered to be dominated by sensuality, unlimited desires and licentious sexuality (see ibid.: 188). Several Oriental clichés, for example, the possession of harems and the voluptuousness of Oriental men, were firmly fixed in Western fantasies about the East. Additionally, homosexuality plays a significant role in Orientalism, because Europeans believed that beautiful younglings were also a part of the Oriental harem (Ibid.: 190). According to Said, “everything about the Orient exuded dangerous sex, threatened hygiene and domestic seemliness with an excessive freedom of intercourse” (Ibid.: 167). The Oriental women are being depicted as veiled, exotic beauties of male fantasies: They are considered to embody boundless sensuality, they are more or less stupid, but above all they are willing and sexually explicit (see ibid.: 207). Thus the Orientals were being portrayed as animalistic, un-human people whose sexuality poses a threat towards the civilised Europeans (see ibid.: 313). Besides the supposed dangerous sexuality of the Orientals, the Orientals were supposed to be extremely violent and irrational (see Lewis, 2000: 261). The people of this part of the world are mostly being described as barbarians, and are referred to as a savage race (see Said, 2003: 54). As an example Said emphasises the European assumption that “Arabs are basically murderers and that violence and deceit are carried in the Arab genes.” (Ibid.: 287). For that reason they are being brought into relation with terrorism and tyranny (see ibid.: 347).

Due to all of these negative attributes ascribed to the Orientals, the European’s believed that they had to safeguarding humanity from their sexuality, madness, excessiveness and irrational violence. The Westerners considered themselves to be the superior race compared to the Easterners. Hence, Said claims that the image of the Orient is nothing more than a construction, completely made up by Western colonizers. He even goes so far as to state that “the Orient was almost a European invention” (Ibid.: 1), in order to be able to reign over the Orientals by occupying their land and controlling their internal affairs (see ibid.: 36). Furthermore, he argues that this European invention of the Orient enabled them “to manage- and even produce- the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically and imaginatively during the post- Enlightenment period.” (Ibid.: 3). Their alleged superiority made the European colonizers consider themselves to be in the rightful position of having authority to rule over the Orient. Thus, they have found themselves an argument to justify colonisation. Orientalism, Edward Said observes, is “a kind of Western projection onto and will to govern over the Orient” (Ibid.: 95). In fact, they even believed that it was their duty to civilise, educate and govern these inferior Eastern countries (Ibid.: 33). Consequently, Said claims that Orientalism became a powerful political instrument “for dominating, reconstructing, and having the authority over the Orient.” (Ibid.: 3).

Not only helped this construction of the Orient to provide a perfect justification for European colonisation, Orientalism also played an instrumental role in configuring and defining the The West itself: “The Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its consulting image, idea, personality, experience” (Ibid.: 1-2). Hence, the Europeans attributed themselves with everything the Orientals weren’t: If the Orientals were supposed to be lazy, irrational, uncivilised and uncultivated, the Westerners automatically defined themselves as active, rational, civilised and sophisticated.



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william beckford’s vathek edward said’s concept orientalism

Title: William Beckford’s "Vathek" and Edward W. Said’s Concept of Orientalism