Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? Literary critics have volleyed the question back and forth between themselves for years, and have still been unable to reach a consensus. On the one hand, New Historicists argue that literature is a product of the culture and time period in which it was written, and a text cannot be properly evaluated without a regard for the prevalent ideas and concerns that influenced the writer. 1984, therefore, is merely George Orwell’s reaction to The Cold War and his fear of totalitarian government; Frankenstein is only a reflection of the 19th century's apprehension about advances in science.
On the opposite side of the argument, literature has been accused of being a subversive tool, a menacing device that imposes ideas and theories on the reader. Such an idea prompts governments, institutions, and organizations to burn books, and in effect, protects society from messages that are either immoral in nature or that deviate from societal norms. The Catcher in the Rye has been banned from many public schools for supposedly endorsing underage drinking, promiscuity, and rebellion. Harry Potter is the number one contested book (or, to be more accurate, book series) because it is believed to attract young adults to witchcraft and the occult. Literature, then, appears to have the power to impose ideologies on and influence the reader.
The answer to the question about life and art could be an amalgamation of the two theories. It is possible that there is a reciprocal exchange between life and literature: Existing social ideologies shape the text, and the text, in turn, amplifies and reflects those values back on the reader. Such is the case in the literary theories of Marxism and Feminism, but also in a lesser-known criticism, Orientalism.
What is Orientalism?
Orientalism is a form of literary criticism attributed to the Edward Said, a Palestinian-American literary theorist. In his own words, Orientalism is defined as:
a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts; it is an elaboration not only of a basic geographical distinction (the world is made up of two unequal halves, Orient and Occident) but also of a whole series of “interests” which, by such means as scholarly discovery, philological reconstruction, psychological analysis, landscape and sociological description, it not only creates but also maintains; it is, rather, than expresses, a certain will or intention to understand, in some cases to control, manipulate, even to incorporate, what is a manifestly different (or alternative and novel) world… Orientalism is—and does not simply represent—a considerable dimension of modern political-intellectual culture, and as such has less to do with the Orient than it does with “our” world.
Great…What the heck does that mean?
Literature subliminally imposes ideologies on the reader, and in the particular case of Orientalism, persuades Westerners that the Occident is culturally superior to the Orient. As a result, the West believes it has a responsibility to control and manipulate the East. The dichotomy between East and West creates and reinforces hegemony, for when distinctions are made between two cultures or groups of people—the division being invisible and elastic, entirely a social construct and lacking any relevant biological distinction or a concrete, physical boundary—it is usually done with a stratified hierarchy in mind.
Defining the East helps define the West by establishing what Occident is by what the Orient is not. For instance, if the Orient is viewed as an exotic, violent, barbaric place of heathens, the Occident must be a familiar, peaceful, virtuous, civilized world of Christians. From a Western perspective, the differences between the Orient and the Occident, entitle Europe and the Americas to subjugate the East, saving it from its supposedly misguided, evil ways.
In literature, particularly English literature written during the height of British Imperialism, the English attributed qualities to the East that were inaccurate and disparaging. Information about the Orient was limited, and while wealthy aristocrats adorned themselves with clothing imported from the East—turbans, saris, dhotis, and kimonos—they had little understanding of the people who created them.
The West’s knowledge of Eastern culture came primarily from two sources: the first was travel narratives, and the second was the translated version of Arabian Nights. The West, in turn, represented its perverted view of the East in its own literature, depicting the Orient as a place of both opulence and bloodthirstiness. The most popular image of the East that appeared in Western art was the “pleasure dome,” a rich, lavish palace filled with exotic animals, plants, where harem girls and slaves would attend and serve a wealthy, sultan-like figure. However, outside of this paradise-like setting, there was an opposing image of throat-cutting thieves and devil-worshiping heathens.
A perfect representation of Orientalism in British Literature is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan.”
In 1797, under the influence of opium, Coleridge had a vision of Kubla Khan, a 13th Century Chinese Emperor, in the capital city of Xanadu. After awaking from his vision, he composed this 54 line poem, which exemplifies many Western misconceptions about the East:
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail:
And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me
That with music loud and long
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
Observe the two stereotypical, opposing images that Coleridge presents of the East. On the one hand, he describes Kubla Khan’s pleasure-dome as an earthly paradise of “gardens bright with sinuous rills,/ Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree…enfolding sunny spots of greenery,” and he shows a young, Abyssinian woman playing a dulcimer and singing with “such deep delight.” However, Coleridge also reveals another side to the Orient: “a savage place! as holy and enchanted/ As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted/ By woman wailing for her demon-lover,” and when he describes the geyser emerging from the “deep romantic chasm,” his diction suggest aggression and violence: “a fountain… forced,” “whose half-intermitted burst/ Huge fragments vaulted,” and “It flung up momentarily the sacred river.” Coleridge depicts the allure and glamour of the Orient, a place of passion, temptation, and pagan savagery.
Well, I see how that applies to 18th and 19th century, but how is Orientalism relevant in the 21st?
Are people today as ignorant of Eastern culture as they were a hundred years ago? In some respects, no. Communication, the Internet, television, news, and exposure to foreign art have created a more international worldview, and “the East” is no longer shrouded in mystery. In fact, some would argue that the East no longer exists, as the United States and European countries recognize the unique identity and sovereignty of eastern nations. Furthermore, scholars have begun to study the diverse cultures and histories of places in the East.
However, there is still an aspect of “Western” pride and bigotry that is supported by the media. For instance, why do some people confuse Muslim extremism with orthodoxy, as if suicide bombing were the sixth pillar of Islam? Why are almost all Chinese or Japanese characters in American films proficient in martial arts? Literature and new forms of media still reinforce stereotypes about the East and suggest that the West is still culturally superior. Orientalism is not a thing of the past, like British Imperialism, but is still prevalent and present in Western media, although perhaps in a different form.
— Stephanie Polukis, Writer