Orientalism as Defined by Burton in the Arabian Nights Research Proposal

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¶ … Burton's translation of The Arabian Nights (TAN) backed by a deep knowledge of Islam contributes to the Orientalist project and to the past and present knowledge of the Orient as it has been shaped by different disciplines such as anthropology, history and literature. It will trace the evolution of The Arabian Nights and its translation by Burton followed by an analysis applied to the representations of Oriental elements as revealed in its social and religious practices. I will argue that the stereotypes in TAN as well as the annotations that refer to Arabic-Islamic culture are related directly to Burton's intellectual vision, a vision of a British empire that takes pride in having the highest number of Muslim subjects bowed under its supremacy.

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Long before the invention of the internet, the world relied upon literature to gain knowledge about other cultures. As such, the writings of novelists, poets, journalists, and research writers holding often limited experiences, together with their own personal views on culture, politics, and religion, have long served as the basis for shaping many reader's ideas about foreign cultures and traditions. The reader's understanding is thus impacted by the author's writings, leaving the reader with a potentially misguided understanding of the other cultures that stands in contradiction to the real life, traditions, and the culture of the society the author wrote about. The seeds of Orientalism were planted in the minds of the nineteenth century readers and developed into a vast and coherent body of knowledge most of which persistently strove to degrade and dehumanize the Orient for the sole purpose of controlling it. In his book on the subject, Orientalism (1979), Edward W. Said defines Orientalism in the following terms:

Research Proposal on Orientalism as Defined by Burton in the Arabian Nights Assignment

By Orientalism I mean several things, all of them, in my opinion, interdependent. The most readily accepted designation for Orientalism is an academic one and indeed the label still serves in a number of academic institutions. Anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient -- and this applies whether the person is an anthropologist, sociologist, historian, or philologist -- either in its specific or its general aspects, is an Orientialist, and what he or she does is Orientalism. (Said 6)

In sum, Said's Orientalism is an analysis of the field of Oriental Studies that has been an important academic field of study in many leading European universities for hundreds of years. In this regard, Windschuttle reports that, "Oriental Studies is a composite area of scholarship comprising philology, linguistics, ethnography, and the interpretation of culture through the discovery, recovery, compilation, and translation of Oriental texts" (30).

In his book, Said emphasizes that his discourse does not attempt to address the entire field of Oriental Studies, but rather concentrates on the manner in which French, British and American scholars have analyzed Arab societies in North Africa and the Middle East (Windschuttle 31). According to Windschuttle, "[Said] has nothing on the other areas that traditionally comprised the field such as Hebrew, Persian, Turkish, Indian, and Far Eastern cultures, nor does he discuss the attitudes of German, Russian, Italian, Spanish, or Portuguese Orientalists" (31). The period covered in Orientalism is primarily limited to the scholarly field that existed during the late eighteenth century to the present day, while European scholarship concerning Oriental Studies originated during the High Middle Ages (Windschuttle 31). Notwithstanding these constraints, though, Said's book does make a significant contribution to the body of knowledge concerning Oriental Studies by expanding the scope to include other cultural factors. For instance, Windschuttle notes that, "Within his time frame, however, Said extends his examination beyond the works of recognized Orientalist academics to take in literature, journalism, travel books, and religious and philosophical studies to produce a broadly historical and anthropological perspective" (31).

An important point made by Massad concerns Said's motivation for studying Orientalism and the focus of his research. In this regard, Massad notes that, "Said did not study Orientalism as a static system of ideas, rather as a dynamic exchange between individual authors and the large political concerns shaped by the three great empires-British, French, American-in whose intellectual and imaginative territory the writing was produced" (631). From Said's perspective, Orientalism was a dynamic phenomenon rather than a static point in history. For instance, Massad reports that, "For Said, Orientalism was always transforming. His task was to identify changes, modulations, refinements, even revolutions [that] take place within Orientalism" (632).

Perhaps the most influential writer in the field of Orientalism was Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) (referred to alternatively as Burton throughout this study), as well as early nineteenth century translators of Alf LaylawaLayla, or The Arabian Nights (TAN), such as Petis de la Crois (1653-1713) with Antoine Galland (1646-1715), Edward Lane (1801-1876), and John Payne (1842-1916) who were also interested in the history, the culture and languages of the Middle East. Consequently, they became widely accepted and celebrated authorities on the Orient and Oriental culture because of their interpretations of that culture, its traditions, and especially ancient Oriental works of written fiction. They also belong to the most pronounced traditions of Orientalism that is the British and the French and are consistent with what Said helps put into a framework or context for understanding the meaning and definition of the term as it applies to the product of this knowledge, the relationship between the Orient and the Western world:

To speak of Orientalism therefore is to speak mainly, although not exclusively, of a British and French cultural enterprise, a project whose dimensions take in such disparate realms as the imagination itself, the whole of India and the Levant, the Biblical texts and the Biblical lands, the spice trade, colonial armies and a long tradition of colonial administrators, a formidable scholarly corpus, innumerable Oriental "experts" and "hands," and Oriental professorate, a complex array of "Oriental" ideas (Oriental despotism, Oriental splendor, cruelty, sensuality), many Eastern sects, philosophies, and wisdoms domesticated for local European use -- the list can be extended more or less indefinitely. (Said 4)

In particular, Burton's translation and annotations maintain the creative imagination of the original Arabic work in elaborated French and British story telling of "wisdoms domesticated for local European use" (Said 4). In his annotations Burton makes Biblical comparisons between the Koran and the Christian Bible, and using his knowledge of Islam and the Orient he seems to want to create for his reader a contest between the two religious books with a slant in favor of Christianity. Despite being characterized as an enlightened cultural relativist by some authorities, many researchers agree that Burton was ethnocentric in the extreme and used his literary talents to invoke warped views about the Orient and its inhabitants in ways that have been influential to the present day. Given the enormous chasm that has grown between the East and West following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, these issues have assumed new importance and relevance. For instance, Kennedy and Warner report that:

Burton felt quite at ease from his perch as a cosmopolitan in dispensing judgments of relative cultural value. As a youth he had acquired and internalized tastes that famously alienated him from the conventions and fashions of England. As a literary commentator and translator he acknowledged his judgments of the relative aesthetic merit of different cultural products to be informed by his foreign cultural experiences and immersions. His judgment was informed by biases and preferences acquired abroad that inclined him in favor of and against particular cultures and national literary traditions, what one might term cosmopolitan prejudices. (70)

Would Burton have received the wide recognition of having been an expert, rather than just as a colonial administrator through his duties as an agent of the Crown? Or was it because of his translations and most notably his controversial annotations of The Arabian Nights? His creative elaborations earned him a wider audience than that which he might have reached with a drier, less sexually provocative historical dissertation. The broader audience, the audience that embraced the creative imaginative embellishments, is the public sector whose ideas were perhaps less concerned with, or even aligned with the political agenda of occupation, economics, and colonial expansion. That public sector would have proven useful to the goals of colonialism such that their ideas and understandings could be shaped in a fashion consistent with the agenda of political ideologies by carefully and cleverly implanting ideas and images in their minds through the device of fantasy literature.

Similar to the case with historical research of past literature, we are reminded that literature must be taken in the context of the historical time and place when it was written. (Allen 205-213) What was the social anthropology of Britain when Burton wrote his version of TAN in 1884? First, Britain was an Empire of colonies, and still actively colonizing vast regions in Africa and the Middle East. In 1882 Britain colonized Egypt, which would remain under British occupation until 1936. From the anthropological perspective, Peter Pels says:

Anthropologists mostly think of… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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