Thursday, January 27, 2011

Hugo, Les Orientales (1829)

This collection of 41 short poems is the great orientalist work of French Romanticism. While the Near East was in the air in the early 19th century, the chief influence on these poems is clearly Byron’s incredibly popular oriental poems, including The Giaour (1813), The Bride of Abydos (1813), Don Juan (1819-26)), and Mazeppa (1819_, the later of which inspired Hugo’s own poem with the same title and subject.

The first few poems celebrate the Greek war of liberation from the Ottoman empire, including the battle of Navarino at which the French fleet along with England and Russia crushed the Ottoman navy. The connection with Byron is also strong, as Byron died in Greece supporting the revolution, helping inspire European intervention.

A few early poems are on Biblical themes. Most of the other poems are daydreams of the otherness of the East, with images of sand and palm trees, scimitars and djinns, elephants and crocodiles, pashas and sultans, from Grenada to Constantinople.

But the poetry soon turns to the deep subject of much of orientalist art – sexual daydreams of the harem. The fantasy of sexually available beauties unable to say no recurs constantly. Add to that the spice of women of different races waiting to comfort the tired warrior.

The Eastern despot’s ability to demand submission from his women stands in stark contrast to the frustrations of the nineteenth-century Parisian, of which Balzac gives us example after example. While French women are sexually available, they also maddeningly slippery and fickle. In works like Ferragus, La Duchess de Langeais, La Femme de trente ans, for example, the unsubmissiveness of women is a torment to men. In La Fille aux yeux d’or, assort of harem is created in Paris, with a bitter twist. The desire for exclusivity and control in a culture of adultery is something unobtainable in the West, thus the temptation of the harem.

The last poem of Les Orientales entitled “Novembre”, is set in the fogs and cold of a Paris late autumn. The poet confesses the fantasy as an escape from the gray Paris sky. He dreams of the “soleil d'orient”, “la beau rêve d'Asie”, “danses des bayadère”. “éléphants blancs chargés de femmes brunes”, not to mention a few tigers and camels thrown in for effect.

The Napoleonic adventure in Egypt, and the French participation of Greek revolution, along with the North African adventurism of the Second Empire show that these are not just idle fantasies with no real-world implications. But in another sense, it’s overkill to accuse these voluptuous fantasies on a chilly day of being the main motivators of a thirst for colonialism that extended far beyond the Muslim world. The mediaeval fantasies that dominate the literature of the time time, after all, did not bring back feudalism.

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