In modern times we often read the literature of our progenitors to be problematic because there seem to be a slew of issues that they are truly ignorant of. This is often the case because our ancestors did not have our privilege to see what consequences such issues would have on modern day and so it seems unfair to critique them. Instead it would be more useful to examine their ignorance and see how the foundations of certain issues were shaped and how to rid of them. For example, this essay will look at this sentence from Voltaire’s “History” article from the Encyclopédie—“it is required that the history of a foreign country not be cast in the same mold as that of one's homeland”—while also looking at its connections to passages from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Turkish Embassy Letters and Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko in order to see how the inherent issue in that sentence affects modern history.
The inherent issue of Voltaire’s sentence is that this kind of writing facilitates the othering of another nation and its peoples because writers are required to write of others almost as if they are of another species. When such an attitude takes place then nationalist ideas take hold in the writers’ minds and the views of other nations lowers. The kind of language that writers employ often include the words “uncivilized” or “barbarian” as in the case of Oroonoko in which Behn describes the manners of Oroonoko: “He had nothing of barbarity in his nature, but in all points addressed himself as if his education had been in some European court” (p. 2140). It would seem that in the case of a European going to the New World or Africa that a native of that place is only taken seriously and given empathy if their customs somewhat resemble Europeans one. This also appears to be the case in appearance in which Behn describes Oroonoko physically: “His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat; his mouth the finest shaped that could be seen, far from those great turned lips which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes” (2140-2141). I also come upon an issue of when a writer renders a foreigner they find noble in some way, such as Behn and Oroonoko, and tries to domesticate them by saying that such-and-such character behaves as if they come from Europe as the Turkish Embassy Letters show when speaking upon a woman: “I am easily persuaded could she be suddenly transported upon the most polite throne of Europe, nobody would think of her other than born and bred to be a queen, though educated in a country we call barbarous” (p.133). This type of domestication leads to an erasure of the subject’s culture, which may have been the extreme that Voltaire was warning about but it can also be said on the other extreme there are writings in which a character’s culture and practices are heavy-handedly altered in order to excite some sense of the exotic in the reader.
What Behn is also doing is using the stereotype of the Noble Savage, which creates a "paradoxical relationship" between Europeans and natives because as Brian Vlasak writes: "On the one hand, they were to be found as entities that were “Wild … [ate] Mens Flesh, [and were] Savage” (Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe); in short, they were the things of nightmares, rabid beasts, monsters that were not in control of their most bestial of urges and indulged in the ultimate taboo: cannibalism. On the other hand, “[they were extremely] modest and bashful, very shy, and nice of being touched."1 How is one to make sense of characters in literature when they are given such conflicting characteristics? And to exacerbate the problem even more was the dispersal of these contradictions in literature as Marc Ruiz notes: "Lastly, interest perpetuates it, and the business for interest is booming during the Enlightenment so naturally these stories and false accounts are spread to those who can read at this time thanks to the invention of the printing press...there was probably just as much ignorance spread as enlightenment."2
The veil that many Muslim women take has gone through many perspective changes in the West, which in current time is seen as a symbol of the patriarchy and oppression when in reality many Muslim women take the veil voluntarily as a symbol of their devotion to God. The Turkish Embassy Letters show the older view of the veil which is one of mystery and anonymity. The writer considers them as the prime example of women’s autonomy when she writes: “You may guess how effectually this disguises them, that there is no distinguishing the great lady from her slave…This perpetual masquerade gives them entire liberty of following their inclinations without danger of discovery” (p.115). She equates the veil as a disguise these women put on in order to act upon their sexual whims without any prejudice, which was something not enjoyed in Europe. I understand that the writer is trying to provide a great moment of female liberation but in doing so she has mutilated a practice by equating a religious practice with the profane. She has taken the image of a Muslim woman and turned her into a highly sexualized being. This kind of writing possibly led to the trend in Orientalism in which people of the East, especially women, were depicted as decadent.
One can see this portrayal of Orientalist decadence in the Turkish Embassy Letters in which the writer is describing the scene at a Turkish bath: “The first sofas were covered with cushions and rich carpets, on which sat the ladies, and on the second their slaves behind ‘em, but without any distinction of rank by their dress, all being in the state of nature, that is, in plain English, stark naked, without any beauty or defect concealed” (p.101). The writer then goes to describe them as just sitting leisurely as if they were at an English coffee house and that they spend much time here. She then begins to describe their skin color as “most of their skins shiningly white” (p. 102). This is in all problematic because just as the last paragraph stated that these kinds of descriptions lead to Eastern people being thought of as indulgent. This can be seen in the visual arts in which frequently the artist portrays the Eastern women as white European women who are scantily-clad, in poses of utter decadence, and often with slaves around who may also be naked.
It would seem that Voltaire’s advice was strongly followed after much contact with the Ottoman Empire as there were many Orientalist artworks that took exaggerated accounts of the East. Orientalism appears frequently from the 18th-19th centuries thanks in part to European imperialism, such as in many of Eugene Delacroix’s artwork, the art movements such as chinoiserie and turquerie, and even up to the modern day with the film The Sheik. A particular focus for Orientalist artists was the haram, which comes from the Arabic meaning a forbidden place but is taken to be the women’s quarter belonging to a master but of which no man may enter. In Western culture it was always depicted of being full of naked women who would satisfy their master’s every need when in fact as was shown by Montagu that it is filled with the master’s female family members along with their slaves.
These kinds of cultural mutilation have made the Western image of the East into a complex one in which we either accuse them of being overly decadent or sexually restrictive. This has bled into today where many people still objectify the East as exotic, to go overseas and conquer it and enjoy all the preconceived notions that history and art has taught. I do not believe that one should write about another culture or nation in a manner starkly different then how we might write about our own nor do I advocate that we write about them as if they are exactly like us but rather a middle path should be taken and it should be taken with honesty so that cultures are not misrepresented. While I am a bit offended at times by Robinson Crusoe for its depictions of the character Friday and Xury, I do like what Ryan Conlon wrote about it: "[Crusoe] develops a strong relationship with a man who is completely different from himself, and by getting to know Friday better, he is learning more about the culture Friday was a part of, one that he was aware of but never truly comprehended. It is in this way that Crusoe is gaining a better understanding of the part of the world he has been living in."3 I think that if more literature that talked about different places and their respective cultures than I think we would be able to avoid stereotyping one another based upon misinformed accounts.