The Orient "Made Oriental": A Study of William Beckford's Vathek

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I do not believe that authors are mechanically determined by ideology, class, or economic history, but authors are ... very much in the history of their societies, shaping and shaped by that history and their social experience in different measure.

Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism

BECKFORD (1760-1844) IS DESCRIBED as "one of English literature's real oddities; he lived a life of scandal and extravagance, both financial and sexual" (Norton Anthology Online 3). He seems to have been fascinated by the character of the voluptuous Vathek as portrayed in d'Herbelot's Bibliotheque Orientale (1697), one of the most influential Orientalist works.Beckford borrows from d'Herbelot but he makes Vathek more cruel and his associates in crime more horrifying and grotesquely disgusting. He depicts Vathek as totally dissolute, addicted to pleasure and extremes of luxury, far too proud, and sadistic, who deliberately chooses the path of evil; for besides "the sensuality in which he indulged," he has the "insolent curiosity of penetrating the secrets of Heaven" (Vathek 81-3). He devotes himself, partly under the influence of his sorceress mother Carathis, to the direct service of Eblis. Crime follows crime and in his journey towards the haunted ruins of Istakar (the site of the inferno of Eblis himself), he conceives a passion for the beautiful Nouronihar who is as much intoxicated by the prospect of supernatural power as he is himself. They are at last introduced by a subordinate fiend, the Giaour, to the famous Halls of Eblis where after a short interval they meet with their due reward, the eternal torture of a burning heart as they wander amid riches, splendours, opportunities of knowledge and all the other treacherous and bootless gifts of hell.

In Vathek, the Orient is predominantly evil, representing all the seven deadly sins in the persons of the royal family of the Caliph and his mother. The tale opens with emphasis on Vathek's pride and sensuality. He is a person bent totally on the gratification of the senses. His palaces, which are described in dazzling details, are dedicated to the five senses. His fifth palace represents his lust with its reference to the Houris. If there is any goodness in this world, it is presented in weak helpless persons or in the pitiable common people. In a world generally evil and devilishly grotesque, goodness and innocence cannot survive without supernatural help, provided here by the good Genii. Even "Mahomet" is helpless to protect the innocent.

Vathek's despotism and the total subservience of his subjects are highlighted throughout. The subjects are ironically referred to as "good Mussulmans" (84). Like Vathek, his subjects are sensualists; "the subjects of the caliph, like their sovereign, being great admirers of women and apricots from Kirmith, felt their mouths water at these promises" (86). The whole culture is presented as such: a culture of voluptuousness, sensuality, decadence, indolence, and ease. Even piety is derided. Pious Muslims like Fekreddin and his "old grey beards," the dwarfs with their Korans and dromedaries are sarcastically presented. Same with other dignitaries like "Mullas," "Sheiks," and "Imams." They are deliberately made to look ludicrous, always humiliated and insulted. The dwarfs are the most devoted creatures and the truest most helpless followers of "Mahomet." This definitely carries a symbolic meaning. Even references to "Alia" and his prophet "Mahomet" are accompanied by an air of lightness. Vathek is ironically described as "commander of the faithful." Thus the Muslim religion and its people are ridiculed through Vathek and the ignorance, superstition and subservience of his subjects, who no matter what he does, still venerate him as "commander of the faithful." The religion of Islam and its prophet "Mahomet" are helpless to save the "good Mussulmans" from humiliation, suffering, or death. Nor can they correct the corruption of evil. …