Fair Exotics: Xenophobic Subjects in English Literature, 1720-1850

Fair Exotics: Xenophobic Subjects in English Literature, 1720-1850

Fair Exotics: Xenophobic Subjects in English Literature, 1720-1850

Fair Exotics: Xenophobic Subjects in English Literature, 1720-1850


Arguing that the major hallmarks of Romantic literature--inwardness, emphasis on subjectivity, the individual authorship of selves and texts--were forged during the Enlightenment, Rajani Sudan traces the connections between literary sensibility and British encounters with those persons, ideas, and territories that lay uneasily beyond the national border. The urge to colonize and discover embraced both an interest in foreign "fair exotics" and a deeply rooted sense of their otherness.

Fair Exotics develops a revisionist reading of the period of the British Enlightenment and Romanticism, an age during which England was most aggressively building its empire. By looking at canonical texts, including Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Johnson's Dictionary, De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater, and Bronte's Villette, Sudan shows how the imaginative subject is based on a sense of exoticism created by a pervasive fear of what is foreign. Indeed, as Sudan clarifies, xenophobia is the underpinning not only of nationalism and imperialism but of Romantic subjectivity as well.


For what the unconscious does is to show us the gap through which neurosis
recreates a harmony with the real—a real that may well not be determined…. It
is not without effect that, even in a public speech, one directs one’s attention at
subjects, touching them at what Freud calls the navel—the navel of the dreams,
he writes, to designate their ultimately unknown centre—which is simply, like
the anatomical navel that represents it, that gap of which I have already spoken.

—Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis

Shortly after Robinson Crusoe makes his providential landing on the island, he takes stock of his situation and makes a list of the “good” and “evil” aspects of his circumstances. Most of his laments have to do with his complete isolation (or at least his isolation from anything recognizably British); but he also notes that he has no clothes. He reasons, however, that even were he to have them he could hardly wear them for the heat.

Of course this sort of reasoning doesn’t go very far with either Crusoe or the reader because the weather isn’t the point: clothes, quite obviously, mark the difference between Crusoe’s sense of himself as British and the great mass of naked savages he encounters in his many travels. What is curious, however, is to see how the issue of clothing collapses into his fetishization of skin: Crusoe’s need to make difference visible, if only to himself, primarily because of the increasingly attractive possibilities of not establishing visible difference.

Defoe’s champion of moral progress represents arresting problems of identity that post-colonial studies might usefully consider. Critiques of colonialism, despite their various disclaimers, tend to iterate imperialist models and attribute a monolithic agency to Eurocentric “legacies.” What is often missing from these critical inquiries is an account of the profound insecurities upon which those legacies rest. These largely unnamed fears take shape in Defoe’s novel as strange episodic eruptions in the relatively contiguous narrative of literary realism. Crusoe’s general uneasiness with being a stranger in a strange land explodes into a series of arbitrary, incapacitating worries: his . . .

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