Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Beyond the Bounds of Truth: Cultural Translation and William Chambers's Chinese Garden

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Beyond the Bounds of Truth: Cultural Translation and William Chambers's Chinese Garden

Article excerpt

William Chambers's writings on Chinese gardening provide a rich context for understanding the workings of eighteenth-century exoticism. This essay re-examines these works through the lens of the travel narrative to highlight the psychological effects manifested in the encounter with foreignness.

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The most abundant harvest, within eighteenth-century studies, of recent developments in literary and cultural theory has occurred at the margins of the literary and historical disciplines as they have been traditionally constituted. Feminist scholarship has restored dozens of neglected women writers to a prominent place in the literary canon and foregrounded a series of historical and theoretical concerns--regarding sexuality, for example, consumerism, and medicine--that have become mainstays of early modern cultural studies. The field of postcolonial criticism that has emerged in the twenty years since Said's Orientalism has, meanwhile, shifted renewed attention toward the history of cross-cultural encounter in the century preceding Napoleon's conquests. The formation of modern national identities in the eighteenth century appears increasingly to have occurred through a process mediated in profound and complex ways by contacts with the foreign. Within British literary studies, for example, interest in travel writing from the Grand Tour and beyond--Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in Turkey, Johnson and Boswell in Scotland, Mary Wollstonecraft in Sweden--along with renewed assessments of colonialist dynamics in India and the Caribbean have brought geographical peripheries into the centre of the historical stage and prompted investigations of the role of foreignness even in works that evince little explicit interest in the foreign.

If both feminism and postcolonialism have contributed to the range and vitality of scholarship on "the new eighteenth century," there remains, of course, a crucial distinction in the applicability of their methodologies and paradigms for work in this period. The central questions raised by feminist scholarship--questions about the cultural constitution of sexual identity, for example, and the social mechanisms of gender hierarchy--although configured differently in different periods, are broadly applicable across cultural and historical boundaries. The questions central to postcolonial studies, in contrast, questions of cultural identity in the once-colonized Third World, by definition presuppose a historical context subsequent both to colonial occupation and, often, to certain epistemological foundations in Enlightenment thought. While scholars have occasionally applied concepts borrowed from postcolonialism to the analysis of pre-colonialist or non-colonialist encounters, the history of such contacts in the early modern period remains relatively under-theorized. We are well positioned now to scrutinize the preconditions of British hegemony in India in the second half of the eighteenth century or the hybridization of cultural forms on early Caribbean sugar plantations, but recent work has equipped us less well, I would argue, to take an equally full and nuanced accounting of cross-cultural contacts mediated less predominantly, if at all, by an underlying ethos of violence and coercion.

Analyses of Europe's non-colonialist encounters with distant peoples--those that recent cultural criticism, in other words, has tended to overlook--typically define their significance in terms of one of several distinct modes of cultural translation. The first mode consists of the construction of imaginary geographies, the emergence of sensualized images of the East, for example, in the wake of Antoine Galland's translation of The Thousand and One Nights or of the wise eastern sage embodied in Montesquieu's Lettres persanes or Oliver Goldsmith's The Citizen of the World. The second form is more distinctly mimetic, involving the imitation or adaptation of alien practices in Europe, such as we find in garden structures modelled after mosques and pagodas or in the British adoption of the Turkish practice of smallpox inoculation promoted by Mary Wortley Montagu. …

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