Academic journal article ARIEL

"Turbaned Faces Going By": James Joyce and Irish Orientalism

Academic journal article ARIEL

"Turbaned Faces Going By": James Joyce and Irish Orientalism

Article excerpt

James Joyce's examination of advertising in Ulysses interrogates Ireland's conflicted relationship with the Orient. In his 1907 address before a crowd at the Universita Popolare in Trieste, Joyce explained to his audience that the Irish "language is oriental in origin, and has been identified by many philologists with the ancient language of the Phoenicians, the originators in trade and navigation" (Critical Writing 156). With this statement, Joyce aligns himself with the long-standing but dubious Irish tradition of tracing the original roots of Irish language and civilization to the Orient in an attempt to assert Ireland's independence from, and even superiority to, England. While Joyce's desire to sing the praises of his native country before a foreign audience is understandable, it is more difficult to grasp the reasons he espouses what Joseph Leersen describes as "harebrained" (92) and baseless speculation. Indeed, Joyce's association brings to mind the kind of cultural misappropriation that Edward Said articulates so famously in Orientalism.

Considering Joyce's vast knowledge, it seems unlikely that he could really believe in the suspect theory of what Leersen calls Scytho-Celtism (94), a rather vague and general belief that the Irish were descended from great Oriental civilizations. Adding his voice to the Irish affinity for locating their true ancestry in the Orient, Joyce raises questions about his own attitudes toward nationalism and imperialism. Given the ambiguity with which he depicts images of the Orient in his fiction, at times reinforcing cultural stereotypes of the East and at other times exposing them, Joyce underscores the tantalizing allure of Oriental for the Irish. Just as Joyce seems to recognize his own complicity in yielding to racial and cultural stereotypes, Ulysses illustrates why the attractions of the imagined East were irresistible to the Irish middle class. By consuming the European fantasies of the Orient as exotic and voluptuous, Joyce's Dubliners distract themselves not only from oppression by the English, but also from the rigid control of the Catholic Church.

While Joyce's comments about the Oriental roots of the Celts seem to register an admiration of Eastern culture, Said demonstrates the European habit of forming "its strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self" (3). Thus, while the high esteem with which Joyce and some of his countrymen regard Oriental history appears to suggest an appreciation for Eastern culture, Said argues that this apparent reverence is in fact a type of subjugation, as Europeans are merely using their version of Oriental history to serve their own interests.

According to Said, even apparent tributes to Oriental culture by Europeans are little more than evidence of a "Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient" (3). Consequently, he charges, every citizen of Europe, no matter who or what he appears to be, is "a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric" (204). While such broad claims have prompted scholars like John MacKenzie, a leading voice in criticizing Said's work, to label his theory of Orientalism as "essentialist" (Orientalism 20), (1) it seems almost incontrovertible that perceptions of the Orient are based as much on Europe's attitudes about its own culture and position in the world as any historical reality of the Orient. Late Victorian culture was saturated with images of the Orient, but the East remained for most Europeans a source of great mystery.

Nigel Leask examines the manifestations of Orientalism in nineteenth-century England, when poets like Lord Byron looked to Eastern themes in order to expand their own "creative possibilities" (13). Feeling that they had exhausted the subject matter of the familiar world, Byron recognized the untapped material of the Oriental motif, which provided a new-found wealth of inspiration and introduced many Europeans to the supposed history and customs of the East (Kershner 279). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.