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FR355 France and the Orient: the Politics of Difference

Module Code: FR355
Module Name: France and the Orient: the Politics of Difference
Module Coordinator: Dr Julia Hartley
Date and time TBC
Module Credits: 15

Module Description

In the nineteenth century new expertise in Asian languages, archaeological discoveries, illustrated travel accounts, and imperialist agendas led to a wide-spread enthusiasm in France for all things 'Oriental'. To quote Victor Hugo (1829): 'l’Orient, soit comme image, soit comme pensée, est devenu pour les intelligences autant que pour les imaginations une sorte de préoccupation générale'. The term Orient could alternatively be understood as referring to the Asian continent or the Muslim world, and in the French imagination was most associated with the Middle-East. Since the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism (1978), nineteenth-century French accounts of Middle-Eastern languages and cultures are largely understood as being complicit with colonialism, since they often drew on binary oppositions between the 'civilized', 'rational', and 'developed' West, and the 'barbaric', 'sensual', and 'underdeveloped' East.

Reading a variety of texts, from poetry to academic essays, and illustrated travelogues to historical fiction, students taking this module will learn that nineteenth-century French accounts of the Middle-East on the one hand often shared certain key clichés, but on the other hand also varied in tone and narrative. While some asserted the superiority of European civilization, others saw the emerging new histories of Ancient Asian civilizations as challenging this assumption, while poets saw Arabic and Persian poetry as offering a liberating source of inspiration at a time when European poetry had grown repetitive and tired of itself. Attempts to praise non-European cultures were not safe from pitfalls, however, since these were often guilty of either essentialization or assimilation.

Students will become equipped with the critical paradigms necessary to analyse these often problematic texts and will learn the history behind the exoticism and racism that continues to exist in public discourse today.

Jean-Louis Gérôme, l’allumeuse de Narghilé (private collection) 1898

Outline Syllabus

Week 1: Introduction to Orientalism

Assigned Reading: Prefaces to Victor Hugo's Les Orientales (1829) and Emmanuel Chételat's Les Occidentales ou lettres critiques sur les orientales (1829).

Week 2: The Orient in Poetry

Assigned Reading: Victor Hugo: ‘Cri de guerre du mufti’, ‘La Captive’, ‘Le Derviche’, ‘Les Djinns’, ‘Sultan Achmet’, ‘Le Danube en colère’, 'Lui', ‘Novembre’, all from Les Orientales (1829). Théophile Gautier: ‘Préface’, from Émaux et Camées (1856). Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, ‘Les Roses de Saadi’, from Poésies inédites (1860). Leconte de Lisle, ‘Les Roses d’Ispahan’, from Poèmes tragiques (1884). Anna de Noailles, ‘L’Occident’, ‘Le jardin qui séduit le coeur’, from Les Éblouissements (1907).


Week 3: Oriental Studies and Anti-Semitism

Assigned Reading: Preface from Auguste Schmoelders, Essai sur les écoles philosophiques chez les Arabes et notamment sur la doctrine d’Algazzali (1842); Barbier de Meynard, La Poésie en Perse: Leçon d'ouverture faite au Collège de France, le 4 décembre 1876 (1877); Ernest Renan & Al Afghani’s public debate on ‘la philosophie arabe’ (1883).


Week 4: Rewriting Human History

Assigned Reading: Chapters 1 (L'Inde) from Michelet’s La Bible de l’Humanité (1864).


Week 5: Methodologies

Assigned reading : Edward Said, 'Introduction', Orientalism, pp. 1-28; Inge Boer, 'Framing Representations', Disorienting Vision, pp. 1-23; Robert Irwin, 'An Enquiry into the Nature of a Certain Twentieth-Century Polemic', For Lust of Knowing, pp. 277–309; Anil Bhatti and Dorothee Kimmich 'Introduction', Similarity: A Paradigm for Culture Theory.

Assigned work : draw on two of these chapters to write a presentation critically interpreting a short 19th-century text.


Week 6: Reading Week

Week 7: Travelling to the Orient

Assigned Reading: selected chapters from Jane Dieulafoy’s La Perse, la Chaldée, et la Susiane.

Week 8: Travelling to the Orient (continued)

Assigned Reading: further selected chapters from Jane Dieulafoy’s La Perse, la Chaldée, et la Susiane.


Week 9: The Orient and the Historical Novel

Assigned Reading: Flaubert’s Salammbô (chapters 1 to 8)

Week 10: The Orient and the Historical Novel (continued)

Assigned Reading: Flaubert’s Salammbô (chapters 9 to 15)


100% assessed coursework (one 4,000-4,500 word essay).