The Writers’ Orient

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The “journey to the Orient” in the literary sense of the term is a 19th-century invention. To measure this metamorphosis, it needs to be compared with the past.

Of course, Europeans did not wait for the so-called century of progress to discover the various regions that made up the Ottoman Empire: in L’Écriture du Levant à la Renaissance. Enquête sur les voyageurs français dans l’Empire de Soliman le Magnifique (Droz, 2000), Frédéric Tinguely analysed the writings of seven authors (Jacques Gassot, Pierre Belon, André Thevet, Guillaume Postel, Pierre Gilles, Nicolas de Nicolay, and Jean Chesneau) showing just how much their books differed from the literature of pilgrimage, as in Bernhard von Breydenbach’s Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam (1486), even if a rhetoric of commonplaces still marked these relationships, they nevertheless managed to free themselves from some stereotypes and propaganda, so as confront reality.

In the 17th century, the era when Molière made fun of the Great Turk in Le Bourgeois gentilhomme and during which trade relations flourished with the Levant, the Voyage d'Italie, de Dalmatie, de Grèce et du Levant fait aux années 1675 et 1676, by the Lyonnais doctor Jacob Spon and the British traveller George Wheler, is particularly precious when it comes to antiquities and botany. The end of the century was marked by the work of Antoine Galland, initially a librarian and the personal secretary of the Marquis de Nointel, the French ambassador to the Sublime Porte, then mission officer to the new ambassador Gabriel de Guilleragues, before becoming the “king’s antiquary”: fragments of his journal have been kept at the BnF. In 1694 Galland published Les Paroles remarquables, les bons mots et les maximes des Orientaux, traduction de leurs ouvrages en arabe, en persan et en turc. But we above all owe to him a translation/rewriting of the Thousand and One Nights (1704-1711) from which all other western adaptations derive.

In the 18th century, the Orient inspired the illustrious “Grand Tour” of British travellers: Robert Wood and James Dawkins, with The Ruins of Palmyra (1753) and The Ruins of Baalbek (1757) – an inspiration for the ideologist Volney; James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, The Antiquities of Athens and Other Monuments of Greece (1762); Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, The Turkish Embassy Letters (1763); Richard Chandler, Travels in Asia Minor and Greece (1775); James Dallaway, Constantinople Ancient and Modern, with Excursions to the Shores and Islands of the Archipelago and to the Troad (1797). Even if they travelled a little less, the French dreamed of the Orient while reading the Abbé Prévost’s Histoire d’une Grecque moderne (1740), inspired by the story of Charlotte Aïssé, who was taken to Paris by the Comte de Ferriol, the French ambassador to Constantinople.

In 1811, the publication of Chateaubriand’s Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem marked a turning point: to quote the words of Philippe Antoine, in his fine essay, Quand le voyage devient promenade (PUPS, 2011), travelling, thanks to a growing romanticism that exalted the individual, affirmed subjectivity and became a pretext for various mental excursions, heightened by the discovery of places seen as being the cradle of civilisation: the Orient, indissociable from the construction of the Occident, also became indissociable from the history of French literature. It was this conception of travel and of the Orient that illustrated the tales of Lamartine, Nerval, Gautier, Flaubert, Gobineau, Loti, Barrès and, subsequently, the novels and poems of Balzac, Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.

But it would be reductive to limit “travels to the Orient” to authors recognised as being professional writers and published in literary anthologies. Literary value transcended such categories. So it was that Joseph François Michaud (1767-1839), the royalist historian, member of the Académie Française, and author of the celebrated Histoire des croisades (Paris, Michaud-Pillet-Ponthieu, 1812-1822), marked posterity. In May 1830, with Jean Joseph François Poujoulat (1808-1880), his assistant for the Bibliothèque des Croisades, he undertook a journey to Greece, Constantinople and Jerusalem. Poujoulat returned alone to Paris through Syria, while Michaud went to Egypt. Their “letters” (alternate chapters in epistolary form) appeared in their Correspondance dOrient (7 vol., Paris, Ducollet, 1833-1835), whose reputation spread far beyond the frontiers of France.

Among so many other examples, it would be a pity to omit the writings of Victor Fontanier (1796-1857), former student at the École Normale and the École des Voyageurs Naturalistes, which was part of the Muséum (set up in 1819 by the minister Decazes), who was sent on a mission to Constantinople in 1821, before crossing Asia Minor until 1833, and then being appointed vice-consul in Basra (in 1838), as well as being a correspondent to the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. His Voyages en Orient, entrepris par ordre du gouvernement français published in 3 volumes (Constantinople, Grèce, événements politiques de 1827 à 1829, Paris, Mongie Aîné, 1829; Turquie dAsie, Paris, Mongie Aîné, 1829; and Deuxième Voyage en Anatolie, Paris, Dumont, 1834).

In the same spirit of porous frontiers, all the writings of the great scholar Ernest Renan, whose style profoundly influenced Anatole France and Maurice Barrès, deserve to be included in this literary category. The Ruines et paysages d’Égypte (1910) by the Egyptologist Gaston Maspero are in no way inferior to the desert writings of Eugène Fromentin. As for the Vicomte Eugène Melchior de Vogüé, a diplomat and literary enthusiast, and author of Histoires orientales (1880), it was in a novel, Le Maître de la mer (1903), that he delivered his most eloquent evocation of Auguste Mariette’s digs in Saqarra.

Image caption : La peau de chagrin : études sociales par H. de Balzac. 1838

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Voltaire (1694-1778)
The extremely rich relationship that Voltaire had with the Orient was marked by the paradigm of “estrangement”, a detour via the Other that leads to the building of a critical awareness of Self.
Guillaume Métayer, research officer, CNRS, Center for the Study of French Language and Literature
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Pierre Loti (1850-1923)
It was in Stamboul, the old heart of an ancient empire, that Pierre Loti, the final epigone of romanticism, was to have an experience that would radically alter his life and give it an aspect that is still familiar to us:...
Gaultier Roux, doctor of literature, University of Fudan, Shanghai
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Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869)
Alphonse de Lamartine, the French writer and politician, member of the Académie Française, author of both intimately and religiously inspired poems, Les Méditations and Les Harmonies, in 1832-1833 undertook a voyage in th...
Sophie Basch, professor of French literature at the University of Paris-Sorbonne
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Victor Hugo (1802-1885)
Victor Hugo never travelled to the Middle East. And yet, the history of Romantic Orientalism could not be written without mentioning his name, given the extent to which Les Orientales have lastingly inspired poets, painte...
Franck Laurent, associate professor and doctor of literature, university lecturer in 19th and 20th century French literature
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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)
At the time when Goethe undertook his journey westwards, he had just discovered, thanks to the translation of the Austrian Orientalist Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, the full amplitude of the “Diwān” of the Persian poet Moh...
Laurent Cassagnau, member of the Center for Comparative Research on Creative Arts, ENS Lyon (CERCC, EA 1633)
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Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882)
In 1855, Joseph Arthur de Gobineau was appointed secretary to a diplomatic mission to Persia for three years. He could not have dreamed of a better destination. During his adolescence in Brittany, he had become enamoured ...
Pierre-Louis Rey, emeritus professor of French literature at the University of Sorbonne Nouvelle
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Théophile Gautier (1811-1872)
It was in Moorish Spain, which he visited in 1840 with Eugène Piot, that Théophile Gautier (1811-1872), novelist, poet, librettist, and art, literature and theatre critic, formed his initial vision of the Orient. ...
Sophie Basch, professor of French literature at the University of Paris-Sorbonne
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Anatole France (1844-1924)
One of the particularities of Anatole France in his day, in comparison with Loti, Maupassant or Lemaître, as well as the Romantic and Parnassian generations, was quite clearly the fact that he was practically not an Orien...
Guillaume Métayer, , researcher at the CNRS, Centre for the Study of the French Language and Literatures (UMR 8599)
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Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)
Even though his Voyage en Orient was published posthumously, the great novelist Gustave Flaubert contributed to his century’s passion for the Orient with his Temptation of Saint Anthony, Salammbô and Herodias. ...
Sophie Basch, professor of French literature at the University of Paris-Sorbonne
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Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870)
With minarets, the play of orange suns across the Sinai desert, green palm trees and blue skies, ancient ruins and traces of the expedition to Egypt, the imaginary of Alexandre Dumas was saturated with Orientalism. ...
Sylvain Ledda, professor of French literature at the University of Rouen
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François-René de Chateaubriand (1768-1848)
The Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem (1811) of Chateaubriand, so famous that it was soon designated as Itinerary, is the model of all the travels in the Orient of the nineteenth century : trying to measure itself with the ...
Sophie Basch, professor of French literature at the University of Paris-Sorbonne
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Princess Cristina Trivulzio de Belgiojoso (1808-1871)
An important figure in the first phase of the “Risorgimento”, Princess Belgiojoso, author and philosopher, was forced into exile in the Ottoman Empire because of her support for the “Carbonari”. Once there, she drew up a ...
Sophie Basch, professor of French literature at the University of Paris-Sorbonne
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Maurice Barrès (1862-1923)
From his childhood reading to an investigation of the Levant, the itinerary of Barrès was placed under the sign of the Orient, mingling poetic dreams and a spiritual quest. Barrès was the last French writer to have been t...
Jessica Desclaux, doctor of French literature, temporary teaching and research attaché at the ENS.
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Honore de Balzac (1799-1850)
La Comédie humaine “will be like a Western Thousand and One Nights” - Balzac
Andrea Del Lungo,professor of French literature at the University of Lille 3, member of the Institut Universitaire
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Gérard de Nerval (1808-1855)
A French writer and translator associated with the Romantic movement, Gérard de Nerval produced a varied, protean body of work. The Middle East, where he travelled from 1842 to 1843, polarised his aesthetic and spiritual ...
Rémy Arcemisbéhère, doctoral student, CNRS – University of Paris-Sorbonne
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