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, painters and musicians, and contributed to creating the 19th-century “Oriental dream”.
This 1829 collection of poetry is not the only text that shows Hugo’s interest in this vague zone that extended from the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean to the depths of Asia. While being deprived of any “field” knowledge, he still remained well enough informed about the diplomatic twists and turns of the “Eastern question” to be able to form certain geopolitical analyses concerning Turkey and Russia (above all in his conclusion to Le Rhin, or in various pieces brought together in Actes et Paroles), or else, in a more discreet and scattered fashion, about Algeria. He also quite closely followed the intense development of the “Oriental sciences” (of linguistics, philology, archaeology, and mythography), as can be seen in the small anthology of previously unpublished translations of Arabic-Persian poetry which he added as a note to Les Orientales. But his contribution was above all a matter of creative imagination. “Hugo’s” Middle East, while not being “real”, was not just a dream or a fantasy: it was a “figure”.
As a political figure, creating the possibility of approaching the archaic mystery of predatory power (Nimrod in La Fin de Satan, for example), such archaism was unfortunately always open to becoming outdated. But Hugo’s Orient also included a large number of archetypal figures of freedom and resistance against oppression (from the Greek bandit to the Arab knight), or of the benign influence of the spiritual over the temporal (“Le derviche” or “Le poète au calife”, in Les Orientales, “L’an neuf de l’hégire” in La Légende des siècles…).
It was a poetic figure, above all, in the romantic, broad and global sense of the term. Les Orientales in particular allowed Hugo to radicalise in his own way some of the potentialities of the poetic renaissance that had started ten years earlier: the chromatic intensity of this Orient which took its palette more from Delacroix than Ingres; the sonic opulence of an “Oriental” lexicon (Arabic, Turkish, Persian or Greek… the latter in its modern form) daringly included in French verses; images, which were often startling, and sometimes shocking, via the prosaic crudity of their contexts. Hugo’s poetic Orient was not the desert, or a worn-out vision inherited from Montesquieu. Its main characteristic was its profusion, promising the scattered mingling of genres and themes, and above all a multiplication of voices: everyone speaks in Les Orientales, the captive and the hostess, the Mufti and the Klepht, the powerful and the poor, executioners and victims, the Orient and the Occident, the water, sky, and clouds… In all sorts of tones, from the mocking to the dreamy, and from cruel to tender… As for the poet, he was sometimes taken up himself in this whirl: he orientalised himself by clearly becoming immerged in the universe he was describing; but without ever completely obscuring the conflictual nature of the relations between the East and the West. This oriental inspiration was to be seen at work later when, during a fallow period in the 1840s, his legendary poetic fecundity seemed to be wearing off, Hugo worked on transposing into verse episodes from the Bible, a book which for him, as for most of the Romantics, was a piece of oriental poetry. This poetical absorption of the Biblical Orient quite clearly nourished, during his exile, Les Contemplations, Dieu, La Fin de Satan, La Légende des siècles… the latter collection allowing Hugo to take on even more directly Arabic-Turkish-Muslim motifs in the sections “L’Islam” and “Les trônes d’Orient”.
In William Shakespeare (1864), that vast essay in which Hugo drew up an overview of his thought concerning art and culture, the list of the fourteen “geniuses” of human poetry, while not being particularly national (with just one Frenchman, Rabelais), still remained apparently extremely “western”, limited to Europe and its Greco-Latin and Judeo-Christian origins. Nevertheless, the Orient is still there, insistently, forming an unexpected horizon. This is the case at least with three of the names: Job, Lucretius and Aeschylus. Job, one of Hugo’s main biblical references, was for him an Arabic poet, “prior to Moses […] His poem, the Arabic version of which has been lost, was written in verse”. Lucretius, the poet-philosopher, was a Roman who had travelled in the East, and who “studied Greece while divining India”. For India was an impersonal infinity, both transcending individuality and failing to reach it; It was the generic site of colossal epics, those “works [that] seem to have been made in common with beings with which the earth has lost any custom”. In this way, the West, in which humanism was anchored, and individuality had developed, clearly stood out from the East, which had remained at the state of the non-ego, in the infinity of nature and divinity. This philosophy of civilisations was quite banal in the 19th century. But, in William Shakespeare, things are not that simple. For a genius is specifically someone who takes on his own impersonal, indeterminate part of the infinite. Such was the case for Aeschylus, who “had India within him”, and who had “oriental excess”. Aeschylus was the person who refused to reject Asia (a rejection which, according to the then dominant version of history, created Greece and western civilisation). He recalled the deeply shared heritage between the East and the West. He was “in all Hellenic literature, the sole example of an Athenian soul mingled with Egypt and Asia. Such depths were repugnant to the Greek enlightenment. […] Aeschylus did not share this horror. […] Just let it be said that the parenthood between Greece and the Orient, though detested by the Greeks, was genuine”. Thus, there could be no genius without this element of intimate otherness which had been taken on board, this “quantity of the infinite”, this element of the “unknown”, which could be called, for a Westerner, the Orient.
To conclude, we might add that the oriental dream inspired a large part of Hugo’s graphic works, with the sketches and wash-drawings that have in large part been conserved at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the Maison Victor Hugo in Paris.
Image caption : Couverture de l'Illustration In: Victor Hugo : biographie : documents iconographiques.