Place and Displacement:
The Semantics of the Culturally ‘Other’
May 8, 2000
The defining characteristic of British Romanticism lay in the juxtaposition of anti-modernity to the emerging modernity that was both the cause and the effect of British global imperialism. Saree Makdisi writes that "Romanticism…can be understood as a cultural discourse defining the mutual constitution of the modern imperial metropolitan center and its anti-modern colonies and peripheries" (175). In this sense a dialectic relationship arises between the unit defined as self and the unit defined as other, between the subjective and the objective worlds of experience. An example of this lies within William Blake’s "London," published in his 1794 Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which describes the totalizing effect of modernization at the imperial core of England’s burgeoning empire and foreshadows the consequences that the microcosm of the capital would later have on the macrocosm of the world under the constraining effects of regimented and chartered space. The narrator himself, synecdochal of society, is a displaced observer within an empire created around him by forces both beyond his control and, ironically, in his service as a subject of empire and a citizen of its imperial center. He observes, "I wander thro’ each charter’d street,/ Near where the charter’d Thames does flow/ And mark in every face I meet/ Marks of weakness, marks of woe" (1-4). The streets being a synthetic addition to the natural landscape have reconstructed the space in which its inhabitants govern their lives and are symbolic of the regimented social grid into which they must now fall; the chartering of the Thames, however, implies not the reconstruction of nature but its subjugation to the designs of a society progressively becoming mechanized. As a result, "the city exists as a spatial forcefield produced by, and consisting in, the interaction and mutual reinforcement of the forces and institutions of oppression and their human victims," in that "the institutions and system of oppression are coextensive with, on the one hand, the space that they define; and on the other, their victims’ space of experience" (Makdisi 156). Personal space, therefore, does not exist as separate from societal space because one is born, lives, and dies in a cartographic rather than geographic place, where the map becomes a social construct defining the cultural mores of its inmates. Blake’s visions on the direction in which his society was moving were prophetic "in the sense that they grasp at and try conceptually to map a complex and tendentially global system which has not yet fully materialized but whose constituent elements and conceptual discourses were already in place in his own time" (Makdisi 160). As London expanded into Empire coevally with the modernizing forces working within the city itself, Britain’s exponential growth did not just create a sense of displacement, it actually displaced everyone involved, both native and colonial subjects, into a world literally beyond its compass. One’s sense of belonging and of becoming were both compromised by the insecurity inherent in one’s being, in one’s relation not only to the larger world of which one suddenly became a part, but also in one’s relation to oneself. It is through this attempt at a semantic reconciliation with the new world order that the Romantics found their voice, a voice which proved to make as indelible a mark upon our conception of place within the world as did weakness and woe make upon the faces of London’s future placesetters.
England’s development as a society had entailed the establishment of a value system that served as the bond between not only the individual social classes, but also in transcendence of them, so that each class knew its place in relation to the others and each adhered to the standards of its own class in regards to the manner by which it judged the others. As England’s dominance over global affairs increased, this understanding of traditional propriety became strained against both the interests of international trade and the global vision of the French revolution. The foundations of England’s neo-classical class structure began to shake, resulting in a sense of unease concerning one’s place within that class structure and in the need to redefine oneself in relation to the changing world. This transition is seen between Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Mansfield Park (1814) in which two families are depicted at different stages of the imperial process, the one at the beginning set around 1796 and the other in the middle set between 1808 and 1814. Pride and Prejudice depicted the middle-class Bennett family as a typical model of the middle-class value system wherein young girls were not allowed to inherit property entailed by the laws of primogeniture and were therefore forced to marry others of their class to maintain the lifestyles to which they had grown accustomed. The novel begins with the assertion that "it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife" (1), the corollary being that a single woman of no fortune must be in want of a husband of significant value. Society is structured around the institution of marriage to give legitimacy to one’s place within that society. An equal marriage, therefore, existed between a man of value and a woman of less value—when the distance in value between the two partners became too great, however, or when a woman of value married a man of less value, the social fabric became strained. For this reason, the Darcy family treated the marriage of Fitzwilliam Darcy to Elizabeth Bennett with disdain because the class distinction was too great between the pair and such flagrant crossing of class boundaries was considered tantamount to the destruction of society. For a woman to marry that far up was no problem for the woman’s relations though it was scandalous for a man to marry that far down. The match that occurs between Elizabeth’s sister Jane and Charles Bingley, who, while being on a financially and socially higher level, was not beyond the pale of what was expected of a middle class girl to obtain, is lauded by all because it poses no threat to the stability of class relations. When Elizabeth’s sister Lydia imprudently elopes beneath her class with a charismatic, but poor and unstable, officer named George Wickham, however, the union is greeted with horror by everyone and is only partially redeemed by Darcy’s pecuniary aid to Wickham that moves the relationship from elopement to marriage. Even then, to marry beneath one’s level is something which a middle-class Georgian woman cannot do if she wants to achieve the degree of connubial felicity the comfort and stability of middle-class living affords. Austen demonstrates the necessity of maintaining these class relations through the transformation of Elizabeth from democratic to conservative ideals that class distinctions are necessary in the hierarchy of existence, for the lower classes exist symbiotically with the upper classes, and it is only through their mutual cooperation with one another (read the maintenance of their positions within that hierarchy) that society as a system can function.
This neo-classical view of society is the backdrop against which the Romantic notions of class mobility and liberality chafed, and the theme is pursued in Austen’s next novel published the following year. Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price, whose mother had made a most unfortunate match by marrying a lieutenant of the marines, may have been brought out of the lower classes, but she continued to feel them every day of her existence from the patronizing demeanor and tone of her aunt Mrs. Norris who insisted that she show her gratitude and remember her origins. Yet, it is really Mrs. Norris, who had done no better than to marry a modest clergyman, who has pretensions of belonging to the upper class in her constant reliance on her sister Maria’s fortunate match to Lord Bertram. So, the problems of class stature with which Pride and Prejudice is concluded are revisited on the next generation in Mansfield Park, and society is no closer to a resolution of class differences then as it was in the previous generation, yet something remarkable has happened in the interim between the two generations which threatens to transform the way in which those class distinctions are regarded irrespective of societal censure—Pemberly, the Darcy estate, is self-sufficient in 1796, supported exclusively from its own rents while Mansfield Park, by 1814, is supported almost entirely from foreign trade and its Caribbean landholdings. This distinction takes the new English estate out of its insular place and repositions it cartographically as the center of its microcosmic empire. Mansfield Park, as a result, is no longer in England—part of it is abroad, and that part of it that extends beyond the coasts of Northwestern Europe infects the part of it that remains there with a value system that is culturally different from what Mansfield Park might have known during its Pemberly stage. This is allegorically demonstrated in the rebellion of the youth during Lord Bertram’s absence, and Mrs. Norris further complements the allegory by her and her sister’s complicity in the children’s plot to stage a theatrical production—these sisters represent the chinks in the neo-classical armor where the establishment under the divided attention of its patriarchal authority lets down its guard and allows itself to be transformed by the energy of things happening around it rather than taking action against those things sufficient to end them. Ironically, it is Fanny and Edward, the second son of Lord Bertram and therefore a displaced part of the establishment from birth, who champion its values, not because these values have assisted in their prominence in society, but because they have been reared in their defense—yet, even they fall victim to what they perceive as the necessity of saving the failing production, Edward out of fear that otherwise the excesses of the household would be promoted abroad, and Fanny out of deference to Edward. It is not until the lord of the house, Sir Thomas Bertram, returns from a two-year absence (one which was ironically precipitated by a rebellion elsewhere) at his Caribbean estate that this rebellion at home is put to an end. Such a prolonged inattention to his own domestic affairs has caused him to be an absentee landlord in both estates, and this has as disastrous consequences for his family as it had for his affairs abroad, for he is blinded into allowing his daughter Maria to marry a man who cannot make her happy, which results in her later elopement with a dandy named Henry Crawford, and his other daughter Julia runs off with a feckless dreamer solely to follow suit. His daughters’ lack of stability in what should be a stable patriarchal society is symptomatic of that society’s loss of control over its own value system, which ultimately foreshadows (regardless of the fact that Austen championed status quo stability) the decline and fall of that society into one of greater liberality and a loosened structure sufficient to promulgate a change in the way that society views itself and its new sense of direction. With such a global sense of direction being imposed upon it, its conservative stasis has ceased, and the society in and of itself becomes transformed into a dynamic reconstruction of self.
The absentee landlordism of Lord Bertram is derived from his divided attentions between his two estates separated by an ocean, and Austen shows only the effects of that divided attention on the one estate in England. That there can be as palpable an effect on the colonized natives as there is on the colonizers, and that it does not have to happen half a world away from the home estate, is demonstrated through Sydney Owenson’s The Wild Irish Girl. Lord M., an absentee character for practically the whole novel, owns property in the Connaught region of Ireland, the furthest part from England, which had formerly belonged to a prince of Inismore. His son Horatio, who adopts the name of Henry Mortimer to prevent discovery of his patronymic title, finds himself transformed by the country he inhabits and eventually comes to adopt as his own. The prince of Inismore has a daughter named Glorvina with whom Horatio falls in love, and it is through his voluntary captivity at their ruined castle that he comes to identify with the glorious tradition and history of a land for which he had long held a prejudice. That his prejudice would subside through active intercourse with the inhabitants of the nation proves that his Englishness has undergone a transformation; moreover, the culturally other has been transformed, too. Father John, the resident priest at the castle of Inismore, has been educated abroad because of restrictions on priestly education at home, and he explains that the restrictions imposed by the British government entail a number of other things, including the prohibition to conduct Catholic burial services. That Father John, the Prince, and Glorvina can even communicate with Horatio at all is symptomatic of the force that Britain poses, for the mastery of the English language is requisite to the upper and educated classes in Ireland, whereas the mastery of the Irish language is not a requirement of Ireland’s landlords. That both Horatio and his father have come to a critical understanding of their role in Ireland is not necessarily something that pervades the rest of Ireland’s absentee nobility, nor is it absolutely certain that Lord M. immediately reaches the depth of understanding that Horatio does—for while it is his intention to marry Glorvina in order to redress the wrongs committed against her family, he intends to take her back to England instead of removing himself to Ireland and reestablishing his life there. It is only after he is made aware of Horatio and Glorvina’s love that it occurs to him the path he must take in allowing the marriage between his son and the daughter of the prince. He advises Horatio to live eight out of every twelve months within the Irish parish, and to "remember that [he is] not placed by despotism over a band of slaves, creatures of the soil, and as such to be considered; but by Providence, over a certain portion of men, who, in common with the rest of their nation, are the descendants of a brave, a free, and an enlightened people" (250-1). Such a view could be universally applied to all the dispossessed peoples displaced by Great Britain, and it is representative of the dispossessed around the globe that such a sentiment would come from the pen of one who was herself a displaced person, for Ireland was as much a part of the unknown Orient as the varied nationalities of the East that came under England’s dominion. Horatio, a representative of the very English aristocracy that has stripped Ireland of its dignity and autonomy, takes over the Connaught properties, remains in Ireland, and allows his progeny to meld into the Irish landscape and become nationally Irish. The message to be gleaned from this is that it is only through an embrace of the culturally other at the risk of losing one’s own cultural identity that a new race can be born and two peoples can be united successfully into one. To do this, however, requires a displacement of self, and the danger of that is that by stepping aside for a moment one exposes oneself to the fearful uncertainty of losing one’s place forever, of not being able to find a new home in one’s place of exile.
It was not absentee landlordism alone that created this new state of consciousness, for the British had been absentee landlords in Ireland and Scotland for 600 years and in the Americas for 300 without having been threatened by cultural rifts within their borders sufficient to upset their own value system and cause them to think of themselves in terms of otherness. The expanding internationalism that occurred between the years 1790 and 1830, however, brought 150 million new subjects into the British Empire, which conflicted with regional nationalism in the sense that it forced the Britons into the position of regarding their newly acquired territories as deficient extensions of themselves rather than as exotic others who had a great deal to offer the expanding consciousness of the British people. This shift in attitude is described by Makdisi as the hallmark of the romantic period, which "marked a transitional moment between these [the views of cultural integration shared by Edmund Burke and Warren Hastings in contrast to those shared by James Mill, Thomas Macaulay (1830s), Robert Southey, and others a couple of decades later] opposed sets of colonial projects" (101). To illustrate her point, she quotes Edmund Burke, who writes:
If we undertake to govern the inhabitants of such a country, we must govern them upon their own principles and maxims, and not upon ours. We must not think to force them into the narrow circle of our ideas; we must extend ours to take in their system of opinions and rites, and the necessities which result from both: all change on their part is absolutely impracticable. We have more versatility of character and manners, and it is we who must conform. (100)
and follows him up with William Jones, the leading Orientalist of the late 18th century, who wrote in his 1788 publication of Asiatick Researches:
I cannot but think that our European poetry has subsisted too long on the perpetual repetition of the same images, and incessant allusions to the same fables: and it has been my endeavour for several years to inculcate this truth, that, if the principal writings of the Asiaticks, which are reposited in our public libraries, were printed with the usual advantage of notes and illustrations, and if the languages of the Eastern nations were studied in our great seminaries of learning, where every other branch of useful knowledge is taught to perfection, a new and ample field would be opened for speculation; we should have a more extensive insight into the history of the human mind; and we should be furnished with a new set of images and similitudes; and a number of excellent compositions would be brought to light, which future scholars might explain and future poets might imitate. (107-8)
Such a desire for insight into the Oriental cultures, even when that Orient is psychologically next door, is what was necessary for a reconciliation between our Western selves and the Eastern other that would have comprised our understanding of global humanity.
Lord Byron in his Childe Harold (1812) and Don Juan (1819-24) actually explores these Eastern precepts in the manner advocated by Burke and Jones. The narrator of Childe Harold travels to Spain and then to Greece, the former a recent decolonized province of the Orient, and the latter yet under its occupation. Don Juan, who is born in Spain, therefore, symbolizes the colonized West that colonizes the East through its synchronous dictation of Western values and appropriation of Eastern values. Having arrived off the coast of Greece, Don Juan is allegorically seduced by the East in the person of Haidee, the daughter of an Eastern patriarch and outlaw. When Haidee’s father realizes what has occurred between his daughter and the Spaniard, he sells Don Juan into slavery to the Turks, allegorical of the captivity of the Western Spain by the Eastern Muslims. Once purchased, Don Juan is forced to undergo a false transformation of gender and to enact the role of a woman, the intention being the emasculation of his Western cultural identity to complete the subjugation of his spirit. He is, after all, placed in a harem of maidservants responsible for the fulfillment of the needs of a Sultana named Gulbeyaz. His inability to fulfill those needs, and his excitement in colonizing the harem into which he is placed through his sexual liaison with the servant Dudu, prove him fit only for death because he breaks the rule of the sultana’s harem, which had reserved him for herself. His role as the colonized colonizer is reflective of the role concurrently being played by England in its dealings with the Orient, where England itself is involved in the colonial appropriation of the East while finding itself transformed by the East. Like Don Juan, England rebels against its captivity and the risk of transgenderment, subdues what part of the East it can, and then declares war against that part which resists its advances. These are all traits of the masculine imposing upon the feminine rather than allowing itself to respond in a passive and feminine manner, and it does so entirely to maintain its cultural sense of self, for to allow itself to be seduced would be to recognize the inherent value in the Orient that might supercede the value system of the West. All the same, though, the temptation and the flirtation is irresistible, as shown in Don Juan’s infatuation with Haidee (something that does not happen on his own terms) and in his seduction of Dudu, and it is in this irresistibility that England comes closest to acknowledging the necessity of understanding Burke and Jones’s position—that the Orient does have a considerable wealth of value for the West if treated as different and not deficient, and that while it would involve a reconceptualization of British self-identity, such a revision might not prove wholly unwelcome. That England’s women, those daughters of Albion who consider themselves so far removed from the monsters bred by their earliest ancestors, would visit upon Leila, Don Juan’s captive Turkish girl, every attempt at Christian conversion and Western education is proof that the philosophies of Burke and Jones could never for long be listened to.
While Byron first takes the English reader to the Orient, De Quincey first brings the Orient home to England. Many romantic writers, like Byron and De Quincey, were not as monoglossic as Austen or as diglossic as Owenson but equivocated between the desire for Oriental exoticism and self-preservation of their cultural homogeneity, either in a descriptive or a prescriptive capacity. It was this equivocation that served as one of romanticism’s most characteristic traits. Thomas De Quincey, in his Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822), for instance, lashes out against being consumed by that Orient in ways that seem to contradict his embrace. The concept of cultural space in texts like these lies in the reliance of the narrator to approach the changing world with a mind accepting of the differences in culture regardless of how guarded those minds are against being drawn out of their Englishness. De Quincey, on the one hand, declares of a Turk that he "honour[s] the Barbarians too much by supposing them capable of any pleasures approaching to the intellectual ones of an Englishman" (78); moreover, he also metaphysically tours the exotic and dangerous parts of the East in his dreams of the Malay whom he sheltered for an hour in his home. He writes,
All this, and much more than I can say, or have time to say, the reader must enter into before he can comprehend the unimaginable horror which these dreams of Oriental imagery, and mythological tortures, impressed upon me…I brought together all creatures…that are found in all regions, and assembled them together in China or Indostan. From kindred feelings, I soon brought Egypt and all her gods under the same law. I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroquets, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas; and was fixed, for centuries, at the summit, or in secret rooms; I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed. I fled from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia: Vishnu hated me: Seeva laid wait for me. I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at. I was buried, for a thousand years, in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud. (109)
His fear throughout his opium fantasies of kisses with crocodiles lies in racial miscegenation, in the blending and perverting of his culture with that of an alien other. Yet, for all of De Quincey’s racist sentiments that pervade his narrative, he extols, on the other hand, the virtues of an Oriental consciousness brought to him through a product of the East as much as he condemns his use of it, saying that "the opium-eater…feels that the diviner part of his nature is paramount; that is, the moral affections are in a state of cloudless serenity; and over all is the great light of the majestic intellect" (75), and that opium "hast the keys of Paradise" (83). De Quincey is willing to grant the Orient the dignity of enlightenment, yet he accuses the Orient of being unable to provide that enlightenment in and of itself:
In China, over and above what it has in common with the rest of Southern Asia, I am terrified by the modes of life, by the manners, and the barrier of utter abhorrence, and want of sympathy, placed between us by feelings deeper than I can analyze. I could sooner live with lunatics, or brute animals. (109)
Without a critical awareness of his own place within his own world, De Quincey is unable to determine what his relationship with the culturally other should be. He becomes like Clendinning, the superintendent for Lord M. in The Wild Irish Girl, who consumes the resources of the country to which he has been introduced but despises and misuses the people and the culture to which those resources are attached. That he is doing so in his native England is indicative of the development of England as a world center where it is transformed by its empire through global trade. Makdisi writes that "Once the colonial flood-gates have been opened, once Britain has gone out into the world, there is nothing at all to prevent the world flooding and crashing back into Britain" (31). Coffee, tea, sugar, cotton, tobacco, and a plethora of other goods change both England’s economy and the way England governs its daily affairs and routines. It is this, more than anything else, which has Britain both nervous and exhilarated at once, both as a consumer and as the consumed.
As De Quincey’s 1822 essay indicates, British attitudes towards the Orient by the later romantic period have shifted so that
the Orient became a space defined by its ‘backwardness,’ its retardation; no longer a region or a field offering materials for extraction, exploitation, and exchange, it became a field to be rewritten and transformed; it became ‘undeveloped,’ a region whose ‘development’ suddenly became the European’s burden. The Orient, in short, became a backward, debased, and degraded version of the Occident; having lost its immutable alterity as a member of ‘another species,’ so to speak, it became recognized as a member of ‘our species,’ and one that in the fantasies of colonialism and colonization needed to be ‘raised’ and ‘improved’ until it became ‘like us’; or, rather (as with James Mill [see The History of British India] and the Utilitarians), wiped clean and re-written until it became what ‘we’ would ideally be (if only we could be wiped clean ‘ourselves’). (Makdisi113)
Britain’s changing sense of purpose as it developed greater responsibilities within the world were a direct result of its sudden prominence as the power in Europe following the fall of Napoleon’s France in 1815. Finding itself the world power to which fell the responsibilities of the world, it resembled an Atlas who not only held the world upon its shoulders but redrew the boundaries of that world into its own image. It could not do otherwise. This is the point of demarcation that ultimately decided in favor of the deficit view of the culturally other and the preservation view of the cultural self, for with absolute power came a need for absolute definition. Previous to this, the British could share the burden of Empire with the French—it was not so important to prove itself as other than the East as it was to address its otherness from French imperialism. While the Jacobite liberality, and to a certain extent the libertinism, had been welcomed by differing degrees by the first and second generations of Romantics, Napoleon’s conquest of a European empire threatened the balance of power in Europe and put England in danger of losing the victories it had gained against the Ancien Regime. Those who had previously hailed Napoleon as the liberator of Europe became fearful that his empire would try to extend beyond the continent and threaten the democratic and social structure of England itself. This fear was so prevalent that even after Wellington finally removed the threat at the Battle of Waterloo, the British were still shell-shocked at how close they might have come to displacing their identity as a people, which could explain their haughtiness in response to the world beyond Europe when suddenly they found themselves as masters of that world.
The displacement of British cultural identity during the Romantic period was a result, then, of several factors converging at once, and Britain had the opportunity to deal with this on its own terms, resulting in a sort of schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder on a national level. In trying to reconcile itself with its empire, and finding itself deluged by its own success, the natural reaction was for the Britons to look back within themselves and try to reclaim the pre-modern world that was so vivid in their memories. Makdisi explains that this was a futile endeavor, for
The question now is: what happens when a modern subject seeks out a non modern world as an alternative to modernity? And the answer, of course, is that that subject will only ever find the modern all over again, because his conceptual/perceptual apparatus is hardwired for the framework of modern space-time; the only way to escape that framework is therefore to imagine not other spaces or times to flee to, but rather the opposite: to imagine other forms of subjectivity that will not require such constant attempts at escape to begin with. (Makdisi 69)
This, ironically, was where the British Romantics had originally started in the mid-1790s following the rise of the Industrial Revolution that had first threatened their comfort zone by contracting space and bringing the world much closer in terms of distance and time. The voice that was given to these circumstances was not, therefore, one that was settled, but one that was extremely unsettled, in its outlook upon England’s present and future role in the world and upon the identity that would be fashioned by that role—an identity the British deluded themselves into thinking they could control, and found, in the attempt, it to be an impossibility for them to do so.
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
-----------. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.
Blake, William. "London." Blake’s Poetry and Designs. Ed. by Mary Lynn
Johnson and John E. Grant. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979.
De Quincey, Thomas. Confessions of an English Opium Eater. New York:
Penguin Books, 1986.
Gordon, George. Lord Byron. Don Juan. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
Makdisi, Saree. Romantic Imperialism: Universal Empire and the Culture of
Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Owenson, Sydney. Lady Morgan. The Wild Irish Girl. London: Oxford
University Press, 1999.
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