Imaginary Hybridities : Geographic, Religioius and Poetic Crossovers in Victor Hugo’s "Les Orientales Chapitre d’ouvrage - 2011

Sarga Moussa

in Hybridity, 2011, pp. 280-290

Abstract

Without ever having travelled across the Mediterranean Sea, Victor Hugo dreamed all at once of "the Orient" (meaning both what one calls nowadays the Middle-East, and a mostly imaginary version of the Orient, derived from The Arabian Nights) and of a new relation between the Orient and the West. Moving borders around, and displacing centres, including centres of consciousness and positions of enunciation, the poet, as soon as 1829, forced his readers to reflect on their own identities, by suggesting the dynamic, or rather multiple nature of their identity. In poems such as "La captive" or "Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe", Hugo stages a mutual, albeit problematic seduction between two seemingly antagonistic cultural spaces, the Orient and the Western world. The question of languages is also central in Les Orientales, where foreign words and orientalised rhythms abound, thus constituting a defiant Romantic challenge to classical aesthetics. Moreover, the relationship between Islam and Christianity, a haunting subject for many nineteenth-century writers after Chateaubriand, is progressively reassessed as the reader progresses in Hugo’s collection of poems : "Voile" (XI) stages a dark version of Islam, still very much indebted to the concept of "oriental despotism" generated by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, whereas a poem like "Sultan Achmet" (XXIX), significantly included in the Spanish cycle of Les Orientales—Spain, from the very preface of the book, constitutes an in-between space—makes it possible to conceive of a religious reconciliation, mediated by the love of a Muslim for a Christian woman, although of course the former first has to become a convert. What Hugo seems to be doing is not to deny or annihilate differences, but rather to play with them so as to demonstrate that the "Orient" is within us. That is why the notion of hybridity, as theorised in postcolonial studies, can help us to perceive the astonshing modernity of a collection of poems that has far too long been wrongly considered as the illustration of a lazy and fashionable exoticism. "Les Orientales" were published in January 1829, and were a pure product of the author’s imagination, as Hugo never crossed the Mediterranean sea. This orientalist poetry is innovative from all perspectives, since it also constituted a new development in Hugo’s own poetic production. The Orient had already made an appearance in Hugo’s "Les Ballades". But reading just a few lines of "La Fée et la Péri", which dates from 1824, gives a clear illustration of how stereotypical this orientalism was : "My world is the Orient, a brilliant region/where the sun is as noble as a king in his tent"*. Five years later, Hugo’s Orient has become much more contrasted, thus more complex. Whilst it is still in thrall to the myth of "oriental despotism" (as in "Heads of the Seraglio" ["Têtes du sérail"] or "Veil" ["Voile"]), it is no longer obsessed by the image of the cruel, barbaric and tyrannical Turk, as is still the case with Chateaubriand in "Itinéraire de Paris à Jerusalem" (1811). Favouring a sensual orientalism that finds its origins in Les Mille et une Nuits, Galland’s translation from Arabic into French of The Arabian Nights, Hugo tends to feminise his object, which opens up the prospect of an alternative representation of the Orient.

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