Fleshpots, ennui and our thinly veiled fantasies

August 11, 2000

What erotic imaginings have harems induced in the West? Ruth Yeazell takes a peep.

Orientalism is in vogue among academics, sparked by the work of Edward Said, among others. But long before this, the imagination of artists and writers in the West had been captured by the idea of the harem.

Most of the West's relations with the harem have been necessarily imaginative, since the Muslim practice of concealing women of the household from the eyes of alien men meant that few Europeans could do anything but speculate as to what lay behind a harem's walls. From Montesquieu's Lettres Persanes to Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio and the numerous odalisques and bathers of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, the works that have most influenced the West's conception of the harem have been constructions of fantasy.

Yet the very barriers that compelled Europeans to imagine so much about the harem made them eager for whatever data they could gather. When Jean Racine, for example, set out to write his harem tragedy Bajazet - his only tragedy not based on classical or biblical sources - he took care to authenticate the work by attributing his knowledge of Ottoman customs to the latest information from the French ambassador. In the 19th century, poets such as Byron and Thomas Moore likewise sought to ballast their oriental fantasies by solemnly documenting them with footnotes. And Ingres clung for several decades to extracts from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's well-known description of her visit to a Turkish bath, until he finally transformed her account beyond recognition into his celebrated image, the Bain Turc.

Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as "the harem": there are only harems, as various as the individual Muslim households in which separate quarters are set aside for the female members. In the western imagination, however, all harems tend to collapse into one - a fantastic place vaguely compounded of lore about the imperial palaces of Turkey and Persia (especially the so-called Grand Seraglio of the Ottomans at Constantinople), decked out with fabulous trappings loosely borrowed from the Arabian Nights.

It is hardly surprising that masculine dreams of the harem often turned to erotic fantasy. So deeply engrained with the association between the harem and the brothel in the European imagination that the only definition of "seraglio" in Johnson's Dictionary - "a house of women kept for debauchery" - fails to distinguish between the foreign institution and the British fashion of thus naming local whorehouses.

For some pornographers, the Marquis de Sade among them, the erotic thrill of the harem was heightened by its associations with despotism. In a little-known work called Aline et Valcour, Sade conjured up an African cannibal with a "serail" of 2,000, whose spokesman elaborates on how tyranny adds to "voluptuous pleasure". Others exploited the harem's long-established reputation for lesbianism: having been smuggled into the harem of the Grand Seraglio disguised as a woman, the hero of Byron's Don Juan, for example, cheerfully takes advantage of the inhabitants' proclivity for "sentimental friendship". Until the 20th century this remained primarily a titillating story told by men, though lesbian novelists have recently begun to invent some harem fantasies of their own.

But the very disproportion between the sexes that inspired dreams of gratification without limit could also threaten nightmares of exhaustion and impotence. The boredom of the sultan, worn out from the opportunities afforded him, is common in harem literature. And from Montesquieu in the 18th century to James Merrill in the 20th, one of the most striking features of western harem fantasies is the uncanny resemblance of the master and the eunuch.

True love, as the West tells it, is another story. Whether they imagine European lovers entrapped by the harem and attempting to flee - opera-goers will think of the Abduction from the Seraglio and Rossini's Italian Girl in Algiers - or vary the formula with a European man who "rescues" and converts a native woman, western fictions consistently contrast the freely chosen love of the couple with the erotic arrangements of the harem. In an alternative version of this plot, a clever European slave succeeds in teaching the sultan to love, forsake all others and marry her. Loosely inspired by an historical figure - the Ukrainian-born consort of the 16th-century, Suleyman the Magnificent - this spirited slave, known to the West as "Roxelana", became something of a culture heroine, who made her influence felt in venues ranging from a Haydn symphony to Jane Eyre's struggle with her sultanic "master" in Charlotte Bront 's novel.

Only in the 19th century did European women begin to travel to the East in significant numbers and to report on daily life in more or less ordinary households. They were often shocked by the gap between what they discovered and the fantasies they had inherited. Rather than "the abode of love and beauty" she had expected, one writer saw only "blackened and cracked walls I torn and greasy sofas, ragged curtains and everywhere traces of oil and candles". A young Florence Nightingale recoiled from the apparent ennui of the harem as from "a circle of hell". But some women writers (Virginia Woolf briefly among them) preferred to conjure up scenes of domestic sisterhood. And if many continued to view the harem as a physical and mental prison, others thought its inhabitants actually freer than their western counterparts. While the 18th-century writer liked to evoke the sexual liberty and freedom of movement afforded by the veil, her Victorian successors typically celebrated the relative economic and legal power of Eastern women, as well as their ability to limit men's access to the harem. And the repeated discovery that harems could in fact be monogamous encouraged Victorians of both sexes to see in them idealised versions of the domestic spaces they had left behind. One such writer pronounced "harem-life I essentially home life in many of its best and tenderest aspects". This domesticated harem did not make more exotic images disappear: the 19th century was also, after all, the great age of romantic orientalism in French painting; while on either side of the Channel, fantastic representations of the harem, both verbal and visual, continued to proliferate. Such representations did not come to an end with the Ottoman Empire. Both the progressive globalisation of culture and the growing body of writing by Islamic men and women available in the West have made some of the wilder fantasies increasingly difficult to sustain. But many of the old stories and images continue to circulate, especially on film.

A 1985 film, Harem, for example, begins by shamelessly exploiting all the centuries-old cliches of the lustful and menacing East, as a young American stockbroker (Natassja Kinski) is drugged and kidnapped for the harem of an enigmatic Arab oil tycoon (Ben Kingsley). But by the film's end, its rootless modern heroine has not only found true love in the harem but the experience of kinship that has hitherto eluded her. In this recent fantasy, promiscuous sex is reserved for the New York singles scene she has left behind.

Ruth Bernard Yeazell is professor of English and director of the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University. Harems of the Mind is published by Yale University Press, September 7, priced Pounds 22.50.

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