“Thus all of Orientalism stands forth and away from the Orient: that Orientalism makes sense at all depends more on the West than on the Orient, and this sense is directly indebted to various Western techniques of representation that make the Orient visible, clear, “there” in discourse about it”. (Edward Said, Orientalism, in Norton). To what extent can Said’s statement be interestingly applied to the ‘techniques of representation’ employed by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in The Turkish Embassy Letters.

 

The Turkish Embassy Letters[1] is paradoxical as it is both a counter-Orientalist text and an Orientalist text. While Montagu attempts to break free from the conventions of English society, she highlights how an individual’s ideology cannot be removed from their culture and socialisation. Her descriptions of the Turkish women are hyperbolic and thus reduces them to homogenised objects rather than people of diversity. Ultimately, these paradoxical representations highlight how ‘pure perception is quite impossible’[2] (Iser) and how literature and representation are always impacted by their society.

Montagu challenges the ‘European representation of the Orient’[3] (Said, p.1866). She uses her position as a traveller to give an insight into the unknown ‘other’. Said describes how ‘Orientalism can be discussed and analysed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient’ (p.1870), in which the West stigmatises the East to strengthen its own power. Montagu challenges this power balance by describing how ‘I look upon Turkish women as the only free people in the empire’ (p. 72). She thus presents the East as superior to the West, challenging preconceptions that the East lacked ‘civility’ (p.135). Indeed, her defence of the Islamic headscarf turns Orientalist values back in on themselves; the differing cultures between the East and West mean both societies are unaware of the reality of the other’s culture. Montagu’s ‘stay’ (p.59) – a form of corset – becomes a physical representation of Western women’s confinement, describing how the Turkish women thought she was ‘locked up in that machine’ (p.59). The metaphor of ‘machine’ dehumanises Western women and makes the West appear hypocritical for its condemnation of the East in its oppression of women, thereby challenging accepted norms. Our notion of ‘freedom’ is challenged, and Desai argues that this challenge to Orientalist values was ‘extraordinary enough in her time, but continues to be so in ours’[4] (p. xxix), especially in current times where the headscarf and Islamic values are subjected to such Orientalist media attention following recent terror attacks. The text therefore challenges the idea that the East that lacked ‘civility’ and was a land of ‘ignorance’.

But Montagu’s representation of the other is paradoxical: in challenging Western stereotypes, she paints Turkish women as hyperbolised beings of perfection rather than as human beings. While this may be done with good intent, it creates Orientalist views by not treating them as human beings capable of depth. Montagu describes the naked Turkish women she witnesses in the bathhouse as ‘goddesses drawn by the pencil of Guido or Titian’ (pg. 58), heightening them to unearthly creatures. These references to the historically acclaimed artists ‘Guido’ and ‘Titan’ give the women a historical importance: their beauty is something to be remembered throughout history. Yet this reference to art and ‘the pencil’ is, in itself, paradoxical. In comparing them to art, Montagu uses art (a representation) to represent the represented. Montagu’s description of the Turkish women thus distances her descriptions of them from their reality, meaning a ‘pure’ representation of these women is distorted through their unachievable beauty. Secor argues that ‘the trope of the sensual, hedonistic Orient, is employed not to condemn the Turks but rather to praise them’[5] (p.389,) but while they may be intended to ‘praise’ Turkish women, Said’s comment that ‘there has been a reinforcement of stereotypes by which the orient is viewed’ (p.1886) highlights how this only serves to convey a limited presentation of Turkish women; it still presents Orientalist attitudes. The text thereby highlights how our views are shaped by our society. Montagu thus attempts to challenge Orientalism with Orientalism, making the text both ironically counter-Orientalist and Orientalist due to ingrained social prejudices of the time, impacting on the reliability of its representations of Turkey.

Montagu’s reliability in representing an accurate account of Turkey is not only impacted by ingrained social values, but her status as a member of the aristocracy. In having such a distorted gaze, she consequently alienates ‘the other’ further from the truth of their reality. In dismissing the English preconception that Turkish houses are ‘the most miserable pieces of building in the world’, she states ‘I assure you ‘tis no such thing. We are now lodged in a place belonging to the Grand Signor’ (p.84). The paradoxical nature of her narration is heightened as her narration tackles ignorance with ignorance. This raises postmodern questions of the reliability of narrator, as ultimately we can never know the juxtaposition between ‘the truth’ of their situation and the ways in which it is described. Her statement that she is staying in a property of ‘Grand Signor’s’ (a Turkish Lord) means her vision is limited by her Western and upper class gaze. Secor argues that Montagu’s aristocratic gaze cannot be dispelled from her Orientalist gaze, both of which create a limited representation of Turkey. She argues ‘it needs to be made clear about cultural discourse and exchange within a culture that what is commonly circulated by it is not ‘truth’ but representations’ (p.374), emphasising how Montagu contributes to Orientalist attitudes by failing to see past her own distorted vision. Indeed, Montagu makes it explicit that her representation only applies to those of the upper class: ‘I don’t speak of the lowest sort, for there is a great deal of ignorance, there is very little virtue amongst them’ (p.74). Adjectives ‘ignorant’ and ‘little virtue’ serve to other lower class Turks from their own society. The text thus highlights how easily vision and representation can be distorted, and Montagu’s presentation of the Turkey is made questionable due to her social ignorance.

However, rather than simply depicting how the West’s view of the Orient has been distorted due to Orientalism and class privilege, the text raises questions as to whether any accurate representation is possible. Montagu attempts to challenge previous ‘representations’ of the Turkey,  stating how ‘you will perhaps be surprised at an account so different from what you have been entertained with by the common voyage writers, who are very fond of speaking of what they don’t know’ (p.79), but this passage is filled with hypocrisy. Montagu feels that her interaction with the Turkish women means that she is not speaking of what she ‘doesn’t know’, yet, in reality, her status as a traveller means she remains external to Turkish traditions. Achebe argues that ‘travellers with closed minds can tell us little except about themselves’[6] (p. 1619) and in constantly comparing the East to England, the East thus reflects and obscures Western values. However, while Achebe may argue that only those with ‘closed minds’ are limited in their vision, this is overly simplistic. Crarey argues that ideology, culture and perception are interdependent, leading to an ‘incomplete and abstract picture of the world to the group that lives within the world described by those ideas’[7] (p.43). It is clear that while Montagu may try to escape the ‘ignorance’ of her times, she is unable to. Armstrong’s idea of ‘cultural solipsism’[8] (the idea that we cannot fully understand any culture outside of our own) means that Montagu’s attempts to understand ‘the other’ are always limited by this barrier of understanding. Her difficulty in translating Arabic poetry into English symbolises this; she describes how ‘I have taken abundance of pains to get these verses in a literal translation […] [there are] inevitable faults of a prose translation into a language so very different’. Montagu therefore tries to cross this culture barrier, but fails. In describing the relationship between a text and the reader, Iser describes how ‘all perception is quite impossible’ and this idea can be extended beyond the reader and the text to an individual’s relationship with the exterior world. Our ‘readings’ of the world are always limited by our culture and socialisation, making ‘pure’ representation, as he says, ‘quite impossible’. What Montagu therefore presents is a reflection of the extent of the prejudice Western view of the other: it was one filled with ‘ignorance’. Any ‘representation’ of a culture outside of our own (especially in travel writing) is thereby limited by the writer’s own status as the outsider when experiencing another’s society.

Ultimately, The Turkish Embassy Letters highlight the limitations of literature: the text can only represent life, and representations are limited by the natural bias and ignorance of the narrator. In attempting to counter the Orientalist representations of Turkey of the time, Montagu presents an equally ignorant presentation of Turkey. Turkish women are robbed of their humanity due to the juxtaposition between the reality of their imperfections as humans and Montagu’s presentation of them as sensual ‘goddesses’. Said argues that it is this gulf between the object presented (‘the Orient’) and its reality that results in ‘Orientalism’, and this gulf also exists between the reader and the text. As Said states, ‘all of Orientalism stands forth and away from the Orient’, in the same way that language ‘stands’ in place for reality while retaining a natural distance from it. In having rewritten her letters for publication Montagu blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction, therefore meaning her representation of Turkey has a mythical quality despite her presentations of it as ‘truth’. ‘Pure perception’ of the world around us and thus a ‘pure’ representation of it, as Montagu demonstrates, remains unachievable due to our culture, society and socialisation.

 

Word Count: 1648

Bibliography

Achebe, C., ‘An Image of Africa’, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, by Paul Simon, ed. (United States of America: W. W. Norton, 2010) pp.1612-1623

Armstrong, P., ‘Reading, Race and Representing Others’, in Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, (United States of America: Norton Critical Edition, 2005) pp.429-444

Crarey, J., 2005. ‘Ideology’, in New Keywords  by Tony Bennett, ed. (Oxford: Blacwell Publishing, 2006), pp. 39-48

Desai, A., ‘Introduction’, in The Turkish Embassy Letters (Great Britain: Virago, 2014), pp.vii-xxxviii

Iser, W., Interaction between Text and Reader, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. by Paul Simon, (United States of America: W. W. Norton, 2010) pp. 1524-1533

Montagu, M. W., The Turkish Embassy Letters, (Great Britain: Virago, 2014)

Said, E., Orientalism, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. by Paul Simon (United States of America: W. W. Norton, 2010), pp.1866-1888

Secor, A., ‘Orientalism, Gender and Class’, Sage Journals, (1996), 375-398

[1] Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, The Turkish Embassy Letters, (Great Britain: Virago, 2014).

[2] Wolfgang Iser, Interaction between Text and Reader, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. by Paul Simon, (United States of America: W. W. Norton, 2010) pp. 1524-1533 (p.1525).

[3] Edward Said, Orientalism, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. by Paul Simon (United States of America: W. W. Norton, 2010), pp.1866-1888 (p.1866).

[4] Anita Desai, Introduction, in The Turkish Embassy Letters (Great Britain: Virago, 2014), pp.vii-xxxviii (p. xxix).

[5] Anna Secor, ‘Orientalism, Gender and Class’, Sage Journals, 389 (1996), 375-398.

[6] Chinua Achebe, ‘An Image of Africa’, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, by Paul Simon, ed. (United States of America: W. W. Norton, 2010) pp.1612-1623 (p. 1619).

[7] Jay Crarey, 2005. Ideology, in New Keywords, by Tony Bennett, ed. (Oxford: Blacwell Publishing, 2006), pp. 39-48 (p.43).

[8] Paul Armstrong, ‘Reading, Race and Representing Others’, in Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, (United States of America: Norton Critical Edition, 2005) pp.429-444, (p.431).

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