Melanie Grace McCafferty
As a system, ... exoticism functions along predictable lines but with unpredictable content; and its political dimensions are similarly unstable .... -- Graham Huggan, The Postcolonial Exotic, p. 14. Using Huggan's formulation above as a starting point for your own analysis, write an essay on the functioning of the system of exoticism in Oroonoko.
Course Code: CULT333 The exotic Lecturer: Philip Armstrong Semester One 2010
The function of the system of exoticism in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko can be analysed in terms of its ambivalent and paradoxical relationship with the exotic aesthetic. Behn's use of exoticist rhetoric enables unpredictable content to be digested in a predictable way and this both disrupts and upholds political agendas. Behn presents a dichotomy; she domesticates the unfamiliar and strange while at the same time drawing attention to its 'otherness‘. This juxtaposition of aesthetic perception parallels the function of Huggans exotic system whereby difference is 'othered‘, fetishised and commodified while still maintaining aspects of wonder and mystery. Notions of the marvellous, orientalism and primitivism can all be seen as integral part of the system of exoticism that Huggan ascribes to. Behn utilizes the exotic aesthetic of wonder and notions of the marvellous which Huggan describes as a structure of feeling and taste, as well as system that asserts and maintains difference and the position of the 'other'. In Oroonoko the evocation of wonder can be seen as a way in which to disguise political instability and justify imperialism and the colonial agenda. This is also a process by which potentially unstable politics are converted into spectacle. The ambivalence of the exoticist system is exemplified in Behn's paradoxical characterization of Oroonoko himself. His character is subject to the fetishist gaze of wonder and this makes him an objectified figure whereby he is made a spectacle, the affect of which masks the reality of his 'otherness‘. He is a conflicted figure of orientalism; portrayed as a ‘noble moor’ from a decadent and corrupt kingdom whom is contradictorily described in terms of his Europeanized Romanesque features and English civility. It can be argued that the body of Oroonoko is a liminal space in which conflicting ideologies and aesthetic perceptions coalesce creating a space of contention and reconciliation. Behn's Oroonoko is an
example of exoticist rhetoric that makes a spectacle of cultural difference by aestheticizing power politics.
Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave was published in 1688; the novella recounts the experiences of an African prince Oroonoko who is tricked into slavery. Oroonoko is told in the in the first and third person, the Author Behn claims to be the narrator of the tale and asserts that all that is contained within the story was either witnessed by her or relayed to her by the hero of her tale. There are two distinctive locals and cultural zones within the story; the royal kingdom of Coramantien and the Slave colony of Surinam, these can be viewed as two competing narratives one representing aristocratic idiom and Orientalist aesthetic and the other imperialist expansionism. This gives insight into ‘dual position’ of the author as outlined by Oddvar Holmesland, he argues that Behn reveals a contradictory stance ‘…she is a conservative, but with leanings towards the new world of mercantile expansionism. Thought she apparently encourages liberty and enlightenment, she seems to rely on the virtues valued by the traditional hierarchy for order and stability‘ (Holmesland 58). Behn’s dualistic writing style is inextricably tied with the ambiguity of exoticism itself and reveals the dichotomy and dialectic struggle inherent in it.
Huggan describes the exotic as a mode of aesthetic perception that identifies objects, places and people as strange while at the sometime making them familiar he asserts that this it is a system that functions in a way that ‘manufactures 'otherness’ while at the same time marveling at the wonder of it. (13) ‘The exoticist
production of 'otherness’ is dialectical and contingent at various times and in different places, it may serve conflicting ideological interests, providing rationale for projects of rapprochement and reconciliation, but legitimizing just as easily the need for plunder and violent conquest.’ (Huggan 13) Huggan is outlining the intrinsic instability of the exotic system and its modes of perception whereby difference is negotiated and re-appropriated in order to serve ambiguous interests. The strange and unfamiliar is ‘othered’ while at the same time placed in identifiable, familiarized categories such as primitivism, orientalism and the marvelous.
Behn utilized exoticist aesthetic in a vivid recounting of her experiences and the life of Oroonoko in Oriental kingdom of Coramantien and slave colony of Surinam. This exoticist aesthetic perception upholds the primitivist model and notions of Orientalism and relays wonder via a structure of taste and feeling as outlined by Huggan. Her description of the objects, peoples and places in Africa and the West Indies instill a sense of the marvelous and at the same time serve to place them in identifiable categories of 'otherness‘. Behn's accounts of Surinam’s animals are indiscernible from her description of the peoples and can be understood as a reinterpretation of the Golden Age myth. ‘…little rarities, as marmosets, a sort of monkey as big as a rat or a weasel, but of a marvelous and delicate shape, and his face and hands like an human creature…’ (6) In her accounts of the indigenous people there is a kind of reversal of conventional primitivist dichotomy. The native peoples are viewed as close to or of nature while civilized English society are conversely perceived as brutal and corrupt ‘…a degenerate race, who have no one human virtue left.’ (58) She paints a picture of the Indian peoples as akin to innocent
children from the garden of Eden ‘as Adam and Eve’ (7), ‘Some of the beauties, which are indeed finely shaped, as almost all are, and who have pretty features, are very charming and novel, for they have all that is called beauty, except the colour, which is a reddish yellow or, after a new oiling…they are the colour of a new brick, but smooth soft and sleek.’ This excerpt presents the native people as a ’novel’ curiosity and an object of fascination, just like the marmoset or the monkey they are treated as exotic specimens on display for imperialist classification. Paradoxically Behn compares the native peoples to something as common place as a brick; this reflects the ambivalence of the exotic system itself. The Unpredictable strangeness is conveyed in a predictable familiar manner. Her verisimilar/travel narrative style ensures the native peoples, locals and animals are all subject to an imperialist inspection and fascination that converts them into fetishistic commodities and her romantic hyperbole and ‘sympathetic identification’ (Huggan 14) ‘manufactures 'otherness’ and covers up any political instability with aestheticized spectacle.
Stephen Greenblatt describes wonder in terms of its ability ‘…to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness, to evoke an exalted attention.’ He further asserts that wonder is bound up with acquisition and possession.’ (Greenblatt 28) In Oroonoko Behn utilizes the gaze of wonder to effectively create a sense of spectacle. She draws our attention to marvellous and strange nature of the objects and peoples she is witness to while at the same time staking claim to them as transferable commodities. …some rare flies, of amazing forms and colours, presented to 'em by myself; some as big as my fist, some less; and all of various excellencies, such as art cannot imitate. Then we trade for feathers…and glorious wreaths for their heads, necks,
arms, and legs, whose tinctures are unconceivable. I had a set of these presented to me, and I gave 'em to the King's Theatre, and it was the dress of the Indian Queen, infinitely admired by persons of quality...(7)
Behn's colourful exotic rhetoric provokes an aesthetic feeling of awe and surprise that Huggan argues masks political instabilities with spectacle; distracting readers from the of imperialist agenda of cultural acquisition and commodification with ‘layers of mystification‘(Huggan 14). While it can be seen that the exotic aesthetic within Oroonoko functions to mask political instabilities and uphold colonialism it can also be said that it functions to disrupt it by asserting different representations of 'otherness‘. This becomes more apparent when analyzing the paradoxical characterizing of Oroonoko himself especially in terms of his representing conflicting notions of Orientalism and European values of civility.
Notions of Orientalism are intrinsically linked with the exoticist aesthetic system. Daniel Martin Varisco describes the process of defining the ‘Orient’ ‘…as a politicized representation that served the vested interests of imperial ambition and served up the colonized as the they who cannot represent themselves’ he further explains that ‘Orientalists, previously ignored as the conservators of texts, were now accused of being the producers not merely of texts but of a textual stance, a pervasive style, a self authorizing of the Orient as 'other' (Varisco 40). It could certainly be argued that Behn's exoticist rhetoric is a process of ‘self authorizing the Orient as 'other'. Orientalism can be understood as a process by which the author defines the nature and substance of another culture according to presupposed ideas, Behn's portrayal of the Kingdom of Coramantien and Surinam was merely
adhering to and upholding the predominant ideology surrounding cultures of the East; the established thought was that the East was decadent and corrupt and the West enlightened (Varisco 41). It is argued that this presupposition and cultural stereotyping enabled imperialism to justify colonialist agendas of commodification and conquest.
Behn creates a duality within her representation of Oroonoko one that simultaneously conforms to Orientalist stereotypes and revokes them. She presents the image of the ‘noble moor’ as with this description of Oroonoko’s ethnic body markings ‘…those who are nobly born of that country are so delicately cut and raised all over the fore-part of the trunk of their bodies that it looks as if it were japanned.’ (44) Before he is tricked into slavery by the ‘whites’ Oroonoko is the prince of a corrupt and decadent kingdom rife with war and ruled by a despot king who keeps his many wives in a harem; an eroticized Oriental picture of languishing beauties is proffered before the reader, ‘… [The King of Coramantien] had many beautiful black wives; for most certainly their beauties that can charm of that colour. In his younger years he had had many gallant men to his sons, thirteen of which died in battle, conquering when they fell, and he had only left him for his successor one grandchild…he became at the age of seventeen , one of the most expert captains and bravest soldiers that ever saw the field of Mars. So that he was adored as the wonder of all that world…’ (10)
This description of the Coramantien prince is certainly a process by which the character of Oroonoko is associated with Orientalist aesthetic perceptions and presented as 'other' we are left in no doubt of his ethnic origins despite her frequently comparing him to European notions ‘His nose was rising and Roman’ (12) It can be argued that Behn's paradoxical eroticizing and Europeanizing of Oroonoko’s body whereby he is at once strange and familiar, presents a more
ambiguous and complicated picture that reflects the unstable political dimensions beneath the exotic system.
Early in the story Oroonoko is presented as different from other natives. He is set apart and heralded for his royal demeanour, quick wit and civility. This difference is further emphasized when he arrives as a slave at the plantation in Surinam‘…all cast themselves at his feet, crying out, in their language, "Live, O King! Long live, O King!" and kissing his feet, paid him even divine homage.’ (40) Gary Gautier believes that this is an example of ‘class essentialism,’ ‘…the ideology of blood as a tangible marker of superiority gains a universal legitimacy as it is shown to distinguish African ranks as naturally as it does European ones.‘ (Gautier pars. 1113) Once again we are made aware of Behn's own political agenda, she makes it apparent that his Royal blood cannot be masked by his exotic nature and that it is in fact a distinguishing characteristic; one that denotes an affinity with European notions of aristocratic hierarchy and class rather than racial difference.
Oroonoko’s gallantry, civility and English education cannot help him procure his freedom he is still bound by the exotic aesthetic of his skin. Elliott Visconsi discusses the objectifying effect of aestheticizing the indigenous body. As many commentators have observed, although she aestheticized him as a synthetic form of European and African features, Behn uncharacteristically refrains from lightening Oroonoko’s skin to make him more palatable to a European audience. But Oroonoko’s blackness carries with it much ideological freight—as Gallagher points out, black skin meant, above all, that a person was subject to be exchanged as a commodity.(45) (Visconsi 690)
Catherine Gallagher supports this notion that Oroonoko’s skin colour is an inherent signifier of his commodification however she also purports that his blackness
textualises him and denotes his kinship and that these three modes of perception paradoxically maintain and refute the significance of his skin as a means to identify racial difference.(Gallagher 235) Gallagher further argues that ‘Oroonoko is a wonder because blackness and heroism are normally thought to be mutually exclusive.’ (Gallagher 240) She claims that it is this disparity between Oroonoko and the other Africans that enables him to be seen as heroic and marvellous. (Gallagher 240)
Behn's point of reference for honour and civility is always European ‘He had nothing of barbarity in his nature, but in all points addressed himself as if his education had been in some European court.’ (11) She clearly establishes a divide between Oroonoko and the other slaves and indigenous peoples; a division of class, of blood and breeding (which reflects her own sympathies with the English aristocracy and disillusionment with the death of Charles I in 1649), Oroonoko is separated from his Africanness and this means that he can never truly identified as authentic in his representation of 'otherness‘. His face was not of that brown rusty black which most of that nation are, but of perfect ebony, or polished jet. His eyes were the most awful that could be seen, and very piercing; the white of 'em being like snow, as were his teeth. His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat. His mouth the finest shaped that could be seen; far from those great turned lips which are so natural to the rest of the negroes. The whole proportion and air of his face was so nobly and exactly formed that, bating his color, there could be nothing in nature more beautiful, agreeable, and handsome. (12)
As a slave of the English he is given the name Caesar a symbolic device that further strips Oroonoko of his 'otherness’ and can be viewed as a means by which his exotic strangeness is domesticated and made more palatable, ‘For the future, therefore, I must call Oroonoko Caesar; since by that name only he was known in our Western
Anne Foggarty argues that Behn cannot avoid projecting her own political agenda onto the body of Oroonoko asserting that her exoticised rhetoric and the way in which she Europeanizes him only serves to domesticate and convert his 'otherness’ delegitimizing any ethnic difference. …the gaze of “surprise and wonder“ (32) which the narrator centres on Oroonoko throughout the text can never escape the social difference and power-structures that contour their relationship. Her admiration for him, lingering on his physical beauty as it does, sexualizes and commodifies him. Despite the insistence that she is a nonpartisan observer, the narrator nevertheless uses the fetishizing language of the colonizer in order to control Oroonoko(Fogarty 11).
Behn's Europeanizing of Oroonoko’s Oriental black skinned body paints the picture of some kind of hybridized entanglement of the cultures; he is too familiar to be strange but to strange to be familiar. George Boulukos supports the claim that this depiction of Oroonoko denigrates his ‘Africanness’ and makes him a ‘vessel of colonial ideology ‘ (Boulukos 52). The system of Exoticism as outlined by Huggan can be observed within Oroonoko/Caesar’s body as it becomes the liminal space where two cultures collide in a convergence of aesthetic spectacle, at once maintaining and disrupting colonial ideologies.
Behn presents a dualistic figure to be traded and converted and eventually disseminated when he is executed and dismembered. This process is contradictory and dialectical represents the unstable political dimensions and conflicting ideologies of Imperial Colonialism, mercantile expansionism and the struggle for enlightenment and liberty. Oroonoko’s rebellion against slavery and eventual execution can be understood in terms of exotic aesthetic converting ‘power politics’
into spectacle in a way that draws attention to the instability of colonial ideology. Conversely it can be seen as a way in which Oroonoko’s Africanness is reestablished. It could be argued that his willingness to die either by suicide or to suffer through torture is a means to acquire some kind of spiritual if not literal liberation and to reclaim autonomy over his body in a process by which he rejects the parasitic invasion of European aesthetic . It could also be suggested that his execution an the stoic a warning that aristocratic hierarchy can not stand in the way of mercantile expansionism and colonialist endeavours.
Behn uses a verisimilar narrative style and romantic hyperbole to support an exoticist rhetoric. Predictable modes of aesthetic perception such as wonder and notions of Primitivism and Orientalism are utilized to support her interpretation of unpredictable content. By analysing Behn's process of interpretation it becomes apparent that her aesthetic rhetoric creates a spectacle that serves to both mask and disrupt political instabilities. The process of rendering the unfamiliar palatable of defining 'otherness’ by a process of objectification and acquisition involves a paradoxical dichotomy inherent in the function of the system of Exoticism. Oroonoko’s black body is a space where conflicting ideologies and aesthetic perceptions coalesce. He is an Oriental figure; eroticized, commodified, and objectified and at the same time domesticated as he becomes a vessel for European aristocratic idioms. The ambivalent characterization of Oroonoko, the Royal Slave, is the site where difference is, as Huggan asserts, ‘negotiated and re-appropriated‘.
Works Cited Aphra, Behn, Oroonoko, and other writings, Oxford world's classics, Ed Paul Salzman New York, Oxford University Press, 1998. Boulukos, George, The grateful slave: the emergence of race in eighteenth-century British and American culture, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2008. Fogarty, Anne, Violence and Representation in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, The Discourse of slavery: Aphra Behn to Toni Morrison, Ed. Carl Plasa, Betty Joan Ring London, Routledge, 1994. Gallagher, Catherine, Oroonoko’s Blackness, Aphra Behn studies Ed. Janet M. Todd, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1996. Gautier, Gary, Slavery and the Fashioning of Race in Oroonoko, Robinson Crusoe, and Equino’s Life, Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 2001 42:161-180. Greenblatt ,Stephen, Marvellous possessions: the wonder of the New World, Oxford, Oxford University Press US, 1991. Holmesland, Oddvar, Aphra Behn's, Oroonoko : Cultural Dialectics and the Novel, ELH, Volume 68, Number 1, Spring 2001, pp. 57-79 (Article). Huggan, Graham, The postcolonial exotic: marketing the margins, London, Routledge, 2001. Varisco, Daniel Martin, Reading orientalism: said and the unsaid, United States, University of Washington Press, 2007. Visconsi, Elliott, A Degenerate Race: English Barbarism in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko and The Widow Ranter, ELH, Volume 69, Number 3, Fall 2002, pp. 673-701 (Article).