Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 October 2006
Issue No. 817
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Phantoms of the Orient

The French novelist Pierre Loti, author of Fantôme d'Orient and a lifelong traveller in the Arab and Muslim world, is the subject of an intriguing Paris exhibition, writes David Tresilian

Click to view caption
Pierre Loti in Arab dress at home in Rochefort

Best known for his atmospheric oriental tales of melancholy and unrequited love, the French writer "Pierre Loti", pen name of naval officer Julien Viaud, was a successful figure in late 19th-century France, producing over 40 books featuring exotic themes and eventually becoming a member of the Academie française, France's highest literary honour. His name, at least, may still be familiar to anyone who has visited Istanbul, a city dotted with cheap hotels named after him and the setting for Loti's first and still best-known novel Aziyadé.

Yet, while his books today are little read, there is a great deal more to Loti than cheap hotels and a few faded classics from French literature. As Fantômes d'Orient, an exhibition of Loti's life and work currently at the Musée de la vie romantique in Paris, makes clear, Loti was a chief representative of European literary orientalism, his works suffused with romantic images of an antiquated, mysterious, feminised Orient.

While that vision was of course a projection onto reality, it was one that nevertheless flourished in Loti's books. These do their best to keep alive quite a few oriental phantoms of their author's own. However, it was not only in Loti's books that this vision flourished: Loti also liked to disguise himself in oriental colours, this exhibition including photographs of Loti dressed in Bedouin and other forms of traditional Arab dress, and he rebuilt the interior of his childhood home in what he conceived of as oriental style, even installing a mosque imported at considerable expense from Syria.

The venue for this exhibition, the "museum of romantic life", is tucked away in the once-fashionable, now rather melancholy, northern Paris district of Nouvelle Athènes just below Pigalle. It is dedicated to the memory of the novelist Georges Sand, preserving mementos from her life and celebrated liaisons, and it has something of the Biedermeier tone of Paris under the July Monarchy when the area was built. Gathering together bric-à-brac from Loti's life in the French navy and as a writer, including objects from his boyhood "museum" in Rochefort, the exhibition mixes Loti's drawings, travel mementos and photographs with orientalist artworks from the same period, some of them quite well- known, others much less so.

Here, for example, it is possible to see an oil study by Delacroix, Femmes d'Alger dans leur intérieur, now in a museum in Rouen, developed from the same painter's well-known canvas, Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement (1833), now in the Louvre. There are also some magnificent drawings by Delacroix, recording time the painter spent in Algeria and Morocco in the 1830s. In addition to these well-known works by this canonical painter there are many others that are much less so, including works by orientalist painters such as Lucien Lévy- Dhurmer, Eugène Fromentin, Jean-Léon Gérôme and Paul Leroy.

Among the images of 19th-century Istanbul and Ottoman Turkey on display, as seen through European eyes, are atmospheric works by Alberto Pasini (1826-1899), an Italian artist who spent time in Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula and Iran, where the Qajar Shah Nasser Al-Din commissioned his work. The exhibition includes Porte de la mosquée de Yeni-Djami à Constantinople and Fenêtre bordée d'émail vert, mausolée de Mehmet 1er à Bursa by Pasini, both from the 1870s and both dwelling on what the artist evidently saw as these buildings' picturesque decay.

Adrien Dauzats (1804-1868) is represented by an 1831 painting, Mosquée d'Al-Azhar au Caire, apparently completed when the artist was part of the French delegation sent to Cairo to arrange delivery of the Luxor obelisk, a gift from Mohammed Ali to France and now in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. There are also paintings of St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai. Fromentin contributes a large canvas of the Nile (1876), begun when the artist was invited, along with many others, to attend the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Paul Leroy is represented by architectural scenes done in oils made while the artist was visiting Egypt and North Africa in the 1880s.

Pictures of this sort, sometimes from small or provincial French museums, can be hard to track down, but all of them are well worth seeing. According to the exhibition catalogue, Dauzats's work is usually to be found hanging somewhere along the corridors of the French Assemblée nationale, while Fromentin's Nile has found a home in a private museum in Bayeux. Many of these paintings register something of the languid nostalgia and melancholy that Loti's own exoticising gaze found, or was drawn to, in the Orient.

This is perhaps especially true of the paintings gathered together in the section of the exhibition entitled "harems, odalisques and the disenchanted", a collection of orientalist images of Turkish and North African women in the manner of Delacroix's harem scenes, which resonate particularly with Loti's writings.

In Aziyadé, for example, his first and best-known novel, Loti capitalised on a thirst for the exotic among European readers of the time, even writing his novel in the form of a series of reports from a young naval officer, "Pierre Loti", posted first in Salonica, then part of the Ottoman Empire, and later in Istanbul itself. This allowed him to document a range of Ottoman manners and customs for foreign readers in the manner of the orientalist painters represented in this exhibition, such material providing the "oriental colour" for Loti's story of the affair between a foreign naval officer and Aziyadé, the secluded wife of a local Ottoman dignitary.

This affair was apparently based on the author's own experiences, and it forms a kind of guiding thread through Loti's subsequent writing career. According to Lesley Blanche, Loti's rather overheated English biographer, Aziyadé now became "the cult of the loved and lost...the symbol of vanished oriental life." In any case, this was a theme that Loti continuously returned to, trying it out in different locales and with different women, his naval career taking him first to West Africa, where it resurfaced in Le roman d'un spahi (A Spahi's Story), and later to Japan, where, in Madame Chrysanthème, Loti plays a similar role to that of another visiting naval officer, the rather better-known American Lieutenant Pinkerton from Puccini's contemporaneous opera Madama Butterfly.

Of the Ottoman harem women Loti writes in Aziyadé that they were "lazy...knowing only how to make rosewater and write [their] names". Ottoman Turkey itself was " eski, a word said with veneration that means antique...The Turks love the past, and they love immobility and stagnation." Nevertheless, like Delacroix in his harem scenes Loti seems to have felt compelled to draw back the veil on what he conceived to be oriental life, convinced that some secret lay there just beyond his comprehension. One of the features of the Orient as Loti describes it is that it seems to give access to strange states of mind and to experience unavailable in Europe. As he puts it in Aziyadé, "in the Orient everything is possible."

Of Istanbul itself, Loti writes characteristically that "the minarets, the high domes of the mosques, look like cut-outs in front of a sky that is full of stars and before a thin sliver of crescent moon. The horizon is ranged around with towers and minarets, lightly drawn in blue-ish silhouette against the dark tint of night. The great domes of the mosques, stacked up in front of each other like waves reaching up to the moon, produce a gigantic impression in the imagination... in the midst of all this calm, images from the past seem to be alive in my mind, images of everything that is broken and gone forever without any hope of return."

A feature of Loti's writing is his nostalgia for such visions and his conviction that he has been shut out from them. "Behind this oriental phantasmagoria," Loti at one point assures his correspondent, the improbably named English lieutenant Plumkett, "there is nothing but a poor, sad boy who often feels sick at heart."

In addition to providing a venue for Loti's indulgence of feelings of nostalgia and of loss, the novelist's involvement with the Orient, and particularly with Ottoman Turkey, later took a more practical turn, the novels giving way to travel books and the "oriental phantasmagoria" to attempts to save the region both from modernisation in the image of Europe, which for Loti meant the loss of precisely those "oriental" qualities that he most loved, and from its dissection by the European powers.

In his travel book on Egypt, La Mort de Philae (Death of Philae, 1909), for example, while Loti is drawn to the "adorable East" in Cairo -- "the little houses, so lavishly ornamented with mashrabiyya and arabesques, the tall aerial minarets, rising to a prodigious height in the twilight sky" -- he is a lot less taken with the new developments begun by the Khedive Ismail. "What is this? Where are we? It might be Nice, or the Riviera, or Interlaken, or any of those other towns." Defend yourselves from this "disintegrating invasion...of western rubbish," he beseeches Cairo's inhabitants, "this vulgar entrepôt of commerce and pleasure, to which the plutocracy of the whole world comes each winter."

Interestingly, it was Mustapha Kamil, the nationalist leader and "tribune of Egypt" as he is described here, who served as Loti's guide in Egypt, introducing him, among others, to the Sheikh Al-Azhar. Loti particularly dislikes the English presence in the country, very evident at Aswan ("so British...every fifty yards a policeman"), and in the book he laments the passing of what for him was a better, kinder age.

Loti's contribution to preserving that age came during World War I, when he did his best to save the Ottoman Empire from dismemberment by the victorious European powers, having watched in despair as it allied itself with Germany, for him most definitely the wrong side.

His feelings for the country are well expressed in a final book, Suprêmes visions d'Orient (Supreme Visions of the Orient), a kind of orientalist apotheosis, in which Loti writes at length not only of his visits to Istanbul before the war when he was a guest of the Sultan (" dinner table was once that of Sultan Abdul Aziz: Koranic inscriptions and gold ewers are marked with the cypher of some long dead Sultan."), but also of his attempts to capitalise on his friendship with Prince Yusseff-Izeddin, at the time heir to the Ottoman throne, in setting up channels of communication between the Porte and the western powers during the war.

The latter prince, Loti wrongly believed, could save Ottoman Turkey from what he described as l'Horreur allemande, the "German horror", while acting to preserve "a vast Oriental empire, powerful by the unity of the Arab peoples, and the friendship of France." When this did not happen, Loti retreated to his house at Rochefort, surrounding himself with mementos of what was now a vanished society.

Finally, this unusual exhibition, mixing together Loti's works with contemporary images of the Orient as seen through the eyes of mostly French painters and travellers, is an intriguing reminder of the ideas bundled together under the heading of "orientalism" and of the peculiar hold these seem to have had on the 19th-century European imagination.

For the critic Roland Barthes, writing on Loti in his Nouveaux essais critiques, the naval officer Julien Viaud, by taking on the identity of "Pierre Loti", was "fleeing the moral institutions of his country, his culture and his civilisation". His "fanaticism" about dressing up and disguise, trying on the outfits of an Ottoman Turk, a sailor, an Albanian and a dervish (and having himself photographed in them), reveals a "crisis of identity". His projection of a set of "orientalist" values onto the East, including stagnation, mystery and femininity, has everything to do with Loti's ambiguous relationship to the opposing ideas that he believed dominated his own society.

Perhaps orientalism, as this exhibition reveals, was as much a matter of an ambiguity within European culture as it was of a relationship of domination, reproduced in a particular way of seeing, with a non- European other.

Pierre Loti, Fantômes d'Orient, Musée de la vie romantique, Paris, until 3 December 2006. Pierre Loti's oriental-style house can also be visited during the summer at Maison de Pierre Loti, 141, rue Pierre-Loti, 17300 Rochefort.

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