Saturday, July 21, 2012

Dan Goodman in Romania: "Orientalism: Imagination's Vice"

Map: 1855 by Cezar Bolliacfrom Wikipedia entry: "Greater Romania"(Note my Orientalist predilection for the antique map of the East.)
I encountered a blog post from Dan W. Goodman, which fit my mental meanderings well this month.  As I've been swooning over the work of Herta Muller this month, I have also been considering her representations and why they work so well.  The main answer is that she's an amazing writer with sensitivity and a great sense of story (yes, who has also been translated well).  But she is also telling stories from an area that remains mysterious to Western-based readers, which is certainly part of the appeal, that desire for novelty.  As Goodman states on July 10 in his blog:
Romania’s ambiguous identity as a region somewhere between West and East highlights the collective psychological trait of travelers including myself who identify it solely in relation to concepts of Occident and Orient, for nothing outside the categories of familiar and different appear to exist within the Occidental imagination, leaving the mind of the traveler entirely restrained and controlled by Orientalist constructs.
This post tells the story of a trip to Romania and Goodman's contemplation of "authenticity" as well as his thinking of Edward Said's ideas in Orientalism, stab at other themes that interest me as a person uncomfortably interested in the West's "East."  He mentions his foray into a cafe that claims to be 'authentic' where he orders the most sensationalist item on the menu.  Then he wanders onto a side street and experiences an "off the beaten path" moment, that so many Western tourists think they can find.  But it is still, of course, a Westerner's desire for novelty, to be the "one" to see "it" from a new lens.

I remember my trip to Siwa, in the Western desert of Egypt in 2010, which included an astonishingly beautiful ride through the desert and a constant meeting of generous natives who wanted money, yes, but had a deep pride in their own culture.  Yet after looking and looking and loving that place, as a tourist there is always a predatory "something" underneath my desire to see what I haven't seen.  As Goodman states at the end of his post:
That which I call mine; my imagination, my perceptions, and my reality, are not mine but rather those of the Occident. My perspective is inseparable from that of the West’s. Regardless of my vain attempts to overcome the subjectivism specific to the Occident, I will never attain a personal identity devoid of Orientalism, for I am a product of the Occident, my mind is Occidental, I am the Occident.

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