Myths of the East in the West (JL. Tritter)

The East fascinates the West, which largely invented it, as a mythologized and fantasized object. This is how Orientalism was born, which in the 19th century essentialized this East, despite the centuries-old conflicts between "Westerners" and "Orientals". In his book, Myths of the East in the West, historian Jean-Louis Tritter returns to these recurring images of a largely imaginary space.

Defining the Orient

From his foreword, the author shows that the notion of the Orient depends on whoever uses it, and even invents it. Initially, it is a "Mediterranean notion", and more specifically Greek ("The East began in the east of Athens"), before being Roman. It is precisely with Rome that the East begins to seduce, especially through the Eastern religions and their strangeness for the Romans. Then comes the East assimilated to Islam, and a period not only of conflict, but rather in the relation of attraction / repulsion. The modern period sees both the image of the East freeze, and the idea that the West is superior to it. However, it was also the moment when Orientalism was born, and when this mythical Orient developed that travelers hoped to discover, and on which literature drank in the 19th century.

Journey to Orientalism

The West's fascination with the East therefore begins in Antiquity, which leads J-L. Tritter to begin his work with a "History of myths from the East to the West". For this, he goes through all the periods, from ancient Greece to after the Revolution, through the Middle Ages, and returning to "The balance sheet of the classical period", before the more properly orientalist turn. Even before the expedition to Egypt, the Orient was already a model, especially for the philosophers of the Enlightenment. At the same time, the East is associated with the liberation of morals and fantasy.

The second chapter is more specifically devoted to the orientalist, and his diversity: archaeologist, tourist, traveler and even woman. The author then shows the approach of the orientalist, that is to say his journey to the East, and the diversity with which it is approached, from cultural to commercial, including pilgrimage.

Islam is obviously a fundamental part of the East, which J-L. Tritter analyzes in Chapter IV, insisting on this phenomenon of attraction / repulsion which has always characterized relations between the West and Islam.

In the following chapters, the author finally enters fully into the properly orientalist myths, from the harem (and more broadly from the oriental woman in general) to the desert, also evoking typically oriental products, which Westerners are fond of, for for example "to orientate oneself", like kohl, henna or the consumption of opium.

The last chapter parallels the idea of ​​the decadence of the East and the gradual end of Orientalism in the first half of the 20th century. An end which is also due to a better knowledge and proximity to an East which is westernizing and which, too real, no longer fascinates. To illustrate this slow death of Orientalism (J-L Tritter also speaks of sleep), the author chooses the figure of Pierre Loti, and his travelogue with an evocative title, The Death of Philae.

In its conclusion, J-L. Tritter returns to this Orient which has become more oriental, reproducing the clichés imagined in the West, when it does not become Westernized (like the skyscrapers of the Gulf Emirates). He especially insists on "Lure" of this Geographical Orient, in which many countries and regions of the world do not recognize themselves, or for which there is little interest, outside of Europe and North America.

Notice of History for all

Accompanied by a lexicon and a clear and welcome bibliography, but also by a central notebook dedicated to a colorful iconography, the work by J-L. Tritter will not disappoint anyone interested in the myths of the East and the history of Orientalism, despite a few passages that are sometimes a bit dense.

- J-L. Tritter, Myths of the East and the West, Ellipses, 2012, 285 p.

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