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Exotic Memories: Literature, Colonialism, and the Fin de Siecle.

European mapping of the world helped initiate the tragedy of colonialism, a geopolitical/cultural intersection that is the site of Chris Bongie's examination of the ideology of the exotic in Exotic Memories: Literature, Colonialism, and the Fin de Siecle. This geographically and theoretically wide-ranging study of the relationship between modernist alienation and the postmodern condition carefully reads the poetics and politics of narrative. Bongie demythifies exoticism in the light of the philosophy of loss of Benjamin, Heidegger, and the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo. His methodology incorporates a plurality of critical approaches, and his writing displays a fondness for historical anecdotes, paradoxes, and parentheses. This is a dense and challenging study of historical/cultural paradigm shifts in perceptions of exoticism.

Bongie's grand historical scheme locates the origin of anxiety about the modern condition at the time of the French Revolution, the period of the dissolution of the certainties of old imperialism. With the increasing homogeneity of global, political, and economic culture arose a Romantic attachment to the vanishing traces of heroic individualism. In the exotic, the writers of the fin de siecle discovered an escape from this sterile monotony. "Exoticism," as Bongie defines it, "is an essentially posthumous project and thus precluded from ever truly realizing what it sets out to achieve" (17). Thus, a dawning awareness of the finitude of the earth's surface and the dissolution of the Other led Victor Segalen to conclude that exotic places could only be rewritten in the language of the first European explorers. Segalen and Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness confront the disappearing exotic world and the consequently diminished heroism of the latter-day explorers' attempt to discover the mapped, and tame the domesticated. The rhetorical strategies of literary mapping -- "the reinscription, enclosure and hierarchization of space" (Huggan 125) -- for the fin de siecle imagination involved delimiting the exotic as "a space of absence, a dream already given over to the past" (22). This writing was always inscribed with the sign of loss, as its object was the corpse of the exotic. Bongie's project is entitled "exotic memories," as it involves remembering the already lost, following the trace of the exotic in works where it is an absent presence.

Bongie examines the attempt to rationalize and transform "imperial exoticism" in Heart of Darkness and more fully in Verne's Michel Strogoff by considering Conrad's short novel in its imperial Belgian setting and Verne's narrative in the context of Russia's assault on Central Asia. Bongie's elaborate mythopoetic reading of Verne follows the logic of narrative syntax in an examination of double plotting. Bongie's somewhat disappointing reading of Heart of Darkness locates a tension in the work between a critique and a rationalization of colonialism. Bongie parallels Marlow's remarks on Romans and Africans, stresses his "efficiency," and regards Kurtz as an "inefficient colonist." Much of this is familiar, as Bongie acknowledges, from the work of Ian Watt.

Chapter 3, "The Dream and the Fetish" opens with an intriguing iconographic analysis of Paul Gauguin's "Nevermore," another memorial to an already vanished exotic. Gauguin arrived in Tahiti fifteen days before the King of Tahiti's death, and his would-be biographer Victor Segalen went to interview the artist mere months after the King's demise among the disease-ravaged Polynesians. Awareness of this fine fissure of separation from the true exotic, already in the early 1900s an afterimage, Bongie contends, dominates Segalen's fiction. Similarly, Pierre Loti's work demonstrates an awareness of the limitations of attempting to salvage the heroic individualism of old and new imperialism. Bongie shows that Loti fetishizes the absent Other, particularly in his reading of the opening scene of public execution in Aziyade.

Bongie also argues that Segalen and Conrad both acknowledge the entropy of colonialism and respond in a "decadentist" manner with a dehistoricized retrieval of mythic imperialism. Landing on Chinese soil after the fall of the Manchu dynasty, Segalen writes that the country "no longer exists" (108). Under Segalen's and Loti's gaze, sacred sites such as the Imperial Palace, opened through colonial penetration, hold only fragile echoes of the real exotic. Loti realizes his dream of strolling through the Palace, but the experience is fatally compromised by the reality of China's colonization. As in Kafka's Chinese parable, the inner sanctum is unattainable. Conrad's later work, Bongie argues, valorizes the individual genius of old imperialism that his earlier work problematized. Displaying "the exoticizing mode of exoticism," this later work blurs "the dialectical encounter between primitive and civilized worlds, between an outside and an inside, that was at the heart of nineteenth-century exoticism" (155, 150).

Bongie's account of Pier Paolo Pasolini's manufacture of an idealized "Third World" -- akin to recent calls for "neo-primitivism" -- shows a modern Dr. Syntax again in search of the vanished exotic. Pasolini attempted to reclaim "the worn mantle of the 'exotic subject'" (189), looking for a solution to the ravages of modernist decadence in a site he regarded as prehistoric. Pratt, writing of Alberto Moravia, Pasolini's friend, calls this the "dehumanizing western habit of representing other parts of the world as having no history" (219). Pasolini refused to accept that in trying to gather to himself the artifice of the neo-exotic. Other, he was merely enfolding a sterile trope. Pasolini eschewed poetry for fiction, and then fiction for the chimera of pure representation, which he sought in film. Finally, only amid the ruins of the degraded culture of global capitalism does Bongie feel that Pasolini began to realize the genuine implications of the dilemma.

The breadth of Bongie's focus in Exotic Memories necessarily leaves certain areas of European imperialism unmapped and others marginalized. He does not fully investigate the role of gender in the colonial adventure or examine female texts, although he names the exotic literary tradition as "predominantly masculist" (97), and briefly demonstrates his agreement with Spivak. Further, he ignores sexual differences in his study of Pasolini's search for the real body of the exotic. Situating his critical methodology in chapter 1, Bongie rather summarily dispenses with the contributions of Edward Said to the theory of the exotic. Some of his bold pronouncements there are unsettling; for example, he cites Robinson Crusoe as the first novel of adventure, overlooking the work of Aphra Behn. Bongie's territory is amazingly fertile but sometimes his "brief excursions" (110) into ever new regions to explore new vantage points for gazing at his subject are somewhat disruptive.

Exotic Memories shows Conrad, Loti, Segalen, Verne, and Pasolini rehearsing Arnold's lines in "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse" about "Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born." Bongie's study will be of particular value to scholars of comparative and French literature, but also will interest those concerned with pre-modern, postmodern, and postcolonial theory. There is an elegiac tone to the work, as if, like Segalen, Bongie were directing ". . . us along an unviable path leading back, once again, to a world that is no longer ours -- and that is ours to remember" (143). This tone derives from the radical skepticism of Bongie's approach and his project's concern with forgetting and death. However, Bongie's unpacking of exoticism's ideological rhetoric also advances a renewed definition of the postmodern condition, which upholds the value of memory as a protection from the delusions of naive meliorism. Ultimately, Bongie derives from his analysis of premodern selective amnesia, in its doomed attempt to reconstruct the exotic, a "postmodern poetics, and politics, of 'survival' . . ." (28).

WORKS CITED

Huggan, Graham. "Decolonizing the Map: Post-Colonialism, Post-Structuralism and the Cartographic Connection." Past the Last Post: Theorizing Post-Colonialism and PostModernism. Ed. Ian Adam and Helen Tiffin. Calgary: U of Calgary P, 1990. 125-39.

Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London: Routledge, 1992.
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Author:Lovesey, Oliver
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
Words:1274
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