Segalen writes that it is “nothing other than the notion of difference, the perception of Diversity, the knowledge that something is other than one’s self.”He omits the element of attraction, the human conflation of mystery and longing that leads circuitously toward the divine.
Recently, I asked my secretary, a young English woman, what springs to mind when she hears “exotic,” and she said “waxed”—she did not know why.
The first philosophical enquiry of 1908-18 remained unfinished: French writer Victor Segalen criticised his contemporaries’ ‘reductive’ understanding of exoticism through geography (tropicalism) and history/ politics (colonialism), but he stopped short of offering a conceptual alternative. Exoticism in 19th-century literature was primarily understood through geographic remoteness and Europe’s (scholarly and political) interests in foreign nations.
In Britain, the stories of , as the work has also become known after the first anonymous English translation of 1706 – were an example of the concurrent scholarly preoccupation with ‘Arabia’, an intensifying political interest, and the simple desire for good stories.
African writer Chinua Achebe was clearer when he, in a 1975 lecture, denounced Conrad and the novella.
To him, Conrad’s portrayal was dehumanising and degrading as the colonised Africans are seen as animalistic and devoid of speech, and are de-individualised and lumped together into one dark group in the story’s jungle background.For Romantic and Victorian writers like Coleridge, de Quincey, Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Collins, Gaskell and Conan Doyle, thus stood for the wonderful against the mundane, and the imaginative against the prosaic and rational.On the other hand, the stories referenced real people and a real geography: many readers were thus led to believe that Sheherazade’s tales actually gave a faithful account of the Orient.Yet anyone raised within the confines of the European canon knows that, in that context, “exotic” inevitably means “dark.” What I myself—a woman of African descent, domesticated by European rules—first envision, when I hear “exotic,” is an eye, black as a bottomless well.Darkness with a secret glitter in its depths, hinting at information both offered and withheld.But, for me, intense light—sun beating on rye fields, eyes like a bare Montana sky—can also evoke mystery and desire.In my childhood house in Philadelphia, a huge gold-framed painting hung in the dining room, an heirloom from a rich cousin of my father’s who had travelled all over the world and died senile in a house stuffed with mementos.She dominated the scene, glowing with triumphant demonic life, as if she had sucked the blood out of her pale mistress and replaced it with sawdust.An example of the exotic spilling out of bounds, taking on a power that it isn’t supposed to have.Hence a colonial mind-set plays a central part in , as does the missionary project.At the end of the novel, with Jane legally married to widower Rochester, and mother of his children, Jane’s cousin, St John Rivers, is dying in India: his attempts to convert and ‘civilise’ the Indians left their mark on him.