Romantic Orientalism and the War on Materialism

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Orientalism" by Edward Said. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is romantic Orientalism? What influence did Orientalism have on the movement of romanticism in the West?

The movement of romantic Orientalism dates back to the first half of the 19the century. By revealing the ancient mysteries of the East, the Romantics sought to shake the West out of what they saw as its materialistic stupor and reacquaint it with the divine and mysterious.

Keep reading to learn more about romantic orientalism.

The Rise of Romantic Orientalism

We can see the gatekeeping and interpretive function of Orientalism more clearly if we look at Orientalism in the context of the Romantic movement of the first half of the 19th century.

Romanticism emphasized emotion, intuition, subjectivity, and individual experience. It was a reaction against the scientific rationalism of the Industrial Revolution, as European culture-makers looked backed toward what they imagined to be a nobler, more courtly, and picturesque past. 

The Orient, in its wildness, antiquity, and timelessness, served as a powerful source of inspiration for Romantic writers and artists. By revealing the ancient mysteries of the East, the Romantics sought to shake the West out of what they saw as its rationalist stupor and reacquaint it with the divine and mysterious. The Orient could revitalize and save Europe.

Figures like the German poet and literary critic Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829) and his countryman Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg (1772-1801), better known by the pseudonym Novalis, saw the study of the culture and religion of the Orient (India, in their case) to be a means by which Europeans could move past what they saw as Europe’s excessive materialism. Importantly, they also approvingly looked upon the traditional, patriarchal societies of the Orient as an example of a society untouched by (in their view) the decadent and vulgar republicanism that had swept Europe in the wake of the French Revolution.

Of course, this was another manifestation of the Orientalist mindset—treating the Orient as an object to be interpreted and drawn upon for Western benefit and enlightenment.

The Romantic movement accordingly fixated upon the ancient languages, cultures, and history of Egypt, Assyria, and Sumer. Little thought was given to the lived experiences of contemporary people of the Middle East, or what they might think about the European appropriation of their cultural heritage.

Romantic Orientalism and the War on Materialism

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  • How Western society invented the concept of Orientalism
  • Why "the Orient" was thought of as a different, exotic, and dangerous place
  • How Orientalism was central to European colonialism

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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