Life as an Extreme Sport

Said and Burton

Edward Said spends the second chapter of Orientalism talking about the history of orientalism, if you will. He starts with Sacy and Lane, and from those two move forward in chronological order, briefly addressing some of the most influential writers of that period. Chauteaubriand, Nerval, Flaubert, and Burton are all mentioned (in basically that order). Said draws some interesting distinctions, noting that the British writers tend to follow Lane in being very dry, academic, and empirically scientific when discussing the Orient, while the French are much more romantic (as well as Romantic), preferring instead to move within a narrative framework of the dream of the Orient.

Said concludes this walk thru the process and progress of Orientalist thought by ending with Burton, a man he claims walked a line between Orient and Occident, understanding the Orient while still retaining the power of the Occident. What I find interesting, though, is how Said treats Burton. Specifically, Said doesn’t focus on the extensive research Burton did on homosexuality in the Orient (especially India), his translations of the Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden, that the annotations to the Kama Sutra were considered pornographic for their time, or that Burton’s widow burned a new translation of The Perfumed Garden (renamed The Scented Garden), as well as 40 years of diaries and journals, because she didn’t want the world to know of Burton’s fascination with bizarre sexual practices and perversions (fearing people would label him as such).

For someone who’d just spent some large chunk of book discussing how the Occident eroticizes the Orient, and particularly taking Flaubert to task for it, it seems odd that Burton’s own fascination with the Orient and all aspects of sex is so completely ignored.