Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 14. Nr. April 2003

Romania and Its Images in British Travel Writing.

In-between Peripherality and Cultural Interference

Carmen Andras (Targu-Mueres, Rumänien)


The postmodern signification and valuation of difference have influenced the way of defining those concepts that have as support the difference itself, and its hypostases (duality or ambiguity, closeness or remoteness, contact or separation, conflict or co-existence), such as: representation, image, discourse, and borderline. The accent falls upon their arbitrary, conventional, polysemic, differential, and often non-referential character, as for any social, linguistic, or cultural fact approached by the new representational and rhetorical hermeneutics. Their status of cultural, rhetorical or linguistic constructs, demonstrated by the horizontal analysis of the text, of the discourse or representation about the Other, is in fact a transparent mask for their historical content. In the same way, I think that an approach focused either on the individual or on the social, either on the imaginary or on the ideological, either on the conscious, or on the unconscious, is partial and one-sided.

Even if the concept of image is preferred in European research, and that of representation in the Anglo-American one, as being less ambiguous (the image has both an iconic and a symbolic side; it can be interpreted either as a mental image, or as a visual one, either as an artistic, or as a literary one, being also used as a general notion for tropes and figures of style), the two concepts tend to become equivalent. They imply at the same time the perceptive and intellectual dimensions.

The postmodern representation of the Other is a complex, open, non-linear, multi-referential, decentred system, comprising a plurality of interactions, which do not allow the establishment of the antinomic difference, favouring in exchange the co-presence specific to the "borderline" zone. The liminal statute of the representation makes it difficult to define: it is at the same time a perceptual image and a narrative, a chain of image and ideas, but also a cultural and ideological construct, a comprising scheme meant to present the world and to justify its strategies, its negotiations and transactions. The liminality of the representation determines the borderline statute of the imago-typical texts, where social-historical and documentary actuality meets self-referentiality, where photographical reality meets fiction. It is a space of borderline tension between the referential and the reflexive, between the factual and the fictional, memory and imagination, political or ethnical and historical, ideological and imaginary. At this junction, an image or representation study is no more a study of the way external reality, or subjective mood are reflected, but an exploitation of the manner in which foreign images or self-images are constructed, as well as the way we construct our subjectivity and sensitivity(1). The idea of liminality, in its acceptation of a complex, dynamic and open system, is currently related to borderline studies, and justifies the preference for borderline literary genres. So, by their interdisciplinary and intertextual openness, imagology and image studies in general, bring about uncanonical literary genres from marginal zones into a borderline one. Travel journals, memoirs and reportages become as important sources in foreign image studies as literary fiction. Image studies themselves have a borderline statute, not only because they prefer cultural border zones as objects of analysis, but also because on their territory one can meet investigations coming from the directions of comparative literature, cultural comparative studies, post-colonial and intercultural studies, cultural anthropology and ethnology, cognitive sciences and neuroscience, philosophy of mind, historical phenomenology, literary history, history of mentalities and history of the imaginary, history of ideas and intellectual trends etc.

The premise in a study regarding the representations of the Other, in their acceptation of complex, non-linear and multireferential systems, is not that of truthfulness or falseness (even if we do not disregard their truth kernel). They "reflect" objects and phenomena in their absence, and they rely on the creative and ordering force of the imagination, and on the selective conservation capacity of memory, an individual as well as a collective, cultural memory, which contains images, themes, ideas and values, schemes, stereotypes, common places, ideologemes, intertextual links taken over from the others and from tradition.

One can add to these, personal artistic qualities (talent, sensitivity, taste), mental states (intentionality, motivation, finality), personal dispositions, phobias and sympathies etc. The analysis of the representations and discourses regarding the Other is not meant to accuse or blame (in our case, the West, in order to conveniently victimize the East), but to divulge those ideologies that exclude and marginalize the alterity, in order to create new premises for an intercultural dialogue on equal terms. It is an attempt to denaturalize some dominant features of the way we perceive reality, and to show that those entities which we consider "natural" or "essential", are in fact cultural constructs, fabricated by us, and not given to us. The critique of the rhetoric concerning the Other, has necessarily political and ethnical implications, taking into consideration that the representations of the Other - images and fiction - cannot be neutral, even if metaphorically veiled in literary texts.

This type of approach enables us to put into discussion not the geographical borderlines, but the mental borderlines drawn on the symbolic map of Europe between the West and the East, or the Orient, between ethnic groups and cultures, which are much more stable than the political ones. We can consider a prolongation of this cultural borderline the ones Western observers drew inside the Eastern countries perceived as a zone of incompatible differences, and not a node of cultural interference. In exchange, the "imagologist" would not consider the same borderline as a place of confronting differences, a space of rigid polarisations, but a space where dichotomous terms can change places anytime, and antinomic difference has no chance to survive.

The borderline space in a binary Europe, or "in-between peripherality" as Stephen Totosy de Zepetnek defines it(2) , the space of cultural interference between the West and the East, does not suppose only marginality related to a dominant centre as in the post-colonial context, but as many "marginalities" as the cultural foci identified on the symbolic map of the Continent(3).

If we accept the idea of "imaginary", "metaphorical", or "literary imperialism" as the basis of the British representations regarding Romania, and as an extension of post-colonialism in this space, the use of such peculiar concepts as "contact zone", "colonial" or "imperial border", "colonial" or "imperial literature", "hybridity", requires some specification connected to the historical and geographical characteristics.

The syntagm "contact zone", which Mary Louise Pratt took over from linguistics, denotes those social spaces where distinct cultures meet, establishing asymmetrical relations of subordination and domination, similar to the colonial ones. In this context, western travel literature would become an "imperial literature" meant to explain and justify imperialism, to naturalize it, and to promote its ideology(4). In contrast with the geographical borders, which accentuate difference, "contact zones" favour, in the author's opinion, co-presence, interaction, mutual understanding and cooperation, which are possible only when knowledge has been "decolonised", unveiling thus the relationship with the dominant power, and the mechanisms of "transculturation" and "hybridisation". Such a solution is viable from a methodological and conceptual point of view in the analysis of the British representations concerning Romania, as far as they justify the policy of "civilizing" influence in the zone, and not a proper imperialist one. The British travellers of the 18th - 19th centuries were only perceiving the phenomena of transculturation or hybridisation in this zone, and not their "authors". That is, they were not the representatives of that dominant power, which imposed a one sided taking over of cultural models through an effective presence. Romania, as the entire South-East European space is situated at the borderline of old past empires, which could not have the perspectives of the efficient British imperialism, but whose traces were to be identifiable in the cultural and ethnical mosaic of the region(5). These "archaic traces" are represented by the British in contrast with the well-defined features of "civilization", the differences of nuance being determined by the conflicts of political and economic interests characteristic of the borderline space. They are not prepared, or they do not have the interest to perceive this cultural space as a junction between Europe and the Orient, or between Western and Eastern Europe. In exchange, they would construct a hybrid space, made of disparate elements but homogenized by analogy, whenever the demonstration required the differentiation from the West. They do not analyse, for example, the Phanariot influence in the Principalities as a phenomenon of transculturation ("the acquisition of a new code without losing the old one"(6)), as a temporary occasional acquisition, but as a passive, unfiltered assimilation unadapted to the Romanians' own interests and cultural codes. British travellers are not "guilty" for the outcomes of an imperial policy in the zone. Nevertheless, they are not impartial witnesses either. They exploit the enigmatic and often misleading liminality of the region in the sense that was imposed by the requirements of argumentation.

I think that by describing and, at the same time, denouncing border tensions as they show themselves in the British representations about Romania too, by following their evolution in a cultural and political borderline space, we could reconstruct a new "contact zone" freed from prejudices. It would be a zone of cultural interaction, to which my study also modestly aspires.

Even if my study was first intended to analyse the British representations over the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century, the restriction between these temporal limits for methodological reason, is artificial. The natural development of the representations follows the necessary stages that precede or succeed these limits. The British representations about the Romanians are already beginning to appear in the 16th and 17th centuries, they crystallize in the 18th century, take the way of the stereotypes in the following century, and culminate at the crossing of the 19th and 20th centuries in mythical, demonical representations. Present-day perception continues this evolution. The borderlines of the British representations are arbitrary as well. In fact, Romania is integrated into the generalized and homogenized image of southeastern Europe, enjoying the same treatment as the other neighbouring countries. The British perspective is not unique either, because, for example, the French or German representations about Romania, and, implicitly, about Eastern Europe, reflect similar attitudes.

The "invention" of Eastern Europe is a project of "half-orientalization" as Larry Wolff concludes(7). The discursive elements of orientalism, balkanism and exoticism are always counter balanced by those of the European identity that cannot be eluded(8). As a space of imaginary colonisation, south-eastern Europe would react against the centre by a discourse similar to the post-colonial one (even if less offensive, exclusivist and intolerant), but directed instead against a centre that has colonized only its image (and, implicitly, its self-image).

Half-Oriental and half-European, this borderline cultural zone would give birth to a game of images and counter-images, kept in balance in an oxymoronic image, while the West-East relationship would be represented like a manichean struggle between good and evil, white and black, light and darkness, purity and corruption etc., with visible political and moral implication (even today, through the ambiguity of the European integration criteria). Perceived also as a projection of the subconscious, the discourse about Eastern alterity translates into the categories of domination, intellectual superiority, and virile action, the anxieties, incertitudes and identity crises of the West. Transylvania, for example, appears as a projection of the Victorian anxieties and taboos. Similarly, women's "oriental" lust represents a threat to the Puritan's moral integrity. Thus, through the psychosocial mechanism of identifying the "scapegoat", the inoffensive, exotic images are becoming hostile images. We enter temporarily the registers of orientalism and balkanism, coming then back to that of Europeanism, an oscillation that complicates very much the analysis of the racial, sexual and social stereotypes regarding the Romanians. When she is a representative of high society, the sensual, lustful woman allures the rational, even-tempered Western male, stirring up the instincts that he had succeeded to control by education. She is the very symbol of the Orient(9). The same woman, active and smart this time, would be anytime ready to confront every obstacle in order to be in fashion and to follow European life standards. The peasant woman is presented in different ways, according to her age. When she is young, she enjoys the British observers' mutual (sometime enthusiastic) appreciation: she is nice, hardworking, devoted mother and wife etc.

The man, belonging to aristocratic circles, is mainly oriental (traditional, backward, cunning, corrupt and lazy), with the exception of princes and young boyars who acquired a remarkable education abroad. Those of the lower classes, borrow alternatively either the physiognomic and behavioural characteristics of the oriental: primitive, passive, indolent, corrupt etc., or of the Balkan: barbarian, savage, warrior etc. Nevertheless, all of them are different from the westerner because European characteristics are cautiously attributed to them: it is a borrowed, superficial europeanness, a "pseudo-europeanness" in the observers' opinion. The analysis of the Romanian images from British perspectives confronts itself at each level with their complexity. But, if we had to find a common denominator, then this is their liminal condition, and, in less elaborated hypostases, their cultural and ethnic (or even racial) hybridity.

The political, economic and philosophical cartography, which was achieved by Western Enlightenment, predicted the European division completed by the Iron Curtain. The Enlightenment's philosophical map offered a theoretical support for the political, diplomatic, economic and military map of Europe, and "real" travellers ("explorers" with authentic diplomatic, religious, and scientific mission or with disguised purposes) came on the spot to experience and confirm European differentiation, which was to be maintained and aggravated in the 19th century.

Perceived not only as a geographical reality, but also as an imagined, or invented reality, binary Europe is a cultural and political construct, rooted in the century of the Enlightenment and European dilatation (the epoch of epistemological acknowledgements, and of colonial expansion as well). Europe (identified with the West) was defining itself by referring to the East: the Enlightenment philosophers characterized civilization as opposed to Eastern barbarity, and demonstrated it by historical and anthropological arguments. The philosophical map of polarized Europe almost coincided with the political-military map of the Oriental Question. Nevertheless, the "civilizing" action of colonialism and British influence in "barbarian" spaces were justified in the name of humanism.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, British travel journals reflected an adequacy of the representations about the Romanians more to the realities in their minds than to actual ones. Out of the dominant images about south-eastern Europe and, consequently, about Romania, that of barbarity (as opposed to civilization) would gradually become a nucleus for future stereotypes, which, at their turn, would orientalize and balkanise this space through negative attributions. Philosophy, natural sciences (anthropology, biology, ethnology, geography, with their much exploited theories on races and climates), together with history and economic sciences cooperated for founding the discourse of difference (that is, for the naturalization and absolutization of difference). The contribution of these disciplines is to be felt in the organization of identity representations because travellers were experiencing alterity from their direction: ethnical origin, psychosomatic features, dress, food, architecture, beliefs and habits.

As for the spatial-temporal structure of British images concerning Romania, its situation in an uncertain space and time is dominant. Romania is thus suspended on the borderline between civilization and barbarity, between modernity and tradition, between Europe and the Orient, or the Balkans (on the structure of the Ottoman Empire), between Europe and Asia, on the border that separates empires. It is thus placed in a waiting space out of political and military reasons. The decision concerning the direction that this country would take depended (and is still depending) on the evolution of the conflicts among the great powers. Half civilized and half-barbarian, half-European and half-oriental, Romania was maintained in this balance on the symbolic map of the Continent through artifices of calculation, emphasizing in a politically correct manner either its orientalness or its europeanness.

The discourse of identification would have to take into consideration a natural tendency towards modernity in the first half of the 19th century. Nevertheless, it was ironically and even maliciously recording the Phanariot-European "mixture" of the Romanian Principalities. In the British observers' opinion, the count of indictment for the seclusion in orientalness (as a negative attribute: "oriental lethargy", "oriental despotism") was the government and its institutions (mostly the Church). To these they added some natural racially and geographically determined dispositions. This imaginary location at the borderline between worlds, turned into a horizon of expectancy for the British travellers. It justifies their feeling of separating from civilization while entering the world of oriental tales, which they invoked upon crossing the threshold of the Romanian countries on their way from the West to the East(10). Few of them would perceive this "gate of the Orient" as a barrier against Ottoman expansion, and the Romanians' traditional way of life as a means of defending national and religious identity.

The presence of British stereotypes regarding the Romanians is also caused by the fact that travellers were deliberately guided to aristocratic circles in Transylvania and to Phanariot ones in the Principalities, where they could receive a more convenient hospitality, but also because of their pre-established itineraries, which supposed contacts with political and diplomatic personalities, and less with cultural ones. Intentionally or not, British travellers would mostly register elements of public or popular culture. Even the British translations from Romanian literature would contribute to the folklorization and archaization of Romanian culture. Political and religious sympathies and interests were aiming at Transylvania, at the protestant aristocracy. There were thus drawn ethnic and religious borderlines inside the country too, some of the travellers even trying to draw an awkward analogy between the Hungarians and the British.

Starting from particular cases, British travellers would generalize their impressions and conclusions for the entire Romanian space, without waiting for their empirical verification and confirmation (contrary to their empirical philosophical tradition).

The evolution of the British representations concerning Romania took an alarming turn in the second half of the 19th century, when Victorian imperialism was confronting itself with its own dark side, losing much of its splendid self-confidence and authority. At the time, the stigmatised and culpabilized Eastern alterity (more precisely, the Transylvanian Other) would take demoniac proportions in the Anglo-Saxon imaginary, as a release of the much prophesied "reverse imperialism" against the centre of the world civilization, which was Great Britain itself. Gothic literature would abundantly exploit this theme. Bram Stoker, for example, built his celebrity on the mythical and political foundation of Transylvanian "vampirism".

To Great Britain, south-eastern Europe was not the target of a real colonization, but rather a zone where the great powers' political, economic and commercial interests were clashing, and a necessary stage for the important commercial routes, which permitted access to the Black Sea, the Danube and the Aegean Sea. From the perspective of the Oriental question, it was also the virtual empty space left after the withdrawal of the Ottoman Empire (Great Britain's ally against Russian expansion), a space that could cause the loss of European balance at the moment when it came out of the imperial control. Justifications were prepared for any political option, and cultural geography was greatly adequate to the economic, political and military cartography. There was constantly stressed the beneficent influence of Western civilization upon this zone, which, if left in its barbarity, would become a potential danger for the values of civilization. Nevertheless, by civilizing the British did not understand cultural or economic involvement, but mostly a political one. Even the extension into this space of the latest technical achievements (particularly, the steam engines - these symbols of civilization) was carried out for quite pragmatic purposes.

British travellers never proposed liberation from Ottoman rule, even if this was labelled as "oriental despotism" and severely criticized in its Phanariot hypostasis, as a solution. Instead they recommended reforms from inside, by keeping nevertheless the same structures as long as the Ottoman Empire was the convenient ally and represented a symbol of imperial longevity.

The romantic discourse would prophetically announce the break of the subjugating chains, but even then in a condescending manner, by appealing to Europe's maternal benevolence to help her children lost out of history. The caricatured literary representations of the Gothic novel acquire life and colour in the Romantic ones. They would perceive the south-eastern, or Balkan space either out of history, in the exotic, mysterious and mythical aura of Byronism (the supreme sacrifice on the golden shrine of Ancient Greece), or with concrete reference to the political controversies connected to the problem of the Balkan peoples' independence, and, implicitly, to the destiny of the Ottoman Empire. It is in fact a process of half-mythologization of the Balkans (a term that begins to impose itself in the second half of the 19th century, at the same time as the affirmation of the national states), because despite Byron and Shelley's attraction toward Greek classical values, their expectations would not be fulfilled. They were disgusted at the contemporary realities in Greece. Thus, the enthusiastic inversion of dichotomic mental patterns was not to resist a long time: neither "purity" would be attached to Greece, nor "corruption" to England, anymore. Things would come again to their usual place. The imaginary sins of an Orient extended into the Balkans (sensuality, corruption, primitivism etc.) would be again opposed to Western "purity". These oscillations were also reflected in the representations about the Romanians, where the enthusiasm caused by the impression of rediscovering Greek vestiges in women's classical features and clothes, for example, is tempered by the images of an unsatisfactory dull present. For the rest, if the characters met by the British travellers are exotic, unfamiliar, and even hostile, so do the landscapes. They do not remain immune from political intentions either. Uncontrolled emotions and feelings of admiration are too scarce to prove that we are totally wrong in our assumption.

While the synchronic approach of British travel journals points out their pragmatic purposes of informing about the stranger, the diachronic approach increases their literariness, multi-referentiality, and plurality of senses. Hence a multitude of interpretative perspectives have to be taken into consideration in an image study. Built on Enlightenment mental patterns, south-eastern European identity representations, Romania included, would naturalize difference through biological, physiological and racial features (compared and combined in taxonomies). The Romanians' identity formula would keep the balance between civilization and barbarity, or primitivism, orientalness and europeanness, modernity and tradition, whenever the observers raise for discussion the enigmatic ethnic-linguistic identity, autochthonous and oriental habits, Phanariot and European clothes, hospitality, environment etc., all of them at the confluence of traditional and foreign codes. The images of the Romanians' religiosity are drawing the most severe frontiers between Western Christianity and Eastern religions (that is, between enlightened Protestantism on the one hand, and Orthodox, or even Muslim traditionalism, on the other). When Orthodoxy and Catholicism are brought together, they are both negatively valued in comparison to Protestantism.

The idea of continuity can justify the drawing of a temporal bridge between Bram Stoker and Alan Brownjohn, an important contemporary British writer, because both of them hold significative positions in the development of British representations concerning Romania. Firstly, Dracula, Bram Stoker's novel, marks the evolution from British travel journals towards fictional literature having Romania as background. On the other hand, Alan Brownjohn's novel, The Long Shadows(11), is the first important literary work that offers a possible solution to escape from the labyrinth of prejudices built by hundreds of travel books and one Victorian novelist full of imagination. Other directions of development, culminating with Olivia Manning's Balkan Trilogy(12) and Paul Bailey's Kitty and Virgil(13), are the subjects of separate studies.

I conclude that all British representations about Romania are totally unfounded in reality. But, nevertheless, Romanian realities are intentionally exploited for precise, pragmatic reasons. None of the effects of such a literary imperialism is equal to the concrete devastating effects of communist imperialism. Nevertheless, post-communist studies seem less appealing than those concerned with a virtual Western imperialism, which is in fact rather wished than rejected. It is perhaps more a way of expressing regrets than of criticizing the West for still letting Romania out of the European borderlines.

© Carmen Andras (Targu-Mueres, Rumänien)

TRANSINST       Inhalt / Table of Contents / Contenu: No.14


(1) See Linda Hutcheon, Politica postmodernismului, Bucuresti, Editura Univers, 1997; for the relation between the moral and the political dimensions of the representation, see: Tzvetan Todorov, Noi si ceilalti. Despre diversitate, Iasi, Institutul European, 1999.

(2) See Steven Totosy de Zepetnek (ed.), Comparative Central European Culture, West Lafayette, Purdue University Press, 2002.

(3) For the relationship between interference - marginality - inferiority and the "epistemological multiperspectivism" required by the approach of cultural liminality, see Sorin Alexandrescu, Identitate în ruptura, Bucuresti, Edtura Univers, 2000.

(4) See Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes, Travel writing and Transculturation, New York, Routledge, 1992; idem, Arts of the Contact Zone, in Ways of Reading, New York, Bedford, 1996, pp. 527-542.

(5) The idea of a historical space of conflictual frontier is developed by Catherine Durandin, Istoria românilor, Iasi, Institutul European, 1998, pp. 11-13.

(6) Tzvetan Todorov, Omul dezradacinat, Iasi, Institutul European, 1999, p. 28.

(7) Larry Wolff, Inventing Eastern Europe. The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1994.

(8) For the analysis of balkanism, see: Vesna Goldsworthy, Inventing Ruritania. The Imperialism of the Imagination, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1998; Maria Todorova, Inventing the Balkans, Oxford University Press, 1997.

(9) See Alex Drace-Francis, Sex, Lies and Stereotypes. Romania in British Literature since 1945, in Goerge Cipaianu, Virgil Târau (eds), Romanian and British Historians on the Contemporary History of Romania, Cluj-Napoca, Cluj-Napoca University Press, 2000, pp. 88-109.

(10) It is interesting that when British travellers were on their way from Constantinople back home, their perceptions were often quite contrary: many of them were relieved to find themselves again among European Christian people.

(11) Alan Brownjohn, The Long Shadows, Dewi Lewis Publishers, 1997.

(12) Olivia Manning, Trilogia Balcanica (vol. 1, 2, Marea sansa, Orasul decazut), Bucuresti, Editura Univers, 1996.

(13) Paul Bailey, Kitty and Virgil, London, Fourth Estate, 1998.

For quotation purposes - Zitierempfehlung:
Carmen Andras (Targu-Mueres, Rumänien): Romania and Its Images in British Travel Writing. In-between Peripherality and Cultural Interference. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 14/2002.

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