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Orientalism in the West and in the East
Literary studies uses the term Orientalism to characterise the Western imitation and depiction ‒ whether fact or fiction ‒ of “exotic” aspects of Middle Eastern cultures.
Orientalism ‒ an intellectual movement in Western literature, art and music ‒ is linked to a fascination with all aspects of the “Orient” as perceived by the West. A body of knowledge about the “Orient” has been collected and systematically studied and argued among scholarly Orientalists since the 18th century, but among those critical of the ideal in the modern period is the Palestinian-American author Edward Said (1935‒2003) whose book Orientalism (1978) unpicked the negative connotations of the term. As a phenomenon, Orientalism can be divided into the romantic and the scholarly: romantic Orientalism can be seen as part of this movement in Europe, which developed as a reaction to 18th-century realism and rationalism; thus, while to European eyes the “Orient” was a world of mystery and sensual pleasures, above all it was a world of unrestrained emotions. By the turn of the 19th century however, when Orientalism had become a scholarly discipline, the cultures labelled “Oriental” were frequently depicted as alien and sometimes inferior.
Théâtre de l'Opéra. 'Aïda.' L'avenue des Sphinx aux portes de Thèbes (2e tableau du 2e acte)

1880

National Library of France, Paris, France

Moller (F.), graveur; Scott (Henry), dessinateur; Lavastre (Jean-Baptiste), dessinateur

Popular interest in the “East” and its ancient history opened the way for many musical productions centred on famous historic personalities where focus was on the romantic, human dimension of history. Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Aïda is one such manifestation.

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