"From Indomania to Indophobia": Thomas De Quincey's Providential Orientalism

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    Thomas De Quincey’s terrifying oriental nightmares, reported to sensational acclaim in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), have become a touchstone of romantic imperialism in recent studies of the literature of the period (Leask 1991; Barrell 1992 et al). De Quincey’s collocation of “all creatures, birds, beasts, reptiles, all trees and plants, usages and appearances, that are found in all tropical regions” in the hypnagogic hallucinations that characterized what he called “the pains of opium” seems to anticipate neatly Said’s theory of orientalism, whereby the orient was supplied by the west with “a mentality, a genealogy, an atmosphere,” the attitudinal basis as he argues for the continuing march of imperialism from the late eighteenth century. Yet, as Thomas Trautmann (1997) has pointed out, orientalist scholarship based in India and led by the influential Asiatic Society of Bengal in the late eighteenth century was extremely enthusiastic about Indian classical antiquity. The early orientalist scholarship posited ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious links between Europe and India, while recognizing the greater antiquity of Indian civilization. This favourable attitude (which Trautmann calls “Indomania”) was overtaken in the nineteenth century by disavowal of that scholarship and repugnance (which he calls “Indophobia”), influenced by utilitarian and evangelical attitudes to colonialism. De Quincey’s lifespan covers this crucial period of change. My paper examines his evangelical upbringing and interest in biblical and orientalist scholarship to suggest his anxious investment in these modes of thinking. I will suggest that the bizarre orientalist fusions of his dreams can be better understood in the context of changing attitudes to the imperialism during the period. An examination of his work provides a far more dynamic understanding of the processes of orientalism than the binary model suggested by Said. The transformation implied from imperial scholarship to governance, I will suggest, is not irrelevant to a world which continues to pull apart on various grounds of race and ethnicity, and reflects on our own role in the academy today.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationLiterature for Our Times
    Subtitle of host publicationPostcolonial Studies in the Twenty-First Century
    EditorsAshcroft Bill, et al.
    Place of PublicationAmsterdam
    Number of pages12
    ISBN (Electronic)978-94-012-0739-3
    ISBN (Print)978-90-420-3453-2
    Publication statusPublished - 2012

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