Taylor, "Irish Odalisques and Other Seductive Figures: Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh"
The Containment and Re-Deploymentof English India
Irish Odalisques and Other Seductive Figures:Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh
Susan B. Taylor, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs
This is a piece about the power relations embedded in colonial metaphors. The metaphors I examine connect two distinct but related images of British colonization in the early nineteenth century: one of Ireland as woman and one of the East as woman. These metaphors coincide in Irish writer Thomas Moore's 1817 narrative poem, Lalla Rookh, An Oriental Romance. The Indian setting and orientalist rhetoric that Moore employs in Lalla Rookh form a sort of literary mantle that allows him to articulate concerns about Irish liberation in the guise of an Eastern tale. Yet as the author of this Eastern tale, Moore is in an almost paradoxical position as a citizen of Ireland, a British colony which is geographically Western but culturally viewed as "other", insofar as prejudicial fantasies and fears about the Irish cast them as shifty, emotional people prone to excesses of all sorts. Ironically enough, Moore in turn presents similar fantasies and anxieties about Arab and Indian cultures as he uses Lalla Rookh's allegorical Eastern tales to depict Ireland's subjection to British rule.
Some of the metaphors in Moore's work that I will trace here are familiar ones, based on the depiction of Ireland as a feminine Mother Ireland, Hibernia, or Erin. Similarly, others of Moore's metaphors that I examine come from regions also in the midst of British colonization in the early nineteenth century, including predictable images from various Indian and (then) Persian cultures such as the harem, the veil, and the religious freedom fighter. In Lalla Rookh, these gendered cross-cultural metaphors form complex layers of meaning that at once veil and reveal the dimensions of imperialism in this era. In Moore's narrative poem, cultures are signified by female characters who are seductive, seducible, and ultimately at the mercy of the masculine forces competing for domination over them. Countries and nations are often gendered female; this trend, of course, does not begin with the Irish. Yet Moore's metaphors illustrate the complex interrelations of these figures in the early nineteenth century. That is, Moore's metaphors and images attempt a certain seduction of the reader—they claim to invite the reader to lift the veil covering the stereotyped mysterious East, and simultaneously use the veil to cover Moore's "homefelt" inspiration in writing the tales, his desire for Catholic emancipation. As this essay will reveal, however, as much as Moore uses the veil as metaphor in Lalla Rookh, metaphor also acts as veil in his text.
Lalla Rookh tells the story of Indian princess Lalla Rookh journeying to Kashmir to marry the Prince of Lesser Bukharia. While traveling with her harem Lalla Rookh is joined by an unknown poet, Feramorz, who enchants her with his stories. Lalla Rookh is overjoyed when upon arrival in Kashmir, this poet turns out to be none other than the Prince himself. The narrative of Lalla Rookh's journey is interleaved with Feramorz's four stories, two of which I will focus on here: "The Fire-Worshippers" and "The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan."
The vocabulary of metaphors with which Moore addresses British dominion over Ireland through his "oriental tale" reflects some of the political and social issues following the Act of Union of 1800, including Ireland's liminal position within the British Empire, the continuing struggle for Catholic emancipation, and the dominance of London and England as the publishing mainstream for Irish writers. In this manner, Lalla Rookh's figurations underscore William McCormack's argument that "if metaphor is treated as a form of politics, it goes without saying that the self-contained entity known as Ireland necessarily is reinserted in the complex relations of the romantic age" (74). At the most general level, metaphor can be seen as political because the substitution of one thing for another requires choosing which substitute term can meaningfully replace the original term; for metaphor to work, there must be a connection between the two terms, even when they appear disparate. For Irish writing in the Romantic era, such metaphoric substitutions often explore Ireland's struggle for cultural or national sovereignty. Moore's decision to represent the Irish-Catholic struggle for emancipation from Britain as an armed conflict between the dwindling adherents of the ancient Fire-Worshipping religion and the imperial Moslem army stresses the correspondence he finds between Ireland and the East.
I would like to use, as a catalyst for this analysis of Moore's narrative poem, an admittedly anachronistic image from contemporary Irish artist Micheal Farrell's 1977 painting, Madonna Irlanda, or "The Very First Real Irish Political Picture" (see plate 1). Cheryl Herr's essay, "The Erotics of Irishness," uses Farrell's work to examine imagery of the body in Irish art from the present back to ancient Irish burial mounds; the central themes of Farrell's painting, as brought out by Herr, are apt for my analysis of Moore. I am particularly interested in Farrell's incorporation of François Boucher's 1752 painting, Blonde Odalisque (see plate 2), into his own Madonna Irlanda. Boucher's Blonde Odalisque features a nude young woman sprawled gracefully on a low sofa and looking playfully away from the viewer; some tasseled pillows and a low table with a vaguely Persian brûle-parfum contribute to the Eastern odalisque reference in Boucher's title. Herr notes that the story behind Boucher's female model is part of Farrell's decision to cite and transform Boucher's figure:
An Irish artist would likely be drawn to the [Blonde] Odalisque because of the story that Boucher used for his model a fourteen-year-old Irish courtesan, "Mademoiselle O'Murphy," of whom Casanova speaks approvingly in his memoirs and who was briefly the paramour of Louis XV. Farrell provides his own discursive analysis of the Miss O'Murphy phenomenon; he uses the pictures to "'make every possible statement on the Irish situation, religious, cultural, political, the cruelty, the horror, every aspect of it.'" Why Mother Ireland? he was asked. "'Because she is a whore.'" (11)
Madonna Irlanda thus ironically places Boucher's nude reclining figure at its center, and surrounds her with icons stolen and altered from other artworks, such as Leonardo's Vitruvian Man. In part, Farrell's transformation of Blonde Odalisque makes visible the gazes that the nude Mademoiselle O'Murphy draws to her. As Herr notes, the artist's own gaze is represented by several elements in Farrell's painting, such as Farrell's own face looking down on Miss O'Murphy from the upper right corner, and a frog (the French Boucher) ogling her from the lower right corner. Madonna Irlanda suggests that the artists' voyeurism mirrors that of the viewer as well, since the viewer is positioned in similar ways to the staring artist figures. Farrell's work also suggests that the politics of this voyeurism are linked to the national and cross-cultural politics of the painting's subject; that is, according to Madonna Irlanda, it is appropriate that a young Irish woman pose as Boucher's odalisque because the Irish have allowed themselves to become Europe's political and cultural concubine.
Farrell's use of the odalisque as a symbol for the Irish condition completes the trajectory introduced by Boucher's orientalist paintings and Moore's appropriations of Eastern religious conflicts and settings to represent Ireland. Like Moore, Farrell symbolizes his besieged nation with a woman, although Farrell is much more critical of the woman-nation than Moore. What is particularly significant about Moore's and Farrell's figurations is that a female nation is cloaked in another culture to highlight her exploitation, and at least in Farrell's case, to embody the nation's (and the artists complicity in her exploitation: Mother Ireland is a "whore". Moore's narrative poem uses female characters as metaphors for their cultures' feminine positions in international politics; like brides, if not concubines within traditional patriarchy, they represent exchanges of power arranged by men.
A further ironic implication of Farrell's, Boucher's, and Moore's use of the imagery of the odalisque is that the signification of "odalisque" as concubine is itself a projection of the European mind, since its original Turkish meaning is simply that of "'woman of the room [oda],' implying a general servant status" (Croutier 30-32). Some odalisques were trained to be concubines, but the predominant European meaning of "whore," which came to prevail especially in visual representations, only allows for a part of the Turkish definition. The odalisque's transformation by European culture emphasizes the doubled colonization of the feminine, culturally and sexually; or, as Ali Behdad suggests of French literature, it presents the "Orient not only as an exotic but an 'erotic' other" (109). Mademoiselle O'Murphy's supine body in turn represents a tripled colonization consisting of European appropriation (and creation) of Eastern images, her own nation's colonization, and her position in these patriarchal structures as a woman.
Moore's and Boucher's images of women demonstrate the artifice underlying orientalism, for they supply their Western readers and viewers with cues from the stock of supposedly Eastern images available to eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century writers or painters. Moore's detailed descriptions of Lalla Rookh's surroundings outdo Boucher's simple suggestions of the East, however; Moore relies upon an "excess" of Eastern details and proudly explains in his preface to Lalla Rookh that readers who had been in the East found his verisimilitude astonishing. Moore's critics, on the other hand, found his excessive details simply excessive. Francis Jeffrey, among others, notes the sheer volume of foreign imagery Moore uses:
There is not a simile or description, a name, a trait of history, or allusion of romance which belongs to European experience; or does not indicate an entire familiarity with the life, nature, and learning of the East. Nor are these barbaric ornaments thinly scattered to make up a show. They are showered lavishly over all the work; and form, perhaps too much, the staple of the poetry—and the riches of that which is chiefly distinguished for its richness. (1-2)
Similarly, The Monthly Review remarks in 1817 that Moore's "similes" and "illustrations" are carefully specific to his Eastern setting, and quotes from Moore's footnotes to Lalla Rookh in order to demonstrate the extent of Moore's "oriental research" (178, 188). However, the reviewer vividly criticizes the overabundance and excess of Moore's images:
...we are so clogged and lost in sweets that we fancy ourselves imprisoned in a kind of Confectioner's shop; or a bazaar [...] so that we struggle from bottles of Eau de Cologne, and boxes of musk, into beds of the rose and the ranunculus, only to be finally relieved by pots of raspberry jam, unmitigated by a morsel of biscuit! (198)
Although humorously worded, this comment on Moore's excesses indicates that representing the East to nineteenth-century Western readers and viewers requires a balance between exoticism and subtlety. Moore's Eastern imagery itself is not questioned, but rather that he includes so much of it that it overwhelms the reader. The theme of excess emphasized by this critic surfaces frequently in stereotypical critiques of the Irish and of the East and Easterners; the fear of excess suggests that the colonizing cultures dread an abundance that threatens to escape confinement at the same time that they use such accusations of excess to justify colonization.
Thus Moore's and Boucher's use of predictable Eastern imagery and metaphors illustrates another important element connecting the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century vogue for Eastern things to the situation of the colonized Irish: the colonizer's anxiety about control over the colonized. Indeed, Malek Alloula describes a similar reliance on stock imagery and the role of visual representations in colonial anxiety about controlling the colonized in his analysis of later French colonizers' stereotyping photo-postcards of native Algerians. Alloula argues from a Foucauldian vantage point that
Colonialism is, among other things, the perfect expression of the violence of the gaze, and not only in the metaphoric sense of the term. Colonialism imposes upon the colonized society the everpresence and omnipotence of a gaze to which everything must be transparent. The exercise of power, especially when the latter is arbitrary, cannot permit the maintenance of shadowy zones; it considers them equivalent to resistance.... Only the colonizer looks, and looks at himself looking. (emphasis Alloula) (131)
The colonizer's drive to gain visual access to (and thus power over) all elements of colonial society is illustrated in the preoccupation with veils and harems. For the colonizer, veils and harems serve as metaphors (and manifestations) of cultural autonomy and secrecy, in addition to being symbols of supposed licentiousness and sensuality. Where the veil is missing, as in Boucher's rendition of the Blonde Odalisque, the gaze is still omnipresent; Farrell's self-portrait in the corner of Madonna Irlanda seems to acknowledge the colonizer's gaze as his canvas mockingly reproduces it and shows not only the power but also the inherent voyeurism to which the colonized (represented by Mlle. O'Murphy) are subject.
In Lalla Rookh, the gaze is important insofar as it is intercepted by the veil; for Moore, the veil which blocks the gaze implies both seduction and danger. In other words, the veil visibly manifests the gaze insofar as it shows the limits of the gaze's access. The violence of the gaze that Alloula notes is part of the control the colonizer believes would be possible if the assumed mystery hidden from the gaze was revealed, and its shadowy zones illuminated. What the colonizer's gaze ultimately reveals, of course, is the colonizers themselves, not some truth or definitive insight about the colonized culture.
The circularity of the colonizer's gaze—"only the colonizer looks and looks at himself looking"—is exemplified by the perceived excess of Moore's presentations of the East. Moore looks at himself looking and is thrilled by the sight and the accuracy he believes he sees. Moore's exaggerated renditons illustrate the same principle that Boucher's understatement does: for the Western reader/viewer, Mademoiselle O'Murphy is an odalisque in Boucher's painting because she rests in what is believed to be an odalisque's pose and because the painting names her as such. Similarly, Moore's settings appear Eastern because he supplies them with Eastern props. Orientalism and colonialism are thus tautological in this respect: for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europeans, something becomes oriental because they label it oriental.
The tautology of the colonizers' representations of colonized cultures is also evident in the inherently superficial nature of such renditions. Underlying these eighteenth- and nineteenth-century visual images of the East's exoticism is the impulse to preserve the reassuring sameness found in any representation of difference. If that which is believed exotic by the colonizer was truly exotic and utterly different, it would unsettle the colonizer's fantasy of control and make the colonizer aware of the possibility of colonial resistance. In his analysis of the Algerian postcards, Alloula points out that if "real" Algerian women (instead of models hired to pose as real Algerians) were to arrive at the photographer's studio, the fantasy would be destroyed because the colonial photographer's illusion of control over his subjects would be altered by those who were not models. Similarly, Boucher's model for an odalisque is not an actual Circassian, Georgian, or Abkhasian woman (as an odalisque in Turkey likely would have been) (Croutier 30); instead she is from Ireland, a not quite as foreign European colony, and the fantasy is safely controlled.
Moore also recognizes the crucial superficiality of the foreign imagery in Lalla Rookh; he articulates his concern over Byron's "invasion of this region" of the oriental poem in a letter to Mary Godfrey four years before he published Lalla Rookh,
Never was anything more unlucky for me than Byron's invasion of this region, which when I entered it was as yet untrodden, and whose chief charm consisted of the gloss and novelty of its features; but it will now be overrun with clumsy adventurers and when I make my appearance, instead of being a leader as I looked to be, I must dwindle into an humble follower—a Byronian. (Letters 1: 275)
Moore's concern with his appearance (the sight of himself looking) is articulated in this letter as he mixes images of geographic conquest with the sexual conquest of feminized regions in metaphors that Lalla Rookh will take up as well. In this figurative schema, Moore considers himself among the first to have "entered" the then "as yet untrodden" space of the oriental narrative, which despite the apparent three-dimensional depth implied by entering a region, is largely attractive or "charming" in the surface "gloss and novelty of its features." For Moore, the oriental tale's attractiveness comes from its superficial luster and its newness: once the outer layer is dulled (by the reading public's growing jaded about Eastern tales) Moore fears it will lose its attractiveness and marketability. Perhaps he fears that the constructedness of these Eastern representations will show through once the glossy surface has worn off. To compensate, Moore covers the surfaces of his poem with details, to create the illusion of a depth that is impossible by definition in orientalism. Orientalist representations rely on this substitution of gloss and appearance for frustrated depth, in the face of the cultural and physical veils that hide the "real" other from them. In fact, Moore by definition lacks originality in the way he fears, despite or because of his "over the top" attention to detail.
The gaze, its superficiality, and its frustrations are illustrated by the veiled figures of Moore's tale and the metaphoric depth they attempt to supply. Lalla Rookh features several veiled figures: most are beautiful maidens—a common character type in European oriental tales—but one is a deranged charismatic male prophet, a more unusual character who uses a long silver veil to hide his disfigured countenance. Together these figures represent the duplicity of veiling as seen by orientalism: that is, veils suggest the exotic, seductive, so-called "other" woman, while at the same time, serve as a locus for the orientalist's fear of the other, the fear that beneath the veil may lurk unpredictable and dangerous elements. In this manner, the veiled figures in Moore's tales illuminate another dimension of the voyeurism found in Boucher's and Farrell's work.
In Moore's work, the dichotomy of the orientalist veil echoes traditional figurations of the Irish nation as a woman (on the part of the Irish as well as the English) and the tradition of the Irish mantle or cloak (as feared and outlawed by the English colonizers). The veil functions in both of these cases as an embodiment of the orientalist's desire for control; the colonizer longs to reach behind the veil and either possess the woman or expose the potential danger. In this respect, the orientalist's drive for knowledge coincides with the colonizer's quest to eliminate hidden sources of subversive power. Because the veil conceals and thus frustrates the gaze, it has a special fascination for colonizing cultures and orientalists. In reading the veils in Moore's Lalla Rookh, what we ultimately see is Europe's gaze itself, represented by the particular lens of the Irish Moore.
A central element of Lalla Rookh is the allegory Moore draws between the Fire-Worshippers in Iran and the Catholics in Ireland. Moore supported Catholic emancipation throughout his life, but took a cautious and often indirect approach to Catholic emancipation—another form of Irish veiling. As Tom Dunne notes:
A tradition of masking resentment by a deferential rhetoric had marked Irish Catholic politics since the 1750s, and had contributed to the process of dismantling the Penal Laws from which Moore benefited. The Catholic mask would have been assumed automatically by him on his entry into Trinity College, 'among the first of the helots of the land' to go there. (86)
Dunne focuses his discussion of Moore primarily on the Irish Melodies, and suggests that in them he "developed a new literary mask, that of the Romantic lyric mode" which disguised his political desires (87). While Lalla Rookh's orientalism veils this political allegory in much of the narrative poem, in the Preface to Lalla Rookh Moore states overtly that the tales in his narrative come from "that most homefelt of all my inspirations"—incidents in the British oppression of the Irish. His use of orientalism as a literary veil to cover his underlying metaphoric meanings reflects a long tradition of Irish masking that served many purposes—to disguise or hide Catholic religious practices when those were banned, to push for political and religious freedom or avenge wrongs through secret societies, and to obscure one's true motives and feelings from the colonizers.
Hinda, the veiled woman in Lalla Rookh's subtale "The Fire Worshippers", presents one version of Moore's political allegories in her role as a stereotypical Eastern woman. Lalla Rookh's female characters play roles one might expect of a veiled woman in the European oriental tale, as they represent undiscovered lands and embody the power struggle over these regions. Hinda is caught between her imperial Moslem father and her Fire-Worshipping (native outlaw) lover. Until Hinda meets her lover, she has literally been kept hidden from view in her father's tower; her lover's first glimpse of her is described in metaphors that compare lifting her veil to an explorer coming upon a "fairy shore" and discovering a new land. This recalls Moore's metaphor of the oriental tale's discovery and the fate of "adventurers" who arrive too long after the genre's great unveiling by Byron. In the character of Hinda, colonization and seduction become intertwined as she metamorphoses in similes comparing her to land. As the narrator observes,
So Hinda, have thy face and mind,
Like holy mysteries, lain enshrined.
And, O, what transport for a lover
To lift the veil that shades them o'er!-
Like those who, all at once, discover
In the lone deep some fairy shore,
Where mortal never trod before,
And sleep and wake in scented airs
No lip had ever breathed but theirs. (130)
This passage enacts the colonizer's fantasy of actually being able to see what lies beneath the veil. The central simile compares Hinda's veiled face to a "fairy shore" untrodden by mortals; to lift her veil is to take the first step upon the shore. Both actions figure the woman and the land as a passive though potential odalisque and give the lover the active role of an explorer. The subjectivity of the woman is ignored—it does not matter that Hinda has seen her own face many times before, or knows the mysteries of her own mind, or sleeps and wakes in her own scented airs. In Moore's orientalism, the gaze is necessary to constitute Hinda, in the same way the colonizing explorer is needed to grant a region existence and a place on a map. Similarly, women of different countries are described in the "Haram" as the fractured "half-shut glances of Kathay" or the "gold ringlets of the Western Isles" (Moore 28-29). In these descriptions, the harem women are important insofar as certain details in their appearances convey the power exerted over specific geographic regions in the ruler's empire.
While this passage tries to present a seductive image of undiscovered female territory, it also leaves some lingering questions. The passage presumes that the first sight of Hinda unveiled will lead to her lover's transport. Yet it ignores the possibility that Hinda's veiled holy mysteries might actually be grotesque like those of the Veiled Prophet, to whom I will turn later. And why does the veil cover her mind as well as her face? Does she need the agent of sight to activate her personality as well as her appearance? What does the unreality of the fairy shore indicate about colonial conquest? In part, these deliberately exotic and fantastic metaphors obscure the material effects of exploration and conquest and make manifest the superficial soft-focus of the text's gaze. But if we trace the analogy Moore develops linking the Fire-Worshippers to the Irish Catholics, and the Moslems to the British conquerors, then some of the curious implications of Moore's representation of Ireland as an Eastern nation and an Eastern woman emerge. In other words, Moore presents the Catholic struggle for emancipation as what he terms the source of his Eastern tales' inspiration. However, his poem contains a number of contradictions if we follow this allegory to its limits. One contradiction is illustrated in the passage quoted above: Moore presents Hinda's figurative colonization by her lover in the midst of a story that is meant to demonstrate Ireland's need for emancipation from her colonizers. This presentation illustrates the contradictions inherent in imperialism, as follows.
According to Moore's analogy, Hinda (embodying Iran) is like Ireland, caught between two factions of a civil war in which she is linked to both the imperial conquerors and the native people. Hinda/Iran, like Erin/Ireland, is in a complicated position; there are no unencumbered decisions for her to make. Indeed, she must choose between disloyalty to her Moslem father if she goes with her Fire-Worshipper lover, or betrayal of her lover if she stays with her father. The overt allegorical meaning the reader is meant to draw is that the Catholics (Fire-Worshippers) and Ireland (Hinda) are doomed as long as the British (Moslem conquerors) are in power. But there are other implications that illustrate the ways the allegory Moore initially presents fails to stay in control. One such contradiction is that Hinda's final choice to side with her doomed Fire-Worshipper lover could also suggest that if Ireland sides with the Catholics then all are doomed, for Hinda dies upon learning of her lover's death. This bleak representation of the fate of Irish Catholics and Ireland is difficult to reconcile with the straightforward allegory Moore initially presents with such enthusiasm.
Lalla Rookh's images identifying women such as Hinda metaphorically with specific geographic or national regions resonate with figurations of Ireland as a woman, such as Farrell's description of Mother Ireland as a whore. Hinda in Lalla Rookh represents another feminized version—the young woman on the verge of choosing a masculine mate (Catholic freedom fighter) but thwarted by her father (British colonizer). Other feminine identities for Ireland featured different connotations: "Ireland in turns was presented as an old woman, Granu or the Shan van Vocht, summoning her sons to protect and defend her homestead, or as Hibernia, the graceful, dignified Roman matron whose honour and reputation needed to be asserted by her gallant admirers" (Curtin 136).
This parallel between the feminine Ireland and the problematic East is interesting because it places Moore in the same position he places his characters, and because it conflates anti-feminism with the move against the colonized. However, while images of Ireland as Hibernia or Erin may stir compassion and loyalty, they also risk reinforcing prejudiced views of the Irish people as weak, effeminate, shifty, and unreliable. The image of Ireland as woman risks becoming the stereotype that all Irish people share women's purported faults as outlined by patriarchy.
Moore's strategy of verbal masking in Lalla Rookh mirrors elements of physically veiled Irish resistance figured by the traditional Irish mantle and glib, the large hooded Irish cloak and the long forelock of hair. The early English colonizers view the glib and mantle as disguises synonymous with Irish shiftiness and deception, qualities that the colonizers fear could transform into resistance and revolution. The English also link political resistance to Ireland's different moral code especially since women as well as men wore the mantle (Foster 27). In one of the best-known early examples of English anxiety about the mantle, Edmund Spenser writes in A View of the Present State of Ireland that the mantle is handy for Irishwomen, for following her "lewd exercise, when she hath filled her vessel, under it she can hide both her burden and her blame" (qtd. in Jones and Stallybrass, 166). The Irish mantle visually manifests, as Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass term it, "Irishness as the refusal to adopt English order, English social categories, English style" (166).
However, for the Irish, mantles and veils may carry additional meanings, as Margaret MacCurtain explains,
The Irish literary imagination has, over centuries, stored certain images of women which [. . .] resonate at many levels of Irish nationalism [. . .]. W. B. Yeats evoked her as the cailleach, one of the stock figures of early Irish literature, whose age conceals her immortality. [. . .] Caille, denoting a veil, made its way into primitive Irish no later than the fifth century. It is not clear how it became assimilated into the word cailleach which from then onwards signified a 'nun' in the growing Christian society, while retaining in secular mythology its original meaning of 'old hag', and carrying with it overtones of the sacred. (MacCurtain, "The Historical Image," 37)
The powers of the cailleach are specifically associated with veiling, through the sacred elements of her power as nun or hag, and through her disguised immortality—age acts like a veil to obscure her true nature. In this manner, for the Irish the hidden powers and connotations of veiled women reinforce the idea that the English cannot completely control the Irish through colonization, that there will always be hidden elements of Irish culture that elude English control.
Significantly, the representation of Ireland as femininely deceptive and unreliable also shares the vocabulary that criticizes the East, Easterners, and even the writers of oriental tales as similarly superficially seductive and charming (as evidenced in reviews of Moore's poem). Indeed, concern about the East's seductiveness shapes a belief that Moore may stray from his path of "improvement" (after his early career writing risqué verse as Thomas Little). The reviewer for the North American Review writes that
it is a little unfortunate that, just as [Moore] had set about improvement, he should have made the East his poetical home, where his old relish for unwedded love, and never ending conceits and brilliancy, may be regaled more than ever, and where the poet himself, in the guise of an Eastern minstrel, is tempted, and with less hazard, to repeat his earlier transgressions. (8)
These criticisms betray a fear that the irresistible surface charms of the East (and the Irish Moore) may in fact hide dangerous, transgressive moralities beneath a brilliant guise.
Descriptions like these of the Irish reveal an anxiety that comes from the long tradition of Irish deception and the terrorism that had been employed by both colonizer and colonized for years in Ireland. As Jerome Christensen points out, political resistance is feminized in the nineteenth-century by those who wanted to quash it:
in the nineteenth century, political courage, no matter how necessary and successful, will be identified as a kind of hysteria. The inverse inference, that hysteria is a form of political resistance—a dominant theme of contemporary feminist criticism—is not yet conceivable. (595)
The potentially revolutionary hysteria (of which the British believed the Irish to be capable) is feared as the obverse of the supposedly deceptively charming and unmanly Irish.
Irish political resistance against the British becomes associated by the Romantic era with terrorism and revolution, forms of resistance that had been quite successful in revolutionary France and which were in danger of spreading contagiously to Ireland. The opposition to British rule that Moore cautiously expresses through the metaphors of Lalla Rookh is part of the continuum of Irish resistance to colonization in this era, as well as an example of British orientalism in this era. That is, while Moore's orientalism can be read as a sign of Irish resistance that mantles his message of support for Catholic emancipation, his work also participates in many characteristics of the English oriental tale. Moore's orientalism almost paradoxically reinforces the colonizer's structure, and leads to the question of what is compromised by using orientalism to call attention to colonialism. Another tale within Lalla Rookh, "The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan," illustrates these issues well.
Moore does not specifically label the tale of "The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan" as an allegory (as he does the tale of the "Fire Worshippers") yet the analogy to the British colonization of Ireland can still be drawn. However, this tale complicates any understanding of Lalla Rookh as a "simple" metaphoric depiction of the conflict in Ireland in Eastern terms. Most problematically, the leader of the rebellion against the imperial Moslem army in the Veiled Prophet's tale turns out to be an evil religious fanatic whose veil disguises deformity and madness.
As Moore's narrative develops, his metaphors fall apart. From the start, the Veiled Prophet is associated with what was seen by Moore's reviewers as the typically licentious harem of the East. The tale initially focuses on the plight of Zelica, a maiden who joins the Veiled Prophet's harem after learning that her lover has been killed in battle. The Veiled Prophet promises his female followers that they will be rewarded for serving him by becoming the brides of heroic soldiers in heaven, and Zelica, insane with grief, thereby hopes to be reunited with her lover. Additionally, from the start of the tale, the Veiled Prophet is also associated with armed rebellion: he is waging a religious war on the Moslem Caliph who imperialistically hopes to conquer the city. The Veiled Prophet draws his soldiers from those who are "fir'd by zeal, or by oppression wrong'd"; in the story's Moslem framework, these include Uzbeks, Hindus, and Fire Worshippers among others (76). His own power stems from his claim to be a religious prophet marked by heaven with a mystical "angel brow" from which he "Shall cast the Veil that hides its splendors now, / And gladden'd Earth shall, through her wide expanse / Bask in the glories of this countenance" (32). The mysterious countenance hidden by the Prophet's veil seduces his followers into zealous obedience after he promises them a glimpse of his brow if they are victorious in battle; they are "Ready to risk their eyes, could they but gaze / A moment on that brow's miraculous blaze!" (33). Initially, the Prophet's motivations for fighting the Moslems appear to be founded on this well-intentioned, if unusual, religious belief.
If we apply the allegory Moore suggests elsewhere to this tale, then the Veiled Prophet and his followers represent the Irish Catholics, and the Moslem Caliph and his army stand for the British. The Prophet's veil and the religious devotion it inspires then seem to function like the Irish mantle, especially as interpreted by the English. Reading the veiled Prophet and his followers as figures for the religious rebellion of Catholics in Ireland first is problematized, however, by the Prophet's harem. The Prophet's immorality presents a complication for reading him as a representative of Catholic opposition: he is a seducer as well as a political and religious leader. The Prophet populates his harem through his "mission, which around / The Eastern world, in every region blest / With woman's smile, sought out its loveliest / To grace that galaxy of lips and eyes" (35). The plethora of seductions committed by the Prophet's "missionary" activity, as represented by the women's fragmented lips and eyes, corroborate a Western fantasy of the profligate harem.
The Prophet's fanaticism is a second potentially problematic area. He requires a blind devotion to the image of his hidden brow, and this blind devotion plays into possible Protestant fears about the fanaticism of "popery" and of what might lurk beneath the Irish mantle. Also problematic, if Catholics are represented by the forces opposing imperialism, then they are equated with a fanatic who secretly hopes to be the "rallying sign of fraud and anarchy" after his death (91). This parallel might serve as a warning of the measures to which the oppressed Catholics may be driven, though it also risks additional conflicting effects, as Brown notes of the "Veiled Prophet's" depictions of imperialism: that "Europe's imperial dreams are justified in these elaborate fantasies—but so is Great Britain's sound government of an Ireland that is prey to fanaticisms and irrationalities of the kind Mokanna represents" (24).
Another British anxiety (or another example of the difficulty of controlling metaphor) that "The Veiled Prophet" may signal is the fear of France joining Ireland against Britain. One reviewer in 1817 compared the Prophet to Richard III and called him a "thorough French Jacobin, in every thing but his white flag" (North American Review 9). The implications of this reviewer's comment are extraordinary, for as a Jacobin, the Prophet would call to mind the attempts by France in the 1790s to invade Ireland at the request of revolutionary United Irishmen in order to overthrow British rule. "The Veiled Prophet"'s (and Lalla Rookh's) orientalism might thus serve British imperialism by confirming ideas about Eastern fanaticism and immorality, and might in turn reinforce similar stereotypes about Ireland through Moore's allegory.
Most problematic, however, is that the veil predominantly comes to signify unreliability in this tale. The Prophet's deceptive claim that his brow is illuminatingly holy indicates that hidden countenances are not entirely trustworthy; beneath his veil lurk "features horribler than Hell e'er trac'd / On its own brood" (90). The veil is at once the Prophet's identifying characteristic and the concealment of his true identity. This recalls the possibility that the veils of other cultures hide evil and not entrancing beauty. It also implies a risk that the veiled figures of harems are unreliable, and that the veil itself is a symbol of potential danger as well as potential pleasure. Similarly to British interpretations of the Irish mantle, the veil in Lalla Rookh symbolizes the possibility of murder, anarchy, or illicit pleasure.
The veil's deceptiveness is most clearly demonstrated in the final scene of the tale when Zelica dons the Prophet's veil, after he has poisoned his followers and killed himself in a vat of acid (which he hopes will dissolve his deformed face and preserve his legend). Zelica takes on the Prophet's identity, disguising herself in order to be killed by the Moslem forces. She logically counts on any one of the Caliph's soldiers assuming that the Prophet himself is beneath the veil. But even the most basic assumption loses reliability in this oriental tale when a veil is involved. Thus, the repentant and largely blameless Zelica appears to be the monstrous Prophet because she takes on his identifying characteristic. Yet in another way the Prophet's veil appropriately represents Zelica's self-condemnation at having succumbed to the Prophet's wiles; in her moral universe, she believes she is monstrous for what she has done. Significantly, this veiling inverts that of Hinda--who is presumed to have a face and mind comparable to a fairy shore; instead, Zelica's putting on of the Prophet's veil embodies her contamination by him, only redeemable through death in the tale's scheme. Her martyrdom is viewed in the poem as her vehicle for gaining heaven (aided by the prayers of her lover).
As "The Veiled Prophet" illustrates, as much as Moore uses the veil as a metaphor to further his allegorical meanings in Lalla Rookh, metaphor also acts as a veil to obscure these meanings. Moore's tale in fact enacts the impossibility of limiting meaning, for as he tries to pinpoint the terms of his allegories they exceed his control. The colonizer might fear this inherent deconstruction as being ultimately the destruction of the colonial enterprise, because colonialism relies on controlling the meanings produced in the colonies (or at least believing that it can). Moore has the impulse of a colonizer (pinpointing meaning) while at the same time shares the experience of the colonized (relying on the very impossibility of pinpointing meaning as part of his resistance).
If Moore's orientalism is a vehicle or disguise with which to express "homefelt" sentiments on religious tolerance, then what is gained and what is lost in such a cloaking? Clearly, what Moore gains is the chance to voice opposition to British rule of Ireland. Another gain Moore may seek (though of ambiguous merit) is the chance to participate in a discourse of colonial power—orientalism—even as Moore is subject to similar discourses himself as a Catholic in Ireland. But what is lost is the specificity and complexity of the Irish situation. As the Veiled Prophet's tale suggests, the narrative's ability to signal the need for Catholic emancipation gets occluded or obscured by the very mask which is to be its vehicle. One result is that the political parallels to Ireland become easy to dismiss or ignore. Another result is the possibility that other characters and conflicts in the poem will be read allegorically, as representations of Ireland's situation, with mixed results for the Irish cause, as in the Veiled Prophet's tale. Moore's political metaphors fail in a certain sense, because the correspondence of tenor and vehicle in the metaphor bursts beyond the bounds of a one-to-one correspondence. His allegories contradict themselves.
This self-deconstruction of Moore's allegories takes an astonishing turn. In what might be a reconstructive gesture, the British feminization of the Irish is countered in part by the concurrent Irish masculinization of Lalla Rookh. As Moore writes in a letter to Andrew Doyle in 1846, "We Irishmen are bound in honour to stick by Lalla Rookh, if not for her poet's sake at least for the affinity to her claimed by our countryman who insists that the true way of writing her name is Larry Rourke" (Letters, 2: 885-886). With this comment, Lalla Rookh is simultaneously claimed as a symbol of Ireland and transformed from an "oriental" woman to an Irish man. The gender shift is accompanied by a cultural shift, in which the "true" meaning becomes Western and masculine instead of Eastern and feminine.
The rhetoric and orientalism of Lalla Rookh form a sort of literary mantle for Moore, allowing him to articulate concerns about Irish liberation in the disguise of an Eastern tale. Yet the veils in Lalla Rookh reflect Moore's own orientalist gaze as well as that of the English colonizers. Moore's Janus-like doubled view seems to reinforce not only the orientalists' views of the East but also the British views of Ireland. There is a certain symmetry in the way Boucher's Mademoiselle O'Murphy becomes an odalisque and Lalla Rookh becomes Larry Rourke. Both of these transformations speak to the politics of metaphor—the implications that there is some term in common between the Irish experience and the cultures of the East. Where does this insistence, that the "true way" of writing Lalla Rookh's name is the masculine Larry Rourke, leave the feminine however? Much like her namesake in the narrative poem, the poem itself is seen to exist only in relation to one or another masculine force. Forced to capitulate to one or another of the masculine sides, the feminine in these narratives perishes, is married, or in the case of Lalla Rookh itself, is transformed into her masculine twin. Whether Lalla Rookh, Larry Rourke, the Madonna Irlanda, or Mademoiselle O'Murphy, the Irish odalisque is no paradox or oxymoron. As Farrell's self-portrait in the corner of his painting demonstrates, orientalism's use of difference is always interested, always implicated. Defined as whore, recovered as bride, rewritten as a man, she leaves no doubt as to who's naming whom, or at least attempting to.
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