I Dream of Djinni: Orientalist Manias in Western Lands, Part OneKathryn S.
Part 1 of 2 (Part 2 here)
Called The Eunuch’s Dream and finished during the imperial golden age, the French painting displayed here is one of the most evocative examples of “Orientalism” that I’ve ever seen. It is a romantic image ripped from the pages of Scheherazade’s Arabian stories that captivated nineteenth-century Westerners with their intoxicating blend of violence, beauty, and strangeness: the erotic-exotic genre.
The fact that the person pictured is a eunuch means that at some point he was a captive and/or slave of a wealthy Arab or Turkish prince. His features place him in the racial group once called “Mongoloid,” perhaps from the steppes of Tibet, or the highlands of Nepal. Evidence of Eastern richness surrounds him: carpets and patterned pillows beneath his sprawled form create a sense of leisure. His clothing is fine, well-fitted, and shows no signs of wear. Next to him stands a carafe of tea or coffee placed on a decorative end table, along with a bowl of ripe fruit. Some type of instrument leans against the stone behind him, halfway between sitar and scimitar. Nearby, a palace-complex gleams by the light of the desert Moon.
He himself lies on a rooftop, face upturned toward a cloudless night sky. Like one of his tasseled carpet-rugs, an open view of the city unfurls around him from horizon to horizon. And yet, we know that this image is about being trapped — trapped inside a maimed body; trapped in a city far from his homeland; trapped by the false escape of a drug that compounds his impotence. He is supine, high on the hash (or on opium), and literally castrated — unable to act on his desires. The knife held erect by the child represents both the flesh removed and the tool once used to remove it. The woman curls up and away from his pipe like a smoke-djinni, dangling before him a wish that she does not grant him, even in his dreams. We feel pity and, if we’re being honest, slight contempt for this doped-up figure. Even were he not a slave, what man would see him as an equal? What woman would see him as a man? He is the end result of a decadent culture. The painting is a mirror.
This essay is about three interrelated things: the rise of fashion and devaluing of European culture by way of Orientalism and the manias it has spawned. What do I mean by “Orientalism”? In the mid-twentieth century, an anti-imperialist academic named Edward Said coined the term. His ideas can be summed up as a literary and cultural argument that since the Enlightenment, Europeans studying the Middle Eastern and Asian world (known as “Orientalists”) imposed on these places an image of Eastern “Otherness.” It was an image that was seductive, exotic, ancient, effeminate, mystical, romantic, despotic, and at times gloriously colorful. His work was influential in the academy, and he was one of the most important founders of “post-colonialism” (a field characterized by bellyaching over Western empires and their “racist” architects).
But my Orientalism is one for White Nationalists. It is not a rhetorical weapon for colored nationalists, as Said intended. Indeed, he missed a crucial — perhaps the crucial — point. By “constructing” the Eastern “Other,” Europeans assigned/imagined the Orient as the location and originator of culture. At the same time, they imagined their own Western societies as lacking culture. Because of empire, industrial-capitalism, and the concomitant rise of professional anthropology, “culture” became something that belonged to non-whites, while “cultivation” belonged to white cosmopolitans who believed this. Said focused on the racism of Europeans, but I will focus on the deracination of those Europeans, as well as their disdain for fellow countrymen who have chosen to keep national and local customs alive.
As our appetite for the East grew, we began to see ourselves as “fake” people and to see the non-white world as “authentic.” We have mistaken passing fashion for reality. Hence, the continual and desperate grasping at Oriental objects, imagery, and spirituality. Westerners who were once secure in their beliefs about the greatness of their race came to see their homelands as cultureless, boring, and not worth preserving. Meanwhile, they came to regard the rest of the world, particularly Asia, as rich in culture and color. Non-white societies had practices worth adopting. They had peoples who would “enrich” Europe by their very presence.
And so, readers, look again at the painting. By smoking the Eastern pipe, we made ourselves into cultural eunuchs and became slaves to fashion, all the while entertaining the idea that we were the Western masters of the Orient. We slept-walked — or dream-walked — into our own dispossession. The following case studies I will share were sometimes humorous and sometimes scary, but all were signs of a sickness rotting away at our civilizational convictions.
NB: It is important for me to note that I am not attacking Indian traditions as they have existed in India, nor Japanese traditions in Japan, etc. These are worthy peoples who, over the millennia, have built impressive societies. Neither do I argue that the East has produced nothing from which the West might learn or value. But inorganic adoption of alien philosophies and aesthetics to cover the nakedness of our spiritual and cultural impoverishment will only create abominations that make hashes of Occident and Orient. Let us not debase ourselves by wearing Eastern drag.
1. Turkish Delights: Dutch Tulipmania
“O noble tulip sweet, o highly prized flower!” — Frontispiece on a seventeenth-century Dutch watercolor album
Cultivation and culture (also cult and colony, for that matter) share the Latin etymology of cultura, meaning to tend, mold, care for, or guard in the literal agricultural sense, and in the figurative intellectual sense. The tulip combines these literal and symbolic meanings, for in the 1600s the possessor of a rare tulip bulb desired to signify to others that he was also a rare and envied species: the cultivated man. Indeed, “knowing about flowers, like knowing about art, was a badge of cultivation, of status, of participation in a world that could afford the expensive and had the cultural capital to be able to talk about it.” In other words, having class meant that one had embraced the fine and exotic items from the Orient. Culture was not something found in local dialects, folkways, or centuries-old traditions, but in the cosmopolitan worship of the foreign.
By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Dutch fascination with Oriental wares was “legion,” to the point of irony. Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, arch-representative of Dutch statecraft and “ostensible sobriety,” patriotic soldier of the beloved William of Orange, and finally a martyr-hero of the young Republic, was a “paragon of Dutchness.” And yet, when an inventory of his large estate was made after his death in 1619 it listed an amazing number of foreign items. These included: a “small box with twelve bezoar stones,” a “[master] bed with Indian hangings and a mantlepiece cloth of the same,” “headboards of Indian wood,” a “piece of figured Indian linen,” a “lacquerware Indian box,” a massive leather trunk containing a “large Indian spread,” “the cap of a tent [a bed canopy?] made from Indian cloth,” an “Indian cloak” among his clothes, “a sack of pepper,” a “painting of a Turk,” porcelain dishes from China, and on it went. Was Oldenbarnevelt a “paragon of Dutchness,” or a fetishist of Orientalism?
Oldenbarnevelt died before the craziest episode of Eastern mania made fools of his countrymen. But as his belongings suggested, the seeds of Tulipmania — nurtured by a dual fashion for collecting exotica and a passion for all things Eastern — had been planted by generations of Dutchmen for nearly a century before the Great Tulip Folly of the 1630s. Much-discussed as a futures market crash, the affair is less discussed as an example of an Orientalist fashion craze that drove Westerners mad. How did one of the most sensible and austere peoples in Europe bankrupt themselves over a flower that usually blooms but one week out of the year?
The source of the trouble began during those unknown and uncountable millennia of pre-history. The tulip originated on the slopes of the Tien Shan Mountains north of the Himalayas, where China, Tibet, Afghanistan, and Russia converge. Out of this wild and rather barren cradle the first tulip flowers turned their faces to the Sun, children of the “unimaginable vastness of central Asia.” It was this inhospitable territory, “thousands of miles long and hundreds wide,” that kept the ancient empires of the West, like Rome and the ancient empires of the East such as China ignorant of one another. But as the centuries passed, the red mountain bulbs crept westward. Even then, lacking the later height, streaked variations of color, and cool elegance of their seventeenth-century descendants, they were lovely. Their striking appearance was the reason why the Ottoman Turks eventually adopted the tulip as their holy flower.
Few people have loved gardening as much as the medieval and early-modern Ottomans. When they sacked Constantinople and made it their seat of government, the victors converted the city into one large mosque and florist shop. The Ottoman Sultan’s Topkapi Palace, known as the “Abode of Bliss,” combined “variety, beauty, and magnificence” into its series of layered courtyards. On every side, indoors and out, “shone and glittered gold and silver, ornaments of precious stones and pearls . . .” Its inner gardens were a passion of Mehmed II and strictly off-limits to outsiders.
In many Eastern cultures, the gaze had particular power. There were prohibited (and therefore intensely desired) objects in abundance. Outsiders could not gain the scarcest peek inside China’s fabulous Forbidden City; the Japanese created hauntingly beautiful, intimate, and cloistered gardens of velvet moss; and the Sultan or Rajah disallowed entrance to certain rooms of his palaces and hid his harem of wives from the pollution of another man’s sight. To gaze on that which was forbidden was tantamount to spoiling a meal laid out for someone else’s enjoyment. Now we understand the meaning of the phrase “feasting the eyes upon,” how visual pleasure becomes consumption. Westerners imagined themselves as voyeurs and became intoxicated, obsessed with possessing the objects of the Orient for the simple pleasure of gazing at them.
As if quoting from Genesis, one chronicler described the hidden Topkapi grounds as a paradise of
very vast and very beautiful gardens, in which grew every imaginable kind of plants and fruits; where water, fresh, clear, and drinkable, flowed in [from] every side, and flocks of birds, of both the edible and singing variety, chattered and warbled.
Mehmed himself was known to labor in these gardens as a cultivator of unique specimens, but hand-in-hand with exceptional loveliness walked exceptional cruelty. One morning, the Sultan discovered that his cucumbers had vanished. He ordered all of his royal gardeners lined up and disemboweled before him, so that he might discover within their entrails the thief who had eaten his vegetables. Other men who disappointed him, or were caught sneaking past the Topkapi’s boundaries, suffered swift punishment. If he felt merciful, the Sultan might have arranged an ordeal for such criminals. His chief gardener (the bostanci-basha) was also the chief executioner, and he performed a lead role in the ensuing contest. The condemned man would run a race against the bostanci-basha. If he ran the half-mile through the gardens and arrived before the executioner did at the Fish-House Gate, located near the southern limit of the Palace, the man kept his head, and the Sultan commuted his sentence to exile.
It wasn’t until Suleiman the Great’s sixteenth-century reign that the Ottomans began to cultivate the tulip in earnest. Once they did, he and his subjects fell completely under the flower’s spell. Royal officials had them engraved on armor and embroidered on clothing. Gardeners began to breed new and fantastic varieties. In an age when these things were dimly understood, plant breeders would pour dark red wines over tulip beds in order to coax the growth of crimson-colored bulbs from the soil. Tulips could confound even experienced Ottoman gardeners. One year they might blossom into a red as pure as the freshly-spilled blood of an infidel; the next, they might sprout blooms that were streaked and multicolored.
The hardy flower of the central Asian steppes had become the fussy and inconsistent “Istanbul Tulip.” “Istanbul Tulips” were more delicate and far and away more elegant than their Tien Shan ancestors. Their petals were long and slender, sharpened to dagger-like points. The most sought-after tulips tapered into a sensuous, almond-shaped silhouette with russet or vermillion-colored fronds. Ottoman agriculturalists called their different hybrids names such as “The Matchless Pearl,” “Increaser of Pleasure,” and “Rose of the Dawn.”
Many European ambassadors felt like rustic field-hands when visiting the Turkish court. There was no man more cultivated — more cultured — than the Ottoman Sultan; there was none more cruel, none more arbitrary. This mix of beauty and brutality would time and again repel, as it lured the West — and one of the principal allurements was the fickle tulip. It is unclear how or exactly when the tulip arrived in Europe, but legend has it that the blame rested with Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq, the Flemish envoy of the Holy Roman Emperor. In a journal entry dated September 1, 1555, Busbecq narrated his journey from Adrianople to Istanbul:
As we passed through this district we everywhere came across quantities of flowers — narcissi, hyacinths, and tulipans as the Turks call them. We were surprised to find them flowering in mid-winter, scarcely a favorable season.
Though the tulip “has little or no scent . . . it is admired for its beauty and the variety of its colors. The Turks are very fond of flowers, and . . . they do not hesitate to pay several aspres for a fine blossom,” he marveled. His hosts turned out to be aggressive flower-pushers. These tulips, “although they were gifts, cost me a good deal; for I had always to pay several aspres in return for them.” It seems that the Turks did not quite grasp the meaning of the word “gift.” Or if they did, they knew their backfooted European visitors would always submit with an open purse.
In contrast to the Ottomans, during the Medieval period Westerners tended gardens for mostly practical reasons: to eat or to make medicines of their plants. Common flowers found in nature (lilies, roses, carnations, violets, cowslips, etc.), and that once adorned the pages of illuminated manuscripts, faded into the background with the arrival of the “more exciting, and frequently larger, exotica from Turkey, Asia Minor, Africa, America, and the East Indies.” From the 1550s on, northwestern Europeans were introduced not only to the tulip, but also the hyacinth, the anemone, the crocus, the crown imperial, the iris, the narcissus, the ranunculus, and the fritillary. At the same time, Europeans like Oldenbarnevelt began collecting all manner of exotica in hopes of exciting admiration from colleagues and neighbors. They favored things from foreign lands — the freakish, and odd. A famous example was the coveted “Bird of Paradise” from New Guinea and the Moluccas, stunning with its long tail and multicolored collar and so different from the common birds seen in the Netherlands. Even more fantastic: They had no feet! Dutch collectors supposed that these birds stayed in the air continuously all their lives. Only later did they realize that before being boxed up for shipment across the seas, the birds’ feet were cut off. In order to be a fashionable, cultured sort of person, one’s Dutch collection cabinet could not be very Dutch.
So, when the tulip — “that strange and outlandish plant” — arrived in the Netherlands, it was an immediate hit. Unlike the Ottomans, who preferred their tulips elongated and pointy, the Dutch fell in love with the look of open blooms. Tulip “tastemakers” hunted tirelessly for the “broken color” varieties, which featured streaks of cream and white running through the petals. This ironically meant that the plant suffered from a virus and often made the flower weaker, its blooms less predictable. But no matter. “The more variety there is, the more beautiful the flowers are,” botanist Joost van Ravelingen enthused. Every year
one finds new varieties and sorts which no one has ever seen before. It is yellow, red, white, purple, and (as some assert) blue: or two or three of the mentioned colors are mixed within one flower . . . with speckles, stripes, or spots themselves beautifully embellished.
At times, “the stripes are like flames, or winged, like bunches of feathers or plumage: Sometimes [a single] color shines above the other[s] . . . one seems like gold cloth, another silver . . .”
Dazzled Dutch florists ”vaingloriously [sought] after strange hearbs & flowers, which having gotten, they preserve & cherish more carefully tha[n] any mother doth her child,” one Dutch gardener wrote disapprovingly. “These be the me[n] whose letters fly abroad into Thracia, Greece, and India only for a little root or seede.” These also be the men who are more “grieved for the losse of a newe-found flower, than of an olde friend.” Wouldn’t any man “laugh at that Romane [who] mourned in blacke for the death of a fish that he had? So do these men for a plant.” The same moralist, however, was in ecstasy after having received a few tulip bulbs from an acquaintance returning from the East. He assured the gifter that they were “dearer to him than if [his friend] had sent . . . as many bulbs of solid gold or silver.”
By the beginning of the 1630s, the Dutch Republic enjoyed a free-wheeling and unregulated capitalist economy. A surfeit of cash, high wages for laborers (due to a deadly outbreak of Plague earlier that century), naïveté, and an insatiable lust for the Orient set the stage for a farce of epic proportions. According to legend, it all started when a man sold his home and furnishings in exchange for some rare tulip bulbs. Alert traders took notice, and suddenly tulip prices that were already highly inflated to new and outrageous levels. Rampant speculation began, and exchanges made in alehouses over handshakes and toasts took over the market as traders bought and sold tulips that had not even been planted. Men forsook careers, farms, and families as they scrambled to become “paper-rich” overnight. Especially sought-after tulip varieties, nicknamed the “Augustus,” “Alexander,” and the “Admiral” were worth enough to purchase an entire aristocratic estate.
Even as the episode raged, observers marveled at its absurdity. Author of a book on contemporary wonders Laurens van Zanten included the “tulip folly” among other amazements listed in its contents, like natural disasters, plagues, wars, and “incredible ways to die.” The Dutch themselves had become more curious than the foreign items displayed in their curiosity cabinets. One disgruntled commentator complained, “No one speaks asks about or talks of anything but Flora, so that they have their heads so full of it that they can neither think nor dream of anything else.”
While the Sultan or Maharajah was the cruel and fickle arbiter of the East, the market played that role in the West. Who among the merchant swashbucklers could outrun the Market Reaper, chief gardener of northwest Europe, and sell high before the pursuer’s blade lopped off his floral stems? The bubble could not last. When buyers did not arrive at a tulip auction on time during the spring of 1637 (probably because of simple miscommunication), the flowers failed to command a market price.
People panicked. Overnight, the bottom fell dramatically out. In a few weeks, tulips — when people bought them at all — sold for one to five percent of their previous values. While not as ruinous as popular myth has since imagined it, the sudden collapse had long-lasting consequences. Officials of the Dutch state declined to involve the government in compensation disputes, so creditors and debtors fought local struggles that often resulted in bitterly accepted compromises. One Dutchman visiting his brother-in-law years after the crash dutifully inspected the other man’s unique tulip bulb and said of it: “that must certainly have cost you a lot of money.” His brother-in-law looked back up at him and replied, “That is true, but it still isn’t paid for.” When this debtor died, the Dutchman inherited both the bulb and a bevy of relentless creditors.
Here was the literal million-guilder question:
“From what did the tulip gain her precedence?” the other flowers in the garden gathered ‘round to ask. “Could it be antiquity? No? Is it sweetness of smell?”
“Far from that, this . . . has always been lacking to her.”
Now the other flowers became even more confused.
“What does she have as a virtue, is she medicinal?”
“Not at all.”
“What better way to show one’s taste and judgment? She is beautiful, she is foreign, that is all.”
But let’s not pick solely on the Dutch and their tulips. They succumbed to a sickness that would consume much of the West in later centuries — that mania for all things bright, checkered, fragrant of quinine, or sensuous as the Ceylon Moon in high summertime.
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 Anne Goldgar, Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 122.
 Claudia Swan, Rarities of These Lands: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Dutch Republic (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021), 112-113.
 Simply put, a “futures market” refers to speculation, or the trading of non-existent goods. Buyers and sellers exchange contracts on the assumption that others — whom most traders never meet — will be able make payments or provide the required goods in the future (in this case, that growers would be able to supply the specified tulips that had not yet bloomed/been planted). During the mania, people used both contracts and unplanted bulbs as currency.
 Mike Dash, Tulipomania: The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999), 14-15.
 Ibid., 26.
 Ibid., 26.
 By contrast, women who displeased the Sultan were sewn into sacks and dropped into the Bosphorus.
 Perhaps Busbecq meant the Akçe, which was the Ottoman currency from the mid-fourteenth to the end of the seventeenth century.
 Tulipmania, 32.
 Ibid., 30.
 Ibid., 40-41.
 Ibid., 37-38.
 In this case, the supposed “irrational” East was more sensible than the West. It is likely that tulips would have fueled an economic crisis in Ottoman lands as well, so popular and craved were certain kinds of tulips in the Empire. Fortunately, Imperial decrees limited the speculation that Turkish subjects could practice. No such regulation existed in the 1630s Dutch Republic.
 Tulipmania, 2.
 Ibid., 1-2.
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