chapter  4
19 Pages

The Fetish, the Phallus, the Fantasy

Orientalism, Symbolic Castration, and the Eighteenth-Century Imaginary
WithNathan Gorelick

Although Edward Said’s Orientalism frequently deploys psychoanalytic concepts, it does not address the fetishistic quality of the West’s fixation upon the so-called Orient. According to its Freudian formulation, the fetish object serves as a means for the disavowal of castration—that is, it prolongs a primal fantasy of absolute satisfaction that obfuscates the fact that to be human is to be castrated: riven by lack and driven by desire. With Said, Alain Grosrichard’s The Sultan’s Court, and Jorge Luis Borges’s lectures on The 1001 Nights, this chapter brings this logic of the fetish to bear upon the eighteenth-century foundations of contemporary Orientalism. Beginning with a survey of the vilification of Muslim peoples and practices in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century political philosophy—where the “Turk” provided a ubiquitous foil against which enlightenment thinkers sought to oppose their conceptions of the sovereign subject and the rational public sphere—the chapter concentrates on Montesquieu’s popular and influential epistolary novel Les lettres persanes [Persian Letters] (1721). Situating this text within its broader political and historical context reveals its exemplary status within the libidinal economy of Orientalism, where it consolidates the fetish object upon which the European gaze will fixate and from which it will elaborate a collective civilizational narrative at the ideological core of modern colonialism and contemporary (postcolonial) Orientalism.