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The Naturalization of Orientalism in Herman Melville's Mardi: Whitewashing Arabian Nights?

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Abstract

The nineteenth-century American novelist, Herman Melville, is oftentimes viewed as a multi-cultured innovator who possibly anticipated post-modernism. In his epic romance, Mardi, Melville incorporates aspects of Orientalism within a Westernized framework, thereby eroding cultural borders. This article focuses on Arabian Nights as one possible parent text for Mardi on the one hand, and on Melville’s naturalization of certain Orientalist concepts in his novel on the other. Furthermore, it explores the question of whether Melville “whitewashes” the Eastern narrative to naturalize the text and thus familiarize Westerners with a foreign culture in the spirit of multi-culturalism, or whether he simply subscribes to the Orientalist stereotypes prevalent in nineteenthcentury America. Keywords: Melville, Mardi, Arabian Nights, Orientalism, whitewashing, naturalization

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Borges has declared the Arabian Nights not an exotic other but a constitutive component of our culture, part of our memory. He has written with recognized erudition on many of the translations of the Nights, evaluating their rendering of what has come to be known as the original text. In this article I seek to trace the presence of the Nights in some of Borges's best known fiction. I look at the many ways Borges has played with the open‐endedness of the Nights and examine the roles of allusion to this work in his writings, arguing against an overarching interpretation. A particular focus of Borges's interest in the Nights is the magic Night 602, central and specular to the whole. I examine Borges's appraisal of this Night, and offer a perhaps playful reading of ‘Emma Zunz’ as a modern‐day variation.
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Two of Melville's early works are contrasting attempts to report on what he saw and experienced during his stay in some islands of the South Pacific. Typee is presented as a sober, philosophical account of mores and religion, thus in keeping with the more ethnographic interests of travelers's reports. Mardi is an avowed work of fiction. While cannibalism serves to focus interest in the first, human sacrifice has this function in the second. Melville could find previous authors to support his approach in the first book but, even though he studied available works on mythologies, found no scholarship to help with the second issue. It is argued that the second work, albeit a fiction, makes the greater cognitive advance and helps discern the perils scholars had to face in the colonialist era.
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