Etienne Balibar observed that all nations have colonial origins, and modern France is no exception. France’s repeated turns toward the East suggest a complicated relationship not only between the nation’s political revolutions and the cultural production inspired by its overseas conquests, but also between ideas of French identity and representations of what was called the Orient. The Napoleonic incursion into the Islamic Ottoman Empire in the 1790s gave rise to the modern field of Egyptology; on the eve of the 1830 Revolution in Paris, King Charles X tried to shore up his regime by invading Algeria, where France would remain until 1962; and among the most revered of contemporary French writers and artists—men such as Flaubert and Delacroix—the Orient was a bottomless source of inspiration. Using evidence drawn from art, literature and politics, we will in this course make arguments about what the “Orient” has meant to the French, investigating how the Oriental imagination shaped France’s encounters with people from North Africa to Indochina.
While this is a history course, we will train our focus on written inquiry and argumentation. To begin, students will write about Bonaparte’s conquest of Egypt, making arguments about the spreading of French-revolutionary principles through military force in the Islamic world. Next, in an exploration of the visual culture of French imperialism we will distill and, through historical analysis of selected French painters, critique and refine Edward Saïd’s Orientalism, which traces western European views of the “Orient” in recent centuries. Finally, students will write a research paper on a topic related to French imperial or postcolonial history.