Oriental Absurdities and (Un)Enlightened Laughter: Lady Elizabeth Craven and Her A Journey Through the Crimea to Constantinople Cover Image
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Ориенталски нелепици: (не)просветеният смях на лейди Елизабет Крейвън
Oriental Absurdities and (Un)Enlightened Laughter: Lady Elizabeth Craven and Her A Journey Through the Crimea to Constantinople

Author(s): Liudmila Kostova
Subject(s): Literary Texts
Published by: Институт за литература - BAN
Keywords: Oriental Absurdities; Lady Elizabeth

Summary/Abstract: The paper is a critically informed commentary on Lady Elizabth Craven’s epistolary memoir A Journey Through the Crimea to Constantinople (1789), which is presented within a context defined by Thomas Hobbes’ pronouncements upon laughter, on the one hand, and key Enlightenment perceptions of ethnic and religious difference, on the other. Recent writing has tended to foreground Thomas Hobbes’ position as a political thinker while largely ignoring his contribution to moral philosophy. Hobbes, who is best seen as a major precursor of the Age of Enlightenment, strongly disapproves of the ‘passion of laughter’ on moral grounds and claims that the proper task of ‘great minds’ is ‘to help and free others from scorn’ while ‘compar[ing] themselves only with the most able’ (Leviathan, Chapter 6). In the context of the present paper, this is read as a plea for tolerance and acceptance of otherness. While Hobbes’ moral-philosophical legacy exercised considerable influence in the following century, there was also a fair amount of inconsistency and contradiction in the writings of his followers. Thus Voltaire emerges very much as his disciple in his Letters Concerning the English Nation and A Treatise Upon Toleration while his later correspondence with Catherine the Great reveals drastic non-acceptance of certain forms of otherness, most notably of the mores of Ottoman Turks. The paper attempts to shed further light on the apparent contradiction between Enlightenment strictures upon intolerance – especially when the latter is expressed through derisive laughter – and eighteenth-century practice as revealed in Elizabeth Craven’s memoir. The memoir tells of the writer’s 1785-6 journey across Europe, starting with France and Italy and ending with Constantinople, the Western Black Sea coast, and Wallachia. Craven’s tendency to privilege select ethno-geographical localities at the expense of others testifies to the emergence, in her time, of a conceptual model based on a gradation of intra-European ‘Orients’ and ‘Occidents’. The traveller identifies with some of the ‘Occidents’ (e. g. France and Austria) and respects the achievements of the Occidentalized aristocracy of Poland and Russia. However, she likewise projects a largely Orientalized image of Italy, has mostly contempt for the Islamic Orient as exemplified by the Crimean Tartars and Ottoman Turks, and indulges in derisive laughter at the expense of the Wallachian elite’s attempts at self-Occidentalization. Craven’s epistolary narrative thus embodies an attitude to certain forms of otherness that postcolonial criticism, inter alia, has taught us to regard as typical of the West. However, my argument differs from the arguments of most critics working within the postcolonial context in emphasizing Craven’s marked divergence from the prescribed Enlightenment attitude of tolerance and acceptance as typified by Hobbes’ strictures upon laughter and derision.

  • Issue Year: 2004
  • Issue No: 1
  • Page Range: 60-68
  • Page Count: 9
  • Language: Bulgarian