A Portrait of Lord Byron in "Oriental" outfit. This well-known image of the poet is often contrasted with a similar portrait in which he is depicted musing in typical English garb.The idea of Orientalism as it was conceived by Lord Byron in the early 1800's refers to a kind of fascination with and depiction of the customs, practices, and mores of Eastern cultures. The idea of a "romanticized" and "exotic" land that existed outside of the political struggles of Europe, replete with its own heritage and set of values, served a similar purpose for the second generation of Romantics as the so-called "sublime" did for Wordsworth and other notable earlier figures. While Byron's Orientalism by no means lionized or privileged these values, it did seem to suggest that reflecting upon the differences between the Occident and the Orient could provide the poet with inspiration much like what his predecessors found in vast, uncontrollable nature.
Although Byron's initial intent of "Orientalism" carried a positive and reflective connotation, the use of the term itself was radically altered by the work of noted literary critic, Edward Said. His 1978 volume, Orientalism, reappropriates the word to signify a fictional construct of the East by Western minds. This definition of "Orientalism" suggests that the literate, capitalist society of Europe utilized the vast differences between itself and the "Orient" to reinforce its own idea of superiority and justify many heinous practices enacted by empire towards the cultures of the East.
Said's interpretation of Orientalism is important to many ideas at play in current thought about how British culture and imperialism developed. Byron, by contrast, interpreted Orientalism as a fertile ground in which important ideas about British identity could germinate. The two connotations of the term seem to be opposite sides of the same coin, only separated by the fact that Byron's Orientalism looks to the hopeful future, and Said's Orientalism looks to a tragic past.
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