William Beckford's Vathek and the Uses of Oriental Re‐enactment *
In its perverse quotation and transfiguration of Orientalist tropes, William Beckford's Vathek (1786, 1816) is both reiterative and strangely personal. The text owes more to the Arabian Nights Entertainments, and to the Islamic poetry with which the Nights was intertwined in Beckford's imagination, than to any other source. Vathek demonstrates in a radical way how writing, or otherwise attempting imaginatively to reenact events by representing or re-staging them, reveals those events very often to have been themselves reenactments, rescriptings of previous events and, inevitably, re-presentations of those events. Vathek reveals the abyssal vanishing point of reenactment as an approach to the past. In its satire on English rural society and sporting culture, conveyed deviously by means an Oriental screen, Vathek also exposes the way in English Orientalism was as often an escape from the intolerable as it was an investigation of the emulatable.
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