Date of this Version
2016 Renaissance Society of America.
Despite various attempts by literary theorists and historians to find more integrative ways of studying early modern societies and cultures, fairly essentialist notions of the difference between Europe and the rest of the world continue to persist in scholarship. The assumption of fundamental differences then leads to a search for sundry misperceptions, misunderstandings, mischaracterizations, and other skewed representations in early modern texts, particularly in those produced by European travelers. Similarly, studies on cultural, ideological, religious, and intellectual exchanges have not always been able to transcend approaches that solely focus on encounters, a word that sometimes implies haphazard meetings and difficult situations, and representations, a word that often implies distortions. It is true that crucial markers of difference such as language and religion shaped one’s views of alterity, and that various intermediary individuals and communities played critical roles in establishing communication and creating meaning. Moreover, the weight of genre and literary tradition resulted in the perpetuation of various factual errors as well as anti-Islamic and particularly anti-Ottoman tropes in early modern European writings. Nevertheless, it is equally critical now to attend to the considerable similarities across Eurasian cultures and the many recognitions of resemblance or relationship that occurs in European texts treating Islamic polities.
A desire to utilize Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism for the premodern periods produced an excellent body of scholarly work, but it also led to a growing recognition of the need to modify a concept based largely on later centuries. As Sanjay Subrahmanyam shows, the notion of “cultural incommensurability” almost singlehandedly defined ideas of difference and exchange, from the Eurocentric and protonationalist notions of Enlightenment philosophers to the more recent (and more liberal) definitions of cultural relativity. One of the present article’s arguments is that focusing on commensurability will help early modern literary critics and historians better account for the full complexity of East-West relations in the early modern period. The idea of commensurability, as it is understood here, may emerge as the result of the early modern traveler’s exposure, during his or her travels, to political and cultural values and structures that are identified as familiar and subsequently presented as such within a text; further, commensurability may be defined as the wish for and ability to communicate across cultural boundaries, under the impact of several motivations that range from political idealism to sheer individual pragmatism.