Chapter 5 Honour and Violence: Mediterranean Exoticism and Masculinity

In: European Modernity and the Passionate South
Joep Leerssen
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1 Exoticism and Vraisemblance

In the long European tradition of Orientalism, a crucial position is taken up by the encounter of Byron with the Balkans. Ottoman Europe began south of Zagreb and Novi Sad, and in the eyes of many European travellers their encounter with the Islamic East began when they travelled into Bosnia or Albania.1 So too it was with Byron, whose Grand Tour in 1809–1811 took him from Malta to Albania and thence to Athens (the usual tour route, involving France and Italy, being inaccessible in these Napoleonic years). In Joanina, a town in the Albanian-Greek Pindos region, Byron had a formative meeting with the local war lord, Ali Pasha, and his impressions of Ottoman Europe were expressed in four dramatic romances that he published in the years 1813–1814: The Giaour, The bride of Abydos, The Corsair and Lara (Alber 2013, Cochran 2008, Cohen-Vrignaud 2019).

The image of Ottoman Europe was in flux in these years.2 While Ottoman culture was no longer seen in terms of straightforward cruelty, but rather in a mixture of apprehension and fascination (Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail [The Abduction from the Seraglio] testifies to this), the combination of sensuous refinement and archaic ruthlessness remained a powerful formula for Romantic representations. So it was with Byron, whose own personality and poetic persona were predicated on the combination of tenderness and bitterness, sensitivity and misanthropy – a stance which has become known as ‘Byronic’ and which strongly influenced the pose of the Romantic male, from Heine and Mérimée to Pushkin.

The Byronic inflection of Ottoman exoticism coincided, furthermore, with the beginnings of Romantic philhellenism, which saw the Balkans as the theatre of a moral and national conflict between noble, oppressed Christians/Europeans and suave, ruthless Turkish/Oriental despots (Konstantinou 1992, Noe 1994, Spencer 1986).3 All these elements (Byronism, philhellenism, Orientalist exoticism and Oriental Despotism) conspired to make the romances of 1813–14 decisively important in the Romantic perception of the Eastern Mediterranean. The image we may summarize as follows: a picturesque landscape where the openness of the sea confronts the rugged terrain of mountains; where colourful cultures and traditions meet and mingle; where under the hot sun passions run high; where women are seductive and men driven by fierce affects such as honour and jealousy; and where sensuousness, violence and cruelty are closer to the surface than in civic societies and temperate climates.

This Byronic image of the Levant was subsequently widened to include the Western Mediterranean as well, when it was taken up by French Byronists such as Prosper Mérimée and Alexandre Dumas. These belated Romantics wrote when a colonial drive was reaching out towards the Mediterranean’s Southern, African shores. France started its colonial conquest of Algeria in 1830 (it was completed in 1875) and of Tunisia (1881); Spanish expansionism in Morocco started in 1830 and accelerated after 1860. Since the culture of the Maghreb was Islamic, these lands could easily be seen in Orientalist terms. The Mediterranean thus became, in the Romantic century, an overlap of Southern and Eastern stereotypings.

This tradition continued well into the twentieth century, witness films like Pépé le Moko (about a Marseille gangster hiding in the Casbah of Algiers, 1937) and its indirect spin-off Casablanca (about refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe in Humphrey Bogart’s casbah café, 1942).4 The extent to which these films continue a Romantic imaginaire is indicated, not only by the exoticist, Orientalist trappings of the setting (labyrinthine casbahs where petty criminals mingle with haggling traders) but also by the type of protagonist whose actions take place in this setting: Jean Gabin and Humphrey Bogart play roles that are straightforwardly Byronic. Byronic, that is to say: full of the masculine qualities of self-control, courage, and willpower, and combining an aristocracy of spirit with an outlaw position in society. They are abrasive, scornful of social conventions or of the rule of law, and lonesome; but under this misanthropic carapace their inner tenderness may be awakened by the charm of a woman, rendering them more sympathetic and more vulnerable.

Byron had patented the “Byronic hero” in his various verse romances and was himself seen in precisely those characterological terms:

Lord Byron could exhibit only one man and only one woman, – a man proud, moody, cynical, – with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart; a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection; – a woman all softness and gentleness, loving to caress and to be caressed, but capable of being transformed by love into a tigress. (Macaulay 1831, 567)5

That profile was drawn as early as 1831, but its masculine part uncannily fits the later roles of Jean Gabin and Humphrey Bogart in Pépé le Moko and Casablanca. And the line from Byron to Bogart leads us along French Romantic authors like Prosper Mérimée and Alexandre Dumas.

Mérimée, now known mainly for his archetypical tale of Carmen (1845),6 had a broader exotic palette than only a Washington-Irving image of Andalusia. He was intrigued by entire Orientalist breadth of the Mediterranean shorelands. Balkan culture is thematized in his pastiche/imitation of Serbian oral epic in his La Guzla of 1824 (Cf. Yovanovitch 1911); but he also took the Byronic mix of sea/mountains, sensuousness/violence, eroticism/hatred into the settings of Corsica in stories such as Matteo Falcone (1829) and Colomba (1840).

In the Romantic imagination, these Orientalists aspects of the Mediterranean intersect with an ethnotype (hot temperaments in a hot climate) and a sociotype (outlaws in a lawless country). The ethnotype is climatological in nature and has been extensively studied: it is that of a hot South vs. a cool North, with temperaments to match (“hot”, easily-inflamed feelings vs. “cool,” cerebral rationality). In the Hippocratic theory from which we actually derive the notion of “temperament”, hot climates were held to favour the sanguine and choleric humours, and these accordingly are the temperamental attributes with which Italians and Spaniards have habitually been represented since the sixteenth century: the Italians sanguine, with their elegance and their immoral lustfulness, the Spaniards choleric, with their morose and passionately intense pride and severity.7

This intersects with the sociotype of lawlessness and, in particular, banditry. Bandits had been an occasional presence in Don Quijote, but in Massenet’s 1911 opera they provide the action of the entire act III, and banditry looms large also in providing the frame story for Mérimée’s Carmen. More specifically, the image of Italy was deeply imbued with notions of banditry. Having provided an edge of danger to the cultural Grand Tour, they developed into fictional stock characters of eighteenth-century romance (Rinaldo Rinaldini, Abaellino); that iconography was echoed and augmented by the documented outlaws of Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic times (Fra Diavolo) and has fed into the mythologization of the mafia.8

Mediterranean Orientalism, ethnotype, and sociotype come together in one of the most representative tales of the European nineteenth century, Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo (1845–46). The hero of that book, Edmond Dantès, is repeatedly compared with Byron himself: solitary, misanthropic, with bitterness (owing to cruelly disappointed love) and dark passions under the surface of refined dandyism. Moreover, although much of the action is set in fashionable Paris, Dantès (the self-styled ‘Count of Monte-Cristo’) is linked almost obsessively to a Mediterranean setting. He is originally a sailor from the Catalan quarter of Marseille, has found his fabulous wealth in a treasure hidden on the island of Monte Cristo, was in touch with Napoleon during his Elba exile and was imprisoned off Marseille in the island-fortress of the Château d’If. He has contacts among Italian banditti and Maltese contraband sailors, has picked up a Corsican servant (characteristically dedicated to the pursuit of vendetta), has bought a house slave in Algiers, and a harem girl – appropriately given the Byronic name of Haydée – in Istanbul. He follows an oriental lifestyle involving the use of hashish and sumptuous food from all around the Mediterranean coastlands. In one instance among many, the fruits on offer include “des ananas de Sicile, des grenades de Malaga, des oranges des îles Baléares, de pêches de France et des dattes de Tunis” [pineapples from Sicily, pomegranates from Malaga, oranges from the Balearic Islands, peaches from France, and dates from Tunis] (Dumas 1963, I, 398). His hospitality is lavish, his sense of revenge is merciless. He is compared variously, not only to Byron, but also to an undead vampire (because of his pallor, result of his long imprisonment) and to Sinbad the Sailor. He lives outside the law according to a primitive and ruthless honour-code. To top it all, Haydée, the slave-girl he has acquired, is the daughter of Ali Pasha of Joanina himself, of Byronic fame,9 whose doomed insurrection against the Ottoman authorities provides an important subplot.

In the summary given here, the place-names, italicized and highlighted, from Málaga to Istanbul, indicate a Mediterranean that stretches along the entire width of Europe and that forms, not a division between the different islands, peninsulas and coastlines, but a single imagined, ethnographic space. Twice over Dumas evokes the Mediterranean as an “inland lake” accessed by way of Marseille. This “inland lake” is the habitat of wandering heroes – fugitives, sailors, outlaws, voyagers – and is characterized by a shared lifestyle: hedonistic and grim, the opposite of bourgeois moralism.

Even in the twentieth century, that image of the Mediterranean has continued in force. Fernand Braudel’s classic La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II [The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II] (1947, rev. ed. 1967) evokes a terrain dominated by the encounter between the sea and impenetrable mountainous coasts; there are “bandits, of course” (les bandits, bien-sûr, as one of the chapters is headed). Braudel also indicates that there may be a social reason, rather than just a romantic stereotype, why these lands are associated with outlawry. In such a terrain, he argues, state control and centralizing forces must be hampered by the terrain, and locals can always find refuge from central authorities (weak as they are in these peripheries) by hiding in the mountains.

This raises the question whether we are here dealing with fantasy or with reality. Is Braudel presenting us with an analysis of actual social patterns such as they have played themselves out in the course of documented history, or is he rationalizing what is in fact a literary cliché? Neither possibility fully excludes the other: the cliché may draw on empiric observations as well as on Pépé le Moko, and the historian’s view may embellish or “frame” the source material in terms derived intertextually from adventure romances and fairy-tales. However, to state that the question “is complicated” or that “the truth is somewhere in the middle” or that “the terms of the opposition are misleading” (What is a “fact”? What is a “fiction”?), while it sounds like superior wisdom, may be only a cop-out, camouflaging what is in fact our reluctant laziness to grasp the nettle and focus on the complexity.

Schematizations like these flourish in precisely the intermediary zones between narrative invention and factual reporting. In fictional narrative, they conveniently fill in the background detail that surrounds the action, situating it in a world such as the reader is presumed to know it. Aristotle had already highlighted this as a pivotal strategy: to rely on the audience’s prior assumptions, and never, without strict necessity, to represent a slave wiser than his master or a woman more forceful than a man. For while such individuals might actually exist, they do not figure in the audience’s horizon of expectations, and the tale-teller is concerned, not with verity, but with verisimilitude (Cf. Leerssen 1991).

Accordingly, we encounter stereotypes usually as “background material”: underwriting the motivation of characters, and, since secondary characters are less complex in their motivation than main characters, predominantly there, in the backdrop or coulisses of the action. In that background setting, the stereotypes usually crop up as “local colour” which embellishes rather than determines the action, or in digressions and side-plots. For similar reasons, ethnotypes are often invoked as generic patterns rather than in specific instances. How incidental and un-essential such local colour is, is demonstrated by the ease with which narratives can be re-told in alternative settings. The Seven Samurai of Kurosawa’s film (1954) easily become cowboy gunslingers in the remake The Magnificent Seven (1960), the genteel upper-middle-class Englishness of Jane Austen’s Emma can be reimagined in affluent Southern California or Delhi (the films Clueless, 1995, and Aisha, 2010), and Carmen can be Americanized as Carmen Jones (musical 1943, film 1954). In each case, the narrative structure (fabula) and its motivation by means of actorial types remain intact, and what at first sight would appear to be centrally characteristic elements, the heavily-emphasized local colour, can be easily exchanged.

2 A Trope of Otherness: The Secluded Encounter

Similarly, stereotypes are often generic rather than case-specific. Narrative tropes and configurations often turn out to be formulaic at those very moments when they would appear to be most strongly localized or ethnicized. One such trope, for instance, is the “encounter in a secluded spot.” It is noticeable in the beginning of Carmen, where the narrator penetrates along a narrow gorge into a natural amphitheatre:

En effet, en m’approchant, je vis que la prétendue pelouse était un marécage où se perdait un ruisseau, sortant, comme il semblait, d’une gorge étroite entre deux hauts contreforts de la sierra de Cabra. […] À peine eus-je fait une centaine de pas, que la gorge, s’élargissant tout-à-coup, me montra une espèce de cirque naturel parfaitement ombragé par la hauteur des escarpements qui l’entouraient. (Mérimée 1967, II, 346)

[Indeed, as I drew nearer I perceived that what had looked like sward was a marsh, into which a stream, which seemed to issue from a narrow gorge between two high spurs of the Sierra de Cabra, ran and disappeared. […] Before I had advanced a hundred paces, the gorge suddenly widened, and I beheld a sort of natural amphitheatre, thoroughly shaded by the steep cliffs that lay all around it. Translation by Lady Mary Lloyd, 1941].

It is here that the narrator encounters the fugitive delinquent José. He establishes relations with him by offering him a cigar, which is gratefully accepted, and in passing the scene is Orientalized, almost without the reader noticing: “En Espagne, un cigare donné et reçu établit des relations d’hospitalité, comme en Orient le partage du pain et du sel.” [In Spain, giving and accepting a cigar develops bonds of hospitality similar to those found in Eastern countries on the partaking of the bread and salt] Spain is held up as a country obeying the ancient customs of hospitality, which it shares with the Orient and with pre-modern Europe. There is more to be said about this, and I will return to the vignette, but my point here is that the flagging is done so very unobtrusively, in a passing aside without direct bearing on the action.

A very similar “natural amphitheatre” had been used 25 years previously, in Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley. The hero’s progress from England into the Scottish Highlands culminates when his hostess at a clan dinner party leads him along a river which emerges from a cleft, and further upstream leads into a “natural amphitheatre”. It is here that the hostess enchants the hero (who by now is beginning to feel “like a knight of Romance”). Aided by the picturesque qualities of what Scott repeatedly likens to a setting from, indeed, chivalric romances (Tasso and Ariosto), the hostess performs an ancient Highland ballad, which she introduces as follows:

I have given you the trouble of walking to this spot, Captain Waverley, both because I thought the scenery would interest you, and because a Highland song would suffer still more from my imperfect translation were I to introduce it without its own wild and appropriate accompaniments. To speak in the poetical language of my country, the seat of the Celtic Muse is in the mist of the secret and solitary hill, and her voice in the murmur of the mountain stream. He who woos her must love the barren rock more than the fertile valley, and the solitude of the desert better than the festivity of the hall. (Scott 1814, I, 340)

In both cases, the “natural amphitheatre” is a hidden recess in what is already a remote countryside, and in such places the narrator, who has travelled a long way to reach this Heart of Otherness, encounters a pristine example of the exotic: bandits in Spain, minstrelsy (and seditious rebellion) in the Highlands. Post-romantic literature turns out to be studded with such scenes: we stumble across such “natural amphitheatres” in the romances of Karl May, Henry Rider Haggard, H.G. Wells, John Buchan and even Lionel Davidson, and also, in a very anti-romantic variation, in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. Here, the Marabar Caves are a secluded recess which forms the end-point of the exoticist yearnings of Adela Quested, but the encounter here is an unsettling echo-chamber, confronting her only with her own anxieties and with the unknowable hollowness of the exotic Other.

The “secluded encounter” is, then, a trope, a locus communis of the exotic imagination, and used as a narrative technique to showcase the Other.

We can be more specific. The secludedness of the spot also means in narrative terms a suspension of vraisemblance, and indeed the normalcy of “life as we know it.” The narrator, who is the link between the reader’s middle-class domesticity and the exotic couleur locale of the story, encounters an otherness here that represents precisely the Other’s lack of domesticity and non-bourgeois character. Which in turn leads us to conclude that, if indeed mountains and mountain recesses were (as Braudel asserts, and we have no immediate reason to actually call into doubt) the hiding-places of actual outlaws and brigands, this trope also appeals to the literary imagination because it meshes with a strong narrative correlation between the setting of the events and the motivation of the characters. The link between sublime scenery and romantic characters is, in other words, overdetermined. It does not necessarily follow a North-South polarity, because we find the correlation also in the Walter Scott’s Scottish Highlands, home to romantic characters like Flora MacIvor and Rob Roy Macgregor. Both of these characters are in fact outlaws, much like Mérimée’s José, defying the law of the land, but in a damp chilly climate rather than under the Mediterranean sun.

So what does the comparison between the Byronic Mediterranean of The Count of Monte Cristo with the sublime, secluded recesses of Carmen and Waverley suggest? In all three cases, we see that the heroes whom we encounter here derive their interest from, precisely, being at odds with normalcy and the law. The narrator is in all cases the explanatory voice that speaks to us from within the conventions of the reader’s domestic situation; he is the voice of normalcy. What he encounters is, however, quite the opposite: passionate bandits and wild women, a rebellious clan chief and his seductive sister singing an ancient ballad by a waterfall. In Dumas’s tale, an embittered voyager who has spectacularly escaped from wrongful imprisonment, discovered an Aladdin’s cave of stupendous treasures, and now embarks on a quest of personal revenge. In all cases the tale is one so full of wayward incident and suspense that it belongs to the genre of romance rather than the realistic novel; and this suspension of plausibility coincides with characters who are outside the conventions and laws of bourgeois society.

The deep opposition that generates these narratives is, then, the one between the rule of law and those who live outside it. It schematizes even the analysis of ethnographers who have studied Mediterranean society, and who have developed a theory now known as “honour and shame.”

3 Honour and Shame: Knowledge Production and the Literary Imagination

The narrator of Carmen found a real-world successor in the British ethnographer Julian Pitt-Rivers, who, after a period of field work in the Andalusian village of Grazalema, published his The People of the Sierra (1954). It characterized this small-scale, isolated, and traditional village society in terms of the ethos of honour. Since then, anthropologists and ethnographers continued to evince an interest in Mediterranean-mountainous “honour codes,” also involving, in a belt stretching from Corsica and Sardinia by way of Sicily and the Peloponnese to Albania and Montenegro, a pattern of transgenerational family feuds known as “vendetta” or “blood feud”. A particularly fertile notion was the oppositional twinning of “honour and shame.” From the early 1960s on, anthropologists were struck by the tension between the family code of “honour” (enforced by males, if necessary by violent means, and expressed in the values of hospitality and loyalty to one’s given word) as against the threat of “shame” (incurred by the sexual approach of female members of the family by strangers). Originally used as a concept to define the fact that many pastoral communities regulated their codes of behaviour while remaining outside the rule of law and the order of the modern state, “honour and shame” has since then become a favourite term to describe the lawlessness and behavioural codes of a non-civic Mediterranean (Campbell 1964, Peristiany 1966, Gilmore 1987).10 To put the stereotype crudely: the masculine ethos of honour, exemplified by proud, tight-lipped, mustachioed men in boots, has its feminine counterpart in taciturn, black-scarved women kept severely secluded in the household. The stereotype was widespread because it seemed so very plausible (vraisemblable): habituated as we are to films like Zorba the Greek or the Sicilian episodes in The Godfather, or even the pastiche of the comic strip album Astérix en Corse, we feel little inclination to second-guess the “honour and shame” model when we encounter it in an academic, scholarly context rather than a fictional one. The two mutually reinforce each other’s convincing powers. The tropes (like that of the “secluded encounter” may have been diffused so widely in our cultural memory that they become an unspecific background assumption, a prejudice in the true sense of the word: knowledge-from-hearsay, imprecise as to its provenance and as impervious to factual testability as the proverbial wisdom that “money cannot buy happiness.”

But the model’s hyper-applicability smacks, again, of overdetermination. Underlying problems were first gingerly hinted at by Michael Herzfeld in 1980,11 and since then, critics have become aware that the observational frame seems to impose an orientalist, exoticizing parti-pris on the data. More recently, Sandra Busatta (to name but one) has deconstructed the model from a feminist perspective, pointing out that the honour concept is used ambivalently: as social precedence or as moral-behavioural standard. And she observes, witheringly:

During the three decades that follow the Second World War, Anglo-Saxon anthropologists have elaborated an honour and shame model as a tool to explain Mediterranean societies conceived as a homogenous culture area. Although historians consider the Mediterranean as the cradle of urban civilization, scholars focused mostly on small scale, marginal-rural communities on its northern shore, according to an extra European field-work tradition. (Busatta 2006, 77)

Imagologists will note that the scholarly procedure of these ethnographic studies follows the parameters of a much earlier literary ethnotype, dating back at least from Balzac’s La vendetta (1830), but taken at face value, nowhere acknowledged as such or tested as to the tenability of its commonplace. From Balzac and Byron to Bogart, the Mediterranean honour-code is a literary, Romantic formula, effective for narrative and dramatic purposes, and functioning in patterns and oppositions, and often as gratuitously random as the setting of the Magnificent Seven Samurai.

The Mediterranean locale for this ethnographic honour-and-shame model is an intersectional imagined space where a “southern” climatologically defined temperament (sanguine, choleric, passionate) meets the orientalist, Byronic combination of elegance and ruthlessness. The notion of violence-prone honour is easily projected into that space, and the climatological and temperamental connotations of choleric passion and sanguine hot-bloodedness can, and often are, be invoked to establish the typology.

But outlaw honour has non-Mediterranean analogies. The Scottish Highlands of Waverley, Rob Roy and R.L. Stevenson are a similar locus where bourgeois heroes (and readers looking over their shoulder) encounter Byronic heroes and Haydée- or Carmen-style heroines. The most American form or Romance stories involves the struggle between law-and-order-enforcing sheriffs and cowboys in the “Wild West” confronting outlaws of the Jesse James variety, and natives who can be, as occasion demands, savages or Noble Savages. What appears to be structurally invariant in all these cases is the conflict between, precisely, the force of law (represented as part of modernity) and the honour code (represented as a relic from a pre-modern, and historically receding social lifestyles). The encounter between narrator/hero and outlaw anti-hero is an encounter between modernity and archaism, between a modern society governed by law and civic virtues and an older society with a warrior ethos from which a sense of honour is derived. The constitutional scholar Sir Henry Maine, in the mid-nineteenth century, distinguished between these two societal forms as “status-based” vs. “contract-based,” the latter being a modern development. The distinction between them boils down to the different social imperatives of honour and virtue, respectively (Maine 1861; and Leerssen 2015).

This schematization correlates with what Max Weber sees as one of the central features of modernity: the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence.12 This monopoly has been hard-won over the past centuries and even now is not easily maintained in the face of mafia/gangster culture and other forms of group delinquency. But the principle is universally accepted: while in the pre-modern state, families and petty noblemen could entertain feuds and private wars, this endemic belligerence has gradually been overtaken by modernity and the only legitimate use of violence is now that exercised by the sovereign state within its own legal self-restrictions. Whenever individuals claim the right “to take the law into their own hands” and to resort to violence (especially if it to avenge one’s insulted honour or status), this strikes modern readers as something inherently pre-modern, archaic, part of a warrior ethic à la Achilles, Beowulf, Sir Gawain or El Cid. Giovanni Verga, in describing a duel in a contemporary Sicilian village community, caught that connotation perfectly when he called it “rustic chivalry” (Cavalleria rusticana – the story dates from 1860, Mascagni’s opera from 1890).

And so the grand generalizations of 19th- and 20th-century knowledge production (Tönnies opposing Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft, Weber on the modern state’s violence monopoly, Maine on Status vs. Contract) form chains in a tradition that stretches from 16th-century climate theory to 20th-century “honour and shame” models, all of them feeding into, and in turn being fed by, the literary ethnotypes and sociotypes schematizing our notions of a Mediterranean temperament.

Similarly, the fascination of modern novelistic narrators or ethnographic observers with the clansmen of the Scottish Highlands, or with the bandits of Andalusia, or the vendetta-prone communities of rural Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, Greece, or Albania, appears to be, precisely, that in these settings there is no such thing as a modern state being able to monopolize legitimate violence. The existence of an honour code, so romantic novelists and ethnographers have taught us, thrives in the absence of a working legal system, and the use of personal violence and self-administered vengeance to assert that honour code renders that lifestyle pre-modern, chivalric, and indeed, Byronic-Romantic.

This pattern, which at first would seem ethnotypically linked to the Mediterranean, affects all narratives involving a combination of honour codes and personal, unmonopolized violence: the gunslingers of the Far West, the clansmen of the Scottish Highlands, the hill tribes of the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier, and even the Corleone or Soprano mafiosi of the contemporary USA. For the Mob Movie is the American successor to the Western genre. In the heartland of modernity, Sicilian-immigrated “families” under their patriarchal “Dons” defy the state with their gangland turf wars, rationalized by quasi-ethnograhical idealizations of “Respect” and “Family” – a Cavalleria urbana which has moved from Sicily to the mean streets of Little Italy.

4 Realism and Romance Revisited

The novel, that middle-class, nineteenth-century genre par excellence, addresses itself to a wide, middle-class readership, located to a large extent in towns and cities, and involving lending libraries, bookshops, periodicals, and evenings of reading leisure by artificial light. The emergence of the post-romantic novels correlates with the emergence of a middle-class readership, female to a not inconsiderable degree. And this correlates, in turn, with the genre’s turn towards Realism and the problematics of contemporary domestic life. But the middle-class readership also liked to read about lives different from their own. We note the explosive rise of panoramic literature, costumbrismo, and travelogues representing exotic parts of the country to “armchair travellers,” from Los españoles pintados por sí mismos [The Spanish Painted by Themselves] (1843–44) to Almeida Garrett’s Viagens na minha terra [Travels in My Homeland] (1843–46) to the French Voyages pittoresques et romantiques dans l’ancienne France [Picturesque and Romantic Travels in Old France] (1828–78). And as that last title indicates, amidst the rise of novelistic Realism, a taste for the romantic and the picturesque continues, as Scott, Mérimée and Alexandre Dumas also demonstrate.

There is, in fact, a pronounced tradition of escapism and “reading for thrills” at the heart of the Realistic period, which will continue to feed the audience appeal of films like Pépé le Moko and Casablanca (or, for the honour-meets-violence code, the Clint Eastwood Spaghetti westerns and the Godfather trilogy).

In this respect, the lifestyles and gender relationships of the Byronic Mediterranean offer a rich menu for an escape from the predictability (the hypertrophy of vraisemblance) of settled, middle-class, sub-urban life. “Northern” bourgeois, modern, sensible predictability finds an escape in an encounter with “southern”, history-soaked, passionate adventure: that is even thematized as the narrative pattern of George Eliot’s Middlemarch or E.M. Forster’s Room with a View. In such novels, English, straitlaced heroines see their respectability challenged and find emotional fulfilment as the result of an unsettling, liberating voyage to Italy. The North-European woman encountering a Latin Lover has over the last centuries become an institutionalized cliché, to the point even that an entire series of “Harlequin” romances (low-budget, formulaic-escapist fiction for female readers) carries (in the Netherlands) the series title Zonnige Landen, Vurige Mannen [Sunny Countries, Fiery Men]. Individual instalments sport titles such as Spanish Passion, Iberian Dreams, Greek Passion, Greek Pride, Italian Seduction, In Love in Venice.13

The implied pleasure of the Romantic Mediterranean seems to be, even here, that the rules of normal life are suspended. The female protagonists, usually self-disciplined, “give in” to their desires even while this goes against the moral code they have internalized, seduced into sensuality by the exotic charms of the setting.

In the classic novelistic opposition between the head and the heart, the novel as such stands for realism (both the literary register and the cerebral attitude); its exotic setting is what beguiles the heart with Romance (both the literary register and the amorous affect). The irreconcilable registers of honour and virtue, rebellion and conformism, passion and morality, romance and realism, are reconciled and commodified by turning the former into an escapist holiday destination for the latter, a temporary, colourful suspension of normality. That, I am afraid, is what European modernity has done to the Mediterranean. It’s like Waverley following Flora to her secluded location, and beginning to feel, as he does so, “like a Knight of Romance.” Feeling, going to the movies.


This essay has been published Open Access thanks to funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Project CIRGEN, ERC Grant Agreement No 787015).


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For a representative source sample, see Berchet 1985.


I highlight the very important collection Kuran-Burçoglu Miller 2005, and Schiffer 1982. Also, Çirakman 2002, Katz 2006, Kural-Shaw and Heywood 1972.


The notion of “Oriental Despotism” was made proverbial, in Cold-War terms, by Karl A. Wittfogel’s study of that title (1957); a classic at the time but by now an example of the quasi-scientific rationalization of contemporary/domestic values and prejudices.


Pépé le Moko indirectly inspired Casablanca through the intermediary of the former’s American remake, Algiers (1938). More on this, and on the imaginaire of the casbah, in Leerssen 2017.


On the Byronic hero, Thorslev 1962.


Archetypical as it is, Carmen has attracted reworkings and scholarly analysis in equal measure. The specifically imagological aspects revolve around Carmen as the intersectional incarnation of “fatal” femininity, Roma/“Gypsy” and Andalusian characterizations, in what is variously an exoticist hetero-image (from a French/European/bourgeois/masculine point of view) or an internalized Spanish auto-image. For these intersectionalities, see Leerssen 2012.


On the climate theory in general, Zacharasiewicz 1977. Case studies in Stanzel, Weiler and Zacharasiewicz 1999, and the Italian and Spanish articles in Beller and Leerssen 2007.


There is an important eastward extension in the imaginaire of the heroic-romantic outlaw (Slavic hajduk, Greek klephtes); Mérimée’s La Guzla, once again, serves as an example; but it is strictly speaking not Orientalist, but rather a part of a generalized Robin-Hood tropology. Cf. John Neubauer et al. 2004. For the Orientalist fascination with, and glorification of, the mafia: Dickie 2007. There is a lively discussion among literary scholars in the various (South-)East-European literatures about outlaw themes, usually tracing the relationship between oral balladry and print literature, but wider, trans-regional comparisons are scarce, and are still struggling to get out from under the shadow of Eric Hobsbawm’s Primitive rebels (1957). Hobsbawm applies to his erudite and widely assembled source material a deterministic and reductive Marxist typology: bandits as insurgents against social injustice without, as yet, proper class conscience (hence the “primitive” and “archaic” qualifiers in his title).


On him: Fleming 1999.


I have commented on the literary roots of this anthropological model in Leerssen 1996. For an oblique comment on the incompatibility honour code with the restraint implied in the civic virtues of the modern western nation-state, see Bowman 2006.


“Massive generalisations of ‘honour’ and ‘shame’ have become counter-productive; their continued use elevates what began as a genuine convenience for the readers of ethnographic essays to the level of a theoretical propositions” (Herzfeld 1980, 349).


In his Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Chapter 1 § 17: “Das legitime Gewaltmonopol als konstitutives Element des Staates”). Online at


I here paraphrase these titles from the Dutch subsidiary of the Harlequin publishing company’s website: While Harlequin is an international publishing house, I am unaware if such titles also reach a Spanish, Greek or Italian readership. The English-language originals of these books appear to be published, for the American public, in a more generically-titled series: “Foreign Affairs”. Cf

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European Modernity and the Passionate South

Gender and Nation in Spain and Italy in the Long Nineteenth Century

Series:  Studia Imagologica, Volume: 32


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