New Book by Yale Professor Displays the Harem as a Window to the Western Imagination

In her recently published “Harems of the Mind,” Yale professor Ruth Bernard Yeazell examines how a mysterious Middle Eastern institution captivated the Western imagination and put its mark on European culture.

From the defeat of the Ottomans by the Hapsburgs in 1683 through the twentieth century, the harem was a particular object of fascination for Europeans and an inspiration for poets, composers and artists, from popular entertainment to highbrow culture.

Yeazell, the Chace Family Professor of English at Yale, examines some of the paintings, illustrations, novels, plays and operas that grew out of this fascination and shows how those works reflected myth rather than reality.

Before the 18th century, few European travelers to the Moslem world penetrated the unexplored territory of the harem. Yet even as eyewitness reports increased, the harem continued to be less a matter of fact than fantasy, according to Yeazell.

“For everyone who attempted to debunk a popular conception of the harem, it often seems, there were many more who continued to imagine what they wished,” she argues.

“The desire to believe in a place where a man could have as many women as he wanted was evidently stronger than any testimony to the contrary,” she says alluding to the most common male fantasy of the harem.

Richly illustrated, the book provides graphic representation of how painters such as Eugene Delacroix, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and the Victorian John Frederick Lewis envisioned sequestered women of the East.

Written commentaries from women, including the 18th-century bluestocking Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and pioneering public health advocate Florence Nightingale attest to a range of feminine attitudes toward the seraglio from the apotheosis of an enviable sorority to the epitome of male enslavement.

Yeazell’s easily accessible interpretation of the harem as muse and Rorschach test, legend and living reality, should appeal to scholars and common readers alike.

“Harems of the Mind: Passages of Western Art and Literature” is published by Yale University Press. The 328-page book has than 59 illustrations, 35 in color.

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