The Banality of Luxury : HAREM The World Behind the Veil <i> by Alev Lytle Croutier; (Abbeville Press: $35; 224 pp.; illustrated; 0-89659-903-5) </i>

Scene from "The Harem Bath."

This book is like a marvelous box of expensive chocolates, or rather, perfumed Turkish delight. The titles are asenticing as the aroma of jasmine: training of odalisques, harem walls, death, secrets of flowers and birds, riddles and stories, opium, disenchantment, death, desire and consummation, regeneration of (eunuchs’) genitals, jewelry, death. . . . Mortality taps away in the perfumed garden, a woodpecker amid the singing birds.

The sumptuous pictures seduce us too. Ingres’ coolly classical nude La Grande Odalisque of 1814 with her rich jeweled clasp in the hair emphasizing her skin’s luster, looks over her right shoulder at the viewer, her hand loosely holding the phallic handle of her peacock fan. Bouchard’s naked beauty in After the Bath of 1894 looks away intent on her testing of the water; her body faces us but oh so tastefully, heavy gold bangles and rich drapery on the couch tell us she is not of our European world of the feminine. Sir Frank Dicksee’s sultry Leila, 1892, reclines in flaming red and gold robes but manages to look only positively repressed and English beside Renoir’s Odalisque, 1870. Her slouched pose and hooded eyes, tired with who knows which pleasures, make her business all too clear. She is not serving tea.

Sensuality. Better, Oriental sensuality. The air is so heavy you can smell it in Delacroix and Renoir. We know it is “Eastern” air and these are Eastern breasts, thighs, sultry glances because of the almost suffocating colors, glittering pearls in rich settings, damasks, a leopard skin here and there.

Black slaves play their part, male and female. Mother of pearl inlay is everywhere and so are the inevitable hubble bubble pipes. If Western males were to have their fantasies, every dream element had to find a place in the cliched decor of desire for The Orient.


The Orient as Woman. Accessible woman, passive yet alluring woman, always available because always possessed woman. Explored, examined and dominated like The East itself she must also look “mysterious.” The glowing canvases are a rhapsody of mostly 19th-Century European men’s erotic imaginings.

And there is the eternal and cliched question of this book’s subtitle: Just what was “The World Behind the Veil”?

More to the point, what was the world behind that tight, all-covering black suit of the respectable middle-class gentleman in the gallery, dressed permanently as if going to a funeral (as the French poet Baudelaire sardonically observed)? What is the world behind the designer jeans of the man looking at these images of 1989? Is he turned on? Does “the harem” still intrigue us, tempting women too into secret dreams?

Publishers certainly think so. They are in the business of selling things and knowing markets. We still want to consume the world, pry into all its veiled places, penetrate all its, her, hidden parts, see everything that is concealed. The pictures reproduced here themselves sell for millions. High art plus sex plus fantasy plus money, even in this age that’s a heady cocktail.


Alev Lytle Croutier begins her superbly illustrated stroll through this universe of illusion recalling her own family, and growing up in an old house “which was once the harem of a pasha.” A girl, the women told her things about the world of women. She is Turkish but left for the United States in 1963 when she was 18. So she was there, but is partly an outsider. Ideal credentials.

Old photos tell their own stories of her family. A great uncle poses with his wife and daughters. The riding boots and crop, military uniform and sharply turned up mustaches are the very type of officer gentleman. The wife has her head covered in a scarf and two-tone boots peep out from beneath what looks like the rich material of her all-concealing dress. The children in identical off-the-face brimmed hats lean formally on their parents’ knees or shoulders. On the opposite page the author’s father and mother pose in “Turkish costume,” which reminds us how quickly “the folk” came to be used in dressing up by the local well-to-do, a kind of charade of something called “the traditional.”

In an odd way the snapshot resembles the picture of Mr. and Mrs. Silk Buckingham elaborately costumed in Oriental clothes in the England of 1816 (by Pickersgill). The irony here does not seem to be part of the author’s own awareness. She is inclined to flit from subject to subject, picture to picture, book to book. Sometimes she comments stringently on the Orientalism and fantasy of it all. Mostly she is rather blandly content with a few lines on Ottoman history or a paragraph or two on shopping, food, dress. The pictures themselves are often treated merely as illustrations of a reality. She will suddenly use Sir Richard Burton or even Montesquieu’s Persian Letters as if they were just reliable reporters of the world of, say, black eunuchs.

Amid the history there is a real howler when the author refers to the Angel Gabriel passing on “slips of parchment” to the Prophet Muhammed. The whole point of the Quran is that it was a spoken revelation. Gabriel was not God’s secretary and somebody from Turkey--not to mention the editor--really ought to know that.

The ideal credentials are not so ideal after all. The book becomes an Orientalist commodity too, despite the rather unabsorbed comments about illusion and repressed desires. The photos show up one of the problems. Posed in a studio as was so often done, they were supposed to look like the “real life” of the harem, but are merely pale and gray beside the glowing display of the artists. And a “real Turkish harem,” as a caption says of one, shows a blank-faced and self-conscious woman in a white dress on a sofa supposedly playing a lute; an upright piano with its two little candelabra and a long frame packed with photos dominate the little room. The photo is simply there in a chapter, illustrating rather than demystifying, because of course the publishers do not really want to demystify as their blurb claims. They too are selling odalisques.

The author hesitates occasionally, but mostly decides to go along uncritically and without real comment on all these powerful images. Manet’s famous Olympia becomes just another reproduction filling the bottom of a page with nothing on why it caused a sensation in its time or what it does to us. There is no sense of the shock of that look. Similarly Matisse is quoted warning us not to be deluded, but we never find out what he meant. Unfortunately the book ends with women as primordial, instinctual and associated with the moon, water and timelessness, while men . . . .

What a pity those grandmothers and aunts to whom the book is dedicated, over a posed photo of a dancing girl, are swamped by production values. This is a chance missed.