The exotic incites curiosity. But exoticism, looking for the exotic where none necessarily exists, can be poisonous.
“Exoticism, by definition, is ‘the charm of the unfamiliar.'”
I came across a brilliant piece on exoticism by Daniel Abraham. He feels ambivalent about searching for the exotic in history —
There’s a danger in looking for that in the literal world — within history. And it’s something that screws us up whether we’re trying to put God into history or Lamont Cranston into Thailand. But that doesn’t take away from the hunger behind it. For escapism, for exoticism, for the idealized other. I don’t think that desire is in itself pathological, and I don’t want to see it thrown out with the bathwater.
In Heart of Darkness, Marlow recalls about his childhood,
Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, `When I grow up I will go there.’ The North Pole was one of these places, I remember. Well, I haven’t been there yet, and shall not try now. The glamour’s off.
The Victorian authors – of which Conrad is only one – is full of this process of imbuing an outside culture or area with mystique. Wilkie Collins wrote The Moonstone. H. G. Wells wrote The Time Machine.
As this piece says,
…The concept of the exotic/exoticism can be traced back to seventeenth century Europe. The nineteenth century construct of exoticism however, resulted from increased travel and exploration outside Europe to the East and Australia for instance.
It seems to me like this has a lot to do with putting people on a pedestal. As Abraham says, it dehumanizes the exotic person/s.
When you grow up, the world loses its glamor. Maybe that’s why speculative fiction sells so well.
Fantasy and science fiction add instant glamor to stories, in different ways. But their tropes make it comfortable. Genre tropes remove the reader’s discomfort. That’s perhaps the difference between pure escapism and escapism + substance.
I keep a tumblr of things that inspire me. Take a look if you’re so inclined. I’m not an expert, or even half an expert, so don’t ask me questions. (By the end of 2013 I’ll know everything about ancient history. (Achievable goals.)) I bring it up because a) I’m shameless, and b) what I put up there often has an exotic flavor. Often this means ancient history.
Ancient history seems very very exotic. But that can be amplified by the lack of information we have.
Certain interpretations of the medieval troubadours are quite exotic. But the best recordings we have are from the last few decades. Go back far enough into Medieval France and your guess at what their music sounded like is as good as anyone else’s. For serious.
Anecdotal ghost stories illustrate how the lack of information makes a story. They come to the teller as fragments, without beginnings or middles or endings. People want to believe in them because of the unfamiliarity inherent in the idea of ghosts.
It comes back to people. When mystery is valued over people, things break.