Do you like Goya? was the first thing the Famous Painter asked. Well I knew where he was going with that one. After all, he was famous for more than just being a painter – 30 illegitimate children, or was it 29…? Memory isn’t what it used to be. I’d read his file, but that was months ago, before they vetted him and judged him to fit to paint the Royal likeness, whatever that means.
Issue 12 - The Exotic
A man once told me he preferred museums to life because he liked representations of things more than the things themselves. I was outraged; I took personal offence. Life! What about real life?! A while later, though, I was struck with the realisation that as a writer and editor, I spend most of my time coming up with metaphors for things that distance them from the things being described. F. Scott Fitzgerald doesn’t write about the sky in The Great Gatsby, he writes about how in the late afternoon the heavens “bloomed in the window for a moment like the blue honey of the Mediterranean.” In Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Bernard describes the sky as “the panorama of life.”
Artists (this includes writers) see things through a filter and this in turn colours their perception of the thing. This isn’t news, I know, but I had never thought about how this takes us away from the thing itself. Plato kicked the artists out of his Republic because their representations are twice removed from the thing being represented. There is the ideal of the table and then there is the actual table, which is one degree from the truth of the table. If there is a painting or description of the table, then this is even further from the truth of the original table. The artist’s table is not really a table, then; it is something different. In distancing the object from its ideal, we can see artists as making something new, fresh. Making it exotic.
Exotic, Greek for “foreign,” comes from the prefix exo: from the outside. The sense of “unusual” or “strange” was first recorded in English in the early 1620s. Funnily enough, the first publication of Shakespeare’s The Tempest is dated to 1623.
It is believed that Shakespeare drew inspiration for this play from real letters written by William Strachey, a passenger aboard the Sea Venture - a ship that crashed in 1609 on the uninhabited island of Bermuda. Through language, spirits, and magic, The Tempest explores both sides of foreignness. The men on the boat – Alonso, Sebastian, Ferdinand, Gonzalo and Antonio – land shipwrecked on this island and must face the unknown. Its sounds, its tastes, its inhabitants: everything is strange.
But for Miranda, having grown up in isolation on this otherwise uninhabited island, regular human society seems exotic. Caliban, too, has grown up in isolation, but as the monster of the island, tamed and tortured by Prospero.
Here, we can see Said’s Orientalism philosophy as well as its mirror image: the ‘Other’ is imagined and then confronted by those both from and away. When is it useful to think of things as “exotic” and when is it important to “de-exoticise” them? Is it always a negative act to exoticise something or someone? Not necessarily. I think it has to do with making things strange and new; seeing things with curiosity and reverence; seeing things as an artist does.
I’ve been working as a live model for my friend Rosy Lamb, a painter whose work has been published several times in this magazine. The process of being looked at so closely somehow created distance: I didn’t feel like she was really looking at me, but at the same time, she was looking closer than most do. Rosy was seeing the whole scene, though: she once explained that my body had the same priority as the objects in the background. When you paint something, she said, everything becomes equal. When I saw the finished painting and looked into the eyes of the me that she had painted, it was disorienting and surprising and strange. I had become exotic to myself.
The works we’ve chosen to publish in this issue explore different permutations of The Exotic: we present the perspectives of those that are from both home and away. Stories of transformation and princes are paired with explorations of religion and faith. You will be presented with numerous alternative, exotic worlds and ideas and we hope you find the selection here as beautiful and surprising as we do.