The Evolving Gypsy Image and the Romani People in the Western Imagination

Author/s: Christopher-James OBrien, PhD
Availability: Open Access
Type: Dissertation
Year: 2007

Abstract: In Chapter 1, I posit a hypothesis about the way sensory input, memory, and imagination mingle in the mind, with the result that what we seem to experience is not actually all present in the outside world, but instead a blending of the three. External stimuli invoke, or call to mind, memories of old experiences as well as old imaginings … which bring about newly blended images. Since these blended images are not based entirely on actual experiences but instead on imagined scenes that are often inspired by creative art, they are frequently inaccurate. Nevertheless, the mind does not always make a distinction between what is true and what is merely assumed, leading to synecdochic fallacies and misconfirmed assumptions. I also describe how the initial impression of the Romanies was specifically an intentional image-forging attempt, which would have given settled Europe a favorable impression if some of the Romanies had not been caught breaking the law; as it was, both the favorable and unpleasant sides became lasting elements of the image, developed during the two pioneering decades following the initial meetings in 1417. In the next two chapters, I examine how the processes I describe played out in Western culture, developed in the media of literature, which branched sharply off from reality and took on a stereotypical life all its own. The last chapter demonstrates how this divergence of reality and imagination is today as strong as ever, and also how the two are blended in the perceptions of today's Western mind. The end of the chapter takes all the preceding material into consideration, and proposes some ideas how the Western experience of interacting with the real Romany and the imaginary Gypsy—and my examination of this interaction—can help us to learn from history, and historical errors—to use the natural processes described to good purpose: to remove the unhealthy and harmful negative (i. e. false) Gypsy image from the Romanies. This sort of action is like removing the stigma of shame from someone who has reformed. Then the public imagination must be engaged, so that the stereotype-gap (one sort of information gap) is filled in with the image of the Romani as a real human group. If this “paradigm shift,” if it is not too incorrect to term it so, is achieved skillfully, the Roma may soon have a better chance of being related to more fairly, and the Gypsy image, which many have implied is somehow “needed” by the Western mind as the “epitome of freedom,” will be seen as a false, though charming, image, and further, confidence tricksters might even be referred to as the criminals they really are, whether or not they are Roma—without using the derogatory term “gypsy criminal.”

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