There are many things which I have long held at arm’s length because of a general suspicion that I will not like them or profit by them. I have from time to time been reproved by others (and myself) for not having sure and certain knowledge of them. “How can you know you’ll dislike something unless you try it?” is the refrain, one which eventually gets internalized and becomes the chiding admonition of conscience. But having a little time on my hands at this stage of my life and a willingness to experiment, I have the opportunity to confront and investigate things I thought unworth the effort before.
With this in mind I took up Edward Said’s famous (or notorious) book Orientalism. The book is one of the few “classics” of living scholarship, its title known to virtually the entire Academy (on the Humanities side of things, of course), and presumably its contents are known to many as well. Said himself brags in the intensely self-focused afterword that the book has been translated into French (no surprise), “Japanese, German, Portuguese, Italian, Polish, Spanish, Catalan, Turkish, Serbo-Croation, and Swedish (in 1993 it became a bestseller in Sweden…)” and he furthermore mentions other translations in progress (“Greek, Russian, Norwegian, and Chinese”), and notes “other European translations are rumored.” This may be taken as success, I think.
The main premise is promising, and undeniably true, I think: that Europeans developed a picture of “the Orient” which was heavily conditioned by their own point of view and psychological requirements. Misunderstanding is one of the great fertile fields for analysis. Simply let another person close to you explain to someone else some important thing about you, and listen carefully to the way they see it. You are likely to find a completely different way of looking at things, and the normal desire in such circumstances – once the astonishment has worn off – is to commandeer the conversation and explain it all properly. But for “the Orient” as Said describes it – mainly 19th and 20th century imperial possessions – there was very little opportunity to commandeer the conversation. The symbol of this chosen by Said is Flaubert describing his purchase of an Egyptian dancer-prostitute named Kuchuk Hanem. She has no voice of her own in literature, and her appearance in the historical record is as an experience to be had in the life of a 19th century French author. “My argument is that Flaubert’s situation of strength in relation to Kuchuk Hanem was not an isolated instance. It fairly stands for the pattern of relative strength between East and West, and the discourse about the Orient that it enabled” (6).
This is Said’s theme, and it is an excellent topic for scholarly investigation. His treatment of it, however, is poor, even surprisingly so. Like any academic reviewer, I have quibbles with his selection of material and with some of his facts, but you have to draw boundaries somewhere and you will always get some facts wrong. More important is that this is not a study of the West’s conception of “the Other” but an ideological screed, in which Orientalism has a very particular meaning. It is a “nexus of knowledge and power creating ‘the Oriental’ and in a sense obliterating him as a human being” (27), “an almost unanimous consensus that he does not exist, and when it is allowed that he does, it is either as a nuisance or as an Oriental.” It is a “web of racism, cultural stereotypes, political imperialism, dehumanizing ideology holding in the Arab or the Muslim” (27). Said himself in the preface acknowledges his personal animus and in the afterword avers “Orientalism is a partisan book, not a theoretical machine” (339).
Because the book is so partisan, its analysis is bad (I could choose a fancier word, but “bad” probably sums it up). This will be the focus of my review, as Said’s own incapacity to read accurately or with nuance shows clearly enough where his personal demons are. Ironically, it may actually be a combination of two constituting factors – the excellence of the theme and the sloppiness of the treatment – which has made Orientalism so influential. Said opened a field for analysis but did not fill it. He is a good master whose skills deter no one from imitating him.
Let us start with the Greeks. Said claims that the Orientalist pattern “already seems bold by the time of the Iliad.” He continues by fitting in a brief analysis of Aeschylus’ play The Persians, saying “what matters here is that Asia speaks through and by virtue of the European imagination, which is depicted as victorious over Asia, that hostile ‘other’ world beyond the seas. To Asia are given the feelings of emptiness, loss, and disaster…” (56). This is all fine – after all, both Aeschylus and Homer were describing military victories, the “dominative mode,” I suppose we can call it. But to drag Homer into this is ignorance at best and perhaps even delusional charlatanism. Said does not, of course, go into further detail, because he will not find any lack of humanity in Hector, Andromache, Priam or any of Homer’s other “Orientals.” In fact Homer is the author of the world’s most transcendent simile, in which the victor of Troy, bowed by long grief and misfortune, on hearing the story of Troy weeps
as a woman weeps when she throws herself on the body of her husband who has fallen before his own city and people, fighting bravely in defence of his home and children. She screams aloud and flings her arms about him as he lies gasping for breath and dying, but her enemies beat her from behind about the back and shoulders, and carry her off into slavery, to a life of labour and sorrow, and the beauty fades from her cheeks. (Odyssey, Book 8 ad fin.)
If Homer can be accused of “obliterating her as a human being” here then there are no Humanities at all – particularly because, in true Humanist fashion, this simile describes Odysseus the victor. It is hardly “dominative” and “other”-making at all – it is a simile linking the sufferings of the vanquished with the later sufferings of the vanquisher.
As for Aeschylus, the problem is that he does not really fit into the schema either. Aeschylus wrote about the military victory of a tiny group of city-states against a much larger military empire. The literary value of his work (and Herodotus’s, who appears in lists as a distant outpost of ancient Orientalism but is never analyzed) lays in the fact that he does see the Persians as humans subject to the same laws as himself (though he does rejoice in their loss). But far from being the analogue of Flaubert, Aeschylus in this instance is far more like a victorious Kuchuk Hanem singing a song of liberation than a Flaubert sampling the pleasures a rich man can have in a poor country.
Said moves on to Dante. Of course Dante becomes an Orientalist: “Mohammed, Saladin, Averroes, and Avicenna are fixed in a visionary cosmology – fixed, laid out, boxed, imprisoned, without much regard for anything except their ‘function’ and the patterns they realize on the stage of which they appear” (69-70). But Said does not explain why Dante, in giving Saladin the same fate, say, as Julius Caesar, and Averroes and Avicenna the same fate as Plato and Aristotle, and Mohammed the same fate as the troubadour Bertran de Born and fellow-Italian Fra Dolcino, is obeying the dictates of a binary impulse to separate the world into European and Oriental (“a line is drawn between two continents,” 57).
He spends some time analyzing excerpts from a speech by Arthur James Balfour, to justify British Imperial Rule. Here are some of the excerpts:
First of all, look at the facts of the case…. You may look through the
whole history of the Orientals in what is called, broadly speaking,
the East, and you never find traces of self-government. All their great
centuries – and they have been very great – have been passed under
despotisms, under absolute government. All their great contributions
to civilisation – and they have been great – have been made under
that form of government. Conqueror has suceeded conqueror; one
domination has followed another; but never in all the revolutions of
fate and fortune have you seen one of those nations of its own motion
establish what we, from a Western point of view, call self-government.
That is a fact. It is not a question of superiority and inferiority…. (32-3)
That is Balfour’s preamble. What he considers the question to be deliberated upon is this:
Is it a good thing for these great nations – I admit their greatness –
that this absolute government should be exercised by us? I think it is
a good thing. I think that experience shows that they have got under
it far better government than in the whole history of the world they
ever had before… (33)
This is Said’s ultimate analysis:
The argument, reduced to its simplest form, was clear, it was precise,
it was easy to grasp. There are Westerners, and there are Orientals.
The former dominate; the latter must be dominated, which usually
means having their land occupied, their internal affairs rigidly
controlled, their blood and treasure put at the disposal of one or
another Western power. That Balfour and Cromer, as we shall soon
see, could strip humanity down to such ruthless cultural and racial
essences was not at all an indication of their particular viciousness.
Rather it was an indication of how streamlined a general doctrine
had become by the time they put it to use – how streamlined and how
Balfour seems to be saying something much more complicated and interesting than that, interesting not least because it is still a major issue in international diplomacy: to what extent is despotism a legitimate form of government for countries which have, in their history, had no other form of government? And is British control of Egypt equally legitimate as Turkish or Arab control of Egypt? Is British control of Palestine equally legitimate as Jordanian control of Palestine? Interestingly enough, Said’s answer appears clear – no, it isn’t – but it is not easy to say why that would be so. Indeed, this might involve positing a theoretical difference between a Turk and a Brit when it came to ruling Egypt – which would, presumably by Said’s standards, “obliterate the humanity” of one or the other. One rationale might be relative effectiveness – a Turk, being closer to Egypt, would understand it better and hence be a better despot than a Brit – but in fact, it was precisely this argument which helped keep the British Foreign Service in control.
Said spends some time on this phenomenon, and it is one of the more interesting portions of his book. Balfour is his point of entry. The idea is that superior knowledge justifies rule. I do not find this inherently racist, though Said does. I would say it would tend to empower different races at different times. But it is a major phenomenon of Orientalism, because in fact the pursuit of linguistics, ethnology, and anthropology (as well as history, archaeology, geology, geography, botany, and so forth) was encouraged in large part because the information acquired was hoped to improve the efficient administration of the Empire and thereby secure it. This is the “Orientalist” viewpoint behind, say, Flaubert’s purchase of an Egyptian prostitute. He wanted not only sex but knowledge, and specifically knowledge which would lead to power – for him, something he could utilize as a writer. Unfortunately, Said’s investigation of this is marred by the fact that he finds it racist, patronizing, and condescending. I think it is a much broader phenomenon. This is the same relationship a writer might have, say, with his former girlfriend, or his parents, or an acquaintance he investigates because he finds the person “interesting” and useful as “material.” It may also be the relationship between a scholar and his subject, or a politician and his constituency, or any other number of situations where a person expects to convert the knowledge gained by the relationship into some kind of power. But it is also the relationship people have with self-help books. And the relationship they have with victims they want to help: a man might look at the currents of a river and determine a good landing point before leaping into the water to save someone.
In other words, there are good and bad uses of power, but it appears that for Said merely to uncover the fact of power is to “discredit” the people involved. This is his take on almost all European Orientalists – if they served as imperial advisors, or if the knowledge they uncovered could have been used by imperial administrators, or even if they used their superior position to extract knowledge, then they cannot have been good people – as they were in the group of people “radically flawed by their association either with discredited political and economic interests (oil-company and State Department Arabists, for example) or with religion” (27). I do not find this very useful.
The refusal of Said to see phenomena in their broader context, and his insistence that all is a binary “us” versus “them,” can be found in his analysis of Kipling (and let me say he could have done far better research to advance his racism thesis if he had read more of the work of the author of The White Man’s Burden). Here is the Kipling text he uses:
Mule, horse, elephant or bullock, he obeys his driver, and the driver
his sergeant, and the sergeant his lieutenant, and the lieutenant his
captain, and the captain his major, and the major his colonel, and the
colonel his brigadier commanding three regiments, and the brigadier his general, who obeys the Viceroy, who is a servant of the Empress. (45)
Let me put down all of Said’s analysis here, as it is a sign of what the reader has to contend with:
As deeply forged as is this monstrous chain of command, as strongly
managed as is Cromer’s ‘harmonious working,’ Orientalism can also
express the strength of the West and the Orient’s weakness – as seen
by the West. Such strength and such weakness are as intrinsic to
Orientalism as they are to any view that divides the world into large
general divisions, entities that coexist in a state of tension produced
by what is believed to be radical difference.
For that is the main intellectual issue raised by Orientalism. Can one
divide human reality, as indeed human reality seems to be genuinely
divided, into clearly different cultures, histories, traditions, societies,
even races, and survive the consequences humanly? By surviving the
consequences humanly, I mean to ask whether there is any way of
avoiding the hostility expressed by the division, say, of men into “us”
(Westerners) and “they” (Orientals). For such divisions are generalities
whose use historically and actually has been to press the importance
of the distinction between some men and some other men, usually
towards not especially admirable ends. When one uses categories like
Oriental and Western as both the starting and the end points of
analysis, research, public policy (as the categories were used by
Balfour and Cromer), the result is usually to polarize the distinction –
the Oriental becomes more Oriental, the Westerner more Western –
and limit the human encounter between different cultures, traditions,
and societies. In short, from its earliest modern history to the present,
Orientalism as a form of thought for dealing with the foreign has
typically shown the altogether regrettable tendency of any knowledge
based on such hard-and-fast distinctions as “East” and “West”: to
channel thought into a West or an East compartment. Because this
tendency is right at the center of Orientalist theory, practice, and
values found in the West, the sense of Western power over the Orient
is taken for granted as having the status of scientific truth. (45-6)
Again, all well and good. But this has nothing to do with the Kipling passage he supposedly is analyzing. In fact, Kipling’s hierarchy indicates something very different from these “hostile divisions” into “us” and “they”: that cannot possibly be the distinction between a captain and a major, can it? Indeed the captain has a chance of becoming a major. If the contention is that the mule has no chance of becoming a driver, very well, but Kipling chooses to present that distinction as analogous to the distinction between captain and major, i.e. not an ontologically significant one, but rather a function of circumstance (“accident,” in Aristotelian terms). But Said’s interpretation is by turns irrelevant and patronizing and rhetorical. In either situation for understanding Kipling or the Orient it is not much use.
What it does help you understand is Said himself, and I cannot doubt that I find something admirable in his moral stance, though I imagine his confused writing and analysis are but the symptom of an inner confusion and ambivalence that is much deeper. The popularity of the book also indicates that this confusion and ambivalence are widespread. A glance at photograph of the man, as well as a read of a page or two of his prose, show the tension: in his background, look, language, dress, style, wealth, education, and position, he appears to be precisely the kind of Western man of power and curiosity symbolized by Flaubert – and sure enough, he is using his knowledge of “the Orient” as a means of achieving status and material comfort. “In none of that, however,” he avers, “have I ever lost hold of the cultural reality of, the personal involvement in having been constituted as, ‘an Oriental.’” His childhood was spent in the Middle East, and his parents were Palestinians (though also elite Protestants; he was educated at British schools before going to boarding school in New England and then Princeton). This is an interesting tension, of course, as the most interesting people are always those with their feet in two worlds.
But there is a little something dangerous and strange about Said’s confusion. This is neatly symbolized by his trip at the end of his life to the West Bank, where for the cameras he picked up a rock and threw it over a wall into Israel, an act he called “a symbolic gesture of joy.” The equation of violence and joy is one of those things that should raise eyebrows.
The way this plays out in Orientalism is first of all in its contradictory attacks on “essentialism,” the belief that things have some kind of definable essence. The problem with this, of course, is that Said dispenses with it whenever he wants to attack “Orientalists,” and it does not appear that there are any Westerners who are not Orientalists. Balfour, Doughty, Burton, Kipling, Flaubert, Homer, Spengler, Dante, and George Eliot are all essentially “Orientalists.” He is not afraid to make sweeping generalizations. He closes a discussion of Dante’s putting people into boxes by saying, “And so, indeed, is the Orientalist attitude in general” (70). If you merely replaced “Orientalist” with “Oriental” the book would be called one of the most bigoted and racist books printed after the Second World War. He permits himself things he would not permit those he would classify (“us” versus “them”) as “opponents”: had Bernard Lewis thrown a rock back at him from the Israeli side of the fence, rather than “a symbolic gesture of joy” he would have called it “the inherent dominative mode.”
And so the great contradiction of the book is that it perpetuates, rather than transcends, precisely the type of thinking it denigrates. The tables are reversed, but are not less slanted for that. Somehow or other he lays down a distinction between the act of a Flaubert or Balfour or Bernard Lewis and the act of a Hanem or ibn Khaldun or Edward Said, while also attacking the dehumanizing notion of distinctions. It is pure ressentiment.
It is as useless and chilling to the true transcendence of history’s burdens as Said’s throwing a rock was. The chilling part comes from the fact that cultural differences still exist and we need to negotiate them somehow (even if scholars like Said find all “we-they” language unacceptable), beginning with things as elementary and obvious as language (“we call this ‘tea,’ they call it ‘chai,’”), and extending to gesture (“we shake our heads from left to right to indicate ‘no,’ they jerk their heads backwards”) and other, more complicated modes of discourse. It is obvious enough that the positions of the “wes” and “theys” would be reversed if I were writing in Arabic. I see no problem with this. I do sympathize with Said’s moral outrage – I don’t know why there is this Babelish welter of misunderstanding which requires the “us” and “them” dichotomy known as translation – but I don’t find it useful. The “Orientalists” he despises wrote the initial dictionaries and grammars – linguistic and otherwise – which have served as the foundation for all later understanding. That there were misunderstandings was merely unavoidable.
Said himself proclaims indifference to this problem:
The phenomenon of Orientalism as I study it here deals principally, not with a correspondence between Orientalism and Orient, but with the internal consistency of Orientalism and its ideas about the Orient (the East as career) despite or beyond any correspondence, or lack thereof, with a ‘real’ Orient” (5).
Later: “I have no interest in, much less capacity for, showing what the true Orient and Islam really are” (331). This is a subterfuge, however. He is perfectly willing to castigate conceptions he believes are wrong – such as Orientalist conceptions of Mohammed:
since Christ is the basis of Christian faith, it was assumed – quite incorrectly – that Mohammed was to Islam as Christ was to Christianity. Hence the polemic name ‘Mohammedanism’ given to Islam, and the automatic epithet ‘impostor’ applied to Mohammed. (60)
Said says the same thing about the contention that Islam was a heretical form of Christianity. I would contend that while much of the discussion between religions is polemic, the accusations they send each other’s way are often interestingly useful. Oftentimes the outsider sees something the insider does not (as opposed to what Said would prefer: “It was with very great reluctance that what Muslims said Muslims believed was accepted as what they did believe” (61)). Coming in the other direction, Arabic has a word for all Western Europeans – frenji – which showed that they saw English and French and German (all frenjis) as more unified than distinct, an outside observation I find interesting. Similarly, the coinage of the term “Mohammedanism” – parallel to the Romans coining the term “Christian” as opposed to what the Christians used (“followers of the Way”) – to me still contains useful insights. The notion that representations of Mohammed in word or image or on the stage – who according to Muslim theology was merely a human – can incite riots while representations of other people will not shows clearly enough that Mohammed is not “human” in the same way I am or you are. He is ontologically special in a religious way. That comes close enough to worship, in my opinion, to make the term useful. And in general, I do not think it is wise at all to accept at face value what a person claims to believe. Oddly, that very policy is apparently Said’s recommendation, and he chooses as an epigraph for the book as a whole the saying of Marx: “they cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.” Said takes this as a terrible travesty. In ipso it is not, in my opinion.
But in the end, Said’s refusal to engage with reality – as something he has neither capacity for nor interest in – is the ultimate problem. He is missing the most interesting part of the story, and it is here that the famed distinction between Said and Bernard Lewis emerges. The question behind all “Orientalism” – and all colonialism and hegemony and so forth – is why Flaubert and Kuchuk Hanem had to meet as superior and inferior. To call this a “construct” or an invention of Flaubert is nonsense. What happened? Why did one half of the seesaw go up and the other down? What special thing happened in the West to make all its nations hegemons and colonizers? What special thing happened in the “Orient” to make virtually all its nations objects to be colonized? Was there something Kuchuk Hanem could have done so that she could have met Flaubert as an equal? Is there something her great-great-grandchildren can do to make sure they meet Flaubert’s great-great-grandchildren as equals? In Western terms, is there something Flaubert’s descendants can do themselves to create this equality? – which I conceive of as the fundamental question behind every attempt to justly use power.
This problem of power is present in all relationships. It has nothing to do with East and West specifically, and in fact, neither do any of the insights in Said’s book, really, though he did not seem to realize that. This could be a book about the way princes and paupers interact: when a prince goes through town and eats in the house of one pauper, he says to himself, “Ah, so this is how paupers eat,” taking specific for general. And his “discourse” about paupers will probably mention dirt, lack of ceremony, frankness about ‘the facts of life,’ lack of education and so forth. This can be because the prince is a “pauperist,” but it is also possible that there is dirt, directness, and ignorance present. Yes, it is true that one of the major reasons the prince points it out is that there is more dirt, more directness, and more ignorance than what he has seen himself in his past. Hence one’s own experience conditions one’s perceptions. I agree with this, and insofar as it needed to be pointed out, Said has done us all a favor.
But the useful route is to reason from these premises and conclude that princes, in Europe, led cleaner, less frank, and more educated lives than paupers, and had power over them, though they envied certain aspects of their lives. But Said is unable to draw conclusions about European or Oriental life that are useful. Endlessly lamenting the fact of princes and paupers – and no man hates inherited privilege more than I do, and I say this – is not nearly so important as working to abolish the gap between them. If Said has helped in this regard, then he should be applauded. But I sense he merely represents another dead end.