The theme of this powerful and disturbing book is the way in which intellectual traditions are created and transmitted. They do not simply arise, Edward Said argues, in the solitude of a thinker’s or a scholar’s mind. The scholar may “attempt to reach a level of relative freedom from…brute, everyday reality,” but he can never quite escape or ignore his “involvement as a human subject in his own circumstances.”
…the possibilities for work present in the culture to a great and original mind are never unlimited…. The work of predecessors, the institutional life of a scholarly field, the collective nature of any learned enterprise: these, to say nothing of economic and social circumstances, tend to diminish the effects of the individual scholar’s production. A field like Orientalism has a cumulative and corporative identity…the result has been a certain consensus: certain things, certain types of statement, certain types of work have seemed for the Orientalist correct.
“Orientalism” is the example Mr. Said uses to illustrate his theme, and by it he means something precise. The scholar who studies the Orient (and specifically the Muslim Orient), the imaginative writer who takes it as his subject, and the institutions which have been concerned with “teaching it, settling it, ruling it,” all have something in common: a certain representation or idea of “the Orient,” defined as being other than the “Occident,” mysterious, unchanging, and ultimately inferior.
This representation has been created by the Western mind in more or less complete freedom, for “the Orient as a genuinely felt and experienced force” has been almost totally absent from Western culture. It has been developed and maintained by a kind of implicit partnership between scholars, writers, and those who have won and governed empires. Scholars and writers have been conscious of the sheer fact of Western strength in a passive and powerless Orient waiting to be ruled or manipulated, and the men who ruled have drawn a moral justification, and therefore a kind of strength, from the Western idea of the Orient. The partnership has been mediated through institutions—certain formalized ways of teaching and writing—which have limited what can be thought and said about the Orient.
It is this cumulative way of thinking about the Orient and acting toward it that Edward Said calls “Orientalism.” Of course, any kind of thought involves making distinctions, and distinctions establish limits, but it is his contention that this kind of definition has been particularly harmful. It may have acted as a spur to the European imagination and helped to shape the Western sense of identity, but since it is a distinction based ultimately on religious and cultural difference it has led to a misunderstanding of historical processes. It has made it impossible to see “orientals” as individual human beings, since their identity has been absorbed into the idea of “the Muslim,” “the Arab,” or “the Oriental”; and, like all very simple binary oppositions of “us” and “them,” it has given rise to judgments of moral worth. The Orient is seen as strange and distant, malignant and dead unless we bring it to life, the haunt of “monsters, evils, heroes; terrors, pleasures, desires.”
The germ of this vision of the Orient Mr. Said finds in the first encounters of Western Europe with the world of Islam: the struggle for control of the Mediterranean basin caused a recurrent trauma in the Western mind, and it could only be controlled by trying to explain Islam in familiar terms, as a false revelation or a Christian heresy. Then, in the second half of the eighteenth century, structures of thought inherited from the past were “secularized, redisposed and reformed”: under the influence of a new kind of intellectual curiosity and the expansion of European power, the image of the Muslim enemy turned into the modern image of the “Oriental.” There appeared the first modern “Orientalists,” the Frenchman Anquetil-Duperron, who discovered and translated Avestan texts, and the Englishman Sir William Jones, who translated Sanskrit poetry and studied Hindu laws, and who “before he left England for India in 1783…was already a master of Arabic, Hebrew, and Persian.” Jones was particularly important because his career was bound up with the first effective and permanent rule of Europeans over an Oriental society, that of the East India Company in Bengal; in his life and work, the link between political domination and the urge to understand becomes explicit.
A generation later there came a European incursion into the heart of the Muslim Orient. The French occupation of Egypt in 1798 was not only an incident in the revolutionary wars, it was a movement of the imagination. Bonaparte had read the Comte de Volney’s Voyage en Egypte et en Syrie and other writings about Egypt, and they helped to shape his actions there: he was conscious of forty centuries looking down on him and his soldiers: he thought of himself as coming to bring back life to a lifeless world, and the scholars and scientists who went with him carried out the first systematic appropriation of an Oriental society and culture.
The French expedition perhaps did more for the “imaginative geography” of the Orient than for the real Egypt. To represent the Orient intellectually and imaginatively, to dominate it and bring it back to life: these endeavors were to create the Orientalist “field” during the next seventy years or so. Scholars discovered, edited, extracted, translated, and interpreted texts: at first an individual effort, their work was later codified and embodied in institutions and traditions. Mr. Said is mainly concerned with two of the traditions, the French which begins with Silvestre de Sacy, author of works on grammar and an Arabic anthology, and the English which goes back to Edward William Lane, lexicographer, translator of the Arabian Nights, and author of a work still widely read, An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians.
These traditions were enriched by ideas drawn from the general culture of the age, and Edward Said is right to lay emphasis on the science of philology, and in particular on Ernest Renan, who applied its methods to the study of the Semitic languages. Philology was one of the seminal studies of the nineteenth century, almost a secularized religion. Renan called it “the exact science of mental objects,” and it seemed to offer a way of understanding not only languages but the nature and history of mankind. By reducing languages to their roots, it was able to group them into families, and it suggested that the families of languages could also be families of all those entities which expressed themselves through language: religions and mythologies, cultures and races.
Within a family, languages could be arranged in order of generations, and the classification of languages and cultures could therefore give rise to a history of them, and to a purely human history in which God had played no part. But Mr. Said contends that, in so far as it was used in the Orientalist field, philology itself was confined within the “Orientalist” frame and was used to give a “scientific” basis to the binary opposition which was already there. For Renan, the Semitic languages were essentially inferior to the Aryan, and incapable of developing beyond a certain point: “we refuse to allow that the Semitic languages have the capacity to regenerate themselves.” In a particularly brilliant passage, Mr. Said suggests that this idea comes from an application to philology of certain ideas current in the anatomical science of the age: Semitic for Renan is what an anatomical monster was for Etienne Saint-Hilaire, not an exception but an anomaly, a phenomenon of degraded or arrested development.
Parallel to the process of scholarly investigation went that of exploration. Some travelers to the Orient, like Lane, went as scholars to gather materials; some, like Chateaubriand, to discover or assert their identities; others, like Burton, from a mixture of motives. In a subtle analysis not only of what they said but of the ways in which they said it—arrangement, style, and “tone”—Mr. Said uncovers the “latent Orientalism” beneath their differences of approach. For all of them, the fact of empire, the assertion and domination of Europe, was a present reality; the Orient appeared as a fallen being, attractive but full of danger, in particular sexual danger.
The modern Orient that they found was not the real Orient but a dead shell into which only Europe could breathe life again; travel in the Orient was a kind of pilgrimage, which bore fruit only when the traveler had encountered dangers and overcome them, seen strange places and turned his back on them, and returned to his own self enriched. In spite of the similarities, Mr. Said is aware of differences between British and French attitudes, and perhaps he overstates them. For the British, securely established in India, he says, the Muslim Orient is a region of potential domination; for the French it is haunted by a “sense of acute loss.” But in this period the French had not irretrievably lost the Middle East, and they had won for themselves a new province of the imagination in Algeria.
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century a new phase begins. The imperial governments take on new responsibilities, the British in Egypt and the French in Tunisia; then the division of the Ottoman Empire, foreshadowed before the First World War, is accomplished at its end, and the Arabic-speaking provinces fall under British and French control. The relationship between scholarly work and political action becomes closer and more complex. The institutions through which the Orientalist tradition is transmitted are larger, more formally organized, and more closely linked with governments. Within this tradition, new human types of the “Orientalist” emerge. In the generation before 1914, the age of light-hearted, combative, and self-assured expansion, there appears the “imperial agent,” the man who puts his knowledge and ideas, his feelings and impulses, at the service of empire.
As a student of Joseph Conrad, Mr. Said is at his ease with this kind of ambiguous personality, mysterious, in the end unknowable, seeking some personal redemption by way of some difficult and secret mission. The archetypal agent is T.E. Lawrence, and Said has new and penetrating things to say about the complex interweaving of motives in Lawrence’s active life, and of narrative and personal vision in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. For Lawrence as for Bonaparte, it was by way of an imaginative vision of an epic, to be first lived and then written, that he “drew these tides of men into my hands”; his actions were then remolded into the vision we find in his flawed masterpiece, but it is impossible to tell where narrative ends and where vision begins, whether Lawrence’s aim has been “to make a new nation, to restore a lost influence,” or to make and discover himself. He himself becomes the Orient; one man becomes an entire history.