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Lost Paradises

Culture and Imperialism

by Edward W. Said
Knopf, 380 pp., $25.00


What redeems certain empires, or perhaps only the British, according to Conrad’s Marlow, what saves them from mere rapacity, from being “just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale,” is “the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to.” At this point in Heart of Darkness Marlow is said to break off. It is “only after a long silence” and “in a hesitating voice” that he speaks again, and starts to tell the story of his journey to Africa and his meeting with the mysterious and dying Kurtz.

Marlow stops speaking, presumably, because he is troubled by the metaphor he has stumbled into. Bowing down and offering a sacrifice don’t sound like the activities of an organized and enlightened Western mind. They sound like idolatry, even if the recipient is an idea rather than a barbarous deity. The very thing that (perhaps genuinely) distinguishes the British from the ancient Roman and the modern Belgian empires identifies it with the supposed savages it is unselfishly dispossessing of their land, and worse still, with Kurtz himself, the European who has gone native, whose house is surrounded by human skulls, and who has himself become someone to bow down before and offer a sacrifice to. African chiefs are said to “crawl” to him. As so often in Conrad, an argument begins to collapse into its opposite. There is a slippage at the heart of empire, a crack in its definition of itself.

Other features of empire are intact and unthreatened in Heart of Darkness, though, and even Conrad seems quite untroubled by them. The epigraph to Edward Said’s powerful recent book picks up the passage on Marlow’s idea a little earlier, and continues into the quotation as given above:

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it…

As the carefully understated irony makes clear, Conrad was not a racist in the most obvious and virulent sense; he did not believe in the superiority of one race over another, and repeatedly mocks the very notion. But he did believe in race itself, as almost everyone did until more recently than we care to remember. Conrad welcomed the stereotype of the African savage, even if he thought (or because he thought) we were all savages at heart. He could see that Europeans might be as wild and morally benighted as Africans, or even more so, because of the veneer of their hypocrisy and refinement; he could not see that Africans might have their own enlightenment and civilization.

This is an effect of culture, or rather of power experienced as a cultural inflection, and such matters are the theme of Said’s book. But culture doesn’t simply respond to power; it shapes the moral world in which power is exercised and encountered. In one sense Culture and Imperialism is a sequel to Said’s Orientalism (1978); in another it is, as he says, “an attempt to do something else.” Like Orientalism the newer work describes a culture of dominance, the way realities of power are both registered and masked in language and behavior; but it also explores cultures of resistance, the ways in which an ancient or emerging culture can speak within and against domination.

Thus Culture and Imperialism has a brilliant, affectionate chapter on Kipling’s Kim (“we can watch a great artist…blinded by his own insights about India”), a scrupulous and painful chapter on Camus’s fiction and its relation to Algerian independence (“Camus’s narratives have a negative vitality, in which the tragic human seriousness of the colonial effort achieves its last great clarification before ruin overtakes it”); a complex, many-angled account of Verdi’s Aida and its first performance in Egypt. But the book also has an intricate response to Yeats’s situation as an entangled postcolonial poet (“His greatest decolonizing works concern the birth of violence, or the violent birth of change”), and a passionate account of what Said calls the voyage in, the moment in writing when the children of empire take up their own argument in the alien language they have been taught. Said’s chief examples of this voyage, discussed in sympathetic detail, are C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins and George Antonius’s The Arab Awakening: he also makes acute comments on Ranajit Guha’s A Rule of Property for Bengal and S.H. Alatas’s The Myth of the Lazy Native.

No longer does the logos dwell exclusively, as it were, in London and Paris. No longer does history run unilaterally, as Hegel believed, from east to west, or from south to north, becoming more sophisticated and developed, less primitive and backward as it goes.

The new perspective requires not a denial of what comparative literature used to be in the grand days of Spitzer, Auerbach, and Curtius but an extension of its interest to works of historical and sociological learning, and a reexamination of its old hierarchies, its (sometimes) implicit but (always) unmistakable Eurocentrism.

The real hero of Said’s book is anonymous and collective; everyone who has been silenced or misrepresented by an empire, but who has said enough, or left marks enough, to encourage the chance of liberation. Frantz Fanon comes close to being the named hero, the bearer of a “cultural energy” which could move us beyond nationalism, seen as the continuing grip of empire’s hand, into an authentic humanism, a term to be stripped of its conservative and self-congratulating intonation. “It is a misreading of Fanon,” Said suggests, “not to see in him something considerably beyond a celebration of violent conflict.” I’m sure this is right, although Said’s dismissal of Fanon’s support of armed struggle as “at most tactical” is a little swift—it was more than that—and doesn’t even evoke “the justified violence of the oppressed,” a phrase Said uses elsewhere.

However, Said’s topic at this point is not violence but nationalism, and he already has enough difficulties on his hands. He doesn’t want to refuse nationalism its legitimacy as a form of resistance to its imperial domination; he wants us to see that there are many forms of nationalism, courageous as well as crazy and tyrannical ones. But he also wants nationalism to be critical of itself. Only in this way can it modulate into liberation, and put an end even to the ghosts of empire. At this point, words like “universal” might make a comeback, because they would represent not the projection into time and space of whatever our civilization happens to be, but the discovery of authentically shared human grounds, old and new.

It will be more difficult to rehabilitate “objective,” a word often found in the same lexicon, not because there are no common truths or because subjectivity is all we have left, but because “objectivity” has served too many forms of Realpolitik, has too often meant merely an insufficient curiosity about the status quo, as when the facts (our facts) are assumed to take care of all argument. Said quotes Fanon as saying that “for the native, objectivity is always directed against him.” There are other objectivities, of course, which may be helpful to the native or which may be the native’s own, as when an investigation reveals the lies and distortions of a crooked or unscrupulous oppressor. But even there, even when a relative objectivity can be substantiated and agreed on, there are also passion and polemic, not the mere, aloof disinterestedness the word “objectivity” mostly seems to proclaim.

This is a delicate matter, which haunts all of Said’s work—indeed haunts much modern scholarship in all kinds of fields. He acknowledges the force of various Nietzschean skepticisms about the possibility of truth and knowledge, but clings to the idea that “there is such a thing as knowledge that is less, rather than more partial than the individual…who produces it” and that what he calls “the seductive degradation of knowledge” can be resisted. All knowledge is potentially political, we might say; it doesn’t have to be, shouldn’t be politicized.

Taking a cue from Raymond Williams, Said describes the elaborate involvement of culture in empire as “a structure of attitude and reference.” This capacious phrase, almost obsessively repeated, begins to wear a little thin, or to look more like a talisman than a concept. Of course Said must have some such ample container if he is to recognize the ways in which texts are and are not determined by historical circumstance, but I still worry about the bagginess of the term. Is there anything that won’t go into it? Like Williams, and like Lukács, his other maître à penser, Said deals frequently in the very broadest of propositions. The difficulty with them is not that we can’t assent to them but that we can scarcely see what it would mean not to.

Said himself is certainly aware of this problem, and in his earlier book The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983) speaks of the risk of “soupy” designations and “sloppy” notions. Here he writes of the “unacceptable vagueness” which may attend words like imperialism, and offers two responses to this concern: we need to look at the details and differences concealed by the general term; we must not use them to avoid the hard realities lurking in the vagueness itself. This is persuasive, and in the case of empire the vagueness is a product of the sheer size of the phenomenon, of the fact, say, cited by Said, that by 1914 “Europe held a grand total of roughly 85 percent of the earth as colonies, protectorates, dependencies, dominions, and commonwealths.” As a result, empire lingers almost everywhere, in minds and economies, even when it is supposed to have gone, and Said can plausibly speak of our political “context” as still “primarily imperial.” We need to remember that the culture of empire often includes a magisterial denial of the possession of anything like an empire, or an interest in any such thing, as when the interventions of the United States in Asia and Latin America and the Middle East are pictured not as imperial gestures but as humble, even altruistic acts of peace-keeping. Or when the British and the Belgians indulged in the metaphors of bringing light to darkness which so caught Conrad’s attention.

There are overstatements in Culture and Imperialism, uncertainties, contradictions. “The novel…and imperialism are unthinkable without each other.” This is either untrue (people have been thinking of them separately for ages, that is what Said wishes to change) or a truism (all historical connections, however tenuous, look inevitable to hindsight). Said eloquently identifies and rejects the rhetoric of blame which riddles so many discussions of empire, but what he himself says very often sounds like blame, and he’s the one who tells us that Conor Cruise O’Brien lets Camus “off the hook” by converting the historical fact of Western dominance in Algeria into the more metaphysical notion of “Western consciousness and conscience in relation to the non-Western world.” There is an interesting analogy between Verdi’s “imperial notion” of the total art work and the imperial gesture (Verdi’s and others’) which premieres in Egypt an opera about the same country’s ancient splendors and miseries, a form of homage that looks a little like a takeover. But “imperial” is still a metaphor here, it elides Verdi’s own opposition to Austrian imperialism, and to say that the notion and the gesture “dovetailed conveniently” makes the suggestive network of connections, what Said calls the “ghostly notations” of musical and political history, look like a pretty blunt operation after all. I’m still puzzling over what I think is wrong with the suggestion that Austen “sublimates the agonies of Caribbean existence to a mere half dozen passing references to Antigua.” Is it that they are not agonies to her, even if we feel they should be; and that the word sublimates blurs the issue?

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