Guido Almansi

Guido Almansi: Edward Said’s Orient

Orientalism: Western Concepts of the Orient

By Edward W Said

Routledge & Kegan Paul 384pp £8.95 order from our bookshop

Edward W Said, a scholar born in Palestine and educated in Egypt, is presently Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He is the author of several books on contemporary politics (The Question of Palestine, recently published by Routledge & Kegan Paul), literary theory (his Beginnings were discussed in the Literary Review of some time ago), and literary history (Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography). One of his most powerful and influential books is an aggressive study about the study of the Orient, and in particular of the Middle East, and about the various influences of this imaginary Orient, created by savants and men of letters, upon European culture and literature from the 18th century onwards. Its title: Orientalism (now issued in this country by Routledge & Kegan Paul, £8.95, paperback £3.95). I interviewed Professor Said in his office at Columbia.

According to your thesis, Orientalists have not discovered the Orient: they have only studied their own prejudices.

Yes. Scholars did find a vision of the East inside themselves. What is strange is that this vision happened to suit the needs of Western merchants, statesmen and military leaders – starting with Napoleon.

Do you mean they were all in bad faith?

Not necessarily. At times their starting point was a genuine passion for Oriental and Islamic culture. Poets and novelists, archaeologists and philologists, were ready to sacrifice years of their lives to the study of the East and its mysterious culture. Yet the result of this unbiased curiosity was a heavily biased conception of the East, which was particularly useful to the European ruling classes.

Then in your view these scholars and literary men were not the accomplices of the merchant class?

No. I do not offer a facile conspiracy theory. I only analyse modes of cultural shortsightedness typical of our observation of the Other. In the old days, the Turk was the Other, a mysterious character representing the absolute alternative to the I.

Villagers from the Italian southern coasts used to cry ‘Mamma li Turchi’ at every foreign sail approaching. You are extending this cry for help of the rapeable young maid to unrapeable old philologists. Or even to a writer who ultimately fancies himself as a rapist. I am thinking of Flaubert.

Flaubert wanted to possess the whole of the East and the Eastern woman as well; but for that he had to put the East in an inferior position. For him, as for many others of his and the next generations, the Orient becomes an eternal essence, homogeneous, uniformed, immutable, constitutionally and genetically inferior to the West. The Orient is a space invented and exploited by human (i.e. Western) imagination, whose reality is not to be found in contemporary documents, but in classical texts, remote from the evidence of the present.

This is more like the Levantine from a novelette than the Turk of ‘Mamma li Turchi’!

Both characters are related. The Levantine from cheap literature and the Turk from historical legend belong to dangerous nations which must be controlled with weapons, with laws and with words. The East is not inhabited by individuals, but by variations on a psychological type which is cruel, indolent, fatalist, fanatic, bloodthirsty, scheming and so on.

This is the standard racist position: anti-Arab, anti-Muslim; we could even say anti-semitic.

Not quite. This prejudice was shared by people who were not really anti-Arab. They actually considered themselves as philo-Arab: scholars, ethnologists, specialists in ancient Semitic languages, art historians, all fervent admirers of Oriental culture. Yet every Westerner who allowed himself to become involved with the East, whether honest or dishonest, ingenuous or disingenuous, naif or corrupt, fell into these classificatory traps imposed by Western culture.

Oscar Wilde used to say that Japan did not exist, but was a figment of our imagination. From what you are saying, the East does not exist either, then.

Exactly. The Westerner has created the East for his own private consumption.

In your book, you speak of a progress of ignorance rather than of knowledge. This is an interesting point: ignorance, just like knowledge, can have its own growth. Yet, from Montesquieu to our days, there has been an accumulation of information and data, which were not all useless or false.

There has been a cultural progress, but it was based on prejudices, and it was not very open to the development of European thought in other areas of knowledge.

Yet you say there was a Darwinian, a Spenglerian, a Marxist, a Freudian orientalism, and others still.

But all these various brands are dominated by one fundamental presumption: that the Oriental world is homogeneous, consistent, coherent, different from ours and, above all, inferior. This is true both of Marx and of Spengler.

At one point of your book you ask if it would not be possible to subdivide culture in a more humane manner. But is there an alternative? Knowledge implies categories, and you are too close to Foucault not to be aware of this. What is then the alternative to this stupid and perverse demarcation between the Occident and the Orient?

There is no clear alternative. But we ought to attempt to formulate less harmful categories. Obviously, we shall go on distinguishing between a Chinese and a Frenchman, between a German and an Indonesian. Yet the history of this dividing line between East and West has never been studied in its ideological components. We have always accepted it as a logical subdivision of knowledge, without realising that such words as Islam, or the Orient, are ideological words. They are fictional creations, based upon an ideological foundation. which have little in common with historical or contemporary reality. I suggest a substitution of these hostile definitions by less openly racist categories.

The word woman is also an ideological word.

All definitions are ideological, and perhaps even Platonic. We always find ourselves in positions where we are forced to accept the Platonic idea of a woman, or of a Muslim. I react against the specifically racist ideology which underlies Orientalism as a phenomenon, be it in Lamartine or in Disraeli, in Sir Richard Burton or in Edward William Lane, in Renan or in Marx (even if there are still considerable differences between the latter two). Once we start analysing the ideological dimension of Orientalism, Orientalism itself enters a new stage.

Man controls the animal world because it was Adam who named the animals, and not vice-versa. You quote Karl Marx: ‘They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.’ We Westerners speak them and pretend to create them by giving them our words. But werent there periods in which this process was reversed?

 Yes. It is enough to think of Medieval Sicily, or Moresque Spain. When Islam was superior to Rome, the East imposed its categories upon the image easterners have of themselves. Even in the 1970s, Muslims come to the West to study their own culture, and then they go back east to teach their compatriots what the Westerners have taught them to teach. In the East we do not have academic institutions teaching Occidentalism. Unfortunately we are spoken by the West, which does not understand us. All the efforts within the field of oriental studies have not prepared us for the new problems: the question of Palestine, the Iranian revolution, the problem of oil. Nothing has come out of Orientalism: nothing. This area of study has proved useless.

All Chinese, and perhaps all Arabs, look the same to us Europeans. Yet this phenomenon is reciprocal, isn’t it?

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