Forty years ago, Edward Said’s Orientalism emerged as a cry in the critical wilderness, an elegant j’accuse skewering the essentialization of the East, from Aeschylus to Karl Marx. Syrupy romantics, military strategists, scholars and gonzo explorers trudged through Said’s thrilling history, all of them implicated in a vast network of interests invested in describing, taming and, finally, bringing into being the very notion of ‘the Orient’ as we know it. ‘The East is a career,’ read one of the book’s epigraphs – the words of the 19th-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.
Hello, rapture! Said’s book was more than embraced by the academy, where it became the gospel and required reading for the critically inclined. It inaugurated a field known as postcolonial studies and – improbably – became a bestseller. Gayatri Spivak – who along with Homi K. Bhabha, Said and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o formed the new discipline’s starry pantheon – credited the book with launching a movement that ‘blossomed into a garden where the marginal can speak and be spoken’. High praise for the crown prince of this new postcolonial paradise.
Said’s Orient was first and foremost an idea. There were real riches to be plundered, of course, but more pertinently it offered a skewed mirror upon which Europeans could project their motley desires and fantasies. Like its cousin designation, ‘the Middle East’, this Orient was defined from without. Soon, ‘Orientalist’, long a respectable-enough scholarly occupation, became a pejorative, an accusation. We frowned at enthusiasts of belly dancing, photo-ops at the pyramids or references to One Thousand and One Nights. Our own post-Saidian critical self-reflexivity would never allow us to touch these unseemly things ourselves.
Like all fashionable rubrics, Orientalism was reduced, commodified. Even today, most people who lean on Said’s ideas haven’t read his book all the way through. (Have you?) Students often came away from the work with a one-dimensional narrative of exploitation, the violence of representation. While some scholars quibbled with the text – pointing out how Said reified several of his own critiques – the dominant mode was praise. Incalculable dissertations, talks and books on how cinema, literature, the media – take your pick – indulged in noxious stereotypes of ‘the Orient’, quotation marks mine, came to be. Hidden agendas were uncovered.
But the new orthodoxy sometimes re-creates the straightjacket of its predecessors. Under Orientalism’s influence, cultural output was policed for authenticity and pilloried for lack of ‘nuance’ – a word I once used with great frequency and eventually came to loathe. The consensus had grown predictable, stifling, even.
It didn’t have to be this way. It’s disappointing that mainstream readings of Orientalism don’t embrace a term drawn from music that Said, a classically trained pianist, was extra fond of: the notion of the contrapuntal – two or more voices or melodies, given equal weight – intimating multiple dimensions. Inasmuch as the history he charted was one of exploitation, it was also one of exchange. Classical Orientalism had contributed a great deal to, among other things, our understanding of the Bible or, in the case of Edward William Lane, our views of 19th-century Egyptians. Said, a scholar of the Western canon, owed as much to Joseph Conrad or Gustave Flaubert as they owed him, the wounded Arab. He knew that his work was being misused, abused. In later years, he admitted that Orientalism, ‘almost in a Borgesian way, has become several books’.
Reading Said’s late work is illuminating. In his introduction to Reflections on Exile (2000), an essay collection, Said lamented the ‘poverty of identity politics’ – a blousy theme that, to his chagrin, he had become closely associated with – and its ‘jargon-ridden exclusion’. In response to the indigenism that came in Orientalism’s wake, he wrote that ‘cultures are always made up of mixed, heterogenous and even contradictory discourses’. In his essay ‘The Politics of Knowledge’ (1991), he evokes an image of a woman ranting at a public presentation he’s giving on imperialism because its focus is white European males. Said is dismayed by her reductionism and the subtext that he should sprinkle in the work of non-Europeans simply to correct a historic imbalance: ‘It was never a matter of replacing one set of authorities and dogmas with another.’ Exasperated, he pleads for engagement, not blanket condemnation. ‘To be named is not sufficient,’ he writes. ‘It is only through the scrutiny of these works as literature, as style, as pleasure and illumination, that they can be brought in, so to speak, and kept in.’ And, finally, this: ‘Marginality and homelessness are not, in my opinion, to be gloried in.’
Correctives are important. Said, a Palestinian exile, knew this. But he also knew that correctives can take up all the air. I don’t know what he would have made of the current moment. Which is to say our reckoning with white males, with cultural appropriation, calls to decolonize the museum, torch the artwork. As polemical exercises, they’ve had great resonance – success, even – in shifting the conversation. Orientalism is surely such a polemic. And while polemics may be by definition excessive, they may be just what the times require. But I’m still inclined to lean on Said’s call for caution, too. His praise of polyphony. Literature, style, pleasure, illumination. He called it worldliness.
Published in frieze, issue 199, November-December 2018, with the title ‘East and West’
Main image: Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Snake Charmer, c.1879, Orientalist painting reproduced on the cover of Orientalism by Edward Said, 1978. Courtesy: Bridgeman Images
First published in Issue 199