Orientalism Revisited: Art, Land and Voyage

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 Orientalism Revisited
  • Book Author:
Ian Richard Netton
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About the Book – Orientalism Revisited

The publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978 marks the inception of Orientalism as a discourse. Since then, Orientalism has remained highly polemical and has become a widely employed epistemological tool. Three decades on, this volume sets out to survey, analyse and revisit the state of the Orientalist debate, both past and present.

The leitmotiv of this book is its emphasis on an intimate connection between art, land and voyage. Orientalist art of all kinds frequently derives from a consideration of the land which is encountered on a voyage or pilgrimage, a relationship which, until now, has received little attention.

Through adopting a thematic and prosopographical approach, and attempting to locate the fundamentals of the debate in the historical and cultural contexts in which they arose, this book brings together a diversity of opinions, analyses and arguments.

Ian Richard Netton is Sharjah Professor of Islamic Studies, University of Exeter. His primary research interests are Islamic theology and philosophy, Sufism, medieval Arab travellers, anthropology of religion, Arabic and Islamic bibliog- raphy, comparative textuality and semiotics, and comparative religion. He is the author or editor of twenty books of which the most recent is Islam, Christianity and the Mystic Journey: A Comparative Exploration (2011).

New Orientalisms for old

My main aim in this essay is to provide a reading of Orientalism that assesses its treatment of two French orientalists who are integral to Said’s argu- ment. I begin by presenting a comparative analysis of Said’s Orientalism and Raymond Schwab’s Oriental Renaissance with the aim of discussing how Said uses Schwab as a point of departure from which to raise his own theses about Orientalism.

Schwab’s incorporation of a specific image of Arthur Gobineau’s ideas on Germano-Aryanism as a distortion of the Oriental Renaissance is read in conjunction with Said’s placement of him, alongside Ernest Renan, as a racist upholder of “scientific” Orientalism. For Said, Renan is guilty of appropriating the new philology in order to assert European superiority over the East in the process vaunting Indo-European Aryanism against oriental Semitism.

Gobineau is invoked almost exclusively in the context of his multi-volume Essay on the Inequality of Human Races (Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaine) and its contribution to racism, which, for Said, qualifies him as a founder figure in the establishment of “latent”, or unchanging, bedrock Orientalism.

However, while this work does indeed present a schema in which the rise and fall of civilisation is stimulated by the Aryan genius, Gobineau’s eastern writings do very much other- wise than confirm modern European superiority over the Orient. It is my contention that, in linking Gobineau with what he also termed “scholarly” Orientalism, Said crucially mistook the orientation of Gobineau’s relations with the East.1

Orientalism and The Oriental Renaissance

Published in 1950, Raymond Schwab’s La Renaissance orientale predated Edward Said’s work by nearly three decades. In several interesting ways Schwab’s career prefigured Said’s own: his work was the fruit of his labours pre-1939, but he was clearly affected by the events of the Second World War, much as Orientalism, published soon after the end of the Vietnam War and inflected by the Arab–Israeli wars of June 1967 and October 1973, was influenced by the spread of US domination in the world. First of all, Schwab was a man of letters, not a specialist in Oriental Studies of any kind, a fact that did not go unnoticed by Anglo-American reviewers when the English version, The Oriental Renaissance, appeared in 1984. In Orientalism Said cites Schwab’s as one of three “encyclopaedic works on certain aspects of the European–Oriental encounter”.2

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 It is obvious that the theoretical method adopted in Orientalism departs from Schwab’s mainly narrative approach. In pointing out that his own work was neither narrative nor encyclopaedic in conception, Said adds that the three works in question lacked “the general political and intellectual context” of his own.

Though in his Foreword to The Oriental Renaissance he praised Schwab as more “an orienteur than an orientaliste, a man more interested in a generous awareness than in detached classification”,3 it is also clear that Said was marking the distance between the Frenchman’s approach and his own when he wrote: “dualities, opposition, polarities – as between Orient and Occident, one writer and another, one time and another – are converted in his writing into lines that criss-cross, it is true, but that also draw a vast human portrait … The agents and the heroes of cultural change and formation are scholars …

The formula is perhaps simple, but it encompasses … the reeducation of one continent by another.”4 Notoriously, Said’s method in Orientalism was to emphasise polarities, not so much between individuals or schools of orientalists, as between cultures, above all those apparently ontologically separated twin entities: the Occident and the Orient.

Schwab’s central idea was that the Oriental Renaissance of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, centred on the discovery of Sanskrit and ancient Indian religious texts, enlarged the European mind so as to take cognisance of a greater world than the Greco-Latin one opened up by the classical Renaissance.

While the focus of Schwab’s study is the relationship between Europe and India, and it is obviously the case that he is largely concerned with the Middle East, Said does not misunderstand the Indian dimension to the development of western Orientalism as charged by some of his critics.

 The emphasis in Orientalism is on the Islamic Middle East, but Said strongly proposed that the methodology carried over from Indology – the linguistic, classificatory ingredient – applied to both Indic and Middle East Orientalism.5

While he devoted several pages to the achievements of William Jones and Antequil-Duperron (in Schwab’s eyes the co-founders of the Oriental Renaissance), Said’s handling of this crucial stage in the development of Indic studies, and indeed the Oriental Renaissance as a whole, is typical of his method in Orientalism in stating that the European “took from the classical Oriental past … a vision (and thousands of facts and arte- facts) which only he could employ to the best advantage”.6

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This feat was accom- plished through both the acquisition of knowledge and the creation of an archive and institutions, and here Said specifically praises Schwab for his recognition of the process, foregrounding the Frenchman’s openness to the emergence of disciplines such as biology and philology, and noting: “Schwab demonstrates with inexhaustible patience what it means in Foucault’s sense … literally for an archive to be formed.”7

 A detailed narrative of how this occurred can indeed be found in Schwab, but to understand its significance in the context of European management of the Orient one must turn to Said, according to whom the rosy picture of the Oriental Renaissance painted by his predecessor was tainted from the beginning by Europe’s urge for mastery over the East.

To this effect, Orientalism proposes a strategic revision of Schwab concerning the proposition not only that Europeans learned from the East, but that Indian culture and religion in particular “could defeat the materialism and mecha- nism … of Occidental culture”. Said’s achievement was to demonstrate how soon the Romantic vision that envisaged a Europe revived by eastern spirituality was followed by “a swing of the pendulum” by which “the Orient suddenly appeared lamentably under-humanized, antidemocratic, backward, barbaric and so forth”.8

 Structured around Flaubert’s comic novel Bouvard et Pécuchet, Said’s revision amounts to a serious caveat to, if not a wholesale dismantling of, the idea that the East acted as inspiration and tutor for nineteenth-century European artists and poets.

The vision of “Europe regenerated by Asia”, purloined by the mediocre copyist Bouvard, in effect stands for the entire “Romantic Orientalist project”, which, Said points out, was the heart of the argument in The Oriental Renaissance.9

According to Schwab the German idealists had discerned in India a “universal revelation” which they then extended to embrace the myths and mysteries of the other ancient Aryan peoples. All the legends of India and Greece, of the Scandinavians and the Persians had to be accepted as components of “a new universal religion that would regenerate a world distracted by ration- alism”.10

Said uses Flaubert to fracture this idealism: “Neither ‘Europe’ nor ‘Asia’ was anything without the visionaries’ technique for turning vast geographical domains into treatable, and manageable, entities.

At bottom, therefore, Europe and Asia were our Europe and our Asia – our will and representation, as Schopenhauer had said.”11 Moving from the Islamic lands on to European exploration of the rest of the world, Said’s argument is: “all such widening horizons had Europe in the firmly privileged center, as main observer”.

This expansion allowed for “a selective identification with regions and cultures not one’s own”, but the outcome – a wholesale departure from Schwab – saw the Orient “reduced to considerably less than the eminence once seen in it”.12 This process was timed to coincide with the emergence of the career orientalist, in particular the philo- logical science of Ernest Renan.

Schwab and Said on the Orientalism of Renan and Gobineau

Alongside his predecessor Silvestre de Sacy, Renan is credited by Said with having placed Orientalism “on a scientific and rational basis”. Some of Said’s critics, failing to grasp the significance of Renan for his argument, contended that Renan was never a major orientalist, a fact with which Said himself agreed.13

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His inclusion within Orientalism, however, does not depend on the originality of his work, but on the power that his assertions commanded as a product of the sway that scientific philology held in the mid-nineteenth century.

 According to Cohn’s summary of the methodology of comparative philology: “The theory of language implicit in the comparative method is that there are ‘genetic’ or ‘genealogical’ relations among languages that have been determined to belong to a ‘family.’

It is posited that there was once a single, original language from which all the languages from the family descend.”14 Said’s emphasis is that philology enabled Renan to gain legitimacy for his pronouncements on race, specifically the division between Aryan and Semitic peoples. Philology’s “ideological tenets encourage the reduction of language to its roots, thereafter, the philologist finds it possible to connect those linguistic roots, as Renan and others did, to race, mind, character and temperament at their roots.”15

Timothy Brennan notes that while he admired Renan’s stance as an intellectual, for Said, “his misuse of language through specious analogies” to chemistry and the bogus biology of Cuvier signi- fied a false scientism.16

Nonetheless, Renan remains central to Said’s argument about the construction of the professionalism of Orientalism: he “had a strong guild sense as a professional scholar”, and the confidence to associate himself with “such philological contemporaries as Wilhelm von Humboldt, Bopp, and … Eugene Burnouf” by virtue of his mastery of the new science.17

While Schwab is very unlikely to have been Said’s only source on Gobineau, it is important to revisit the role that Gobineau plays in The Oriental Renaissance.

Here Gobineau appears as a young émigré student in Switzerland who developed a taste for oriental languages. Schwab accuses Schopenhauer and Gobineau of introducing a corrupting tendency within Romantic Orientalism by promoting the myth of Germanic/Aryan racial ascendancy that came “to make the Oriental Renaissance stand for the opposite of its content and its justification”.18

In Inequality of Human Races Gobineau had “demonstrated how a dangerous ethnic innuendo” – the Aryan myth – “could arise from a misused linguistic graph”. Schwab’s emphasis on Gobineau’s grounding of human history in the Aryan idea

– “It was, of course, a question of tall blondes”19 – might imply that he made the common mistake of judging Gobineau on Inequality of Human Races alone, but in fact he refers to Religions and Philosophies of Central Asia (Les Religions et Philosophies dans l’Asie centrale), where Gobineau had stated: “Everything we think, and all that we think we know, have their origins in Asia.”

This axiom, Schwab argues, was in “exact correspondence” with what Schopenhauer “was affirming in the ontological and theological realms”.20 However, in his assess- ment of Gobineau overall, it is evident that Schwab’s judgement had been warped by the recent war and his…..

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