Middle East studies in the News
Edward Said's Shadowy Legacy [incl. Daniel Martin Varisco, Bernard Lewis, et al.]
So many academics want the arguments presented in Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) to be true. It encourages the reading of novels at an oblique angle in order to discover hidden colonialist subtexts. It promotes a hypercritical version of British and, more generally, of Western achievements. It discourages any kind of critical approach to Islam in Middle Eastern studies. Above all, Orientalism licenses those academics who are so minded to think of their research and teaching as political activities. The drudgery of teaching is thus transformed into something much more exciting, namely "speaking truth to power".
It is unlikely that the two books under review, both of which present damning criticisms of Said's book at length and in detail, will change anything. Daniel Martin Varisco is a professor of anthropology who has specialized in Yemeni agriculture. It is perhaps because of this that he takes exception to Said's "textualism" and his consequent neglect of anthropology, sociology and psychology. Varisco has a multitude of other charges to bring against Orientalism and he is able to draw on an astonishingly long list of witnesses for the prosecution, including Sadiq Jalal al-'Azm, Bryan Turner, Malcolm Kerr, Ziauddin Sardar, Bernard Lewis, Nadim al-Bitar, Victor Brombert, Ernest Gellner, Jane Miller, John Sweetman, John Mackenzie and many others. But the chief concern of Varisco, who hovers over Orientalism's text like a hawk, is to expose Said's rhetorical tricks. For example, Varisco quotes a passage in which Said sought to distinguish between latent and manifest Orientalism, before continuing as follows:
"Before teasing out the meaning of this passage, it is important to look at Said's rhetorical style. Beyond the working definitions outlined at the start, this distinction here is what he "really" means, the heart of the matter. Notice how this passage sidesteps a totalizing sense by qualifying "unconscious" with "almost", "found" with "almost exclusively", and "unanimity, stability, and durability" with "more or less". This trope of the adverbial caveat dangled like catnip before the reader allows Said to speak in round numbers, so to speak, rather than giving what might be called a statistical, and thus potentially falsifiable, sense to his argument. As a result, any exceptions pointed out by a critic are pre-mitigated. The caveats appear to flow from cautious scholarship, but the latent intent is that of a polemicist."
Elsewhere, Varisco notes how "a dogmatic assertion at one moment is softened in the next". This is a kind of rhetorical giving and taking away.
Then there is Said's use of pejorative vocabulary. Varisco, following the scholar of comparative literature Brombert, wonders why Said describes the grand nineteenth-century Orientalist Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy as having "ransacked the Oriental archives". What licence has Said for the use of "ransacked" here? What about "read", "consulted", or "examined" instead? Again: "Another dimension of Said's dismissal of difference is guilt by association, a tendency to cite a litany of all-alike Orientalists". He was a specialist in producing "laundry lists" of ill-assorted but allegedly villainous Orientalists which damned some individuals by association with others.
But there are worse things than rhetorical tricksiness. Tampering with quotations is one of them. According to Said, Gustave Flaubert wrote "Inscriptions and birddroppings are the only two things in Egypt that give any indication of life", which would be damning if true. But, in the original French, what he wrote was "les inscriptions et les merdes d'oiseaux, voilà les deux seules choses sur les ruines d'Égypte qui indiquent la vie", which is unexceptionable. (Since Flaubert's diary and letters from Egypt were not intended for publication, Said's decision to characterize him as an archetypal Orientalist travel writer is also questionable.) Varisco further demonstrates how Said systematically misrepresented the political scientist P. J. Vatikiotis by furtively dropping individual words and whole paragraphs from his purported quotation from an essay by Vatikiotis on revolutions in the Middle East. Said seems to have been blind to irony (in, for example, Mansfield Park) and indifferent to humour. Although he listed Mark Twain as one of the leading Orientalist travel writers of the nineteenth century, Said's reading of Twain's The Innocents Abroad seems careless, or he would surely have noticed that it was intended as a satire on textual Orientalism.
Similarly, Said was utterly oblivious to the humour and stylishness of Alexander Kinglake's Eothen. Kinglake had enough money to travel to amuse himself. But Said's Orientalists are a classless lot. That is silly. It is impossible to browse through the early proceedings of the Royal Asiatic Society or the Société Asiatique without recognizing that nineteenth-century Orientalism was presided over by aristocrats and that for the most part the research was done by men with private incomes. Varisco is alert to issues concerning class and money. William Beckford's novel Vathek was unmistakably the work of an extremely wealthy man. Similarly, with regard to the Orientalist painter Jean-Léon Gérôme, his elite family connections allowed him to travel extensively and to collect the Oriental props he used in his paintings.
Said's pro-Palestinian stance, as well as his assault on various traditional academic values and procedures, have made his books targets for criticism from right-wingers and supporters of Zionism. But in an endnote, Varisco states that Said's own position here is similar to that of his fellow anthropologist Michael Gilsenan, "who admires Said's courage as an advocate for Palestinian rights without feeling a need to defend Said's arguments about Oriental studies or anthropology". With respect to Said's bête noire, Bernard Lewis, a leading historian of Islam and an emeritus professor at Princeton University, Varisco notes that "apologists against Islam frequently use careless comments in the Lewis corpus to buttress their polemic. Ibn Warraq, for example, repeatedly cites Lewis". Also, according to Varisco: "One of the most egregious attacks on the character and work of Edward Said is Martin Kramer's loosely constructed Ivory Towers on Sand, in which Orientalism is blamed for unleashing a revolution that ‘has crippled Middle Eastern studies to this day'". Varisco concludes that "Kramer's unseemly creed would be laughable were it not for the favourable reception it received from the neocon clique that engineered the wars against Taliban Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein's Iraq". (Kramer is a close ally of Lewis.) "Good historians are also capable of making good puns", according to Varisco.
Varisco's are pretty excruciating. His punning, of course, starts with the subtitle of Reading Orientalism: Said and the unsaid. And consider the following: "the catachresis has been let out of the bag"; "women authors are token for granted"; "voy[ag]eurs; mal[e]odorous prose"; "in terms of intellectual history, his interdisciplinary rigor borders on the mortis". He also follows the ugly American academic fashion for using "critique" as a verb. (Even as a noun, does critique have more meaning than criticism? The Chambers Dictionary suggests not.) Varisco's book is long and closely argued, and it is impossible adequately to summarize its many points of contention in a review. Its discursive endnotes practically amount to a second book. If there is a serious criticism to be made, it is that the structure of Reading Orientalism seems almost as invertebrate as that of Orientalism. But Varisco's book makes for exhilarating reading, comparable to the supremely efficient, if brief, hatchet job carried out on Said's Representations of the Intellectual in Stefan Collini's Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain (2006).
Ibn Warraq is the pseudonym of a former Muslim and the author of Why I Am Not a Muslim and Leaving Islam. Since the penalty for apostasy is death, he is wise to write under a pseudonym. He is less concerned than Varisco with Said's rhetorical sleight of hand, though he does point out quite a few examples of it. He is more interested in Said's numerous factual errors. Defending the West is more diffuse than Reading Orientalism, since Orientalism has provoked Ibn Warraq to defend Western culture, rationality and objectivity from the assaults of Said and others. In the first part of his book Ibn Warraq combines a broad history of Western culture with a detailed attack on Edward Said. Particular attention is paid to the heritage of Greek rationality, Christian values in seventeenth-century Orientalism, and the history of Orientalism in India. In the second half of the book he discusses Orientalism in painting, sculpture, literature and music.
Ibn Warraq shows how, lacking a background in history, Said was as ignorant of the chronology and geography of the Arab conquests, as he was of those of the British and French empires. Said was obsessed with sexual readings of apparently innocent texts. He managed to find an erotic subtext in Vatikiotis's slightly dull article on revolutions. Alphonse de Lamartine does not travel in the Middle East, but he "penetrates" it. In discussing Kipling's Kim, Ibn Warraq remarks that "Said has the irritating habit of claiming to know how the ‘Indian reader' will react to the novel. I am an Indian reader, and do not read it as Said's ideal Indian reader does, and I shall quote other Indian readers who do not either". Ibn Warraq finds Said's characterization of Thomas Carlyle and John Henry Newman as "liberal culture heroes" quite absurd.
Said had a problem with languages. For example, when discussing the writings of Sir William Jones and Friedrich Schlegel, he was mysteriously determined to deny that Sanskrit, Persian, German and Greek all belonged to the same broad group of languages – a sort of club to which Arabic could not belong. Ibn Warraq, in discussing Said's attitude to Orientalists, remarks that he was "particularly jealous of their mastery of languages". German scholars dominated Arabic, Hebrew and Sanskrit studies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, yet Said avoided any substantial discussion of their work. Some critics have argued that this was because the pre-eminence of German Orientalists did not fit his thesis about the interdependence of Orientalism and imperialism in the Middle East, but others have suggested that it was because his German was not very good. Varisco has noted how Said mistranslates Goethe's famous line "Gottes ist der Orient!" as "God is the Orient". He has also spotted that Nerval's "La mer d'Ionie" was mistranslated as "the Ionian sky". Ibn Warraq is unhappy with Said's English, specifically with his misuse of the adverb "literally" and his confusion of scatology with eschatology. Other critics have wondered about Said's Arabic.
And so on. Ibn Warraq's bill of indictment is as lengthy and detailed as Varisco's, but it is, I think, less balanced, particularly when he turns to attack the Muslim world for its alleged dislike of knowledge for its own sake, its incapacity for self-criticism, its suspicion of Orientalists and its apparent failure to take an interest in Europe until modern times. By contrast, the history and cultural values of the West are extolled at length. The praise of the West is as relentless as the belittlement of Islam. As a Westerner and an Orientalist, I find myself somewhat embarrassed to be defended in such uncompromising terms. "Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?" When discussing the fourteenth-century Dominican Ricoldo of Monte Croce's statement that the Koran was only put together after Muhammad's death, Ibn Warraq comments this is "a startlingly modern idea associated with the theories of John Wansbrough". On the contrary, orthodox Muslims have always believed that the Koran was compiled after the Prophet's death. Ibn Warraq exaggerates somewhat the intellectual independence of such institutions as the medieval University of Paris. In 1277, Étienne Tempier, Chancellor of the University, issued a condemnation of and ban on the teaching of 219 propositions, including ones by Aristotle, Averroes and Aquinas. It is true that until recent centuries Muslims tended not to be interested in Europe, but they were very interested in India and Africa. Moreover, in In the Lands of the Christians: Arabic travel writing in the seventeenth century (2003), Nabil Matar has suggested that there was more Muslim interest in Europe than has been hitherto thought. Ibn Warraq hates the niceness of Western liberals and humanists, which reminds me of W. C. Fields's insight, "Anybody who hates children and dogs can't be all bad".
Moreover, Ibn Warraq has a remarkably wide knowledge of Indian history, Classical literature and art history. Knowledge of the latter serves him well when he turns his attention to an ally of Said, Linda Nochlin, the author of a brief and under-researched but influential article "The Imaginary Orient", which appeared in Art in America in 1983. In this article she attacked the Orientalist paintings of Gérôme and others. According to Nochlin, we have to understand those paintings in terms "of the particular power structure in which these works came into being".
Gérôme's "Snake Charmer" was, according to Nochlin "a visual document of nineteenth-century colonialist ideology". But why Gérôme should have wanted to produce such a document is not clear. Moreover, the painting is set in Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The picture was completed in around 1883, when neither France nor Britain had any colonies in the Middle East, except for a British coaling station at Aden. Nochlin condemned the background of the painting for its "ferociously detailed tiled wall", but what is wrong with detail? Nochlin disliked the licked finish of Gérôme's painting, but that seems to be merely a matter of subjective taste on her part. According to a note in Nochlin's article, "Edward Said has pointed out to me in conversation that most of the so-called writing on the back wall of the ‘Snake Charmer' is in fact unreadable". To which Ibn Warraq responds that the wall bears a clearly legible quotation from the Koran's Sura of the Cow in thuluth script. (Hence, perhaps, doubts about Said's Arabic.)
More generally, according to Nochlin, "one of the defining features of Orientalist painting is its dependence for its very existence on a presence that is always an absence: the Western colonial or touristic presence". But Ibn Warraq has no difficulty at all in demonstrating that Gérôme and plenty of other French artists did paintings of Napoleon in Egypt. To which one might add that other French painters, notably Horace Vernet, portrayed the progress of the French Army in Algeria. Holman Hunt put a European in a stovepipe hat in the background of "The Lantern Maker's Courtship". John Frederick Lewis's magnificent "A Frank Encampment in the Desert of Mount Sinai, 1842" is dominated by the figure of Viscount Castlereagh. David Roberts's painting of Karnak features Western tourists. Walter Charles Horsley painted Western visitors in al-Azhar. John Frederick Lewis painted himself and his wife in Eastern costumes in Cairene interiors. Richard Dadd painted Sir Thomas Phillips in the Middle East. Lucien-Lévy Dhurmer painted Pierre Loti in Constantinople. Vassily Vershchagin painted the British in India. The absent presence turns out to be no such thing.
Though Nochlin has attracted plenty of earlier criticism from, among others, John Mackenzie and Gerald Ackerman, the issues she raised are still live ones. Last month there was a conference at the Courtauld Institute in London, "Framing the Other: 30 Years After Orientalism". The titles of the papers given suggest that Nochlin has at least some disciples in Britain. According to the organizers,
"the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism comes as a suitable opportunity to consider again the Western vision of the Orient. For Said, developing the foucauldian concept of power/knowledge, the West produced and codified knowledge that justified relationships of power, an argument he developed further in Culture and Imperialism (1993). In the current climate of conflicts and the disastrous effects of the West's new 'crusade' (or 'war on terror'), Said's central question 'how can we know and respect the Other' becomes more and more pressing."
Said died in 2003, and it is thirty years since he launched his assault on Western culture. Things may have moved on since then. As a last resort, some of Said's nervous apologists have suggested this, hoping, perhaps, to fend off further criticism of his inconsistent methodology and shaky grasp of facts. But still his shadow hangs heavy over The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting, the catalogue of an exhibition which is due to open at Tate Britain in June. According to the foreword to that catalogue, "the issues identified in Edward Said's seminal book Orientalism (1978) and since fiercely debated, are omnipresent".
Daniel Martin Varisco
Said and the unsaid
512pp. University of Washington Press. $90; distributed in the UK by Combined Academic Publishers. £54.
978 0 295 98758 3
DEFENDING THE WEST
A critique of Edward Said's Orientalism
556pp. Amherst, NY: Prometheus. $29.95; distributed in the UK by Lavis.
978 1 59102 484 2
Robert Irwin's For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their enemies was published in 2006. His book on the Alhambra appeared in 2004 and his most recent novel, Satan Wants Me, in 1999. He is the Middle East editor of the TLS.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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