For lust of knowing
by Mike Jay
[ bookreviews ]
Since Edward Saidís Orientalism was first published in 1978, itís become one of the handful of works of cultural theory that has diffused beyond its intellectual and academic hinterland and into what might be termed the highbrow mainstream. This is perhaps because itís more readable than most of its genre, and perhaps also (ironically for Saidís thesis) because of its alluringly exotic subject matter, highlighted by the softcore Orientalist images of houris and harems on the covers of many of its editions. But perhaps the most important factor is that its argument, easily and briefly summarised, has become familiar to many who havenít actually read it, but to whom it seems perfectly plausible that Orientalism - meaning, roughly, Arabic and Islamic studies by Western scholars - has always been a colonising enterprise serving the interests of Western realpolitik, and furthermore that Saidís book has now famously exposed the racist power-play behind its claim to objective knowledge.
Robert Irwinís new book is a counterblast to Said that aims not simply to expose this analysis as glib and meretricious, but to offer a less partial history of Orientalism that reveals its practitioners as an odd succession of typically isolated, unworldly and often extremely eccentric scholars with, by and large, only the vaguest sense of the political context of their work and who, far from being cheerleaders for imperialism, were typically seen by their compatriots as untrustworthy apologists for Islam, more likely to undermine Western colonial ambitions than to abet them. Thus, although bookended (and seasoned throughout) by its polemic against Said, For Lust of Knowing is, for most of its length, a narrative history of the birth, development and, perhaps, impending death of a specialist and often arcane field of knowledge. As Irwin hurries to point out, his subject is
'...neither very important nor very glamorous - still less actually sinister. The older way of acquiring learning was a bit boring. Serious scholarship often is. Most of what Orientalists do will seem quite dull to non-Orientalists. There is nothing so very exciting about pedants busily engaged in making comparisons between Arabic and Hebrew, or cataloguing the coins of Fatimid Egypt, or establishing the basic chronology of Harun al-Rashidís military campaigns against Byzantiumí.
Irwin has set himself the perennially tricky challenge of portraying something boring without being boring oneself, but the reward he offers the reader is a deep and textured understanding of just how a discipline such as Orientalism is actually assembled, and by extension a meditation on the nature of scholarship itself. This, as he argues in conclusion, offers the only real yardstick by which to judge how much bathwater Edward Saidís thesis has thrown out, and how much baby.
The history of Orientalism is taken by Said to date back to the ancient Greeks and their wars against the Persians, and thus pretty much to the origins of written European culture; Irwin, correspondingly, traces his version in outline from its roots in the earliest Classical written sources and through the medieval scholastic interest in Avicenna and Averroes (which was largely an interest in the classical writings, by Aristotle and others, to which they had access). His account begins in earnest, though, in the 16th century, with the Renaissance linguist, traveller, manuscript collector and Ďcomplete lunaticí Guillaume Postel. The tour of the five centuries of scholarship between Postel and the present is brisk, well-organised and nowhere near as dull as advertised, yet still represents quite a daunting read for the non-Orientalist. Names, very few of them recognisable and many unpronounceable, succeed one another at a relentless clip; rival academic traditions bloom and wither in universities from Oxford to Leiden, Paris to St Petersburg; translations and commentaries on Arab texts are collected, copied, glossed, plagiarised and squabbled over. The more familiar names to which the general reader may be looking forward as landmarks - Athanasius Kircher, perhaps, William ĎOrientalí Jones, or Richard Burton - are treated as briskly as the rest, which is to say whisked on and off stage in a few paragraphs. Irwin is intent on presenting not a sample of character studies or dramatic vignettes but an account complete enough to reconstruct Orientalismís essential chain of transmission from its origins to the 20th century. This thoroughness serves the bookís wider purpose, which is not merely to dispute Saidís characterisation of individual Orientalists but to demonstrate the arbitrary weight he gave to, for example, fringe racists such as Ernest Renan and Comte de Gobineau. But Irwin is also, laudably, determined to deliver a concise book - he covers in little over 300 pages a huge panorama that most writers would struggle to contain in twice that length - and the price is a narrative that, though expertly marshalled, is frequently compressed to the point where it collapses into catalogue.
But even this pared-down account offers plenty of incidental delights. Many of these are provided by Irwin himself in crisp and pungent authorial asides; many more are provided by the cast of characters. Throughout its long formative years, specialism in Arabic and Islamic studies seems to have formed part of a spectrum of monomanias, eccentricities and borderline pathologies. Guillaume Postel set the template, becoming in 1587 the disciple of a woman in Venice who claimed she could see Satan sitting in the centre of the earth; after her death, believing that she had possessed his body, he wrote a series of books channelling her vision that the Inquisition did not trouble to ban because "no-one, fortunately, could possibly understand them except the author". Subsequent luminaries were also specialists in "Oriental games, sea-monsters and mermaids" or "identifying obscure plants mentioned in the Bible", and our acquaintance with William Jones, though fleeting, includes the tidbit that he was also "an amateur astronomer, botanist, musician, historian of chess and an expert on pangolins".
But while Oriental studies remained for centuries the preserve of cranky antiquaries, unfunded, unappreciated and their labours in most cases no more than by-products of far more urgent debates over Hebrew philology and Biblical exegesis, an extensive and largely accurate corpus of knowledge about the Arab world and its history was gradually assembled. The Koran and an increasing number of Arabic texts, from commentaries on Aristotle to the journals of Ibn Battuta to the Arabian Nights, were translated, first into Latin and then into European vernacular tongues, and by the 19th century source-critical analysis was sifting fact from legend and propaganda in ways that Arab scholars had never done. While Arab scholarship remained unsurpassed in the areas on which it tended to focus, such as Islamic jurisprudence, Western scholars had assembled a far more sophisticated understanding of, for example, historical chronology or comparative linguistics than that of the people they were studying.
Irwinís story makes it clear that this was the outcome of a haphazard process, rather than any imperialist masterplan to subjugate Arab culture to Western discourse, and indeed that there was no such unit as ĎOrientalismí which could be said to have anything so concrete as an Ďintentioní in the first place. And once the frame of the debate is thus redrawn, Irwin shows himself far more nimble than his adversary in negotiating the newly reclaimed territory. Where Said tended towards a mode of abstraction and grand theory in which detail was fuzzy and contingent, Irwin has an appetite for paradox and contradiction, and a restless eye for details that derail Saidís assertions at every turn. From the beginning, to be sure, the Arab world and the West cheerfully traded negative stereotypes whenever they encountered one another, but it was actually remarkable how little interest the West showed in reifying the Orient into an alien Other: Protestants and Catholics were too busy doing precisely that to one another, a pursuit in which Islam usually figured only as a stick to beat their opponents with accusations of heresy or idolatry. By and large, the West remained ignorant and incurious about the East until modern times; and when Napoleon and his military successors finally arrived, these actual imperialists typically ignored the travails of the Orientalists: Saidís arch-villains, such as the British Levant Company, saw no point in learning Arabic and regarded Western experts on Oriental culture as suspect and probably treacherous. On the odd occasion when a genuinely imperialist Orientalist pops up, Irwin is quick to flag him - as he is to point out that the only plausible example of Orientalism in the service of imperialism, that of the Russian scholars who assisted in the colonisation of Muslim Central Asia, is one that Said neglects entirely.
By the time that Irwin returns to confront Said directly at the end of the book, the reader is already there with the punchline: Said has done to the Orientalists precisely what he accuses them of doing to the Arabs, namely transforming them into a dehumanised Other with whom it is neither necessary nor indeed possible to empathise. Irwinís densely-packed narrative has made it abundantly clear not only that Orientalists were (and still are) a group so diverse and idiosyncratic that to allocate them a single intent is meaningless, but also that the idea that their endeavours were an adjunct to imperialism collapses under serious scrutiny. At this point it might seem gratuitous to enumerate Saidís specific errors, were it not that he himself, despite having had many of them pointed out to him by eminent and even sympathetic experts, repeatedly refused to acknowledge them or to alter even the most egregious ones in subsequent editions of his book. Irwin puts the boot in with forensic thoroughness, exposing not merely inaccuracies of fact but the profound incoherences and contradictions that run through his thesis from top to bottom.
Yet the problem remains that the more thoroughly Saidís work is dismembered, the more troublesome becomes the question of why and how it has been so hugely influential. This clearly puzzles Irwin, who asks: "If Saidís book is as bad as I think it is, why has it attracted so much attention and praise in certain quarters?", and answers himself, "I am uncertain of what the correct answer might be". Perhaps the problem is that the answer, such as it is, has little connection to who the Orientalists were and what they actually did: the simple fact that Western scholars amassed a body of knowledge about the Arab world that excluded its subjects became, in ways of which its practitioners were largely unaware, a problem in itself. The landmark four-volume Encyclopaedia of Islam, for example, published in English, French and German in 1938, still has no equivalent in Arabic (though it does in Turkish). While this isnít the fault of the Orientalists, itís still not hard to understand why the Harvard professor of Arabic Muhsin Mahdi, writing in 1990, found it problematic that "It made no difference what Muslims thought of [the Encyclopaedia of Islam], whether they liked it or not, whether it agreed with their view of Islam or not, whether they saw themselves reflected in it or not". Meanwhile, the Arab world continues to publish at a fraction of the rate of the West, and its discourse is increasingly coloured by a strident traditionalism that believes that non-Muslims have no right to pronounce on Islamic culture - a view which Saidís work, though explicitly secularist, is now frequently adduced to support. The flaws in his theory seem less important to many than the rationale it offers for dismissing a body of knowledge whose true history fails to conform to the demands of post-colonial narratives.
And even for those with no post-colonial agenda, itís clear that the sensibilities of the Orientalists and those of the world they studied have long been spectacularly mismatched. From the beginning, most of them studied Arabic as a dead language, a linguistic tool to sharpen their readings of the Bible or of classical antiquity. The majority assumed, in the same spirit, that the Arabsí golden age was in the distant past, and saw in its contemporary culture little but evidence of degeneration and decline. These sensibilities persisted long into the colonial era: David Margoliouth, who was appointed to the Laudian chair of Arabic at Oxford in 1889, travelled to Baghdad to lecture on its ancient splendours, but did so in a classical Arabic so pure that none of his audience could understand him. (One of them infuriated him by asking him afterwards, ĎHow do you say in Arabic - do you drive a motor car?í.) It seems to have occurred to very few Orientalists that there might be any mutual benefit to be gained from including Arabs in their discourse; and when, in the mid-19th century, they began to use source criticism to deconstruct the belief that the Koran was the unmediated revelation of God through his Prophet, few registered the outrage that their work provoked in the Arab world, where itís still widely assumed that this approach could only be taken by by those with an ideological hostility towards Islam. While none of this makes Saidís thesis any more correct, it surely goes some way towards answering the question of why it has found such fertile soil.
But if Saidís influence can be understood in terms of broader cultural currents - an intellectual taking down of the flag - Irwinís riposte is nevertheless a powerful indictment of the standards of scholarship in contemporary academia. If Saidís work had been as fully scrutinised within the academy as it has been here, it could never have been taken as seriously as it has - and, perhaps, Orientalism would not now be withering within the academy, or being silently absorbed into postcolonial studies. For Lust of Knowing is a rare, ambitious and successful attempt to expose the general reader to the painstaking processes by which a body of scholarly knowledge is assembled, and he is right to insist that Saidís Orientalism could only have made its mark in a world where "the older way of acquiring learning", dull and arcane as it may be, has become surplus to requirements.