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Orientalism Paperback – October 12, 1979
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"Intellectual history on a high order . . . and very exciting." --The New York Times
"Powerful and disturbing. . . . The theme is the way in which intellectual traditions are created and transmitted." --The New York Review of Books
"Stimulating, elegant yet pugnacious. . . . Said observes the West observing the Arabs, and he does not like what he finds." --The Observer
"An important book. . . . Never has there been as sustained and as persuasive a case against Orientalism as Said's." --Jerusalem Post
From the Inside Flap
The noted critic and a Palestinian now teaching at Columbia University,examines the way in which the West observes the Arabs.
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Throughout his book, Said defines "Orientalism" in several different ways. In essence, every time he discusses a certain aspect of Orientalism, he ascribes it a specific meaning. Most generally, Said calls Orientalism a "generic term...to describe the Western approach to the Orient." However, Orientalism can also be the combined study of imperialism and culture. Including as many of the characteristics Said mentions, perhaps Orientalism can be defined more decisively, for although he discusses dozens of different types of Orientalism, a few common themes are omnipresent. Originating in the West, Orientalism is the artificial categorization of an intellectually stagnant Orient that encompasses a vast body of often degrading Western literature and justifies imperialist Western policies by promoting a sense of inherent superiority over Orientals.
One must realize that such divisions have existed throughout human history. This process originates from the basic human tendency to separate one's own group from others as soon as one encounters another, different group. This was also done in Ancient Greece in regard to the Persian Empire and is exactly what transpired when Islam collided with Christianity in the seventh century BC. "Islam became an image...whose function was not so much to represent Islam in itself as to represent it for the medieval Christian." This misrepresentation of Islam to the West was deemed adequate and misconceptions like equating Muhammad to Christ were simply accepted. The view of the Orient, Said argues, then stagnated, for unlike other fields of knowledge, Orientalism did not advance, and the misconceptions and negative beliefs were thus engrained in Western thought. This lasted until 1798, when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt, founded the Institut d'Egypte, and thereby exposed Western scholars to Oriental culture, which ultimately helped facilitate European imperialism of the 19th and 20th centuries. Arthur James Balfour, British politician during this time, claimed that Egypt needs British rule because Egyptians could not rule themselves, while the infamously racist Lord Cromer goes so far as to say that "subject races did not have it in them to know what was good for them." In Orientalism, Said argues that these sentiments were largely imitated in American Orientalism after World War II. A great example of this is Henry Kissinger, who separates the Pre-Newtonian Orient from the Post-Newtonian West, and thereby argues that, "as thinkers, we are better off than they are." As such, the Orientalism once practiced Cromer and Balfour has not changed.
Said asks an important question in regard to the effect of Orientalism. "Can one divide human reality, as indeed human reality seems to be genuinely divided, into clearly different cultures, histories, traditions, societies, even races, and survive the consequences humanly?" The answer to this question is no, because of humanity's physical diversity. Difference, just as it causes the creation of distinctions, breeds contempt, and drawing a distinct dividing line between two groups only aggravates this feeling of being different, or in many cases, superior. This, in turn, exacerbates the issue of feeling hostile towards "others," because once one feels superior to another group, the innate desire to control this inferior group inevitably arises. Thus, the result of Orientalism, from a humanistic point of view, can only be negative.
While Orientalism has successfully challenged common Orientalist views and created immense debate among scholars, it is not without faults. For example, Said urges to stop the use of generalizations, but he grossly lumps all Orientalists into one, treating them all in the same derogatory fashion. In addition, his widespread use of French and German without translation is somewhat challenging to the unilingual reader, which can negatively impact his book's common appeal. Finally, Said thoroughly criticizes Orientalists' representation of the Orient, but fails to provide examples of scholars from the Orient to convincingly prove that these Orientalist representations are in fact misrepresentations. In the end, it would have been extremely useful and even more riveting if he had attempted to show his readers how the Orient actually views itself.
However I do have a few complaints. In many places in the book, the author sounds really repetitive and unnecessarily verbose. Actually his arguments are not exactly as complex as they seem. Big words, repetition and lots of rhetorics just resort to the readers emotions and sensations, rather than speaking to the sense or the mind directly. Also I do not know why the author ignores East Asia. Of course from his ethnic background, we might not expect him to have sufficient knowledge of the cultural contacts between the West and East Asia. But I doubt this. I am more inclined to think that the author is not interested in East Asia at all. Orientalism is just a channel for him to express his own pride and celebration of his own culture. So in this regard, what his grand theory amounts to might just be a resentment or complaint against the West, rather than a global theory of historicization of cultural stereotypes.
One last issue that I want to mention here is a glaring inaccuracy in his discourse regarding an incident in Japanese history. On page 73, Said wrote: "Islam excepted, the Orient for Europe was until the nineteenth century a domain with a continuous history of unchallenged Western Dominance. This is patently true of the British experience in India, the Portuguese experience in the East Indies, China, and Japan, and the French and Italian experiences in various regions of the Orient. There were occasional instances of native intransigence to disturb the idyll, as when in 1638 - 1639 a group of Japanese Christians threw the Portuguese out of the area..." This passage is so inaccurate that I did not initially recognize what he was talking about. (The Portuguese were never "dominant" in Japan. They were driven out of Japan by the Tokugawa Shogunate. A "group of Japanese Christians" revolted against the Tokugawa Shogunate that banned Christianity in Japan, but were defeated in a horrible manner. It is called the Shimabara Revolt.) I wish Said had been more attentive to the accuracy of his discourse.