Robert Irwin’s new history of the field of Oriental studies is explicitly designed as a refutation of Said’s thesis, and has an entire chapter devoted to a direct assault upon it. The author insists that he has no animus against Said personally or politically, that he tends to share his view of the injustice done to the people of Palestine, and that he regarded him as a man of taste and discernment. Irwin makes this disclaimer, perhaps, very slightly too fulsomely—at one point also recycling the discredited allegation that Said was not “really” a Palestinian from Jerusalem at all. But he is more lucid and reliable when he sets out to demonstrate the complexity and diversity of Orientalism, to defend his profession from the charge of being a conscious or unconscious accomplice of empire, and to decry the damage done by those whose reading even of Orientalism was probably superficial.
I still think that Said’s book was useful if only in forcing people in “the West” to examine the assumptions that underlay their cosmology. If asked what I mean by that, I should cite Robert Hughes, who recalls how his parents’ generation in Australia would refer to New Guinea or Indonesia, say, as “the Far East” when they were, in point of fact, their near North. The very term Middle East, I have recently learned from Michael Oren’s absorbing history of American engagement in the region, was coined by Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose life’s work was the creation of an American Navy on the model of the British imperial fleet. I remember my own surprise when I realized, in New Delhi in the 1970s, that by the crisis in “Western Asia,” the newspaper article I was reading meant to refer to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. It can be said for Edward Said that he helped make us reconsider our perspectives a little.
“This book,” writes Irwin in his agreeably breezy introduction to it, “contains many sketches of individual Orientalists—dabblers, obsessives, evangelists, freethinkers, madmen, charlatans, pedants, romantics. (Even so, perhaps still not enough of them.)” Indeed, its chief strength lies precisely in showing the vagary and variety of the subject, and thus obliquely convicting any single unified critique of it as essentially reductionist—a neat tu quoque against the Said school.
Among Irwin’s initial points is one that should scarcely have needed to be made. The British proconsular class were for the most part not Orientalists at all. They were classicists. When they adapted old texts and languages to their task of dominion, they were looking to the grand precedents of Greece and Rome. And though it is true that the protracted Greek confrontation with the Persians created the first “East-West” division in the European mind, it is also true that the Greek word barbaros, with all its freight of later associations, was not a pejorative. It simply demarcated Greek-speaking from non-Greek-speaking peoples. So it was simplistic of Said to say that the roots of the problem lay with The Iliad: The Hellenes often looked down on uncouth northerners like the Scythians, while greatly admiring (and borrowing from) the Egyptians. As Irwin goes on to say:
Lord Curzon, Sir Ronald Storrs, T. E. Lawrence and most of the rest of them were steeped in the Greek and Roman classics. Readings of Thucydides, Herodotus and Tacitus guided those who governed the British. Lord Cromer, the proconsul in Egypt, was obsessed with the Roman empire and its decline and fall. Sir Ronald Storrs used to read the Odyssey before breakfast. T. E. Lawrence read the Greek poets during his time as an archaeologist at Carcemish and later translated the Odyssey. Colonial administrators were much more likely to be familiar with the campaigns of Caesar than those of Muhammad and the Quraysh.
In contradistinction, or at any rate by contrast, those whose passion was for the Orient were very often numbered among the anti-imperialists. This was true not only of English scholars like Edward Granville Browne—author of A Year Among the Persians, who became a strenuous partisan of the struggle of Eastern peoples against British and Russian tutelage—but also of many of the French enthusiasts, from the wildly eccentric Louis Massignon, who campaigned for the independence of French North Africa and took his anti-Zionism to the point of Judeophobia, to Marxisant professors like Maxime Rodinson. Nor was it at all uncommon for Orientalist pioneers to “go native,” if the expression can be allowed, and to adopt forms of Islam such as Sufism. This was not true of the Soviet and Nazi Orientalists, on whom Irwin gives us two tantalizingly brief sections; but the first group was concerned with negating and discrediting Islam, and the second was obsessed with bogus racist and pseudo-ethnological theories, which in their turn caused many of the finest German scholars to flee overseas and replant the discipline elsewhere. None of this makes a good “fit” with Said’s over- and under-drawn picture of a discipline dedicated to the propagation of British and French imperial hegemony.