Edward Said: Critic decries his "shadowy legacy"

[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 (The Times Literary Supplement).]

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.

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