Culture and Imperialism

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

“What to read and what to do with that reading, that is the full form of the question.” Thus with enviable concision Edward Said defines the central issues that no one teaching or studying literature today can escape. There is no consensus to fall back on, and indeed much of the interest of Said’s book—for readers outside as well as inside the academic world—lies in the potential of such disagreement to clarify fundamental values.

In one respect, Said’s answer to the question of what to read and what to do with that reading is deeply conservative. He singles out for attention works such as Jane Austen’s MANSFIELD PARK and Joseph Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS because, he says, “first of all I find them estimable and admirable works of art and learning, in which I and other readers take pleasure and from which we derive profit.” So far Said’s rationale is quite traditional. His next move, however, is not. In reading these canonical works of the modern Western tradition, Said argues, we must place them in their historical context. For Said, that context is imperialism: “the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan center ruling a distant territory.” In imperial powers such as Great Britain and France in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (and the United States today), Said contends, no less than in the territories they dominated, the reality of empire pervaded the entire culture. Thus even...

(The entire section is 465 words.)