Edward W. Said Criticism

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Albert Hourani (review date 8 March 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Road to Morocco," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 26, March 8, 1979, pp. 27-30.

[In the following review, Hourani details the principal arguments of Orientalism, discussing their strengths and weaknesses.]

The theme of this powerful and disturbing book [Orientalism] is the way in which intellectual traditions are created and transmitted. They do not simply arise, Edward Said argues, in the solitude of a thinker's or a scholar's mind. The scholar may "attempt to reach a level of relative freedom from … brute, everyday reality," but he can never quite escape or ignore his "involvement as a human subject in his own circumstances."

… the possibilities for work present in the culture to a great and original mind are never unlimited…. The work of predecessors, the institutional life of a scholarly field, the collective nature of any learned enterprise: these, to say nothing of economic and social circumstances, tend to diminish the effects of the individual scholar's production. A field like Orientalism has a cumulative and corporative identity … the result has been a certain consensus: certain things, certain types of statement, certain types of work have seemed for the Orientalist correct.

"Orientalism" is the example Mr. Said uses to illustrate his theme, and by it he means something precise. The scholar who studies the Orient (and specifically the Muslim Orient), the imaginative writer who takes it as his subject, and the institutions which have been concerned with "teaching it, settling it, ruling it," all have something in common: a certain representation or idea of "the Orient," defined as being other than the "Occident," mysterious, unchanging, and ultimately inferior.

This representation has been created by the Western mind in more or less complete freedom, for "the Orient as a genuinely felt and experienced force" has been almost totally absent from Western culture. It has been developed and maintained by a kind of implicit partnership between scholars, writers, and those who have won and governed empires. Scholars and writers have been conscious of the sheer fact of Western strength in a passive and powerless Orient waiting to be ruled or manipulated, and the men who ruled have drawn a moral justification, and therefore a kind of strength, from the Western idea of the Orient. The partnership has been mediated through institutions—certain formalized ways of teaching and writing—which have limited what can be thought and said about the Orient.

It is this cumulative way of thinking about the Orient and acting toward it that Edward Said calls "Orientalism." Of course, any kind of thought involves making distinctions, and distinctions establish limits, but it is his contention that this kind of definition has been particularly harmful. It may have acted as a spur to the European imagination and helped to shape the Western sense of identity, but since it is a distinction based ultimately on religious and cultural difference it has led to a misunderstanding of historical processes. It has made it impossible to see "orientals" as individual human beings, since their identity has been absorbed into the idea of "the Muslim," "the Arab." or "the Oriental"; and, like all very simple binary oppositions of "us" and "them," it has given rise to judgments of moral worth. The Orient is seen as strange and distant, malignant and dead unless we bring it to life, the haunt of "monsters, evils, heroes; terrors, pleasures, desires."

The germ of this vision of the Orient Mr. Said finds in the first encounters of Western Europe with the world of Islam: the struggle for control of the Mediterranean basin caused a recurrent trauma in the Western mind, and it could only be controlled by trying to explain Islam in familiar terms, as a false revelation or a Christian heresy. Then, in the second half of the eighteenth century, structures of thought inherited from the past were "secularized, redisposed and reformed"; under the...

(The entire section is 56,004 words.)