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Sunday, 22 July 2012





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Revisiting Orientalism:

Lexicography and imagination

In this week’s column, we, briefly, examine how lexicography and imagination was appropriated to further consolidate Orientalism as a career. What Said describes as Orientalism is, in a broader sense of the term, a school of thinking which has been developed as a result of diverse encounters between the West and the East and primarily on the basis of inequalities and differences between the West and the East.

Describing the early phase of Orientalism as an academic specialty, Said states, “When we read Renan and Sacy, we readily observe the way cultural generalisation had begun to acquire the armor of scientific statement and the ambience of corrective study. Like many academic specialties in their early phases, Orientalism held its subject matter, which it defined, in a viselike grip which it did almost everything in its power to sustain.

Thus a knowing vocabulary developed, and its functions, as much as its style, located the Orient in a comparative framework, of the sort employed and manipulated by Renan.”

However, citing Renan’s passage, Said points out that ‘such comparatism is rarely descriptive; most often, it is both evaluative and expository’.

Said quotes Renan, “One sees that in all things the Semitic race appears to be an incomplete race, by virtue of its simplicity.

This race-if I dare use the analogy-is to the Indo-European family what a pencil is to painting; it lacks that variety, that amplitude, that abundance of life which is the condition of perfectibility. Like those who possess so little fecundity that, after a gracious childhood, they attain only the most mediocre virility, the Semitic nations experienced their fullest flowering in their first age and have never been able to achieve true maturity”

Said points out it are not clear ‘whether this comparative attitude is principally a scholarly necessity or whether it is disguised ethnocentric race prejudice’ but what was certain was that both worked together in support of each other.

Main traits

Examining the main traits of this inequality, Said observes, “The main traits of this equality are worth recapitulating briefly. Many of the earlier Orientalist amateurs began by welcoming the Orient as a salutary derangement of their European habits of mind and spirit.

The Orient was overvalued for its pantheism, its spirituality, its stability, its longevity, its permittivity and so forth. Schelling, for example, saw in Oriental polytheism a preparation of the way for Judeo-Christian monotheism: Abraham was prefigured in Brahma. Yet almost without exception, such overesteem was followed by a counter response: The Orient suddenly appeared lamentably underhumanised, antidemocratic, backward, barbaric and so forth.

A swing of the pendulum in one direction caused an equal and opposite swing back: the Orient was undervalued.

Orientalism as a profession grew out of these opposites, of compensations and corrections based on inequality, ideas nourished by and nourishing similar ideas in the culture at large. Indeed, the very project of restriction and restructuring associated with Orientalism can be traced directly to the inequality by which the Orient’s comparative poverty (or wealth) besought scholarly, scientific treatment of the kind to be found in disciplines like philology, biology, history, anthropology, philosophy or economics.”

Said points out that the actual profession of Orientalism has, in fact, ‘enshrined this inequality and the special paradoxes it engendered.’ It is obvious that principal of inequality is a dominant factor even in today’s context.


Said observes, “It remains professional Orientalist’s job to piece together a portrait, a restored picture as it were, of the Orient or the Oriental; fragments, such as those unearthed by Sacy, supply the material, but the narrative shape, continuity, and figures are constructed by the scholar, for whom scholarship consists of circumventing the unruly (un-Occidental) nonhistory of the Orient with orderly chronicle, portraits and plots. “

Said points out that Caussin de Perceval’s thesis on Mohammed was such an effort. He observes, “Caussin’s thesis is that the Arabs were made a people by Mohammed, Islam being essentially a political instrument, not any means a spiritual one. What Caussin strives for is clarity amidst a huge mass of confusing detail.

Thus what emerges out of the study of Islam is quite literally a one-dimensional portrait of Mohammed, who is made to appear at the end of the work (after his death has been described) in precise photographic detail. Neither a demon, nor a prototype of Cagliostro, Caussin’s Mohammed is a man appropriated to a history of Islam (the fittest version of it) as an exclusive political movement, centralised by the innumerable citations that thrust him up and , in a sense, out of the text.

Caussin’s intention was to leave nothing unsaid about Mohammed; the Prophet is thereby seen in a cold light, stripped both of his immense religious force and of any residual power to frighten Europeans. The point here is that as a figure for his own time and place Mohammed is affaced, in order for a very slight human miniature of him to be left standing. “

Citing many early Orientalists who studied and physically travelled into the Orient and stayed there for long years, sometimes, incognito, Said points out that Orientalists recreated Orient in Western terms for the West.

He concludes, “On the one hand, Orientalism acquired the Orient as literally and as widely as possible; on the other, it domesticated this knowledge to the West, filtering it through regulatory codes, classifications, specimen cases, periodical reviews, dictionaries, grammars, commentaries, editions, translations, all of which together formed a simulacrum of the Orient and reproduced it materially in the West, for the West. The Orient, in short, would be converted from the personal, sometimes garbed testimony of intrepid voyages and residents into impersonal definition by a whole array of scientific workers.

It would be converted from the consecutive experience of individual research into a sort of imaginary museum without walls, where everything gathered from the huge distances and varieties of Oriental culture became categorically Oriental. By the middle of the nineteenth century the Orient had become, as Disraeli said, a career, one in which one could make and restore not only the Orient but also oneself.”



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