Robert Irwin: For Lust of Knowing:
The Orientalists and their Enemies (2006)
The Empire Strikes Back
I guess I kind of grew up on Edward Said's classic polemic text Orientalism (1978), so it came as quite a shock to run across this book in the public library the other day. "Like a petrol-bomb lobbed into the the flames of dissent," says the front cover. (Interesting choice of metaphor, n'est-ce pas? Is it intended to evoke the intifadah, and the petrol-bomb-throwing youths in Gaza and the West Bank? Edward Said was a Palestinian, after all, and a vociferous critic of American policy in the Middle East.) Anyway, whether that's the idea or not, the Independent reviewer goes on to claim that "Irwin is the only man alive who could have carried it off."
The back cover goes on to swell the chorus of praise: "About nine parts erudite civil charm to one part blazing napalm," says the Sunday Times, and (finally) "This is a refreshing and humane book, which will still be read for pleasure and instruction long after Said's work" (Sunday Telegraph)
So who exactly is Robert Irwin, and what is it about Said's book that so irritates him? Well, the short answer is that he's an Orientalist - an exceptionally well-read and well-informed one, too - so it's not surprising that Said's attack on the bona fides of (so-called) serious scholars as well as popular attitudes towards the East is bound to strike an adverse note with him.
He's therefore set out to provide a kind of counter-history to Said's, fleshing out all the things the latter glosses over (his almost complete lack of discussion of German Orientalist scholarship, for instance - and his misinterpretation of various crucial figures and texts), culminating with a chapter-long attack on Edward Said, both as man (not nearly so Palestinian as he liked to pretend, apparently) and scholar (not nearly so well-read as he claimed - implicitly and otherwise).
I guess you can see why I was so anxious to read the book. Any of you who've taken the trouble to scroll through the PhD thesis I've been laboriously scanning onto the computer of late will have seen just how dependent it is on the basic formulations of Edward Said. The claim that my hero has feet of clay is not in itself surprising (no informed reader could seriously claim not to have noticed some at least of the sweeping assertions and unprovable conjectures that abound in Orientalism), but it still needs a bit of demonstration. Irwin, apparently (according to a number of British journalists, at any rate), is the man for the job.
Here's a couple of samples, chosen more or less at random from various parts of his book:
While on the subject of stereotypes, it is worth considering whether it is possible or even desirable to dispense with them altogether. As a leading mathematician has pointed out: 'many stereotypes permit the economy of expression necessary for rapid communication and effective functioning. Chair is a stereotype, but one never hears complaints from bar stools, recliners, bean bags, art deco pieces, high-back dining-room varieties, precious antiques, chaises longues, or kitchen instances of the notion'. (All quotes in this post are taken from Robert Irwin, For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies. 2006 (Harmondsworth: Pengin, 2007), p.280)
Huh? Wha ...? Forgive me for being obtuse, but is Irwin saying here that racial stereotypes are somehow equivalent to different types of chair? That it's as unreasonable for people to object to being stereotyped to as "Jews," "Arabs," "Yanks," "Limeys" etc. (let alone "towelheads," "n-words," "darkies" etc. etc.) as it would be for a chair to object to being referred to as a bar stool when it is in fact a lawn recliner? Generalising descriptions such as "men," "women," "children," "New Zealanders" etc. may be fairly value-neutral (though still by no means unproblematic), but this does not (surely) apply to adverse racial stereotyping and prejudiced knee-jerk assumptions about other cultures, which are the basic target of Said's whole book?
The unspoken agenda behind Irwin's attempts to construct a wholesale apologia for Western Orientalist scholarship through the ages clearly has a lot to do with the author's own background and upbringing:
I sometimes think of myself as a living fossil, for I was taught in a school where daily chapel services and the study of Latin were compulsory for everyone (though Greek was only for the clever boys) (p.1)
And were you one of those "clever boys,' Professor Irwin? No doubt you were ... He goes on to add that it could be a bit boring at times, but then "Serious scholarship often is." In particular, "Most of what Orientalists do will seem quite dull to non-Orientalists" (p.2): collecting coins, establishing chronologies, translating texts - nothing at all of the sinister Imperialist agenda detected in it by that deliberately provocative Edward Said.
Said's greatest crime, though, is his inaccuracy and inattention to these "unglamorous" details: his claim that Orientalism is "characteristically ... essentialist, racist, patronising and ideologically motivated" (p.3) is vitiated by all of his "errors of fact and interpretation," none of which were corrected "in the expanded version [in 1995]". Some would argue that Said's book still "deserves praise and attention because of the subsequent debate and research it has provoked" (p.4). Irwin, however, is not so sure.
Much of the subsequent debate has taken place within the parameters set out by Edward Said ... One finds oneself having to discuss not what actually happened in the past, but what Said and his partisans think ought to have happened. Once one has entered the labyrinth of false turns, trompe-l'oeil perspectives and cul-de -sacs, it is quite difficult to think one's way out again and reflect rationally and dispassionately about the subject. (p.4)
In summary, "The distortion of the subject matter of Orientalism is so fundamental that to accept its broad framework as something to work with and then correct would be merely to waste one's time." (p.4) Which is why Irwin has decided to devote a whole book to the subject, including one of the most vitriolic and pitiless character-assassinations of a dead opponent I've ever had the melancholy experience of reading ... one is tempted to add.
It's a very serious set of charges that Irwin levels against Said. I have to say that I take that "inaccuracy" with a grain of salt, though. I'm pretty familiar with Iriwn's earlier The Arabian Nights: A Companion (1994 / rev. ed. 2004), which , while undoubtedly a spirited and headlong read, is unfortunately rather full of errors itself. Freud was, I fear, correct to say that we criticise in others what we fear to be true of ourselves. Why else would Irwin refer, in his brief opening sketch of the history of relations between East and West, to the Greek "victory" at Thermopylae?
In 480 BC an enormous Persian army crossed over into Europe. This army (which, by the way, included large numbers of Greeks) was defeated at Thermopylae and at Plataea and their fleet was defeated at Salamis. (p.11)
BUZZ! WRONG! As all viewers of the film 300 are aware (or people who've bothered to read Herodotus, for that matter), the battle of Thermopylae was in fact a defeat for the Greek forces, who were outflanked and massacred by the invading Persians. I know it was a very romantic and creditable defeat, and that it sowed the seeds of eventual victory etc. etc., but it was indubitably (according to all the rules of military etiquette - quite an involved subject in itself) a defeat. Just like the (so-called) "Miracle of Dunkirk" - the British withdrawal from France in the face of superior German forces, it may have been a propaganda victory, but it was - militarily - a defeat. Maybe young Robert wasn't one of those "clever boys" who were permitted to study Greek, after all.
Sorry to stress the point, and I quite accept that it's very hard to check every detail when so wholesale an account of world history is being attempted, but it seems just a little hypocritical to get so top-lofty about Said's own constitutional inaccuracy when Irwin can hardly go for a page without similarly sweeping assertions and even downright errors. "Strange all this difference should be," in fact, "'Twixt Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee". ...
[Edward Said: Orientalism (1978)]
All this is rather by the by, though. The question is whether Said was wrong in his basic claim that Orientalism (both as a discipline and a mind-set) is "characteristically ... essentialist, racist, patronising and ideologically motivated." Well, let's see.
Another convert to Islam, René Guénon (1886-1951), was raised a catholic and dabbled with various occult and Masonic groups, but soon became disillusioned. He embarked on a quest for a primordial tradition that would be free of the contamination of the modern age (Guénon hated democracy, science, feminism and anything else that was not part of an ancient élitist tradition,) Guénon believed that in the Hindu Vedanta he had found the primordial tradition but, somewhat curiously, he decided to convert to Islam and become a Sufi, as this was more 'convenient'. There was enough of an authentic primordial tradition in Islam for it to be acceptable to him. He converted in 1912 and settled in Egypt where he produced a steady stream of treatises on the Vedanta, Sufism, occultism and the horrors of mass culture. (p.315)
Sounds like a bit of a madman, no? The picture gets worse:
His élitist views meant that his books were sought out by fascists and neo-Nazis. Since Guénon despised both academic research and common sense, it was inevitable that he would denounce both the methods and findings of Orientalists. In Orient et Occident (1924) he condemned what he saw as the fantasies and errors of the Orientalists. English translators of Oriental texts took no real effort to understand the texts they were translating. Orientalists suffered from intellectual myopia. Their failure to take the advice of the authorized representatives of the civilizations they studied was disgraceful. German Orientalists were worse than the English, and German Orientalists had a near monopoly in the interpretation of Oriental doctrines. They invariably reduced those doctrines to something systematic that they could understand. Guénon thought the Germans grossly exaggerated the importance of Buddhism in the history of Indian culture and he thought that the notion of an Indo-Aryan group of languages was absurd. German Orientalism was 'an instrument in the service of German national ambition.' According to Guénon, the West was interested in oriental philosophies 'not to learn from them ... but to strive, by brutal or insidious mean, to convert them to her own way of thinking and to preach to them'. (pp.315-16)
Actually that last bit doesn't sound quite so crazy in the age of the Iraq war and the invasion of Gaza. Nor did it in the days of Hitler, one suspects. Never mind, though. Since he "despised both academic research and common sense," he was bound to turn even on that noble crew, the Orientalists. But was he alone in that? Alas, no.
Muhammad Asad (1900-1992) was chiefly famous in his lifetime for his books Islam at the Crossroads (1934) and The Road to Mecca (1954), as well as for his translation of the Qur'an into English. He was born Leopold Weiss, a Polish Jew. He travelled widely and had an adventurous life, about which he wrote unreliably. He converted to Islam in 1926. ... Asad championed Islam against the West. In his eyes, modern Europe, with its monstrous racism, imperialism and Orientalism, was born out of the spirit of the Crusades. 'With very few exceptions, even the most eminent of European Orientalists are guilty of an unscientific partiality in their writings on Islam.' Asad traced the Orientalists' hostility back to the Crusades. (In general, Muslim historians and cultural commentators have tended to over-exaggerate the importance of the Crusades and they often attempt to make a rather dubious link between the Crusades and modern imperialism.) (p.315)
How very unreasonable of them! Modern Fundamentalist Christians have so little in common with the ignorant barefoot hordes of Peter the hermit!
One German Orientalist remembered [Hans Heinrich] Schaeder [(1896-1957)] exclaiming to him, 'Aha, you work on Islamic philosophy! But there were no Muslim philosophers. They were all infidels.' Schaeder's view was that the Semitic Arabs were incapable of that kind of abstract and speculative thought, so that Islamic philosophy was really the creation of Persian and other races. Although the Arabs had translated a lot of Greek materials, they chose only utilitarian subjects to translate and therefore they had failed to inherit the Graeco-Latin humanism that was the special heritage of Western Europe. In the long run, Islamic culture, like all other non¬European forms of culture, was doomed to disappear. History was the story of the triumph of the West. After the Second World War Schaeder taught at Göttingen (1946-57), where his ideas were shaped by his literary romanticism and his racism.
I have to say, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck ... But lest we get the wrong idea about this pillar of German scholarship (how remiss of Said not to explore more deeply this rich humanist tradition of tolerance and understanding!), Irwin goes on to explain:
But at the risk of labouring the obvious, this does not mean that all he published on Sufism and Manichaeanism was worthless. On the contrary, his work on Sufism was fundamental and is of lasting value and, as Annemarie Schimmel has pointed out, two of the leading Jewish scholars who fled to the United States - Gustav von Grunebaum and Franz Rosenthal - revered Schaeder. (p.236)
Even the Jews liked Schaeder, revered him, in fact ... Some of his best friends were ... I mean, does Irwin know anything about racism at all? Perhaps it's true that racists can do scholarly work which is both "fundamental and of lasting value", but isn't this in spite of their racism rather than some kind of excuse for it?
[David Samuel] Margoliouth [(1858-1940): "an eccentric genius in several languages" (p.210)] did not think much of Arabic literature. Writing in the Encyclopaedia of Islam on al-Hariri's Maqamat, he commented that the 'reasons for this extraordinary success ... are somewhat difficult to fathom and must be accounted for by the decline of literary taste'. And in his Mohammedanism, he observed that the failure of Arabic poetry to match that of Europe was 'in the main due to the unsuitability of the Heat-Belt for continuous intellectual effort'. (p.212)
The trouble is that far from being one of the also-rans, Margoliouth is one of the serious scholars whom Irwin lauds most vociferously ... Is he alone among British scholars in taking so scornful a view of the literature he studied and translated so elegantly?
Sir Charles James Lyall (1845-1920), who devoted most of his leisure hours to the study and translation of early Arabic poetry, seems to have had similar reservations: 'To us much in these poems seems tedious and even repellent. The narrow range of the Kasida [ode], with its conventional framework, tends to produce monotony, and it is not easy to come into close touch with the life that is so realistically described.' Lyall had studied Hebrew and then Arabic at Oxford, before entering the Bengal Civil Service. While employed in the service of the Raj he took up the translation of Arabic and especially pre-Islamic poetry as a recreation. Consideration of Lyall's career as an administrator and first-rate scholar prompts the reflection that the commonest link between Orientalism and empire was that the former was often the hobby of the masters of the latter. (p.212)
I'm not sure that Irwin quite understands the implications of that little quip about Orientalism's link to Empire being simply that it was a common "hobby" of Imperialists, but I can't say I find it particularly convincing as an assertion of the "purity" of this disinterested tradition of scholarship. However, it's certainly reassuring to hear that "Lyall was a brilliant translator and his translations are still worth reading today. Despite his expressed reservations about the qasidas, he rendered them into vivid, poetic English." (p.213) Bully for him!
- Ideologically Motivated:
Maxime Rodinson (1915-2004) came ... from a Jewish family ... He belonged to the Communist party from 1937 to 1958. As a loyal communist, he was obliged to argue against all the evidence that Russian Jews did not want to go to Israel. 'Through Zionism, treason penetrated the socialist world,' according to Rodinson. While Jewish doctors and other Jews were falling victim to Stalin's purges, Rodinson was maintaining that there was no such thing as Soviet anti-Semitism. He hoped that Marxism would provide the necessary ideology for the modernization of the Arab world. (pp.255-56)
I mean, what can you say? let's explore a few more details about these fascinatingly openminded French scholars:
Rodinson's La Fascination de l'Islam (1980, translated as Europe and the Mystique of Islam) is a short and astringent account of the development of Arabic and Islamic studies. He was especially critical of religious polemic and philological bias. His book tends to over-emphasize the importance of French Orientalists at the expense of those of other nations. Although Rodinson welcomed the challenge to what he judged to be the smug self-satisfaction of so many Orientalists, he thought that Said's earlier critique was overstated, based on limited reading, and unreasonably limited to French and British Orientalists. He considered the linkage made by Said between colonialism and Orientalism was too naive. Said's book was too exclusively focused on Arabs, whereas Rodinson pointed out that four out of five Muslims are not Arabs. Moreover, unlike Said, he did not helieve that the bad faith or polemical intent of a scholar necessarily and intrinsically vitiated everything that that scholar wrote. He made a speech at the Leiden Conference of Orientalists where, among other things, he pointed out that the fact that Champollion had racist ideas about the degeneracy of modern Egyptians did not affect the correctness of his decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. (pp.256-57)
Devastating! Said must have quaked in his boots at so comprehensive an indictment! And this from a scholar who himself remarked about Muhammad, "in an unconscious fashion I compared him to Stalin." (p.256). It's hard to tell, but I think that's supposed to represent one of the more positive ways of seeing the Prophet. Was Rodinson unusual among French scholars in imposing this ideological bias on everything he did and said? Not according to Irwin:
Although French Orientalism was not monopolized by Marxists, it does seem to have been dominated by the left wing. Jacques Berque (1910-95) was born in Algeria and served in colonial administration in Morocco. But slowly he came to detach himself from the colonial viewpoint, to adopt socialist positions and to identify with the oppressed. He held the chair of social history of contemporary Islam at the Collège de France and produced books on the modern history of the Arab world. His most ambitious work was a fanatically francophone-biased history of modern Egypt. As a pied-noir, he was understandably slow to accept that the colonial experiment in Algeria was doomed. He never entirely emancipated himself from chauvinism and he maintained that the Arab countries of the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) 'are still for us the place of our pride and our tears' and that the French language 'still remains - I dare to proclaim it today - the Hellenism of the Arab peoples'. Having early on maintained that the future of the Arab world would be democratic, socialist and secular, he was disconcerted by the Islamic revival in Egypt, Iran and elsewhere. His was a highly literary sociology of the Arab world, embellished with sensuous evocations of the colours and smells of everyday life in that world. At a more theoretical level he struggled to trace the passage from 'the sacral to the historic' and discussed the problems of alienation and identity in rather ponderous, allusive, even flatulently vacuous essays about the characteristics of Mediterranean societies and of Islamic culture. (p.257)
As is so often the case on these occasions, the defence is forced to make so many concessions and admit so many exceptions to the rule (of pure, devoted love of learning), that it ends up sounding rather worse than the prosecution. We've run through all three major traditions of Orientalist scholarship: English, French and German, and they all come out sounding pretty much like Said's characterization of them. And if you think I'm simply quoting particularly oddball examples out of context, take a look for yourself. If you can find any scholars who don't fit the paradigm, I'll gladly recant.
The trouble is, actually, that Irwin's book comes out more like a biographical dictionary than a well-ordered essay: in essence, it's a long, disorganised catalogue of scholarly life-stories, with occasional (often foolish) asides about how inoffensive Orientalists (and the Western Academic tradition they embody) really are, or can be - some of the time, at any rate. This reaches the extreme of arguing that even the Ancient Greeks didn't really mean anything negative by the term "Barbarian":
'Barbarian' (or in Greek barbaros) was originally a linguistic concept and it applied to all non-Greek-speaking peoples. As such, it applied to both civilized and uncivilized peoples. Thus the Greeks considered the Persians to be 'barbarians', but hardly uncouth or uncultured. Greeks were impressed by the Phoenician alphabet, Lydian coinage and Egyptian sculpture. ... In general, the Greeks admired Orientals, while despising the Thracians and Scythians on their northern frontiers. 'Barbarians' were just as likely to be Westerners as Orientals. (p.10)
How foolish, then, of Edward Said to say: 'Consider the first demarcation between Orient and West. It already seems bold by the time of the Iliad.' Irwin goes on to say:
The Orientalist Bernard Lewis, in a discussion of 'insider' and 'outsider' in the world of antiquity, has suggested that the tendency to make such distinctions is common to all times and all places. However, the distinctions were not necessarily fixed and irrevocable. Though the Jews distinguished between Jew and Gentile, they were prepared to accept converts. Similarly, the Greeks distinguished between Greek and barbarian, but they allowed that it was possible to cease to be a barbarian by adopting Greek language and culture. Lewis continues: 'There is another respect in which Greeks and Jews were unique in the ancient world - in their compassion for an enemy. There is nothing elsewhere to compare with the sympathetic portrayal by the Greek dramatist Aeschylus - himself a veteran of the Persian wars - of the sufferings of the vanquished Persians ... ' (pp.10-11)
Hmm. If I understand him correctly, Irwin is saying:
- that the Greeks weren't really any more prejudiced than any other people anywhere else. They actually quite liked (some) Orientals - admired them, even. All that stuff in Aristotle's Politics about how 'the Asiatic races have both brains and skill, but are lacking in courage and will-power; so they have remained enslaved and subject' is due to the fact that he was 'understandably prejudiced in favour of what he knew best' (p.16) ... and 'not really very interested in Asia or its problems.' (p.17) Got you. When they do say something racist or imperialist, it's been quoted out of context, whereas when they say something tolerant, it (clearly) represents the mainstream of opinion.
- but actually the Greeks (and Jews) were superior to everyone else in the ancient world. Nobody else showed the least compassion for a vanquished enemy. Witness Aeschylus's Persians (which Said interprets, wrongly, as dumping onto Asia 'the feelings of emptiness, loss, and disaster' (p.11)). That Old Testament, too, what a wonderful humanist document! I've always loved the way the conquering Israelites were so sympathetic to the displaced Philistines (= Palestinians). And this wonderful tradition has continued to this very day! Watch that delightful animated film Waltz with Bashir (2008) if you want to learn how little the Israeli army really had to do with the massacres of Palestinians in Lebanese internment camps during the 1980 invasion. It was local Christians who did all the actual killing - a crucial distinction.
Irwin's book, then, is basically disappointing and a missed opportunity for what he claims to value most: rational debate. It's notable that he waited until Said (a fearsome debater, by all accounts) was safely dead and buried before compiling his own contemptible chapter-length attack on the latter's character. As one of Irwin's own heroes, Bernard Lewis, remarked of an earlier attack on himself: "it is hardly honest or fair to try to refute someone else's point of view not in terms of what he says, but of motives which you chose to attribute to him in order to make your refutation easier." (pp.302-3) In Irwin's case, this includes the accusations that he "was not fond of Arab music" (p.308 - should he have been?); that he wasn't really Palestinian (though "born in Jerusalem in 1935 ... his parents, who were Christian protestants, came from the Lebanon and Said, who was mostly educated in Egypt and then in the United States, had Egyptian and American citizenship" (p.278); that "it seems to me that, though he was to become an enthusiastic partisan for a handful of contemporary Arab novelists, he never acquired a profound knowledge of the Arab literary heritage" (p.281); and that "Throughout his life Said was a consistent critic of whatever the United states was doing in the middle East" (p.307 - as opposed to recognising and praising all those examples of benevolent American intervention, such as (to name a few): ... and ... and ... can you think of any?). As Clifford Geertz said of Orientalism itself, Irwin's book ends up leaving 'a bad taste in the mouth.'
Endless are the arguments of scholars. Is it really worth quoting so much of Irwin's text in an attempt to somehow rehabilitate Edward Said's bona fides? Probably not, not just for that purpose. But Irwin's is part of a more general attack which (largely pseudo-) scholarship, the type loved by British middlebrow newspapers, has been mounting over the past few years in defence of colonialism and Imperialism, in an attempt to reject "subaltern studies" generally. Since Said's is one of the cornerstones of this school of thought, it's important that it be discredited. I quite accept that living your life in sackcloth and ashes is hardly useful, but it's hard for me to see much essential distinction between Holocast denial and defences of the essential fairness and rightness of (say) the scramble for Africa in the nineteenth century, or (for that matter) the British-organised coup in Iran in 1953, or the attack on Suez in 1956. It may all seem like ancient history, but it's left a living legacy. There are some very disquieting asides in Irwin's book:
of course, if Said and his allies do not feel bound to respect facts, there is no reason why their critics should do so either, for if it is permissible to misrepresent Orientalism, Christianity and British imperialism, it would not be so obviously wrong similarly to misrepresent Islam, Arab history or the Palestinian predicament. (p.284)
I'd like you to think about that one for a little while. I'm not planning on telling any lies, says Irwin, but if I did I'd be perfectly justified in doing so - because they started it. This is the language of war. Irwin sees there as being two sides: "Orientalists" [= the West] and "their Enemies" [= the East, including such fifth-columnists, biting the hand that feeds them, as Edward Said]. Irwin's book may sound childish and petulant in parts, but it has a frightening agenda underlying it. There is no "Other," he is saying - no valorised opponent of Hegemony - there is simply Civilization and its Enemies.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but has he not just made the case for "Orientalism" as a basically correct description of a certain Western intellectual mindset without the need for further debate?
[Edward Said: Orientalism (1995)]