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13 November 2009

MCT: Edward Said

Edward Said seems to really annoy some people. I suppose you can understand why, since in his book Orientalism he single-handedly set out to define and demolish a view that had been dominant for hundreds of years. I haven't read the book but the extract in Modern Criticism and Theory ("Crisis [in orientalism]") suggests some of the reasons: that orientalist thought defined and limited "the West"'s understanding of the "the East", if only by imposing a single view of a complex area, or, in extreme cases, regarding Islam as a uniform practice across space and time.  Again, "the East" is defined as "different" - the differences define it, rather than any similarities. Said puts it nicely:
What is the meaning of 'difference' when the preposition 'from' has dropped from sight altogether?
It's impossible from this extract to say if Said has proved that something called orientalism exists as the ideology he describes. He could be defining and limiting a diverse body of study and knowledge in just the same way as he accuses the orientalists of doing. I don't know. But some of the examples he quotes show that, surprise surprise, a lot of European intellectuals had a basically racist view of the people of the East. At the root of it there is a dehumanising process: the lives of these people aren't as important as ours.

How does this apply to literature? At the start of the extract, Said refers to a "textual attitude" to life, exemplified in the worst way by Don Quixote. Our reading about certain countries or peoples can but shouldn't control our thinking about them:
What seems unexceptionable good sense to these writers [Cervantes, Voltaire] is that it is a fallacy to assume that the swarming, unpredictable, and problematic mess in which human beings live can be understood on the basis of what books - texts - say; to apply what one learns out of a book literally to reality is to risk folly or ruin.
There's an inherent contradiction in that, which might require some thought.

One way in which Said upset a lot of people was in another of his books,  Culture and Imperialism, in which he dared to bring politics into Jane Austen. The bastard! But in Mansfield Park he finds a gap, a silence, about the origin of the Bartram family wealth. I think that clearly is the job of criticism: to identify the silent assumptions in a work, and to think about why they are there.

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