Edward Said's "Orientalism" Revisited

By Windschuttle, Keith | New Criterion, January 1999 | Go to article overview
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Edward Said's "Orientalism" Revisited


Windschuttle, Keith, New Criterion


Early in 1998, the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney staged an exhibition entitled "Orientalism: From Delacroix to Klee." It contained 124 paintings and 50 photographs, most of which were produced by European artists in the nineteenth century on subjects in North Africa and the Levant. In the notes published in the exhibition catalogue, the aesthetic authority whose name is mentioned most frequently is not, as one might expect, an art critic, but the literary critic Edward Said. What the paintings confirmed, patrons were told, was Said's thesis about the "subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture" and "the aggressiveness necessitated by the colonial expansion of the European powers." This endorsement was strong enough to create a queue of buyers at the gallery bookshop, all eager to procure the prominently displayed, recently revised Penguin edition of Said's celebrated work, Orientalism.(1)

Some of these purchasers may well have been puzzled by the cover of Said's book, which features a reproduction of a painting by one of the artists prominently featured in the exhibition, the Viennese-born, Paris-based Ludwig Deutsch, who did most of his work between 1885 and 1905. Titled A Guard with a Zither Player in an Interior, the cover picture is one of a series by Deutsch of scenes inside North African palaces and harems. To the untutored eye, these paintings seem fabulous. The architecture is sumptuous, the clothing and ornaments are rich and lavish. The whole effect appears to be a highly romanticized celebration of Islamic culture. Moreover, the Nubians standing guard at Deutsch's dwellings, like the black servant attending Delacroix's Women of Algiers in their Apartment, seem to be making a political point, suggesting that it is their Arab masters who are the imperialists in Africa. And yet the exhibition catalogue assures the spectator that this uninformed impression must be naive, because art critics who follow Said have determined that these paintings are primarily a reflection of European arrogance and Western prejudices: "the idea of Oriental decay, the subjection of women, an unaccountable legal system--pictorial rhetoric that served a subtle imperialist agenda"

Edward Said looms large over the current cultural landscape. The influence of this American-Palestinian professor of literature is so great that a remarkable number of commentaries about European art, literature, cinema, music, and history now ritually genuflect to his ideas and to the wider "postcolonial" critique they helped engender. Newspaper reviews of performances of Verdi's Aida now frequently feel bound to cite Said's opinion that the opera is "an imperial notion of the non-European world." Surveys of the American cinema now identify an Orientalist genre that extends from The Sheik through Casablanca to Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the prodigious new reference work Companion to Historiography, edited by Michael Bentley, an entire chapter is devoted to Said, giving him as much space as the whole corpus of ancient Greek historians. Above all, he holds sway over the literary criticism of the nineteenth-century novel. His most recent magnum opus, Culture and Imperialism (1993), is a critique not only of those authors like Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad who wrote about Europe's colonies and dependencies, but also of such quintessentially domestic writers as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. In the new Penguin Classics edition of Austen's Mansfield Park, the editor's introduction approvingly quotes Said's explanation of the Bertram estate "as part of the structure of an expanding imperialist venture" and even the cover blurb feels obliged to call attention to the introduction where "the family's investment in slavery and sugar is considered in a new postcolonial light." For analyses of this kind, The New York Times in September 1998 declared him "one of the most important literary critics alive.

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