IN "Prejudices" (1919), the splenetic American journalist and
social critic H. L. Mencken wrote: "A great literature is chiefly
the product of inquiring minds in revolt against the immovable
certainties of the nation."
"Culture and Imperialism" is Edward Said's rebuttal.
A public intellectual and literary theorist who describes
himself as a Christian Arab exile in the United States, Said is a
professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia
University in New York. He is probably best known as the West's
media-savvy dean of Palestinian causes and friend of the Palestine
Liberation Organization. On television and in print, he has
insisted eloquently, and often combatively, that the West's
international struggles are expressions of modern imperialism's
inciple that to rule a country is to represent its culture.
In his landmark book "Orientalism" (1978), Said argued
controversially that "the Orient" was a construction of the West -
a fictive reality bolstered by scholars in putatively objective
disciplines - that institutionalized the stereotypes and
assumptions necessary for the West to maintain its hierarchical
relationship with the Islamic Middle East. Since then it has been
Said's cross-disciplinary task to question the interpretations that
transform an entity (a country, people, or religion) into its repres
entation in Western media, politics, and literature.
Said's new book, "Culture and Imperialism," the long-awaited
sequel to "Orientalism," shifts the focus provocatively from
scholarship to literature and broadens the base to include colonial
representations of other regions as well as the literature of
resistance from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
His main argument is that imperialism is buttressed and
legitimized by imperial cultures. Having noted in earlier books
that authors develop through imaginative writing, he here suggests
that nations shape themselves and consolidate their authority in
the world through their national literature.
Accordingly, he traces the hegemonic cultural roots of three
dominant Western empires in the last two centuries - Britain,
France, and the United States - to the 19th-century European
realistic novel, the genre that rose to the occasion of
colonialism. Imperialism and the novel, he maintains, "are
unthinkable without each other."
Braiding together political philosophy, history, literature, and
literary criticism in dense, often knotted paragraphs of theory and
formal analysis, Said is least effective when trying to get the
various arguments in this book to cohere. Curiously, since he
spends so much time discussing the literature of formerly colonized
countries, he devotes minimal attention to the intermingling of
genres and the effect of the Western novel on third-world narrative
forms. In addition, like other influential academi
cs with bold ideas, he sometimes forces his material to conform
with his thesis - for the alleged good of the discipline, naturally. …