Books of the Century
Burrows, Stuart, New Statesman (1996)
Stuart Burrows pays tribute to the polemical vigour of Edward Said
"The trouble with the Engenglish," stutters Whisky Sisodia in Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, is that their hiss-hiss-history happened overseas, so they do- do-don't know what it means." Only in the past few years have we begun to grapple with our history of empire and slave-trading, asking what it might actually mean. A short stroll down Pall Mall to Buckingham Palace - past the tributes to the colonisers of East and West Africa, India and Burma - should be enough to remind us how far we have to go.
My own process of decolonisation from the sticky quarter-truths of the history I was taught at school began when I read Edward Said's monumental Orientalism (1978). Said, professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, revealed how colonial rule was justified and made possible through an exhaustive system of cultural representations of the colonised - representations that still haunt us. His contribution was not merely to develop a vocabulary to describe the ways in which non-Europeans are demonised in our society, but to reverse the way we think culture works - rather than reflecting the political, Said argues, culture actually produces it, so that "texts can create not only knowledge but also the very reality they appear to describe". The inelegant name for this form of inquiry is "discourse analysis", and the footsteps of its founder, the French historian Michel Foucault, are all over Said's work.
What makes Orientalism such a vital and powerful book is the way Said extends Foucault's investigation of the discourses of sexuality and the law to the post-Enlightenment European imagination. Said's own intellectual map is as large as that of the empire itself. Fluent in French and Arabic, he also reads Spanish, German, Italian and Latin. Orientalism reflects this polyglot learning, ranging from analysis of Aeschylus's The Persians and Flaubert's Salammbo to Balfour's foreign policy and the speeches of Henry Kissinger. His book can be read as both corollary and antidote to Erich Auerbach's magisterial Mimesis (1946). Its influence has been almost as widespread, not only in English departments across America and Europe but in sociology, anthropology and history. Orientalism has inspired its own academic field, postcolonial studies, which has generated some of the best critical work of the past two decades. It is almost inconceivable to imagine someone receiving a humanities PhD today without having come to terms with Said's legacy.
Orientalism identifies a range of strategies by which 19th- and 20th-century scholars, writers and artists imposed their authority on the East. The Orient was represented as a theatrical stage affixed to Europe, a place where jaded aristocrats, earnest second sons and tyrannical explorers could discover timeless truths, or perhaps unimagined erotic delights. …