A review of Dangerous Knowledge, by Robert Irwin
When Herodotus assembled his "Histories" in Athens in the fifth century B.C., he brought an omnivorous curiosity to the task, delighting in fantastic and improbable snippets of information about "barbarian" peoples -- Persians and Egyptians, most notoriously. His fellow Athenians were less charmed: Anything non-Greek made them suspicious, and what value could there be in lavish descriptions of the uncouth customs of these sub-humans?
Through the ages, Herodotus was called "the Father of History" by some, "the Father of Lies" by others. In modern times, he has been called the first ethnographer. In his fascination with other peoples -- whose customs, beliefs and rites he relished comparing with those of his countrymen -- he was indeed an early anthropologist and folklorist, as well as historian. But his pleasure in the exotic -- in "the other," to use the trendy phrase -- might also qualify Herodotus as the first Orientalist. The consuming curiosity that impelled him has distinguished that somewhat tarnished discipline from its beginnings.
In "Dangerous Knowledge," the British writer Robert Irwin seeks to remove the tarnish. Mr. Irwin, trained as an Arabist, has written scholarly studies of Islamic history and is the author of "Night & Horses & the Desert: An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature" and other books on Near Eastern subjects. He is thus an expert in his field and a skilled writer. With this book, he has put these abilities to splendid use, both in providing a detailed history of European Orientalism and in rebutting the influential onslaught against the discipline mounted by the late Edward Said more than 25 years ago in "Orientalism."
Said argued that Orientalism, especially as practiced in England, France and the U.S., had been from its beginnings tacitly, if not always openly, allied with colonial and imperial interests. This wasn't exactly news, nor was it quite accurate, but Said went further. He claimed that even the most disinterested, ostensibly antiquarian research was inevitably compromised by reasons of Realpolitik. "As a cultural apparatus, Orientalism is all aggression, activity, judgment, will-to-truth, and knowledge," he wrote. In other words, it was an exercise in power, in which knowledge, however arcane, was the decisive weapon.
Worse, according to Said, Orientalism had created specious constructs, such as "the West" and "the Orient," which eased agendas of conquest and domination. Indeed, such notions, he argued, made conquest possible. With seeming ingenuousness -- in both English grammar and logic -- he would ask whether "there is any way of avoiding the hostility expressed by the division, say, of men into 'us' (Westerners) and 'they' (Orientals)." The "East" was the realm of "the other," imperfectly known, falsely mysterious, but always inferior. Perhaps his most lurid accusation was that Orientalism was a "strange, secret sharer of Western anti-Semitism." Said's main grievance seemed be that the connivance of Orientalists had helped to make possible the political, technological and cultural hegemony of Europe and later, the U.S., over the Islamic world.
It's not every day that a badly written, sloppily researched and mean-spirited book captures the academic imagination so powerfully that it changes the way in which people regard a particular field of inquiry. Such was the case, though, with Said's "Orientalism." Since 1978, this screed has become something of a gospel for the uninformed. Meanwhile, the quaint designation "orientalist" has become a term of opprobrium -- both in English and in Arabic -- and whole new disciplines, usually of dubious merit, have been spawned, of which "Post-Colonial Studies" is probably the most meretricious.
I was a graduate student in Princeton's department of Near Eastern Studies when Said's "Orientalism" first appeared. Who could have imagined that our dry discipline, devoted to the elucidation of obscure texts in classical Arabic and Persian, might be portrayed in so sinister a light? At first, I was thrilled by the prospect of a critique of a discipline whose faults -- conceptual timidity, a stifling conservatism, an obsession with the picayune -- I and my classmates knew only too well. Perhaps Said's book would help revitalize a field in danger of stagnation.
Reading "Orientalism" dispelled my elation. It was immediately clear that Said knew little about his subject; it was also obvious that he had trimmed his discussion to what enhanced his thesis and had omitted any fact that contradicted it. I fully expected it to sink without a trace.
"Orientalism" did possess one outstanding, if inadvertent, merit. To anyone in the field the book was hilarious. The suggestion that "orientalist" professors might be covertly involved in grand colonial designs was so comical as to be exhilarating. Most of the "Orientalists" I'd met had their heads firmly planted in the clouds. Largely oblivious to their own times, they were insatiably curious about other peoples, other places, other epochs; they were refreshed by trying to see the world through different eyes, however "alien." Their empathy -- even, at times, their identification -- with viewpoints hostile to their own was astonishing. Most of all, their reverence in the face of difficult texts, to which they devoted hours of deciphering, revealed a fascination, and an openness, worthy of Herodotus.
But in the end "Orientalism" wasn't funny at all. It constituted a slander on an entire profession. Mr. Irwin, rightly, minces no words. He calls Said's book "a work of malignant charlatanry." On the evidence he has marshaled, this is pure English understatement. His rebuttal is two-pronged.
First, he gives a meticulous history of Orientalism, from antiquity through the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and Enlightenment, ending in modern times. This consists of succinct but often highly entertaining profiles of individual scholars, from Ramon Llull in the 13th century to Bernard Lewis today. It's a motley procession of erudite eccentrics, some of them noble, others less so. He details their failings but he also evaluates their accomplishments, something Said refused to do; what matters, after all, is the enduring worth of the scholarship, however flawed the scholar. And much of the scholarship has indeed proved valuable -- for anyone interested in the Near East and willing to risk being denounced as an orientalist by using it.
Each of Mr. Irwin's individual portraits constitutes a rebuttal of Said's sweeping generalizations. Over and over again we see scholarly scrupulousness instead of condescension and bias. He notes that "Said libelled generations of scholars who were for the most part good and honourable men and he was not prepared to acknowledge that some of them at least might have written in good faith." It becomes clear from the accumulation of Mr. Irwin's evidence that for Said, all that mattered was his thesis; the individuals who were slandered by it counted for nothing.
Second, Mr. Irwin offers a point-by-point refutation of Said's thesis. He makes clear that he is not on a vendetta ("I have no significant disagreements with what Said has written about Palestine, Israel, Kipling's Kim, or Glenn Gould's piano playing"), but Mr. Irwin is relentless in tracking every logical fallacy, factual error, inconsistency and outright falsehood with which "Orientalism" is so copiously freighted. For instance, Said's reference to a school of "Cluniac Orientalists," Mr. Irwin says, "is absurd." Likewise, Said's description of Muslim armies conquering Turkey before conquering North Africa "really does suggest a breathtaking ignorance of Middle Eastern history." As Mr. Irwin notes, "one could go on and on listing the mistakes."
With "Dangerous Knowledge" and its depiction of "orientalists" as discrete individuals -- with all the prejudices and mixed motives so many of them exhibited, together with their genuine, and often painfully won, accomplishments -- Mr. Irwin has provided the nuanced critique of Islamic studies that Edward Said, with his self-aggrandizing bluster, failed to deliver. Interest in the East may never be pure or uncontaminated by hidden agendas -- the same could be said for Near Easterners' interest in the West -- but, as Mr. Irwin makes plain, curiosity about others is as old as Herodotus, and still just as valid.