Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Orientalism by Edward Said

Orientalism by Edward Said (1978,  368 pages)

The Most Important Work in
Post Colonial Studies

 Orientalism by Edward Said (1935 to 2003) has been on my TBR list for years.    Said is considered by many to be the founder of post-colonial studies and his most famous book is by far the most influential book in this field.    As far as my quick research could determine, no other work even comes close.   In the area of serious post colonial studies one is either a disciple of Said or reacting against him.    (Said had an interesting academic career and also spoke out on political issues and was a leading American advocate of the rights of the Palestinian people to have their own state.    There is a good article on him here)

The basic theme of his book is that western scholarship about Asian countries (what was then called "The Orient") was done in the services of imperialism and as such is inherently servile to the needs of the state.   He details how a "myth of the east" was created by scholars.    I found his arguments very convincing.   Basic to the idea is that the creation of the myth that  westerners are superior to the Asian in every way.   The western student of Asian, the orientalist, has helped created this myth.  The most important part of this idea is getting the colonial people to a accept that they are inferior.   In one very interesting note (the book is full of fascinating observations) Said said it was the policy of the British in India to withdraw all of their people by age 55 so no Indian would ever see a white person taken down by old age.   It was also done to make the colonial administrators feel forever young.

Asia was viewed as exotic, nearly unknowable, and a source of decadent delights.    Said quotes at length from Flaubert's writings about his tours of the brothels of Cairo.  (Said treats the middle east as his main subject-some have faulted him for this.)    There was a heavy sexual element for westerns for travel to the east.   One could do there what one could  not do at home.    (This is hardly a dead idea.)

This is a very academic book.   By that I simply mean it is half about the subject matter of  the book and half about what other professors have said in their books.  

I found this a fascinating book.   When I read Flaubert's Salammbo set in ancient Carthage I will look carefully again at what Said says about this book.   From a literary stand point, Said sees Flaubert as being very influential in propagating the myth of the exotic east.    He also spends a lot of time looking at the work of Conrad.

I have recently read and posted on some of the stories that have been short listed for the Caine Prize for best short stories by an African author.   Others posting on these stories have introduced me to a new literary concept that I do find very interesting, "African Poverty Porn".    I am still coming to terms with what this precisely means (it is up for debate) but basically it is stories written about the poor of Africa that are meant to appeal to the tastes of  well meaning educated readers who know little or nothing about the reality of life in Africa but enjoy reading about extreme poverty.   It is suggested the western readers are being made to feel superior and at the same time being made to feel somehow as if they are good people because of the pity they feel for the poor Africans.  There is real animosity toward the authors of some of the Caine stories.    I think it is because they are seen as what Said called "native informants".    A native informant is simply a person from a colonial country who passes along his knowledge to a western ruler or administrator in order to obtain a comfortable status in life for himself.   (It should be noted that Asian countries such as China and Japan have been colonial rulers of a very harsh sort.)

I recommend Orientalism to anyone seriously into post-Colonial literature with the qualifier that it is a very academic book (though not hard to understand) whose main content could probably be stated in ten pages with the other 360 as evidence for his claims.

Mel u


theoncominghope said...

Very interesting points! Especially about the "western informants." I'm still pondering this topic at great extent :)

Miss Good on Paper said...

I was just discussing Said and post-colonial studies with a colleague yesterday! It has been a while since my undergrad classes; I could use a refresher. Thanks for reminding me about this book!

-Miss GOP

Mel u said...

theoncominghope-poverty porn is an interesting topic-it goes way beyond just the Caine stories but I am seeing it now-Said is very useful here

Miss Good on Paper-thanks for your comments-I now follow your blog

Anna said...

I have read excerpts of Orientalism and all of his follow-up Culture and Imperialism. I think your assessment of Said's work is spot-on. Literary critics are still debating the merits of his argument regarding the imperialist overtones of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. Said made the invisible influences of colonial practices visible, and, love him or hate him, we should thank him for opening the conversation.

Mel u said...

Anna-thanks for your comments-I do think we owe a big debt to Said-some time ago I posted on the colonial implications of Jane Eyre-after reading Said I am secure within my feelings about what I said-

Sam (Tiny Library) said...

That's fascinating about withdrawing people at 55. I've picked up this book a few times but worried about it being too academic (which it sounds like it might be) and also that it might make me feel guilty for thinking of the East as exotic, even in the most innocent way.

karen! said...

Thanks for this. I read Said in college, but I have to admit that I remember very little about this work.

JoV said...

I have got Edward Said's "The End of Peace Process" despite being a Middle Eastern expert I didn't know he wrote books on Orientalism. Thanks for introducing this!