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Was there a golden age of Orientalism?

Updated on March 9, 2012

A look at Edward Said and interpretations of Orientalism

In order to answer whether or not there was a Golden Age of Orientalism it must first be established what Orientalism actually means. Before the work of Edward Said, and perhaps again in the last decade, the Orient could be translated as simply the ‘East’ and therefore, Orientalism was a study of the East and all things associated with it. However, for the purpose of this essay, the term Orientalism will be used in the way Said defined the West as seeing it for the past two and a half thousand years. To sum up its definition in his own words: “the Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.”1 Edward Said’s view of Orientalism is one in which the western countries have branded the East as a place of luxury, harems, a place to colonise and somewhere that is inferior in its modern day achievements compared to the West. In fact, in the supposed view of the West, the Orient is everything that the West is not. It is the ‘Other’ which is to say it “is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient and (most of the time) ‘the Occident’”2. It is this definition of Orientalism, which Said perceives the West to have, that shall be discussed in terms of a Golden Age. By clarifying the meaning of Orientalism in this way, it is necessary to look at several periods where Said’s ‘western’ Orientalism seems to have been most prominent and compare them in deciding which can be defined as the Golden Age. The periods that will be discussed are the Classical period, where Greek writers gave their view on the Orient from within both Greece and the Persian Empire itself and the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when exploration and a more modern study, through the eyes of colonialism, can be examined. The last quarter of the twentieth century where Edward Said defined a new meaning of Orientalism which has been imposed into almost every work on the ‘East’ ever since, and finally the last ten years where a ‘post-Saidist’ movement has arisen in defence of the West and the way its views have been expressed by Said. It will be argued that the Classical period was the Golden Age of Said’s Orientalism but that in redefining the entire view of the West and scholarship ever since, the 1980s experienced a different type of Golden Age, which is only now beginning to be opposed.

The Classical view of Orientalism seems to have been the Golden Age for the West seeing the Orient as a place of luxury, despotism, harems, murders and immorality and almost everything else that the works of authors such as Homer, Xenophon, Herodotus, Ctesias and playwrights such as Aeschylus depicted it to be. It is in this period that Edward Said’s view of how the West perceives the East is arguably completely accurate. Xenophon and Herodotus in their accounts of Persian history hint at the barbarianism that the Greeks thought was every day life in the Persian world and Plutarch goes one step further in calling Herodotus ‘Philobarbaros’ meaning ‘barbarian lover’ showing that he hold the Persians to be even more barbaric and uncivilised than the former authors. If such influential authors as these could be seen to publicly disregard the occupants of the Orient as uncivilised barbarians whose supposed history is composed of incest, dictatorship, murder and over-indulgence (much like their own, although they fail to recognise this parallel), then arguably this does mark the Golden Age of Said’s Orientalism because it was genuinely widely accepted that the Orient was the ‘Other’ and that the ‘Other’ was inferior. Even Homer seems to talk about the East with the assumption that his readers have a pre-defined knowledge of Orientalism and the Greek view on it. Miletus, a Persian-Greek city in Anatolia where the Carians resided is an example of a place that Homer insinuates is barbarian because of its Oriental background. “The ‘barbarous-tongued’ is an epithet applied by Homer to the Carians”3 and although Lytton argues that this meant they spoke bad Greek rather than being barbarian themselves, it still shows the way in which Orientalism was present even within Homer.

Aeschylus’ play ‘The Persians’ offers a more in depth view of Greek Orientalism as Said suggests that it depicts the Orient “transformed from a very far distant and often threatening Otherness into figures that are relatively familiar (in Aeschylus’s case, grieving Asiatic women) … the audience is watching a highly artificial enactment of what a non-Oriental has made into a symbol for the whole Orient”4. This quotation from Said can be analysed on two different levels, firstly, the concept of an ‘Otherness’ which he describes as far and distant from the Greeks is arguably a misinterpretation of ‘The Persians’ and of Greek society as a whole at that time. There is no doubt that the Persians did pose a threat to the Greeks but arguably they were not considered distant or far from the Greeks as there was, in fact, communication, trade and even instances of alliances between Greek states and the Persian Empire. For example, a Spartan general named Clearchus in the fifth century BC, according to Ctesias, Herodotus and other authors, formed an alliance with Cyrus the younger to try to overthrow Artaxerxes II showing that interaction by the time ‘The Persians’ was written was fairly common. Furthermore, cities in modern day turkey were centres of trade between the Greek and Persians and inter-marriage would have been common, creating a mixed race of Greek and Persians, such as the above mentioned Carians. This criticism of Said shows that his research into how people perceive the Orient is not always accurate or investigated fully. However, the second point in Said’s quotation is arguably valid and points out, once again, why the Classical period was the Golden Age of Orientalism. ‘The Persians’ depicts Xerxes in an effeminate and weak way where luxury and hubris have made him impious and almost certainly the definition of ‘Otherness’ that Said relates too. The play is evidence of the Greek view of the Orient and shows how Saidist Orientalism was at its peak in the literature of Classical Greece. The reason why this differs to eighteenth and nineteenth century Orientalism, and is arguably the Golden age, is because the Greeks make no attempt to cover up their disregard of the ‘barbarian’ Persians and furthermore play straight into the hands of Saidist followers by stereotyping the Orient into the inferior ‘Other’ with all its supposed qualities aforementioned whereas the eighteenth and nineteenth century scholars seemingly make some effort to understand the Orient from within, even if by doing so, they continue to further Said’s concept of western Orientalism as shall be further discussed.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries marked a slight change in the idea of Orientalism but one that still uniformly fits into Said’s criticisms. Explorers and scholars came to understand the Orient through previous works of literature that “had been employed by Chaucer and Mandeville, by Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope and Byron.” And the term Orientalism itself “designated Asia or the East, geographically, morally, culturally. One could speak in Europe of an Oriental personality, an Oriental atmosphere, an Oriental tale, Oriental despotism, or an Oriental mode of production.”5 It can, therefore, be argued that whilst being one step away from the obvious and unforgiving Orientalism of the Classical period, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries still supplied a form of Orientalism which was very much a western interpretation of the East and of ‘Otherness’. There are many examples, from this period, of writers and influential men such as Disraeli who famously suggested that “the East is a career”6 in his book ‘Tancred’ but the three that shall be discussed in depth are Gustave Flaubert, Gérard de Nerval and Charles-Louis de Secondat Montesquieu. All three men offer literary examples of how Orientalism was rife in terms of creating a people who were inferior, exotic and incomprehensible to the people of the ‘West’.

Gustave Flaubert provides a deep insight into the western view of an Oriental woman. His description of women from the Orient shows how he expects them to be: obedient to men, sensual and exotic and finally silent and in the background when they are not needed. This example can be linked directly to the way in which the West, in Said’s opinion, expected the East to be: obedient to their western masters and governors, whom, for example in Egypt, decided that the Egyptians would be better with a British government than with their own despite not giving the local inhabitants a chance to speak for themselves. Exotic and sensual compared to the West, a land where luxury and pleasure were at the forefront of their being, for example Flaubert himself was widely known to have gone there to satisfy his pursuit of sexual desire and prostitution and finally silent and controllable to their western masters. This parallel between the East, especially the occupation of Egypt, and Flaubert’s view of Oriental women can be taken further. In writing about a courtesan named ‘Kuchuk Hanem’, a women who he arguably based many of his future Oriental female characters on, it is clear, as Said also notes, that she serves no real purpose rather than to inflame Flaubert’s imagination. For example, she “sang songs that for me were without meaning and even without distinguishable words”7 but combined with her dancing and sexual image only served to ignite his passion. Everything that he writes about her does nothing to describe who she actually is as a person but rather shows the exotic and ‘Arabian Nights’ style woman whom the East is famed for in western perception. Said states that “the Oriental woman is an occasion and an opportunity for the Orientalist’s musings; he is entranced by her self-sufficiency, by her emotional carelessness, and also by what, lying next to him, she allows him to think. Less a woman than a display of impressive but verbally inexpressive femininity”8 showing the way Flaubert falls into Said’s category of Orientalism and this can again be compared with Egypt as despite it being impressive in its luxury and what it had to offer through trade, it was something that was ruled and used without consent or without taking into account the views of the Egyptians.

In contrast to this view on eighteenth and nineteenth century Orientalism, Montesquieu’s ‘Persian Letters’ seems to offer an example where everything assumed about the western view of the Orient is not necessarily true and where Said’s arguments seem to falter. The Eunuch, in Said’s opinion of western Orientalism, would be a character that, like the Oriental woman of Flaubert, was silent, sensual and not provocative. However, in the ‘Persian Letters’, Montesquieu writes of a Eunuch who complains about his work “shut up in a horrible confinement”9 and who hates his mistresses, an idea which would go against the obedient image of the Eunuch. Furthermore, the Eunuch is described as wishing he had never been made a Eunuch in the first place as he was tortured by his unfulfilled desires for women in his younger years. This certainly shows a different side of Orientalism to the one seen through colonisation and other authors. However, despite this, the ‘Persian Letters’ still added to Said’s criticisms in the way they portrayed cruelty and bizarre customs in Persia similar to that shown in ‘A Thousand and One Nights’ amongst other popular stories. Even today that image is portrayed in films with Oriental characters being depicted as brutal and inhumane, especially in action films such as Indiana Jones where the ‘hero’ must be seen to conquer a specific ‘group’ of people. Often that ‘group’ comes from the description of Orientals in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by western writers who designed that particular outlook on the East. Montesquieu, therefore, adds to the image of Orientalism with his Letters by defining the characteristics of what he perceives is Persian and also by conforming to popular view of despotism and uncivilised practises within the Orient.

Raymond Schwab stated that the East was viewed by Romantics as “an entire

Orient of sofas and erotic and satiric masques that only too often encouraged literary history to frolic in shabby exoticism”10 and Gérard de Nerval, a Romantic, tries to show that this is not true but rather a projection of western thought. In describing a luxurious and strange Oriental café that might be found in the West, Nerval says that “only in Paris do you find such Oriental cafes! Imagine, instead, a plain, modest, white-washed shop”11 suggesting that it is the opposite of western Orientalist thought. Nerval, after his trip to Cairo and Beirut in 1842, writes about his travels and retells old Oriental stories and in doing so he frequently adds to stereotypes of Orientalism despite his best efforts not to. There is no doubt that he is trying to fit into the Oriental way of life and to take part in their customs and his narrative indicates his desire, in the same way tourists will wear tartan in Scotland, to try and seem like he fits in as one of the natives. Nerval insists, almost patronisingly, on having “a local cook, one who’ll prepare me the kind of dishes he’d eat himself”12 and this does seem to show, along with the description of the café, that Nerval is doing everything he can so that he does not come across as a westerner conforming to Orientalist ideas. Indeed, it is almost difficult to see what is Orientalist about Nerval’s work. Even Said compliments him on his learning about eastern culture and his vision of the Orient, but, as with Flaubert, although not quite to the same extent, Nerval “depends upon the kind of Orientalism we have so far discussed”13 and as such includes it in his literary works arguably because he has been socially conditioned to do so. Nerval can also be linked to Flaubert in his description of women. He was often described as being mad and trying to live in his dream world and Said describes the Orient as symbolising “Nerval’s dream quest and the fugitive woman central to it, both as desire and as loss”14 suggesting that Nerval, like Flaubert, went to the Orient as an explorer to find a place where he could live his dreams and not come under scrutiny from the constraints of western culture. The East, with its supposed barbarian culture, was the perfect place for this. These three authors show how Orientalism was developed and defined in the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries and despite not going to the same extent as the classical period, which was a more obvious and almost blunt Golden Age, they show a more mature, less obvious and arguably equally misinformed sense of Orientalism in which the West continues to fail in understanding the East and its culture.

It can also be argued that the Golden Age of Orientalism was the redefining of the very meaning of the word and of all its connotations by Edward Said. Before Said’s ‘Orientalism’ in 1978, the West had a completely different, and arguably freer understanding of what Orientalism actually meant. It was simply a scholarly study of the East and its cultures and an artistic genre that to most people had no aggressive connotations to “the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively”15 but rather quite the opposite. Since Said’s book was released, to be an Orientalist was no longer acceptable and the word Orientalism is seen “as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”16 It is this, which arguably creates a Golden Age for Orientalism because not only did it redefine the meaning of the word but it also brought it to the attention of the entire world and made it a subject of controversy to the extent that in the last twenty years of the twentieth century “anyone who disagrees with Said has insult heaped upon him.”17 Indeed, opposition to Said was largely ignored showing just how influential his works were, not only upon the idea of Orientalism but also anything connected to it from Middle Eastern studies to literature in general. However, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, criticism began to be accepted and Ibn Warraq is one of several scholars who denounces Said’s arguments and calls for Orientalism to be redefined once again as something that is acceptable to study as a genre rather than a bastion of imperialism, colonialism and racism. Warraq argues that the men who Said criticises as being Orientalists (by his definition) should actually be praised as men who have done their best to widen the intellectual knowledge that the West has of the East. To take Nerval as an example, instead of criticising his personal desires and his faults in conforming to the society in which he was brought up in, Warraq would argue that he should be celebrated for widening the western gaze and allowing those who have no knowledge of the East an inside view which is not warped with racism or imperialism but rather directed at experiencing and exploring the Orient and its cultures. Furthermore, these men “known as Orientalists” should not have their works confined to Said’s Orientalism and so be seen “as yet another expression of colonialism and imperialism”18 but instead should be interpreted within the social conditioning of their time and accepted as ambassadors of the arts for which they were at the forefront of in their eras. In deciding whether this can be called a Golden Age of Orientalism it must be assessed in a slightly different manner to that of the Classical period and the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Whereas it has previously been argued that the Golden Age lies in the Classical period, so it may also be argued that this period presents a sort of Golden Age, not only for its redefining of Orientalism but also for the way in which it has sparked interest, criticism and awareness of what Orientalism can be interpreted as compared to what it might actually mean. The interest in Orientalism caused by this has arguably not been so great since the Classical period where similarly, interest was also caused by the current events of that time.

In conclusion, therefore, the Golden Age of Orientalism was the Classical period because the East was viewed very openly in a way which fits into Said’s concept of western Orientalism. Not only were the authors keen to implement their western superiority over the Orient into their works but they also dwelled on the strange exoticness of the East and portrayed it in a way which very much fits into Said’s ‘Otherness’. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries also contributed greatly to western Orientalism but it becomes evident that, unlike the Greek writers, this was not their aim and this can be seen especially in the works of Flaubert and Nerval who try their best to fit into eastern culture. Said’s Orientalism is picked up most through their failings to fit into this culture and also their astonishment (and in some cases delight) at the barbarity and promiscuity in which the East lived. The last thirty years can be seen as a Golden Age for the way in which they have defined and affected Orientalism so that the way it has be looked at in every period is forever changed. The work of Edward Said and the criticisms to it can be applied to every era and every work on the Orient since the beginning of time, and for that reason they present a Golden Age and indeed, a new age of Orientalism from which every other period has and will continue to be redefined.

1 Said, E. – Orientalism – Western Conception of the Orient. p1

2 Said, E. – Orientalism – Western Conception of the Orient. p2

3 Lytton, E. B. - Athens: its rise and fall: with views of the literature, philosophy, and social life of the Athenian people. London (1837), p3.

4 Said, E. – Orientalism – Western Conception of the Orient. p21

5 Said, E. – Orientalism – Western Conception of the Orient. p31-32.

6 Disraeli, B. - Tancred: Or the New Crusade. p99

7 Flaubert, G and Steegmüller, F. – Flaubert in Egypt. p130

8 Said, E. – Orientalism – Western Conception of the Orient. p187

9 Montesquieu. – Persian Letters (in translation). p13

10 Varisco, D. M. – Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid. p67

11 Nerval, G. – Journey to the Orient (translated by Norman Glass). p25

12 Nerval, G. – Journey to the Orient (translated by Norman Glass). p25

13 Said, E. – Orientalism – Western Conception of the Orient. p181

14 Said, E. – Orientalism – Western Conception of the Orient. p184

15 Said, E. – Orientalism – Western Conception of the Orient. p3

16 Said, E. – Orientalism – Western Conception of the Orient. p3

17 Warraq, I. – Defending the West. p18

18 Warraq, I. – Defending the West. p407

Edward Said - Orientalism
Edward Said - Orientalism

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      Derdriu 6 years ago

      Chuckbl, What a deep, logical, provocative look at Orientalism and its golden age! In particular, I found it great learning fun to read through your analyses of the French and Greek perceptions of the East. Additionally, I like the clean, clear way you organize arguments in which opposing and supporting claims have their day. Are you familiar with the writings of Albanian author Ismail Kadare? He maintains that the ancient Greeks called cultures barbarian after having plundered them to form what became known as ancient Greek culture (for example, Zeus is supposed to be of Albanian origin).

      Thank you for sharing, voted up + all,


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      Shuting 6 years ago

      it is like Western Buddhism. I never see an Asian Buddhist with tattoos of bodhi trees yet I met one in Nepal, a philosophy major student with so many tattoos of Buddhism. and he was actively discussing international relations with me at the restaurant next to his meditation retreat.