Making the Orient scrutable

Oriental Enlightenment
July 18, 1997

Few recent articles have generated more widespread debate than Samuel Huntingdon's Clash of Civilisations, a version of which appeared in Prospect this year under the title: "East is East: why the West has not won". The essay and the interest it aroused were revealing, not least because they seemed to indicate that orientalism was alive and well.

Orientalism circles around the basic dichotomy of West and East, Occident and Orient. Typically, it is a discourse generated in the West and shaped by western interests. Even where the East is the explicit focus of attention, it is of interest chiefly for what it can teach the West. Not only does Huntingdon's article conform to this broad pattern, it recapitulates the typical schizophrenia of orientalism. On the one hand, the East is viewed as a repository of wisdom (Huntingdon admires its strong moral values), while on the other hand the East is viewed as a potential threat to the West (Huntingdon sees the threat in its tiger economies and fundamentalisms).

Huntingdon's article takes its place in a long tradition of orientalist works, and it is interesting to compare it with books from earlier in the century like Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West and Henri Massis's counterblast, Defence of the West. What separates Huntingdon from such works is the end of empire, and it is this difference which may account for his more tolerant stance towards the East. Yet J. J. Clarke argues that genuine appreciation of the East is not exclusive to the postimperial age, and he distances himself from Edward Said by insisting that orientalism has been subversive of dominant western interests as well as collusive with them.

The admirably clear survey of 19th- and 20th-century orientalism which takes up the main sections of this book adds weight to Clarke's argument. While he acknowledges that some forms of orientalism were easily adapted to the purposes of domination, he denies that they were designed for the purpose (Friedrich Max Muller, for example, had no idea that his ideas about a common Indo-Aryan linguistic and cultural heritage would feed Nazi anti-Semitism). Further, although Clarke's survey reveals that much orientalism was shaped by western cultural agendas, he is at pains to stress that orientalism often embodied a genuine openness to the East and represented a serious attempt to enlarge western intellectual horizons.

Though Clarke's evidence supports his argument rather well, one cannot help feeling that his principles of selection help his case. While Said focused on western views of Islam and the Middle East, Clarke is more interested in western attitudes towards Hindu, Buddhist and Confucian culture. And where Said focused on literature produced by agents and administrators of empire, Clarke is interested in appropriations of the East by religion, philosophy, ecology and new-paradigm science.

Clarke, in other words, broadens our understanding of orientalism by focusing more heavily on counter-cultural than establishment writings. Though the result may be one-sided, it offers a useful counterbalance to Said. Clarke provides a contrast with Said in other ways as well. He does not write with Said's verve, but he is clear and accessible. The sweep of this narrative enables the reader to discern major twists and turns in the course of orientalism, and is particularly effective in showing how the Enlightenment showed a preference for Confucianism, while the Romantics favoured Hinduism, and the 20th century has been especially entranced by Buddhism.

The book ends with a note on orientalism in a postmodern age. Clarke's suggestion is that orientalism may not be dying out, but entering a new phase. It is an interesting thought, and one to which Huntingdon's article and its reception offer some support. More controversially, one might also suggest that orientalism's old universalist ideals have resurfaced in some talk about globalisation, while cruder forms of postcolonialism keep an inverted orientalism alive and offer a new grand narrative of "us" and "them". If this is so, it should not surprise us. It is merely another piece of evidence that supports this book's insistence that orientalism is as likely to appear in the counter-cultural as the main-stream.

Linda Woodhead is lecturer in Christian studies, Lancaster University.

Oriental Enlightenment: The Encounter Between Asian and Western Thought

Author - J. J. Clarke
ISBN - 0 415 13375 0 and 13376 9
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £45.00 and £12.99
Pages - 3

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