Philip Hensher

What should not be known

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For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies

Robert Irwin

Penguin/Allen Lane,, pp. 410, £

This elegantly argued, amusing and acute book has been put together, in the end, for a single overdue purpose: to piss all over Edward W. Said’s ludicrous 1978 polemical work, Orientalism. It may look, for most of the journey, like a scrupulous history of the academic study of Arabic cultures, and the steady growth in understanding, as well as some deft character sketches of the necessarily rather eccentric figures in the field. Don’t be misled: Robert Irwin has Said perpetually in his sights.

It is quite incredible to conceive the influence Said’s Orientalism has had, within and outside academia. Said’s point was not just that the ‘orientalist’ styles of European art and literature traduced the reality of what they purported to represent. He went further and claimed that almost all Western students of Middle Eastern culture were tools of imperialism and Zionism, plotting to subjugate the vast culture under jackboots cunningly disguised as slow-selling histories of the Mameluke sultanates.

The book is spectacularly full of mistakes, many of which were pointed out as soon as it was published. Said thought Muslim armies conquered Turkey before North Africa; he refers to a whole school of ‘Cluniac orientalists’ (there was only one, Peter the Venerable); invents research by Burckhardt into Egyptian proverbs; said the eastern Mediterranean was under British and French control from the 17th century, and so on.

Omissions, sometimes very large ones, are everywhere. If you think academic orientalism is exclusively a tool of empire, you are going to have to explain away the existence of a large and original German academy, which Said, amazingly, treats as of secondary importance. On the other hand, if you wanted to explore the thesis, might you not want to look at the work of Russian orientalists, working in an empire with large Muslim territories? Said omits the whole, important school.

Maddest of all, perhaps, is Said’s belief that Sir William Jones’s hypothesis that Sanskrit and Persian belong to the same language group as German and Greek was driven by an imperial agenda. No one has seriously doubted that they do; there’s just too much philological evidence. Said, in Irwin’s words, ‘seemed to regard the establishment of the Indo-Aryan family of languages as a kind of club that had set up arbitrary rules to exclude the “wog” tongue, Arabic’. There is no basis for this claim, and Said’s subsequent argument that ‘the claim made by some that I am ahistorical and inconsistent [i.e. wrong] would have more interest if the virtues of consistency, whatever may be intended by the term, were subjected to rigorous analysis’ is the ranting of a man caught out.

The whole thing is hilariously ad hominem, and Irwin has some fun with the fact that Clifford Geertz is praised in the book as someone ‘whose interest in Islam is discrete and concrete enough to be animated by the specific societies and problems he studies’. Five years later, in Orientalism Reconsidered, he was a pedlar of the ‘standard disciplinary rationalisations and self-congratulatory clichés about hermeneutic circles’. What had happened in the intervening period? Why, Geertz had ungratefully written a negative review of a book by Said.

Terrible and wrong books are written all the time. The amazing thing is that Said’s Orientalism has had enormous influence. Its case, entirely without foundation, goes on being taught in universities, and has probably been a factor in the decline of serious study of the subject. No matter: if we’re not talking about it, at least we can’t be accused of imperial ambitions whenever we publish an article.

Most of Irwin’s book is a rewarding and often amusing history of the study of Islamic culture, mainly Arabic. It’s worth noting that, as in many similar cases — Sir William Jones’s work on Sanskrit springs to mind — the serious study of the history of Islam and of Arabic was principally carried out by Western scholars, and we wouldn’t know as much as we do now about the subject were it not for the endeavours of orientalists. Irwin says, for example, that Arabic was being printed in Europe as far back as the 16th century, with the printing, in 1514, of a book of hours with an Arabic typeface. The first printing press in the Arab world, however, was the Bulaq press, established as late as 1822.

The study of Arabic in the West goes back an incredible distance, though the Church Council of Vienne of 1311-12, which decreed that chairs of Arabic (as well as Greek, Hebrew and Chaldean) should be established at Avignon, Paris, Oxford, Bologna and Salamanca led to nothing very much. When chairs of Arabic were established at Oxford and Cambridge in the early 17th century, Arabic had become a sort of symbol of abstruse learning, and those who did take it up largely saw it as a way of demonstrating the impious blasphemy of the Koran. Serious study would have to wait.

The founding father of the discipline, Guillaume Postel, born in 1510, set the tone for the characters of many oriental scholars: he was completely mad. Along with a lot of quite solid grammatical work, including the first European grammar of classical Arabic, he built up a cult of a Venetian woman called Johanna, who, he said, was the Divine Presence of the cabala, the Angelic Pope, the New Eve and several other things, gifted with X-ray vision and able to see the Devil sitting at the centre of the earth. He holds the rare distinction of being investigated by the Inquisition and declared heretical but harmlessly insane.

Quite a lot of his followers in the profession have been, to say the least, on the eccentric side. Irwin tells the story of one professor at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies, who only went there once a year and otherwise lived quietly in Scotland. When the School, in despair, advertised for someone actually to do the teaching, they were surprised to receive an application from the reclusive Scotsman. David Margoliouth spoke an Arabic so exquisitely pure that no ordinary Arab could understand it, and was once angered when a student asked how he could say ‘Do you drive a motor car?’ in Arabic.

Gobineau devoted years of his life to the decipherment of cuneiform, an endeavour fatally flawed by his belief that it must represent some living Middle Eastern language. Hammer-Purgstall, a great figure in the discipline, was devoted to bizarre fantasies about the oriental origins of the Rosicrucians, Illuminists and the Knights Templar. Athanasius Kircher perhaps wins the prize; as well as being the man who interested Bernini in hieroglyphics, he ‘devised a vomiting machine and eavesdropping statues, as well as a kind of piano powered by screeching cats’. In his academic work, he proposed that the Hebrew names of beasts concealed a cabalistic operation which disclosed, through permutation, their real natures. (I’m sure it once made complete sense.)

All the same, an enormous amount of work got done. Irwin’s field is the professional academic rather than the eccentric and underemployed colonial administrator who chose to entertain himself with amateur speculations; he doesn’t, alas, have space either for those heroes of derring-do, like Frederick Burnaby, who managed to pick up a dozen exotic languages while fighting their way through the Great Game. He says he is planning to write a second volume about the looser sense of orientalism, as exhibited in artists and writers; I hope he casts his net wide.

It’s hard not to move from the splendid history of the extraordinarily gifted scholars of the mid-19th to mid-20th century to the current state of affairs without a little pause for regret. The study of orientalism has always been an arena in which prejudices and agendas can be pursued, from Christian evangelism to Soviet accounts of class struggle. It̵ 7;s still disappointing to see how it, now, can be used to discredit a scholar like Bernard Lewis on the sole grounds that he is Jewish, or that serious bodies of research which illuminate the first years after the Prophet’s life have to be expressed in code because they contradict the version which has been handed down.

A lot of this can be assigned without doubt to Said’s malign influence, and it reaches a sad conclusion in a rogues’ gallery of Arab scholars at the end of Irwin’s book. The best of these is a fellow called A. L. Tibawi, who believed, firstly, that ‘scientific detachment’ could only be achieved by submitting to Islam, and secondly, in abusing his colleagues, who exhibited ‘an undercurrent of fanaticism’, were ‘famous for nothing in particular’, ‘prolific in an area where little effort is required’, guilty of ‘jumpy and shallow patchwork’, ‘useless journalese’, ‘howling anachronisms’ and, of course, ‘drivel’ tout court. (Irwin’s list is very much longer). Amusingly, he went on, not untypically, to accuse another colleague of ‘not being courteous to predecessors he did not agree with’. No, Said has created a climate in which the Western orientalist cannot get anything right. No wonder most of them have just chosen to give up, and fewer every year want to embark on the enterprise at all.