ALLEN LANE £25 £22.50 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897

For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their enemies by Robert Irwin

A little bit of the other

Take Athanasius Kircher for example, a Jesuit priest who, in the 17th century, made a brilliant and original study of Egyptian hieroglyphics, which was all the more original because he had no knowledge of the subject and worked entirely through ineffective guesswork. Limited opportunities to study Eastern languages in Europe continued to produce similar if less colourful follies until the middle of the 19th century. The famous Orientalist Richard Burton was some way into his self-taught study of Arabic before he discovered he should be reading the language right to left instead of left to right.

What gives For Lust of Knowing its bite and drive is that throughout Irwin is shadow boxing with the American Arab Edward Said's Orientalism. This famous book published in the 1970s, took the emerging fashion for deconstruction to claim that all Western views of Arabia were a construct, fashioned to give Europe a sense of its own identity compared to an exotic other and then used to justify imperial domination. Said's use of evidence for his claim has long been dismissed by specialists but his views still exert a lot of popular influence.

But then Arabic is a very limited speciality. One of the fascinating things to emerge from the book is how little interest the West has taken in either Arabic or Islam. Most of the scholars Irwin identifies as the true Orientalists were men who seldom left their universities. Many did not speak but only read Arabic, and of those who visited Arab countries, few knew enough colloquial Arabic to speak to Arabs. As far as they were involved in imperialism at all, they usually took the part of the colonised. As enthusiasts, they have sometimes bequeathed us an exaggerated idea of the extent of, say, learning and religious tolerance in medieval Andalusia.

While the stereotypes of Oriental decadence and luxury which Said describes definitely exist, the otherness of the Arab world has often been idealised to put aspects of the West in an unfavourable light. What emerges beyond doubt is that, although there were Orientalists, there has never been Orientalism, but a plethora of often contradictory views, dictated by the eccentric ideas of individuals.

Books which painstakingly disassemble (rather than deconstruct) popular misconceptions are usually dull because detail is inevitably less enjoyable to absorb than myth. This one certainly is not. It must be said, however, that Irwin's polemical vigour sometimes allows him to fall into the same faults he finds in Said.

There are inaccuracies. Irwin writes that Lord Macaulay, the Victorian politician and poet who was sometimes critical of cherished Orientalist positions, never visited India. He lived and worked there for four years. And there are occasions when Irwin allows personal animosity to influence his judgement. In disparaging the 19th-century French writer Ernest Renan, Irwin claims that because Renan worked only from medieval translations from Arabic into Latin for his study of Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Renan's Arabic must have been weak. Renan, however, claimed that he was unable to find as much as a single line of Ibn Rushd in Arabic, either in the libraries of Europe or the Middle East, which seems a plausible claim to my admittedly inexpert mind.

And Irwin remains a shadow boxer, not because Said is now dead, nor because the inaccuracies in Orientalism have been aired many times before, to Said's complete indifference (the unreliability of Orientalism seems to be only thing everybody with any opinion about the Middle East agrees on). What is at issue is not a clash of civilisations but a paradigm shift. Irwin is a champion of philology, the 19th-century study of language, which has fallen away to nothing after the introduction of the discipline of linguistics after the Second World War.

Said was a post-modernist, and the central preoccupation of post-modernism is meaning, which post-modernists see as separate from language, which for them is the hieroglyphics of power. Like Athanasius Kircher they begin with the confidence that they already know the meaning of everything, and organise the facts on the ground with a paranoiac intensity, to reveal the oppressor triumphing over the oppressed yet again.

The generation of Orientalists who taught Irwin Arabic in the 1960s were convinced they were the last in their line. They assumed that the post-colonial Arab states would naturally found departments of Arabic in their own universities, which were bound to be superior to any found in Europe or the United States. This has not happened, for a variety of reasons, not least because the resurgence of fundamentalist Islam does not embrace textual criticism. Some radical Islamicists have embraced post-modernism, finding its criticism of Enlightenment values extremely useful.

In Said's last writings, when he knew he was dying, he called for the return of philology. He thought that its assumption of common humanity, against the anti-humanism of post-modernism, and its belief in disinterested truths discovered through lust of knowing alone, were the only means by which Israelis and Palestinians could find common ground. Too late, alas: the genie is out of the bottle.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried