BOOK REVIEW / Feeling for the prevailing wind of empire: 'Culture and Imperialism' - Edward Said: Chatto and Windus, 20 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Online
HALF-WAY through The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, the 1943 film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the colonel is consoled on the death of his wife by a friend, who remarks: 'It must be terrible to lose someone so dear to you in a foreign country.' Blimp pours himself a brandy. 'It wasn't a foreign country,' he explains. 'It was Jamaica.'

This might well be a sharper vision of the huge, sad wrongness behind the imperial presumption than can be expressed in endless pages of abstract discussion, however erudite and sensitive. Yet if Edward Said had chosen to comment on it in his new description of the West's cultural arrogance, he might have been tempted to point out that it was in fact characteristic of the empowering and hegemonic structure of feeling that inflects the contrapuntal relationship between the metropolitan nexus and its displaced colonial locale. Or something.

This is the first thing you notice about Edward Said: the professor of comparative literature and former member of the PLO Council is not a pretty writer. Ironically, he seems almost eager to chat away in the vocabulary of a sober and evasive colonial bureaucrat. He is fanatically well-read, but so keen to share his learning with us that at times his argument just dissolves into lists. Open Culture and Imperialism at random and you will find (on pages 92-3, for example): Conrad, Lukacs, Stendhal, Scott, Defoe, Austen, Thackeray, Flaubert, Michelet, Macaulay, Kipling, Rider Haggard, Loti, Conan Doyle, Gide, Psichari, Malraux, Camus and Orwell. Clogged isn't the word.

Said's easy collaboration with clumsy jargon also encourages a po-faced refusal to acknowledge the force of satire. He cites a wonderful passage from Dickens ('The earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in, and the sun and moon were made to float their ships') and then asks: 'How could Dombey think that the universe, and the whole of time, was his to trade in?' To chide Dickens for indulging the very thing he was sending up is a touch humourless. It is rather like saying that Pope was subconsciously in favour of dunces.

This murkiness is a great shame, because Said is doing a good and necessary job, which no one in their right mind could object to. He is anxious to point out that the novels he is analysing - by Austen, Conrad, Kipling, Forster, Camus, Gide and others - are in no sense diminished by their having a thoughtless or ingratiating attitude to the politics of empire; so anyone who accuses him of seeking to deliver lofty put-downs to famous books is not quite telling the truth. And he is absolutely right in thinking that the way in which the empire makes its presence felt in novels is a large and strong subject.

It is indeed odd that so few Victorian novelists engaged in a serious way with what was going on overseas - not until Conrad and Kipling did the empire get much more than a walk-on part. And it is perhaps true that there is something formal to do with the Victorian novel - the way it puts an individual consciousness at the centre of a journey-through-life sort of narrative - that meshed neatly with the prevailing cultural wind, which placed Europe at the centre of the universe, and then preached universality.

Said's point is that this absence is deliberate. 'Without Empire,' he suggests, 'there is no European novel as we know it.' This is debatable - the age of the novel coincides with empire, but it also coincides with industrialisation, with the birth of ideas about private life and individualism, with the spread of printing technology, with the appearance of a literate and leisured audience, and with about a hundred other things. But an imperial inquiry along these lines is certainly the stuff of true criticism: provocative, alert and interesting.

The trouble is, Said wants to argue that even novelists like Conrad (a sure critic of imperial coarseness) and Austen (who is famous for ignoring everything beyond the county road) were in some sense its sponsors or acolytes. Inevitably he seizes, as Chinua Achebe has done, on Heart of Darkness as the prime example of the West's willingness to equate the Third World with blank horror. Is it worth emphasising that Conrad's novel implies, in its last line, that the real heart of the darkness was up the Thames, not the Congo; or that even schoolboy essays mention, as proof of Conrad's disgust with the brutal truth of colonial life, the doomed negro with the loop of 'white worsted' around his neck, a 'bit of white thread from beyond the seas'?

Said does not and would not dispute this. But he goes right ahead anyway and fingers Conrad for failing to imagine a 'fully realised alternative' to imperialism. This might be because he believes the job of scholarship to be the making of connections between things ('My principle aim is not to separate but to connect'). We might well think that this is easy-peasy; that it is finer and more scholarly to be awake to distinctions. Said rushes towards generalisations that make you wince; and generalisations, as the saying goes, are never true.

The result is that despite all his protestations the book does look like an attempt to point out that some so-called great writers have ideological feet of clay. This hardly matters - literature is miles more resilient and interesting than anything criticism can say about it. But it is quite obvious to everyone that Jane Austen was what we might call bourgeois, and that Kipling was part of the Raj. And who knows? Someone might, in the same spirit, question Said's warm enthusiasm for Frantz Fanon, a writer for whom violence was 'a cleansing force'. Said of course translates this as meaning that violence is 'the synthesis that overcomes the reification of white man as subject, Black man as object.' Just as well: even people who dislike violence - even the lower-case white man - probably won't mind being painlessly cleansed by a synthesis.