“Oriental studies” once came wrapped in a dreariness dull enough to make its practitioners envy economists. Thanks to Edward Said, though, Irwin has a lively fight on his hands.
Orientalists, as students of Asian languages and cultures were once collectively called, had several motivations for their work, among them the hope of gaining past-through-the-present insight into the cultures of the Bible, the search for lost classical knowledge that had passed from the Greeks to the Arabs and not reemerged in Europe and the quest for expanded economic and political contact with Asia. Irwin (The Arabian Nights, 1994, etc.) here ushers several classical authors into the Orientalist ranks, including Herodotus, who “seems to have been singularly free of racial prejudice,” and Aristotle, who contrarily inclined to the view that Asians “tolerate despotic rule without resentment,” as if born to subjugation. Later generations of Orientalists, from Spain and Italy, but more famously from Germany and England, tended to see contemporary Asians as fallen from the great cultural heights of the past. While Irwin gives short shrift to the best-known Orientalists, particularly T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia, whom he considers a “fantasist”), he introduces general readers to others whom they may well never have heard of, such as the Hungarian scholar Ignaz Goldziher. All of this comes by way of prologue to Irwin’s extended argument against the late soi-disant Palestinian scholar Said, who charged that Orientalism was a species of cultural imperialism, if not an instrument of imperialism outright. Irwin disagrees—vehemently so—noting especially (1) the contributions of actual Asians to Asian studies, particularly in the Middle East; and (2) that many of the best-known Western students and interpreters of Asian cultures were vigorously anti-imperialist in outlook.
Latter-day Orientalists and students of intellectual history will benefit greatly from this study, but so also will others charting the discourse between East and West.