The Chronicle features a glance over some reactions to Robert Irwin’s recent anti-Orientalist work For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists And Their Enemies. These are interesting snapshots, but most interesting is Terry Eagleton’s sniping review in the New Statesman.
Writing about history tends to proceed in three stages. First, a particular truth is generally accepted — say, that the west has by and large treated the east pretty shabbily, or that the inhabitants of Scunthorpe have behaved brutally to the citizens of Grimsby. After a while stage two sets in, as revisionists spring up to challenge this received wisdom. In doing so, they almost invariably engage in the same set of moves. First, they produce evidence that not all Scunthorpians have been cruel to Grimsbyites. Second, they show that some Grimsbyites have regularly brutalised people from Scunthorpe. Third, they point out that in some respects the population of Grimsby had it coming. Fourth, they remind us not to judge these ancient animosities by our own modern-day liberal standards. Finally, they insist that the whole affair has been grossly exaggerated, and that it is time to draw a line under these events, turn our faces to the future and move on.
Almost every one of these strategies is deployed in For Lust of Knowing to defend orientalism from the charge of complicity with imperial power. Yet it is impossible to avert the arrival of stage three: the realisation that, when every due reservation has been made, every factual error corrected and every exception noted, stage one was pretty much true all along.
Here’s another process. Edward Said writes a work making sweeping claims about the relation of Western scholarship to Imperialism. Works emerge in response, arguing that this is an oversimplification. Then Terry Eagleton stoops to still lower metaphors to exhibit that Said was right all along. When Terry Eagleton believes something, scholarly nitpicking is not going to convince him otherwise. Take an example from this review: Irwin’s effort, he suggests, “is like trying to refute the charge that Christianity has been a hugely destructive force for social evil by producing an admiring study of St. Thomas Aquinas.” One of the wonders of cultural theory is that when the weight of detail is against you there are always “prevailing attitudes” to claim as your trump card. So, Eagleton concedes, Said was wrong at points, but “the debacle in Iraq” has “rekindled a radical Islamophobia in the West.” See, Said was right all along!