Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Edward Said no longer rocks the quadrangle

Edward Said's shadowy legacy Robert Irwin TLS:

It's a lament often heard in Covenant Zone circles, when news of the latest atrocity of left dhimmi fascism from the Labour government (and associated bureaucracies) of the UK comes to our attention, that Britain is the most hopeless of all the European nations when it comes to preserving itself in face of the Global Intifada.

Yet what is on centre stage today is the fruit of intellectual fashions that began thirty and forty years ago. What we don't yet see are the outcome of today's shifting attitudes, the evidence of which is hard to see from abroad, though we catch glimpses on comments left around the web.

It seems to me worth a quick note that one of the leading arbiters of academic and public intellectual fashions in the UK (and elsewhere in the English-speaking world), The Times Literary Supplement, a journal which I read as seeking the liberal centre in most things, is not simply publishing a review criticizing Edward Said - this is now common enough - but doing so through the pen of its own Middle East editor, and with a mostly favorable nod to the recent, unabashedly pro-Western, work of Ibn Warraq. Reviewer Robert Irwin mentions certain things I would not expect to read in such a polite journal, though they are well known in the blogosphere:
Ibn Warraq is the pseudonym of a former Muslim and the author of Why I Am Not a Muslim and Leaving Islam. Since the penalty for apostasy is death, he is wise to write under a pseudonym. He is less concerned than Varisco with Said’s rhetorical sleight of hand, though he does point out quite a few examples of it. He is more interested in Said’s numerous factual errors. Defending the West is more diffuse than Reading Orientalism, since Orientalism has provoked Ibn Warraq to defend Western culture, rationality and objectivity from the assaults of Said and others. In the first part of his book Ibn Warraq combines a broad history of Western culture with a detailed attack on Edward Said. Particular attention is paid to the heritage of Greek rationality, Christian values in seventeenth-century Orientalism, and the history of Orientalism in India. In the second half of the book he discusses Orientalism in painting, sculpture, literature and music.

Ibn Warraq shows how, lacking a background in history, Said was as ignorant of the chronology and geography of the Arab conquests, as he was of those of the British and French empires. Said was obsessed with sexual readings of apparently innocent texts. He managed to find an erotic subtext in Vatikiotis’s slightly dull article on revolutions. Alphonse de Lamartine does not travel in the Middle East, but he “penetrates” it. In discussing Kipling’s Kim, Ibn Warraq remarks that “Said has the irritating habit of claiming to know how the ‘Indian reader’ will react to the novel. I am an Indian reader, and do not read it as Said’s ideal Indian reader does, and I shall quote other Indian readers who do not either”. Ibn Warraq finds Said’s characterization of Thomas Carlyle and John Henry Newman as “liberal culture heroes” quite absurd.

1 comment:

Dag said...

Surely the reviewer jests in writing "Vatikiotis’s slightly dull article...." Vatikiotis is a careful and competent historian whose work is some pleasure to read. Warraq is a different case.

His work is broader and deeper-- dense, in fact, and enlightening in ways Vatakiotis is not. If one wishes for a broad outline of Islamic issues, forgo the trendy Bernard Lewis and his legion of imitators, and pick up Warraq instead. He's a great first stop on the long road to understanding much of the technical details of Islamic thought. Vatikiotis is good for filling in the minute details thereafter. Lewis belongs at the local drugstore book rack.

One who is rapidly becoming a favorite source for me is Andrew Bostom. Those who pretend to know Islam from having listened to chatter at the diner on Said or some college campus lecture might as well quit pretending to know anything of value at all. It's a shame that Warraq had to spend his energies debunking such rubbish. Defending the West is a beautiful book on aesthetic grounds alone, but one could wish he'd had the time instead to write on the history and jurisprudence of Islam instead. Maybe next time.

But please, don't waste time on Lewis, Hitti, and that lot. We have excellent scholars and thinkers doing wonderful work honestly and professionally, and the reward is superior to anything one could ever hope for from such hacks as Said. And give Vatikiotis a try. Really, he's not boring. No, really....