In Orientalism, Said looks at the cultural and historical forces that built the Western understanding of the Near East, focusing heavily on the 18th century and probably most emblematically in the histories of Napoleon’s conquests in Egypt. He especially focuses on the idea of a “textual attitude”, where one’s concept of something is entirely built through reading about it (or in contemporary version reading about it online or seeing film and tv about it) as the primary way that people understood the Near East.
In this book, he wants to investigate the complex relationship between culture and empire, especially French and English literature and their respective empires. A small way to illustrate the main argument in the novel is to look at something Jane Eyre, a long two-part novel that is entirely set in England, but relies on both the colonial past of Rochester in the West Indies and the wealth he obtained there to create the setting for the novel itself and its action. But also, the exportation of Jane Eyre as a cultural, financial, and physical object to colonial spaces, allowed those hidden themes of the novel to circulate around the world. He stresses repeatedly that this is a system at work, and that Jane Eyre committed no great crime in and of itself, but that the whole cultural and economic forces work hand in hand to establish and constantly re-establish those connections.
This is one of those books that I read in grad school that hit all the right notes for me. For one, it offers up a model for reading and enjoying literature (even problematic faves) that doesn’t need to make excuses for the flaws of the books or their authors. I tend to adhere to the principle that everyone should read whatever they want to read and let others read whatever they want to read. Some books contain offenses that are simply too awful to ignore or are by authors whose personal lives are too awful too ignore, and of course everyone settles on their own preferences and level of comfort. There’s an annoying couple of trends that seem to circle the internet. One, if I don’t like something, then it must be problematic (followed by tortuous reasoning to turn opinion into discourse). Two, that others should not read what I’ve deemed wrong to read. Three, if I like it, then it MUST be defensible. I think one of the issues is that people often don’t recognize that people read for different purposes. One of the advantages I found in being an English major is that if I need to, I learned how to power through a book, and that sometimes I DO want to read things that I hate or am not enjoying either to get it out of my head or to finally reckon with it one way or another. I generally don’t like contemporary novels, so when people are telling me this one, new book is actually great, sometimes I read it even if I don’t think I am going to enjoy.
Anyway! What Said offers comes in his discussion of Mansfield Park. Said was born in Jerusalem and grow up in the US and was educated entirely in the US with a focus on history, English and French literature, and theory. His specific positioning in reading is often influenced through this background, and also a Christian. This means that often he’s discussion Western circles are excluding him because of his ethnic/racial identity and Middle Eastern circles because of his Christian identity. His position as he often describes it is as exile or outsider. And like a lot of people, he became a literature scholar because he loves literature. He’s been falsely maligned by readers like Harold Bloom for looking through literature in order to register complaints. Said talks lovingly about Mansfield Park but he also can’t ignore the ways in which the novel makes slightly oblique references to the sugar plantations in the Caribbean as their source of revenue. He discusses how in the the early 19th century novel, the existence of empire mostly is used a space away from Great Britain where things can happen in the past or off-screen, to further center things for the narrative — Mansfield Park, Great Expectations, and Jane Eyre. And in later novels, the space of empire becomes the space itself like in Heart of Darkness, Kim, and A Passage to India. Said discusses that you cannot reckon with these novels if you refuse to understanding the context that allows for the novel to exist, the context that the novel itself uses in its formation, but also that you can’t simply reduce great novels down to their sins and excesses and leave off the conversation there. You can, but that you’re not really doing anything when you do this, especially not important discourse.