Edward Said’s Book Orientalism

Edward Said’s book Orientalism (1995) is of vital importance, not only to our notions of the ways in which the West constructs representations and portraitures of the East but, to how the ideology of Othering is facilitated through Art and literature. Using Foucauldian methodologies, Said asserts the importance of hegemony in the creation of definite social symptoms that both concretize the dominant group and suppress the narrative of the Other. For Said, as for Foucault, this process is one of enunciation through power that is, not so much socio-political, as psychosocial:

“Orientalism responded more to the culture that produced it than to its putative object, which was also produced by the West. Thus the history of Orientalism has both an internal consistency and a highly articulated set of relationships to the dominant culture surrounding it.” (Said, 1995: 22)

It is exactly such discourse suppression (as opposed to socio-political) that many post-colonial writers over the last fifty years have attempted to address (Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin, 1989: 38). In this essay I would like to look at three main texts and see how this process has manifested itself historically. I will first look at the sense of Othering in Thomas De Quincey’s work Confessions of an Opium Eater (1985) and the ways in which these early leitmotifs of Orientalist discourse still permeate in the popular imagination, then I will look at the notion of post-colonial fear in Conrad’s Heart and Darkness (1994) and the recent Reith lectures by Wole Soyinka and assess the ways in which this notion is reflected in many instances of post-colonial and black writing.

In his Introduction to Orientalism, Said asserts the primacy of authorial intent. Unlike Foucault’s notions that the suppressive discourse works through the larger enunciative bodies and statements , Said sees them as being also contained within the very works themselves and not only this, perhaps, but interposed as such by the author:

“I do believe in the determining imprint of individual writers upon the otherwise anonymous collective body of texts constituting a discursive formation.” (Said, 1995: 23)

This complicity of the author is, we could assert, the reason that Saidian criticism lends itself particularly well to notions of post-colonial writers and the attempts that have been made to re-appropriate the imperialism and imperialist discourses of the past.

Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater is, in parts, an example of this sense; through a symbiosis of authorial intent and Orientalist discursive formations a portrait is revealed of a socio-geographical Other that serves, in the main, to obviate the morally ambiguous stance of the author. The character of the Malaysian visitor to De Quincey’s English home is an exemplar of Orientalist Othering; not only is the Other demonized and alienated but he is constantly held in contrast to the Western feminine beauty of the servant girl:

“A more striking picture there could not be imagined, than the beautiful English face of the girl, and its exquisite fairness, together with her erect and independent attitude, contrasted with the sallow and bilious skin of the Malay, enamelled or veneered with mahogany, by marine air, his small, fierce, restless eyes, thin lips, slavish gestures and adorations.” (De Quincey, 1985: 56)

The issue here, of course, is not so much the racist overtone of the prose (although that is undoubtedly an issue) but the creation of a binary; between, on the one hand the feminine grace of the white European girl and the mute primitiveness of the Malaysian sailor. Also here, as in many other passages in Victorian literature , the concept of the Far Eastern Other is twinned with criminality and moral turpitude. Note, for instance, how in De Quincey, the Malaysian’s moral character is not only twinned with his dress and state of personal hygiene but his ability to eat vast quantities of opium (“enough to kill three dragoons and their horses.” (1985: 57)); a fact that allows the narrator to alleviate his own guilt vis-à-vis his drug use.

It is easy to see the proliferation and reinterpretation of this same discourse in modern popular culture. From De Qunicey’s Malay, to the Taliban, to the lyrics of modern rap and West Indian ragga, the notion of criminality and psychosocial Othering was first created and then glamourised by Orientalists and the subjects of the discourse (Dyson, 1996: 87). The twinning of criminality, eroticism and Otherness that was so much a part of the nineteenth century sense of Orientalism is re-appropriated by writers such as Victor Headly and Hanif Kureshi.

Another largely canonical text in, not only Orientalism, but Said’s work as a whole in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The Othering in Heart of Darkness, as Said himself says in his essay “Two Visions in Heart of Darkness” (2004) is of a more ambiguous, even, phantasmatic oeuvre:

“Conrad’s genius allowed him to realize that the ever-present darkness could be colonized or illuminated – Heart of Darkness is full of references to the mission civiliatrice, to benevolent as well as cruel schemes to bring light to the dark places. (Said, 2004: 516)


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