The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
April 27, 2006

"Until reading For Lust of Knowing I thought it was impossible to be unfair to Edward Said - now I am not so sure": For Lust of Knowing - Robert Irwin

Posted by David Womersley

For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies
by Robert Irwin
Pp. 410. London: Allen Lane, 2006
Hardback, 25

After reading Robert Irwin's For Lust of Knowing, David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - concludes that it may actually be possible to be unfair to Edward Said.

Is it possible to be unfair to Edward Said? Until a few weeks ago, I might have been inclined to doubt it. Having read For Lust of Knowing, however, I think that Robert Irwin may have managed it.

In 1978 Said published Orientalism, on which he had begun work (so Irwin informs us) in 1973 in response to the Middle East crisis of that year. The essential argument of this hugely influential work is ably summarised by Irwin:

Orientalism, the hegemonic discourse of imperialism, is a discourse that constrains everything that can be written and thought in the West about the Orient and more particularly about Islam and the Arabs. It has legitimized Western penetration of the Arab lands and their appropriation and it underwrites the Zionist project. ... it originated in the work of French and British scholars in the late eighteenth century. However, the discursive formation was not restricted to scholars, as imperialist administrators, explorers and novelists also participated in, or were victims of, this discourse. .... Characteristically Orientalism is essentialist, racialist, patronizing and ideologically motivated.
Irwin is himself a trained oriental scholar and a Senior Research Associate at SOAS. Unsurprisingly, he bitterly resents Said's tendentious redescription of whole congeries of interlinked scholarly disciplines and traditions as nothing more than the complacent tool of Western imperialism. For Lust of Knowing is accordingly an attempt at a wholesale demolition of Orientalism, and in it Irwin pursues a double strategy.

The first five-sixths of the book comprise a survey of Western attitudes towards, and scholarship concerning, the near-East (that is to say, the Persians, the Arabs and the Turks) from Aeschylus onwards. The final sixth of the book consists of two chapters, the first a genealogical critique of Orientalism itself, the second an attack on those who have followed in Said's wake and decried the Orientalists. Irwin's plan is therefore clear: in the first place, show how much more rich, various and indeed divided the field of oriental studies and representation has been from its very inception than Said is prepared to allow; then, having established the essential inaccuracy of Orientalism, speculate about the personal motives which impelled Said to write such a misrepresentation.

The first part of For Lust of Knowing therefore has a huge amount of ground to cover, and unsurprisingly it does so in a rather skimming way. A massive cast of orientalists is paraded before the reader, and we are given summary information about their life and writings. At their best, these portraits read like entries from a good encyclopedia; at their worst, like extracts from a bad obituary. For instance, in what respect is Irwin's argument advanced by the inclusion of the anecdote about the Laudian Professor of Arabic, Freddie Beeston, cycling naked through Oxford chased by the police, whom he evaded by swimming across the Cherwell?

On the other hand, the mental eccentricity of a figure such as Louis Massignon engages Irwin's imagination at a deeper level, and his writing on figures such as these (one might add here Renan and Arberry) attains greater subtlety and interest. Irwin is at his most convincing when a foible of character in an orientalist feeds into an idiosyncrasy of scholarly interpretation. Inevitably, however, and even in a field as well-stocked with madmen as oriental studies, such figures do not exist round every corner.

So for long stretches of the first 270 pages of For Lust of Knowing, the writing has a rather routine feel: this is ground that Irwin simply has to cover. The essential point he wants to underline namely, that the tradition of European writing on the near-East was just as likely to condemn Europe as to extol it, to empathise with Arabs as to despise them, and to celebrate the achievements of oriental and Islamic culture as to condescend to them is established beyond doubt. However, Irwin's election to base the argument of his book around the principle of carpet-bombing rather than the surgical strike has a curious and unintended consequence. Doubts are awakened in the reader's mind as to just how important this point is, belaboured as we are with it for nearly 300 pages: isn't it time for the argument to move on (as opposed to merely the surveying authorial eye)? Each successive orientalist is reduced to being simply another anti-Said-shaped bead on Irwin's string. Irwin's coverage is exhaustive, without being satisfying. Indeed, the more it supplies, the less adequate it seems.

Irwin's remorseless belabouring of the central point also raises disturbing questions about the range of motives and sympathies which drive his book forwards. It is the peril of polemic that the assailant is converted into a strange simulacrum of his antagonist. Said charges the orientalists with being nothing more than the instruments of Western imperialism. Irwin charges Said with the sin of turning the tradition of orientalism into the mere instrument of the late-twentieth-century preoccupations of a deracinated Palestinian. Irwin himself is liable to the charge of degrading oriental scholarship into nothing more than the instrument of his vendetta with Said. Renan's disparaging assessment of Sylvestre de Sacy, that de Sacy presented

the strange spectacle of a man, who, though he possesses one of the vastest eruditions of modern times, has never had an important critical insight,
is, mutatis mutandis, applicable to Irwin himself, and to the project of For Lust of Knowing so much knowledge marshalled and acquired, only for the purpose of discrediting an academic. There is something distasteful and disproportionate in this remodelling of the vast scope and richness of European scholarship about the near-East into a cosh with which to assail a dead professor.

In the end, the negativity of Irwin's motives is its own undoing. Irwin establishes his case against Said (but who in recent years has ever doubted that Orientalism is an inaccurate and irresponsible book?). Yet he can do so only at the cost of his own bona fides. For Irwin is an assassin, and For Lust of Knowing is a metaphorical act of academic murder. No doubt Said had it coming, but not everything which it is possible to do should be done. Who is the real victim of For Lust of Knowing? Said, or Irwin?

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.

Sa'id, Sir, was a very bad man. I would sooner have signed a sentence for his transportation, than that of any felon who has gone from the Old Bailey these many years. Yes, I should like to have had him work in the plantations.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at April 27, 2006 07:37 PM

so, while you agree with Mr Irwin, his method of debunking Said disturbs you?

and while Said has been revealed to be a pedantic, overpriviliged, narcissist and his book, Orientalism, exposed as petulance and resentment used to bludgeon the "west"

may be true

you are disturbed by the sheer force of Mr Irwin scholarship and logic

you now feel sorry for Said?


Posted by: riff_raff at April 30, 2006 04:37 PM

We journey not for trafficking alone
By desperate deeds our fiery hearts are fanned
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We make the Golden Journey to Samarkhand

(The Businessmen, in 'The Golden Journey to Samarkhand,' James Elroy Flecker, from memory)

Yes, I suppose one does rather wonder what unsaid but desperate deeds Dr Irwin had in mind by overdoing it so. Another fascinating piece from SAU.

Posted by: s masty at May 7, 2006 05:25 PM

"Who in recent years has ever doubted that Orientalism is an inaccurate and irresponsible book?" asks David Womersly. Who indeed? In Middle Eastern Studies at New York University, where I did my graduate work in the late 1990s, criticism of Edward Said in the seminar room was received like a bout of flatulence. A few years ago a professor from another field had the audacity to challenge one or another of Said's postulates at a panel discussion. The chair of the panel, a senior professor in my department, averted his gaze in disgust and held his arm aloft until the offending speaker desisted from their heresy. Only then was the discussion able to resume.

Posted by: Mark Wagner at May 14, 2006 05:02 AM

and yet, the New Statesman, reviewing the same book

"...In fact, what is striking about For Lust of Knowing is how unspiteful it is. The book is refreshingly free of the suave malice of the senior common room. Instead Irwin comes across as a genial, rather unworldly, upper-class English scholar, struggling to preserve his public-school values of fairness and decency in the face of what he sees as Said's barbarous slur on oriental studies. "

or did Prof Eagleton read a different book?

Posted by: riff_raff at May 22, 2006 11:18 PM
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement