Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Book Review: Ibn Warraq: Defending the West

Where to start? This book has been hard work, in the sense that any book that page after page has paragraphs that deserve and reward rereading once, twice, sometimes more. The sort of book where after 400 pages you are drawn to the end notes, to go deeper into the allusions and references.
Ibn Warraq, which as the final page makes clear is a pseudonym meaning “son of a stationer, book-seller, paper-seller”, has written a magnificent riposte to both Edward Said, his magnum opus 'Orientalism' and his followers who are variously described as 'Saidians' and 'Saidists'.

In brief it describes an alternative to Said's monstrous and set defeating claim that “it is therefore correct that every European in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently, a rascist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric”. He does this by drawing down incontrovertible evidence from Homer and Hesiod through Alexander the Great, via Alcuin and Roger Bacon and giving due weight to every age arrives at the enormity of the colonial Indian experience. Here more than anywhere the activities of the legion of scholars who in their free time (being doctors, magistrates and administrators in the main) essentially rediscovered Indian, particularly Hindu (Sanskrit) and Buddhist culture, is proof of his central thesis.

Said claims that all interest, all scholarship all writing, painting that involves a cross over between the Occident and the Orient was derived from a need to control, to map for nefarious purposes. Ibn Warraq successfully shows that the main driver is nothing of the sort, but more an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, and this is important, for its own sake.
He quotes Kipling from Kim where the dry Creighton is described thus,
“No money and no preferment would have drawn Creighton from his work on the
Indian Survey, but deep in his heart also lay the ambition to write “F.R.S.” after his name. Honours of a sort he new could be obtained by ingenuity and the help of friends, but, to the best of his belief, nothing save work-papers representing a life of it took a man into the Society which he had bombarded for years with monographs on strange Asiatic cults and unknown customs. Nine out of ten would flee from a Royal Society soiree in an extremity of boredom; but Creighton was the tenth, and at times his soul yearned for the crowded rooms in easy London where silver-haired gentlemen who knew nothing of the Army move among spectroscopic experiments, the lesser plants of the frozen tundras, electric flight measuring machines, and the apparatus for slicing into fractional millimetres the left eye of the female mosquito. By all right and reason it was the Royal Geographical that should have appealed to him, but men are as chancy as children in their choice of playthings”.
In this is encapsulated one of the key drivers of Western endeavour, something that has been the basic cause of the West's dominance of the scientific and economic world.

'Defending the West' is a truly huge work of scholarly synthesis, deep knowledge and sympathetic handling of materials. It is a loud, but harmonious blast of the trumpet in defence of a tolerant, pacific and universal conception of humanity.

Problems with it. Oh yes, there are problems, just in the way it introduced such a vast range of in new knowledge into my paltry brain in a remorseless way. Then there is the section defending 'Orientalism' in art. That should have been a separate monograph of its own. But with illustration. Google images is straining with my requests to see and understand the points.

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