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In an 1850 letter postmarked Jerusalem, Flaubert wrote his friend Théophile Gautier that “it is time to hurry. Before very long the Orient will no longer exist. We are perhaps the last of its contemplators.” Cited at the beginning of Chapter 5, this passage sums up the thematic terrain explored by Behdad in his useful account of French and English travel literature during that “age of colonial dissolution,” the second half of the nineteenth century. By mid-century the Orient had become for many European traveler-writers a site of belatedness, one in which their dreams of an “authentic” encounter with the exotic Other had to be mediated through an awareness of the increasing unlikelihood, and the inescapable (inter-)textuality, of that encounter (a point already developed at length in my own Exotic Memories: Literature, Colonialism, and the Fin de Siècle [Stanford UP, 1991]). The belated Orientalism of a writer like Flaubert, which “vacillates between an insatiable search for a counterexperience in the Orient and the melancholic discovery of its impossibility,” remains partially attached to the “official mode of orientalist discourse” from which it is attempting to differentiate itself. This problematic attachment generates a “discursively diffracted and ideologically split” subject/text that both contests and re-inscribes the certainties of the orientalist canon. Flaubert’s disappearing Orient is the product of an “ambivalent practice” that must be read in (at least) two very different ways: both in terms of the “transformational possibilities” that his belated dialogue with the Orient opens up and with a sensitivity to the “strategic reconfiguration of European domination” that it also promotes. The postcolonial critic’s response to such ambivalently colonial visions of the Orient cannot, for Behdad, be one of simple condemnation or praise; rather, what the discursive practices of a Flaubert elicit in him is a self-consciously “duplicitous identification with and a critical differentiation from” them, a double-take that is as diffracted and split as the subjects/texts under study.
Indeed, as Behdad stresses, the late-twentieth-century critic of Orientalism bears an uncanny resemblance to the belated Orientalist of the previous century. The project of the one cannot be simply extricated from that of the other: because “there is no ‘outside’ to the discourse of Orientalism” and “to write about the Orient inevitably [End Page 237] involves an intertextual relation in which the ‘new’ text necessarily depends for its representational economy on an earlier text,” both are situated within (historically different configurations of) the same limits. Given this complicitous situation, the political and aesthetic agenda of today’s postcolonial critic can no longer be simply one of transgressing these colonial limits (the heroic dream of anticolonial precursors like Frantz Fanon) but of recording, with an ever-greater degree of self-consciousness, the fluctuating “micropractices” that make them possible: for Behdad, “one can only engage in a shifting and indeterminate practice of deconstruction, describing the ideological complexities and political strategies of Orientalism in order to expose their limitations and problems,” and registering the extent to which the “noise of contestation” produced by the critic serves, as with Flaubert, not only to trouble the orientalist “discursive system” but to reinforce it, enabling a “continual process of transformation and restructuration that ensures [the] discourse of power its cultural hegemony.” Although it will doubtless strike those readers in search of more “radically” oppositional approaches as misguided at best, Behdad’s insistence that “there is no ‘outside’ to the language of empire,” and his consequent emphasis on the postcolonial critic’s “parasitic” dependence upon the imperial “system of power,” has the advantage of allowing him to engage in an open-ended dialogue with nineteenth-century European writers and to avoid “the trap of theoretical orthodoxy” that he so rightly warns his readers against.
The book consists of six chapters, prefaced by a theoretical introduction in which Behdad summarizes his position and engages in a de rigueur (and already somewhat belated) critique of the “essentialist and generalizing tendencies” of Edward Said’s Orientalism and of how its “insistence on the coherence...