- The seductive and seduced “other” of German Orientalism
K.P. Murti’s examination of German orientalist discourse covers the period from Friedrich Schlegel’s writings in the early nineteenth century to contemporary writers such as Gunter Grass. Her aim is to show how India has been constructed in the German writings she analyses. In her introduction she argues that although Germany was not a colonial power in India, German orientalism was clearly complicit with the larger European imperial enterprise in South Asia.
This she shows admirably well. Following Aijaz Ahmad, she also argues in her introduction that Orientalism should not be seen as a homogenous, monolithic discourse (p.6). However, by showing how deeply German orientalism colluded with the British presence in India, the differences between German and British orientalist constructs of India seem so negligible that in effect German orientalist discourse seems like an extension of British imperial representations. Thus, the overlap between Frederich Schelgel’s and Sir William Jones’ concerns are clear (but unnoticed by the author), while the preoccupations and formulations of Max Muller and Henry Sumner Maine are also very similar (again, unnoticed by the author). Furthermore, she frequently cites Said on European representations of the Islamic middle east to substantiate her points about the way India is constructed, so that in fact German Orientalist discourse about India is read as part and parcel of a larger European discourse. In fact, in one crucial chapter (chapter 4) on German women travellers, she deals with travellers to the Middle East, the reason being that there are no travel accounts in German by women who visited India. Nonetheless, the accounts she deals with are used to illustrate points about the gendered representations of India itself. In the end, then, the author is not able to show what, if anything, was distinctive about German orientalist discourses as opposed to their British and French counterparts and, despite the disclaimers in the introduction, German orientalism appears as more or less part of a largely monolithic Western discourse. The result is a somewhat familiar story of a feminised India, which was also treated by European observers as a contemporary storehouse of primeval histories (for earlier exemplary discussions of this image, see T.R Metcalfe, Ideologies of the Raj (1995) and Sara Suleri, The rhetoric of English India (1992), amongst others).
This discrepancy between the avowed aims of the author and what is in fact argued has parallels in some other confusing parts of the book. This reviewer was surprised to see no mention at all of Schwab’s comparative study The oriental renaissance: Europe’s rediscovery of India and the East (1984). At the very least, given the important discussions of German orientalist figures in that study, many of which Murti also discusses, some reference to Schwab would have been appropriate. Furthermore, the comparativism of Schwab’s study would have helped Murti to focus her conclusions about German orientalism more carefully. More importantly, Schwab argues that the European reception of Sanskrit texts from the late eighteenth century onwards seriously undermined Eurocentric notions of the exclusivity of their civilisation; for the first time, there was conclusive proof of a civilisation independent of the Biblical and Graeco-Roman bases of European civilisation itself (p.11). However, the anxieties behind European representations of India remain unexplored by Murti. This is especially surprising given her discussion of how India was colonised through the feminine body; such a colonisation is eloquent of anxieties about masculinity, authority, and sexuality, anxieties which Mrinalini Sinha has examined in some detail in her Colonial Masculinity (1995). Murti’s argument seems to suggest a seamless and dominantly powerful discourse centred on a powerless and voiceless India. The way in which powerful groups in India, and South Asia as a whole, have appropriated orientalist discourses for their own ends is hardly discussed by her at all. She does mention in passing the re-deployment of the Aryan myth by the political right in India (p. 130), but this is very brief and largely unexamined. There is an element of repetition now in studies...