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  • The Birth of Orientalism
  • Joseph Prabhu
The Birth of Orientalism. By Urs App. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. Pp. xviii + 550.

With the passage of time, the title Orientalism in Edward Said's famous (or notorious) book of that name appears increasingly unfortunate. Giving the term the Foucauldian meaning of an alienating stance taken by the European "self" toward the Middle Eastern "other," Said went on to argue that the Orientalist scholarship undertaken by Western scholars in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries largely served the purpose of imperial domination. It is true that in his book Said confined his attention to the Middle East, but both he and his epigones extended the thesis to include other parts of Asia. So strong was Said's influence for a while that "Orientalism" began to acquire the meaning of a willful ignorance and distortion of the East on the part of Westerners. Evidence may, of course, be found for this thesis in this particular chapter of East-West interaction, but the more important point is that this particularity is by no means representative of the much broader and vastly more nuanced field of Oriental studies. This is not at all to deny the imperialist tendencies of some Orientalist scholarship; but to tar the whole field with that unnuanced brush is both inaccurate and misleading.

Urs App's, in The Birth of Orientalism, follows in the tradition of authors who, by displaying the vast background against which the encounters between Asia and Europe took place, give the lie to attempts such as Said's at narrowing what is in fact a very broad and deep history. In so doing, he joins the company of scholars like Raymond Schwab (La Renaissance Orientale [Payot, 1950]), Wilhelm Halbfass (India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding [State University of New York Press, 1988]), Jarava Lal Mehta (India and the West: The Problem of Understanding [Scholars Press, 1985]), and J. J. Clarke (Oriental Enlightenment: The Encounter between Asian and Western Thought [Routledge, 1997]). In contrast to Halbfass and Mehta, Apps' account of the encounters between Asia and Europe remains Eurocentric in that he is concerned with various European reconstructions and evaluations of Asian religions and key personages and themes, but not with the other side of the dialogue. Indeed, it would be false to characterize App's attempt as being dialogical at all, concerned as it is entirely with European thinkers and their appropriation of Asian religious ideas and texts.

The other focal point of the book is that it is religious ideology, rather than political or economic motives that, according to App, provides the central drama and agenda of these encounters. Even though there are a few philosophers chosen for [End Page 610] consideration like Voltaire and Diderot, it is their thoughts on Asian religions rather than philosophy or politics that is the center of App's interest in this book. Needless to say, this is a partial history of East-West interaction in this period. Much else was examined—philosophical ideas of monism and nondualism, questions of civil society in the state, and matters of race and gender, to mention just a few topics—but that is not the focus of this book, which asserts that it was religion that was the center of interest in these particular discussions.

A curious feature of the book has to do with its title—the birth of Orientalism. The author is well aware that the communication between Asia and Europe goes back to classical antiquity and to Hellenism, and he acknowledges that "the present book does not claim to furnish a history of orientalism as a whole. Its much more modest aim is to elucidate through relatively extensive case studies a crucial phase of the European encounter with Asia: the century of Enlightenment" (p. xi). In point of fact, App covers, selectively, a fairly broad period of cultural history stretching from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, although the case studies as such start with Voltaire in the eighteenth century and conclude with the French scholar and author Constantin Volney (1757-1820), whose book Les Ruines was widely read and was broadly influential. Of course, when the...


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