- British Orientalism
RICHARD BURTON faulted Charles Doughty’s account of his travels in Arabia for failing to cite Burton’s earlier pilgrimage to Mecca. So recounts Andrew Long in Reading Arabia. This review is offered in an equally pompous if more pedantic spirit: Long has not read my book, Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2008). If only he knew that his call for an “investigation of the subjectivities and tactics … of … the ‘Arabist’—the Western expert on the Near East” (98) was answered six years previously. Through rigorous analysis of a few examples he efficiently arrives at conclusions similar to my own, but the difference in method (literary vs. historical) leaves him with a remainder of wonder.
Long argues that Orientalism was central to the rise of British mass culture from 1880 to 1930. His chapters on Burton, Doughty, Richard Cunningham Graham, Marmaduke Pickthall, and T. E. Lawrence combine close readings of key texts, their often curious publishing history, biographical details, and (often digressively lengthy) discussion of existing scholarship. The book is about the “constitutive function of the Oriental fantasy for the formation and function of British society in modern times” (2), but Long occasionally confuses this with the claim that “This book is a study of the Middle East” (1). He considers it “unique insofar as it brings to bear the interpretive techniques of cultural studies on areas decidedly non-Western” (21), even though it actually interprets British representations of those areas for which it is far from unique, as Long’s introductory literature review shows. As he acknowledges, the people and cultures of the Middle East are not at stake in his scholarship. Long’s claim that his book’s “extratextual and [End Page 118] ideological scope” distinguishes it from “possibly more modest, wise, or simply limited efforts elsewhere” is also strange.
These confusions apart, the book’s argument about the connection between Orientalism and mass culture in the 1880s is important. The texts Long reviews mattered particularly at a time when “the word as commodity and fundamental form of the fantasy of the Orient in mass culture, gained new priority with regard to the marketing of the British Empire” (2). They were tied to the other mass commodities of empire, from biscuits to tobacco to soap and film. Orientalism permeated literature from James Joyce to Edith Hull—gratifying validation from a literary scholar of my own findings. With a canny ear for language, Long observes that “stereotype”—what we chase in our analyses of Orientalism—is etymologically grounded in mass-publication techniques. The typewriter and the Oriental fantasy spread together. The rise of the female typist gendered the production process, paralleling the fantasy’s consumption in new social spaces, including urban commutes (the very spaces in which the illicit entanglements of such romances were typically set).
The book falters in its myopic grip on the relationship between text and history. Mass culture coincided with the long campaign to control Egypt and the Sudan in the 1880s and 1890s, but Long proves blind to the way later historical shifts shaped the Oriental fantasy. Turn-of-the-century tensions with the Ottoman Empire underwrote intensified British efforts to know the region; the South African War shook British confidence; the rise of mass culture drove more aspiring British writers to the desert in search of minimalism; the Great War transformed the region and its cultural significance for Britons. There is no direct line from the 1880s to the 1920s. We have to go through two wars.
For Long, Burton and Doughty represent “two tangents” of late-nineteenth-century Orientalism: the one encapsulating a fascination with exotic and erotic elements (the harem, the bazaar); the other with ascetic elements (the Holy Land, the desert). He does not remark the separation of time between these “tangents.” They are not of the same cultural moment—hence in part Doughty’s lack of popular appeal until the 1920s. Doughty anticipated...