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  • Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment's Encounter with Asia by Jürgen Osterhammel
  • Vincent Carretta
Jürgen Osterhammel. Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment's Encounter with Asia, trans. Robert Savage. Princeton: Princeton, 2018. Pp. xiii + 676. $35.

Unfabling the East is a translation of a revised and bibliographically updated edition of Osterhammel's Die Entzauberung Asiens: Europa und die asiatischen Reiche im 18 Jahrhundert, first published in 1998. It is a deeply researched panoramic assessment of contemporaneous English, Dutch, French, and German accounts from roughly 1680 to 1832 of "the East," which encompasses societies from the Ottoman Empire in the west to Japan in the east, Russia in the north to Java in the south. Osterhammel focuses on the transition from pre-Enlightenment European depictions of a romanticized East to nineteenth-century images of a retrograde culture confronting a dynamic West.

Unfabling the East compellingly refutes anachronistic applications to pre-1800 Asia of nineteenth-century-based postcolonial theory that assumes Europe has always viewed Asian cultures from the perspective of a superior Us versus an inferior Them. For most of the long eighteenth century, Osterhammel notes, European commentators tended not to consider the various cultures, religions, and societies in the East as composing a monolithic "Asia" juxtaposed with an equally monolithic "Europe": "before 1790 hardly anyone saw a stark opposition between the cultural macrospheres 'East' and 'West,' fewer still believed them to be incompatible, and no one posited a 'clash of civilizations."' He demonstrates, instead, that during the earlier period "[t]he balance of power between Asia and Europe was matched by an intellectual equilibrium that makes the thinking of this era far more attractive and lastingly significant than later triumphalist ideologies of the all-conquering West." During the long century Europeans became increasingly intrigued by the comparability of their own cultural and political systems with those in Asia, particularly in the contemporaneous unitary states of China, India, the Ottoman Empire, Persia, and Russia.

During the transitional Enlightenment period, purportedly original eyewitness travel reports became eagerly consumed sources of information about societies in the unfamiliar East. That unfamiliarity enabled authors to defamiliarize their readers' own conceptions of the West. For example, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's letters written in Turkey between 1716 and 1718, published posthumously in 1763, forced her readers to reevaluate both the limits the harem imposed on Muslim women and the freedoms that Englishwomen believed themselves to enjoy. Montesquieu also criticized his own society by using the perspective of the sophisticated stranger-in-a-strange-land in his Persian Letters (1721), a fictional polyvocal series of letters sent from travelers in France to their wives and friends back home in Persia.

Underlying Lady Mary's and Montesquieu's use of Eastern customs to reflect on those of the West was the orthodox Judeo-Christian belief in the monogenesis of humankind. If all peoples originated from one source—Adam and Eve—then the differences among them were matters of degree, not of kind. Hence, commentators including Sir William Temple, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, Antoine Court de Gébelin, and Johann Heinrich Gottlob von Justi criticized the ethnocentrism of Europeans that blinded them to the possibility that aspects of the East might be equal to or even superior to their own.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, a combination of factors including political instability in India and China and the development of so-called scientific racism bolstered by the growing belief in the polygenesis of humankind, led to a fundamental reassessment [End Page 213] of European attitudes toward Asia. Consequently, Edmund "Burke's 'Great Map of Mankind,' where individual nations differed from each other only by degree, was replaced by the bipolarity of East and West. … The history of the East was passive, organic, and plant-like … unconscious and without purpose. … In this view, only the history of the West rose to the higher sphere of ethical volition." But, as Osterhammel notes, the indisputable dynamism of contemporary Asian economies will necessitate the redrawing of Burke's "Great Map" again.

Vincent Carretta
University of Maryland


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