U. App: The Birth of Orientalism

The Birth of Orientalism.

App, Urs
Encounters with Asia
550 S.
€ 61,86
Rezensiert für 'Connections' und H-Soz-Kult von:
Vasant Kaiwar, Department of History, Duke University

The 'central thesis' of Urs App’s book is that the birth of 'modern' Orientalism was deeply linked to Europe's 'discovery of Asian religions'. He challenges the view that modern Orientalism originated with Western imperialism or colonialism, a view sometimes associated with the work of Edward Said (Orientalism, 1978) instead tracing its gradual evolution, as it were, to a period from the late 17th century to the early 19th century, before the high noon of Western imperialism in Asia (pp. xi, xiii). The upshot of the inquiries of the progenitors of modern Orientalism was ultimately to undermine the Bible-based worldview and historical chronology that drew on the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible), a worldview and chronology that App informs us was still widely accepted even in the 19th century. It is one of the ironies, then, of this moment of Orientalism that the path to the modern secular worldview we now take for granted was the unintentional creation of often profoundly religiously inspired speculation and scholarship.

Following a brief introduction (pp. 1–15), there are eight long chapters, the longest of which on Anquetil-Duperron’s ‘Search for the True Vedas’ is 77 pages long, and the shortest on Volney’s ‘Revolutions’ is 41 pages. The bibliography includes 19 manuscript sources held in archives in Paris, London, Rome, and Vienna, and upwards of 500 printed sources in a variety of languages: French, German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, even Latin, not to mention Japanese and Chinese, and English of course! This is a work of some considerable and sustained scholarship, not easily found in our day of accelerated academic production.

Along the way, a range of luminaries from Allesandro Valignano (1539–1606) to Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), François Bernier (1620–1688), Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), Abraham Hyancinthe Anquetil-Duperron (1731–1805), William Jones (1746–1794), and Constantin-François Volney (1757–1820) make their way across the pages, with detailed case studies of what one might call the long 18th century.[1] Case studies are built around the work of Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg (1682–1719) [chapter 2], Andrew Ramsay (1686–1743) [chapter 5], Voltaire (1694–1778) [chapter 1], John Holwell (1711–1798) [chapter 6], Denis Diderot (1713–1784) [chapter 3], Joseph de Guignes (1721–1800) [chapter 4], Anquetil-Duperron [chapter 7], and Volney (1757–1820) [chapter 8]. The purpose then is not a chronological progression but a thematically focussed study.

The main preoccupation of the text is with the efforts of a number of individuals, who formed dense networks of scholarly exchanges to understand the religions of Asia (mainly India and China in this book, with less attention to Southeast Asia and Japan) in relation to the better-known (to Europeans) monotheistic faiths originating in the Bible lands, to find in the former the roots of the subsequent monotheist religions of the Near East. The antiquity and depth of Asian religions and philosophies are a recurrent theme, and one rarely encounters the sort of dismissive attitude that colonial administrators were to cultivate during the course of the nineteenth century. Thus, the book might be one more entry into a now developing catalogue of works that examine the role of Asia in the making of modern Europe. It is in that regard an original and significant contribution, devoid of the sort of banal multiculturalist gestures one might encounter in more populist circles.

There is no doubt that the necessary study and interpretation of languages and texts, at first speculative if not entirely fanciful but later acquiring far greater scientific precision, has played an important role in establishing connections, if not broadening the worldview of Europeans well beyond the confines of the Mediterranean. The birth of institutions like the École Spéciale des Langues Orientales Vivantes founded in Paris in 1795 (p. 457), and its counterparts in England, Germany and so on also institutionalised Orientalism and, in due course, provided invaluable resources for colonial administrators, when indeed large-scale colonial enterprises were spurred on by inter-European rivalries in Asia from about the mid-eighteenth century. If those resources were, in the first place, an unintended consequence of inquiries focused elsewhere they were none the less hugely significant in providing ready-at-hand resources to colonial administrators and serving as a further impetus to the development of a range of modern disciplines, and subsequently even structuring the regionalisation of Asia that we take for granted in area studies. After all, commerce (and empire) went hand in hand with letters and sciences. This is ironically where App’s book draws to an end: not only with the publication of the Asiatic Researches produced by British Orientalists but also with Louis-Mathieu Langlès’s 1790 address to the French National Assembly on ‘The Importance of Oriental Languages for the Extension of Commerce and the Progress of Letters and Sciences’ (p. 474).

I suppose the question that will inevitably come up is the following: how many Orientalisms are there, or is the question more one of periodising Orientalism, according to the familiar logic of pre-modern, modern, post-modern? After all, if pre-modern Orientalism, as App describes it, was all about the mastery of Biblical languages with an occasional foray into Arabic and Persian with a geography confined to the Bible lands, then 19th-century French Orientalism would reproduce some of those features, including a preoccupation with religion (Islam in that case), under wholly changed circumstances. And if there is such a thing as post-modern or post-colonial Orientalism, its focus too seems to be very much on religion, and what singularises the supposedly spiritual East in relation to the secular West. That, after all, was what Foucault thought of Iran.[2] And if the political-economic interests of the colonial period are clear, were they entirely absent in either pre-modern or post-modern Orientalism? Said may not have been entirely wrong: just that he substituted a part for the whole.

One might also ask why an alternative to the narrative of the Hebrew Bible was necessary in the first instance? Why locate the heirs of Noah in Bactria or India or even China? Perhaps, a reference to the history of European anti-Semitism would be useful here: to the positive incitement of discovering an Ur-tradition in Asia, one might then add the negative sentiment, even a politics, that was to scar Europe throughout the early-modern and modern epochs culminating in the ghastly nightmare of the Holocaust. Here, religious and secular motives intermingle in ways that scarce permit an easy separation. Occasionally referred to, but tantalisingly marginal to the case studies, is the elusive figure of Dara Shukoh (1615–1659), Mughal prince, eldest son of the emperor Shah Jahan (1592–1666) and his chosen successor, whose translation of the Upanishads into Persian provided Anquetil-Duperron with the key to unlocking the ‘secrets’ of the Vedas.

Of course, this is a book about European intellectuals’ ‘discovery/ies of the Orient’ but the references to Dara suggest that the intellectual curiosity that drove Europeans was not limited to them alone, but existed also among some Muslims as well though they may have been characterised by others as of a heterodox persuasion. But, we know, for example from Christopher Hill’s study of Milton and the English Revolution (1978), how widespread heterodox and even heretical views, bordering on atheism, were even in respectable circles in 17th-century Europe. A fortiori, such views must have been more widespread in a century associated with the Enlightenment. It might be interesting to speculate on what sorts of pressures propelled people across a vast region of Eurasia to seek to go beyond accepted and inherited worldviews and seek out alternatives that in the first instance only a foreign body of texts and practices could apparently provide. And to ask if Orientalism in the sense in which App develops the term represents only a regional manifestation of global pressures across the early modern world. And perhaps whether it was also a moment in the development of the sort of properly universalist history that Volney, for instance, wished to usher in and that had inchoate representations elsewhere.

This is a book that one hopes will find its way on to the reading list of anyone interested in the long history of scholarly interactions across Eurasia that originate well before the period of focus of this book, and continue down to our day. It is an important intervention, and documentation, of a vital moment of history. Highly recommended to both the specialist and general readers.

[1] For a complete chronological list, see p. 481.
[2] See, for example, Janet Afary / Kevin Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution. Gender and the Seductions of Islamism, Chicago 2005. On postcolonial Orientalism, see my The Postcolonial Orient (forthcoming 2014).

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