[ilds] Retirement Age during the British Raj

Bruce Redwine bredwine1968 at earthlink.net
Sat Oct 24 09:49:40 PDT 2015


I agree.  Edward W. Said (1935-2003) was a very fine critic of Conrad (his dissertation at Harvard and first of many books).  He had an acute critical intelligence; his knowledge of Arabic and European literature (read in the original languages) was vast and profound.  But after carefully reading his Orientalism, I’m coming to the conclusion that much of his argumentation is highly tendentious and specious.  The book also suffers from a convoluted style.  Orientalism came out in 1978 and contributed to a whole movement of cultural studies in one form or another.  Said’s emphasis was on the Western notion of “Orientalism” as a type of colonialism, that is, as a form of political and cultural “imperialism.”

Two academics have recently picked up that theme:  Shaden M. Tageldin in Disarming Words (2011) and Hala Halim in Alexandrian Cosmopolitanism (2013).  I believe that both of these writers are, like Said, of Arab ancestry.  Born in Jerusalem, Said himself was a Palestinian and a Christian.  Although the main laboratory for his views is modern Egypt, The Alexandria Quartet does not even get mentioned in his treatise.  That fact alone is noteworthy.  His disdain for Durrell runs strong and deep.

Said had a deep and abiding hostility to French, British, and American policies in the “Orient.”  That hostility was all consuming and prejudiced his extraordinary critical intelligence.  His chronology of modern Orientalism begins with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 and extends through American support of Israel.  He describes Western attitudes towards the East (Foucaultian “discourses” in his terminology) as presumptuousness, condescension, paternalism, and blatant racism.  Much of which is true.  Read Said’s memoir Out of Place (1999) and feel the depth of his antagonism to foreign prejudices, which he personally suffered while growing up in Egypt.  Those experiences are real and convincing.  As an Australian, David Green confirmed similar experiences with British airs of superiority.  As an American soldier in Southeast Asia, I’ve witnessed American racism.

My main complaint about Said is the one-sidedness of his argumentation.  His discussion of the retirement age of British civil servants in India is a prime example.  It flies in the face of obvious evidence to the contrary.  He also distorts history and ignores counter arguments to “cultural imperialism.”  So, the French and British are colonial imperialists, but the Arabs are not considered such, even though they conquered Egypt in 641 and by 1000 instituted the greatest cultural changes in almost four thousand years of Egyptian history.  (Recall E. M. Forster’s comment on Amr, in his guidebook, part of which was taken from Alfred J. Butler’s classic Arab Conquest [1902], and Durrell’s use of Forster’s quote in Justine.)

In a 1979 review of Orientalism in the NYT, J. H. Plumb, the eminent Cambridge historian, criticized the book for its style and content:  “The names of Lévi-Strauss, Gramsci, and Michel Foucault drop with a dull thud to authenticate statements or suggest methods” and “History is not Said’s forte.”  Said and Plumb exchanged hostile letters in the Times, and the latter concluded, “Time and again, [Said’s] huge pretentious sentences clothe sensible, if commonplace ideas.”  I agree.


> On Oct 23, 2015, at 3:14 PM, James Gifford <james.d.gifford at gmail.com> wrote:
> Hi Bruce, Billy, & David,
> I bicker with Said's work a lot, but I also must admit I deeply enjoy it.  He's a complex critic, and he was one of the first critics I sat down to read slowly and carefully -- he's meant a lot to me, even if I quarrel with his ragged corners here and there.  His work on Conrad is excellent, and he clearly had a deep affection for Conrad's writing despite his colonized/imperial subject position.  I suspect, to be entirely candid, that Said never read Durrell and only saw the Cuckor film /Justine/, which is too bad.  He might have given us all an astonishingly insightful reading.  He does refer to Durrell a handful of times, but he never actually does any analysis.  Durrell's always a figure to him, not anything familiar or specific.
> For what it's worth, I'm increasingly thinking of Said's /Orientalism/ in relation to universities rather than literature, though I'm wrapping up something on his use of Hellenism just now.
> But as for Durrell's caricatures, I'm probably the first to give a sympathetic ear to defenses of Durrell's critiques of empire, but it's also fairly obvious how the people of the places he writes about could take offense (says the Canadian with his logging axe and rye to the Australian with his wallaby and beer... though we both occupy positions of deep colonial privilege as well -- we need a third wave colonial studies, not just third wave feminism).  In some respects that's the risk of anyone writing about your home and folks -- but there is also a good deal of political complexity in Durrell's presentations...
> I like, now at least, to think of /Justine/ and /Bitter Lemons/ as not only occupying the same literary moment as /On the Road/ but also Achebe's /Things Fall Apart/.  The rapid decolonization of Africa, the American ascendance over the failing British/French Imperial adventures in Suez, and conflict on Cyprus all wrap up in that package.  Durrell was, in very many respects, in the midst of all of it and wrote from a particularly constrained position both inside and outside.  Just looking at his anonymous publications about Cyprus shows his ambivalence while also meeting the demands of the job...  He talks about these pieces fairly bluntly in his /Paris Review/ interview:
> "I’ve written millions of words of Foreign Office dispatches -- a much harder job than any foreign correspondent’s because I was the buffer state between, say, four and four hundred correspondents in a situation where a statement of policy was expected on a split-second basis and so water-tight that it wouldn’t fall apart under analysis. Of course, to make that kind of statement you have to have a policy, and in most of the places where I worked we didn’t. In fact, I was selling a pig in a poke most of the time, living on my wits. Or, as Sir Henry Wotton said, 'lying abroad for my country.'"
> It's worth repeating his proviso just before that: "I’ve done hundreds and thousands of words of feature articles, all buried in remote periodicals. Some under my own name, some under initials."  I've tried to gesture to some of these complications across /From the Elephant's Back/, but we'll see to what effect and how much other readers push in the opposite direction.
> I also don't see Wilde as a casual reference in the context of those political writings...  Nor is "lying" all that ironical.  I also don't think there's anything casual about the epigram to /Bitter Lemons/ set in conflict with the opening contention to not be a political book -- it's political through and through but also ironical in that statement, which I think the epigram makes clear.  It just assumes a reader who picks up on what's either unsaid (as in the closing poem) or what is intimated only through juxtaposition.
> In the same sense, the offensive caricatures get a wink and nudge in a text like "Oil for the Saint" when the fictional caricatures push back (and Durrell was openly contradicting his stories in print, so it's hard to believe he wasn't consciously building cardboard cut-outs to stack in front of those he presents as real and complex people elsewhere at the same time).
> Just some hurried thoughts in a few minutes between meetings!
> All best,
> James
> ps: I don't know of any explicit document supporting Said on the retirement age issue, but I also don't think he's the first to have said it.  I suspect there would be other voices echoing and anticipating Said on that point if you dig about.
> On 2015-10-22 5:46 PM, Denise Tart & David Green wrote:
>> Caricature can be a way of exploring or coming to terms with national
>> character. It is certainly a common artistic devise, and a comic device
>> also.
>> Colonial Imperialist Gideon is a case in point, but Durrell does his
>> caricatures with humour even affection. It must be said that Said comes
>> across as rather lacking in these qualities and I'd say thinned skinned
>> to boot. But I am not an Egyptian who experienced the haughty
>> boorishness of British control before and during the war. But I have
>> experienced it as an Australian to which I say in no uncertain terms get
>> ......expletive deleted owing to this being a family program.
>> David

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