I just ran across a very interesting talk (pdf, Google cache) given by Suzanne L. Marchand in 2001; called “German Orientalism and the Decline of the West,” it’s apparently a teaser for a book she’s currently writing “about the study of the Orient in Germany, 1750-1945.” Her main point is that nineteenth-century German Orientalism “did not function exclusively to perpetuate Eurocentric views. On the contrary, it is my contention that, though focused on the languages of the ancient world, German orientalism helped to destroy Western self-satisfaction, and to provoke a momentous change in the culture of the West: the relinquishing of Christianity and classical antiquity as universal norms.” I’ll quote some passages to give you a sense of her argument:
Institutions fix norms and career paths, and the appointment of Sanskrit philologists A. W. Schlegel and Franz Bopp at the universities of Bonn and Berlin in 1818 and 1821 set a lasting pattern. While English, French, and Dutch orientalists of this generation made the Orient a career by going there, as officials or travelers, German orientalists in this period made the Orient a career by becoming academics, and especially by becoming scholars of Sanskrit, Sumerian, and other safely dead oriental languages…. It is in the study of the ancient Orient—and especially its languages—that Germany made its orientalist fame, and it is here that the field exerted its primary cultural shocks….
What finally forced open the sluice gates at the bottom of conventional human history was, however, the next generation of orientalist scholars. We have, heretofore, failed to appreciate the colossal scale of their discoveries, decipherments, and specialized studies, and the effect of this new material in opening up the ancient Orient to European view in the period between 1880 and 1914. As scholars ransacked a vast quantity of new textual and archaeological documents, they discovered the powerful influence of Zoroastrian Persia, the esoteric depths of ancient India, and the primeval innovations of the Assyrians and Sumerians. These new cultures, appealing in their antiquity, spirituality, and apparent purity, made the well-known “orientals”—especially the ancient Israelites and Egyptians—seem derivative, corrupt, and banal.
Assyriology, in particular, worked a destructive magic on older forms of orientalism, allowing scholars to tread with philologically supported security into the non-biblical ancient East. The discovery of pre-biblical accounts of “God,” “the Flood,” and “the Sabbath” generated new mythographic speculation, some of it innovative and some of it bizarre, but all of it unflattering from the point of view of conventional classicists and Christians. Thanks to the Assyriological discoveries between about 1885 and 1908, the great historian Eduard Meyer testified, everything he and his contemporaries had known about the ancient Orient from the Old Testament and the Greeks had been called into question, and indeed mostly destroyed.
What I call “vitalist orientalism” had many manifestations in the Weimar era, only a few of which can be mentioned here. Many in the audience may think of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha of 1923, or Thomas Mann’s Egyptian novels, begun roughly a decade later. C. G. Jung’s critique of Western philosophy is also an obvious manifestation of this worldview….
The image of the Orient had changed. Nineteenth-century platitudes invoking oriental stagnation were repeatedly challenged by those who now admired the East’s resilience as against the constant revolutions of fortune in the West. The Greeks had once stood for youth. Now a primitivist aesthetic, the new orientalist scholarship, and the critique of Western decay made the Orient seem more authentically and enviably youthful…. It was impossible to go back to the nineteenth century; the explosion of specialized knowledge about the East had destroyed the biblical foundations of European identity, and exploded the Graeco-centric world of the nineteenth century.
Who knew Assyriology had such wide-ranging effects?
One additional idea I got from her talk (though she didn’t say anything about Russia) was that Russia, which got its mid-nineteenth-century official obsession with classics in the universities from Germany, also seems to have gotten its early-twentieth-century fixation on the Orient (“Yes, we are Scythians!”) from the same source.