ORIENTALISM AND THE END OF EUROCENTRISM.

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.

Comments

  1. Very interesting. I’m guessing that the swastika as a symbol was perhaps result of this Orientalism–which suggests that its influence was deep indeed. I was going to compare it with the explosion of Western interest Zen Buddhism in the past few decades–but I don’t think we’re anywhere near replacing our flag with Buddhist symbology as yet.

  2. John Emerson says:

    One of these days I’m going to write a piece about Japanese and Chinese occidentalism. There’s quite a lot of it in English, and I’ve read a few interesting things in Chinese. They’re objectifying us too, you know, often very perceptively.

  3. Regarding the first paragraph quoted: During the first half of the nineteenth century it was quite impossible to become a “scholar of Sumerian”: its very existence as a separate language (as well as attempts at deciphering it) was only recognized during the second half of the same century.

  4. Well, in a word, Schopenhauer.

  5. Re: Russia’s early-twentieth-century fixation on the Orient and its origin – has anyone here read I.Y. Krachkovskiy memoirs (Google Books)? As he recounts his dealings with the Asian Museum and its staff during his student years (from 1907 onward), it’s all German names and prominent ones, too: Oscar von Lemm, F. Rosenberg, Carl Salemann, S. Oldenburg, Samuel Wiener and A. A. Frejman. Only some of them were ethnic Germans (Lemm, Rosenberg, Salemann), but nevertheless, there are definitely German footprints all over Russian Oriental Studies.

  6. I presume it all had quite an influence in Nazi neo-paganism…

  7. it’s all German names
    Yeah, the more I read of Russian intellectual history the more I realize how much of it is stamped “Made in Germany.” Because they were enemies during the twentieth century, it’s easy to forget how close Russia and Germany (or, pre-unification, the German states) were before that. When Russians went abroad for college, they went to Berlin or Heidelberg, not the Sorbonne or Oxford.

  8. John Emerson says:

    Musorgsky and the other Russian nationalist composers were anti-Germanists — the Russian music establishment was German and followed German models. Anti-Germanism was also a theme in French (berlioz, Debussy, Satie, Ravel) Czech (Janacek and I think Dvorak and Smetena) and Hungarian music (Liszt, Bartok and probably Kodaly at least, though Liszt was rather nominally Hungarian). In Russian the Germans were often Jewish too.
    The five Hungarians in Hargittai’s “Martians of Science” were all Jews of German descent, though Szilard adopted a Hungarian name. In the US they very insistently called themslves Hungarians, though, possibly because they were all assimilated, and all secular but one.

  9. John Emerson says:

    To good to leave out: of The Five, Cui was Lithuanian-French in descent, and Borodin’s father was a Georgian.
    And most or all of these Russian nationalists wrote music on Persian, Armenian, Polovtsi (Kipchak), and other exotic themes. Perhaps they were orientalist Russians.

  10. J.W. Brewer says:

    So the next time people are complaining about the marginalization of historical linguists, Indo-Europeanists, and “philologists” within the post-Chomskyan linguistics establishment, the other scholarly factions can say “Hey, at least we didn’t give rise to any world wars.”

  11. @John E.: Have you read Ian Buruma’s (2004)Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies?
    @J.W.: Good point. I do worry about (and have encountered up close) chauvinist misuse of historical-comparative linguistics, especially by people who think mother tongues relate to mtDNA. It’s much safer to do socially irrelevant linguistics.

  12. Refreshing to find “Orientalism” used in an objective and constructive sense. I thought Edward Said had banished the term beyond the pale…

  13. John Emerson says:

    people who think mother tongues relate to mtDNA….
    Not quite the same thing, but here’s Claude Levi Strauss, Structural Anthropology, Basic Books, 1963, “Language and the Analysis of Social Laws”, pp. 63-5:
    Sino-Tibetan kinship systems exhibit quite a different type of complexity…. Translated into more general terms applicable to language that would conform to the following linguistic patterns, we may say that the structure is complex, while the elements are few, a feature which may be related to the tonal structure of these languages…..The widely recognized feature of the Oceanic kinship system seem to lead to the following formulation of the basic characteristics of the linguistic pattern: simple structure and few elements…..The linguistic patter to correlation of this situation [American Indian kinship] is that certain of the American Indian languages offer a relatively high number of element which succeed in becoming organized into relatively simple structure by the structures’ asymmetrical forms.
    In Conquerors and Rulers (Brill, 1952, pp. 69-72) Wolfram Eberhart speculated that Mongol-, Turkic-, Tibetan-, and Tungusic-speaking peoples each had their own distinct political forms, ways of life, and types of pastoralism varying according to the combined effects of language group and the type of livestock raised (with Tibetans raising yaks and nomadizing over a rather small area, for example, whereas Turko-Mongols raised sheep over a more extensive area and Tungusic peoples raised …. something else, maybe reindeer.
    I love obsolete science!

  14. John Emerson says:

    Joel: The occidentalism I’m thinking of is quite friendly and practical, while recognizing the differences. There was very little real purism among the Chinese and Japanese with regard to anything useful.
    I do have one book in which a Chinese student in the US reports back that Americans have the naive simplicity of peoples of ancient times, which is the stock Chinese left-handed compliment for inferior people who are regarded as being friendly and helpful.

  15. I’m going to write a piece about Japanese and Chinese occidentalism
    Yes, please do.
    Americans have the naive simplicity of peoples of ancient times, which is the stock Chinese left-handed compliment
    Ha ha.

  16. Joe, the swastika’s, um, re-interpretation by Nazi intellectuals was surely related to the rise in German universities of Indo-Aryan (sic) linguistic studies and racial theories of “Aryanism”.
    Temples all over the subcontinent have those x’s and +’s with the wheeling telomeres on them; “swa-stika” Skt: ‘self-standing, self-sufficient’, an (maybe THE) ontological idea, namely, of the unchanging ultimate reality of Being in a world of merely perceived becoming things.

    Equally “deep”, as I see things, is counter-movement, both to nonsensically racialized physical anthropologies and the disclosure of ultimate reality exclusively in the unity and coherence of form.
    It’s a cruel and also delicious irony that the particular ‘Indo-German’ zone of 19th century philology was the incubator and cradle of – Nietzsche.

  17. John Emerson says:

    I’ve seen architectural masonry swastikas both on Taibei and in Portland Oregon. The Taibei swastikas are not musterious, but I’ve always wanted to know the story behind the Portland swastikas (tow of them, in brick chimneys), and whether they were covered up during WWII.
    “The Aryan Path” is a theosophical journal of ecelectic religious studies published in India ince 1930. It was anti-Nazi and the name was coincidental, but while some Nazis dabbled in mysticism, it’s more true that various post WWII occultist groups dabbled in Naziism.

  18. we call it khas temdeg or tumennast (10000 years) it was our ancient symbol of unity and longevity since the khunnu times
    it’s a pity it got so thoroughly discredited by nazis

  19. Grumbly & NZ Stews showed some good swastikas here. Though Grumbly’s Römisch-Germanisches Museum Hakenkreuze may not have been, which is too bad.

  20. Grumbly & NZ Stews showed some good swastikas here. Though Grumbly’s Römisch-Germanisches Museum Hakenkreuze may not have been, which is too bad.

  21. J. W. Brewer says:

    Even to this day (or at least as recently as the 1990 copyright date on one I have in hand, and I remember it as ubiquitous in the ’70′s), Japanese street maps use swastikas (“backwards” or clockwise ones) to indicate the location of Buddhist temples, just as a European street map might use a cross to indicate the location of a church. (There’s a different symbol, sort of a stylized torii gate, for Shinto shrines.)

  22. To stray a bit: Catanea, who may or may not comment here occasionally, I’m not sure, directed me today to her & her husband’s site where (towards the bottom) he has a picture of a project he is doing (they are calligraphers). The project is to inscribe in the stucco facade of a new Spanish building the whole of Chapter 50 of Don Quixote. This is the best idea I’ve heard in a long time and would be a great image to juxtapose at the graffiti exhibition that’s currently going on in Paris.

  23. To stray a bit: Catanea, who may or may not comment here occasionally, I’m not sure, directed me today to her & her husband’s site where (towards the bottom) he has a picture of a project he is doing (they are calligraphers). The project is to inscribe in the stucco facade of a new Spanish building the whole of Chapter 50 of Don Quixote. This is the best idea I’ve heard in a long time and would be a great image to juxtapose at the graffiti exhibition that’s currently going on in Paris.

  24. You will find that Shinto symbol painted on the side of some buildings and houses in Japan, down near the ground, usually at convenient spots for public urination. The idea is to deter people from urinating there since the Shinto shrine is sacred.

  25. “I do have one book in which a Chinese student in the US reports back that Americans have the naive simplicity of peoples of ancient times, which is the stock Chinese left-handed compliment for inferior people who are regarded as being friendly and helpful.”
    I have heard this interpreted differently. The US started in the year of the Monkey. That means all that impossible sincerity and friendliness are just a front for this or that wicked scheme, rendering us inscrutable.
    “but I’ve always wanted to know the story behind the Portland swastikas (tow of them, in brick chimneys), and whether they were covered up during WWII.”
    That sounds like the area may have been a Chinatown. Did Portland have a “Tacoma Solution” at some point back in the 19th century?

  26. John Emerson says:

    The Chinatown explanation is the best I’ve heard. Inner Southeast Portland was an ethnic neighborhood until 1950 or so, and there was a Chinese neighborhood. (The two swastika chimneys are not close together, though. Maybe there were two Chinatowns.)
    Almost all traces of the old ethnic neighborhoods are gone from Portland, except for a small black neighborhood, a Chinese restaurant district mixed in with Skid Row, and a few surviving ethnic groceries, bars, and bowling allies. But when I meet and Italian-American living in the old neighborhood, I always wonder whether they’re from one of the old families.
    There’s a new-immigrant restaurant district on the 82nd-ave strip farther out, and probably ethnic areas in some of the suburbs.

  27. John Emerson says:

    Jim: The Chinese have a proverbial truth for every occasian and for every interpretation of every occasion.
    The guy I cited was a Chinese Christian writing in the 19th century after an Ivy League education. When he returned he refused to be a missionary and set himself to modernizing China.

  28. Regressing warily from the flurry of zwasticas, German Orientalism surely has to wait its turn after a handful of Renaissances (when the ancient Greeks turned out not to have been especially careful Biblical scholars) and at least one Enlightenment (in which China notably turned out to be full of a civilisation that had somehow managed not to notice the Flood, which is too absent minded to be entirely plausible even when you bore in mind that they were Chinese).
    According to the historians of those various periods, at least.
    Personally I consider Thomism to be new-fangled multiculturalist claptrap, and you can tell him (and/or the Pope) I said so.

  29. “swa-stika” Skt: ‘self-standing,self-sufficient’,
    I have not come across this rendition of the etymology before. The OED offers “Skr. svastika, f. svastí well-being, fortune, luck, f. good + astí being (f. as to be).” and that meshes with what I find in my both Hindi-Hindi and Hindi-English dictionaries. There are many entries beginning with स्वा “swa-” that all have to do with “self”, but then when the entries reach स्वास्थ “swasth-”, they all refer to notions related to healthiness and well-being. It’s not a giant leap, obviously, from “self-standing” to “well-being”, but it would be interesting to know if this might be an example of of a difference caused by where one splits the word – स्वा-स्थिका versus स्वस्थि-का. A fascinating way to waste time I should be using for work, which of course is not good for keeping me either helathy OR self-sufficient.

  30. Stuart, thanks for sending me to my Cappeller’s Sanskrit-English Dictionary (a translation of his Sanskrit-Woerterbuch, which was “intended ‘for school and home’”– pretty intimidating). (I don’t know how usefully close Hindi is to Sanskrit.)
    Cappeller does indeed have “svasti” = ‘welfare, blessing, happiness’.
    You’ve got, from (I guess) Hindi, “sva (long a)” [from "sva (short a)" + an "a" (short or long) at the beginning of the next part or word?]. But this lengthened “a” isn’t needed for “sv-asti”, where the “u” becomes the consonant “v” in front of a vowel.
    You’ve also got, in your Hindi script, “th” for “t”: “sv(long)asTHik(long)a”. I don’t know, but let me guess that modern Hindi both lengthens the “a” and aspirates the “t”: (as you have) “sv(LONG)asTHik(LONG)a” being the (modern) word for “svastika” (short ‘a’s and unaspirated ‘t’).
    This all does seem a stretch of historical change, but less than, say, English since Chaucer.
    I got “standing”, wrong, wrong, wrongly, from “(root) sth(long)a” (a pervasive I-E root for ‘to stand’), which has the participial form “sthita”. Fancifully, but incorrectly, I was thinking “sva + sthika” was derived from ‘self’ and ‘standing’, and would be the source of the German (and English) ‘swastika’.
    (Lanman’s Sanskrit Reader does have “su” + “sth(long)a” meaning ‘stand well, i.e. firmly’, which might be what I misremembered as an etymology for “svastika”.)
    As you wonder, where Sanskrit words are connected matters, but the “ka” isn’t that obscure. It’s the “stem of the inter[rogative] pron[oun] who, what, which?” and is “used also as indef[inite] pron[oun] = some, any,” and so on. “svasti + ka” = ‘yo!, good fortune’.
    And Cappeller has, for “svastika”: “a kind of bard (calling hail!); N. of a serpent-demon; any lucky or auspicious figure, esp. the figure of a cross, [including, for example] the crossing of the arms”.
    The “giant leap” (of bad memory? fanciful etymology? overly aggressive philosophizing?) would be from ‘an inherently auspicious image’ to ‘self-standing’.

  31. let me guess that modern Hindi both lengthens the “a” and aspirates the “t”
    Bingo! As for how “usefully close” Hindi is to Sanskrit, the answer is “not very”. I’d always known this, but thanks to Hat’s recommendation of “A House Divided The Origin and Development of Hindi/Urdu” I am learning just HOW big the gulf between Hindi and its distant progenitor is.

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