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Posted February 18, 2003
Edward Said has outdone himself in this elegant and exceptionally brilliant work. There is no question that Said ranks among the great figures of the humanist tradition. His towering scholarship is truly intimidating, so profoundly vast in scope and acute in perception is his treatment of that most inviolable of subjects - Western imperialism.-- Moving beyond his celebrated and groundbreaking classic, Orientalism, Said advances another, equally groundbreaking thesis in Culture and Imperialism. The basic point is surprisingly, even shockingly, simple: literature must be read and interpreted in its fullest context. To properly appreciate a novel, particularly a canonical classic whose origins are now foreign to us, it is imperative to examine the social, cultural, and political environment that gave shape to that novel. A "contrapuntal" reading (a term Said skillfully employs from the lingo of musical composition) permits a richer and much more faithful interpretation than what has hitherto been orthodox practice. We have become accustomed to reading the classics without paying much attention, if any at all, to certain critical contextual factors that might have greatly impacted its writing. And this blinded reading has only been to our aesthetic detriment. However, a contextual reading, of the sort Said so convincingly proposes, unearths hitherto occluded insights, perspectives, and interpretations, thereby greatly enriching our appreciation of the novel in the end.-- This interpretive approach ties into his other major theme, which is the symbiosis of culture and imperialism. It may surprise us to think that imperialism is not the mere physical appropriation and economic exploitation of foreign territories. We should know from common sense that imperialism is much more than that. And yet, it often escapes us. What is it that imbues a nation with the arrogance, the collective sense of vanity, the conviction of moral and cultural superiority, to assume that it has the *right* to invade a foreign territory and dominate over another people? The English novelist and travel writer Joseph Conrad answered that question in his Heart of Darkness, in lines Said appropriately chose for the opening of his book:-- "The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea - something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to¿"-- Thus, long before Said, Conrad himself, a canonical novelist, did us the favor of admitting the drive behind imperialism - it's an idea. What precisely does such an idea entail? How is it propagated? How does it inform culture? These questions are explored in great and disturbing detail by Said, whose command of history, both orthodox and oppositional, unveils for us the ugliness, the viciousness behind the idea of imperialism. Lest we be skeptical of Said's intentions, consider the following remark made in 1910 by Jules Harmand, French advocate of colonialism:-- "It is necessary, then, to accept as a principle and point of departure the fact that there is a hierarchy of races and civilizations, and that we belong to the superior race and civilization, still recognizing that, while superiority confers rights, it imposes strict obligations in return. The basic legitimation of conquest over native peoples is the conviction of our superiority, not merely our mechanical, economic, and military superiority, but our moral superiority. Our dignity rests on that quality, and it underlies our right to direct the rest of humanity. Material power is nothing but a means to that end."-- Or, consider this benign remark by the English philosopher Thomas Carlyle, in a pamphlet tastefully entitled, "The Nigger QuestioWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.