Winner of the Prix Goncourt 2015 and recently shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, the French writer’s newly-translated novel offers a bittersweet grand tour of Orientalist history, art and academia.
To have an idea of how tragically misunderstood Edward Said’s Orientalism often is, even by its most ardent promoters (not to mention its critics), all one has to do is read it:
“I have been arguing that ‘the Orient’ is itself a constituted entity, and that the notion that there are geographical spaces with indigenous, radically ‘different’ inhabitants who can be defined on the basis of some religion, culture, or racial essence proper to that geographical space is equally a highly debatable idea.”
“Without ‘the Orient’ there would be scholars, critics, intellectuals, human beings, for whom the racial, ethnic, and national distinctions were less important than the common enterprise of promoting human community.”
So, what does he mean, exactly? Well, Said argues that the European scholars in question (known as Orientalists) created a distinction between East and West that didn’t actually exist. It wasn’t, as some modern anti-Orientalists would have it, that these scholars got the ‘real Orient’ wrong, but rather that there is no ‘real Orient.’ The failure of Orientalist academia has been, as a result, its lack of self-criticism—its inability to challenge its general myth-making and relationship to power—not its existence.
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If I’m pointing this out, it’s because the argument is, in essence, a central feature of Compass, French writer and Orientalist academic Mathias Énard’s latest novel. The work takes place during one sleepless night, following the thoughts of an Austrian musicologist, Franz Ritter, recently diagnosed with a fatal illness. It is a long, erudite soliloquy—a life remembered upon the approach of death—similar to Énard’s 2008 novel, Zone. Unlike Zone, however, the book doesn’t offer a survey of war and barbarity across the Mediterranean. It centers instead on the Orient—real and imagined—experienced by Orientalists like Ritter and his friends, as well as adventurers and various historical figures, always with the underlying idea that there is no distinct, unified difference between the East and the West.
“What we regard as ‘Oriental’ is in fact, very often, the repetition of a ‘western’ element that itself modifies another previous ‘Oriental’ element, and so on; she could conclude that Orient and Occident never appear separately, that they are always intermingled, present in each other […]. I imagine she’d finish it all up with a political projection on cosmopolitanism as the only valid point of view on the question.”
The ‘she’ mentioned above is Sarah, a brilliant French Orientalist who pops up time and time again throughout the narrative. Franz Ritter has been friends with her, and hopelessly in love, since their scholarly debut, and it is alongside her that he’s traveled in and around the Middle East. Journeys across Iran, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria are all recounted by the narrator, the last yielding some of the novel’s most melancholy passages. The past beauty of Palmyra and Aleppo, though tainted by hints of government oppression, is repeatedly contrasted to the cities’ present fate:
“A letter with the letterhead of this Baron Hotel that still reeked of nostalgia and decadence, just as today it reeks of bombs and death—I picture the closed shutters, riddled with shrapnel; the street with soldiers rushing down it, the civilians hiding, as well as they can, from the snipers and torturers […] the stench of stupidity and sadness, everywhere. Impossible at the time, at the bar of the Baron Hotel, to foresee that civil war was about to seize hold of Syria, even if the violence of dictatorship was omnipresent, so present you’d rather forget it.”
But more than just a guide across the region, or a repository for countless historical and literary anecdotes, Sarah also serves as a vehicle for the work’s arguments regarding Orientalism. It is through her that the two most common rejoinders to Said’s work, or rather to Said’s followers, are voiced. Namely, that he never bothered with the German Orientalist project (which wasn’t as evidently imperialist), and that he never realized that the Orientalist myth, so to speak, wasn’t strictly a European creation.
On that last point, Sarah more than once echoes the words of the great Indologist Wendy Doniger, when she commented that the idea the British had invented India “always seemed to me profoundly disrespectful [of India], which was, like any other place, in the West or the East, quite capable of inventing itself and went on inventing itself for centuries before, during and after the British presence.” The French scholar goes on to deduce what is perhaps the true tragedy of Edward Said’s work—that it, more than anything, contributed to creating an artificial divide between Orient and Occident:
“The question was not whether Said was right or wrong in his vision of Orientalism: the problem was the breach, the ontological fissure his readers had allowed between a dominating West and a dominated East, a breach that, by opening up well beyond colonial studies, contributed to the realization of the model it created, that completed a posteriori the scenario of domination which Said’s thinking meant to oppose.”
It is certainly one of the most important humanist (or anti-racist, or Marxist, as some would find it) principles to understand that no cultural distinction is ever material for generalization. That is: peoples, through shared history and shared humanity, are never vastly different from one another in either aspiration or outlook. A point one shouldn’t forget Edward Said made central to Orientalism, and one Mathias Énard explores with rare depth, and nostalgic beauty, in Compass.
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