Commentary Magazine

Culture and Imperialism, by Edward W. Said

Jane Austen & Other Exploiters

Culture and Imperialism.
by Edward W. Said.
Knopf. 380 pp. $25.00.

Edward Said, who teaches literature at Columbia University, has specialized in writers about colonialism. His first book was Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography; his best-known work, Orientalism, is a panoramic denunciation of the ways Europe has seen the East. Said has also been more than a literary critic; as “America’s foremost spokesman for the Palestinians” (in the words of the New York Observer), he served from 1977 to 1991 as a member of the Palestine National Council, an arm of the PLO, and he has written indefatigably celebrating the Palestinian agenda and attacking Israel.

In Culture and ImperialiAussm, Said undertakes to examine strains of “imperialism” as found in such 19th- and 20th-century English and French writers as Jane Austen, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, Albert Camus, and E.M. Forster. After locating the virus, he offers his remedial medicine: something he calls “contrapuntal reading,” which comes down to confronting these European artists with political texts from the third world. Then, in a final, disjointed (in every sense) chapter, Said indulges in a prolonged diatribe against United States foreign policy, as manifested especially in the Gulf war.

Before getting down to individual cases, Said floats the hypothesis of a genetic linkage between the fact of empire and the genre of the novel. “The novel,” he writes, “as a cultural artifact of bourgeois society, and imperialism are unthinkable without each other.” As support for this sweeping charge he offers little beyond the vulgar-Marxist statement that:

. . . the 19th-century English novels stress the continuing existence (as opposed to revolutionary overturning) of England. Moreover, they never advocate giving up the colonies, but take the long-range view that since they fall within the orbit of British dominance, that dominance is a sort of norm, and thus conserved along with the colonies.

In other words, it is the duty of art to advocate domestic revolution and colonial divestment; failing that duty, art endorses evil. QED.

Much of the book consists of a random survey of the ways in which novels can intersect with empire or overseas realms in general. Such interactions can range from trips merely reported or alluded to (such as those of Magwitch in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations or Sir Thomas Bertram in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park or Ralph Touchett in Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady) to full-scale, on-site colonial narratives like Kipling’s Kim or Conrad’s Nostromo or Forster’s A Passage to India. But in fact Said’s coverage is neither thorough nor representative. He never considers a writer’s work as a whole—is Jane Austen’s inoffensively domestic Emma, for example, tainted by consanguinity with Mansfield Park?—and he misses a trick by, apparently, not knowing Anthony Trollope’s The Bertrams, in which a family actually voyages to the Middle East. Most egregiously, perhaps, there is the neglect of other empires—most notably, the Russian. In extenuation, Said pleads the fact that he “was born, grew up, and now live[s]” in the Western orbit. Yet to omit Tolstoy from a study of novel and empire is to sacrifice elementary statistical rigor.


But let us look at a few of Said’s dealings with the writers he does include. Jane Austen is the first to undergo sustained inquiry. Mansfield Park (1814), though perfunctorily lauded as a “great novel,” is in the line of fire because its patriarch, Sir Thomas Bertram, owns an estate in Antigua, an estate that according to Said “would have had to be a sugar plantation maintained by slave labor.” There are no scenes set in Antigua, of course; the West Indian estate functions solely as a device to get Sir Thomas offstage so that the young folk can feel free to misbehave. But in Said’s eyes, Austen “sublimates [sic] the agonies of Caribbean existence to a mere half-dozen references to Antigua.” This would seem to mean—clarity of expression is not one of Said’s virtues—that Mansfield Park should have concentrated on the realities of sugar-growing; in other words, Jane Austen is guilty of not having been Emile Zola.

Rudyard Kipling to the witness stand. Said does allow as how “Kim [1901] is a work of great aesthetic merit; it cannot be dismissed simply as the racist imagining of one disturbed and ultra-reactionary imperialist.” But if the death penalty may be forgone, a severe sentence is still in order, for Kim enthusiastically, joyously embraces the British empire and its Great Game of anti-Russian espionage, into which little Kim O’Hara is an eager inductee. If in the end Kim gets off relatively lightly, it is largely because even Said cannot help warming to the book’s high spirits and its palpable love of India and Indians.

Poor Conrad gets no such break. Nostromo (1904), an epic novel about revolution and greed and exploitation in a small, imaginary South American country, is unqualifiedly anti-imperialist, and even contains a devastating satire of Yankee economic smugness (“We shall run the world’s business whether the world likes it or not”). This Said duly relishes, declaring that “no American has been immune to this structure of feeling.” (It is characteristic of Said to utter such lurid generalizations about Americans while taking violent umbrage at any and all generalizations about Arabs.) But Conrad dares to criticize not only the predatory West but also venal and cynical native independence movements—and for this “paternalistic arrogance” he is not to be excused. One must be not only respectful of but upbeat about liberation organizations.

Yet even Conrad is not treated so harshly as Albert Camus, whose novels The Stranger (1942) and The Plague (1947) are set in his native Algeria and concentrate on French people there. Camus’s real offense, though, as Said makes abundantly clear, lies outside his novels: the French writer “publicly and even vehemently opposed the nationalist demands for Algerian independence.” For this sin, Camus’s limitations as a writer (about which Said can write perceptively) are deemed “unacceptably paralyzing.” Similarly, E.M. Forster in A Passage to India is condemned less for his art than for what are, in his case, perversely deemed to be insufficiently enthusiastic opinions about Indian independence.


This brings us to Said’s scheme of “contrapuntal reading,” which amounts to correcting old novels by juxtaposing them with later political propaganda:

We must [emphasis added] . . . read the great canonical texts, and perhaps also the entire archive of modern and premodern European and American culture, with an effort . . . to give emphasis and voice to what is silent or marginally present or ideologically repressed.

In practice, Culture and Imperialism applies this punitive confrontationalism only fitfully and grotesquely. Thus, the writers Said suggests as counterpoints to Jane Austen are Frantz Fanon, the French West Indian psychoanalyst and later Algerian politician whose book The Wretched of the Earth is an unremitting call to violence, and Amílcar Cabral, the Guinean agitator whom Said himself admits to being in the grip of “animosity and violence, . . . ressentiment and hate.” Camus is to be corrected not only by Fanon but by Jean Genet, whose posturings with the National Liberation Front in Algeria and the PLO are somehow supposed to constitute a counterpoise to Camus’s great and deeply humane novels.

This whole grim program amounts to a reeducation camp for Western classics where loudspeakers blare theoretical texts all night long. And almost all the corrective texts Said discusses are theoretical. Despite his glamorous reputation as a literary critic, nowhere in this book is there any substantial discussion of post-colonial literature from Africa or Asia or South America. An eager student, sensibly desiring to supplement his reading of, say, Conrad or Kipling or Tolstoy with a Nigerian or Indian or Peruvian or Afghan novel will get no help from Said, beyond the odd laundry list of correct names.


In the last part of Culture and Imperialism, Said drops all pretense of literary or cultural criticism and looses a shrill tirade against the “coldness and cruelty” of America, as evinced in its “imperial war against the Iraqi people.” (To be sure, Said covers his rear by uttering an occasional proforma criticism of a Saddam Hussein or a Khomeini.) There remain here in America, we gather, but ten just souls, in the likes of “journalists like Alexander Cockburn, Christopher Hitchens, Seymour Hersh, and in the tireless work of Noam Chomsky.” (On the jacket of this book, tireless Chomsky duly praises it for its “compassion.”) The spectacle of Said’s inchoate and redundant abuse of the West is all the sadder in this hour when any nascent democratic forces in the Arab world need to be encouraged to escape from just the brand of dogma, rancor, and paranoia embodied in this book.

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