Two Giant Brothers

Amit Chaudhuri

Edward Said’s Orientalism, published in 1978, gave intellectuals and writers from once colonised nations (themselves often migrants, like Said) a language that liberated and shackled in almost equal measure. Said’s critical perspective gave both Europeans and non-Europeans a shrewder and more unillusioned sense of the subterranean ways in which power operated through the cultures of empire, and is now so familiar that it’s easily taken for granted. This would be foolish – Eurocentrism is alive and well, and takes new and unexpected forms in every political epoch.

The limitations of Said’s seminal study have to do with the ideas it’s given us about ways the postcolonial might engage with the coloniser’s culture, and with history; and, explicitly, the way the European engages with non-European antiquity. We’re left with somewhat monochromatic types, defined almost exclusively by questions of power and appropriation, whose culture and past are at once static and strangely blurred. Orientalism, at first glance at least, doesn’t seem to explain where its author, in his many-sidedness, comes from: Western metropolitan intellectual; radical political activist; postcolonial critic; champion of canonical European literature; classical pianist.

Yet the book contains a celebration of Raymond Schwab, the author of La Renaissance Orientale, and gives us, in Schwab, an outline of another idea of, and way of responding to, the Orient, and, by extension, to a culture other than one’s own. Schwab himself, Said notes, looked back to another figure: Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron (1731-1805), ‘an eccentric theoretician of egalitarianism, a man who managed in his head to reconcile Jansenism with orthodox Catholicism and Brahmanism’, and who ‘travelled as far east as Surat’ in India, ‘there to find a cache of Avestan texts, there also to complete his translation of the Avesta’. Said quotes Schwab on what the latter saw as Anquetil-Duperron’s legacy; it is one of the most affirmative and exuberant passages on cultural contact ever written:

In 1759, Anquetil finished his translation of the Avesta at Surat; in 1786 that of the Upanishads in Paris – he had dug a channel between the hemispheres of human genius, correcting and expanding the old humanism of the Mediterranean basin … Before him, one looked for information on the remote past of our planet exclusively among the great Latin, Greek, Jewish and Arabic writers … A universe in writing was available, but scarcely anyone seemed to suspect the immensity of those unknown lands. The realisation began with his translation of the Avesta, and reached dizzying heights owing to the exploration in Central Asia of the languages that multiplied after Babel. Into our schools … he interjected a vision of innumerable civilisations from ages past, of an infinity of literatures.

According to Said, the fact that certain Europeans opened themselves to the cultural store of the Orient in the late 18th and 19th century, produced, in those individuals, a ‘new, triumphant eclecticism’. Among the figures he mentions are, of course, Anquetil-Duperron and Sir William Jones, the founder of Indology, whose researches on the Orient, Hinduism and the Sanskrit language include translations from – and, in effect, the recovery of – the great fourth-century Sanskrit poet Kalidasa. Yet Said is hard on Jones – ‘whereas Anquetil opened large vistas, Jones closed them down, codifying, tabulating, comparing’ – as if he somehow embodied the colonial project rather than the ‘new, triumphant eclecticism’. This is borne out, for Said, by Jones’s personal itinerary, and, for us, by the way Said describes it:

In due course he was appointed to ‘an honourable and profitable place in the Indies’, and immediately on his arrival there to take up a post with the East India Company began the course of personal study that was to gather in, to rope off, to domesticate the Orient and thereby turn it into a province of European learning.

This reservation has been echoed by others. Dipesh Chakrabarty, the author of Provincialising Europe, says something similar while enquiring into the reasons he finds it possible to engage in serious intellectual commerce with European philosophers, but not with Indian ones going back to antiquity: ‘Sad though it is, one result of European colonial rule in South Asia is that the intellectual traditions once unbroken and alive in Sanskrit or Persian or Arabic are now only matters of historical research for most – perhaps all – modern social scientists in the region.’ But were intellectual traditions in South Asia ‘once unbroken and alive’ – ‘once’ referring to the hazy and golden period before colonisation? This speculation is all the more surprising because it comes only a few sentences after Chakrabarty has admitted, pertinently, that the idea of an ‘unbroken’ European intellectual tradition going back to the Greeks is a relatively recent construct. The idea of an unbroken Indian tradition is itself probably an Orientalist invention, and Jones one of its early architects.

One of the earliest writers to perceive the great cultural, emotional, philosophical and political potential of the notion of the ‘Orient’ was Tagore. A hundred years before Tagore, no Bengal poet saw the Orient and its unbroken past as a foundation, a point of origin, and a parameter for the self and for creativity; there is no ‘Orient’, or ‘East’, for the medieval poets Chandidas, Vidyapati or Jayadeva, as there is, so profoundly, for Tagore. Nor would it have occurred to Chandidas to locate himself in history, and to claim and create pan-Indian lineages by using certain Indian poets and texts – such as Kalidasa or the Upanishads – as Tagore does. And, for Chandidas, naturally, there is no Europe. Europe was born, for the Indian, at about the time the Orient was: they are twins, though not identical ones, who had, in the Indian’s mind, a momentous and painfully coeval birth. The researches of the likes of Anquetil-Duperron and even Jones brought to Europeans a ‘new, triumphant eclecticism’, Said says; but that eclecticism had a relatively brief legacy in the West: by the early 20th century, it had narrowed itself to an almost exclusively European definition, so that words such as ‘cosmopolitan’ were more or less interchangeable with ‘European’. Said doesn’t mention that the true and most significant inheritors of Anquetil-Duperron’s ‘triumphant eclecticism’ weren’t Europeans, but Orientals; they were the ones who took the fullest intellectual and artistic advantage not only of the advent of Europe but of the fact of the ‘Orient’, the ‘correction’ and ‘expansion’ of ‘the old humanism of the Mediterranean basin’. It’s in this context that I want to situate Tagore, born in 1861, roughly eighty years after Anquetil-Duperron’s translation of the Upanishads, and, indeed, Said, one of the latest in the line of Orientals who have appropriated and complicated Anquetil-Duperron’s inheritance.

‘A 19th-century Orientalist was … either a scholar … or a gifted enthusiast … or both,’ Said says, after pointing out that ‘there was a virtual epidemic of Orientalia affecting every major poet, essayist and philosopher of the period … this is a later transposition eastwards of a similar enthusiasm in Europe for Greek and Latin antiquity during the High Renaissance.’ But the resemblance with the Renaissance ends there. The Orient, in Europe, continued to remain the province of arcane scholars and gifted enthusiasts; in the realm of culture, it retained, and still does, the ethos of ‘Orientalia’. Unlike Greek and Latin antiquity, which became an indispensable resource and even a romantic myth for Modernism, the Orient, with a handful of exceptions, such as the final lines of The Waste Land, was never inserted into Modernist self-consciousness. Its domain became, in Europe, largely that of popular culture, of kitsch and the exotic. (Even in popular 19th-century Indian art, the Orient occupies the soft, hazy space of ‘Orientalia’.) It would have been easy for Tagore to treat the Orient as a magical and occult resource, as Yeats did Ireland. Instead, radically, he inscribed it, in his vast oeuvre, into the trajectory of humanism and the ‘high’ modern: Easternness, in his work, is no longer incompatible with individualism, with self-consciousness about the powers and limits of language, or awareness of the transformative role of the secular artist. In fashioning these paradigms, modes of consciousness and roles for himself, Tagore seems to be addressing, instructing and even rebutting not a Brahmin, but a bourgeois orthodoxy in Calcutta; in doing so, he, unprecedentedly, conflates his identity as an Oriental and his vocation as a secular artist.

By the time Tagore was born, both the first wave of Orientalist enthusiasm and the most significant phase of Orientalist scholarship were over. In 1813, Byron had advised Thomas Moore: ‘Stick to the East … it [is] the only poetical policy.’ The ‘policy’ had impelled Byron, Southey and Moore to write about the gul-e-bulbul (the stock Persian metaphor for the nightingale in the garden), and probably also stimulated Edward FitzGerald’s ‘translation’ of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. (T.S. Eliot’s misgivings about FitzGerald’s poem, although he wasn’t immune to its appeal, are representative of Modernism’s distrust of ‘Orientalia’.) In the second half of the 19th century, the excitement waned, despite the work of Max Müller, the editor of the Rigveda, the sacred hymns of the Hindus.

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