Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art @ the British Museum

European explorers

As John Darwin’s brilliant history of Eurasian empires, After Tamerlane, makes clear, quite a few things distinguished European culture from the culture of the other Eurasian empires (i.e. the Ottoman Empire, the Safavid Empire in Persia, the Moghul Empire in northern India, the Chinese Empire and the Japanese Empire) in the centuries after the death of Tamerlane the Great in 1405.

Just two of them were a readiness, on the part of the Europeans, to travel and explore, and an endless curiosity which led to almost obsessive collecting and categorising and curating and exhibiting.

No Chinese explorers visited Europe during the 19th century and were so dazzled by its history and architecture and art that they made copious sketches and drawings, took photographs, bought up every quaint European curio they could get their hands on, and carried them all back to China to catalogue and categorise and trigger an artistic renaissance.

That kind of thing just didn’t happen because few Chinese travelled abroad. Very few wanted to, or had the means to, and anyway it was frowned upon because every educated Chinese knew that the Celestial Empire was the centre of the universe, the possessor of a perfect culture, which didn’t need or want to know anything at all about the outside world, overrun as it was by cultureless barbarians.

And Darwin shows how this complacent and self-centred attitude was echoed by the cultural and political elites of Japan, Moghul India, the Safavid Empire and the sprawling Ottoman Empire, for centuries.

No, the wandering, exploring, collecting bug seems to have affected Europeans on a completely different scale from any of the world’s other civilisations.

Thus it was that from the 1500s onwards a steadily increasing stream of travellers, explorers, soldiers and sailors, archaeologists and artists travelled all over the Muslim lands lining the North African coast and the Middle East – territory nominally under the control of the extensive Ottoman Empire – to explore and describe and paint and buy and plunder.

Inspired by the East

This ambitious exhibition delves into one aspect of this huge European enterprise by looking at the long and complex history of cultural interchanges between the Islamic Middle East and Europe from about 1500 onwards.

Not surprisingly several of the earliest objects are swords and helmets since the single most important fact about Islam is that it was a conqueror’s religion, spread by highly organised and zealous Arabs as they exploded out of Arabia in the 7th and 8th centuries to seize the Christian Middle East and North African coastline.

Gilt-Copper helmet, Turkey (about 1650) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman dynasty which began its rise to prominence in the 1200s was itself just the last in a line of dynasties which had vied for leadership of the Muslim world since the birth of Islam in the 630s.

The Ottoman Turks rose to dominate the area we call the Middle East during the period 1300 to 1453 (the year when the Ottomans seized Christian Constantinople and made it into their capital, Istanbul). I’ve reviewed several books about the decline of the Byzantine Empire as it came under relentless pressure from successive Muslim rulers, until its eventual fall to the Ottomans.

The Ottoman heyday is usually dated from the year of the fall of Byzantium – 1453 – to around 1600, during which they extended their power across all of North Africa and deep into Europe. It’s salutary to remember that twice the Ottoman army besieged Vienna, in 1526 and 1683, and was only just defeated both times i.e. they could have penetrated even further into Christian Europe.

As it was, throughout this period the Ottomans ruled the extensive territory of former Christian Europe which we call the Balkans, as well as Christian Greece and Christian subjects in numerous Mediterranean islands.

Mainly Victorian

A handful of pieces and a few wall labels in the exhibition gesture towards this long and complex early history of Ottoman rise and conquest and domination, including the striking portrait of Sultan Bayezid I by a painter from the school of Veronese, which has been used as the poster for the show.

A Portrait of Sultan Bayezid I by a member of the School of Veronese (c. 1580) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

But the exhibition really focuses on works from the much later period of the 19th and early 20th centuries, partly for the simple reason that the period 1800 to the outbreak of the Second World War saw a steadily increasing number of European travellers to North Africa and the Middle East.

Some of this was simply a function of continually improving transport, sailing ships giving way to steamships, the steady spread of railways, the industrial revolution creating a new leisured class, especially in Britain and France, who wanted to see the world, helped along by firms like Thomas Cook which launched its first cruises in the 1870s.

Many devout Victorians, such as the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt, wanted to tour the Holy Land and see for themselves the places where Our Lord had stood. Flocks of visitors drew and sketched and painted watercolours and oils and bought all manner of souvenirs, carpets and clothes, tiles and glasswork. By the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851 the British public was highly aware of the extremely diverse and colourful cultures of the peoples it ruled over.

But the thesis of this exhibition is that the Islamic culture of the Ottoman Empire bore a uniquely close and fractious relationship with Europe, was the predominant colonial and foreign cultural ‘Other’ for Europe throughout the period – a kind of backward cousin, a slothful and declining ‘Orient’ against which we could measure our ever-growing knowledge, technology and power. And that a huge number of craftsmen and artists and metalworkers and glassblowers and designers and artists and architects were particularly dazzled and influenced and inspired by Islamic and Middle Eastern art and culture.

So this exhibition, Inspired by the East, aims to bring together a wealth of artifacts to show a) some of the original Islamic arts and crafts from the era and b) the impact Islamic architecture, designs and patterns had on European craftsmen, artists and designers through a large selection of European objects.

Enamelled glass lamp made by Philippe-Joseph Brocard, France (about 1877)

Thus the exhibition includes wonderful, ornate and beautiful examples from a whole range of media and crafts such as:

  • tiles
  • glasswork
  • ceramics
  • metalwork
  • jewellery
  • clothing
  • architecture
  • design

I was interested to learn there was a genre called ‘costume books’ which simply showed the costumes of all the new races and peoples Europeans had discovered as they expanded and explored from the 1500s onwards and which, of course, featured books devoted to the clothes and garments of the Middle East.

I learned that all kinds of products by Islamic artisans were prized in the West from early on, such as Egyptian metalwork and Persian ceramics. During the 19th century Western craftsmen could use developing technology to reproduce much of this work. The exhibition includes Arab-inspired ceramics by Théodore Deck, a leading French ceramicist who in the late nineteenth century created a range of pieces directly inspired by Islamic originals.

Nearby is a section devoted to Owen Jones, one of the most influential tastemakers of the Victorian era. His pioneering studies on colour theory, geometry and form still inspire designers to this day. Jones was an architect, designer and design theorist and was Superintendent of Works for the 1851 Great Exhibition. His masterpiece was Grammar of Ornament, a huge and lavish folio displaying stunning patterns, motifs and ornaments in 112 illustrated plates, many of which featured Islamic decorations and motifs. Some of the Islamic plates from the book are on display here.

But but but… I was struck by several obvious problems.

Number one was that most of the works on display are by Europeans. They are not original works by the Islamic craftsmen and artists who are so praised. They are European copies, displayed with the intention of showing how widespread the impact of Islamic styles and motifs was on the European arts. If you’re looking for a world of authentically Islamic arts and crafts you’d do better to go the V&A.

Number two was that, despite the beauty of individual works, it became difficult to avoid a sense of scrappiness, a sense that the curators are trying to cover a lot of ground, in fact an enormous subject – the impact of the Muslim world on the art and culture of the West – with a surprisingly small range of exhibits.

Take my home area, history: A few helmets and a sword are accompanied by a paragraph or two about the extent of the Ottoman Empire – but this, the military rise and dominance of the Ottoman Empire, is a huge, a vast subject, which I felt was barely scratched and whose omission made the entire show feel one-sided i.e. presented only the Europeans as aggressive colonialists whereas, as I’ve explained, it was the Muslims who originally conquered half the Christian Mediterranean.

Similarly, the friend I went with is mad about Islamic tiles so was pleased to see a display of half a dozen beautiful and ornate tiles – but disappointed that they turned out to be made by a Victorian British manufacturer using Islamic motifs – and that that was it when it came to tiles.

Islamic architecture is distinctive and beautiful and exists over half the world, but it was dealt with via just a few British buildings which used Islamic motifs, such as the well-known artist Lord Leighton’s famous house in West London which he had modelled inside to recreate some of the rooms from the Alhambra in Spain, namely ‘the Arab Hall’. Leighton had the place covered in Islamic tiles designed by William de Morgan. There are photos of the interior and a lovely wooden model but… is that it?

The single most dominant impression was made by the paintings, a few scattered in the early sections but then leading up to a huge wall displaying about 20 classic, late-Victorian, Orientalist paintings.

In the Madrasa by Ludwig Deutsch (1890) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Orientalism

This brings us to the several meanings of ‘Orientalism’, a word and idea which are raised early in the exhibition and then referenced throughout.

1. The word Orientalism was originally, during the 19th century and first half of the 20th, a value-neutral term applied to all or any scholars, linguists, archaeologists or artists who specialised in ‘the Orient’, a vague expression generally taken to be Islamic North Africa and Middle East but sometimes stretching to include India. It survives in this neutral sense in many places to this day, for example in the name of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

2. However, the term underwent a revolutionary change in 1978 when the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said published his academic study Orientalism. In this book Said subjected the so-called ‘scholarly’ works of 19th century Orientalist academics to in-depth analysis in order to support one big radical idea: that almost all the supposedly scholarly and academic books and ideas produced by European scholars about the Orient were the witting or unwitting handmaids of Western Imperialism.

Almost all the nineteenth-century Orientalists declared the Ottoman Empire corrupt and stagnant, Islam itself incapable of change. The people living there were stereotyped as somehow more primitive, dressing in loose but colourful clothing, slothful and lazy and corrupt.

Probably the most notable idea was the fascination the institution of the harem had for repressed Westerners who projected all kinds of sexual fantasies onto Oriental woman and painted no end of soft porn depictions of the sultan and his slaves and concubines and slave auctions and so on.

So powerful was Said’s critique that it spread and prospered in the academy, becoming the new orthodoxy and casting a critical shadow back over everything written or painted about the Middle East in the previous 200 years or more. Since its publication almost everything any European said, wrote or painted about the Ottoman Empire has been reappraised to appear in a much more sinister light, either furthering malicious racist stereotypes, aiding in imperial exploitation, or the shameless appropriation of a weaker culture’s art and designs.

Schizophrenia

Now the woke young curators of this exhibition are fully paid-up subscribers to Said’s unforgiving views about Western exploitation of the Middle East. This isn’t a guess on my part. They quote page one of Orientalism in the very opening wall label which introduces the exhibition:

The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant… The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture.

And every other wall label takes pains to remind us that the plate or vase or tile or translation of The 1001 Nights or any other cultural product which we’re looking at and which references Islam may well seem beautiful to us but, tut tut, we should be aware that it was part of the wicked European fashion to appropriate Islamic patterns for vases or the exploitative trend for mock Moorish architecture, or the thieving use of Arabic script in picture frames and so on.

And that behind all of this detail, all of these individual examples of cultural appropriation, lies the huge looming shadow of Western Imperialism!

Four tiles by William De Morgan & Co, Britain (1888-1897)

Cumulatively, these hectoring labels and panels created, for me at any rate, a strange sense of schizophrenia. In one and the same wall label the curators might both praise the craftmanship of a western tile maker or architect – and yet accuse them of being part of the general movement of cultural appropriation. Praise and damn almost in the same breath.

As so often in modern exhibitions, I began to feel that I got more visual and aesthetic enjoyment if I just stopped reading the hectoring labels – felt less harangued and nagged to feel guilty about things which happened 150 years before I was even born.

Orientalist painting

It’s probably in painting that the Orientalist issue is most obvious, or most familiar to most of us because the antique shops of the West are awash with third-rate late-Victorian depictions of the Arab world, of mosques, old men in long gowns with even longer beards, camels crossing the desert, Oriental markets, scantily dressed concubines and so on.

Said’s idea is that, although these images are fairly harmless looked at individually, taken together they become condescending, sexist and racist, depicting a fantasy world of harems and sultans, long-gowned scholars in picturesque mosques, colourful markets or the desert at dawn – all of which, taken together, creates a patronising distortion of the complex realities of the many peoples and tribes and ethnic groups and nations scattered across North Africa and the Middle East.

Moreover, taken together, they all tend in the same direction, promoting an ideology claiming that all these cultures and peoples might well be noble and beautiful, but were also backward and in decline, and therefore needed to be taken in hand, taken over, guided and ruled by us, the enlightened West.

At Prayer by Ludwig Deutsch (1923)

The big wall hanging of twenty or so massive Orientalist paintings which I mentioned earlier are obviously meant to represent a kind of ‘Wall of Shame’. Tut tut, we are encouraged to think: look at all these stereotypical markets and mosques and rugs and carpets. Look how oppressive they are.

However, I just didn’t feel the moral outrage I think the curators intend us to feel. The real impact of hanging so many Orientalist paintings next to each other was, in my opinion, to make you feel a bit sick, as if you’d been let loose in a sweetshop and eaten everything in sight. They are self-consciously opulent and gorgeous to the point of absurdity.

Another, more objective result of examining so many of these over-ripe productions was that, pace Said, most of them are not from the imperial nineteenth century, nor, surprisingly, were many of them produced by the classic imperialist powers who carved up the Middle East between them, France and Britain.

At least half of them were from the twentieth century, many from after the Great War (the two above are from 1913 and 1923). And quite a few were by either German or American painters, not by the cultural Anglo-French cultural appropriators. Neither the Germans nor the Americans had any colonial presence in the Middle East till well after the Great War and even then, not very much.

Orientalism or Romanticism?

As I read yet another wall label pointing out how the Orientalist painters fantasised and romanticised and embellished lots of the subjects they painted, as if this was a shockingly immoral and exploitative thing to do, a simple thought occurred to me: Didn’t all 19th century artists?

There are thousands and thousands of Victorian genre paintings which romanticise and glamorise all kinds of subjects, from their own working classes (cf the exhibition of cheesy paintings of Victorian children I saw earlier this year at the Guildhall) to windswept Hebridean crofters.

In other words, wasn’t the entire artistic movement of Romanticism about, well, stereotypically romantic subject matter – about mountains and storms at sea and heroic adventures and tormented heroes and shy maidens with heaving bosoms who needed rescuing from dragons (I’m thinking of the amazing late-Victorian fantasies of Edward Burne-Jones as recently displayed at Tate Britain).

The same exaggerated depiction of popular conceptions of subjects was applied to everything – I bet medieval knights weren’t as manly and knightly as they appear in Victorian paintings, that Highland crofters weren’t as proud and noble, or our brave soldiers quite as manly and beautifully kitted out, as they appear in those big hearty late-Victorian paintings.

Don’t all Victorian paintings depict extravagant stereotypes in lush and glamorous colours? In other words, there is nothing particular or exceptional about this hyper-romantic style being applied to ‘Oriental’ subjects: it was applied to countless other subjects as well.

The Guard by Antonio María Fabrés y Costa (1889)

The harem

I was especially looking forward to the section about the harem, not because I was expecting to be particularly titillated but because I was anticipating the orgy of outraged feminism it would prompt in the commentary.

After all, one of the most obvious and much-repeated claims of anti-orientalist, politically correct literary critics, feminists and curators is that Western white men used the Ottoman institution of the harem to concoct a vast number of soft porn, erotic fantasies which bore no relation to reality at all, but merely satisfied the gloating gaze of fat, rich, white, male collectors.

So the most astonishing single thing about this exhibition about Western depictions of the Orient is the complete absence of even one decent painting showing a classic, late-Victorian harem scene. Not one.

I thought I must have missed a room somewhere and went back through the exhibition to check, but eventually realised that the little collection of five or so chaste drawings and one painting – none of which show a nude woman, all of them very restrained – is all they have! 

There’s a tiny photo of one of the classic nude-in-a-Turkish-bath paintings by Ingres, but any actual huge, beautiful and sexy harem scenes by him or Eugène Delacroix or John Frederick Lewis or any number of their followers and copyers… nothing! None!

I think I could go to my nearest antiques shop and find more cheesy old Victorian paintings of scantily-clad maidens in a supposed harem than there were in this exhibition. It is an astonishing gap. The big oil painting I mentioned is of a fully-clothed woman who could be more or less anywhere.

Off to one side there is one little drawing of a woman playing a musical instrument by a French artist we are assured, by the conscientious curators, was a notorious Orientalist – though it could hardly be less offensive. Does this image strike you as being offensively racist and sexist, stereotyping the Orient and providing visual underpinning for Western imperialism? It doesn’t, to me.

Study of a girl playing a stringed instrument by Jean Léon Gérôme (1886)

In fact it raises a related politico-aesthetic question, because the curators point out that the artists, Jean Léon Gérôme, was well known for his meticulous sketches and drawings he made preparatory to making an oil painting. Which made me reflect: I n what way can these artists be accused of peddling lazy stereotypes if they were carefully and meticulously depicting what they saw, what was actually in front of them?

The sex object bites back (or photographs itself wearing clothes)

The absolute of real killer harem scenes is all the more puzzling because it is meant to set up the final part of the exhibition, which is devoted to contemporary works by modern Muslim women artists.

The curators have chosen to interpret these contemporary Muslim women artists as responding to the despicable tradition of Western Orientalism. They are ‘speaking back to Orientalist representations of the east’. They are ‘subverting and undermining works by earlier European and North American artists’.

But alas the curators’ plan doesn’t really work because we have not seen any of the sexy, sexist Orientalist representations of the east which these contemporary artists are kicking back against. We pretty much have to imagine them, or remember them from other exhibitions or books.

In fact I thought all four of the women artists on display here were very good, very very good, in their way better than the rest of the exhibition. Best of the four was a triptych of images by Lalla Essaydi, part of a large series of works titled Women of Morocco.

In them Essaydi or her models adopt the poses of the scantily-clad women draped around in famous Orientalist paintings, only here the women are chastely and Islamically dressed and – and this is the distinctive thing from a visual point of view – both they, their clothes and the studio backcloths are covered in Islamic script. I thought it was a brilliant idea, brilliantly executed, to produce really vibrant and exciting images.

Les Femmes du Maroc by Lalla Essaydi (2005) © Lalla Esaydi

Conclusion

Inspired by the East feels, in the end, like a rather thin exhibition.

Firstly, it claims to be a look at the interaction between East and West, so you’d expect it to be divided into two parts; How East affected West and how West affected East.

As noted, there’s plenty of examples of the way Westerners appropriated Eastern designs and motifs and patterns, architecture and design (although this felt like a much larger subject which really deserved to be investigated in much greater depth – All over London are buildings which incorporate Islamic motifs; if you add in tiling and ceramics and metalwork you have a huge subject).

But as to West affecting East, this section felt very skimpy indeed, with just one small room showing a couple of photo albums by pioneering photographers in Istanbul and a map or two. Is that it?

Secondly, there is the big shadow of Edward Said and his embittering theory of Orientalism threaded throughout the show, the premise that all depictions of the Middle East and all forms of appropriation of its culture were handmaidens to the wicked, Western imperial exploitation of the area.

But this rather harsh and inflexible approach militates against the more nuanced vibe of the ‘cultural interactions’ parts of the show. One minute the curators are praising Western craftsmen; the next they are berating the subtle cultural imperialism of copying Islamic designs.

Hence my comment about the unsettling schizophrenia I thought the show suffered from.

3. And when I got to the section on the harem and realised how tragically thin it was, it suddenly crystallised for me how skimpy the rest of the exhibition feels. It feels like it’s trying to address two or three really big issues and not quite doing any of them quite properly.

Alhambra vase, Spain 1800–1899 © Islamic Arts Museum, Malaysia

Writing versus art

I read Orientalism at university four or five years after it was published, when it still had ‘the shock of the new’, before it settled down to become the new orthodoxy taught to each new generation of humanities and art students.

And Said’s book is almost entirely concerned with Orientalist writing – with the supposedly factual works of Orientalist ‘scholars’ (who he systematically debunks) and with the Western literary writers who perpetuated stereotypes about the Exotic East (Byron, Nerval, Flaubert just for starters).

A lot of this kind of writing was produced in the nineteenth century and so Said had a rich vein to draw on, and was able to show how the supposedly ‘scholarly’ writing, and the literary works, easily morphed into official, governing and imperial writing, could be co-opted into government reports and assessments, how anthropological studies could be quoted in business cases for invading Egypt, say, or Iraq.

But it is much harder to divine a particularly patronising, racist or imperialist motive behind a set of porcelain which just happens to use an Islamic motif, or in picture frames which use Arabic script as decoration, or in glassware which incorporates Islamic patterns.

It’s easier to imagine that they were just one among the millions of other ranges of pottery and ceramics and frames produced during the consumer boom of the nineteenth century, which cannibalised motifs and patterns from all available sources – from India and China and Japan to name just a few – if it produced something which would sell.

To see most of the objects in this exhibition as part of an enormous explosion of art and crafts products which catered for the burgeoning middles classes as, to some extent, they still do today.

So my last thought is that maybe the bittiness and thinness of the exhibition is owing to the fact that the curators are trying to illustrate a basically literary theory with works of art and museum objects. And not nearly enough of them to really round out the argument.

Whatever the reason, for me this exhibition contained an entertaining pot-pourri of lovely objects, but didn’t really hang together either as history, or as a sustained exploration of the themes it purports to address.

Promotional video

Curators

  • Julia Tugwell
  • Olivia Threlkeld

Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Edward Said on Albert Camus (1994)

A brief introduction to Edward Said

Edward Said was born in 1935 in Palestine. His father was from Palestine, his mother from Lebanon. They were both Christians, not Muslims, so he was already an outsider in a predominantly Muslim part of the world. Said attended British Anglican schools in Jerusalem and Alexandria, which further detached him from the surrounding Muslim culture and Arab language, before being sent to an elite school in Massachusetts. He went on to earn a BA (1957) at Princeton University, and Master of Arts (1960) and Doctor of Philosophy (1964) in English Literature from Harvard University, before joining Columbia University in 1963 as a member of the English and Comparative Literature faculty.

A privileged private education and a prodigious academic ascent.

At Columbia Said taught the classic 19th and 20th century novels – Jane Austen, Dickens, Eliot, Conrad, Graham Greene. His thesis was on Conrad, the novelist of colonial disillusion and pessimism. He produced several works of straight literary criticism which show awareness of the new intellectual winds blowing in from Paris, an awareness of the theories of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and so on, but all these pale into insignificance before his epoch-making work, Orientalism (1977).

Orientalism examines the little-read works of 19th century ‘orientalists’, men who claimed to be experts on the peoples, the histories, cultures and languages of the Middle East, India and North Africa. The book’s thesis is straightforward – that the writings of all these ‘orientalists’, even the most sophisticated and erudite of them, are soaked in a set of clichés and stereotypes about the native peoples of the places they studied, which helped their European imperialist masters – in most cases Britain or France – to rule them, to dominate them, to subjugate them.

Orientalist discourse portrays ‘the natives’ as lazy, corrupt, decadently sensualist or fanatically religious, as economically or culturally backward – however you cook it, as needing the beneficent intervention and rule of our glorious, civilised, law-bringing empires.

Said reviews the rise and development of ‘orientalism’ as a field of knowledge and shows how riddled it is from top to bottom with offensively racist clichés which allowed the imperialist powers to pursue their aims of control and exploitation with a clear conscience.

Although you can criticise various aspects of the book (and many critics did, very fiercely) there is no denying that it opened minds to a completely new way of seeing European culture – from the outside, as an instrument of domination and control – and that this radical new perspective led quickly to the birth of a new discipline, ‘post-colonial studies’.

The book caused much controversy, especially among contemporary experts on ‘the Orient’ (mostly meaning the Middle East) who felt insulted and undermined. Said defended his thesis in journals and in the media, his TV and radio appearances raising his profile.

His public profile went up further when he began to get involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict from the 1967 War onwards, assenting to Israel’s existence but calling for equal recognition of the rights of Palestinians, including the right to their own territory and the right for the large Palestinian diaspora to return home. His ongoing involvement with Palestinian politics, to the extent of becoming a member of the Palestinian National Council, ensured his position as a leading public intellectual, frequently subject to furious criticism.

Anyway, back to his books, Said followed up Orientalism with Culture and Imperialism (1993). This was based on lectures he gave applying the insights of Orientalism to specific authors from the canon of 19th and 20th century literature, including Jane Austen (with her famously casual mention of Caribbean sugar plantations in Mansfield Park), Dickens (the role of Australia as the destination for Mr Micawber at the end of David Copperfield and as the site of Magwitch’s reformation in Great Expectations), Conrad’s florid depictions of colonial despair in his Far Eastern novels and, especially Heart of Darkness.

And there is a chapter about Albert Camus.

Albert Camus

Camus was born in 1913 in Algeria to European parents. His father died when he was small and he grew up in great poverty in a suburb of Algeria, mostly looked after by his strict grandmother while his mother went out to work. He showed intellectual precocity and studied philosophy at Algiers university. There he will have been exposed to the latest European thinking of the early and mid-1930s which was uniformly pessimistic, typified by Spengler’s masterpiece The Decline of the West (1922) and the grim existential philosophy of Martin Heidegger, summed up in Being and Time (1927).

But unlike most writers and philosophers, Camus was a very physical being. He was good looking and fit, played football professionally, swam in the Mediterranean and had many girlfriends.

This dichotomy, between physical activity, sunbathing and swimming – Joyful and happy – and thinking – Negative and troubled – comes across powerfully in his early essays such as Summer in Algiers and underpins a lot of his ‘philosophy’.

In The Myth of Sisyphus (if I understand it correctly) the thinking mind is afflicted by the absurd disconnect between the human wish for order and meaning in the universe and the distressing absence of that order and meaning in the universe as we experience it. The anguish of feeling disconnected, ‘abandoned’ in a ‘godless universe’ is so distressing it leads some people to contemplate suicide, which is the subject of the essay.

But Camus revolts against this option, because it destroys one half of the absurd proposition Man + World. It is an absurd solution to an absurd predicament. Absurd man is saved from despair by his revolt against his situation:

Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion.

‘Passion’. Maybe I’m over-simplifying but it seems to me that Camus had to struggle all his life just to allow the joyous physicality of existence to triumph. I feel like I’ve experienced the same kind of struggle between being a bookish depressive appalled by the history of our species, and a guy who likes to go running, swimming, cycling and walking. Maybe lots of bookish people feel the same. Although his terminology and his prose style are often impenetrable, I think it is centrality of this common dichotomy, and Camus’s passionate defence of Life, despite all the arguments to the contrary, which made him so popular in his day and such an enduring figure.

Said on Camus

Pages 204 to 224 of Culture and Imperialism are devoted to a study of Camus. It opens with a brief recap of the way the French Empire expanded exponentially after the French defeat in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War – overseas conquest against technologically backward countries compensating for their humiliating defeat to the all-powerful Germans. This huge expansion (between 1880 and 1895 French colonial territory shot up from 1 to 9 million square kilometers, p.205) was accompanied by an explosion of new writing, not only factual descriptions of the new colonial acquisitions – mainly in Africa – but also expanding and justifying France’s vision of itself as a uniquely privileged exporter of civilisation and culture – what came to be known as its mission civilisatrice.

The essay takes the history of the Algerian town which the French named Bône as an example, a settlement which the French expropriated from the native Algerians and where they recreated French architecture, law and culture. And then Said points out that Camus was born to immigrant European parents in the small settlement of Miondovi, just outside Bône.

Said starts his critique by quoting from Conor Cruise O’Brien’s long essay about Camus, written for the old Modern Masters series back in 1970. O’Brien critiques aspects of Camus’s writings but nonetheless praises Camus for his achievement in depicting ‘Western consciousness’, for being the most representative intellectual of his day, in his troubled quest to establish and preserve humanist values in the unfavourable circumstances of the Cold War.

Said criticises O’Brien, and by implication all other fans of Camus, for precisely this evaluation, claiming that making him a universal representative of the Western intellectual effectively erases the profound and vital Algerian roots of his writings.

Let’s look at the novels in terms of their Algerian setting. Of Camus’ three novels – The Outsider (1942), The Plague (1947), The Fall (1956) – the third one is immediately excluded because it is about a Paris lawyer now living in Amsterdam. It was published two years after the Algerian War of Independence began (November 1954) and so Algeria was no longer available as a neutral backdrop for a fable about human consciousness.

This simple fact already sheds light on the other two novels – it brings out how the Algeria of their setting (Algiers and nearby villages in The Outsider, Algeria’s second city, Oran, in The Plague) is prior to the war of independence. Camus’s Algeria is a blank canvas, a neutral backdrop against which the European heroes act out their allegorical stories.

Only three Arabs appear in The Outsider, none of them are named or speak, and the role of the central one (the brother of an Arab woman who is regularly beaten up by the protagonist’s friend, Raymond, and who seeks to avenge her) is to be shot dead on a sunlit beach by the novel’s anti-hero, Mersault.

It requires little effort for even the casual reader to see that the Arabs are merely the toys or mannequins or wordless puppets which exist solely to provide fodder for the adventure and agonised musings of the central, European figure.

Likewise there are no named Arabs in The Plague. It is a novel entirely about Europeans. The majority of deaths from plague in The Plague must, logically, be the deaths of Arabs, since they made up nine tenths of the population of Algeria and of Oran, the city where the story is set – but there is no sense of this in the novel, no sense, for example, that the Algerians might have had different cultural and religious ceremonies and traditions surrounding their Muslim dead.

To be harsh: in Camus’s two most famous novels, nameless faceless Arabs have to die in order for Europeans to have fancy philosophical reflections.

So you don’t have to be a genius to see that Camus’ reputation as an embodiment of ‘Western consciousness’ can be regarded – when seen through a post-colonial lens – as more of an indictment than a tribute, in that this wonderful ‘Western consciousness’ is in fact the consciousness produced by, and which benefits from, wide-ranging and brutal imperial exploitation.

The accusation is that Camus’s fictions erase the identity, and even the presence, of colonised native people. Seen from this harsh perspective, far from promoting a universal anything, Camus’s fictions – no matter how troubled and questioning they may appear to be – in actual fact, by virtue of their assumptions and subject matter, continue the racist, colonial project of imperial France.

This is despite the fact that Camus himself, when working as a journalist before the war, produced powerful and well-researched reports on the miserable poverty of many Algerians which he regarded as a direct result of imperial exploitation. He may well have done; but in the fictions – which is all that anyone reads – Camus is, despite his best intentions, an accomplice.

Said’s prose style

Said’s aim is admirable, it is a shame that his prose is so wordy and pretentious.

What I want to do is to see Camus’s fiction as an element in France’s methodically constructed political geography of Algeria, which took many generations to complete, the better to see it as providing an arresting account of the political and interpretative contest to represent, inhabit, and possess the territory itself. (p.213)

To resituate L’Etranger in the geographical nexus from which its narrative trajectory emerges is to interpret it as a heightened form of historical experience. (p.224)

Culture and Imperialism is mostly made up of this kind of bombastic grandiloquence which often produces relatively little insight. Said’s prose preens and grandstands. Also, he spends a lot of time promising detailed close readings of the texts which he then often fails to deliver. Both these characteristics quickly become pretty irritating. Nonetheless, just pondering the colonial position of Camus for the time it takes to read these twenty pages, prompts powerful reflections.

My overall conclusion on Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, both of which I’ve read in their entirety – is that the bombastic style routinely fails to deliver the kind of nuanced text-based insight it promises – but that, despite the pretentious literary-critical style, Said’s thorough-going post-colonial approach is a revelation, a real eye-opener, and prompts a complete re-appraisal of everything you thought you knew about the literature of the European imperial powers.

Paralysis

Sometimes Said’s contorted prose style throws up unexpected phrases which strike a chord.

I was struck by Said’s phrase that Camus’s was an ‘incapacitated colonial sensibility’ (p.213). That notion of ‘incapacity’ is fruitful. As I mentioned above, from his earliest essays Camus appears to be stricken, caught, torn between the healthy outdoor joys of the body which are continually ‘sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought’ (Hamlet), by the bleak indoor climate of 1930s philosophy and intellectual enquiry to which he was also passionately attached.

It adds an extra dimension to Camus’s essays and novels if we overlay this body-mind dichotomy with the additional idea of a late-imperial guilty conscience. Camus wants simple pleasures – he wants life to be simple – but it isn’t because Algeria is a colonised country, the great majority of its population are downtrodden and exploited. How can you not feel guilty living there and seeing the poor and exploited every day? How can you join in the great European debates about ‘freedom’ and ‘being’ and ‘communism’ and all the rest of it, while you pick your way between the ragged street beggars or avert your gaze from the Arab Quarter, the squalid lanes of the Casbah?

On this reading, the paralysis of his characters – trapped under the pitiless sun like Mersault, or imprisoned inside the quarantined city of Oran – reflects not only the overt issues of exile and rebellion, but also the ideological dead-end of French colonialism, which fully understands its time is up, that it has no future repressing an entire people, but simply can’t conceive the possibility of handing over power to the natives and thus abandoning the hard work of a century of colonising effort. The French colonial mind is trapped, stuck, paralysed, stricken, incapacitated.

The plight of Camus’s fictional characters may well be the plight of stricken 1930s intellectuals – but, seen from Said’s perspective, it is also the plight of last-gasp late-colonialism.

On this reading, absolutely everything Camus wrote is compromised, holed beneath the waterline, by his unwilling, reluctant, and barely acknowledged acquiescence in French imperialism. The recurrent longing for union with the sun, the sea, the desert, is an impossible longing by the writer to be free of French colonial history and commune directly with the Algerian landscape, for a moment forgetting that it is a landscape made safe for Europeans to have great philosophical epiphanies in as a result of 100 years of expropriation, land clearing, and forced resettlement of its original peoples. It is a longing to forget that guilt.

Said analyses a story from Camus’s late collection Exile and the Kingdom to bring out how all but one of these late stories are nostalgic for a simpler, less conflicted world, in that they are about French people seeking ‘to achieve a moment of rest, idyllic detachment, poetic self-realisation’.

These are not stories about existentialist man (and woman). They are stories about late-imperial men and women, seeking a peace and harmony with their colonial setting which is ultimately impossible, an impossible dream.

The literary critic Roland Barthes described Camus’s prose as écriture blanche, which translates as ‘white writing’, but also has overtones of blank or empty writing. Said’s post-colonial perspective helps us see that the tone of The Outsider is not just blank because the lead character is almost psychotically disconnected from society and his own life (the obvious interpretation) – but because the entire narrative blanks out the native population, the colonial setting, France’s imperial presence. What makes the novel so blank and empty is the complete absence of the violent history and oppressive imperial structure in which it operates.

Camus and the Algerian War of Independence

After the war of independence broke in 1954 out Camus found himself in an impossible position. His entire childhood, his identity and that of his poverty-stricken mother and all the friends he had seen around him struggling to survive, were all entirely derived from their setting in Algeria. He couldn’t tear his entire personal and social history out of his identity. And so the great defender of humane liberal values found himself attacking the Algerian freedom fighters and opposing the war for independence. Camus went back to Algeria (from Paris where he’d lived since 1945) and tried to set up a movement for peace, to organise local truces to end the appalling bloodshed on both sides, but these all failed.

It was a war of extremes and Camus’s well-meaning liberalism was a drop in the ocean, a drop of dew which evaporated without trace in the fierce Algerian sun. It is no accident that in his last few years he turned from either political essays or novels back to his first love of the theatre, for the most part writing dramatisations of other people’s novels (winning prizes for his stage adaptations of Faulkner and Dostoyevsky). The blank unpeopled background of Algeria which underpinned his most famous works was no longer available.

Camus’s tragic death in a car crash in 1960 aged just 46 has a poetic justice about it. His identity had been torn apart, his ability to write the nativeless allegories set in his homeland had been removed. As a late-colonial writer, the death of his colonial setting signified his own writerly – and then literal – death.

To summarise in a sentence: whenever you read anyone saying that Camus’s writing in some way addresses ‘the human condition’, Said’s wordy but invaluable contribution is to force you to add that Camus’s writing just as much or more, and whether he wanted it to or not, reflects the late-imperial, colonial condition.


Credit

Culture and Imperialism by Edward Said was published in Britain by Chatto and Windus in 1993. All quotes & references are to the 1994 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

The Algerian war of independence

Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain by John Darwin (2012)

Empire – as the assertion of mastery (by influence or rule) by one ethnic group, or its rulers, over a number of others – has been the political rule of the road over much of the world and over most of world history: the default mode of state organisation.
(Unfinished Empire, page 7)

This is a much more sober, earnest and thoughtful account of the British Empire than Niall Ferguson’s popular blockbuster, Empire. Whereas Ferguson references popular myths and preconceptions in order to puncture them in the manner of a swashbuckling columnist, Darwin is the cautious scholar, thoughtfully engaging with the voluminous literature of other historians on the subject – which makes his book a much denser, more challenging, but hugely more rewarding read.

The medieval origins

Ferguson’s account starts with the Elizabethans establishing plantations in Ireland and America at the same time as they set up their own offshoot of the Atlantic slave trade (roughly the 1590s). Darwin takes the more interesting and, characteristically more thorough, approach of going back much further, to the Norman Conquest, to trace the origins of the attempts by the conquering Normans to take an ‘imperial’ approach to the British Islands.

Among the hundreds of rewarding points Darwin makes is that the entire left-wing critique of the British Empire tends to treat it as if it was a historical freak, a one-off, as if only this empire ever existed and was uniquely evil, racist and sexist.

In fact, as Darwin calmly points out, empire has been the normal form of rule for most of the world for most of history.

Thus, just looking at Britain, we were part of the Roman Empire for 400 years; we were invaded and conquered by sea-borne tribes from northern Germany and Denmark who set up their own settler states from the 5th to the 9th century; we were then invaded and part-colonised by the Vikings (800-950), before becoming part of Canute’s Danish Empire from 1014 to 1042. Were then invaded and colonised by the Normans (1066), brutal subjugaters who imposed their economic system, language and laws on their subjects, as well as confiscating vast swathes of their land, and massacred any resisters (the Harrying of the North).

Darwin picks up the story with the Plantagenet kings (1154 to 1485), who ran an essentially French Empire which included a large chunk of western France (wine-producing Gascony). The Plantagenets tried to extend their control of England into Wales (it was the Plantagenet Edward I who built all those Welsh castles in the late 1200s), and tried with varying success to push into Scotland and Ireland.

In the 14th century England hung on to her possessions in south-west France in the face of growing power of the centralised French state, but eventually lost them in 1453. In fact the steady consolidation of the European kingdoms of France and Spain effectively locked Britain out of Continental Europe and forced us to look elsewhere for growth. In other words, Britain’s efforts to find gold and wealth abroad were bound to be maritime, not continental. Locked out of Europe, Britain had to look further across the seas for conquest and colonies.

Before we even get to Ferguson’s start point of Elizabeth’s reign, England had already been part of five or six different empires, depending how you define them.

Protestant paranoia

Darwin adds to Ferguson’s account of the Elizabethan period, the importance of Protestant paranoia. It’s worth remembering that, after Henry VIII’s declaration of independence from the Roman Catholic church in the 1530s, English monarchs lived in fear of being invaded and conquered by the military superpower of the day for the next 250 years, first Spain, then France.

The campaigns to pacify Wales and Scotland were wars of conquest designed to protect the English monarchy’s exposed flanks. Scotland remained an entry point for invasions long after the Scottish Reformation partly calmed English fears. Even after the semi-forced Act of Union of 1707 created a country called ‘Great Britain’, there were still threatening Scottish insurrections – the last one, armed and supported by the Catholic French, as late as 1745, and only defeated after the Catholic army had got as far as Derby, just 130 miles from London.

Unrepentantly Catholic Ireland, though, remained an enduring problem for England’s Protestant monarchs, from the first attempts to assert authority over it in the 1100s right up to the present day (today I read a news story saying the Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, warned David Cameron that a Brexit from the EU might jeopardise the Good Friday Agreement).

Rivalry with other empires

My recent visit to the British Museum reminded me of the long list of empires which battled for supremacy throughout  history: just in the Middle East, the so-called ‘cradle of civilisation’, we have the Assyrians, the Medes, the Persians, the Babylonians and so on – while successive emperors ruled the vast area known as China, and waves of imperial invaders conquered and tried to bind together enormous India, leading up the Mughal emperors that the British had to deal with in the 18th century. When Cortes and Pizarro arrived in Mexico they didn’t discover vegan environmentalists but well-organised, centralised empires – Aztec and Inca – which had been vying for supremacy for centuries, supported by their blood-thirsty religions.

What we think of as the Tudor period, when Henry and his successors tried to conquer and bind together the people on these British islands, was also the era when the kings of Spain and France were doing the same in their realms, fighting to create strong centralised states. In this as in so many other ways, England was just one among many European nations doing the same thing at the same time.

And so, whenever we consider the complex, byzantine history of all the enterprises and entities which eventually coalesced into something we call ‘the British Empire’, we shouldn’t forget that:

a) it was always in rivalry and competition with the other, often more powerful and better-established, European empires
b) in many places it came up against existing ‘native’ empires, for example the Mughal empire in India or the Zulu empire in South Africa

Complexity

From the first pages Darwin emphasises the complexity of the imperial story, that there were a myriad stories of negotiation, business deals, trades, coercion, attack, rebuff, invasion and so on. And they jostled against each other. The imperialists and colonisers, the traders and soldiers, the central government and the men on the ground, not to mention the Christian missionaries, often had wildly different aims and strategies.

Throughout his book Darwin defines different ‘types’ of empire – which immediately make you realise that what later history too glibly thinks of as the ‘rulers’ of ‘the Empire’ always had conflicting aims, which often led to confusion, sometimes disaster.

And even a cursory reading of the history soon makes you aware of the arguments, often bitter angry arguments, between the so-called ‘ruling classes’ back home.

The most obvious example is the fierce arguments surrounding the anti-slavery movement which overcame the angry resistance of the plantation owners and slave traders to eventually ban the institution of slavery, then ban the slave trade, so that, from the 1830s onwards, Britain become the world’s leading agent against slavery. The ruling classes were anything but monolithic – they were at daggers drawn.

Similarly, a strong anti-imperial party always existed in British society, arguing from morality, from Christian principle or just for pragmatic reasons, that ruling an empire was immoral, it distorted the economy and made it too reliant on cheap external commodities or foreign trade, and so on.

I studied the later Victorian period for A-Level and had drummed into me the level of personal and political dislike between Disraeli, the slippery impresario of Empire, and Gladstone, its pompous opponent who carried on vigorously arguing against it into the 1890s.

By the late 19th century you have organised socialist parties giving coherent economic and social reasons against Empire, a set of arguments encapsulated in the classic text, Imperialism: A Study (1902) by the British political scientist John Hobson, which argued that imperialism is an immoral and unnecessary extension of capitalism.

There was always opposition to ‘Empire’, and imperial rule itself was bedevilled by the frequent changes of government and sudden changes of attitude and strategy caused by the pesky democratic system. A central strand of Rudyard Kipling‘s work is his real anger and hatred of idiot politicians, especially Liberal politicians, who were constantly meddling with things they didn’t understand and making the lives of the men on the spot, the men trying to run things, impossible and often dangerous.

So these are just some of the ways in which the Empire was always ‘unfinished’ – giving the book its title.

The British Empire never achieved stasis; it was always too big, too complex, too unstable, in a permanent state of crisis dealing with local wars or rebellions, the threats of rival European empires, economic woes like depressions or agricultural blights, the disruptive impact of new technologies like electricity or the wireless.

Darwin quotes the historian John Gallagher who wrote, ‘Once the British Empire became world-wide the sun never set on its crises.’

Each generation of rulers felt it had been handed a vast can of worms to try and make sense of, organise, maintain and keep secure. It was like the game show challenge of keeping all those plates spinning on the top of the poles, and it is amazing how such a small country managed to keep so many plates spinning for so long until, during the Second World War, they all began crashing to the ground.

Types of empire

  • Entrepôt empire – from the 1690s to 1790s British merchants thrived on the Atlantic trade, moving around slaves and sugar to make profits
  • Free trade empire – from the 1790s onwards, diversifying into the spices, calico and other stuffs supplied from Asia
  • Conquest empire – military conquest to make existing territories secure, to overthrow troublesome ‘native’ rulers
  • The English Atlantic empire – based on a series of early, coastal bridgeheads around the Atlantic
  • The Trading empire in India – run by the East India Company and dependent on the goodwill of local rulers

And amid this diversity of empire, Darwin also defines a whole variety of types of colony. There were at least five large categories:

  • Company Rule
  • Colonies
  • Protectorates
  • Dominions
  • Mandates

However many you count, the point is that they were diverse: from tiny Hong Kong to vast Canada, from almost empty land settled by convicts (Australia) to countries teeming with well-established populations, cultures and rulers (India) – each required different handling, legal and trade arrangements.

Strength in diversity

This is a brilliant book which quietly, calmly, confidently dispenses with left-wing rhetoric about the British Empire and shows, again and again, what a weird, peculiar hodge-podge of disparate entities ‘it’ really was.

Darwin refers to Edward Said and his ground-breaking work, Orientalism, as the source of the theory that the European empires and the British Empire above all, were ruled by a monolithic ideology which drummed home the repressive messages of racism, white supremacy, gender stereotyping, masculine violence and so on, via a set of channels – the press, magazines, music hall, literature, art and so on – which were completely controlled by a unified Imperialist ruling class.

According to this view, all our modern ills – racism, sexism, inequality etc – directly stem from a unified imperial ideology which oppressed the British population as much as the foreign peoples it was used to control.

Darwin says the reality was more or less the opposite. It was precisely the extremely diverse nature of British society, with a strong central spine of monarchy and a settled parliamentary and legal framework providing the base for a huge diversity of religious belief, cultural practice and even languages among the populations of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, which meant that Britain was uniquely well-placed to ‘engage’ with the lands its settlers, merchants and missionaries discovered, in a kaleidoscopic variety of ways.

It was the diversity of Britain which helped it cope with, engage with, conquer, negotiate with and manage the extraordinary diversity of peoples, races, cultures, civilisations and traditions which it found itself fighting, conquering and ruling.

*********

All these ideas are conveyed in the first 50 pages of this brilliantly insightful, calm, measured and fascinating book, which is too crowded and packed with insights to do proper justice to in a summary. Do your mind a favour and read it.


Other blog posts about Empire

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