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FIGURING THE EAST: Segalen, Malraux, Duras and Barthes, by Marie-Paule Ha. Albany: State University of New York, 2000, 160 pp., $17.95 (paper)

In its consideration of the East, the West has been accused of Orientalism, a theory developed by Edward Said to explain the way the West “constructs” the Orient by describing it and then ruling over it. Being Palestinian, Said certainly knows all about the negative side of this process, and consequently he and his followers have stressed the “ruling over” aspect of Orientalism.

That Orientalism in itself is not necessarily malign has been the conclusion of a number of younger scholars, of which Marie-Paule Ha is one. They do not deny that Orientalism can and has been put to political uses, but they do argue that the problem posed is more complicated, and that in any event Orientalism is, as the author puts it, a “two-way street.”

The problem, as they see it, is the very human need to create a hard-core “other,” someone simplified, consistent and preferably in all ways different, against which one can measure and hence validate the all-too-fluid self. If the “other” is in all ways “inferior,” then so much the better. Said’s major question was “who is subaltern (powerless or oppressed) and whether the subaltern can articulate a specific position.” But there are many strategies, of which Orientalism is just one, for constructing an “other,” and they need not involve the use of explicit power.

The process of creating the Oriental “other” is, however, fraught with tension. Orientalism can voice respectful wonder, create the manageably picturesque or admire the erotic, but it can also embody invasion, imperialistic ambition, cultural genocide and the colonial status of the other. It is the nature of this tension that interests the author and she offers four examples — all writers and all, naturally, Westerners.

Victor Segalen, the least known of the quartet, experienced perhaps the greatest tension since he had the dual role of advocate of a pristine exoticism and was at the same time a medical officer in the French navy, the primary military branch enforcing imperial ambitions at the end of the 19th century.

The better-known Andre Malaraux unthinkingly subscribed to many colonial stereotypes (“savage” native tribesmen and the like), and yet held that the entrepreneurial spirit of colonial power was itself inimical to the ethics of the “true” adventuring which is what the author’s books are largely about.

Marguerite Duras was herself a product of colonial ambition in that she was born a “white Indochinese” and thereafter displayed a constantly shifting awareness of colonial hegemony, which she simultaneously both criticizes and affirms. The resultant tension is interiorized in her books and films.

Roland Barthes was originally one of the most lucid critics of Orientalism, indeed of any kind of would-be “defining” theory. His voyage to Japan, however, led him to question this opposition and — in “L’Empire des signes” — to employ Orientalism as a textual strategy.

He constructed an “other” (scrupulously insisting that he was never describing “Japan”) and did not have any overt hegemony as a part of his agenda. He returned to Orientalism the kind of approving wonder it had long had until Said and his school downgraded it into just another conquering tool employed by the bellicose West. True, the West did just that with it but, Barthes would have argued, this is no reason we must therefore cancel out the also benign nature of the appreciation of exoticism.

Segalen would have agreed. He makes his main task the purging of exoticism of all the dirt that has been heaped upon it by other writers. In his essay on the subject he writes: “Exoticism is not (what) one could want to incorporate within oneself, but the acute and immediate awareness of an eternal incomprehensibility. Let us not pride ourselves on assimilating customs, races, nations and others; on the contrary, let us rejoice that we can never do so.”

Barthes, with his deep distrust of most of the agenda-filled definitions by which we live, was of a similar mind. He saw that imperialistic Orientalism defined the “other” not by what it had but by what it lacked. He, like Segalen, investigated just what the exotic consisted of, just what the “other” had that we didn’t.

This meant that many of the assumptions upon which militant Orientalism were based had to go and something very different had to be described. Both Segalen and Barthes did so. (Malraux did not, and Duras so deeply interiorized her stress that her conscious intentions are open to doubt — my reflections, not those of the author.) Not only were the results described, they were even incorporated. If Segalen discovers that Chinese steles could serve as inspiration for his collection of poems with the same name, Barthes derives from the Japanese haiku his idea that not in the completed whole but in scattered fragments lie something like the truth.

Ha pursues her arguments with a lucid strength and gives us a series of observations that will help define Orientalism as it is today and which will defend it against the depredations of the School of Said. After all, there is not only the Westernized Chinese or Japanese, there is also the Orientalized Foreigner. There is even the Orientalized Oriental.

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