Who is an Orientalist

Posted by sepoy on May 25, 2010 · 3 mins read

A.J. Arberry. British Orientalist. (London: William Collins Sons & Co, 1943): 7-11

What is Orientalism, and what constitutes an Orientalist? ... The original connotation of the term orientalist was, in 1683, "a member of the Easter or Greek Church": in 1691 Anthony Wood described Samuel Clark as "an eminent orientalian," meaning that he knew some oriental languages. Byron in his notes to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage speaks of "Mr. Thornton's frequent hints of profound Orientalism." During the educational controversy in India which was settled by Macaulay's celebrated Minute of 1834, the Orientalists were those who advocated Indian learning and literature, while their adversaries, who desired English to be the basis of education in India, were called Anglicists. It is to be eared that out of the passions generated by this famous quarrel, a certain discredit attached itself to the name orientalist, and it is no doubt with this in mind that Charles Doughty wrote, "The sun made me an Arab, but never warped me to Orientalism."
Finally, in order to complete this brief survey of the land that lies ahead, let us consider the motives and opportunities which explain the profound interest and prodigious achievements of British scholars in all these branches of oriental learning. No doubt, considering the matter dispassionately, it is possible to draw an analogy between the spirit of adventure and enquiry which took men from these shores to the distant corners of the earth, and a corresponding element of the British mind that seeks satisfaction in the abstruse and recondite territories of knowledge. Maybe there is something in our mongrel ancestry which urges us, confined against further westward wanderings by seas that surround our island home, to go East again in mind, if not in body, and burst the bondage which might otherwise overwhelm us. The university don, immured in his well-stocked library, though he may never have travelled further East than Vienna, can through inherited instinct and native intuition arrive at a profoundly accurate interpretation of the mind and soul of dwellers of Samarkand or far Tartary. Yet, for every one such scholar, dozens have pursued the same ends because they have dwelt in those distant lands among those alien peoples. The quest for trade, and later the responsibility of government, have, side by side with the pure joy of exploration, brought many acute and penetrating minds to bear on the living cultures of the orient; and not a few our greatest orientalists have been men who found in orientalism a refreshment after the arduous and mentally exhausting conduct of affairs and business. There is besides another group of dauntless workers who have gone out East to convert, and have ended by themselves being partially converted: those missionary scholars to whose meticulous labours we owe an immense debt of gratitude. Of all these men it is characteristic that, turning aside from the beaten track and known way of learning, they have ventured into regions where, oftener than not, no traveller had preceded them. They have known the thrill of rich discovery, but they have also experienced the loneliness of the pioneer.


Aligarian | May 27, 2010

I thought Edward Said had already answered all these questions.

McMurdo | May 28, 2010

that Mr. Said has addressed these questions does not imply that he has exhausted them. Given that, on the figures of W. Jones and J. F. Champollion, he was simply wrong, does imply that there is some humility required when making such bland declarations.

Usman Hamid | April 16, 2013

Arberry had a way with words!