Literature Study GuidesOrientalismChapter 1 Part 3 Summary

Orientalism | Study Guide

Edward W. Said

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Orientalism | Chapter 1, Part 3 : The Scope of Orientalism (Projects) | Summary



Said uses a series of examples to discuss how the West was able to advance on the East. He argues the initial attitude toward Orientalism was framed by the perceived threat of Islam. The early works by Simon Ockley (author of History of the Saracens), Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron's translation of Avesta, and the codification of Indian laws and languages by William Jones were born out of a sense of "duty" to recover a portion of the Oriental past. They also provided the background for Napoleon's expedition to Egypt. Unlike leaders of earlier expeditions, Napoleon was the first to prepare prior to traveling to the Orient, using works such as Voyage en Égypte et en Syrie by Comte de Volney (1787). Thus, Napoleon arrived in the Orient accompanied by a team of Orientalist intellectuals with plans to dominate Egypt. "Everything said, seen, and studied" was written down in Description de l'Égypte (1809–28), and it was done in a way that emphasized the Orient's ancient connection with Europe.

Thus, everything that was good about the Orient was framed as the product of a European connection. The book emphasized the heroic nature of Napoleon and the greatness of the project he was undertaking in a nation that had fallen into barbarism. The pervading idea at the time was that once Egypt was restored to its former glory, other Oriental nations would fall in line. Said argues that Napoleon's journey marked the point at which the language used to discuss the Orient shifted from descriptive to "a means of creation." He claims this shift can clearly be seen in the conception of the Suez Canal by Ferdinand de Lesseps. The enormous amount of money and effort required to build the canal was justified by the benefits de Lesseps argued would be passed on to people who "could never have done for themselves."


Moving on from the literary tradition of Orientalism, Said discusses the first texts to arise out of European and Eastern contact as the first Orientalist texts. Despite "going beyond the comparative shelter of the Biblical Orient," these initial works detailing contact with individuals were written in a way to reinforce the Oriental "myth." For instance, Said notes how Simon Ockley's History of the Saracens focuses on describing Islam as "heresy." Said posits that prior to contact with the Orient, there was very little to be done to prepare except to read the early literary works. This reinforced the view surrounding the Orient and did nothing to dispel the "threat" of Islam.

Thus, when later contact with the Orient occurred—such as Napoleon's expedition to Egypt as detailed in Description de l'Égypte—the West began to assert its power over the East. In order to serve his goal of domination over the East, Napoleon categorized it, defining it in connection to the "distant European past," thus making it inherently subservient to the West with himself as the hero. Said says this served to decrease the threat of Islam.

Said also claims the major change resulting from Napoleon's expedition was that it "destroyed the Orient's distance," symbolized by the creation of the Suez Canal, which was completed in 1869. The Orient was no longer the "other," but was a physical location the West now had power over. Equally, the Orient had become a product of Orientalism based on the literature of the period. The problem with this characterization, as Said argues in future chapters, is that the basis of knowledge remained the same despite changing relations with the Orient. Said uses this chapter to set the premise for how Orientalism changed throughout history.

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