Art, History, Review, Top Stories

Unfabling the East—A Review

A review of Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment’s Encounter with Asia by Jürgen Osterhammel (translated by Robert Savage). Princeton University Press (June, 2018) 696 pages.

Late nineteenth century Europeans were arrogantly certain of the inherent superiority of their civilization. Edward Said’s influential book Orientalism (1978) describes representations of the East as inverted projections of Western superiority. Europeans looked down on the East and created myths that flattered the supposedly more advanced and civilized imperialists. Said’s thesis is controversial, but there’s no question that headstrong imperialism was an intellectual force at the apogee of Empire. The problem is that the critique of representation has itself become dogmatic, losing sight of the diversity of historical sources and unable to reflect critically on its own practices. Postmodern critiques either accuse Europeans of ignoring difference, because they are blinded by universalism, or of the opposite: exaggerating difference and creating the stigmatised ‘Other.’ The diagnoses can be diametrically opposed, but the common theme is that Europeans’ prejudices render them unable to understand Asia.

Edward Said’s acolytes have become the new intellectual imperialists. The arrogant certainty of some contemporary critics has distorted scholarship. European texts are mined for signs of imperialist ideology, treated as windows to the authors’ souls, but neglected as accounts of the world. Unfabling the East is a brilliant new book by Jürgen Osterhammel that goes back to the original sources, and carefully reconstructs the evolution of European views of Asia. He finds that “the Enlightenment’s discovery of Asia entailed a more open-minded, less patronizing approach to foreign cultures than suggested by those who see it as a mere incubation period of Orientalism.” Osterhammel’s book is an oblique criticism of the Orientalism approach to intellectual history. After a blistering introduction criticising the scholarly field, he settles down to guide us through centuries of European thinking and writing about Asia. It’s a history of ideas rather than a critique of ideology, but its example serves as powerful refutation of Said’s school.

The ‘unfabling’ of the title captures the empirical process of overturning pre-modern myths. There was a long process through the Renaissance and Enlightenment of collecting travel reports and first-hand accounts of Asia, which were avidly consumed by the ‘thought leaders’ of the time. John Locke, for example, owned 195 travel reports. They were not studying Asia for its own sake, but to expand the scope of their ideas and universalise them. It was the source material for the new science. Enlightenment readers were “cleverer … than later theorists. Hungry for knowledge of other cultures, they chomped through forests of literature on Asia in order to give European historical, anthropological, economic, and sociological discourses as universal an evidential base as possible.”

Mining the work of the most famous philosophes for evidence of Orientalist thought misses the subtlety and variety of the Enlightenment. Osterhammel has unearthed rich source material that gives context to some of the more ‘Orientalising’ European texts. Montesquieu gave a rather deterministic account of cultural differences, but the Asia experts he read were often more balanced. Montesquieu represents Persia as narrowly despotic, with no room for statecraft and little sense of complexity. But one of his sources, Sir John Chardin, was subtle and sensitive to nuances, aware of differences between court and country and the exertion of human agency under different constraints. “Chardin emerges as the better sociologist and political scientist, Montesquieu as the bolder political philosopher. As chunks of empirical analysis were incorporated into a uniquely varied system for a universal sociology, they took on new meaning, becoming both dogmatized and trivialized in the process.” From our perspective, the bold political philosophy stands as the more useful exemplar of Enlightenment thought, but returning to his sources gives better sense of the richness and variety of intellectual life at that time.

Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron (1731-1805)

Osterhammel does not hesitate to recognise strands of thought that were racist and Orientalising, but it is not a straightforward story of Enlightenment universalism crushing difference and imposing Eurocentric norms. It’s fascinating to discover figures like Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron who lived in India and knew Asian languages. He was a learned critic of Montesquieu, and of European imperialism, who adduced pages of evidence against one-sided claims about Asian societies. He identified a double-standard that described the same acts as legitimate assertions of sovereignty when carried out by Europeans, but evidence of despotism when carried out by Asians. Writing in the eighteenth century, Anquetil-Duperron anticipated critiques that today’s scholars perceive as original.

The encounter with other civilizations was a real-world test of universalism that spurred critical reflection on European society. Johann Heinrich Gottlob von Justi wrote Comparisons of the European with the Asiatic and Other Supposedly Barbaric Governments in 1762 (it sounds even better in German). He starts from universal principles such as the freedom of the individual and then measures different cultures—including European cultures—against those principles: “for a nation to pass itself off as reasonable and civilized; it must furnish the requisite testimony and proof … If the European administration of justice is, if not worse, then at least not better than that of the Hottentots and Siamese, my God!, what cause do we have for our vain pride in supposing ourselves to be the most reasonable and civilized nations on Earth?” Universal principles are the measure, but they are tested against cultural contexts.

By the late nineteenth century the subtle, critical and self-aware accounts of Asia had been largely supplanted by triumphalist, imperialist accounts of the East. It’s a paradox that as nineteenth century knowledge as a whole increased and research was systematised, understanding of other cultures was blunted by ideology. A couple of factors might account for this. By the late nineteenth century, European dominance was a fact. Economies, technologies and armies were clearly demonstrating their superiority, so there was less receptiveness to learning from Asian societies. Open-minded enquiry was supplanted by the explanation of Asia’s apparent backwardness. Second, as knowledge was systematised it was also fragmented. Historians wrote histories of Europe; the ‘Orient’ became the province of anthropologists. Now that Asia is ascendant again, Asian history is being reintegrated. Osterhammel’s own book, The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century is an outstanding example of truly global history.

I sense Osterhammel’s impatience with the shibboleths of contemporary critical theory, but his criticism is always measured and contextual. The substance of the critique isn’t polemical rhetoric, but solid scholarship that shows the world to be richer and more varied than over-determined ‘Saidist’ critiques appreciate. Ironically, radical politics has blunted our sensitivity to variety and gradation. It takes a book like this to move the debate beyond talking points and open our eyes to a wider context.


Michael Savage works in investment banking and is a curmudgeonly art historian on the side. Follow him on Twitter @GrumpyArt


  1. dirk says

    I like the scene of the painting, this is orientalism optima forma, and I can imagine that such paintings were highly valued in 19th century Europe. The orient of that time was mostly described and painted as sensual (Turkish Bath of Ingres, this scene of a naked boy with snake,many other similar ones), was it the truth of then? or was it romanticised? The travel narratives of Flaubert, Richard Burton and many others make one believe that those times really were much more sensual and permissive in sexual mores than what we see there nowadays. Edward Said will laugh at such western constructions, but nevertheless.

    • sceptical says

      It’s also very possible (indeed, likely) that they were indulging in fantasies of what might be permitted in the Mysterious East, activities that were forbidden or strictly regulated at home.

      • ga gamba says

        Gérôme himself spent much time in the actual Orient (Ottoman Constantinople for example, where he had a close relationship with the court) living, observing, sketching, and painting. The blue wall of The Snake Charmer is inside Topkapi Palace, which he was allowed to enter and study. Indeed, Gérôme’s output is the product of a painter of masterful technical skill.

        That painting was selected to cover Said’s book – by whom I don’t know – presumably because it best exemplified his argument. And what was complaint?

        A slumped and slovenly audience leers (lustfully?) at a nude boy wrapped by a phallic python. The beautiful tiles, a few broken, behind them are seen as a survival of an older and finer culture. “Look at how the mighty have fallen,” which I presume hurt Said’s sensitivity. Westerners surely knew powers like Greece and Rome rose and fell, and since the 8th century it has been in a near constant struggle with Islam in the Iberian peninsula, the Mediterranean, the Balkans, and even Central Europe up to Vienna. The slow decline of what was once an existential threat must have come at great relief.

        As for accuracy, did nude boy snake charmers actually exist? Indeed they did. Naked male youths didn’t violate Islam (when performing before men) and nude snake charmers attracted attention because they were more endangered than clothed adult ones.

        If Gérôme was given to ridiculing, disparaging, and othering the Orient how do you explain this?

        Or this?

        Would you agree this painting of an irregular soldier in the Ottoman army has a dignified and noble bearing, www(dot)metmuseum(dot)org/art/collection/search/440723 ?

        I acknowledge that Gérôme repeated paintings across different periods of history. The critics of his era disliked him because he was skillful at mass marketing his work; he was one of the first painters who mechanically reproduced his paintings, which made him a tidy fortune. Lithography had only been invented about three decades before his birth, so this new technology allowed a painter the means to earn an income without having to always seek commissions from the wealthy. Of course, he still had to appeal to a consumer.

        Here’s a slave auction that appears to be from the Roman Empire, www(dot)jeanleongerome(dot)org/Achat-Dune-Esclave-Purchase-Of-A-Slave.html

        And here’s a very similar slave sale in the Orient, www(dot)jeanleongerome(dot)org/Slave-Market-Or-For-Sale.html

        Were sleazy, salacious, or simply unflattering paintings of the Occident unknown to the Occidentals? In Europe the grubby, unwashed pock-marked masses existed on canvas and in print. Passed out punters were robbed by prostitutes, i(dot)pinimg(dot)com/originals/40/18/5f/40185f21aeca207cf55be8ee336ef2b6.jpg. The power and glory of industrialisation appeared hellish, www(dot)upload(dot)wikimedia(dot)org/wikipedia/commons/3/35/Adolf_Friedrich_Erdmann_von_Menzel_021.jpg. Even the rich and powerful were lampooned and satirised, such as by Regency-era artists James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson.

        And we should not neglect to see the Ottoman Empire (an expansionist power for centuries) was in a prolonged period of significant decline prior to colonialism that saw it losing conquered lands in the east and west. It’s not unreasonable for artists and writers to have produced work addressing this. Egypt too rebelled against the Ottomans, became independent, and launched invasions into Ottoman Syria. However, Egyptian ambitions were short lived.

        During the US Civil War, [King] Ismail was so intent on building up cotton infrastructure and transforming Cairo into a ‘Paris on the Nile’ that he encouraged the “establishment of banks like the Anglo-Egyptian from which he might borrow heavily in return for certain favors.” Very soon he’d built up such big debts to mostly British and French creditors that he couldn’t hope to ever pay them back. Additionally, the end of the American Civil War in 1865 led to a steep fall in global cotton prices as the U.S. crop came back on the market and proved particularly damaging for Egypt. It created a sharp budget deficit and ultimately a declaration of national bankruptcy a decade later. www(dot)smithsonianmag(dot)com/history/how-american-civil-war-built-egypts-vaunted-cotton-industry-and-changed-country-forever-180959967/

        To erase these debts Egypt handed over the Suez canal to British administration.

        Said’s greatest shortcoming, one that’s repeated by pomos again and again, is he ignores the Orient’s history of aggression, expansion, conquest, as well as all the knock-on oppression inflicted on the subjugated people. It’s as if the kindly and peaceful Orientals were simply minding their own business when catastrophe from the Occident snuck up on them, like Pearl Harbour. Sorry, the Aborigines they were not.

        • dirk says

          @ Ga & Steve: what I found out: the painting of Gerome is in Williamstown’s Art Institute (Mass.), so quite possible that Said saw it already as a schoolboy, because his parents sent him to boarding school in Mass. and they must once have made a museum trip to that museum, with their art/history teacher. Was he attracted?, or did he detest it already by then? In the NL, his book was translated as -Orientalists-, and the front cover was replaced by a softer scene, one of a Turkish bath (still highly sensual). His book had a negative influence on the integration of our muslim citizens. Due to the influence of its cultural Marxism discours, we often avoid to ask questions, for fear of hurting feelings,and also the muslims (also the 4th generation moslima’s in head scarf on TV) feel rather uncomprehended and discriminated.- Don’t think you understand us!!-, is the message we often get.

    • Steve Sailer says

      This painting was used as the cover of Edward Said’s “Orientalism.” As I wrote in 2017:

      In particular, Said complained about Western Orientalists depicting the Middle East as feminine and alluring.

      This was not just a literary metaphor for Said. For many years, adventurous European artists and writers like Flaubert had engaged in sex tourism in Muslim lands and come back to whip up spicy works for the European market.

      … Edward Said, as a racial loyalist, resented men of a different ancestry defiling his people’s womenfolk…and, perhaps especially, his people’s boyfolk.

      The cover illustration of “Orientalism,” which was chosen to highlight the evils of Westerners taking any interest in the Middle East, is the vaguely sinister 1879 painting “The Snake Charmer” by Jean-Léon Gérôme of a naked boy posing with a snake before a group of staring men in a Muslim palace. The painting is basically high-gloss pedophilic gay porn. It gets across the disgust Said felt for boy-bothering Orientalists.

      Ironically, Said had the IQ and cultural sophistication to devise complex-sounding and thus hugely influential justifications for his basically redneck and wholesome emotion: Don’t come around here no more.

      • Steve Sailer says

        There was a small riot in Morocco a few years ago by locals against European expats who are there for the boy prostitutes.

        My guess is that Professor Said was particularly outraged by the appeal of his Arab-speaking cultures to European gays like T.E. Lawrence and bisexuals like Flaubert.

  2. TJR says

    Ruling classes are nearly always arrogantly certain of their superiority over everybody else.

    It would be very surprising if this were not true for the particular case of 19th century western ruling classes.

    • TarsTarkas says

      It certainly was for many of their 18th and 19th Asian counterparts. The Osmanli refused to innovate, and as a result their Empire, formerly the mightiest military power in the world, became the ‘Sick Man of Europe’, and the Qing dynasty likewise saw no reason to adopt anything from the ‘foreign devils’, resulting in the humbling of their power by the Russians and English and eventually their complete overthrow in 1911.

      • Steve Sailer says

        One of the overlooked aspects of history is that much of the world — e.g., China, South Asia, and the Middle East — started to stagnate about the time Renaissance Europe took off, even before European imperialists showed up in Asia en masse. Charles Murray’s “Human Accomplishment” quantifies that non-European achievement was lagging compared to their earlier golden ages in the crucial centuries in which Europe was gaining momentum.

        Japan was an exception in that even during its 1603-1853 isolationist phase it was continuing to make steady technical and cultural progress.

        • And before the 鎖国, Japan, unlike other non-western powers, was vigorously advancing. A classic example is the Japanese use of firearms. At the Battle of Nagashino in 1575, Japanese gunners fired in volleys of a thousand guns at a time to stop cavalry and infantry charges. During their invasion of Korea in 1592, the Japanese employed 40,000 gunners who used serial firing tactics to deliver a continuous rain of fire on defending forces.

  3. Lincoln Dunstan says

    I like the old saying,”Too many Chiefs and not enough Indians”.

  4. martti_s says

    WTH is this ‘Asia’ anyway? Today it is an alias for Pakistan, Bangladesh and Somalia in the British press. Who were the orientalists talking about exactly?

    • dirk says

      Somalia probably because of Islam and Queen Sheba Martii. Orientalism since Said has become a non-issue in the literary and political world, that’s at least something he succeeded in. But also, he killed the exoticism and romanticism that westerns were allowed to dream away in. Very bad, because polarising and tribalising, prohibiting inquisitive encounters, post modernism at work. Sad! Really sad, but that’s how it is these days.

    • ga gamba says

      In the British press Asia is South Asia, generally. It’s long been this way. How long I don’t recall, but certainly longer than recent times. I’ve never seen Somalia included amongst this group.

      • dirk says

        In our journals, the Near East has become all of a sudden the Middle East. The Far East, at least, remains far off.

    • It is easier to think of Asia in terms of colour. Europe as White, Africa as Black and Asia as the Browns.

      • dirk says

        There is a yearly European Song festival. Israel, Azerbeidsjan and I believe even Australia are participants. For geographers it is quite easy to determine where Asia starts and Europe begins. For the Oriënt this is another matter, as it is for the Middle East and the Levant. It seems that that Oriënt is even derogatory now, due to Said??- But you yourself are from that Oriënt!-
        – I beg your pardon?!-

      • Natto says

        ‘It is easier to think of Asia in terms of colour. Europe as White, Africa as Black and Asia as the Browns.’

        And the yellows? My wife is one; our daughter somewhat paler. What are they? Because they find ‘East Asian’ highly unsatisfactory. Japanese, Chinese and Koreans very much dislike being lumped together.

        It’s one of the reasons our entire family has always despised the abject tokenism of Black History Month.

        • Black History month really started in America. What has it got to do with you and yours?

          “And the yellows? ”

          Do not exist.

          “Because they find ‘East Asian’ highly unsatisfactory. Japanese, Chinese and Koreans very much dislike being lumped together.”

          Then they are either Asians or just that: Koreans, Japanese and the Chinese.

          • Natto says

            @Reading Nomad

            Thanks for clearing that up. I’ll tell my wife. I’m sure she’ll be glad to discover that she doesn’t exist. It will make life a lot easier for her and the other third of the world’s population who regard themselves essentially as being ‘yellow’, because what they most certainly do NOT regard themselves as are Asians of the Rotherham and Oxford grooming variety.

            Fortunately my daughter, being only half yellow, can enjoy a semi-transparent wraith-like existence.

            Just as a matter of interest: from where did you get the authority to declare that my wife doesn’t exist?

            Oh, on Black History Month: there happened to be no black faces in my daughter’s primary school class. There were many other kinds of faces, including exotic mixtures such as South African/Mexican and plenty of white admixtures with various shades of brown. There were Turks, and Kurds. But non-white history? Mary bloody Seacole. The kids, once they twigged, despised it.

          • Your wife exists – but skin colour yellow doesn’t. No matter what you believe. Your personal belief isn’t required.

            “because what they most certainly do NOT regard themselves as are Asians of the Rotherham and Oxford grooming variety.”

            Why does it have to be about pedophiles whose Asian decent is Indian sub-continent? So why did you got to the pedophiles?

            I guess you are NOT a filthy and dirty pig like white male akin to Jimmy Saville, Glitter, Harris, Cifford, etc.

            And you are not even one of thousands of Whites who go and prey on young girls in Cambodia, India, Thailand etc.

            “Just as a matter of interest: from where did you get the authority to declare that my wife doesn’t exist?”

            For all we know, you might or might not have a wife. How would anyone know? But what makes you think anyone gives rat’s arse over it? I certainly don’t.

            Questioning the non-existence of a skin-colour [that is re-defining it as brown] does not question the existence of the person.

            Logical fallacy

            “there happened to be no black faces in my daughter’s primary school class.”

            If black history month stands for appreciating non-white history [more likely people] under its banner and then that is fine with me.

            On the logic of: the Holocaust can stand for thinking about all such atrocities. One doesn’t need separate days.

          • “The kids, once they twigged, despised it.”

            No they did not. You are lying outright here. I have noticed your other comments. You are something of an agitators. Quit making shit up… or you’ll get a good verbal boot up your arse.

          • Natto says

            Oh, and another thing: which positions do ‘Asians’ – sorry, ‘East Asians’ – no, that won’t do: Koreans, Japanese and the Chinese – occupy in the Hierarchy of Victimhood? Are they all at the same level, or do they occupy subtly different positions even though they can often be quite difficult to tell apart by the uninitiated?

            My wife and daughter would like to know, and would be grateful if you would take the time to explain it, please, because they often feel uncomfortable as a consequence of their inability accurately to gauge their exact level of privilege (although my daughter, being contaminated with white genes, knows she must thereby have more privilege than her mother), and this can make them somewhat nervous and insecure in sophisticated company.

            Thank you.

  5. Northern Observer says

    The the most convincing critique I ever read of Edward Said was by Steve Sailer of all people but his argument was compelling.
    Said, like his contemporary Fritz Fanon, had revenge in his heart and his work was designed not to advance humanity or learning but to damage the West and Europe in particular. It is thus one of the most effective books ever written.

  6. dirk says

    I would love to know, from a native speaker or an orientalist, what the arabic texts on that blue wall mean? Any symbolic meaning? I don’t expect an answer on that here, but I would be delighted if.

    • ga gamba says

      The painting is Gérôme’s The Snake Charmer. I’m sure you may find analysis and critiques on it online .Keep in mind most Islamic artworks don’t depict humans and animals due to the prohibition of idolatry, so Orientalist paintings were mostly done by Westerners. This aids Said’s accusation such work is colonialist, racist, othering, etc. and, because of this, Westerners were unable to genuinely understand what they study and report. We see this gambit at play still amongst the pomos.

      • Northern Observer says

        The irony today is that there is a big market for orientalist art of the late 19th century period from wealthy Arab collectors, often Gulf princes. It appeals because they fell an unironic connection to the past depicted by the European eye.


  7. Sir Richard Burton’s Kama Sutra interpretation and other ‘pillow books’ from the naughty East made him wealthy and titillated the afternoon tea and hound set. Years ago I frequented an exclusive dealer in Paris where an entire floor was dedicated to Orientalism.He said the paintings of camel jockeys, minarets and veiled belly wobblers were in high demand by the British contingent. Of note, another floor was exclusively hung with a melange of cattle paintings… all manner of bulls, cowboy rope-a-thons and engorged udders. He said this was his most lucrative room and frequented by wealthy ‘oil guys’ and their ilk from the U.S. I mention this only as a casual observation and in no way construe this as a comment on the sexual proclivities and associated mores of our great speaking peoples.

    • dirk says

      Cattle painters and engorged udders? What hell kind of ideals are growing there? Why not stick to their peregrine falcons and hunting ways adapted to the deserts? Grass and dairy/cattle feed needs a lot of grass, or other green stuff, and water! What if they have completely exhausted their aquifers, 100 mts or more below surface? Climate change is one thing, but this is really scaring!

  8. No… No… these were not intertwined preferences or geographic links between the two floors. I was merely recalling an amusing differentiation between old English money and the new petro bucks from the Texas crowd. The proof of the pudding is in the tasteing… as it were.

    • dirk says

      O.K., then I’m reassured. Of course, Texas has also its oil guys (though, the sheiks probably don’t want to be called so)

  9. Alexandre says

    I thank the author for the review. I didn’t know about this book. I’ve read Said’s Orientalism and used it in a undergraduate class (I HAD TO use it). It’s an awful book, more like an overgrown pamphlet that makes sense only within a Foucauldian framework – that is, the truth does not matter, only the representation; which means: only my subjective and ideological interpretation matters. Every argument from the book that I presented in the class had to be followed by a critique highlighting the many problems with Said’s arguments, otherwise I would feel like I was preaching. Thanks again for the review!

    • dirk says

      Finally, at the very end, some words about Savage’s review on the book of Osterhammel. We were all somewhat distracted. By?

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