A book that I wish I had read many years ago. JJ Clarke’s Oriental Enlightenment is a superb study of ‘The encounter between Asian and Western thought’, as the subtitle puts it. It is primarily a historical study of Western perceptions of Chinese and Indian cultures and philosophies. Any exploration of the role of ‘Eastern’ thought in the Western intellectual tradition necessarily lies in the shadow of Edward Said’s 1978 work Orientalism, which has effectively set the terms of the debate. Western historians, philologists and philosophers, Said argued, have fabricated a complex set of representations about the Orient through which ‘European culture was able to manage – and even produce – the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period’.
As the title of Clarke’s book reveals, he is not only aware of Said’s importance in this debate, but takes Orientalism as the starting point for his own study. But if Clarke draws upon Said’s insights, he also rejects much of his argument. ‘Where Said painted orientalism in sombre hues, using it as the basis for a powerful ideological critique of Western liberalism’, Clarke writes, ‘I shall use it to uncover a wider range of attitudes, both dark and light, and to recover a richer and often more affirmative orientalism, seeking to show that the West has endeavoured to integrate Eastern thought into its own intellectual concerns in a manner which, on the face of it, cannot be fully understood in terms of “power” and “domination”.’ He adds that
While recognizing that orientalism can only be understood adequately within the framework of colonialism and the imperialist expansion of the West, I wish to avoid seeing it as simply a mask for racism or as a purely Western construct which serves as a rationalisation of colonial domination. European hegemony over Asia represents a necessary but not a sufficient condition for orientalism.
The result is a work more nuanced in its understanding the encounter between East and West. Clarke follows the shifts and turns in Western appropriation of Eastern ideas, from the Enlightenment celebration of China and of Confucianism to the Romantic obsession with India through to contemporary New Ageism and the striking dalliance of some scientists and atheists with Buddhism.
While it is impossible to write a book such as this without using terms such as ‘East’ and ‘West’, Clarke is well aware that such terms have ‘become devices for reducing endless complexities and diversities into manageable and falsifying units’. Throughout the book he challenges the stereotypical perception of East and West, of what the Indian historian Raghavan Iyer has called the supposed ‘eternal schism’ between East and West, ‘the dubious notion of an eternal East-West conflict, the extravagant assumption of a basic dichotomy in modes and thoughts and ways of life’, of the self-serving distinction between, in the words of another Indian historian Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the West’s ‘rationalistic and ethical’ positivistic and practical mind’ and ‘the Eastern mind [which] is more inclined to inward life and intuitive thinking’.
There is, however, another distinction between East and West that interests Clarke. Where India and China have appropriated Western technologies, political ideologies and philosophies, Clarke suggests, this has not happened ‘spontaneously’, driven by developments in local cultures, but has been ‘in effect the outcome of Western intrusions and demands’. This, it seems to me, is a dubious argument; Clarke underestimates the degree to which the desire for change within non-Western societies has been driven by internal factors, not simply external forces.
On the other hand, Clarke suggests, the Western appropriation of Indian and Chinese philosophies has been driven by needs internal to Western cultures, in particular ‘a pervasive cultural disquietude, an uneasy awareness of fault lines running deep into the strata of European cultural life… giving rise to a sense of some fundamental breakdown at the heart of the West’s intellectual, spiritual and moral being’. The roots of this lie in the very coming of modernity to Europe. From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, Clarke argues, ‘Europe underwent a profound transformation amounting to a radical discontinuity with its past’, a rupture that was ‘profoundly traumatic’ generating an ‘unprecedented degree of anxiety and self-doubt’ amounting to a form of ‘nihilism’. It was the ‘painful void in the spiritual and intellectual heart of Europe’ combined with imperialism and global expansion that led to the rise and development of orientalism.
Just as Clarke underplays the extent to which developments in India, China and elsewhere made non-Western thinkers look outwards, so he overplays both the historical rupture created by the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and the nihilism inherent in modernity. Certainly the coming of modernity was hugely disruptive and transformative, and historically unprecedented, but the discontinuity with the past was not quite as radical as Clarke suggests. At the same time the response to the upheaval, and the trauma of social transformation and dislocation, took many forms. While ‘anxiety and self-doubt’ was ever-present, it was, it seems to me, largely marginal to intellectual debate until the nineteenth century.
Oriental Enlightenment is nevertheless a fascinating book, and an important corrective not just to Edward’s Said’s understanding of Orientalism but also to the dominant narrative in the West (to which, of course, Said’s Orientalism is also a response). ‘The influence of the West on the East has been readily acknowledged’, Clarke observes. But there has been ‘amnesia’ about the degree to which European thinkers have been drawn to, and influenced by, Chinese and Indian ideas and philosophies. ‘The Western self-image’, he notes, ‘both as popularly conceived and as intellectually constructed, has found little place for the idea that the East has played anything more than a negligible part in its cultural and intellectual formation.’