Although revered in certain circles as something close to holy writ, Edward W. Said’s famous 1978 study Orientalism is rife with contradictions that over the years have become more and more difficult to ignore. It hops disconcertingly between Orientalism as an academic pursuit, as a mental attitude and as a system of colonial oppression. At times it suggests that Orientalism began in the eighteenth century with the rise of modern European imperialism; elsewhere it implies that Orientalism settled like a miasma on the Western mind as far back as the ancient Greeks. We are left with the impression that Europe has been unalterably bigoted whenever it has gazed eastward, although why that is not equally the case whenever it has looked to the south, the west or, for that matter, the north is never clarified.
In Said’s hands, Orientalism becomes a metaphysical force, over and above history, politics and other such mundane factors–“always and everywhere the same,” as Valerie Kennedy puts it in her valuable study Edward Said: A Critical Introduction (2000). Orientalism is also frequently tendentious (not least when accusing others of the same tendency) and solipsistic. If Western culture is “hegemonic both in and outside Europe,” Said explains at one point, it is because a “major component in European culture is…the idea of European identity as a superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures.” Europe is superior because it thinks it’s superior, in other words, which begs the question of why other cultures that also think of themselves as superior, most notably Islam, have fallen further and further behind.
Still, a badly made argument can be just as provocative as a well-made one, which may be why Said’s Orientalism has engendered a raft of spinoff investigations in such fields as postcolonial and subaltern studies, anthropology and history. Now another front seems to be opening up with regard to Jewish Orientalism, an area especially ripe for investigation since Jews have never been fully comfortable in either the Oriental or Occidental camp. Indeed, as the perennial odd man out, their role, for better or worse, has been to disrupt the binary worldview of everyone from the Crusaders and jihadis to the imperialists and their Third World opponents, and now Said and his legion of followers.
Just how disruptive can be seen from Tom Reiss’s lively new book, The Orientalist, a study of the interwar journalist Lev Nussimbaum, best remembered–to the degree he is remembered at all–as the author of a picturesque 1937 novel called Ali and Nino. In Nussimbaum, Reiss has chosen as his subject one of the most bizarre figures in twentieth-century letters, which is saying a great deal. Born in 1905 to a millionaire father and a left-wing mother who committed suicide for unknown reasons when he was still a child, Nussimbaum grew up in the booming oil city of Baku at a time when it was poised precariously among Russians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, not to mention czarists, nationalists and revolutionary socialists of various stripes.
“Surrounded by teachers, servants, playthings,” he would later write, but with no children his own age, he lived a cosseted existence until the Russian Civil War put an end to his idyll in 1918. Fleeing across the desert by camel, he and his father got as far as Persia, then headed back when Baku appeared to be safely in the hands of the Whites. When control passed to the Reds, they fled again, this time west toward the Black Sea port of Batum, where they boarded a ship bound for Constantinople, now Istanbul. There the young Russian-Jewish refugee declared himself a fervent czarist despite the fact that the recently deposed Nicholas II had headed what would be the world’s most anti-Semitic government until the rise of Nazi Germany some sixteen years later. Sailing on to Italy, Nussimbaum arrived in time to see Mussolini’s Black Shirts taking to the streets and was deeply moved.