Has Western culture oppressed the Third World?

March 21, 1993|By Richard Eder | Richard Eder,Los Angeles Times

CULTURE AND IMPERIALISM.

Edward W. Said.

Knopf.

360 pages. $25.

Mansfield Park in Jane Austen's novel represents the virtues of English life: humane order and a gracious material prosperity, temperately enjoyed. Sir Thomas Bertram is the Prospero of this kingdom, and his impoverished niece, Fanny Price, sparks her way up through distractions and conflicts to be worthy of it. We are gratified and more. Austen did for her four-square theme what Mozart did for the dominant-tonic cadence.

Dr. Edward W. Said, a consciously complicated man, is a professor of comparative literature, an expounder of his lover's quarrel with Joseph Conrad and other great Western writers, a polemicist for the Palestinian cause, and a musicologist. He admires Austen and, no doubt, Mozart; but what about other cadences, and everything that the great line of Western culture has ignored, suppressed and thereby oppressed?

What to make of the trips of the upright Sir Thomas to the West Indies to manage the slave-plantation that maintains his English Arcadia? Dr. Said's question illustrates the thesis of his troubled and consciously contradictory "Culture and Imperialism," which continues the line of his "Orientalism" of a few years ago.

It argues that Western art and culture have played a role in the Third World, both in treating it and neglecting it, akin to the material and political role of imperial Britain, France and the United States. The thesis is debatable -- in the literal sense.

Its arguments are splendid, and also splendid targets, and it is hard to decide whether it is more stimulating to assent to them or dispute them. Dr. Said disputes with himself in a series of elusive caveats that keep slipping away and returning. He has also dressed the vitality of his ideas in prose of the most murky and ponderous sort. Reading "Culture and Imperialism" at times becomes a battle to liberate his ideas from his book.

Western culture, particularly of the 19th and 20th centuries, "I see as part of the general European effort to rule distant lands," Dr. Said writes. In developing, qualifying, redeveloping and requalifying this thesis, he touches on everything from "Aida," Kipling, Camus and E. M. Forster to the gulf war and the way the U.S. press and television so meagerly convey voices from other parts of the world.

Dr. Said focuses on the Western novel, in its variations of manners and realism. It was a very partial realism, he argues.

There were the silences. If "Mansfield Park" lacked slaves, "Great Expectations" slighted the real source of Pip's mysterious wealth; e.g., Magwitch's fortune made in Australia. There was the absence of real Algerians in Camus -- neither Meursault's Arab victim in "The Stranger" nor the Arabs who died in "The Plague" are given names. "Aida" opened in Cairo, romanticizing the ancient Egypt that interested Westerners. Impoverished, present-day Muslim Egypt was not seen or heard.

When Western writers did attempt to deal with Africa, Asia and South America, it was one hand clapping. Dr. Said loves Kipling's "Kim" because of its genuine passion for Indian life, but the boy's adventures, he notes, are under the mentorship of a paternal British Secret Service colonel, while Kim's richly mystical Indian companion, Babu, has no independent political views.

Conrad denounces the futility of the colonial system in "Heart of Darkness," but his complex judgment is put in the mouth of the Englishman Marlow. The African darkness makes a powerful symbol of the West's illusory projects, but it has no African voices in it. There is only darkness when you look into the continent from the outside; from the inside, Dr. Said suggests, there is only life.

This makes one of the book's best points. Even when such Western writers as Conrad, Graham Greene and Robert Stone denounce the West, it is a pre-emptive sort of denouncing. They stage their expiation drama -- as Camus holds his existential drama -- on other people's space.

Space -- and who and what occupy it -- is the heart of the book. A Palestinian Christian, Dr. Said avowedly writes out of his own displacement. That his country is occupied furnishes a symbol of how Western voices or Western silences have pre-empted the traditions of the Third World.

There is no room to detail the ramifications, examples, arguments and tentative solutions in Dr. Said's book. They repeat, circle around, wander off and often make him very hard to grasp.

There is a disparity between the intuitive, passionate and often impassioning ideas that Dr. Said works with -- some go off into plain silliness -- and the elephantine prose in which he presents them. It is as if he had purposely donned a suit of armor to make headway in a hostile intellectual environment. I think that Dr. Said has frustrated part of his talent, or perhaps he has been frustrated in it. There is a glint of musicality, of serious playfulness here and there that, were he able to flaunt them, would have given his ideas a sharper edge.

There is a price to pay for being a bridge between the Third World and the Western cultural Establishment. Perhaps the stiffness of Dr. Said's voice is the scar of an academic colonization only partly resisted.

And yet, in spite of all his book's difficulty, the author has managed a kind of Marlow's vision in reverse. His struggle with his own contending spirit -- his contrary impulses of zeal and of moderation, his need to denounce and his need to mediate, his sense of the West's injustices and achievements -- make a rocky but revealing journey into the Heart of Whiteness.

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