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The Imaginary West
Many of the earliest Oriental amateurs began by welcoming the Orient as a salutary derangement of their European habits of mind and spirit. The Orient was overvalued for its pantheism, its spirituality, its stability, its longevity, its primitivity…” –Edward Said, p. 150

While in politics and economics the world is divided between the developed and the underdeveloped, and many are likely to agree with Hobbes that life outside of the West is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” in spirit, the West has been enthusiastically appreciating the Nonwest for most of the twentieth century. You cannot pick up an article in my field of Pre-Columbian studies without an explanation of the Western mind – rational, logical, objective – and how different people like the Maya were with their magical thinking. Person after person get up at conferences to bear witness to the awful rationality of the West and the brilliant irrationality of people outside it with the intensity of a convert.

It doesn’t seem to occur to all those sincerely involved in this process that overvaluing the irrational of Nonwesterners is simply the other side of the coin of denigrating them for not having reason. In fact, in European thought the images of the Native American, the Indian, the Chinese and the Arab have undergone alternating periods of positive and negative evaluation. As Said points out, the features of the Nonwesterner remain the same – their valuation goes up or down depending on whether the West needs an outside image of the irrational or not for its own purposes. Admiring the Nonwest for magical thinking is the equivalent of damning it for lacking reason.

This is not simply a phenomenon of alienated academics. Primitivism in various guises from Parisian Surrealism to global New Age beliefs characterizes this century. Shamanistic drumming, yoga, and vegetarianism all have a mystique of otherness and are commonplace in the West. Nor do I claim to escape New Age acts and thoughts because they are too deeply rooted in my own time. But I think our concepts of the West and Nonwest are absurd and I am tired of the contrast. Whatever uses the contrast once had, it is no longer serviceable and is actually destructive.

This binary opposition is so easy to refute; it is hard to imagine how it could go on for so long. I find the irrationality of Nonwesterners hard to see. To be sure, strange religions and superstitions exist everywhere in the world. But if the “savages” had been truly irrational and concerned only with their “internal” view of the outside world, how could they have domesticated plants and animals, built great monuments and endured successfully the hardships of climate from the arctic to the desert? From Eskimo (Inuit) tools to Polynesian navigation devices the rational use of the “primitive” mind is quite clear. Plains Indians behaved rationally in taking to the horse and in their warfare with the United States. Mantezuma behaved rationally in a situation worthy of “space aliens” – he kept track of Cortes’ ships with spies, turned to his books to find out who he might be, was fully aware of the threat and tried to get rid of him with bribes of gifts or ambush. Europeans who speculated that the Indians were the Lost Tribes of Israel were no more rational. The issue was settled by a differential in power, technology, and the thousands of allies Cortes picked up who had scores to settle with Montezuma – not reason. Montezuma’s capital, Tenochtitlan, with its canals, causeways, aqueducts was built by a practical people. If all these people consulted only diviners, shamans and portents, we would not be here. The religiosity of the primitive is overrated.

The rational mind of the West is even more overrated. Have my colleagues ever tried to teach logical thinking to undergraduates? In a “rational” Western culture reasoning is difficult to master and used only under certain circumstances, such as in paper assignments, legal cases and scientific writing. Many people all the time and even specialists much of the time get by on non-logical thinking, which is as much a mixture of custom, ideology and cultural patterns as a “primitive.” One of the nicest aspects of Freedberg’s book “The Power of Images” is that he shows how we, supposedly sophisticated Westerners, see images magically – how we cry over them, get aroused by them, mutilate them. There is little difference between the primitives and us in attitude.

The West is special not in being rational, but in having a “cult of rationality” with heroes mostly unread, such as Plato or Kant. This cult of rationality has worked together with the practical technology and is recognized as the special and “core” feature of the culture. However, not only are most people not deeply involved with the cult, the cult is periodically threatened from the inside. Not only has it almost disappeared during the Middle Ages, the vicissitudes of the concept of the Nonwestern illustrate its current standing. It can be said that from Classical times, the West defines itself against people described as barbarians precisely through the cult of reason.

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Lisa and Bernard Selz Professor
in Pre-Columbian Art History
and Archaeology

Department of Art History
and Archaeology
814 Schermerhorn Hall

Columbia University
in the City of New York

(212) 854-5681