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The Imaginary West / Page 2

To Herodotus, the Egyptians do everything in “reverse” of normality and the Scythians are simply bloody barbarians. Tacitus uses the Germans the way we do Nonwesterners, as examples of the noble savage, primitive but superior to the degenerate Romans. For Said, the classical texts that illustrate an “us” and “them” cleavage are “The Iliad,” “Euripides.” The twentieth century has been a time of dissatisfaction with the cult of logic and hence the overvaluation of the irrationality of the primitive.

Wolff chronicles the cleavage in the West itself in the eighteenth century primitivist conception of Eastern Europe: Voltaire’s Russia, Rousseau’s Poland, and Herder’s Slavs. Those “underdeveloped” peoples are generally not just compared to but believed to continue the culture of the Scythians of Antiquity. In Gibbon’s account, the barbarians at the fall of the Roman Empire and modern Eastern European peoples are completely equivalent. In the usual European pattern, denigration and enthusiasm follow each other: Gibbon’s barbarians are Herder’s noble savages. The model for primitive and civilized is set in classical antiquity and applied in the eighteenth century even within Europe.

Where, then, is the West in the eighteenth century? Certainly not in Eastern Europe; not really in Spain and Italy, nor in Scandinavia. It seems to be almost exclusively in France, England and Germany. Every one of those countries has a partially classical Roman past and a primitive past in Gauls, Saxons and Germans. Therefore, they are all mixtures of the Classical (Western) and the Primitive (Nonwestern). The Nonwestern is really within the Western psyche. Take the twentieth century French children’s comic book hero Asterix the Gaul, who outwits the Romans at every turn and makes fun of their degeneracy! Little needs to be said of the German revival of their pagan gods in Wagnerian opera nor of the anti-Classical Gothic revival in England. The West is sometimes divided North and South or East and West to demonstrate cultural and historical differences. But the major point is that the “West” is divided. Perhaps Classical Antiquity was also thus divided, but in any case the division is very clear in the last three centuries.

The West is a place with a cult of reason inherited and revived from Classical Antiquity, but it is also a place of the magical, the irrational, the spiritual which is conferred on the past, (the Gauls), other parts of Europe (Poland), or other parts of the globe (the Maya). The overt self-image is the “rational” one; the “irrational” is repressed but promiscuously projected on everyone else and thus repossessed in exoticism. In describing the “other” the West is dealing with its own psyche.

The cult of reason in the West has always been experienced as threatened by the barbarians at the gates as in the Roman Empire, by mounted nomads like Mongols and Tartars, by empires like those of the Turks and the Soviet Communists – outsiders. But the real threat to the cult of reason is not inside by within the West – the proletariat of the French Revolution, or the mass culture of the twentieth century. The West has had to seek its spiritual side outside of the West to maintain the fiction of its rationality. Taking the word of the West to describe itself is a little like believing in a soap commercial. Yes, rational, up to a point in certain circumstances, different in style, emphasis and quantity but not in kind from the rationality of others.

What happens if we stop comparing other cultures to the West? The binary system collapses and there are a variety of cultures with a variety of combinations of the “rational” and the “irrational.” Rather than applauding the irrationality of Nonwestern cultures we should reveal and accept our own irrational aspects. And the notion of this pure, rational, scientific culture should be relegated to mythological places like Shangri La and El Dorado. That’s not what the West is; the West is a more complex and contrary manifestation than the usual essentialist reduction would have it.

The next time someone at a conference starts berating Western culture for its inability to understand irrational Nonwestern thought and practice, I will get up and strip.

This column is in response to Linda Nochlin’s article, “The Imaginary Orient,” Art in America, May 1983, pp. 118-131. See also: Edward Said, Orientalism, New York, Pantheon Books, 1978; Larry Wolff, Inventing Eastern Europe, The Map of Civilization in Eighteenth Century Europe, Stanford University Press, 1994.

Originally published in the Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute Newsletter, 1999, p. 10-11.


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