It would be difficult to overstate the influence exerted by that book; anyone who reads it carefully, however, may find it harder to explain why it had any influence at all. Said's thesis was that 'Orientalism', a tradition of writing about the Orient especially the Islamic world , was essentially ideological, and that the ideology was the imperialism of the colonial powers - above all, Britain and France.
Western scholarship about the Orient was imperialist not just because the scholars worked for imperial administrations, but in a much deeper sense: So a linguist classifying Hittite verbs was just as much an imperialist as a man in a pith helmet shouting commands at the natives. You don't have to think very hard about this argument to see that there is something bizarre about it.
On these grounds, any organised knowledge about human beings is oppressive, and, since oppression is obviously a bad thing, We Are All Guilty. Some of that guilt should also have rubbed off on Edward Said, who, when describing previous writers as Orientalists and imperialists, went in for a bit of classifying himself. Many of the early reviews of Said were hostile. He had concentrated on the period from the late 18th century onwards, for obvious reasons: Within that period, however, he ignored the huge role played by German scholarship, because, inconveniently, the Germans failed to colonise the Orient.
And his treatment of earlier centuries was ignorant and inconsistent, struggling to deal with the fact that when modern Arabic scholarship began in the 17th century, there was no Western imperialism for it to serve - the imperial boot was then on the Ottoman foot. For some readers, this was just a Left versus Right dispute, and they knew which side they were on.
For others, it was an argument between Islam and non-Islam; that view embarrassed Said, who had not set out to defend Islam and whose own parents had been Protestant Christians. Others still saw it as a battle between Arab and Jew, especially after Said's work had been dismissed by Bernard Lewis, a leading British Jewish scholar.
Yet the real dispute should be about something much simpler: To judge that, you need to know quite a lot about the history of Western scholarship on the Orient and Islam. Now, however, Robert Irwin has produced a sparkling history of Oriental scholarship, from which innumerable fascinating small facts emerge, plus one big one: Said was not only wrong about many points of detail. His whole argument was wrong because it did just what he accused the Orientalists of doing: As Irwin shows, there was no fixed mentality of Orientalism; there were many Orientalists, with many contradictory world-views.
Some surprisingly few, though were imperialists. Damning with faint praise, Irwin adds that he agrees by and large with what Said has written about Palestine, Israel, Kipling's Kim or Glenn Gould's piano-playing.
I'm not sure I could go that far, if only because reading Said's prose is like walking across a wet ploughed field. Irwin scores some hits, although it isn't easy to knock out somebody who ducks and dives as skilfully as Said. To take one example, Said refused to acknowledge that there is such a thing as an Indo-Aryan family of languages and criticised a German orientalist who held that Sanskrit, Persian, Greek and German had more in common with each other than with Semitic or other language groups. Yet Irwin cannot quite pin Said down.
Said was not a flat-earther; he merely insinuated that we can scarcely trust a German who uses the word Aryan in the same sentence as the word Semitic. So much for the polemic: Irwin admits that his book would not have been written if Said had never written Orientalism. It's knockabout, as is the tradition of orientalist scholarship; one 17th-century scholar quoted by Irwin said of another that he "doth not understand common sense in his own language, and therefore I cannot conceive how he can make sense of anything that is writ in another".
Irwin's catalogue of orientalists, far from being for specialists only, is a good deal more entertaining than some of the lists that have become a modish Christmas present in recent years. He selects as the father of orientalism the 16th-century French scholar Guillaume Postel, a child prodigy who occupied the first professorial chair of Arabic in Paris at the age of He became the disciple of a lady called Johanna, the New Eve and Mater Mundi, who claimed X-ray vision and that she could see Satan sitting at the centre of the Earth.
His writings eventually got him into trouble with the Inquisition, who "in an unusually benign frame of mind" decided that he was not a heretic, merely insane. Imprisoned on and off for the last 20 years or so of his life, he continued to command enormous respect for his erudition and his amiable personality. There are plenty more. The 17th-century Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher specialised in ancient Egyptian and Coptic, alongside his main interest in Hebrew.
As well as writing about obelisks, mummies, papyrus and Chinese ideograms, his books dealt with codes and code-breaking, music, Atlantis, birdsong, Noah's ark, magic lanterns, volcanoes, mathematics and pyramidology. Closer to our own day, we have one Oxford professor who was described by his Italian maid as "Questo bel animal feroce!
Irwin passes quickly through the ancient and medieval periods, and in more detail through the last four centuries during which orientalism has been a recognised discipline, dedicated in Irwin's words to "getting things right". He puts half-baked ideas about a "conflict of civilisations" into a saner context, and his most striking conclusion is that Christendom and the west paid rather little attention to the orient and Islam, just as Islamic civilisation paid rather little attention to the west.
Today the headlines rarely fail to have some Middle Eastern news in them, and there was a period in the 16th-century when those who knew were seriously disturbed about the Turkish military threat.
For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies, published in the United States under the title Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents. Whether you agree or disagree, there is no mistaking the passion that For Lust of Knowing: the Orientalists and their enemies, by Robert Irwin.
But most people most of the time have had other things to think about. Nevertheless Irwin quotes some fascinating exceptions; for example the fact that Columbus took an Arabic interpreter with him to the new world to help him communicate with people in the East Indies.