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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 4 September 2006
This book is principally an examination and explanation of how the West has seen the philosophies, religions and cultures of the Far East - chiefly of China and India. To this interest in the East Clarke gives the name Orientalism. That word since 1985 has carried the connotation that Edward Said gave to it in his book of that name. Though that work concerned itself chiefly with the Arab Middle East, other scholars have applied Said's characterization to the western study of cultures further East. That school of thought saw Orientalism as permeated with condescending, exploitative and colonialist attitudes, and scarcely allowed any other factors to play a role. Clarke admits that colonial attitudes were one aspect of Orientalism, but his study demonstrates that there were many others. True, students of Orientalism, like students of all other subjects, cannot help having agendas, and agendas are liable to lead to distortions. So the West's interpretations of the Orient (the word `hermeneutic' turns up with rather tiresome frequency in this text) generally fulfil some need felt by the West; but this is often not at all a need to exploit the East, but rather to gain through Oriental studies a new and enriching perspective on Western culture and frequently to provide a remedy for what are perceived to be its flaws or discontents.

Clarke argues, along with other scholars whom he cites, that in the West the Renaissance and the Reformation ushered in a philosophical restlessness and uncertainty which made Europeans be more inquisitive and open to other ways of thinking. This uncertainty was generated from within European culture, whereas in Asia it was only when Western technology and power irrupted into the area that the interest of Asians in European culture began, in response to a challenge from outside rather than from within their own culture. Clarke acknowledges this interest, but devotes only a small part of the book to the impact of Western thought on Asia.

He documents how in the 18th century the philosophes set up their rosy view of Confucian China in opposition to the religious and social criticisms they made of their own society; how, when this interest faded, it was replaced in the 19th century by the interest of the Romantics in Indian thought. We learn of Anquetil Duperron (1723 to 1805) who first translated the Upanishads (into French) and of William Jones (1746 to 1794), who showed that most European languages have an affinity with Sanskrit, which suggested that many of the peoples of Europe came originally from Asia. German nationalists, resenting French cultural hegemony, preferred the idea that their culture was rooted in the Aryan languages (and later, by a perversion of the word, in the Aryan race). Philosophically also, the most profound impact of Indian thought was on a line of German philosophers: Hegel, Schelling, Schlegel and Schopenhauer saw an affinity between the monism of the Absolute and that of Brahman, between their own metaphysical ideas that the world as we know it through our senses is not the real world and the Indian notion that we see the world only through the veil of maya. Both Confucianism and Buddhism were seen by many Europeans as a system of ethics which was independent of a belief in God, and was therefore espoused by many western thinkers in reaction to the claims that religion was the essential basis of ethics.

Towards the end of the 19th century and into the twentieth, at the very time when the West's cultural imperialism emphasized by Edward Said was at its height, there was also the countervailing current that the West's cultural hegemony was increasingly questioned in the West itself; and the interest in Eastern ideas became a broad stream with wide diffusion. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 to 1882) and Henry David Thoreau (1817 to 1862) popularized Eastern thought in America on a scale that earlier thinkers had not been able to achieve. Edwin Arnold's poem The Light of Asia (1879), disseminated the Buddhist message and sold nearly a million copies. The Theosophical Society, founded by Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Alcott in 1875, had over 45,000 members in 1920. It was strongly infused with oriental ideas, and even played a part in the revival of Hindu and Buddhist self-awareness and self-respect in Asia itself. Some Western actually thought that western civilization, with its frenetic materialism and its spiritual life eroded by rationalism, was worn out and needed to draw on Eastern thought to renew itself. Eastern influences have moved out of the academic and literary world to permeate the very life-style of many westerners.

So Zen and Tibetan Buddhism have found many followers in the West; there are now many practitioners of t'ai chi, yoga and transcendental meditation; the young have gone on the hippy trail to visited ashrams in India. From this point onwards, about half way through the book, Clarke produces so many examples of the interaction between East and West - on literature, on the arts, on religion, on psychotherapy, on holistic medicine, on ecological thinking, on non-violence, even on the philosophy of modern physics (though, curiously, only marginally on the mainstreams of western academic philosophy) - that a short review like this cannot do justice to them. There was even a strand in fascism which claimed an Oriental heritage. Clarke's range is truly encyclopaedic, and in this second half of the book that there will be found much detailed material and many names that are likely to be unfamiliar to the educated non-specialist.

The mainly narrative chapters are followed by two final superb reflective ones. In the first of these Clarke reflects on the philosophical traps into which Orientalism can fall and sometimes has fallen, but his defence of the value of Orientalism is eloquent and persuasive. In the second (more difficult) one he shows how deconstructive Post-Modernism challenges Orientalism but can also find an ally in it.
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