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Romantic Imperialism

by Saree Makdisi

Chapter 5: Domesticating exoticism: transformations of Britain's Orient, 1785-1835

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  "In the eighteenth century," writes Maxime Rodinson, "an unconscious sense of Eurocentrism was present but it was guided by the universalist ideology of the Enlightenment and therefore respected non-European civilizations and peoples. With good reason it discovered universal human traits in their historical development and their contemporary social structures." [17] According to Rodinson, the Eurocentrism that would find its "place" in the nineteenth century and the universalism of the eighteenth century are "naturally" opposing tendencies, and he argues that Enlightenment universalism would give way to a belief in the hierarchical separation of cultures.[18] Now what I am arguing here proposes exactly the opposite: that the universalist tendencies which (as Rodinson observes) emerged from the Enlightenment would gradually transfigure the very notion and possibility of separate social/national development (which has an analogue in the scientific paradigm of fixed types) and lead towards the construction of a universal evolutionary "stream." In the meantime, the kind of respect that Burke extends to Indian civilization is derived not merely from what he sees as its sheer difference from England, but also from the non-applicability to India of what would become (only a little later on) the simultaneously Eurocentric and "universal" tendency towards development, improvement, and modernization.

  That this not-yet-universal tendency and its attendant principles, maxims, laws, and truths do not, for Burke, apply to India renders Britain's colonial mission in India ambiguous, and even dangerous because of the threat of that ambiguity and the obscurity -- the sublimity -- of the colonial mission. Yet the absence of universal laws and rules through which to "read" and understand India makes it that much more important, according to Burke, that the British try to discover the specificities of India's own principles and maxims (hence his call for the administrators of the empire to "take in their system of opinions and rites, and the necessities which result from both"). India's difference from England, India's unknowability, and the dangers and ambiguities of colonial rule thus become conflated in Burke's speeches.

  Sara Suleri argues that Burke's India is a fundamentally unmappable space (and hence sublime, to the extent that it is overwhelming and defies the understanding of the constructed English subject). She suggests, moreover, that, when Burke invokes the sublimity of India, "he seeks less to contain the irrational within a rational structure than to construct inventories of obscurity through which the potential empowerment of the sublime is equally on the verge of emptying into negation."[19] This sublimity of empire draws its power precisely from what Burke sees as the inscrutability and unreadability of India. "In the colonizing imagination," Suleri adds, "the Indian sublime is at its most empty at the very point when it is most replete, dissolving the stability of facts and figures into hieroglyphs that signify only the colonizer's pained confrontation with an object to which his cultural and interpretive tools must be inadequate." [20] Burke's respect for the cultural difference of India is inextricably caught up with his fear of India and, moreover, with his fear on behalf of what he sees as the "extreme youth" of so many of the Company's colonial administrators in India, whom Burke judges to be vulnerable to the pressures placed upon them both by their positions of power and by their inability to resist the "dark" side of native customs and habits. And, finally, Burke's belief in the immutabil-ity of India is premised upon the "fact" of its indecipherability, its resistance to British and European constructs and categories of knowl-edge, which are never able to contain it.

  Whereas Edmund Burke's respect for the cultural difference of India is derived from his fear of the sublimity of colonial rule in India, for Sir William Jones -- perhaps the leading Orientalist of the late eighteenth century -- it was knowledge of India, in addition to the subcontinent's sheer and still unbridgeable difference from England and Europe, that empowered his attraction to that other culture. Jones, a scholar and judge in the Hastings administration in Bengal, elaborated conceptions of Orientalist knowledge that paralleled Burke's and Hastings's views of empire in the East. For Jones's Orient was not only as immutable as Burke's; it contained vast intellectual treasures, knowledge of which could, in his view, be "exchanged" for European ideas and scientific concepts.

  Jones argues that, by virtue of its sheer difference and utter otherness, the "infinitely diversified" East has a great deal to offer Europe. The Orient, according to Jones, is "the nurse of sciences, the inventress of delightful and useful arts, the scene of glorious actions, fertile in the productions of human genius, abounding in natural wonders, and infinitely diversified in the forms of religion and government, in the laws, manners, customs, and languages, as well as in the features and complexions of men." [21] What Jones proposed to do, through the agency of his Asiatick Society of Calcutta, which he founded in 1784, and through the publication of Asiatick Researches (beginning in 1788), was to establish an intellectual analogue to the extraction of material wealth from the Orient, and from India in particular, in the discovery and then the translation and circulation, not only of European knowledge about the East, but above all of the indigenous cultural, literary, artistic and scientific productions of the Orient "itself."

  The purpose of his vast project, originally proposed by Warren Hastings himself, was thus on the one hand to extract and circulate this knowledge of the Asiatic other; and on the other hand to use this knowledge to facilitate imperial control over India (which was obviously Hastings's main concern). As Javed Majeed points out, these two aims were inextricably related to one another for Jones, whose knowledge of indigenous Indian laws and Sanskrit was used not merely to communicate with local judges but to render them totally redundant and replace them in their own element, their own language, their own code of law and juridical principles.[22] In other words, Jones's project involved not merely what Gauri Viswanathan refers to as "reverse acculturation," [23] but an at-tempt to virtually simulate and even to replicate the other, to under-stand the other "from within," to contain the threat of otherness not by transforming it but by reproducing it in a controlled system. Javed Majeed points out Jones's desire "to tap the sources of a pure ëorient knowledge,' both to undermine the authority of the sacerdotal classes and to redefine the ancient constitution of India, which he believed had been fragmented and dispersed for centuries." [24]

  But although Jones's knowledge of the colonial other and his participation in the colonial project are thoroughly intertwined, they are not quite coextensive. While much of his work on Asiatic languages, literatures, and histories centers on an attempt to put his knowledge of India directly to work for Hastings and the East India Company (the assumption being that Indians would forever be the same, so that the only way to rule them would be to know them sufficiently to judge and under-stand them on their own terms), there was an "excess" of knowledge that served no immediate administrative purpose.

  Indeed, quite apart from the usefulness of his Orientalist knowledge to the imperial administration, Jones argues that "disinterested" knowledge of the Orient is valuable on its own terms as well, precisely because it constitutes knowledge of difference and otherness. Thus, in an essay on the poetry of Asia, he extolls the virtues of Oriental literatures, not only comparing them to the works of Greece and Rome, but in some sense elevating them "above" the European classics. "I must request," he writes in the conclusion to this essay, that  

    in bestowing these praises on the writings of Asia, I may not be thought to derogate from the merit of the Greek and Latin poems, which have been justly admired in every age; yet I cannot but think that our European poetry has subsisted too long on the perpetual repetition of the same images, and incessant allusions to the same fables: and it has been my endeavour for several years to inculcate this truth, that, if the principal writings of the Asiaticks, which are reposited in our public libraries, were printed with the usual advantage of notes and illustrations, and if the languages of the Eastern nations were studied in our great seminaries of learning, where every other branch of useful knowledge is taught to perfection, a new and ample field would be opened for speculation; we should have a more extensive insight into the history of the human mind; and we should be furnished with a new set of images and similitudes; and a number of excellent compositions would be brought to light, which future scholars might explain and future poets might imitate.[25]  

This new field is conceptually analagous or homologous to the other commercial fields that were being pursued and exploited by the great mercantile Companies. Just as Europeans would benefit from the discovery and extraction of new material commodities in the colonial realm -- tobacco, cotton, silk, sugar -- they would (and did indeed) benefit, and on the same terms, from the discovery and commodification of such new sources of inspiration or versification. And yet, in this conception, the great value of such an intellectual commodity lies not merely in its beauty, its inspiration, its charm, but in its sheer difference from the standard European classics. Raymond Schwab takes (and stretches) this point so far as to argue that, "both geographically and historically, what had been lacking through the centuries and what would come to dominate everything was cultural dissonance, a sense of the dissident. The known world had been wholly classical before 1800.Or, in a sense, it had been a classified world. Homer was simultaneously the essential beginning and the culmination." [26] Thus Jones began to develop and expand his knowledge of this dissident East, working closely with Indian scholars and sages whom he both respected and admired, and giving in "exchange" knowledge of European scientific principles and techniques.[27]

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