For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies

Written by Robert Irwin
Review by Sarah Bower

Orientalism has become a problematic scholarly discipline since Edward Said published his Orientalism in 1978. According to Irwin, Said accused Orientalists of imperialism, colonialism and distorting history in the way in which their focus of study defines the Orient in opposition to the culture of the West. He has a point. To lump the cultural history of peoples from the Turks to the Chinese together under a single heading seems, on the face of it, to betray a staggering level of ignorance and patronisation. On the other hand, as Irwin argues with great verve in this book, if it were not for enthusiastic European Orientalists from classical times to the early 20th century, we would know and understand a great deal less about our neighbours to the East than we now do. From Marco Polo to T.E. Lawrence Europeans have, for whatever reason, become curious about the Orient and have hugely enriched our understanding with their writings, pictures and collections of objects. Motives have often been suspect and most of our great museums have been founded on plunder but our knowledge has been undeniably increased.

Irwin defends the position of the Orientalists with gusto and intellectual rigour and his book, first published in hardback last year, is an excellent read, packed with glorious eccentricities and tremendous learning. An excellent overview of a complex and controversial subject.