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Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment's Encounter with Asia.

Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment's Encounter with Asia. By Jurgen Osterhammel. (Princeton, NJ, and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2018. Pp. xiii, 676. $35.00.)

It is important to note that Unfabling the East is in fact a translation (by Robert Savage) of the author's Die Entzauberung Asiens: Europa und die asiatischen Reiche im 18. Jahrhundert, first published in 1998, with a second edition in 2010. Thus, two decades have passed since the bulk of the text was written. And yet the argument remains timely. Unfabling the East presents a "soft" but persistent critique of the discourse of orientalism as a lens through which to view the European-Asian encounter of the 18th century. Like J. J. Clarke's Oriental Enlightenment (Routledge, 2002) and Urs App's The Birth of Orientalism (Pennsylvania, 2010), Osterhammel takes pains to nuance the over-simplified vision adopted by a good number of scholars and critics in the wake of Edward Said's massively influential Orientalism, published in 1978. While Clarke's complaint was that Said's book dealt little if at all with the "far" East (East Asia), Osterhammel's thesis rests less on geography than on the significant chronological distinction between the 18th and 19th centuries. In short, many European "orientalists" of the 18th century, nurtured by the empiricism, humanism, "polycentric" cosmopolitanism, and (a better sort of) universalism of the European Enlightenment, took a balanced and, at times, a surprisingly positive view of Asia. This was a more positive conceptualization in its constituent parts and as a whole--though part of the argument is that the better critics avoided the temptation to offer generalizations about Asia or "the orient" (393-394). According to Osterhammel, this would change by the early 19th century, when, for a number of complex reasons, the discourse about Asia became much more negative and simplified, colored by new ideas of racial hierarchy as well as a growing sense of the West's "manifest destiny" to subdue (and simultaneously "liberate") the world. And, he argues, we in the early twenty-first century still tend to read the entire history of East-West relations through 19th- and 20th-century Western "cultural imperialism" (and correspondent Asian cultural nationalisms).

Osterhammel spends a fair number of pages discussing the concept of the "high" traveler, who, while appealing to "elevated outlooks and firmer principles", may in fact be the prototype for the 19th-century colonist; i.e., one who aims to conquer new realms for science, religion, and civilization. And yet, Osterhammel wants to hold on to at least a few of these "high" travelers, such as Anquetil-Duperron (1731-1805), Carsten Niebuhr (1733-1815), the Comte de Volney (1757-1820)--as well as to "armchair theorists" such as Montesquieu (1689-1755), who is here praised as the "the creator of a general framework of a general social science" (386). These individuals, in his estimation, came closest to attaining the Enlightenment ideal of the "philosophical" observer (185-86).

This is, then, a story of decline and, perhaps, also one of missed opportunities. And here the critic might raise some hackles, for Osterhammel verges on overstating his case, as important as it may be. In addition, by virtue of its detail, this book comes close to the "pointless prolixity that irritates the reader through a profusion of minutiae" lamented by one connoisseur of overseas travel literature (216). Having said that, the chapter on "Encounters" is, to this reader, the most poignant of the book, as when Osterhammel waxes lyrical on the "transcultural regularity of play" that helped in some cases to loosen the "entanglements of semantics and power, freeing up space for personal sympathy" between Asians and Europeans (165). This remains an important book, despite the two-decade lapse since its initial publication.

Bucknell University

James Mark Shields
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Title Annotation:AFRICA AND THE MIDDLE EAST
Author:Shields, James Mark
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2019
Words:609
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