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Orientalism, Anti-Semitism and the Western “Narcissistic injury”

14 January 2023

Orientalism, Anti-Semitism and the Western “Narcissistic injury”
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Edward Said Mural; Image credit:

Edward Said's Orientalism is one of the classic works of postcolonial studies. In this text we would like to analyse one of the lesser known dimensions of this book. The research of European orientalists produced what Sartre called a "counter-finality": the more Europeans wanted to know the Orient, the more the originality of Western culture was relativised by these discoveries, to the point of producing a "narcissistic injury" of the Western ""ideal ego". It is in this "narcissistic wound" that we should find one of the causes of anti-Semitism and of the anti-democratic policies of the French and German extreme right.

How many books are there in a book? How many fundamental theses can one detect within a great work? This is the risk of the magnum opus for an author: to produce a work so complex and dense that its “latent content” can be hidden through a “manifest content”, as Freud and psychoanalysis have proved. This situation, which can be found among some first-rate intellectuals, was also that of Edward W. Said (1935-2003), in our opinion. Indeed, this great American-Palestinian literary theorist is known worldwide as the author of Orientalism, (1) which is a book with an international reputation for more than four decades. An intellectual event at the time of its release in 1978, which was immediately widely read and commented. Nevertheless, some of the essential ideas of this book are still partially unknown nowadays. There are essential truths and analyses within this essay that can help us to think the human history, and these have not yet been fully deciphered. One of the most important truths that Edward W. Said shows in this book, and one that has not been visibly the most commented upon, is his analysis of the ambiguous participation of nineteenth-century Orientalist philology in the relativization of the centrality of the West.

Why do we immediately say that this relativization is ambiguous? It is indeed ambiguous in its relation to Western knowledge as power. (2) Orientalist philology, of which Ernest Renan is one of the main actors in France, is obviously a science that owes its birth to European colonialism, like anthropology of that time. On this point there is no doubt for the author. And Said very precisely shows how the study of the different oriental languages participated in the creation of the “oriental” subject (3) by European science. More importantly, the theorist demonstrates how the epistemological creation of this subject of study is the political condition of possibility for the subjugation, and thus, the serfdom of Eastern peoples by European colonialism. As Edward Said notes, the Orient is not simply a matter of geography. On the contrary: “the Orient is an idea that has a history, and a tradition of thought, imagery and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in and for the West”. (4)

In this sense, we can say with the author that Orientalist philology in the 19th century is indeed a science of domination. This is how the Europeans used it, and this is its political purpose. In spite of that, we can observe to what extent the discovery and study of Oriental languages are very problematic for Westerners in view of what this science reveals. The object discovered by Orientalism is certainly disappointing to a European colonialist thought. It is probable that the study of the languages of the East had no other purpose than its colonization by Europe, but what these sciences discovered is a typical case of “counter-finality”, (5) as Sartre theorised. As an ideological production, orientalist philology is certainly a colonial science, but as a scientific production (i.e., as a discovery of truths), this same philology brings to light historical facts that are more than destabilizing for European thought, and for its aspiration to world hegemony. It is in this sense that we can speak of an ambiguous relativization of the West. Orientalist philology manages to realize this paradox that a European imperialist discourse is based on the discoveries of a science, despite the fact that its discoveries refute the primordial aspect, and therefore superior, of European culture on the Eastern world. And if it is only a question of anteriority of cultural, artistic and intellectual development, philology proves exactly the opposite. We can thus say that Orientalist philology must be considered as one of those “narcissistic injury” that the West has suffered, like the discoveries of Copernicus, Darwin and Freud, as the latter explains in the Introduction to Psychoanalysis. (6) Since the publication of Friedrich Schlegel's On the Language and Wisdom of the India in 1808 and Jean-François Champollion's Précis du système hiéroglyphique des anciens Egyptiens in 1824, Europeans discovered the relativity of their Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman antiquity. This Hebrew and Greek antiquity, which was for the Europeans of the 19th century the source of the sources, the double source of their culture, appears suddenly as quite modern and recent compared to the antiquity of the Egyptian and Indian cultures, and the degree of cultural richness that they have reached. And it is precisely in these two cultures, Egyptian and Indian, that we find the deep origins of the West. In other words, philology discovers that there is in Egypt and India a much more ancient antiquity than the Hebrew and Greek antiquity. Moreover, this science even finds out that the Hebrew and Greek antiquity are only the late descendants of the Egyptian and Indian cultures. Hebrew is indeed a child of Egypt, since monotheism was first invented by Akhenaten, and is much earlier than Judaism.(7) Greece, for its part, is the descendant of an Indo-European cultural constellation, which experienced its first great flowering with the Indian culture, and with Sanskrit as its language. Europe sees its ancient foundation story disappearing, both in time and space. It loses its filiation. Its foundation is actually more archaic than Europe believed, and it is not where Europe imagined it to be from. It is neither in Athens nor in Jerusalem, but on the banks of the Nile and the Ganges, in Africa and Asia. Colonialist Europe, which “by the end of the World War I had colonized 85% of the earth”, (8) discovers that it is certainly not an autonomous cultural power (both Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman), but on the contrary that it is only a late offspring of Asia and Africa which are being colonized by it.

If the discoveries of Orientalist philology demonstrate that Europe was not the only daughter of Athens and Jerusalem, should we not see in this revelation the origin of the burning fascist desire to destroy what these two civilisations were able to bring to the Old Continent: namely, the idea of the universal and democracy?

The discovery of Sanskrit, for example, totally refutes the primordial aspect of the Hebrew language. In a society marked by almost 2000 years of Christianity, it is not surprising that this is a shock. (9) Hebrew and Greek are, after all, the two languages of the Old and New Testaments: the two languages in which God expressed himself, according to the European imagination. And these two languages (along with Latin, of course) are the ones on which Renaissance Humanism was built. Not only does Hebrew no longer appear as the origin of Europe as a language (Hebrew can no longer be perceived as the mother tongue, the language of languages, or even the Edenic language), but it also no longer appears as the primary source of theology, since the Indian Veda is at least as rich and complex as the Torah, and it is much older. Similarly, the Upanishads (10) are a great philosophical thought, just as speculative as the works of the pre-Socratics, Plato and Aristotle. Moreover, the Arabic and Semitic philology of the nineteenth century strongly relativizes the exceptionality of ancient Hebrew, and places it in a long history of Semitic languages, which begins long before it in Mesopotamia with Akkadian and Babylonian, and continues well beyond in modern Arabic. The same applies to the Indo-European sources of ancient Greek. It is thus a radical shift that is taking place, in space and time, and it is turning eastwards. Although China is also a very ancient civilisation (contemporary with the Egyptian civilisation), it nevertheless has a cultural continuity up to the present day, at least in its ideograms. (11) Conversely, with Orientalist philology, Europe discovered that what it had taken to be its roots were not, that its roots had a much more distant and much older origin. These new discovered roots are so distant and ancient that it shared them in part with other civilisations which, until then, had seemed absolutely foreign to it: the Arab-Muslim world, the Indian subcontinent, and even South-East Asia, which was itself a child to a large extent of Buddhist India and Islam. With the birth of philology, Europe was forced to change its ancestry. The origin of Europe is no longer in Europe at all, but in two continents that have been colonized by it. It has to relativize the myth of its Greco-Hebrew foundation, on which it had been structured for nearly 2000 years, and discover that its real parentage is to be found among completely different, and previously poorly known, peoples, notably India. This is where we can speak of a “counter-finality” in Sartre's sense. We can agree with Said that European orientalists wanted to prove the superiority of Western culture by studying Eastern languages. It remains to be analysed to what extent this objective was a conscious or unconscious project for each author. However, the scientific truth that this Orientalist philology has discovered not only refutes this alleged Western superiority, but it also refutes the very idea of Western cultural autonomy. Europe is not a self-founding civilisation, but a daughter of the East, or rather its youngest child. (12) 

Qur'an manucripts in Kufic script, Iran, late 11th century CE; Image credit: Wikimedia
Qur'an manucripts in Kufic script, Iran, late 11th century CE; Image credit: Wikimedia

We can understand why Edward Said sees Orientalism as one of the intellectual sources of European antisemitism. Since European culture does not have its principal origin in Hebrew, but in Sanskrit, Jewish culture is then perceived by a part of the reactionary European intelligentsia as an allogenous Middle Eastern culture. It was this reactionary theory, particularly in Germany, that produced racial anti-Semitism, its cult of the Aryan – a strange time when German nationalists thought of themselves as ancient Iranians – and precisely that led to Nazism. The Nazi cult of the swastika, a Hindu symbol, is emblematic of this fact. The history of this Germanic anti-Semitism is sadly well known, and no one is unaware of its tragic consequences, such as the outbreak of the Second World War and the extermination of the European Jews by the Nazi Third Reich. (13) But we must also think of the more specifically French double antisemitism analysed by Said, which is found in a paradigmatic way in Renan, (14) and which is often forgotten. It is a hostility displayed towards these two Semitic peoples who are equally despised by French Orientalists, namely antisemitism against the foreigner from within, the Jew, and antisemitism against the foreigner from without, the Arab, and in particular the Algerian who was colonized by France since 1830. We can speak of a double antisemitism because it is indeed the Semitic aspect of the language that is invoked, both in the contempt for both Jewish and Arab cultures. Thus, in France antisemitism is twofold, and this is its specificity. It justifies the anti-Jewish hatred of Drumont and anti-Dreyfusism as much as the massacres of Marshal Bugeaud in Algeria. It leads in one direction to Marshal Pétain's collaboration with Nazism and the Vel' d'Hiv' round-up of Jews, and in the other direction to the massacres of Sétif and the Algerian War. The hatred of peoples considered Oriental (European Jews and North African Arab-Berbers) was justified by the same devaluation of Semitic-speaking peoples, opposed to European culture, which was then set in motion by the very discoveries of this discipline. This is one of the essential truths that Said's Orientalism allows us to understand, but which still seems barely perceptible to many of our contemporaries.

This double logic justified what Sartre called colonial “overexploitation” (15) of the Maghrebi Arabs, and led to Vichy's participation in the extermination of the European Jews. This orientalization of these two peoples, by which collective stereotypes are attributed to the populations according to their languages and the linguistic families to which these languages belong, is all the more an ideological deception since the European Jews did not use Hebrew as a language of communication at the time. Ancient Hebrew was a sacred language, and secular life was lived in secular languages. Thus, most of the life of the European Jews was expressed either in the national languages of the European peoples where they lived as a minority, or in the languages of the Europeans Jews, which are all Indo-European languages. Yiddish is a Germanic language, Judesmo (Judeo-Spanish, also called Tetuani or Haketiya) is a Latin language, as are Bagitto (language of the Jews of Tuscany) and Shuadit (language of the Jews of Occitania). Yevanic (language of the Greek Jews) is related to the other Hellenic languages. Similarly, if Maghrebi Arabic is indeed a Semitic language, one cannot deny the presence of Tamazight (Berber) languages in this cultural space, and the influence of these languages on Maghrebi dialectal Arabic; dialectal Arabic is the one in which people live, unlike classical Arabic, the sacred language of the Koran.

Orientalist philology must be considered as one of those “narcissistic injury” that the West has suffered, like the discoveries of Copernicus, Darwin and Freud

The terrible consequences of this hatred of Semitic languages, and by extension of the peoples who bear them, become clear to us. If we try to grasp what the German and French extreme right have in common, between an ideological movement that produced Nazism on the one hand and Petainism on the other, should we not reanalyse the trauma in the narcissistic construction of Europe that was discovered by Orientalist philology? Is there not in this Orientalist ideology an acknowledgement, as well as a terrible denial, of the relativity of European culture? Is it not in this Western “narcissistic injury”, questioning its identity by questioning its genealogy, that we must find both the source of European anti-Semitism and its hatred for Greek rationality, (16) the hatred of logos, and its modern incarnation in the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution? Are not Nazism and Petainism the product of hatred of the Jewish religion and Greek rationality considered then as a devalued ancestry, a filiation that must be erased, cultures, that if they are not at the origin of all that is Europe, then deserve to be reduced to nothing? If the discoveries of Orientalist philology demonstrate that Europe was not the only daughter of Athens and Jerusalem, should we not see in this revelation the origin of the burning fascist desire to destroy what these two civilisations were able to bring to the Old Continent: namely, the idea of the universal and democracy? The complexity of the origins of European fascism is, of course, too extensive to be reduced to this mere civilisational and linguistic fact, but it is certain that the discoveries of Orientalist philology have had their part to play. Thanks to Said's Orientalism, we can understand one of the determining, and so far relatively unsuspected, cultural causes of European fascism and antisemitism. 

The Western “narcissistic injury” produced by the discovery of the languages and cultures of Eastern antiquity is one of the causes of the “mass” (17) psychosis of Fascism, especially its German and French versions. The relativisation of Western identity by its own science was not bearable for the “ego ideal” (18) that Europe had been forging for centuries. Moreover, we can see to what extent the identity of traditional Europe, turned upside down by its encounter with the East, is an effect of languages of which it was itself the initiator. The discovery of ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian languages, and even more so of Sanskrit, was the source of a cultural trauma from which the West has not recovered without pain. But this can hardly surprise us: no one emerges unscathed from his encounter with the Other, the other language, the other culture. And as Jean Baudrillard reminds us, it is “in the very light of all that has been undertaken to exterminate it”, to deny its real or symbolic existence, that “the indestructibility of the Other, and therefore the indestructible fatality of Otherness, becomes clear.” (19)



1. Edward Said, Orientalism. New-York : Pantheon books, 1978.

2. Said, Orientalism, p. 12.

3. Said, Orientalism, p. 12.

4. Said, Orientalism, p. 5.

5.  “Counter-finality” is a concept from the Critique of Dialectical Reason (Critique de la raison dialectique), which is developed in the famous passage on “Chinese deforestation”. Through this concept, Sartre describes a situation where a conscious collective project, with a clear and precise purpose, produces consequences that are strictly opposed to the initial objectives of its actors. Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique de la Raison dialectique, T.1, Théorie des ensembles pratiques. Paris : Editions Gallimard, 1985, p. 334

6. Sigmund Freud, Introduction à la psychanalyse. Paris : Payot, 2001, p. 343-344.

7. We are of course thinking of Sigmund Freud's last great book, Moses and Monotheism, and its main thesis: the Jewish people are children of Egypt. If this thesis is debatable from a literal point of view, because the time of monotheistic Egypt and the time of the writing of the Torah are several centuries apart, it is no less true if we think of it in terms of the history of ideas over the long term. And it is precisely on this time scale that Orientalist discoveries are issued. Sigmund Freud, L’homme Moïse et la religion monothéiste. Paris : Payot, 2014.

8. Said, Orientalism, p. 123.

9. Thus, using Nietzsche's famous expression, we can say that the discovery of Eastern Antiquity, and the relativisation of Judeo-Christian religion that it induces, contributes to the “death of God” in the West.

10. We know, of course, that the Upanishads are themselves part of the Vedas. More precisely, they are the last element of this theological-philosophical canon. Nevertheless, the Upanishads are traditionally considered as a qualitative leap in Hindu religious thought. They conclude the Vedas and, at the same time, they develop a real theoretical conceptualization, which has fascinated Western philosophy for a long time, especially that of Arthur Schopenhauer.

11. On the multisecular roots of Chinese civilisation, I refer to Chine trois fois muette (China three times mute) by Jean-François Billeter, and more particularly to the second chapter of this work. Jean-François Billeter. Chine trois fois muette. Paris : Editions Allia, 2010.

12. It would be wrong to separate the East from the West from a merely cultural point of view. Not only do we know from Said how much the West is a child of the East, but we also know from Christian Jambet (Christian Jambet, Qu’est-ce que la philosophie islamique ?. Paris : Editions Gallimard, 2011, p. 98-99) how culturally Greek the Muslim East is, as Greek as Europe in fact. We also know that Arab-Persian philosophy and science were constantly discussed throughout the European Middle Ages, and that this knowledge from the Muslim world often dominated European thought. We can think for example of Avicenna's medicine, which was the model for medicine in Europe for centuries. We also know that there have always been Muslims in Europe (Arab Andalusia, Ottoman Empire of Europe) and Christians in the Near East (Copts of Egypt, Levantines, etc.). Once all these facts are established, we understand that what radically separates the West from the Arab-Muslim East is not a culture, which is in any case partly common (with Greek thought and Abrahamic monotheism), nor is it a set of social representations. What radically differentiates the West from the East is the birth of modern society during the Renaissance, that is to say, the emergence of industry and capitalism. There is a West that is separate from the East because Europe has been considerably torn off from the Mediterranean world from which it originated, through the colonisation of America and the emergence of industrial capitalism. In other words, there is a West and an East, because Europe has partially separated itself from the Mediterranean space it shared with Muslim countries in order to conquer and develop its transatlantic space, a sine qua non condition for the domination of the rest of the world. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had already stated, in the first pages of The Communist Manifesto, that the colonisation of America is one of the necessary conditions for the emergence of Western industrial capitalism (Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Manifeste du Parti communiste. Paris : EJL, 1998, p. 26).

13. On the origin of European anti-Semitism, from the Middle Ages to the end of the 19th century, we refer to our study: “Friedrich Engels and his Critique of Anti-Semitism”, published in the journal Gruppen n° 3 (Pierre-Ulysse Barranque, “Friedrich Engels et sa critique de l’antisémitisme”. Gruppen, n°3, 2011). On the origin of Nazism more specifically, we refer to our article on Wilhelm Reich's The Mass Psychology of Fascism: “Wilhelm Reich and the Missing Revolution. Thinking the interwar period with Marx and Freud”, published in the journal Contretemps, (Pierre-Ulysse Barranque, “Wilhelm Reich et la Révolution absente. Penser l’entre-deux-guerres avec Marx et Freud”. Contretemps. 2017

14. Said, Orientalism, p. 123-148.

15. Jean-Paul Sartre, Situations, X. Paris : Editions Gallimard, 1976, p. 9-10

16. We are familiar with the theses of Johan Chapoutot, who correctly proved in Le National-socialisme et l'Antiquité (National-Socialism and Antiquity) that the Third Reich imagined itself to be a child of ancient Greece, itself reinterpreted as one of the stages of a thousand-year-old history of mythical Aryans. But this fact does not oppose our thesis, but rather reinforces it. For what ancient Greece did Nazism claim to be? Certainly not the Athenian democracy and the equality of speech that it confers on all citizens (the famous isegoria). Athenian egalitarianism is perceived by Hitlerism as an “Asian” decadence, which in future centuries will give rise to Enlightenment thinking, and then to the French Revolution. Pétainism and Nazism shared the same obsession with erasing 1789, even to the point of abandoning the term “République” (“Republic”), replaced by the term “Etat français” (“French State”) under Pétain, and the symbolic abandonment of the French revolutionary motto: “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” (“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”), transformed into “Travail, Famille, Patrie” (“Work, Family, Homeland”). Despite the well-known historical limits of the Athenian democracy where the majority of the population were not citizens (but women, slaves, or metics), its claimed political egalitarianism is already too much for European fascisms. Similarly, the universal equality of the human condition in the face of a single God, which is at the heart of Judeo-Christianity, is unacceptable to Nazism. It should be noted that this Nazi hatred of Greek logos reaches the level of unintentional farce when an ideologue like Alfred Rosenberg defines Socrates as the “internationalist social democrat of his time” and Stoicism as a philosophy “of Semitic origin” (Johan Chapoutot, Le National-socialisme et l’Antiquité. Paris : PUF, 2008, p. 306-307).

17. With this expression, we are obviously referring to The Mass Psychology of Fascism by psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. We refer once again to our article dedicated to this fundamental author: Pierre-Ulysse Barranque, “Wilhelm Reich et la Révolution absente. Penser l’entre-deux-guerres avec Marx et Freud”.

18. We can also note that Freud was fully aware of this collective dimension of the psychological “ego ideal”. Indeed, he wrote in 1914, in On Narcissism: “the ego ideal opens up an important avenue for the understanding of group psychology. In addition to its individual side, this ideal has a social side, it is also the common ideal of a family, a class or a nation” (Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology : The Theory of Psychoanalysis, Volume 11. London : The Pelican Freud Library, p. 96), and we would add: of a civilisation such as Western civilisation. We can notice that in the German original version, it is not the expression of “group psychology” that is used by Freud, but the concept of “Massenpsychologie” (Sigmund Freud, Zur Einführung des Narzsissmus. Leipzig/Wien/Zürich : Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag,1924, p. 54). We know this concept will be central for his disciple Wilhelm Reich.

19. Jean Baudrillard, La Transparence du Mal, Essai sur les phénomènes extrêmes. Paris : Editions Gallilée, 1990, p. 151. Translated by the author.

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