The Western fascination with the East – part I

Is Orientalism A Sign of Western Decadence?

Relations between “the East” and “the West” have always been complex throughout history. At the beginning of time, at the dawn of history, everything was clear: the Orient was the birthplace of culture and civilisation. “Ex oriente lux”, like the Romans said, light comes from the East, the not so civilized West just following in the East’s footsteps. Over the centuries the relationship reversed: now the East was “backward” and it had to learn from the West. In recent decades, however, at a mass culture level since the counterculture movement that started in the 1960s, we have seen an increase of “Orientalism” in the West.

In what sense the word “Orientalism” is used here? Not in the sense of Said, as a dismissive attitude of the Western scholar towards Middle-Eastern culture, but in the sense of a fascination with “Oriental” things, non-Western ideas and traditions, Indian, Chinese or Japanese, it matters little in this analysis. This is apparently, on a large scale level, a new and unusual phenomenon for the evolution of Western culture as it developed since its “neoplatonistic origins”, the combination of Greco-Roman heritage with the Oriental element of Christianity. Christianity was the latest “Eastern” import into Western culture and later it left the East entirely and become integrated and in effect identical with Western culture for many centuries.

Ancient Greeks and Romans perceived already perceived “the Orient” as something decadent, effeminate, lascivious. Today the West is clearly a different place, and cosmopolitanism is a fundamental component of the Western self-perception. But no matter how strongly the “liberal” West claims to be founded on the idea of openness and tolerance, the “liberal” West is at the same time very profoundly conscious about what is Western and what is not Western. Western is science, Western is freedom, Western is enlightenment, Western is reason, Western is democracy. What is not Western cannot ever be entirely scientific, free, reasonable, enlightened or democratic, because what is scientific, free, reasonable, enlightened or democratic is Western by definition. A true Westerner, no matter how much interest he takes in non-Western cultures, has been socialized and educated in such a way that he can feel at home just in the West.

So is this fascination with Eastern exotic things a new worrying and dangerous sign of Western weakness and corruption? Is the urge to take interest in things the Western citizen, by virtue of his cultural inheritance is not able at first to entirely understand or believe, a sign of incurable wounds within the body of Western culture, an unhealthy curiosity for mysticism and foreign “primitive” traditions? Is the West losing faith in itself? Does this fascination with the East symbolize the decline of the West?

People’s attitude towards the very idea of decadence is ambivalent. On one hand, decadence is seen as deplorable decay and corruption and some are naturally repelled by it. Some are strangely intrigued and fascinated by decadence. For some others, what some call decadence is really not decadence at all, but progress, evolution, openness, tolerance, liberalism, globalisation and other similar laudable things: it goes without saying that those who are denouncing the loudest this “decadence” are in reality just enemies of the natural course of history, reason and progress, in short fascists and enemies of the open world, the cosmopolitan ideal of the future.

Talk of Western decadence has been around at least since the late nineteenth century. Interestingly enough, that is generally considered to be the zenith of Western power. People who are naive about history or about world affairs (or maybe excessively admiring readers of Fukuyama) seem to be of the firm conviction that we are living now in the era of Western domination. Yet the nineteenth century was much more Western-centered and Western-dominated than the world we live in today. Most countries in the world of the late 1800s, with only a few exceptions, were under the direct of some Western country or another. It was mainly England or France, but Germany and Italy had had their colonies too. Spain and Portugal had already lost most of their colonies, the Dutch retained Indonesia. China was an independent nation, still an Empire, but it had already been forced to humiliations by Western powers, beginning with the First Opium War, and other humiliations were to come, ending with the plunder of Beijing by the Eight-Nations Alliance (Germany, Japan, Russia, Britain, France, the United States, Italy, and Austria-Hungary – almost disturbingly close to the G8 group of our days, only with Austria-Hungary instead of Canada). The West was really at the height of its power.

Yet some, in particular artists and men of culture, had already diagnosed a deadly form of decadence that supposedly permeated Western culture. And paradoxically the symptoms of Western malaise became manifest when the West appeared to be at its most powerful and for most this was an era when the West thought it had the right and the moral duty to rule the world. The entire anticolonial narrative was something very far in the future and frankly unimaginable. The era of the Western mass fascination with yoga, Buddhism, yin and yang, what we may call here for the sake of simplicity the spirit of New Age was still very distant.

It is commonly accepted that the thirty years of war from 1914 to 1945 marked the end of the Eurocentric world: now America had taken the lead, after Europe had committed suicide, embroiled by irreconcilable and homicidal nationalistic rivals. It is true that in 1945, right after the war, the United States had 50% of world-wide GDP. But in the world that emerged after the Second world war, the West was not alone. The Soviet Union was certainly in a way a Western creation, the descendant and the product of very Western ideologies, socialism and communism, that had certainly not originated and matured in Russia before they were transformed into practise there (or at there was an attempt to transform them into practise…). But the Soviet Union clearly stood in opposition to the West and the newly formed transatlantic unbreakable bond between the United States and Europe defined itself in total opposition to everything the Soviet Union, the land of real socialism (at least in theory), stood for.

But in addition to the bipolar world lead by the West on one side and the Soviet Union on the other an entire host of non-aligned countries, emerged, beginning from Yugoslavia, where the non-aligned movement was first established in 1961, to India, to include most of Africa and some Latin American countries. After the break with the Soviet Union starting right after Stalin’s death and the Soviet Union destalinization and culminating when the Chinese Communist party declared the Soviet Union itself imperialistic in 1961.

The end of the Soviet Union, with the defeat of the rival ideology, led some to believe that the West was bound to take over the world, that this was going to the West’s “manifest destiny”. Yet things appear to have turned out otherwise. China is the world second largest economy, by some accounts it is already the first and it is bound to surpass the United States soon anyway. Japan and India occupy the third and fifth place, with Germany between them. The East is clearly rising. It is constantly said that wealth is not a zero-sum game. Yet power is. Are we living through the end of the Western-centric world?

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