Nikolay Aretov

What is Occidentalism and does it have ground at our house?
Preliminary theses in search of the literary aspects of the issue



The idea of the Other is crucial part of the own identity. People imagine the Other in different ways, very often he/she is presented as a dangerous Enemy. Mythical thinking, which is alive even nowadays, uses different tools to name and imagine the Other and to master it.

The well-known book of Edward Said introduced in international humanity studies the term Orientalism, with which he designated „a way of coming to terms with the Orient that it based on the Orient’s place in European Western experience”, one specific “style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the Orient” and (most the time) “the Occident. Thus a very large mass of writers, among whom are poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts, concerning the Orient, its people, customs, “mind”, destiny, and so on. This Orientalism can accommodate Aeschylus, say, and Victor Hugo, Dante and Karl Marx.”1

This is written in the beginning of the work, which finished with a warring:

Above all, I hope to have shown my reader that the answer to Orientalism is not Occidentalism. No former “Oriental” will be conformed by the though that having been an Oriental himself he is likely – too likely – to study new “Orientals” – or “Occidentals” – on his own making. If the knowledge of Orientalism has any meaning, it is in being a reminder of the seductive degradation of knowledge, of any knowledge, anywhere, at any time. Now perhaps more than before.2

Said knew that this was mot just a potential threat. Occidentalism not only exists, its effects are extremely pernicious. The most demonic of them happened at September 11, 2001. Ancient mental constructs and psychological trends, realized in different texts – secular and religious, literary, philosophical, journalistic and what ever, lay beneath the terrorists acts.

It appeared that not only West thinks bias “Orient” and tries to dominate through literary and scholar texts, but the “Orient” reacts in a similar way and tries to deal with the problems in its relations with the West by building (analogical?) mental and linguistic constructions. In some cases Occidentalism may turn to positive strategy, as in the book of Hassan Hanafi Introduction to the science of Occidentalism (1992).3

The phenomenon of Occidentalism finds its annalists among politicians and journalists4 and scholars.5 Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit are the most famous among them. Their book Occidentalism: the West in the Eyes of Its Enemies provoked serious debates and became bestseller.6 Although the two terms (became titles of popular books) were constructed in obviously the same manner, the two phenomena are not entirely analogical, and Buruma and Margalit do not refer to Said. It could be disputed if Orientalism is more early (according to Buruma Islamism on which he focused his attention – is modern phenomenon that have its western roots) but for a long period of time it was more powerful and was backed by and realized through in western colonialist institution and western academic researches of the “East”, that are more elaborated than eastern researches of the “West”. On the other hand Occidentalism is to some extend a reaction to the Orientalism and the related politics, military actions, colonial institutions and academia. Occidentalism appears to be more radical, more active. Its roots and reasons could be traced in very different mental and spiritual spheres, there common ground is the believe of the own uniqueness and the hostility of the Other. Scholars find some strongholds of the Occidentalism in the reactions against the universalism of the Enlightenment and French revolution, in some variations of Japanese Shintoism, connected with imperial ideology, in pan-ideologies (Pan-Slavism among them), in different variations of fascism, in Stalinism, etc.

Avishai Margalit and Ian Buruma highlight several [four] „features of Occidentalism”:

– hatred of the City and urban civilization, symbolized by the fabled tower of Babylon; the state and modern civilization with its attributes (literature, films, pop-music, advertisement), separation between the private and the public domain, commercialism;

– critic of the bourgeois civilization and its commercialism and addiction to safety and comfort and lack of heroism and revolutionary gestures;

– rejection of Bourgeois Reason rationality and science, opposed to irrational notions such as spirit, race, blood and soil, etc.;

– denial of feminism, seen as giving too much freedom to women.

As a whole this is rejection of modernity which was associated with the West. The result is one absolutely negative image of the West, containing “a set of attributes, such as arrogance, feebleness, greed, depravity, and decadence, which are invoked as typically Western, or even American, characteristics”.

The conclusion of Avishai Margalit and Ian Buruma was:

There is no clash of civilizations. Most religions, especially monotheistic ones, have the capacity to harbor the anti-Western poison. And varieties of secular fascism can occur in all cultures.7

* * *

The question about the usability of the term Occidentalism in the context of Bulgarian, Balkan or East European culture is one big challenge for the scholars. Other challenge is the discovering of Occidentalism in these cultures.

This paper argues that if Occidentalism is a form of demonizing the Other, that comes from the West, Occidentalism could be traced in Bulgarian culture. It takes critical place in national mythology, in images of the other, presented in texts dealing with abductions, seductions and other plots concerning sexual or matrimonial relations with foreigners, in nostalgic poems, written abroad, in retro-utopia visions of the traditional life, in anti-catholic pamphlets, in polemics with foreigners, in travel notes, etc. On the other hand this paper argues that in Bulgarian context Occidentalism is often mixed with Occidentalism. Both phenomena are ambivalent and exported from other cultures.


1 Edward Said, Orientalism, Routlege & Kegan Rayl, London, 1978, pp. 1, 2-3.top

2 Ibidem, p. 328.top

3 See also Stein Tønnesson, Orientalism, Occidentalism and Knowing about Others. Lecture given at the NEWAS workshop in Copenhagen, 14 October 1993 – http://www.multiworld.org/m_versity/decolonisation/saidres.htm.

4 Some journalists totally disagree with the concept of Occidentalism. See for example Victor Davis Hanson, Occidentalism. The false west. – http://www.nationalreview.com/hanson/hanson051002.asp.top

5 The earliest theorizing of the term has been at a session at the 1992 meeting of the American Anthropological Society. See. Occidentalism: Images of the West. Ed. James G. Carrier. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. 269. See also Review by Christopher Alan Perrius (University of Chicago) – Jupert. A Journal of Postcolonial Studies, Published by the College of the Humanities and Social Sciences North Carolina State University, 1997, V. 1, # 1. http://social.chass.ncsu.edu/jouvert/v1i1/perrius.htm.top

6 Ian Buruma, Avishai Margalit, Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies, The Penguin Press, 2004.top

7 Ibidem.top


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