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A Passage to Renaissance

Columbia University Press, 1984

By Hein Kim

AT A TIME WHEN East Asian Studies, sushi bars, and visas to China are becoming increasingly trendy items, there reappears on the literary horizon an important and previously "lost" work whose intellectual voyage takes one back to the origins of the West's Oriental fascination. Raymond Schwab's book is a major critical undertaking whose ambitious task is reinterpreting a self-conscious moment crucial in the development of contemporary western civilization and thought. Quoting Friedrich Schlegel's quest, "we must seek the Supreme Romanticism in the Orient," Schwab's original hypothesis attempts, with compelling evidence, to trace 19th century Europe's Romantic longings to the Oriental influence Romanticism's obsession with originality is claimed to have been inspired by awakened interest in its origins. One cannot overestimate either the current relevance of Schwab's long-overlooked scholarship to modern critical theory or its revitalizing impact on classicism's exhaustion.

The story of Schwab's work and career is itself one of rediscovery. Poet, biographer, novelist, editor, translator, and scholar, Raymond Schwab (1884-1956) was an impressive homme de letters little known outside his native France, mainly due to his untranslated works. Gene Patterson-Black and Victor Reinking's timely translation of La Renaissance Orientale comes nearly 35 years after being overlooked following its original publication in 1950. Currently considered to be the apogee of Schwab's career, it represents an invaluable legacy to Orientalism, a field popularized in the '50s by Edward Said, who wrote Schwab's foreward.

In some senses, The Oriental Renaissance betrays its own antiquity. Schwab's sprawling intertextual odyssey aims at an epic global vision reconciling East and West. He confesses, quoting Walt Whitman's "A Passage to India": "And I myself did not anticipate... that I would discover Whitman's line 'Thou roundness of the world at last accomplished.'" The irony of that world come full circle is that the term "Oriental" itself has evolved; no longer in its current use does it describe the "Oriental" of Schwab's time. Orientalism, for Schwab, mainly concerns Sanskrit studies which have since been canonized into the realm of classical antiquity.

Said notes in the foreward that one could better describe Schwab as an "Oreinteur" than an "Orientalist," Indeed Schwab's intimate style maintains a respectful appreciation for his subject, the Orient, of which he remarked himself. "Perhaps no single other term has been so loaded with emotion, even passion" in the history of western consciousness. His philosophical critique not only traces changing perceptions of the Orient, the Other, but in the process goes to the roots of western intellectual history to illuminate changes in the Occidental self-image as well.

STILL, THE ORIENTAL RENAISSANCE is disappointing in that, while looking East, it fails in some senses to look fare enough East Schwab limits his horizons primarily to India, glancing to the Far East only brietly in his mention of the Abbe Remusat's pioneering of Chinese studies at the College de France: "It is high time we recognize that everything depended on India," he claims.

Schwab argues that the Oriental, or Indic, Renaissance was a second Renaissance fueling 19th century Romanticism that "marked the close of the classical age, just as the classical Renaissance had marked the close of the medieval age." He compares the significance of the arrival of Hindu manuscripts in 19th century Europe to that of the Hiad and the Odvssev following the fall of Constantinople four centuries earlier. The term "Renaissance," according to Schwab, implies "a rediscovery of knowledge married to new creation." The crucial difference he perceives between the two shifts in thought, however, is that while the first affirmed a self-centrality, the second unsettled it by introducing cultural dissonance, "the Different."

India is privileged as the Orient to pose "the great question of the Different." For Schwab, India, and not Eqypt, was the first and essential Oriental influence to inspire the mental displacement. Schwab calls "totally erroneous" the popular assumption that the deciphering of hieroglyphics represented the critical breakthrough, attributing the traditional "prejudice" surrounding Champollion's famous discovery to glamorizing myth. Instead, he explores at length the Occidental fascination with "the Hindu soul... something like a separate sex." Schwab's retrospective vision is itself a richly dense landscape with illuminating details such as Shelley's "pantheism" and Leibnitz's "Oriental lobe." Schwab invokes, with impressive authority, a wide ranging cast of intellectual and artistic figures from Chateaubriand and Hugo to Herder and Schopenhauer, in an imaginative attempt to reconstruct the vivid mood of self-awakening.

One of Schwab's original claims links the Hindu influence to the metaphysical sublimity" of the great German philosophical systems of the 18th and 19th Centuries, suggesting philological revolution as their praxis.

Between 1936 and 1940, Schwab edited the journal of international poetry. Yggdrasil His appreciation of the German Romantics rests in particular on what he views as their spiritual assimilation of the Oriental. His treatment of Herder discerns in the pre-Romantic philosopher an awakened appreciation for primitive wisdom, the original versus the classic in poetry. Herder and Schelling are seen as the primary influences on Novalis's later search for a universal religion. He also discover overlays of Oriental motifs and values in "The Iranian Nieztsche" and "The Buddhism of Wagner."

"WAS ROMANTICISM ITSELF anything other than an Oriental eruption of the intellect?" he boldly asks. And yet, Schwab admits that the relationship between the two influences was "less a local and temporary one than an essential one." Above all, he attempts to dispel the notion that the Oriental impact on western thinking was merely "a fanciful dream." He points out, wryly, that "China had a long history in Europe, but it had been too much represented by folding screens, porcelains, and banalities."

In his quest for authenticity, Schwab is uncompromising in his attack on shallow Oriental exoticism. He reveals his anti-aesthetic bias against the French Romantics, toward whom his brilliant criticism is considerably less kind. He denounces their tendency toward "formal creation." The chapter, "An Extended Orient: Exoticism" criticizes at length the borrowing of imagery by the French as sheer indulgence. Gautier's Avatar is dismissed as the work of an exploitive dilettante with a "strikingly apparent gift for painting generalized pictures." Similarly, Hugo's Orientales is dismissed as "meager picturesque Orient imposed upon Montparnasse landscape."

The Oriental Renaissance transforms the search for origins into a quest for spiritual identity. Long used to regarding the Orient, the Outsider, as barbarian, western civilization is forced to reexamine its conceptions of barbaric and civilized. Sewab perceives the moment of confrontation, however, not as one of threat, but rather reconciliation, "transforming exile into a companion."

Citing the confrontation between East and West as one between "spiritual techniques," he attempts in the conclusion to forge a Hindu-Christian unity, a quasi-spiritual transforming essence. He points out that Novalis, for example, sets his Garden of Eden in the Himalayas, and sees within his philosophy an "Orpheus-Christ-Krishna" link.

Germany's Oriental romance, however, ends in ironic political tragedy. The coining of "Indo-European" in 1813 is viewed as Europe's usurpation of India's birthright for use as a political weapon. Schopenhauer's mythical India, by displacing the Semitic tradition as the oldest known to the west, is said to have caused its fall from veneration into disfavor, eventually leading to Gobineau's Inequality of the Races and the creed of Aryan supremacy.

In the foreward, Said compares the monumental scope of Schwab's project to Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge. Still, in its overwhelming depth and detail and cloquently subjective vision, it surpasses even Foucault's work, which it anticipated by 19 years.

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