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Textual Representations: A Chronological Overview

Neelam Srivastava

By Jerry Toner
Harvard University Press, London, 2013, pp. 301, $29.95


In his engaging and informative book, the British classicist Jerry Toner sets out to show how English travellers and historians have used classics to shape the East and Islam for western audiences. Toner adopts a chronological narrative for his overview of these textual representations of the East; he begins with sixteenth-century material and arrives to the present day, with a chapter on the role of cinema in representing Asia and Islam through the classics. What emerges is a well-structured, if a bit schematic, account which works well as an introductory book on the subject. It is, for example, an ideal text-book for an undergraduate course on the reception of the classics in modern European culture. Toner argues that ‘very little has been done on the centrality of classics’ to the representation of the Orient in the West (p. 6). He reminds us that classics constituted the basis of English upper-class education and played a formative role in the making of English upper-class elites between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Thus classical imagery and texts would have acted as a prism through which members of the English ruling class approached foreign cultures, especially those that would eventually fall under their domination.   Toner emphasizes the importance of reception, and especially the idea that classics were used in order to make sense of contemporary realities according to a range of different meanings. As he remarks, ‘The relationship between classics and the East was never stable’ (p. 11). He is also keen to emphasize the crucial role played by reception as an ‘active, two-way process that seeks to appreciate the historical depth of interpretations of the classical past’ (p. 12).   Toner’s book tries to show how ‘the image of the East has been adapted to suit the political and social needs of the time by means of the classics’ (p. 13). ‘In general, classics have been associated with many of the core beliefs of Western civilization’ (p. 45). How, then does his approach differ from the standard Saidian reading of British colonial-era texts about the East as ‘Orientalist’? But Toner is careful to distance himself from Edward Said. He argues that Said’s idea that the West constructed the Orient for the purposes of domination and discursive appropriation is reductive and totalizing, and that it ‘underplays the richness and complexity of Europeans’ relations with the Orient’ (p. 15). Toner insists that ‘the very heterogeneity of the Orient constantly undercut ...

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