Said’s model of Orientalism

In the colonial discourse of tribal cannibalism and barbarism shown in Juan Jose Saer's work The Witness, Said's paradigm of Orientalism carries a lot of weight. The framework seeks to call into doubt the truth of the post-Enlightenment European narrative of cannibalism and savagery as expressed in many discourses (religious, anthropological, scientific, historical, and so on) about primitive societies. This paper will focus on the first colonial encounter between the narrator and his comrades and the tribal Indians, the narrator's rescue after ten years and subsequent annihilation of the Indians, and his subsequent plays and performances throughout Europe in the discussion of the colonial discourse as exhibited in The Witness. The major attention is drawn to these particular moments as they demonstrate much of the colonial discourse that can easily be analyzed along with using the Said’s Orientalism.

Tribal cannibalism and savagery have been a Eurocentric perception of the “European Other” in their European discourses. As Said says, “[Cannibalism and savagery] is the idea of Europe, a collective notion identifying “us” Europeans against all “those” Non-Europeans…” (7). The paper itself explicates the so-called cultural attributes of “we” versus “them” for the Europeans and non-Europeans respectively, demonstrating the lens of otherness from which the West perceives the rest of the world. The emphasis that is placed on the European identity in the text creates a certain hierarchy that elevates the Westerners from the non-Westerners, thereby placing them on a higher authority level. This construction creates a reality in which the Europeans submerge themselves in while interacting or encountering with the “supposedly” inferior or primitive societies. As a result, this strategic positioning of the Europeans vis-à-vis cultural otherness informs the reader that the tribal cannibalism and the savagery are the mainly constructions of the colonial discourses in an attempt to justify the colonization of primitive societies.

The narrator’s initial encounter with the tribal Indians is a reinforcement of the colonial discourse much known to the Europeans. In this encounter, the narrator says, “…An arrow shot out from the undergrowth behind him and pieced his throat…. (And) apart from me everyone was lying still on the ground…” (Saer 26). The act of piercing the captain and the rest of the crew is utterly cruel, given that they had just set foot ashore and were in no position to have any fight. Later on in the text, the narrator describes the harrowing experiences, where the Indians feast on the deceased comrades as he watched. Literally, this encounter demonstrates the outright savagery and inhumanity that cannot be tolerated. However, as Saer later suggests in the text, that encounter is just a parody of the historical colonial discourses that significantly amplify the negativities associated with the primitive societies existing. Their supposed inhuman tendencies are depicted as a reflection of their savage nature, which is evidently captured in the majorities of the travelogues, the sea diaries and journals, and the other anthropological recordings of the tribal encounters. Nonetheless, according to Said, the narrator’s representations are just “statements and authorizing views” (3) that apparently reinforce the colonial discourse about the tribal societies, since the reader is genuinely aware that the descriptions in that first colonial encounter are fraudulent, and they, thereby, are distancing the author from such firmly-held fallacies. Therefore, Saer detaches himself from, and questions the objectivity of the historical discourse of the tribal cannibalism and the savagery in The Witness.

In that same encounter, Saer allows a time lapse to take place between the occurrences to showcase the gravity of the atmosphere while meeting the unknown. There is a cinematic pause between the speech and the action when the captain says, “This is a land without…” (Saer 26). The author does not allow the captain to finish his statement because he is aware that doing so will assert the long-held orientalism against the tribal societies. Said says, “Orientalism [is] a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient’s special place in European Western experiences” (Said 1). In this case, the captain, having been familiar with the Eurocentric perceptions of the native tribes from the travelogues and other Western discourses, was about to vocalize the Oriental relationship between the Europeans and the primitive societies when he was shot. Most likely, he wanted to say that the land was without savages, reinforcing the possession sublime. However, by allowing the arrow to pierce his throat, the author symbolically dissociates himself from the Oriental discourse by disengaging the captain’s speech apparatus. It is evident that if the Indians had shot right through the heart, the captain would have died, but would have completed his utterances affirming the colonial discourse of savagery. By shutting the captain’s vocal cords, Saer dispossesses him from the Eurocentric Orientalism, facilitating an alternative narrative to the historical colonial discourse.

Said articulates Orientalism, saying that, “The relationship between an Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, [and] of varying degree of hegemony…” (Said 5). Drawing upon this relationship, The Witness demonstrates the power hierarchies and authorial dominations of the Western civilizations. As one could have seen in the text, following his ten years of capture and eventual release, the narrator finds himself in Europe, and the Europeans, finding essential whereabouts the tribal Indians, track them and annihilate them in the process. It is also worth being noted that the massacre of the tribal Indians is a manifestation of the Occident’s power and domination over the Orient, thereby conjuring a narrative that justifies the extermination of the whole society. Evidently, the repackaging of these experiences into a play demonstrates that the narrator’s experience was all a fraud, but the audience, being European, cherished the narrative because it sustained the propaganda discourse of imperialism that the West loved to uphold. The narrator says, “I would deliberately garble the meaning of my own speeches…I wanted to force the audience to realize it was all a fraud…” (Saer 116). This text clearly shows that the willingness of the West to live a lie in order to recreate Orientalism, something that The Witness parodies, questions the objectivity and veracity of the historical colonial discourse.

Said’s model of Orientalism is crucial in the understanding of and remaking of the tribal cannibalism and savagery that is common in the colonial discourse. Parodying those discourses in the form a novella ideate the questioning of the objectivity of the historical narrative as justification for the annihilation of a whole society. By suggesting that the commonly held traditional discourses are fraudulent in The Witness, Saer detaches from the propagandist colonial discourse.

Works Cited

Said, Edward, W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1977. Print.

Saer, Juan J. The Witness. London: Serpent’s Tail, 2009. Print.

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