To say the things quickly, rarely the quasi-absence of the Caucasus and Central Asia from modern France’s mental landscape, and from French studies on the Orient, has been more acutely stressed than in this monumental work. Rarely also the marginality of studies on the Caucasus and on Central Asia within the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences of Paris (EHESS in French acronyms) has been so crudely underlined, despite the amount of high-quality seminars delivered for decades, on these regions, in this institution and in its main satellite the Institute for the Study of Islam and Muslim Societies (IISMM, the initiator of the present dictionary). Indeed, the major figurehead in the EHESS of what we call today Central Eurasian studies, Alexandre Bennigsen (1913-88), is the subject of a short article by his former co-writer historian Chantal Lemercier-Quelquejay. Such is also the case of more remote figures like Savoyard Jean-Jacques-Pierre Desmaisons, Prussian Heinrich Julius Klaproth, and Poles Jan Potocki and Jósef Julian Senkowski. As far as the French notion of Orientalisme also includes literary and artistic creation, figures like Swiss travel writer Ella Maillard have also been included into the dictionary. However, in the field of human and social sciences a scholar of the dimension of archaeologist, ethnographer and historian of religions François-Joseph Castagné (1875-1958) has been completely forgotten, to say nothing of such figures like major travellers and explorers like Swiss Henry Moser or French Gabriel Bonvalot. As far as French-language travel writing in Switzerland is concerned, the omission of a giant like Nicolas Bouvier (1929-98, a modern classic of French-language literature and a major writer on Iran, Sri Lanka, and Japan), gives an idea of the blinkers with which the final set of biographies has been elaborated as far as some particular fields are concerned.
This being said, the present dictionary of French-speaking Orientalists also shows conspicuous by other paradoxes, of which the Editor has by the way been perfectly conscious. The least one is surely not the inclusion of the colonial school, coupled with the exclusion of those national schools that have emerged after the independences of previously colonised countries. This could indeed suggest that the whole initiative has departed from nostalgic and regressive postulates. In fact, far from heroification of the great men of the national past, the dictionary has proceeded from an historical and critical intention (Lucette Valensi, “Avant-propos,” ix). As an historical dictionary, it focuses on the period between the seventeenth and the late twentieth century, when specialised knowledge on the Oriental worlds were gradually constituted, with parallel setting of linguistic and institutional instruments. Not limited to specialised scholars, the dictionary also includes all the authors of written, graphic or sound works that have nourished learning and prejudices on the Orient. This makes more than one thousand subjects, who have produced a discourse or a documentation on a region of the world extended from Morocco to Japan. All have been resituated within their social background, and within the networks of sponsors, masters, colleagues, friends and disciples in which they have produced their activity. Particular attention has been devoted to the action of publicists and to the worlds of journalism, of literary popularisation, as well as to diplomacy, the army, or still to ideologies. Academic scholars have been associated with writers, painters, photographers, filmmakers, missionaries, art collectors and predators. The role of the state, decisive in the French case, has been largely reconstructed, as well as those of the Foreign Missions of the Catholic Church. The critical dimension of the dictionary appears notably through the great attention that has been given to the organisation and disorganisation of Oriental studies since the seventeenth century, to the variations of its institutional frameworks. It also emerges through the adjustments of Orientalism as a legacy of the past to the requirements of our period of time.
A sophisticated instrument for enriching reflections and debates on the study and representation of the ‘Orient’, the diversity of the figures and types represented, the quality of its writing also make this dictionary a captivating bedside book. Of course, despite the editor’s intention to exclude some extremely famous and well-documented characters, among painters for instance, one can still deplore some less explicable lacunae. In the field of literature we have regretted Bouvier’s absence. Such could also be the case of individual works like Paul Morand’s Bouddha vivant and its fierce satirical portrait of neo-Buddhist milieus in interwar London or, closer to our horizons, Jules Verne’s Claudius Bombarnac (1892), the imagined but illustrated travel account of a French reporter between Uzun-Ada and Beijing through Russian Central Asia and Xinjiang. One major dimension at least of the treatment of the Orient in French-language culture appears, though quite poorly, in the dictionary, notably in association with the figures of prominent writers: the legacy of Freemasonry, which by the way is also a great producer of biographic literature. This aspect of things does not even appear in the biography of writer and poet Gérard de Nerval (1808-55), despite its significance in the latter’s work, most particularly in his Voyage en Orient (1851). Though dictionaries as a literary genre do not give way per se to this kind of addition, the absence of an index can perhaps also be deplored, especially of a geographical index. Conversely, the neighbouring of biographies of specialists of the most varied regions of the widest Orient also provides the reader with the chance of wandering among the most diverse aspects of the history of Orientalism in the French speaking world.