Reflections on Exile and Other Literary and Cultural Essays
Edward W Said
617pp, Granta, £20
The Edward Said Reader
eds Moustafa Bayoumi and Andrew Rubin
473pp, Granta, £12.99
Edward Said introduces his collected essays, Reflections on Exile, with a poignant hymn to New York, the restless and turbulent "capital of our time", where he has taught since 1963. Long before September 11, he sensed a tension between this absorbant city of immigrants and exiles and its "almost overpowering status as a centre of global capital" for the world's remaining superpower. Several of these 46 essays, written over 35 years, can be read as an indirect but impassioned argument against a looming new cold war that insists on a spurious "clash of civilisations", and whose McCarthyite target at home would be US citizens of "suspect" ethnicity.
These essays, together with The Edward Said Reader, are a timely consolidation of the work of arguably the most influential intellectual of our time. As a Palestinian-American, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, and the most persuasive voice in the west for Palestinian self-determination, Said has had his career punctuated by ferocious controversy. Two years ago, efforts were made to discredit him with specious claims that he had lied about his childhood. More recently, the Freud Museum in Vienna revoked an invitation after Said was photographed in the West Bank throwing a pebble at Israel in a symbolic act. Once crudely disparaged as "Arafat's man in New York", he has been a vociferous critic since 1993 of both Yasser Arafat and the Oslo Accords.
There is no such thing, Said maintains, as a private intellectual. He has accordingly sought to infuse his writing with "worldliness", by which he means not jaded savoir-faire but a "knowing and unafraid attitude towards exploring the world we live in". His essay "The Clash of Definitions" should be read by anyone interested in the intellectual history of the present "war on terrorism" and its unstable elision into a war on Islam. Said dismisses Samuel P Huntington's 1993 prophecy that post-cold-war global politics would be dominated by the "clash of civilisations" as a "crudely articulated manual in the art of maintaining a wartime status in the minds of Americans and others". As Said points out: "What is described as 'Islam' [in Europe and the US] belongs to the discourse of Orientalism, a construction fabricated to whip up feelings of hostility and antipathy against a part of the world that happens to be of strategic importance." The simplistic ascription of "Muslim rage" to those supposedly resentful of western modernity makes economic and political problems appear timeless and intractable.
Yet Said is even-handed in his scorn for African and Asian "Occidentalism", which views the west as an abstract monolith hostile to non-white, non-Christian peoples. "Defining a culture is always a major and... democratic contest," he insists. While "the very idea of identity involves fantasy, manipulation, invention, construction", seeing civilisations as clashing monoliths obscures their silent exchange and dialogue, hybridity and mingling. "There are no insulated cultures or civilisations," Said writes. "The more insistent we are on separation, the more inaccurate we are about ourselves and others."
Embedded in these two volumes are autobiographical nuggets, a vein mined most concertedly in his 1999 memoir Out of Place . In an interview in the Edward Said Reader , Said explains how that memoir arose from "my own sense of my life ebbing away"; his impulse to make sense of his life after his mother's death and his 1991 diagnosis with leukaemia. Born in 1935 in west Jerusalem to Palestinian parents (his father had American citizenship), Said lived between Palestine and Cairo before the creation of Israel in 1948 forced his family into exile. In his 1998 essay "Between Worlds", he recalls the tensions of a western-educated Palestinian Arab, caught between colonial English and Arabic resistance, belonging to a tiny Protestant minority in a Sunni Muslim majority. "To be at the same time Wog and Anglican was to be in a state of standing civil war."
Yet a resurgence of Palestinian nationalism after the Arab defeat of 1967, and a sabbatical in Beirut in 1972 after years in the US, helped reveal the creativity of that tension. "I began to think and write contrapuntally, using the disparate halves of my experience, as an Arab and an American, to work with and against each other... By the mid-70s I was in the rich but unenviable position of speaking for two diametrically opposed constituencies, one western, the other Arab."
The Edward Said Reader traces the development of his writing, from his first book on Conrad, through the seminal 1978-81 trilogy on the relationship between the Arab or Islamic world and the west - Orientalism, The Question of Palestine and Covering Islam - to Culture and Imperialism, whose most contentious chapter proved to be that linking Jane Austen's Mansfield Park to Antiguan slave plantations. He revolutionised swathes of the academy by insisting that western culture could not be understood outside its links with empire, and exposed the "invention" of the Orient, which "helped Europe define itself by being its opposite".
The 1984 title essay recognises the creativity of exile without glibly denying its pain, particularly for refugees who lack his cushioning affluence. "Seeing the world as a foreign land makes possible originality of vision," writes Said, for whom the exile's predicament is "as close as we come in the modern era to tragedy". His aim was partly to restore to increasingly arid literary criticism real historical experience, especially that of migration ("the greatest single fact of the past three decades"), dislocation, empire and exile. He was drawn to "stubborn autodidacts" and "intellectual misfits", such as Conrad and Swift, Giambattista Vico and Theodor Adorno.
While the Reader is suited to the systematic student, the essays in Reflections on Exile provide the better lay introduction, and are often lighter in tone and catholic in scope. Scathing about V S Naipaul (a "gifted native informer" with "blocked development") and Orwell, both renowned for the transparency and "honesty" of their styles, Said writes: "Like all style, 'good' or transparent writing has to be demystified for its complicity with the power that allows it to be there." Although he has taught the western canon alone, Said's more journalistic essays range from Conrad and Nietzsche, Hemingway and Moby-Dick, to Naguib Mahfouz ("Cairo's Balzac") and Egyptology at the New York Met. Classical music recurs, with pieces on Bach, Schumann, Chopin and Glenn Gould, as Said, a sometime concert pianist, revels in polyphony and laments the modern isolation of music from other arts.
He gauchely fails to convince the film-maker Gillo Pontecorvo (auteur of The Battle of Algiers) to turn his hand to Palestine, while Hollywood's biblical epics are ridiculed for bypassing Egypt's Arab identity; "Charlton Moses" is the "American abroad". In welcome lapses into relative levity, Said finds in Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan an attractive immigrant orphan, pioneer of "grunts and tree-swinging", who vastly improved on Edgar Rice Burroughs's "relentlessly Darwinian" novels. Paying homage to the subversive role of the Egyptian Tahia Carioca, in his view the finest belly-dancer ever, Said deplores the "appalling wiggling and jumping around that passes for 'sexiness' among Greek and American imitators", noting with stern authority: "As in bullfighting, the essence of the classic Arab belly-dancer's art is not how much but how little the artist moves."
Said's work has sometimes been misunderstood as attacking the western canon, when what he does more often is read between its lines. As he says in the Reader , "I've always been interested in what gets left out." The task, he writes, is to "re-read and re-examine, not simply to distort and reject". In "The Politics of Knowledge" he sees off the dismal strains of drum- beating identity politics, which he regards as revelling in victimhood or "possessive exclusivism" ("only women can write for or about women"). Although the unequal contest conjures the image of a sledgehammer cracking a nut, his clarity is useful: "It does not finally matter who wrote what, but rather how a work is written and how it is read... Marginality and homelessness are not to be gloried in; they are to be brought to an end."
Partly because of empire, we share the same "irreducibly secular" world, with a common language of rights and ideals. "American intellectuals," he says, "owe it to our country to fight the coarse anti-intellectualism, bullying, injustice, and provincialism that disfigure its career as the last superpower." It is not least his work against separatism and artificial barriers, or the notion of "us versus them", that makes Said a crucial and persuasive reader of the world.
· Edward Said will be giving the Pen 2001 lecture at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, at 6pm on Wednesday December 5. Box office: 020-7494 5402.
Edward Said, in full Edward Wadie Said, sometimes Edward William Said, (born November 1, 1935, Jerusalem—died September 25, 2003, New York, New York, U.S.), Palestinian American academic, political activist, and literary critic who examined literature in light of social and cultural politics and was an outspoken proponent of the political rights of the Palestinian people and the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
Said’s father, Wadie (William) Ibrahim, was a wealthy businessman who had lived some time in the United States and apparently, at some point, took U.S. citizenship. In 1947 Wadie moved the family from Jerusalem to Cairo in order to avoid the conflict that was beginning over the United Nations partition of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab areas (seeArab-Israeli wars). In Cairo, Said was educated in English-language schools before transferring to the exclusive Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts in the United States in 1951. He attended Princeton University (B.A., 1957) and Harvard University (M.A., 1960; Ph.D., 1964), where he specialized in English literature. He joined the faculty of Columbia University as a lecturer in English in 1963 and in 1967 was promoted to assistant professor of English and comparative literature. His first book, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (1966), was an expansion of his doctoral thesis. The book examines Conrad’s short stories and letters for the underlying tension of the author’s narrative style; it is concerned with the cultural dynamics of beginning a work of literature or scholarship.
Said was promoted to full professor in 1969, received his first of several endowed chairs in 1977, and in 1978 published Orientalism, his best-known work and one of the most influential scholarly books of the 20th century. In it Said examined Western scholarship of the “Orient,” specifically of the Arab Islamic world (though he was an Arab Christian), and argued that early scholarship by Westerners in that region was biased and projected a false and stereotyped vision of “otherness” on the Islamic world that facilitated and supported Western colonial policy.
Although he never taught any courses on the Middle East, Said wrote numerous books and articles in his support of Arab causes and Palestinian rights. He was especially critical of U.S. and Israeli policy in the region, and this led him into numerous, often bitter, polemics with supporters of those two countries. He was elected to the Palestine National Council (the Palestinian legislature in exile) in 1977, and, though he supported a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he became highly critical of the Oslo peace process between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel in the early 1990s.
His books about the Middle East include The Question of Palestine (1979), Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (1981), Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question (1988; coedited with Christopher Hitchens), The Politics of Dispossession (1994), and Peace and Its Discontents: Essays on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process (1995). Among his other notable books are The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983), Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature: Yeats and Decolonization (1988), Musical Elaborations (1991), and Culture and Imperialism (1993). His autobiography, Out of Place (1999), reflects the ambivalence he felt over living in both the Western and Eastern traditions.
In addition to his political and academic pursuits, Said was an accomplished musician and pianist.