The Many Faces of Edward Said

Photo: Gary Stevens

Timothy Brennan, Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota, has published a new biography of Edward Said, the feted Palestinian-American scholar and public intellectual, and his former PhD advisor at Columbia University. Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said explores the different aspects of a quintessential 20th-century intellectual.

2 comments on “The Many Faces of Edward Said

  1. Greg Pollock says:

    A scientist cannot see the moon as unique if to later map the trajectory of asteroids, yet it is the moon, and no other, which gets us to those trajectories. Historical personages are like that moon. They seem all important, but are supported by millions of actions only partially seen. (I think the principle of sufficient reason wrong in science. There are always more influenced, but for what we need or measure a sufficient reason comes; perhaps principle of adequate reason is better. Sufficient reason as principle is an intellectual game to force conclusions which then allow choice of a principle of adequate reason.) History clearly turns at points on personages, but perhaps, more than admitted, in that others dodge that post, helping or placing some other therein. When I look at Said’s career and politics, I see a man who knew he could be replaced; but the world is full of naught but those who can be replaced. But can a Gandhi or Hitler be replaced? They both failed, yet I feel they both still contend in the world. Perhaps they were hyper-exemplars of processes, this the fake immortality history gives. I suspect biography is ever eulogy.

    In any case, another excellent interview.

  2. Richard Tasgal says:

    There was a review of Timothy Brennan’s book in the Times Literary Supplement. I’ll post a few paragraphs of the review, but it’s worth reading in full.

    The failure of prominent academics and intellectuals to understand what Said had written is a leitmotif in Places of Mind. Said’s former teacher Monroe Engel could not understand Beginnings: Intention and method (1975), and Tony Tanner wrote about it: “There are parts of the book which my Anglo-Saxon mind simply can’t bend to even when it tries with all its might (or mightlessness)”. Then when Orientalism was published in 1978, in Brennan’s words: “Most failed to notice Said’s genuine ambivalence towards Orientalists” and “Misunderstandings plagued the book’s reception”. Said’s old friend Sadik al-Azm totally failed to understand Said’s theory of representation and al-Azm, “like the other social scientists who also missed the point”, totally failed to understand Said’s theory of representation. More generally Orientalism’s detractors are shown to be puzzled by Said’s theory of cultural space and preferred to stick with facts. “All seemed to misunderstand that Orientalism was about an interlocking system of images that made conquest easier by making the superiority of Europe seem natural.”

    Then when The Question of Palestine came out a year later “it was inevitable that some of its subtleties would be lost on its readership”. With respect to Culture and Imperialism (1993): “Neither his general nor his academic audience picked up on his clear agenda in the book”. The philosopher and anthropologist Ernest Gellner, who had opposed the wish of some in King’s College, Cambridge to give Said an honorary degree, is described by Brennan as “his old nemesis … who had trashed Culture and Imperialism in The Times Literary Supplement in 1993 on the grounds that culture did not matter and that Western empires did more good than harm”. That is a childish travesty of what Gellner actually argued. The author and intellectual Christopher Hitchens is said by Brennan to have been guilty of “the most dispiriting betrayal”. Writing in the Atlantic on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Orientalism, Hitchens “used the occasion to condescend, pretending to correct Said’s ‘errors’”. Clive James was yet another villain, “who resorted to left-handed compliments, whittling away at his stature while laying a few verbal land mines on the way”. Brennan is reluctant to accept that those who criticized Said might be writing in good faith. At best, his critics are accused of having failed to understand what Said had been arguing.

    So the question arises, why are Said’s writings so difficult to understand? Unlike certain other theorists (Homi Bhabha, for example) the meanings of Said’s sentences are usually clear and often those sentences are even eloquent. The problems arise in his paragraphs, chapters or complete works, as Said regularly resorted to the stratagem of making an extreme statement in one passage and then withdrawing it in another. The Orient does not exist, since it is a Western construct. On the other hand, it certainly does exist, for otherwise it could not be misrepresented and oppressed. Another one is Said’s recurrent creation of infernal lists of those he regards as villains, in which the innocent are mingled with the guilty and the relevant with the irrelevant. For a close analysis of these and other frequently repeated rhetorical tricks, interested readers should consult Daniel Varisco’s Reading Orientalism: Said and the unsaid (2007).

    Said, who was usually cavalier with facts, wrote this: “More often than not, a naive insistence on ‘the facts’ reveals a contemptuous dismissal of opinion and interpretation, usually favouring what already passes for fact in conventional wisdom, and is therefore part of a larger ‘cult of objectivity’ and expertise’”.

    We all make factual mistakes. The problem with Orientalism and with Culture and Imperialism is not just that Said made so many, but that Said’s errors, being ideologically driven, mostly tended in one direction. In For Lust of Knowing:
    The Orientalists and their enemies (2006), I noted a huge number of factual errors. Nevertheless, they were only a selection. Subsequently, I have turned up many more. To take just one example from among many, in 2013 I published “Flaubert’s Camel: Edward Said versus the novelists” in which I demonstrated that almost everything Said stated about Flaubert, his sexual relationship with Kuchuk Hanem and his novel Salammbô was incorrect. Thus, in his account of Kuchuk Hanem, Said wrote the following: “Less a woman than a display of impressive but verbally inexpressive femininity, Kuchuk is the prototype of Flaubert’s Salammbô and Salomé”. But Salammbô was an aristocrat and a woman passionately in love. Kuchuk Hanem was neither. Kuchuk had no French and therefore did not speak to Flaubert, but it simply will not do to present Salammbô as verbally inexpressive. In the novel she speaks frequently, eloquently and at length. Her eloquence enraptures crowds. Mattho is practically dumb before her. The conclusion is inescapable. Said had not actually read Salammbô (an omission which is only useful if one is playing the literary game known as “Humiliation”).

    Throughout his career, Said was desperate not to be pinned down, and he was never going to be identified with the structuralist school, or that of the post-structuralists, or the postcolonialists. His successive enthusiasms for difficult thinkers and often subsequent disillusionments fuelled his ideological progress and facilitated the fabrication of an intellectual ancestry. He was most enthusiastic about the fourteenth-century historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldun. Said praised Vico’s New Science and Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah as “books of the millennium”. For Said, the chief message of the Muqaddimah (Ibn Khaldun’s prolegomenon to the study of history) was this: “Literary politics was … to be understood in terms of the role of human eloquence in the formation of polities as well as the textual record of their rise and decline”. Said identified Ibn Khaldun as a literary critic who was primarily concerned with identifying rhetorical strategies in order to influence policy. This is an interesting reading, but also an eccentric one for it is not the way Ibn Khaldun’s treatise was understood by his Tunisian and Egyptian contemporaries, nor by the hundreds of modern scholars who have presented their readings of the treatise.

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