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Intellectual Insurrection

Conor McCarthy

Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said, by Timothy Brennan, Bloomsbury, 464 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1526614650

In February 2017, the Fidesz government of Hungary, led then as now by Viktor Orbán, announced its intention to remove the statue of Georg Lukács, then standing in Szent Istvan Park. Lukács, a Jewish philosopher who took part in Bela Kun’s brief socialist republic in 1919, was, along with Antonio Gramsci and Karl Korsch, one of the founding fathers of Western Marxism. He was also a very great literary critic.

Statues of critics are a rarity anywhere, at any time. But Edward Said’s life and work warrant public commemoration. Yet the odds on a statue of him being raised in his native West Jerusalem are long.

Said was the most famous figure in a glittering generation of critics whose careers were formed in the 1960s and 1970s and who dominated American criticism until the turn of the century. Along with Fredric Jameson, Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartmann, Harold Bloom, J Hillis Miller (who died just last February) and Hayden White, Said stood as an American critic who responded to the great flowering of radical thought in France and Germany in the postwar period and who added to it significantly. But by the 1980s, we could tell even at the time, Said had become something else also. He’d become an intellectual, or as the Americans insist on putting it, a “public intellectual”. That is, he had become a public figure, a person who did some of his thinking beyond the academy, in public, for a public, and who also had come to generalise outwards from his strict professional expertise, to issues of general and public import. Such figures are very unusual.

Said’s name is invoked in scholarship particularly in connection to “postcolonial studies”, a subfield in literature and comparative literature programmes which has risen to prominence since the 1980s. His book Orientalism (1978), a study of Western representations of the Arab Middle East, has proven to be one of the most influential works in humanistic criticism since World War II. Its power lies in multiple characteristics – its extraordinary range (moving from Aeschylus to Henry Kissinger), its bold interdisciplinarity (Said discusses philology, literature, political science, travellers’ narratives, philosophy, anthropology), its deployment of bold ideas and concepts from then-avant-garde philosophy; and lastly its polemical force (Said ruthlessly skewers the ideas of contemporary “Orientalists”, most notably Bernard Lewis). But Said was always much more than just the author of this book.

Timothy Brennan met Said in 1980, when he joined the graduate programme in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia. Their connection grew, as Brennan himself developed from being Said’s student to being a friend and a peer. Brennan himself, with books to his name on Salman Rushdie, on cosmopolitanism and on the relationship of continental philosophy to the colonies, has become a major scholar who likewise is influential in postcolonial studies but by no means restricted to it. In this intellectual biography of Said, Brennan both confirms Said’s importance and radically alters much of our understanding of his work.

Said lived many of the contradictions and complexities he addressed in his books. Born in Jerusalem in 1935 into a comfortably bourgeois family, he was given a colonial education there and in Cairo, to which the Saids moved in 1947, shortly before the UN vote on the partition of Palestine. Wadie Said held American citizenship, a benefit of having served in the American Expeditionary Force to France during the First World War, and so when young Edward – a rambunctious boy, the admired “King of the Castle” to his sisters ‑ was expelled from Victoria College, his parents could choose to send him to prep school in Massachusetts. From there, he went on to Princeton for his undergraduate studies and then to Harvard for his doctorate. He wrote his thesis on Joseph Conrad, a writer whom he later described as a “steady ground bass” in his career. He then went on to a tenure-track job at Columbia in 1963, and, in spite of many offers and opportunities, never left.

Brennan gives us a richly textured sense of the Cairene world where Said grew up and where his family resided until the late 1950s. Living in wealthy Zamalek, an island in the Nile, Said was acculturated in Egypt, long before he came to America, to a life marked both by privilege and by outsiderdom – in Egypt, the Saids were held to be shami – exiles from Greater Syria. Music was his foundational intellectual and artistic interest – he developed a longtime friendship with Ignace Tiegerman, who taught him piano, and he showed a voracious capacity for learning about music. Brennan adeptly shows how the Said family business suffered during the violence of the revolution of July 22nd, 1952, which ousted the British, ended the Farouk monarchy and brought Nasser to power, even as they sympathised with the ordinary Egyptians who were eager for political reform and liberty. He also demonstrates clearly how the young Edward had highly developed and intensely held political views on Palestine, long before he became a scholar.

Indeed, part of the fascination of Brennan’s life of Said is precisely his showing just how important Palestinian and Arab contexts remained for Said in spite of his largely American intellectual formation. Said often liked to portray himself as an autodidact and as rigorously independent in his Palestinian politics. But Brennan demonstrates, for example, how Charles Malik, a formidable and important Lebanese statesman, was a formative influence, and also the sheer depth and range of Said’s Palestinian activism. Malik was close to the Said family, a Maronite Lebanese politician and senior UN official (eventually president of the General Assembly). Initially he was sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but he had swung away from it by the early 1950s and became one of the architects of right-wing Lebanese Phalangist Christian politics. This, combined with his Heideggerianism, his antipathy to Islam and his fierce anti-communism, put him at some distance from Said. And yet one finds Malik arguing the need for Arab-Western understanding, the necessity of analysing the modes by which the West represents the Arab world to itself: crucial motifs for Said’s own work and career.

But beyond Malik, Brennan highlights Said’s efforts in his books to bring Western theories of language, meaning and interpretation into productive relation with Arab and Muslim schools. In Brennan’s hands, Beginnings (1975) (Said’s second book and the foundational text in his self-formation) re-emerges not only as a masterly theory of the novel form and an earnest of Said’s passionate engagement with European modernism and philosophy but also as a search for an Arab theory of culture. Crucial visits to Beirut in the early 1970s fed this interest in Said, while also putting him in touch with important left-wing Arab intellectuals such as Sadek al-Azm and with notable cadres in the Palestinian liberation movement such as Shafiq al-Hout, Rashid Hussein and Farid Haddad.

At the same time, Said was forging his own formidable critical positions. Not only was he working up to the production of Orientalism, he was simultaneously writing the brilliant essays which would eventually make up The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983) – surely his greatest book. A veritable manual for intellectual insurrection, this work emerged not only from his prolonged interest in the first generation of Western Marxism – Lukács and Gramsci – but also from his intense fascination with the greatest polemicist in Anglophone literature – Jonathan Swift. Brennan reveals that Said twice tried to bring together a book on Swift, and also that he considered a book on Lukács and Gramsci. None of these appeared, but some of their materials emerged in The World, the Text, and the Critic. This revelation is important to understanding Said in various respects. Behind the devastating critiques of the fate of “radical theory” in the academy, with which The World, the Text, and the Critic primarily concerns itself, lurk these older polemicists. The interest in Swift was crucial to Said’s self-development as an intellectual and activist. Swift’s crucial proximity to, but also critical distance from, political power was vital to Said’s own positioning regarding both Arafat and other Palestinian leaders, and his relations – often hidden but now revealed to have been important – to American politicians making policy on the Middle East. Swift’s agitational fury would find expression not only in Said’s early essays in para-academic journals such as the Partisan Review (to which he was introduced by his brilliant Trotskyist colleague at Columbia, Fred Dupee), but his late career, post-Oslo blistering critique of the Palestinian leadership. Equally, Brennan powerfully makes the case if not for a “Marxist” Said then certainly for a Said much more intellectually committed to the far left than is usually held to be the case. Brennan rightly points out Said’s fierce resistance to American Cold War anti-communism, while also noting that many of the major Palestinian political figures with whom he was allied were communists.

By the 1980s, Said had become a global figure. He wrote in an afterword to a 1995 edition of Orientalism that it had become a kind of Borgesian puzzle to him – translated into dozens of languages, its afterlives had become improbably various, peculiar and often unexpected. But he was dismayed to see his own work invoked in the institutionalisation of postcolonial studies. Accordingly, his writing addressed itself less and less to purely academic audiences. That’s not to say that Culture and Imperialism (1993) or the writing about “late style” are not rich or complicated, but rather to admit that both of those themes became intertwined with his politics in the last decade of his life. This is exemplified in the magisterial essay “On Lost Causes” (1997). Said moves fluidly from a Lukácsian reading of classic European novels of defeat and disillusion (Don Quixote, L’Éducation sentimentale, Jude the Obscure), through to an analysis of how under the terms of Oslo, the Palestinian leadership willingly laid down its cause, in a spectacle abject and unedifying. But then a reading of Adorno permits him to present a model of intransigence in defeat, a late version of the “critical consciousness” he had sponsored so forcefully in The World, the Text, and the Critic. Harried by leukaemia, having disowned Arafat as Palestine’s very own “Papa Doc”, Said was unreconciled and defiant.

Brennan’s book is very much an intellectual biography – a careful tracing of Said’s influences and interests from his student days until his death. It displays masterfully how the famous books – Beginnings, The Question of Palestine (1979), After the Last Sky (1986), Out of Place (1999) – crystalised out of a dazzling myriad of streams and currents in Said’s life. It recounts the extraordinary attention and demands on his time which were typical by the 1980s – TV stations, protest movements, dissident Jewish organisations, newspapers, academic journals and conferences, from all over the world, seeking him out for ideas, wisdom, advice, information, every day. It shows too that although Said liked to portray himself as a non-affiliated independent in his politics, he was the activist-networker par excellence. With his wife, Mariam, he helped set up educational institutions in the Occupied Territories. With his old friend Ibrahim Abu-Lughod he sought to create a Palestinian distance-learning college, along the lines of the Open University. He supported and advocated for Arab American academics through the Association of Arab-American University Graduates. In fact, his activism was intense enough to attract the attention of the FBI, which eventually assembled a 238-page dossier on him. But Brennan also allows the odd glimpse of a man charismatic and vulnerable, accessible and vain, formidable and courageous, humorous and kind: his ritual making of breakfast for Mariam, every morning; his passion for Robert Ludlum novels; his butch description to friends of how he was going to demolish Bernard Lewis in debate (“I’m going to fuck his mother”); the ease with which his curiosity could be piqued, as when his daughter Najla got him to listen to the music of Sinead O’Connor, assuring him that the singer’s politics were acceptably anti-imperialist.

“Wrong life cannot be lived rightly”, Adorno wrote, a line from Minima Moralia which Said liked to quote. The evidence of Timothy Brennan’s rich and compelling biography is that Edward Said lived his life rightly. More than almost any other literary scholar in the twentieth century, he made a bold but successful wager on the political importance and value of humanistic scholarship and of critique: “Criticism,” he averred, is nothing less than “the present in the course of its articulation”. As higher education becomes ever more managed and commercialised, and as Israel’s violence against Palestinians becomes ever more brutal, Said’s vision of an activist humanism stands out more and more clearly as a resource of hope, sitting there on the intellectual landscape like a set of weapons ready for combat. One hopes that there remain young scholars and activists to turn them to good use.


Conor McCarthy teaches English at Maynooth. His most recent book is Enforcing Silence: Academic Freedom, Palestine and the Criticism of Israel (London: Zed Books, 2020), edited with David Landy and Ronit Lentin.



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