Lead book review

Edward Said — a lonely prophet of doom

Even Edward Said would not have claimed to be ‘the 20th century’s most celebrated intellectual’. But neither was he ‘Professor of Terror’, says Justin Marozzi

13 March 2021

9:00 AM

13 March 2021

9:00 AM

Places of the Mind: A Life of Edward Said Timothy Brennan

Bloomsbury, pp.464, 25

It had been billed as a clash of the Titans. Boston, 22 November 1986: two giants of their field slugging it out in the circus, a shootout at the scholars’ corral. The atmosphere was electric. Here was the long-awaited confrontation between Edward Said, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, and Bernard Lewis, emeritus professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton. It didn’t disappoint.

Ten minutes into the debate on ‘The Scholars, the Media and the Middle East’, Said took the microphone and let rip, unleashing his blistering attack on American scholars, journalists and ‘the Zionist lobby’. Together, he said, they had collaborated in a ‘shameful’ misrepresentation of the Middle East in order ‘to maintain American hostility towards the vast majority’ of its peoples.

Said put the entire American media and their academic accomplices on trial and pronounced them guilty. From the New York Times, Washington Post, the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books to CBS, NBC, ABC and PBS, all were complicit in a tendentious distortion of the Middle East:

Ask yourselves whether any of you can think of a media outlet whose guiding principles vis-à-vis Middle East coverage include the notions that Islam is never to be criticised; that the PLO, while prone to a few excesses, is basically democratic and lovable; that one or another Middle East state beside Israel is worthy of unrestricted US aid; and that Christianity and Judaism are basically violent, hypocritical and depraved religions.

The media climate boiled down to this: ‘We need an expert on Islam. Tell us, why are Muslims terrorists?’

The 90-minute film of the debate, available on YouTube, shows Said in full flow, the black-maned, expensively tailored, trilingual Palestinian-American polymath and polemicist taking on the Establishment — to which he, as the consummate outsider–insider, partly belonged (equally spellbinding, incidentally, are his 1993 Reith Lectures).

Timothy Brennan, a former student of Said, a professor of humanities at the University of Minnesota and the author of this authorised biography, is in no doubt about the winner of the showdown. He quotes Said, apparently approvingly, boasting before the debate: ‘I am going to fuck his mother.’ So much for Said the humanist.

By 1986, Said was at the height of his fame and influence as a cultural critic and champion of the Palestinian cause. Published in 1978, Orientalism had won him an international audience with his controversial analysis of how the West came to dominate the Middle East through its exoticising narrative of the Orient, an ideological tool for writers and colonialists from Homer to Flaubert and Disraeli to Kipling. A scandalous affront to some readers, it was an exhilarating triumph for many more, not least those who felt they had been written out of history by the more powerful. The British Orientalist Robert Irwin considered it ‘malignant charlatanry’. No matter. Orientalismbecame the founding text of post-colonial studies and father of a thousand doctoral theses.

Of Said’s many other books, Culture and Imperialism (1993) is the stand-out classic. A fierce and wide-ranging polemic bristling with erudition, it traces the roots of imperialism in European culture among unlikely sources ranging from Conrad and Camus to Jane Austen and Verdi. Said’s discussions of conquest and the brute acquisition of land, within a context of contested narratives and ideologies, took in Algeria, Vietnam, Ireland, Guinea, South Africa and, glancingly, Palestine.

It was a minor tragedy that both books, and much of Said’s career, were drawn into black-and-white confrontation — East vs West, America vs Arabs, Palestinians vs Israel — which completely ignored the more sophisticated shade and nuances at the heart of his writing. Cultures and civilisations, he insisted, were less sharp-edged and distinct than hybrid, heterogeneous and interdependent. While his arguments remained anathema to many Israelis and other critics, his 1979 essay on ‘Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims’ acknowledged both the legitimacy of the Zionist claims to a Jewish homeland and the corresponding right of national self-determination for the Palestinians, the ‘victims of victims’. These were ‘two communities of suffering’.

By far the most appealing sections in Brennan’s curate’s egg of a biography are those which deal with Said’s gilded childhood, split between Cairo and Lebanon, his education in America following his arrival there in 1951, aged 16, and his later championing of the Palestinian cause. Born into a wealthy Christian family in Jerusalem in 1935, he was an American citizen courtesy of his father, a Palestinian who had served in the US army; yet the feeling of being an outsider rarely left him. He later wrote that as an Arab in America he felt somehow ‘criminalised or delinquent… outside the pale’. The stifling straitjacket of McCarthyism can only have intensified the feeling.

After graduating from Princeton, and then completing a doctorate in English literature at Harvard in 1964, Said fell under the dazzling spell of literary theory in the late 1960s, ignoring the warnings of his graduate mentor, Harry Levin, who did not share the younger man’s then gushing admiration of French structuralism. He cautioned:

In a brusque word, this approach does not truly aim at the understanding of literature, but at deriving metaphysical paradigms from authors by superimposing certain abstractions supported by quotations taken out of context.

It may come as little surprise then that the long sections in Places of the Mind on literary theory, frequently dense and impenetrable, are the least readable and rewarding. Brennan writes of how, while lecturing on Foucault in Beirut, Said wrestled with the Frenchman’s use of the word ‘discourse’, ultimately defining it as ‘the possibility of, as well as the rule of formation for, subsequent texts’. General readers may scratch their heads in bafflement. It is a relief to discover that Said considered Derrida a decadent, mannerish ‘dandy fooling around’.

Brennan’s treatment of Said’s emerging role as the most eloquent international voice of Palestinian statehood is far more compelling. In 1977 he became an independent member of the Palestinian National Council, adding intellectual grist to the political mill with his book The Question of Palestine, published in 1979. In 1988, he was filmed at Yasser Arafat’s right hand in Algiers during the fateful Intifada meeting of the PNC, in which delegates declared an independent Palestinian state and officially recognised Israel. It was Said who championed the declaration on ABC’s Nightline programme to millions of Americans.

That proved to be the high water mark of his political engagement with Arafat. With the groundbreaking Oslo Accord of 1993, Said shockingly parted company with his PLO comrades. It was a courageous move that thrust him into uncomfortable, even dangerous, isolation. Death threats were not uncommon. Where many, if not most, observers saw compromise and a road to elusive peace, Said instead discerned abject sell-out and surrender, a ‘Palestinian Versailles’. Israel had not recognised Palestinian statehood and self-determination, merely the right of the PLO to represent the Palestinians and return to Gaza and Jericho in the West Bank.

Said refused to pull his punches. Arafat, he argued, had become Israel’s Buthelezi, the administrator of a Bantustan, his Palestinian Authority another Vichy government. The international spokesman for the PLO, who one Iranian scholar had hailed as ‘the mighty warrior, the Salah al-Din of our reasoning with mad adversaries, source of our sanity in despair’, suddenly found his books banned by Arafat. It says much for Said’s courage and persistence that he spent the next decade publishing three collections of essays positing alternatives to Oslo. When, in 1989, the US magazine Commentary labelled him ‘Professor of Terror’, it merely underscored Said’s J’Accuse against the American media and academia.

Diagnosed with leukaemia in 1991, he lived long enough to pour scorn on the US-led War on Terror which began in 2001. He was appalled by the ‘levels of lobotomised cheerleading’ for the Iraq War among intellectuals in America, Bernard Lewis once again foremost among them.

Away from the turbulence, bitterness and disappointment of Palestinian politics, and the torrents of vitriol it brought, Said found comfort in music. A brilliant pianist who had almost turned professional in his youth, he joined forces with his friend the Israeli conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim in a collaboration which evolved into the world-famous West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. He considered it his finest achievement. ‘Humanism,’ he wrote, ‘is the only — I would go so far as saying the final — resistance that we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.’

Brennan’s enthusiasm for his former teacher can get the better of him in a powerful book which is at times as difficult and demanding as its subject. He calls Said ‘the most influential, controversial and celebrated intellectual of the 20th century’. We can agree that here was a superstar who blazed a rich cultural and literary legacy, but even Said, a vain man with much to be vain about, would have dismissed this as high-grade hagiography.

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