The Reorientations of Edward Saidson dakika haberler
Pankaj Mishra reviews a new biography about Edward Said, which shows the theorist immersed in the Western tradition he critiqued.
Pankaj Mishra reviews a new biography about Edward Said, which shows the theorist immersed in the Western tradition he critiqued.
Steeped in Western culture, the great critic of Western narratives came to his post-colonialist convictions gradually but with growing intensity.
Brennan shows how much Said initially was, as he once confessed, a “creature of an American and even a kind of upper-classNonetheless, his own early impulse, born of an immigrant’s insecurity, was, as he later put it, to make himself over “into something the system required.” His earliest intellectual mentors were such iconic figures of American literary culture as R. P. Blackmur and Lionel Trilling. He wrote a prize-winning dissertation on Conrad; he read Sartre and Lukács. In his early writings, he faithfully absorbed all the trends then dominant in English departments, from existentialism to structuralism. Devoted to Chopin and Schumann, he seems to have been as indifferent to blues and jazz as he was to Arabic music. He adored Hollywood movies, but there is no evidence that, in this period, he engaged with the work of James Baldwin or Ralph Ellison, or had much interest in the civil-rights movement. When students protesting the war in Vietnam disrupted a class of his, he called campus security.
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Places of Mind ” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Scanting Said’s private life, including his marriages and other romantic liaisons, Brennan concerns himself with tracing an intellectual and political trajectory. One of the half-concealed revelations in the book is how close Said came, with his Levantine wealth and Ivy League education, to being a somewhat refined playboy, chasing women around the Eastern Seaboard in his Alfa Romeo. In Jerusalem, Said went to St. George’s, a boys’ school for the region’s ruling castes. In Cairo—where his family moved in 1947, shortly before Jewish militias occupied West Jerusalem—he attended the British-run Victoria College. There he was chiefly known for his mediocre marks and insubordinate ways; his classmates included the future King Hussein of Jordan and the actor Omar Sharif. Cairo was then the principal metropolis of a rapidly decolonizing and politically assertive Arab world. The creation of the state of Israel—following a U.N. resolution, on Palestinian land—and the refugee crisis and wars that ensued were on everyone’s mind. Yet Said inhabited a bubble of affluent cosmopolitans, speaking English and French better than Arabic, and attending the local opera. When he was six years old, he started playing the family piano, a Blüthner baby grand from Leipzig, and he later received private lessons from Ignace Tiegerman, a Polish Jew famous for his interpretations of Brahms and Chopin. Said’s father, who ran a successful office-supply business, was socially ambitious, and his time in America had given him a lasting admiration for the West. At one point, he considered moving his entire family to the United States. Instead, in 1951, he contented himself with dispatching his son to Northfield Mount Hermon School, in rural Massachusetts. Brennan shows how much Said initially was, as he once confessed, a “creature of an American and even a kind of upper-class WASP education,” distanced from the “uniquely punishing destiny” of an Arab Palestinian in the West. Glenn Gould recitals in Boston appear to have registered more with him than the earthquakes of the post-colonial world, such as the Great Leap Forward or the anti-French insurgency in Algeria. The Egyptian Revolution erupted soon after Said left for the U.S., and a mob of protesters burned down his father’s stationery shop. Within a decade, the family had moved to Lebanon. Yet these events seem to have had less influence on Said than the political currents of his new country did. Brennan writes, “Entering the United States at the height of the Cold War would color Said’s feelings about the country for the rest of his life.” Alfred Kazin, writing in his journals in 1955, already worried that intellectuals had found in America a new “orthodoxy”—the idea of the country as “world-spirit and world hope.” This consensus was bolstered by a professionalization of intellectual life. Jobs in universities, media, publishing, and think tanks offered former bohemians and penurious toilers money and social status. Said began his career at precisely this moment, when many upwardly mobile American intellectuals became, in his later, unforgiving analysis, “champions of the strong.” Nonetheless, his own early impulse, born of an immigrant’s insecurity, was, as he later put it, to make himself over “into something the system required.” His earliest intellectual mentors were such iconic figures of American literary culture as R. P. Blackmur and Lionel Trilling. He wrote a prize-winning dissertation on Conrad; he read Sartre and Lukács. In his early writings, he faithfully absorbed all the trends then dominant in English departments, from existentialism to structuralism. Devoted to Chopin and Schumann, he seems to have been as indifferent to blues and jazz as he was to Arabic music. He adored Hollywood movies, but there is no evidence that, in this period, he engaged with the work of James Baldwin or Ralph Ellison, or had much interest in the civil-rights movement. When students protesting the war in Vietnam disrupted a class of his, he called campus security. Brennan detects a hint of what was to come in a remark of Said’s about the dual selves of Conrad: one “the waiting and willing polite transcriber who wished to please, the other an uncooperative demon.” Much impotent anger seems to have long simmered in Said as he witnessed “the web of racism, cultural stereotypes, political imperialism, dehumanizing ideology holding in the Arab or the Muslim.” In a conversation filmed for Britain’s Channel 4, Said claimed that many of his cultural heroes, such as Isaiah Berlin and Reinhold Niebuhr, were prejudiced against Arabs. “All I could do,” he said, “was note it.” He watched aghast, too, the critical acclaim for “The Arab Mind,” a 1973 book by the Hungarian Jewish academic Raphael Patai, which described Arabs as a fundamentally unstable people. It’s not hard to see how Said, upholding the “great books” courses at Columbia, would have come to feel intensely the frustrations that writers and intellectuals from countries subjugated by Europe and America had long experienced: so many of the canonical figures of Western liberalism and democracy, from John Stuart Mill to Winston Churchill, were contemptuous of nonwhite peoples. Among aspiring intellectuals who came to the U.S. and Europe from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, a sense of bitterness ran especially deep. Having struggled to emulate the cultural élite of the West by acquiring a knowledge of its literature and philosophy, they realized that their role models remained largely ignorant of the worlds they had come from. Moreover, the steep price of that ignorance was paid, often in blood, by the people back home. It was the Six-Day War, in 1967, and the exultant American media coverage of Israel’s crushing victory over Arab countries, that killed Said’s desire to please his white mentors. He began reaching out to other Arabs and methodically studying Western writings about the Middle East. In 1970, he met Arafat, initiating a long and troubled relationship in which Said undertook two equally futile tasks: advising the stubbly, pistol-toting radical on how to make friends and influence people in the West, and dispelling Arafat’s impression that he, Said, was a representative of the United States. In “Orientalism,” Said’s uncoöperative demon at last burst into view. He boldly defined himself as the “product of the historical process” of colonialism, and set out to “inventory the traces” upon him of a culture “whose domination has been so powerful a factor in the life of all Orientals.” The book’s main thrust was a critique of Western intellectual culture; as Brennan puts it, “The media, think tanks, and universities were witting or unwitting collaborators in the foreign policy adventures of their respective states.” For a book that launched a thousand academic careers and plenty of opaque jargon, this was a simple point. It was also by no means original. Noam Chomsky had been making much the same argument since the nineteen-sixties, and anti-imperialist thinkers and activists had long noted the nexus between knowledge and power in imperialist countries. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, in the late nineteenth century, had denounced Reuters for its biased coverage of anti-British protests in Iran; Simone Weil had called for a sustained reflection on the experience of the colonized. At Said’s own university, Franz Boas had attacked the pseudoscientific racial theories used as justification by white supremacists. What made “Orientalism” distinctive was its immense panoply of Western learning—the fruits of Said’s Ivy League training—and its audacious crossing of disciplinary boundaries: history, philology, anthropology, literary studies. It was also striking that Said, avowedly indebted to Foucault, concerned himself with representations rather than with the represented—with the discourse of imperialism rather than with its actual workings or its manifestation in social and economic inequality. “Orientalism” had little to say about the role of overwhelmingly male class interests in imperial conquest, the expansion of industrial capitalism, or the fate of women, peasants, and workers. Nor did Said confine his time frame to the previous two centuries, when the modern imperialisms of Europe and America became globally powerful, primed to generate widespread if largely defective knowledge about Orientals. He insisted that Orientalist thinking justified colonial rule not after the fact but “in advance,” positing an unbroken Western tendency to represent Orientals as inferior, running from ancient Greece through Renaissance Italy to the New York Times . Perhaps against Said’s own wishes, “Orientalism” ended up describing an eternal and unbridgeable gulf between Western and non-Western societies. While discrediting much knowledge produced in Europe and America over two millennia, the book displayed no awareness of the vast archive of Asian, African, and Latin-American thought that had preceded it, including discourses devised by non-Western élites—such as the Brahminical theory of caste in India—to make their dominance seem natural and legitimate. Unsurprisingly, upper-caste ideologues of Hindu supremacism approvingly cite “Orientalism” when railing against Western scholars of Indian religion and history. The book’s critique of Eurocentrism was in fact curiously Eurocentric, and its vision of an internally consistent and coherent “West” had much in common with the “Plato-to- NATO ” genealogy of the free world popularized during the Cold War. In both narratives, the ancient Greeks, Renaissance Italians, and French sages of the Enlightenment had all contributed to the making of “Western Civilization.” When the book was attacked by old-style Orientalists such as Bernard Lewis, who questioned its author’s grasp of Arab and Islamic history, Said could effortlessly defend himself. Lewis, later a favorite historian of Dick Cheney and a theorist of “Muslim rage,” was too damning an illustration of Said’s thesis. Said was much more vulnerable to criticisms from the Oriental subjects whose debasing misrepresentations he had set out to expose. The most devastating of these came from the Indian critic Aijaz Ahmad. Writing fourteen years after the publication of “Orientalism,” Ahmad examined why and how a book with many obvious and great flaws became a cult classic among academics. He noted that Said’s preoccupation with representations rather than with material interests, and his prioritizing of racial inequities over class and gender oppressions, had proved especially useful to upwardly mobile academics who came to American universities from the developing world. These intellectual émigrés, largely male, were often members of ruling classes in their respective countries—even of classes that had flourished during colonial rule. Yet, Ahmad wrote, Said’s book furnished them with “narratives of oppression that would get them preferential treatment, reserved jobs, higher salaries.” For a posher kind of Oriental subject, denouncing the Orientalist West had become one way of finding a tenured job in it. Ahmad also pointed out that Said, critiquing an evidently corrupted humanist tradition, offered, as an antidote, merely a lit-crit version of humanism—“very textual attitudes towards the histories of colonialism and imperialism.” In the nineteen-eighties, “Orientalism” helped forge a seminar-room mode of activism. By 1992, Richard Rorty could take aim at an instantly recognizable type: “One of the contributions of the newer left has been to enable professors, whose mild guilt about the comfort and security of their own lives once led them into extra-academic political activity, to say, ‘Sorry, I gave at the office.’ ” In retrospect, “Orientalism,” no less than Orientalist books about Muslim rage and the clash of civilizations, seems to belong to an era of cramped political horizons. Politicized young people today are unlikely to confine themselves to Foucault-style discourse analysis when they confront the crushing realities of inequality, gutted public services, mainstream racism, and environmental calamity. Said moved on from his trendsetting book almost as quickly as he had moved on from the various English-department trends he once embraced. Brennan writes that, though appreciative of efforts to “diversify faculties in terms of ethnicity and national origin,” Said was troubled by the way “Orientalism” encouraged “fixations on personal ‘identity’ ” in academia. Having helped create the field of post-colonial studies, Said began to wonder whether post-colonialism was even a valid category, given the ongoing depredations of colonialism in large parts of the world. As if to deride academia’s cult of specialism, he pointedly extolled the figure of the freelance intellectual and the unaffiliated amateur. He started to read widely in non-Western literatures, and to invoke, sometimes too indiscriminately, Asian and African writers and thinkers whom he had left unmentioned in “Orientalism.” With the support of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, then an editor at Doubleday, he helped usher Naguib Mahfouz’s fiction into English. Most important, in a series of books, articles, and television appearances, Said assumed the often cruelly discouraging task of educating Americans about Palestine. His publisher, Pantheon, rejected “ The Question of Palestine ” (1979), the first of Said’s many book-length attempts to make Americans understand the fate of the Palestinian people. Eventually published by Times Books, “The Question of Palestine” made him, Brennan writes, “a pariah among the pro-Israel wing of New York publishing.” Meanwhile, a prospective Beirut publisher asked Said to remove his criticism of Syria and Saudi Arabia from the book. Political disasters in the Middle East also kept undermining his cause. Israel’s Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, who doggedly opposed a Palestinian state, was encouraging Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, territories seized from Palestinians in 1967. In June, 1982, Begin authorized a military invasion of Lebanon—where many Palestinian refugees had fled—ostensibly to drive out Arafat and militants. Thousands of civilians died, and infrastructure was left in ruins. At home, Said found himself up against a reactionary right that, rolling back the gains of the progressive movements of the nineteen-sixties, had created a much stronger basis for itself than the academic left had. Embedded deep within the Reagan Administration, it could, Kazin wrote in 1983, “always be depended upon to support Begin.” This right-wing network exercised outsized influence. Saul Bellow, who recoiled from Begin, nonetheless seemed to believe Commentary’s description of Said as a professor of terror, and endorsed a 1984 best-seller, Joan Peters’s “From Time Immemorial,” that denied the existence of Palestinians in Palestine before the Zionists arrived. An article in the Wall Street Journal in 1999, titled “The False Prophet of Palestine,” claimed that Said had fabricated his childhood in Jerusalem, a defamatory accusation later repeated in Time . In 2003, testimony against Said from a fellow at the Hoover Institution became a centerpiece of hearings for a House bill that sought to regulate much post-colonial scholarship. Struggling to present “Zionism from the standpoint of its victims” in these circumstances, Said did not sacrifice nuance and, for his pains, was frequently attacked from all sides. Palestinians, along with many people in Asia and Africa who were ill-informed about the Holocaust, saw Israel as just another white colonialist power, of the kind that had stolen and occupied the lands of darker-skinned peoples for centuries. But Said infused moral complexity into what he called the “politics of dispossession,” describing Palestinians, often to their outrage, as indirect casualties of unprecedented European crimes against Jews: “victims of victims.” Conversely, he told his American audience that criticism of Zionism should not be equated with anti-Semitism, nor the struggle for Palestinian rights conflated with support for the Saudi royal family and other Arab tyrannies. Said had pushed for negotiation with Israel and for a two-state solution long before Arafat accepted both, in 1988. This major compromise by the Palestinian leader, which Said helped draft in Algiers, implicitly recognized Israel’s right to exist and cleared the way for the peace process that led, in 1993, to the first Oslo Accord. However, by the time that Arafat and the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin hesitantly shook hands on the South Lawn of the White House, Said was denouncing the accord as “an instrument of Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles.” In his view, an old, exhausted, and increasingly venal Palestinian leadership had succumbed to American and Israeli blandishments and pressure. Palestinian leaders, ignorant about facts on the ground created by Zionist settlers in the West Bank and Gaza—Arafat hadn’t even seen the occupied territories since his departure in 1967—had consented to a new and quasi-permanent form of occupation. The Palestinian Authority responded by proscribing Said’s books. Brennan writes that many intellectuals in Palestine, too, resented Said’s references to “the suffering of the Jews,” and saw him as too Americanized. Said did not relent. Maintaining that a Palestinian state had been rendered impossible, he began to advocate—daringly and, it now seems, presciently—for a one-state solution: a secular democracy guaranteeing equal rights to Jews and Arabs. Said, having once been slow to express his political views, made up for lost time in his last decade. He repeatedly skewered Fouad Ajami, Daniel Pipes, Kanan Makiya, and others anointed as experts on the Middle East by the mainstream media and think tanks. He often attacked Naipaul, whose powerfully literary but intellectually languid journalism about Muslim societies was embraced by both establishment liberals and conservatives. Naipaul, in Said’s view, had acquired his gilded Western reputation as a truthteller about the developing world because he elided the West’s damaging presence in it, while depicting Asians and Africans as intellectually helpless and politically confused. Said brusquely dismissed many left-leaning thinkers as well, describing Jürgen Habermas’s writings as “all just hot air.” He became disillusioned with Foucault and Sartre, and even scolded the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson (“I wish you were more active politically. . . . There’s a lot to be done”). Toward the end of his life, he renounced another idol, Theodor Adorno, judging the German critic’s habitual pose of disillusionment to be too lofty. Brennan reports that Said’s “battle to make the Palestinian story as sophisticated and persuasive as Israeli hasbara ” had some small successes. Mary-Kay Wilmers, the co-founder and editor of the London Review of Books , though once reflexively pro-Israel, came to think that “the Palestinians had a more or less unanswerable case.” Fan mail came from Nadine Gordimer, Kenzaburo Oe, Jodie Foster, and Emma Thompson. It is not clear what Said made of an admiring letter from Patricia Highsmith, who was possibly motivated more by anti-Semitism than by any solidarity with Palestinians. He was most likely gratified by a note from I. F. Stone that praised his ability to “affirm the great gifts and worth of your oppressed and rejected people” and concluded by stating, “Yours have become the sensitive ‘Jews’ and mine the ‘goyim.’ ” In his final years, which were marked by much rhetorical bravura, Said started to call himself the “last Jewish intellectual,” and mused that the partisans of Israel had no idea what it “means to be a Jewish intellectual, one committed to worldliness and universal justice.” He suggested that James Baldwin and Malcolm X were his soulmates. At the same time, Said was aware of how little true influence he had. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, his old adversary Bernard Lewis emerged as the chief theoretician of American wars in the Muslim world, and “The Arab Mind” became a guidebook for military officers in Iraq. (“You’ve got to understand the Arab mind,” one of them told a reporter outside a village that he and others had encased in razor wire. “The only thing they understand is force.”) The mollycoddling of murderous Arab despots by Donald Trump, or the Israeli government’s recent resolve to annex Palestinian lands, would not have surprised Said. Besieged for much of his life by “the superior power of incessantly repeated lies,” Brennan writes, “he knew he was not going to win.” Physically ravaged by leukemia by the end of the nineteen-nineties, Said still pushed back vigorously against the champions of the strong. “Where cruelty and injustice are concerned,” he wrote to a well-wisher, “hopelessness is submission, which I believe is immoral.” There is something bracing about Said’s late style of being in the world, lucidly acknowledging defeat yet resolved even more firmly to stand with a rejected people. To the question of “what one really is,” he ultimately gave a defiant reply: I am a Palestinian. It is a measure of his nobility that, among the many selves available to him, Said assumed the one that caused him the most pain. ♦ Published in the print edition of the