With their powerful blend of political and aesthetic concerns, Edward W. Said’s writings have transformed the field of literary studies. This long-awaited collection of literary and cultural essays, the first since Harvard University Press published The World, the Text, and the Critic in 1983, reconfirms what no one can doubt—that Said is the most impressive, consequential, and elegant critic of our time—and offers further evidence of how much the fully engaged critical mind can contribute to the reservoir of value, thought, and action essential to our lives and our culture.
As in the title essay, the widely admired “Reflections on Exile,” the fact of his own exile and the fate of the Palestinians have given both form and the force of intimacy to the questions Said has pursued. Taken together, these essays—from the famous to those that will surprise even Said’s most assiduous followers—afford rare insight into the formation of a critic and the development of an intellectual vocation. Said’s topics are many and diverse, from the movie heroics of Tarzan to the machismo of Ernest Hemingway to the shades of difference that divide Alexandria and Cairo. He offers major reconsiderations of writers and artists such as George Orwell, Giambattista Vico, Georg Lukacs, R. P. Blackmur, E. M. Cioran, Naguib Mahfouz, Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, Walter Lippman, Samuel Huntington, Antonio Gramsci, and Raymond Williams. Invigorating, edifying, acutely attentive to the vying pressures of personal and historical experience, his book is a source of immeasurable intellectual delight.
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.