Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Magill Book Reviews)
Edward W. Said, who has taught at Columbia University since 1963, is best-known for his books Orientalism (1978) and Culture and Imperialism (1993), cultural studies of the influence of colonialism on intellectual life in colonizing and colonized countries. Said is also a Palestinian in exile from his homeland, and an outspoken advocate of the cause of Palestinian nationhood.
Reflections on Exile and Other Essays brings together forty-five previously published essays and one new essay published for the first time in this book. Written from 1967 through the end of the twentieth century, these offer a sampling from the author’s entire academic career and display a remarkable intellectual range. The title essay, originally published in 1984 in the periodical Granta, deals with Said’s own condition of exile, and with the implications of exile for those who experience it. While Said sees separation from a homeland as a difficult fate, he believes that the state of detachment gives exiles a unique vision.
The final, original and previously unpublished essay is a response to Samuel Huntington’s article “The Clash of Civilizations,” which appeared in the journal Foreign Affairs in 1993. Huntington had argued that the ideological conflicts of the Cold War were being replaced by conflicts between Western and non-Western civilizations. Said maintains that this is an overly simple view of the world, which divides nations into monolithic categories, and promotes chauvinism on the part of countries, such as the United States, which may be led to confuse their own interests with the values of Western civilization.
Some readers may feel that Said himself oversimplifies culture, by reducing so many of its aspects to the heritage of colonialism. Others may object to his habit of continually tossing off long lists of names of authors. His critics and supporters alike, though, will find a monument to an impressive career in this book.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 97 (February 1, 2001): 1035.
The Nation 273 (November 26, 2001): 24.
The New York Times Book Review 106 (February 18, 2001): 28.
Publishers Weekly 248 (January 1, 2001): 75.
Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Magill’s Literary Annual 1991-2005)
The essays in this collection are arranged chronologically by date of publication. In the introduction to the book, Said identifies them as the result of thirty-five years of intellectual activity. The first essay, on the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, appeared in 1967. The next-to-last, on the author’s experience of living between the Arab and American worlds, was published in 1998. The last, a criticism of Samuel Huntington’s argument that future world history will be dominated by a clash between Western and non-Western civilizations, is the only work to appear for the first time in this volume. However, many readers may want to start with the title essay, published in 1984 and reproduced here as chapter 17. In this essay, Said ponders how the experience of exile from a homeland can create a unique perspective. He cites one of his favorite quotations, from the twelfth century monk Hugh of St. Victor, who wrote: “The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.” The exile’s perspective, seeing all lands as foreign, is the starting point for the thirty years of essays on literature, music, film, and politics brought together in this book.
Said has undergone his own long, thoughtful, and thought-provoking exile. He was born to a Palestinian family in Jerusalem before the creation of the state of Israel. He grew up in Egypt and the United States, and he has taught at Columbia University in New York since 1963. Early on, he made contact with the famous New York intellectuals connected to the journal Partisan Review. However, he grew to realize that their concerns with Stalinism and Soviet Communism were not his own. The war in Vietnam and the rise of the Palestinian people as a political force during the 1960’s turned his attention in a different direction. The role of literature in the relations of colonized and colonizing countries has been one of his central interests. He has been involved with the cause of the Palestinians both as a writer and as an activist. Said attracted wide attention with his book Orientalism (1978), which argued that the concept of “the Orient” and European scholarly, literary, and artistic views of the lands east of Europe were expressions of colonial domination. He argued that many of the assumptions of orientalism, in turn, affected how the people of the colonized lands saw themselves and their colonizers. Thus, cultures are shaped by on-going dialogues between insiders and outsiders, and the cultural creations of individuals emerge within these dialogues. Throughout his work, Said has argued that one of the goals of intellectual activity is to step outside of particular cultures in order to understand the interaction of cultures.
Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) is among Said’s favorite cultural outsiders. Conrad was the subject of Said’s first book, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (1966). Two of the essays are devoted to this Polish-born wanderer, who wrote in an English that he always spoke with a heavy accent. Said also cites Conrad in a number of other essays, including “Reflections on Exile,” in which he describes Conrad’s story “Amy Foster” as “perhaps the most uncompromising representation of exile ever written.” In the chapter entitled “Conrad and Nietzsche,” first published in 1976, he discusses the similarities between Conrad’s narratives and Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844-1900) radical reinterpretations of the European philosophical tradition. In “Through Gringo Eyes: With Conrad in Latin America,” originally published in 1988, Said presents the novel Nostromo (1904), Conrad’s only major work set in Latin America, as an early examination of the nature of modern imperialism.
Said’s interest in the cultural connections between the Arab world and Europe appears repeatedly throughout the essays. In a piece on T. E. Lawrence (1888-1935), Said considers how the writing of the British agent and author known as Lawrence of Arabia emerged...
(The entire section is 1692 words.)