Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 654
Edward William Said (sah-EED) was an articulate and politically sophisticated American critic of literary theory, and he came to be regarded as one of the postcolonial world’s most influential intellectuals. The son of Wadie A. and Hilda (Musa) Said, he was educated in Palestine and in Cairo, Egypt, before moving to the United States in 1948. After studying at Princeton and Harvard Universities, he was in 1963 appointed to the comparative literature faculty of Columbia University; he was also a frequent visiting professor at many other major universities. He made his home in New York City, writing, lecturing, and playing piano. His love for music was reflected in his discussions with Israeli-born conductor Daniel Barenboim about politics and culture, published in 2002 as Parallels and Paradoxes, which ranges across a variety of topics including the power of music and literature to transcend political boundaries.
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There were four separate strands in Said’s writing, which began to come together in the 1970’s: scholarship on individual authors, such as Jonathan Swift, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Joseph Conrad; the estimating and mapping of emerging critical theory, by reviewing it as well as incorporating it in his own original theoretical work; musical criticism; and political work on behalf of the Palestinians (in 1991, after a diagnosis of chronic leukemia, he resigned from the Palestinian National Council, the parliament-in-exile, in protest over Yasir Arafat’s peace accord with Israel). The moment of this conflation was the year he spent as a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, 1975 to 1976. Orientalism, the product of this stay, is an exemplary combination of an original synthesis of the theoretical work of Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and, to a lesser extent, Jacques Derrida; a rigorous study of individual texts; and an insistent demonstration of how intellectual work leads to political consequences.
In Orientalism, his signature work, Said argued that the West has dominated the East first of all through intellectual effort—the research and imaginative writing that always presupposes that the East is there, fated to be known by the West, its necessary interlocutor; in an afterword to the 1995 edition Said addressed the common but erroneous perception that the book is anti-Western.
The next two books were The Question of Palestine, a straightforward counterhistory from the point of view of the Palestinians, and Covering Islam, in which he critically exposed the racist assumptions behind the news coverage of Islam and the Middle East. These were followed, in 1988, with Blaming the Victims, a series of essays written with Christopher Hitchens that were intended to counter negative Western media coverage of the Palestinians and their history. The same purpose motivated the publication of The Politics of Dispossession. Of his various writings, one that was particularly warmly received by the critics was Culture and Imperialism, an examination of the intricate ways in which Western imperialism has shaped and been shaped by its history, philosophy, and literature. In 1999, Said turned from social and political commentary to address his many identities and interests in the memoir Out of Place, which chronicled his life from his childhood in Egypt and Palestine to his activities as professor at Columbia and head of the Modern Language Association. Said succumbed to leukemia in 2003.
Said did not fix himself in a specific theoretical position. Instead, he insisted that the critic’s job is to map the traveling of theory, not to follow or spread it. To be committed to a position but also outside positions is an idea underlying one of his earliest publications, a translation of one of Erich Auerbach’s last essays, in which Auerbach quotes Victor Hugo on the positive estrangement of all exiles and émigrés: “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.”