Edward W. Said

Start Free Trial

Albert Hourani (review date 8 March 1979)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "The Road to Morocco," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 26, March 8, 1979, pp. 27-30.

[In the following review, Hourani details the principal arguments of Orientalism, discussing their strengths and weaknesses.]

The theme of this powerful and disturbing book [Orientalism] is the way in which intellectual traditions are created and transmitted. They do not simply arise, Edward Said argues, in the solitude of a thinker's or a scholar's mind. The scholar may "attempt to reach a level of relative freedom from … brute, everyday reality," but he can never quite escape or ignore his "involvement as a human subject in his own circumstances."

… the possibilities for work present in the culture to a great and original mind are never unlimited…. The work of predecessors, the institutional life of a scholarly field, the collective nature of any learned enterprise: these, to say nothing of economic and social circumstances, tend to diminish the effects of the individual scholar's production. A field like Orientalism has a cumulative and corporative identity … the result has been a certain consensus: certain things, certain types of statement, certain types of work have seemed for the Orientalist correct.

"Orientalism" is the example Mr. Said uses to illustrate his theme, and by it he means something precise. The scholar who studies the Orient (and specifically the Muslim Orient), the imaginative writer who takes it as his subject, and the institutions which have been concerned with "teaching it, settling it, ruling it," all have something in common: a certain representation or idea of "the Orient," defined as being other than the "Occident," mysterious, unchanging, and ultimately inferior.

This representation has been created by the Western mind in more or less complete freedom, for "the Orient as a genuinely felt and experienced force" has been almost totally absent from Western culture. It has been developed and maintained by a kind of implicit partnership between scholars, writers, and those who have won and governed empires. Scholars and writers have been conscious of the sheer fact of Western strength in a passive and powerless Orient waiting to be ruled or manipulated, and the men who ruled have drawn a moral justification, and therefore a kind of strength, from the Western idea of the Orient. The partnership has been mediated through institutions—certain formalized ways of teaching and writing—which have limited what can be thought and said about the Orient.

It is this cumulative way of thinking about the Orient and acting toward it that Edward Said calls "Orientalism." Of course, any kind of thought involves making distinctions, and distinctions establish limits, but it is his contention that this kind of definition has been particularly harmful. It may have acted as a spur to the European imagination and helped to shape the Western sense of identity, but since it is a distinction based ultimately on religious and cultural difference it has led to a misunderstanding of historical processes. It has made it impossible to see "orientals" as individual human beings, since their identity has been absorbed into the idea of "the Muslim," "the Arab." or "the Oriental"; and, like all very simple binary oppositions of "us" and "them," it has given rise to judgments of moral worth. The Orient is seen as strange and distant, malignant and dead unless we bring it to life, the haunt of "monsters, evils, heroes; terrors, pleasures, desires."

The germ of this vision of the Orient Mr. Said finds in the first encounters of Western Europe with the world of Islam: the struggle for control of the Mediterranean basin...

(This entire section contains 4043 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

caused a recurrent trauma in the Western mind, and it could only be controlled by trying to explain Islam in familiar terms, as a false revelation or a Christian heresy. Then, in the second half of the eighteenth century, structures of thought inherited from the past were "secularized, redisposed and reformed"; under the influence of a new kind of intellectual curiosity and the expansion of European power, the image of the Muslim enemy turned into the modern image of the "Oriental." There appeared the first modern "Orientalists," the Frenchman Anquetil-Duperron, who discovered and translated Avestan texts, and the Englishman Sir William Jones, who translated Sanskrit poetry and studied Hindu laws, and who "before he left England for India in 1783 … was already a master of Arabic, Hebrew, and Persian." Jones was particularly important because his career was bound up with the first effective and permanent rule of Europeans over an Oriental society, that of the East India Company in Bengal; in his life and work, the link between political domination and the urge to understand becomes explicit.

A generation later there came a European incursion into the heart of the Muslim Orient. The French occupation of Egypt in 1798 was not only an incident in the revolutionary wars, it was a movement of the imagination. Bonaparte had read the Comte de Volney's Voyage en Egypte et en Syrle and other writings about Egypt, and they helped to shape his actions there: he was conscious of forty centuries looking down on him and his soldiers: he thought of himself as coming to bring back life to a lifeless world, and the scholars and scientists who went with him carried out the first systematic appropriation of an Oriental society and culture.

The French expedition perhaps did more for the "imaginative geography" of the Orient than for the real Egypt. To represent the Orient intellectually and imaginatively, to dominate it and bring it back to life: these endeavors were to create the Orientalist "field" during the next seventy years or so. Scholars discovered, edited, extracted, translated, and interpreted texts; at first an individual effort, their work was later codified and embodied in institutions and traditions. Mr. Said is mainly concerned with two of the traditions, the French which begins with Silvestre de Sacy, author of works on grammar and an Arabic anthology, and the English which goes back to Edward William Lane, lexicographer, translator of the Arabian Nights, and author of a work still widely read, An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians.

These traditions were enriched by ideas drawn from the general culture of the age, and Edward Said is right to lay emphasis on the science of philology, and in particular on Ernest Renan, who applied its methods to the study of the Semitic languages. Philology was one of the seminal studies of the nineteenth century, almost a secularized religion. Renan called it "the exact science of mental objects," and it seemed to offer a way of understanding not only languages but the nature and history of mankind. By reducing languages to their roots, it was able to group them into families, and it suggested that the families of languages could also be families of all those entities which expressed themselves through language: religions and mythologies, cultures and races.

Within a family, languages could be arranged in order of generations, and the classification of languages and cultures could therefore give rise to a history of them, and to a purely human history in which God had played no part. But Mr. Said contends that, in so far as it was used in the Orientalist field, philology itself was confined within the "Orientalist" frame and was used to give a "scientific" basis to the binary opposition which was already there. For Renan, the Semitic languages were essentially inferior to the Aryan, and incapable of developing beyond a certain point: "we refuse to allow that the Semitic languages have the capacity to regenerate themselves." In a particularly brilliant passage, Mr. Said suggests that this idea comes from an application to philology of certain ideas current in the anatomical science of the age: Semitic for Renan is what an anatomical monster was for Etienne Saint-Hilaire, not an exception but an anomaly, a phenomenon of degraded or arrested development.

Parallel to the process of scholarly investigation went that of exploration. Some travelers to the Orient, like Lane, went as scholars to gather materials; some, like Chateaubriand, to discover or assert their identities; others, like Burton, from a mixture of motives. In a subtle analysis not only of what they said but of the ways in which they said it—arrangement, style, and "tone"—Mr. Said uncovers the "latent Orientalism" beneath their differences of approach. For all of them, the fact of empire, the assertion and domination of Europe, was a present reality; the Orient appeared as a fallen being, attractive but full of danger, in particular sexual danger.

The modern Orient that they found was not the real Orient but a dead shell into which only Europe could breathe life again; travel in the Orient was a kind of pilgrimage, which bore fruit only when the traveler had encountered dangers and overcome them, seen strange places and turned his back on them, and returned to his own self enriched. In spite of the similarities, Mr. Said is aware of differences between British and French attitudes, and perhaps he overstates them. For the British, securely established in India, he says, the Muslim Orient is a region of potential domination; for the French it is haunted by a "sense of acute loss." But in this period the French had not irretrievably lost the Middle East, and they had won for themselves a new province of the imagination in Algeria.

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century a new phase begins. The imperial governments take on new responsibilities, the British in Egypt and the French in Tunisia; then the division of the Ottoman Empire, foreshadowed before the First World War, is accomplished at its end, and the Arabic-speaking provinces fall under British and French control. The relationship between scholarly work and political action becomes closer and more complex. The institutions through which the Orientalist tradition is transmitted are larger, more formally organized, and more closely linked with governments. Within this tradition, new human types of the "Orientalist" emerge. In the generation before 1914, the age of light-hearted, combative, and self-assured expansion, there appears the "imperial agent," the man who puts his knowledge and ideas, his feelings and impulses, at the service of empire.

As a student of Joseph Conrad, Mr. Said is at his ease with this kind of ambiguous personality, mysterious, in the end unknowable, seeking some personal redemption by way of some difficult and secret mission. The archetypal agent is T. E. Lawrence, and Said has new and penetrating things to say about the complex interweaving of motives in Lawrence's active life, and of narrative and personal vision in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. For Lawrence as for Bonaparte, it was by way of an imaginative vision of an epic, to be first lived and then written, that he "drew these tides of men into my hands"; his actions were then remolded into the vision we find in his flawed masterpiece, but it is impossible to tell where narrative ends and where vision begins, whether Lawrence's aim has been "to make a new nation, to restore a lost influence," or to make and discover himself. He himself becomes the Orient; one man becomes an entire history.

In the years after 1918 the Orientalist vision changes. Europe is in control of the Orient; its ultimate power cannot be shaken, its right to rule is scarcely questioned, but the resurgence of the peoples of Asia is now seen as a challenge, and the typical Orientalist of the age is the adviser who, while accepting the ultimate reality of Western domination, tries to show the way to a peaceful resolution of differences, a kind of mutual acceptance. The English and French traditions culminate in two figures who seem to sum them up: the first is the Frenchman Louis Massignon, whose evocation of the mystical writer and martyr Mansur al-Hallaj has been formed not only by the European tradition of Islamic studies but by an aesthetic sensibility and a Catholic consciousness typically French and of that time; the second is the Scotsman Hamilton Gibb, whose lineage goes back through Thomas Arnold and Robertson Smith to the same origins, and whose vision of the continuity and development of the Muslim community through history would come most easily to a mind conscious of imperial responsibilities and holding a certain Protestant view of the Church.

Mr. Said writes of both of them with respect for their culture, the quality of their thought, and their courage, but regards them both as being caught within the "Orientalist" cast of mind: "Oriental studies" had not turned critically upon their own tradition, as other human sciences were doing at the time, and for both Massignon and Gibb the ultimate reality was something called "Islam," eternally present, always different from the West, in which the individuality of human beings, the differences of times and places, were dissolved.

Massignon died in 1962, and Gibb in 1971; for those of us who knew them and can compare our memories with what Mr. Said writes of them, doubts and questions may arise. His writing is forceful and brilliant (sometimes too forceful for comfort, sometimes too brilliant to be clear); and he has the skill to penetrate human wills and to delineate the structure of human visions. But can it be that he himself has fallen into the trap which he has exposed, and has sunk human differences in an abstract concept called "Orientalism"? What is the status of this concept? What kind of validity can he claim for the general statements he makes—such statements as these: "Orientalists are neither interested in nor capable of discussing individuals"; the Orientalist is marked by "absence of sympathy covered by professional knowledge"?

In a sense, the answer is simple. What Mr. Said has done is to construct an ideal type of "the Orientalist," made up of a number of elements logically connected with each other, and free from extraneous and accidental elements. But as every social scientist knows, such ideal types must be used with care and caution in order to explain particular events or human beings. No person fully exemplifies one type: each must be seen in the light of several types. One of them may explain him more than others, but in the end some irreducible individual flavor will remain. Having admired the elegance of Mr. Said's construction, we must still ask how far it will serve as a principle of explanation of the human beings about whom he writes. The politicians and colonial servants? On the whole, yes. His quotations from Lord Cromer (the British administrator of Egypt after 1883) and others are apt, and he could have found many more to prove his point: the conscious opposition of "East and West," ideas such as those of "oriental despotism" and "oriental stagnation," and the view that "Orientals" only understand force, did give Englishmen and Frenchmen the assurance that their rule over Eastern peoples was natural and right. Imaginative writers can also be understood as working within such assumptions, especially writers of the romantic age, Chateaubriand, Lamartine, Flaubert, de Nerval; their Orient was a product of the imagination, and Mr. Said's delicate and subtle methods of analysis are good tools for laying bare the structure of the literary imagination.

It may be, however, that he is not treading on such sure ground when he writes about scholars. Here too he has found some telling quotations: Theodor Noldeke saying that his life's work had only confirmed his "low opinion" of the Eastern peoples, or Gibb claiming that "the Arab mind" is incapable of rational thought. Some element of "latent Orientalism" was indeed present in the minds of most of the Oriental scholars of the period he deals with; if it was not a certain contempt for those about whom they wrote, it was at least a conviction that they understood these people, knew their languages and beliefs, better than they did themselves. We must still ask, however, to what extent this conviction entered into their work and determined its direction and limits. To answer this, we must go beyond their obiter dicta to their serious professional work, and ask whether it was shaped and distorted by the crude opposition of "Orient" and "Occident," rather than by concepts more suited to its subject matter, and how far its products served to confirm and strengthen that opposition.

It is not necessary to be intelligent to become a scholar, and there have been many scholars who, even in their most substantial work, have shown no skills except those of language, and made use of no ideas except those drawn from the commonplaces of the age. Even great Orientalists found themselves obliged by circumstances to speak and write far beyond the limits of their real competence, and when doing so made use of ideas picked from the surrounding air. When most of them wrote about politics, or sociology, or "national character," or history, or literature, they wrote on the whole as amateurs.

There is, however, running through the work of the great Islamic scholars, one central strand of concern—for the origin and development of all those systems of thought which attempted to articulate what Muslims believed to be the revelation given to mankind through the Prophet Muhammad: tradition, law, theology, mystical thought. A hundred years of study of these matters have produced a body of work which cannot be regarded as badly done. There is in this work a cautious and careful use of original sources, an avoidance of unfounded generalization, a sense of the interrelations between intellectual movements and social and political events, and a feeling also for the quality of individual thinkers in so far as their works reveal them. The individual is not absorbed into a general concept in such detailed explorations of personal "thought-worlds" as Louis Massignon's work on al-Hallaj, Laoust's on Ibn Taimiya, and Ritter's on Farid al-Din cAttar. It is true that a general concept has shaped such work; it is that of "Islam" as a system of thought, seen in its relations to earlier systems, Greek, Christian, and Jewish. But this concept is not another form of the idea of the "Orient" as Mr. Said has described it; it is Islam not seen as the reverse side of something else but in its specific nature, and this surely is a concept appropriate to the subject matter. Within the limits of this work, those whom the world calls "Orientalists" were not guilty of what Mr. Said calls "Orientalism."

In principle, Mr. Said knows about this, and he acknowledges "the work of innumerable devoted scholars." But he has not in this book really come to terms with it. There may be two reasons for this. One of them is that he has omitted from his survey the scholars who wrote in German. He has done so because, in Germany, "at no time … could a close partnership have developed between Orientalists and a protracted, sustained national interest in the Orient." This is a valid reason, given his own terms of reference, but it has led him to neglect something important. Secondly, the work on religious and intellectual history, painstaking and solid as it is, has for the most part been rather dull, and has lacked that spark which would excite Mr. Said's mind.

But there was one exciting man of genius among them, the Frenchman Louis Massignon, and he has called out all the powers of Mr. Said's mind. His pages on Massignon are among the best in the book, but in a sense they show how little the ideal type of the "Orientalist" helps us to understand him. Mr. Said maintains that "in one direction his ideas about the Orient remained thoroughly traditional and Oriental," but what he says of him may leave us with the contrary impression. He writes of "the overwhelming intelligence … the sheer genius and novelty of Massignon's mind"; "the refinements, the personal style, the individual genius, may finally supersede the political restraints operating impersonally through tradition and through the national ambience."

For Massignon, indeed, the Muslim world was not, in the deepest sense, a region where his country pursued political interests, it was a place filled with individual men and women, loved, understood, grasped in their individual nature; the relationship of Christianity and Islam was not one of being and non-being, but of exchange and substitution. As the French scholar Jacques Berque has said, for those who knew him there are places—a certain church in Cairo, a certain street—where he will always be present.

Questions like these are raised also by the last section of the book, "The Latest Phase." Mr. Said's thesis is that the tradition of European "Orientalism" has now been transplanted to the United States, expressed in the language of the social sciences, embodied in institutions closely linked with American interests and policies in the Middle East, and used as a weapon in the conflict of Israel and the Palestinians. Once more, he is probably right in so far as he is dealing with popular images: for the movies, the politicians, and much of the press, the Arab is the creeping, mysterious, fearsome Oriental shadow. But once more doubts arise when he writes about scholars.

These doubts are of two kinds. First, Mr. Said adopts a certain style or tone which may make the reader uneasy; his awareness of the style of other writers makes us the more conscious of his own. At the beginning of the book he has told us in a frank and moving way of the personal motive which partly led to the writing of it: as a Palestinian Arab living in the West, he finds his life "disheartening … the web of racism, cultural stereotypes, political imperialism, dehumanizing ideology holding in the Arab or the Muslim is very strong indeed." In this last section, the tone is that of one struggling to break out of the web; his forceful criticisms go, in some places, as far as accusations of bad faith against other scholars. If these charges had been systematic and sustained, they would have been an obstacle to rational discourse; even coming as they do in two or three places, they may cause grave offence and lead to the book being taken less seriously than it should be.

Apart from this, someone working in the field of Middle Eastern studies may find this part of the book a little old-fashioned. Mr. Said is considering not so much the work being done today, and expressed in articles, monographs, and the words of teachers, but rather those works of synthesis which, by their nature, embody yesterday's work. Both in Europe and America, the best of today's work does seem to have broken out of the "Orientalist" frame, to have turned critically on itself, and to be fertilized by the ideas of the human sciences of the age. To some extent Mr. Said is aware of this: he mentions the work of Jacques Berque and Maxime Rodinson in France, Clifford Geertz in America, and Roger Owen in England. But he might have gone further, and written of the continued or revived tradition of religious history in Germany, and the new French historical work molded by Marxism and the Annales school; the greatest Middle Eastern historian of our day. Claude Cahen, is not once mentioned. This field of study, like almost all others, is now being rejuvenated by younger American scholars: historians, anthropologists, and now—despite what he says about the neglect of literature—students of poetry.

The last word however must be his. Today's work still expresses, to a great extent, a European and American conception of the Muslim East: "the Arab and Islamic world remains a second-order power in terms of the production of culture, knowledge and scholarship." There are some exceptions: no Ottoman historian would neglect the work of Halil Inalcik and other great Turkish historians, and no student of North Africa in future will be able to ignore the profound and original ideas of Abdullah Laroui. But in general it is true that the Western student of the Arabs and Persians still works within a structure of ideas created by other Western students. Arabs and Persians, "as a genuinely felt and experienced force," are still not present in Western culture; but it would need another book to explain why this is so.

Leon Wieseltier (review date 7 April 1979)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of Orientalism, in The New Republic, Vol. 180, No. 14, April 7, 1979, pp. 27-33.

[In the harsh review below, Wieseltier demonstrates how politics inform many of Said's arguments in Orientalism, suggesting that "the methodological gadgetry and 'iconoclastic' analysis of his book issue in little more than the abject canards of Arab propaganda."]

Edward Said's angry book [Orientalism] is about a collusion of knowledge with power. The knowledge is Orientalism and the power is imperialism. Said contends that images of the Orient in the West's traditions of learning and literature are of a piece with the institutions of conquest and administration that it loosed upon the East. Fictions about Islam and the Arabs were manufactured to justify, and even exalt, Europe's rapacious political and cultural designs. In Said's account the self-serving misperceptions appear already in Aeschylus (Peter Brown once called this sort of thing "the Plato-to-NATO" school of intellectual history); Said lingers, too, over hostile caricatures of Muslims in Dante's Inferno, as if Christians in 13th-century Arab works fared any better. But it is with Napoleon that his arraignment of the Orientalist abuse gets fully underway. Napoleon's campaign in Egypt was, according to Said, the first of many colonial enterprises under-written by the expertise of scholars and writers on the Orient:

For Napoleon Egypt was a project that acquired reality in his mind, and later in his preparations for its conquest, through experiences that belong to the realm of ideas and myths culled from texts, not empirical reality. His plans for Egypt therefore became the first in a long series of European encounters with the Orient in which the Orientalist's special expertise was put directly to functional colonial use.

The philological and historiographical achievements of Silvestre de Sacy and Ernest Renan, of Louis Massignon and H. A. R. Gibb, were all mortgaged to the global interest of capitalist France and Great Britain. The scholars furnished an Orient that was immobile, aberrant, supine, exotic—an Orient, in short, ripe for possession, and which possession would only improve. And the scholars' version became canonical, so that Europe knew only the Arabs in the texts, and nothing of what Arabs really were. "They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented"—Said cites this verse from Marx to describe exactly the powerlessness of the Arabs before the authority of Orientalism.

Said's indictment of the professors for their part in the cultural preparation of imperialism is, however, not a little skewed. The correlation of learning with policy was neither as tight nor as foul as he purports. Not as tight, because Orientalism's greatest strides of scholarship were made in countries that had no hand in the occupation of Arabia. They took place in the Netherlands, in Austria, and, of course, in Germany; by scholars such as de Groeje, Hurgronje, Noeldeke, Muller, Goldziher, Wellhausen, Becker, Weil, Dozy. These figures Said treats scoutishly or not at all. And not as foul, because Said's assumptions about the conduct of humanistic scholarship are decidedly contestable.

Said begins his book with an attack on objectivity. "No production of knowledge in the human sciences can ever ignore or disclaim its author's involvement as a human subject in his own circumstances." There are cultural values and political premises buried even in the tomes of the philologists. In fact that is most of what is buried there:

I believe it needs to be made clear about cultural discourse and exchange within a culture that what is commonly circulated by it is not "truth" but representations…. The value, efficacy, strength, apparent veracity of a written statement about the Orient therefore relies very little, and cannot instrumentally depend, on the Orient as such…. The things to look at are style, figures of speech, setting, narrative devices, historical and social circumstances, not the correctness of the representation nor its fidelity to some great original.

The human sciences tell primarily of themselves, of the real and perceived conditions to which they are in thrall.

Such strictures are not merely in order, they are commonplace. Of course objectivity is confounded by the impurities of the scholar's life in the world. Yet we continue to distinguish the study that is more precise, the judgment that is more just, from that which is less. And that is not because the scholar has transcended the presuppositions with which his work is overrun, or because "truth" has been miraculously discovered, but because it is possible for practicing historians—if not for voyeur theorists—to recognize a point at which the evidence stops and the interpretation begins, and to measure one against the other. This they do at least often and effectively enough to make their activity meaningful. Partisan scholars may turn up truths, and they may not. What will decide is their intellectual responsibility and professional competence; and, for these requirements not even the noblest intention may stand in.

Conor Cruise O'Brien has warned against the impairment of scholarly integrity by political inhibitions. Such vigilance is surely preferable to the well-heeled complacence of many political scientists and foundation boards. For objectivity may often be abused: much error and much evil have been the work of experts. Renan's racism, for example, is plain. But Renan's views must be rejected not only because they are villainous, but because they were wrong, and that is not the same. It is one thing to fear a betrayal by the intellectuals, and quite another to believe in the impossibility of knowledge.

How, then, evaluate the production of the human sciences? Having banished "correctness" and "fidelity," Said collapses egregiously into politics. "No person academically involved with the Near East—no Orientalist, that is—has ever … culturally and politically identified himself wholeheartedly with the Arabs." This, then, is what is wanting. Critical detachment is a chimera, malice breeds untruth: all that remains are sympathy, participation ("The Orientalist is outside the Orient," Said laments), and service. Said is entirely dead to the gains in understanding promised by an adversary attitude—gains of the sort illustrated, for instance, by the writings of Solzhenitsyn, the Medvedevs, Aleksandr Nekrich. Much of what we know about the political system and recent history of the Soviet Union we have learned from scholars and writers who oppose it. And those in the West most sympathetic have proved in many ways to be the most mistaken. Enlightenment is frequently the fruit of dissent, and certainly of skepticism.

But not for Said. Criticism, in his view, is only an expression of treachery. As in this passage:

Ignaz Goldziher's appreciation of Islam's tolerance toward other religions was undercut by his dislike of Mohammed's anthropomorphisms and Islam's too-exterior theology and jurisprudence; Duncan Black Macdonald's interest in Islamic piety and orthodoxy was vitiated by his perception of what he considered Islam's heretical Christianity; Carl Becker's understanding of Islamic civilization made him see it as a sadly undeveloped one; C. Snouck Hurgronje's highly refined studies of Islamic mysticism (which he considered the essential part of Islam) led him to a harsh judgement of its crippling limitations; and Louis Massignon's extraordinary identification with Islamic theology, mystical passion, and poetic art kept him curiously unforgiving to Islam for what he regarded as its unregenerate revolt against the idea of incarnation. The manifest differences in their methods emerge as less important than their Orientalist consensus on Islam; latent inferiority.

Inferiority? No, it is only imperfection of which Islam stands here accused, and for Said Islam must be perfect. Perhaps Mohammed's anthropomorphisms were not all that objectionable, and the limitations of Islamic mysticism not all that crippling. But monopoly capitalism seems strangely served by the belief to the contrary.

Scholarship for Said, we may conclude, must pass political muster. Only scholars who champion the Arabs comprehend them. These are not many, but they include Jacques Berque, Maxime Rodinson and Roger Owen. It suffices for Noam Chomsky to have written tirelessly on the Arabs' behalf to be also counted among the exemplary érudit. The mantle of the Orientalists, on the other hand, has fallen most firmly on Bernard Lewis. Said concludes his book with an hysterical attack on Lewis. At issue is the etymology of thawra, the Arabic word for revolution. Lewis proposed that "the root th-w-r in classical Arabic meant to rise up (e.g., as a camel), to be stirred, excited, and … hence to rebel." Said smells an enemy: "Why introduce the idea of a camel rising as an etymological root for modern Arab revolution except as a clever way of discrediting the modern?" And more: "Lewis's association of thawra with a camel rising and generally with excitement (and not with a struggle on behalf of values) hints … that the Arab is scarcely more than a neurotic sexual being." And still more: "But … it is a 'bad' sexuality he ascribes to the Arab. In the end, since [he is] not really equipped for serious action, the sexual excitement is no more noble than a camel's rising up." And, finally, because Lewis notes that thawra was "often used in the context of establishing a petty, independent sovereignty," and not to denote a full political and social revolution, his real meaning is "that instead of copulation the Arab can achieve foreplay, masturbation, coitus interruptus."

All that is patently fatuous, but it is precisely what Said is up to. I know of no word for revolution in any language whose root refers to "a struggle on behalf of values"; the English certainly does not. Said does not prove, moreover, that Lewis's etymology is wrong, only that it is politically unacceptable. It happens that none other than Jacques Berque has put forward an alternative. Berque maintains that thawra means "effervescence," and likens it to a usage in medieval physics which referred to the rising of a hair on a head. Now an upright hair flatters Ben Bella and Habash no more than an upright camel; and, if sex is at stake, camels rise more naturally and for longer than hairs. But of Berque's suggestion we hear nothing. Berque is with the revolution, and so may pass. (The revolution still eats its own: a few years ago there appeared in Les Temps Modernes a vigorous denunciation of Jacques Berque for just those Orientalist sins against which Said rails.)

As Said construes the human sciences, then, it would be impossible to regard skeptically any aspect of the Arab world without being a tool of imperialism. Scholarly integrity, intellectual responsibility, professional competence—these aspirations he would no doubt dismiss as sentimental and ingenuous. And they are, in a sense, ingenuous; or, rather, they are a matter of philosophical conviction. One believes in free inquiry or one does not. Said does not: "learned and imaginative writing are never free." There is no room in his scheme for an exercise of intelligence that is not exhaustively determined by its social, political and cultural environment. When the Orientalism is not "manifest" it is "latent." Or, as he bluntly puts it, "every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was … a racist, an imperialist and almost totally ethnocentric."

"Every European": there were malefactors outside the academy as well. The authority of Orientalism is, in fact, most apparent in its grip upon the imagination—upon writers such as Chateaubriand, Nerval and Flaubert, upon painters such as Gérôme and Delacroix. (Gérôme's languorous and very beautiful Snake Charmers may be consulted on the dust jacket of Said's book. Orientalism, it says, above the fetching little ass of an Arab boy displaying himself and a snake to a group of rapt Arab warriors. A shrewd advertisement, this: sort of like selling feminism with a Vargas girl.) Said does not discuss the painters—many of Delacroix's florid Orientals were Jews anyway—but he takes pains to describe the deployment of the Orient in the literary geography of the last century. This he does instructively. He is particularly good on those writers—Edward William Lane, most poignantly—who were caught between Orientalist expectations and their experience of the Orient. None entirely overcame this division. It was no mere prejudice, however, with which they wrestled. Orientalism is more than the sum of scholars' myths and poets' fancies. It is, we are finally admonished, an epistemology.

Presiding over Said's philippic is the mighty methodological vision of Michel Foucault. Foucault's subject is the incarceration of man in concepts; surely no historian of ideas has ever drawn so tenebrous a portrait of human life's enslavement to its own intellectual creations. Foucault's extraordinary books are chapters in a terrible history of utter domination by discourse: by the discourse of medicine, natural science, political economy, penology, sex. These are not so much departments of learning, Foucault counsels, but instruments of control; they are "discursive systems" which ordain their own "enunciative possibilities and impossibilities," what may and may not be said in their field, and so govern absolutely. Orientalism is nothing less than such a system, as insurmountable and as injurious. And yet, pleads Said, it must be unlearned.

Dissolve to the West Bank.


Our Zionist faith and aspirations were composed of two things, and two things only: the people of Israel and the land of Israel. This faith was not created or sustained by the Turks, or Kaiser Wilhelm, or Balfour.

                                       —Ben Gurion, 1937

Edward Said's essay is not, as Albert Hourani has timidly suggested, about "the way in which intellectual traditions are created and transmitted." It is about the way in which intellectual traditions bedevil contemporary politics. More specifically, it is about how Orientalism is responsible for the failure of Palestinian nationalism.

Hard as it is to detect amid the allusions and abstractions with which the book is swollen, the real argument of Orientalism is that Palestinians continue to elude their political destiny because the epistemological habits of the French and the British have been inherited by the Israelis and the Americans. The argument is in three parts: Zionism is colonialism, American policy in the Middle East is imperialism (thus are the Palestinians awarded the cachet of third world cant), the Palestinians remain unheeded. Orientalism establishes Edward Said as among the more formidable of Zionism's cultured despisers. For the methodological gadgetry and "iconoclastic" analysis of his book issue in little more than the abject canards of Arab propaganda.

"The Semitic myth bifurcated in the Zionist movement: one Semite went the way of Orientalism, the other, the Arab, was forced to go the way of the Oriental." Or, elsewhere: "The difference between Renan and Weizman is that the latter had already gathered behind his rhetoric the solidity of institutions whereas the former had not." The ignorance in such passages is staggering. Said knows virtually nothing about the modern history of the Jews, about the origins and nature of the Zionist impulse. Someone as incensed as he by hasty and politically duplicitous scholarship might have taken the trouble to examine more closely the ideological and political development of the movement he impugns. Said prefers his rage. He adduces Balfour, and Weizman to Balfour, and crudely concludes that Zionism was another monstrous colonial adventure.

Zionism was a movement of national liberation. With a difference, to be sure: it required for its fulfillment the resettlement of an oppressed (according to Albert Memmi, a colonized) Jewish population. This resettlement, which was a return from exile, and in the event disappointed all Zionist hopes, was the optical illusion which made many cry colonialism; it was, too, the movement's tragic feature, for it insured that Zionism would have victims. Yet Zionism was, in the words of the astute Hayim Greenberg, "in recent history … the first instance of colonization free from imperialist ambition or the desire to rule any part of the population." The leaders of the yishuv—not merely the lofty likes of Judah Magnes, but figures of real political consequence within Labor Zionism—were ardently committed to cooperation with the Arabs, with whom many wished to collaborate in the social and democratic reconstruction of Palestine. (Not so Jabotinsky, whose writings are sadly marred by slurs and stereotypes, and by a proclivity to empire.) They were, no doubt, too sanguine. The inhabitants of Palestine could hardly have blessed the Jewish pioneers, though it is interesting to note that neither the first nor the second aliyah was perceived by them as imperialistic. The opposition of the fellahin who had—and still have—their rights, however, has nothing to do with the legitimacy of Jewish nationalism. And as the decades passed the crisis in Europe grew dire, and Zionism became a program for return in an hour of emergency, and Europe became a charnel house for the Jews.

The doctrine that Zionism is colonialism is not new—even Orwell delivered himself of the opinion that "the Palestine issue is partly a colour issue, and an Indian nationalist … would probably side with the Arabs"—but it has in recent years enjoyed renewed currency, and so it is important to understand precisely in what the slander consists. It is not merely political. Would that it were: political differences allow for solutions, as Anwar Sadat has demonstrated. What is denied is rather that Jewish politics has a national motive—that is, that the Jews are a nation, that they possess the legitimate rights and privileges of a nation, that they have a history out of which certain practical conclusions must be drawn. Zionism is just such a conclusion. It is the genuine expression of a moral, psychological and political evolution within the Jewish world; it cannot be understood otherwise. Said and his ilk, therefore, have not understood it. They look to the history of the Europeans when they should be looking to the history of the Jews. The immolation of the Jews in Nazi Europe moves them not at all. (In a recent essay on "The Idea of Palestine in the West" Said observes sardonically that support for the idea of a Jewish state surged "with the advent of Fascism in Europe." He may be assured that the Zionists would have done without that particular stroke of fortune.) Said sees Zionists in Palestine representing not themselves, but others; he sees Jews in the service only of the British.

British interests were for a time identified with the growth of the Jewish community in Palestine, and that growth certainly owed something to the British endorsement of Zionist claims. But that endorsement, even Balfour's, was not why Zionism won, and anyway it did not always come. The instruments of policy emitted by the Foreign Office in the 1920s and 1930s were in the main designed to diminish the benefits accruing to the yishuv from Balfour's largesse. Zionism's struggle, furthermore, was as often with the mandatory as it was with the citrus crop and the fedayeen. "In every hour of our lives as Jews and as workers." Berl Katznelson remarked in 1931, "as citizens and in our colonization activity, we feel the [British] administration to be colonial and absolutistic. We are hurt by its degradations and its insults." The notion of Zionist fealty to the British in Palestine is, in short, preposterous. Nor was the attitude of the Palestinian community toward the British any less ambiguous. It courted the Crown as well, and turned against it whenever it appeared that Jews were all the burden the white man wanted to bear. Significant elements in the Palestinian leadership decided expediently to become clients of the Nazis. How Hitler's Orientalism must have grated!

Zionism has once in its parlous career allied itself proudly with the affairs of a great power. That power is the United States, for which Israel dependably speaks. And this makes Israel, in Said's view, an agent of imperialism. "From the beginning of the nineteenth century France and Britain dominated the Orient and Orientals; since World War II America has dominated the Orient, and approaches it as France and Britain once did." The prize this time around is oil. But this time may be the first that the profits have redounded to the natives. It is a curious kind of imperialism that distorts its own economy, imposes the hardship on its own people, and alters its own foreign policy, all to meet the gross political and commercial demands of the peoples it was supposed to plunder. The oil cartel is untouched, the oil fields uninvaded—which any imperialist worth his salt would have seen to long ago. And hundreds of millions of imperialist dollars annually feed and arm the vanguard of the revolution. (What does Said think is filling the PLO's coffers? Chomsky's royalties?) With enemies like these, who needs friends?

The desire to rid the region of major powers and their Mephistophelian bargains is very estimable. It is not, however, Said's. He is aware that lesser states and movements cannot prosecute their interests without the patronage of such a power. Their own weaknesses, and global rivalries, forbid it. And so his orations against Western imperialism and its wickedness translate into a concrete political choice: the Soviet Union. The preference appears coyly at various places in the book; but it is glaring in the absence of any even desultory consideration of Soviet Orientalism and the fitful development of Soviet policy toward the Arabs. Before Bandung the Arabs were treated by Russian academicians with ignorance or indifference. But by the 1950s it was clear to the Russians that the Arabs could be used; and new journals of Oriental studies began to appear, and the shibboleths of the restive third world came to be intoned by the supple Mikoyan and his successors. There is no reason to believe that Soviet scholars understand their subject any better than their Western peers. Their government, however, stands behind radical forces in the Arab countries, and that will do. The Marxist-Leninist minions training in the hills of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq seem not to care that they are fighting imperialism with imperialism, and neither does Said.

The gravest threat posed by the West, Said continues, may lie in the export of its civilization. The Arab world, he writes, is "an intellectual … and cultural satellite" of the United States. "The Arab and Islamic world as a whole is hooked into the Western market system"—as, indeed, is Israel, where the quality of culture is in some ways also imperilled by "transistors, blue jeans, and Coca Cola." Said is alarmed by the proliferation in the Middle East of American consumerism and its corruptions. But the influence of the West upon the Arab nations has surely been more complex. It might best be described as a mixed curse. And not merely because of the blandishments of modernization—which, as the glorious women of Iran have shown, will not be so swiftly renounced. From the West there has also been introduced into Arab society the ideological equipment for its own awakening, the very concepts of rationality and progress, nation and revolution, in the name of which Arabs criticize and revolt. The Arab left was not created out of the Koran. And here is Said, excoriating the West in the dialectical sonorities of Gramsci and Foucault.


Which brings us, at last, to the myth of the invisible Palestinian. "There exists [in America] an almost unanimous consensus that politically he does not exist." Or, as Said wrote last spring, "we seem scarcely capable of making actual and legitimate the bare facts of our presence." The West simply does not see the Palestinian, we are told, because its episteme will not permit.

But this is dramatically untrue. The Palestinians are the political heroes of the season, and of many before and many to come. They have almost completely usurped the moral prestige which once attached to Zionism; and the obloquy into which Zionism has fallen is as good a sign as any of how twisted are the times. Bien-pensants everywhere are beside themselves in the Palestinians' support. The United Nations cannot pay them sufficient tribute. And they are the centerpiece of the solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict for which American policymakers most ache. Carter's pronouncement in Clinton in 1977 constitutes nothing less than a Balfour Declaration for the Palestinians: the president of the United States announced that his government views with favor the establishment of a homeland for them in Palestine. The Mideast expert in residence at the National Security Council is a scholar whose reputation was made in the study of Algerian and Palestinian nationalism. He and the other professor are plainly doing their very best to evict the Israelis from the West Bank. In high places the Palestinians are sitting rather pretty.

But perhaps not in lower places. "Since World War II, and more noticeably after each Arab-Israeli war, the Arab Muslim has become a figure in American popular culture." But an unsavory figure, complains Said: the American media depict the Arab always beside a gas pump or with a gun in his hands. How unfair. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the Palestinians and their supporters have relied most upon oil and murder. No anti-Arab bias, after all, robbed Sadat of America's admiration. But, we must recall, "the things to look at are style, figures of speech, setting, narrative devices, historical and social circumstances, not the correctness of the representation or its fidelity to some great original." Study the Americans, not the Arabs.

In his account of Orientalist scholarship Said's method suffers for his politics. Here his politics suffers for his method. And yet it is not their reading of Renan that prods security guards at Western airports to have another poke at Libyan and Iraqi pouches. The application of a Foucault-like holism to the realities of the political world has the consequence only of absolving the actors of their accountability. There are politicians in Israel who, without such sophistication, arrive at a similar and equally explosive despair; Said resembles no one so much as those on the other side who attribute all that befalls them to anti-Semitism, for whom all there will ever be is war. But the Jews did not build their state with such self-pity or paranoia, and neither will the Palestinians.

Nor did Jews build it with terror; right-wing militants whose appetite for confrontation threatened the rewards of decades of hard work and slow growth were harshly brought into line, and may be again. On Palestinian strategy Said is silent. His jusq'auboutisme, however, is unmistakable. How, indeed, do battle with an epistemology? Strong measures are called for. To overthrow the triumphalist dogmas of Western consciousness it may be necessary to smuggle a few bombs into Israeli pickle barrels. Discursive systems die hard.

Said's foray into cultural history is, then, just another apology for rejectionism. And there is something morally pusillanimous about its appearance in the current political climate. In the wake of Sadat's initiative and the accords at Camp David—which Said attacked last September—the Israelis are in the throes of a strenuous reassessment of their designs upon the territories. Peace Now proved that it has finally become respectable in Israeli society to wish to exchange territories for peace. And as a growing number of Israelis come at last to question their claim to Nablus Said sets out to show that they have no claim even to Tel Aviv.

But where is Peace Now's counterpart among the Palestinians? Who among them has the courage to condemn their own crimes and engage the Israelis? Where is their Eliav, their Yariv, their Weizman? Where, indeed, is their Begin? Nowhere in the history of Palestinian nationalism since the 1920s is there to be found anything but boycott and violence. The Palestinians have their own feral and fruitless tactics to blame for their failure to achieve a state: the maximalists fulfilled their own fears. As they surely will again. The leadership of the PLO today is good only for assassinations and interviews. It still has no eye for the main chance. It dreams instead of social revolution, and lately of Islam. No wonder, then, that the architects of the region's first blueprint for peace have to speak for the Palestinians. They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.

It is a vital interest of Israel that the national and political needs of the people with whom it must live be met. The autonomy plan, for all its shortcomings, is at least the beginning of the end of Palestinian tutelage, and so should be honored. Reports in the Israeli press of proposals before the Israeli cabinet to restrict even further the scope of Palestinian self-rule are disturbing; bad faith now will only make matters worse. The Israeli government must stand up to fear, and greed, and the madness of petty messianists who disfigure Judaism even as they endanger Israel. ("The Jews did not come to Israel to be safe," Geula Cohen recently explained.) But it has made a fine opening move. It is finally Arafat and his pack, and not Gush Emunim, who make the Israelis go slowly. As the Israelis must, the imprecations of diplomats and intellectuals not-withstanding, until the Palestinians abandon their holy anger for credible objectives, and terrorism becomes statesmanship. The Palestinians have the right to determine their own future. They do not have the right to determine Israel's. For both it is the moment of truth.

Edward Said with Salman Rushdie (interview date 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "On Palestinian Identity: A Conversation with Edward Said," in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981–1991, Granta Books, 1991, pp. 166-84.

[In the following interview which took place at the PEN Congress in New York in 1986, Said discusses the identity of the Palestinian conscious based on historical and literary themes in his writings.]

For those of us who see the struggle between Eastern and Western descriptions of the world as both an internal and an external struggle, Edward Said has for many years been an especially important voice. Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia and author of literary criticism on, among others, Joseph Conrad, Edward has always had the distinguishing feature that he reads the world as closely as he reads books. We need only think of the major trilogy which precedes his new book, After the Last Sky. In the first volume, Orientalism, he analysed 'the affiliation of knowledge with power', discussing how the scholars of the period of Empire helped to create an image of the East which provided the justification for the supremacist ideology of imperialism. This was followed by The Question of Palestine, which described the struggle between a world primarily shaped by Western ideas—that of Zionism and later of Israel—and the largely 'oriental' realities of Arab Palestine. Then came Covering Islam, subtitled 'How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World', in which the West's invention of the East is, so to speak, brought up to date through a discussion of responses to the Islamic revival.

After the Last Sky is a collaborative venture with Jean Mohr—a photographer who may be known to you from John Berger's study of immigrant labour in Europe, A Seventh Man. Its title is taken from a poem, 'The Earth is Closing on Us', by the national poet of Palestine, Mahmoud Darwish:

     The earth is closing on us, pushing us through the last passage, and we tear off our limbs to pass through.      The earth is squeezing us. I wish we were its wheat so we could die and live again. I wish the earth was our mother      So she'd be kind to us. I wish we were pictures on the rocks for our dreams to carry      As mirrors. We saw the faces of those to be killed by the last of us in the last defence of the soul.      We cried over their children's feast. We saw the faces of those who will throw our children      Out of the window of this last space. Our star will hang up mirrors.      Where should we go after the last frontiers? Where should the birds fly after the last sky?      Where should the plants sleep after the last breath of air?      We will write our names with scarlet steam,      We will cut off the hand of the song to be finished by our flesh.      We will die here, here in the last passage. Here and here our blood will plant its olive tree.

After the last sky there is no sky. After the last border there is no land. The first part of Said's book is called 'States'. It is a passionate and moving meditation on displacement, on landlessness, on exile and identity. He asks, for example, in what sense Palestinians can be said to exist. He says: 'Do we exist? What proof do we have? The further we get from the Palestine of our past, the more precarious our status, the more disrupted our being, the more intermittent our presence. When did we become a people? When did we stop being one? Or are we in the process of becoming one? What do those big questions have to do with our intimate relationships with each other and with others? We frequently end our letters with the motto "Palestinian love" or "Palestinian kisses". Are there really such things as Palestinian intimacy and embraces, or are they simply intimacy and embraces—experiences common to everyone, neither politically significant nor particular to a nation or a people?'

Said comes, as he puts it, from a 'minority inside a minority'—a position with which I feel some sympathy, having also come from a minority group within a minority group. It is a kind of Chinese box that he describes: 'My family and I were members of a tiny Protestant group within a much larger Greek Orthodox Christian minority, within the larger Sunni Muslim majority.' He then goes on to discuss the condition of Palestinians through the mediation of a number of recent literary works. One of these, incorrectly called an Arab Tristram Shandy in the blurb, is a wonderful comic novel about the secret life of somebody called Said, The Ill-Fated Pessoptimist. A pessoptimist, as you can see, is a person with a problem about how he sees the world. Said claims all manner of things, including, in chapter one, to have met creatures from outer space: 'In the so-called age of ignorance before Islam, our ancestors used to form their gods from dates and eat them when in need. Who is more ignorant then, dear sir, I or those who ate their gods? You might say it is better for people to eat their gods than for the gods to eat them. I would respond, yes, but their gods were made of dates.'

A crucial idea in After the Last Sky concerns the meaning of the Palestinian experience for the form of works of art made by Palestinians. In Edward's view, the broken or discontinuous nature of Palestinian experience entails that classic rules about form or structure cannot be true to that experience; rather, it is necessary to work through a kind of chaos or unstable form that will accurately express its essential instability. Edward then proceeds to introduce the theme—which is developed later in the book—that the history of Palestine has turned the insider (the Palestinian Arab) into the outsider. This point is illustrated by a photograph of Nazareth taken from a position in what is called Upper Nazareth—an area which did not exist in the time of Arab Palestine. Thus Arab Palestine is seen from the point of view of a new, invented Palestine, and the inside experience of the old Palestine has become the external experience in the photograph. And yet the Palestinians have remained.

    It would be easier     to catch fried fish in the milky way     to plough the sea     or to teach the alligator speech     than to make us leave.

In part two, 'Interiors', which greatly develops the theme of the insider and the outsider, Edward refers to a change in the status of the Palestinians who are inside Palestine. Until recently, among the Palestinian community in general, there was a slight discounting of those who remained inside, as if they were somehow contaminated by the proximity of the Jews. Now, however, the situation has been inverted: those who go on living there, maintaining a Palestinian culture and obliging the world to recognize their existence, have acquired a greater status in the eyes of other Palestinians.

This experience of being inside Palestinianness is presented as a series of codes which, though incomprehensible to outsiders, are instantly communicated by Palestinians when they meet one another. The only way in which to show your insiderness is precisely through the expression of those codes. There is a very funny incident in which Professor Said receives a letter, via a complete stranger, from a man who has built his Palestinian identity as a karate expert. 'What was the message to me?' Said asks. 'First of all he was inside, and using the good offices of a sympathetic outsider to contact me, an insider who was now outside Jerusalem, the place of our common origin. That he wrote my name in English was as much a sign that he too could deal with the world I lived in as it was that he followed what I did. The time had come to demonstrate that the Edward Saids had better remember that we were being watched by karate experts. Karate does not stand for self-development but only for the repeated act of being a Palestinian expert. A Palestinian—it is as if the activity of repeating prevents us and others from skipping us or overlooking us entirely.'

He then gives a number of other examples of repeating behaviour in order to make it Palestinian behaviour, and thus existing through that repetition. There also seems to be a compulsion to excess, illustrated in various ways, both tragic and comic, within the book. One of the problems of being Palestinian is that the idea of interior is regularly invaded by other people's descriptions, by other people's attempts to control what it is to occupy that space—whether it be Jordanian Arabs who say there is no difference between a Jordanian and a Palestinian, or Israelis who claim that the land is not Palestine but Israel.

The third part, 'Emergence', and the fourth part, 'Past and Future', turn to a discussion of what it actually is or might be to be a Palestinian. There is also an account of the power to which Palestinians are subject, of the way in which even their names have been altered through the superimposition of Hebrew transliteration. As a mark of resistance, Palestinians are now seeking to reassert their identity by going back to the old Arabic forms: Abu Ammar, for example, instead of Yasser Arafat. On various occasions the very meaning of names has been changed. Thus the largest refugee camp in Lebanon, Ein el Hilwé, which is written with an 'h' in the Arabic transliteration, has become Ein el Khilwé in the Hebrew transliteration: a name which means 'sweet spring' has been turned into something like 'spring in the empty place'. Said sees in this an allusion to mass graves and the regularly razed and not always rebuilt camps. 'I also register the thought,' he writes, 'that Israel has indeed emptied the camp with its Palestinian wellspring.'

The text goes on to talk about Zionism, which he addressed in his earlier book The Question of Palestine. We should note the difficulty in making any kind of critique of Zionism without being instantly charged with anti-Semitism. Clearly it is important to understand Zionism as a historical process, as existing in a context and having certain historical functions. A further idea in these later sections of the book is that, in the West, everyone has come to think of exile as a primarily literary and bourgeois state. Exiles appear to have chosen a middle-class situation in which great thoughts can be thought. In the case of the Palestinians, however, exile is a mass phenomenon: it is the mass that is exiled and not just the bourgeoisie.

Finally Said poses a series of questions which come down to the original one of Palestinian existence: 'What happens to landless people? However you exist in the world, what do you preserve of yourselves? What do you abandon?' I find one passage particularly valuable, as it connects with many things I have been thinking about. 'Our truest reality,' he writes, 'is expressed in the way we cross over from one place to another. We are migrants and perhaps hybrids, in but not of any situation in which we find ourselves. This is the deepest continuity of our lives as a nation in exile and constantly on the move.' He also criticizes the great concentration of the Palestinian cause on its military expression, referring to the dangers of cultural loss or absence.

Professor Said periodically receives threats to his safety from the Jewish Defense League in America, and I think it is important for us to appreciate that to be a Palestinian in New York—in many ways the Palestinian—is not the easiest of fates.

[Salman Rushdie:] One of my sisters was repeatedly asked in California where she came from. When she said 'Pakistan' most people seemed to have no idea what this meant. One American said: 'Oh, yes, Pakestine!' and immediately started talking about his Jewish friends. It is impossible to overestimate the consequences of American ignorance on world affairs. When I was at the PEN Congress in New York in 1986, the American writer Cynthia Ozick took it upon herself to circulate a petition which described Chancellor Kreisky of Austria as an anti-Semite. Why was he an anti-Semite—this man who is himself a Jew and has given refuge to tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of Jews leaving the Soviet Union? Because he had had a conversation with Yasser Arafat. The alarming thing is that this petition, on the face of it quite absurd, should have been taken so seriously by participants at the congress. There was even a moment when I felt nervously that since no one else seemed to be speaking for Palestine, I might have to myself. But the defence came from Pierre Trudeau of all people, who spoke very movingly about the Palestinian cause. These are some of the extraordinary things that happen in New York. Edward, you are the man on the spot. Is it getting worse or better? How does it feel?

[Edward Said:] Well, I think it is getting worse. First of all, most people in New York who feel strongly about Palestine and Palestinians have had no direct experience at all. They think of them essentially in terms of what they have seen on television: bomb scares, murders and what the Secretary of State and others call terrorism. This produces a kind of groundless passion, so that when I am introduced to someone who may have heard of me, they react in a very strange way that suggests 'maybe you're not as bad as you seem.' The fact that I speak English, and do it reasonably well, adds to the complications, and most people eventually concentrate on my work as an English professor for the rest of the conversation. But you do feel a new kind of violence around you which is a result of 1982. An important break with the past occurred then, both for people who have supported Israel in the United States, and for people like us, for whom the destruction of Beirut, our Beirut, was the end of an era. Most of the time you can feel that you are leading a normal life, but every so often you are brought up against a threat or an allusion to something which is deeply unpleasant. You always feel outside in some way.

Has there been any change in your ability to publish or talk about the Palestinian issue?

To some extent. This is one issue on which, as you know, there is a left-right break in America, and there are still a few groups, a few people—like Chomsky or Alexander Cockburn—who are willing to raise it publicly. But most people tend to think that it is better left to the crazies. There are fewer hospitable places, and you end up publishing for a smaller audience. Ironically, you also become tokenized, so that whenever there is a hijacking or some such incident. I get phone-calls from the media asking me to come along and comment. It's a very strange feeling to be seen as a kind of representative of terrorism. You're treated like a diplomat of terrorism, with a place at the table. I remember one occasion, though, when I was invited to a television debate with the Israeli ambassador—I think it was about the Achille Lauro incident. Not only would he not sit in the same room with me: he wanted to be in a different building, so as not to be contaminated by my presence. The interviewer said to the national audience: 'You know, Professor Said and Ambassador Netanyahu refuse to speak to each other, the Israeli ambassador won't speak to him and he won't….' But then I interrupted and said: 'No, no, I am perfectly willing to speak to him, but he won't….' The moderator replied: 'Well, I stand corrected. Mr. Ambassador, why won't you speak to Professor Said?' 'Because he wants to kill me.' The moderator, without batting an eyelid, urged: 'Oh really, tell us about it.' And the ambassador went on about how Palestinians want to kill the Israelis, and so on. It was really a totally absurd situation.

You say you don't like calling it a Palestinian diaspora. Why is that?

I suppose there is a sense in which, as one man wrote in a note to me from Jerusalem, we are 'the Jews of the Arab world'. But I think our experience is really quite different and beyond such attempts to draw parallels. Perhaps its dimension is much more modest. In any case the idea that there is a kind of redemptive homeland doesn't answer to my view of things.

So let me put to you your own question. Do you exist? And if so, what proof do you have? In what sense is there a Palestinian nation?

First of all, in the sense that a lot of people have memories or show great interest in looking into the past for a sign of coherent community. Many, too—especially younger-generation scholars—are trying to discover things about the Palestinian political and cultural experience that mark it off from the rest of the Arab world. Secondly, there is the tradition of setting up replicas of Palestinian organizations in places as far afield as Australia or South America. It is quite remarkable that people will come to live in, say, Youngstown, Ohio—a town I don't know, but you can imagine what it's like—and remain on top of the latest events in Beirut or the current disagreements between the Popular Front and Al Fatah, and yet not even know the name of the mayor of Youngstown or how he is elected. Maybe they will just assume that he is put there by somebody rather than being elected. Finally, you can see from Jean Mohr's pictures that the Palestinians are a people who move a lot, who are always carrying bags from one place to another. This gives us a further sense of identity as a people. And we say it loudly enough, repetitiously enough and stridently enough, strong in the knowledge that they haven't been able to get rid of us. It is a great feeling—call it positive or pessoptimistic—to wake up in the morning and say: 'Well they didn't bump me off.'

To illustrate this point that things could be worse, you tell the story of a mother whose son died very soon after his wedding. While the bride is still mourning she says: 'Thank God it has happened in this way and not in another way!' The bride then gets very angry and says: 'How dare you say that! What could possibly be a worse way?' But the mother-in-law replies: 'Well, you know, if he grew old and you left him for another man and then he died, that could be worse. So it's better that he dies now.'

Exactly. You are always inventing worse scenarios.

It's very difficult to work out whether this is optimism or pessimism. That's why it is called pessoptimism. Would you like to say something now about the codes by which Palestinians exist and recognize each other and about the idea of repetition and excess as a way of existing?

Let me tell you another story that will show you what I mean. A close friend of mine once came to my house and stayed overnight. In the morning we had breakfast, which included yogurt cheese with a special herb, za'atar. This combination probably exists all over the Arab world, and certainly in Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. But my friend said: 'There, you see. It's a sign of a Palestinian home that it has za'atar in it.' Being a poet, he then expatiated at great and tedious length on Palestinian cuisine, which is generally very much like Lebanese and Syrian cuisine, and by the end of the morning we were both convinced that we had a totally distinct national cuisine.

So, because a Palestinian chooses to do something it becomes the Palestinian thing to do?

That's absolutely right. But even among Palestinians there are certain code words that define which camp or group the speaker comes from; whether from the Popular Front, which believes in the complete liberation of Palestine, or from the Fatah, which believes in a negotiated settlement. They will choose a different set of words when they talk about national liberation. Then there are the regional accents. It is very strange indeed to meet a Palestinian kid in Lebanon who was born in some refugee camp and has never been to Palestine but who carries the inflections of Haifa, or Jaffa, in his Lebanese Arabic.

Let us turn to the idea of excess. You talk about how you find yourself obliged to carry too much luggage wherever you go. But more seriously, I remember that dialogue between a captured Palestinian guerrilla and an Israeli broadcaster in which the guerrilla appears to be implicating himself in the most heinous crimes but is in fact sending up the entire event by a colossal excess of apologies. The broadcaster is too tuned into his own set of attitudes to realize what is going on.

Yes. It was in 1982 in southern Lebanon, when Israeli radio would often put captured guerrillas on the air as a form of psychological warfare. But in the case you are talking about, no one was deceived. In fact, the Palestinians in Beirut made a cassette recording of the whole show and played it back in the evening as a way of entertaining people. Let me translate a sample:

Israeli broadcaster: Your name?

Captured Palestinian: Ahmed Abdul Hamid Abu Site.

Israeli: What is your movement name?

Palestinian: My movement name is Abu Lell [which in English means Father of Night, with a rather threatening, horrible sound to it].

Israeli: Tell me, Mr. Abu Lell, to which terrorist organization do you belong?

Palestinian: I belong to the Popular Front for the Liberation…. I mean terrorization of Palestine.

Israeli: And when did you get involved in the terrorist organization?

Palestinian: When I first became aware of terrorism.

Israeli: What was your mission in South Lebanon?

Palestinian: My mission was terrorism. In other words, we would enter villages and just terrorize the occupants. And whenever there were women and children in particular, we would terrorize everything, and all we did was terrorism.

Israeli: And did you practise terrorism out of belief in a cause or just for money?

Palestinian: No, just for money. What kind of cause is this anyway? Is there still a cause? We sold out a long time ago.

Israeli: Tell me … where do the terrorist organizations get their money?

Palestinian: From anyone who has spare money for terrorism.

Israeli: What is your opinion of the terrorist Arafat?

Palestinian: I swear that he is the greatest terrorist of all. He is the one who sold us and the cause out. His whole life is terrorism. [Of course, to a Palestinian this could mean that he is the most committed of all, but it sounds as if he is just a total sellout.]

Israeli: What is your opinion of the way in which the Israeli defence forces have conducted themselves?

Palestinian: On my honour, we thank the Israeli defence forces for their good treatment of each terrorist.

Israeli: Do you have any advice for other terrorists, who are still terrorizing the IDF?

Palestinian: My advice to them is to surrender their arms to the IDF. What they will find there is the best possible treatment.

Israeli: Lastly, Mr. Terrorist, would you like to send a message to your family?

Palestinian: I would like to assure my family and friends that I am in good health. I would also like to thank the enemy broadcasting facility for letting me speak out like this.

Israeli: You mean the Voice of Israel?

Palestinian: Yes, yes, sir. Thank you, sir. Yes of course, sir.

And this went out over the air?

Absolutely. It was put out on a daily basis, and recorded in Beirut and played back to the guerrillas.

It's a very funny and wonderful story.

You also talk about a photo article in a fashion magazine, under the headline 'Terrorist Culture', which claims that the Palestinians are not really Palestinians because they have simply hijacked Arab dress and renamed it Palestinian.

We do it all the time!

The article also claims that this supposedly distinctive dress is not that of the people but of the upper middle class. Referring to the American author of the article, Sharon Churcher, you write: 'In the larger scheme of things … she is somebody doing a hack job on a hack fashion magazine.' And yet, you say you feel the need to go right back to the beginning, to explain the whole history of Palestine in order to unmake Sharon Churcher's lie and show that this is in fact genuinely popular Palestinian dress. Doesn't this need to go back again and again over the same story become tiring?

It does, but you do it anyway. It is like trying to find the magical moment when everything starts, as in Midnight's Children. You know midnight, and so you go back. But it is very hard to do that because you have to work out everything and get past a lot of questions in the daily press about why Palestinians don't just stay where they are and stop causing trouble. That immediately launches you into a tremendous harangue, as you explain to people: 'My mother was born in Nazareth, my father was born in Jerusalem….' The interesting thing is that there seems to be nothing in the world which sustains the story: unless you go on telling it, it will just drop and disappear.

The need to be perpetually told.

Exactly. The other narratives have a kind of permanence of institutional existence and you just have to try to work away at them.

This is one of the things that you criticize from within Palestinianness: the lack of any serious effort to institutionalize the story, to give it an objective existence.

That's right. It is interesting that right up to 1948, most of the writing by Palestinians expressed a fear that they were about to lose their country. Their descriptions of cities and other places in Palestine appeared as a kind of pleading before a tribunal. After the dispersion of the Palestinians, however, there was a curious period of silence until a new Palestinian literature began to develop in the fifties and, above all, the sixties. Given the size of this achievement, it is strange that no narrative of Palestinian history has ever been institutionalized in a definitive masterwork. There never seems to be enough time, and one always has the impression that one's enemy—in this case the Israelis—are trying to take the archive away. The gravest image for me in 1982 was of the Israelis shipping out the archives of the Palestine Research Centre in Beirut to Tel Aviv.

In the context of literature rather than history, you argue that the inadequacy of the narrative is due to the discontinuity of Palestinian existence. Is this connected with the problem of writing a history?

Yes. There are many different kinds of Palestinian experience, which cannot all be assembled into one. One would therefore have to write parallel histories of the communities in Lebanon, the occupied territories, and so on. That is the central problem. It is almost impossible to imagine a single narrative: it would have to be the kind of crazy history that comes out in Midnight's Children, with all those little strands coming and going in and out.

You have talked of The Pessoptimist as a first manifestation of the attempt to write in a form which appears to be formlessness, and which in fact mirrors the instability of the situation. Could you say some more about this?

It's a rather eccentric view, perhaps. I myself am not a scholar of Palestinian and certainly not Arabic literature in general. But I am fascinated by the impression made on everyone by, for instance, Kanafani's novel Men in the Sun, whose texture exemplifies the uncertainty whether one is talking about the past or the present. One story of his, called, I think, 'The Return to Haifa', follows a family who left in 1948 and resettled in Ramallah. Much later they return to visit their house in Haifa, and to meet again the son they had left behind in a panic and who was adopted by an Israeli family. Throughout the novel there is a powerful sense of endless temporal motion, in which past, present and future intertwine without any fixed centre.

Perhaps we could now turn to the lengthy discussion in After the Last Sky about the unheard voices of Palestinian women. You write: 'And yet, I recognize in all this a fundamental problem—the crucial absence of women. With few exceptions, women seem to have played little more than the role of hyphen, connective, transition, mere incident. Unless we are able to perceive at the interior of our life the statements women make: concrete, watchful, compassionate, immensely poignant, strangely invulnerable—we will never fully understand our experience of dispossession.' The main illustration you then give is a film, The Fertile Memory, by the young Palestinian director Michel Khleifi, which deals with the experience of two Palestinian women.

Yes. This film made a very strong impression on me. One of the most striking scenes revolves around the older woman, who is actually Khleifi's aunt. She has a piece of property in Nazareth which a Jewish family has been living on for many years, but one day her daughter and son-in-law come with the news that this family now wants to buy up the title deeds. She makes it clear that she is not interested. 'But what do you mean?' they insist. 'They are living on it; it's their land. They just want to make things easier for you by giving you money in return for the deeds.' 'No, I won't do that,' she replies. It is a totally irrational position, and Khleifi registers the expression of stubbornness, almost transcendent foolishness, on her face. 'I don't have the land now,' she explains. 'But who knows what will happen? We were here first. Then the Jews came and others will come after them. I own the land and I'll die, but it will stay there despite the comings and goings of people.' She is then taken to see her land for the first time—it had been left to her by her husband, who went to Lebanon in 1948 and died there. Khleifi records her extraordinary experience of walking on the land that she owns but does not own, treading gently and turning round and round. Then suddenly her expression changes as she realizes the absurdity of it all and walks away. This scene typified for me the persistent presence of the woman in Palestinian life—and, at the same time, the lack of acknowledgement which that presence has elicited. There is a strong misogynist streak in Arab society: a kind of fear and dislike existing alongside respect and admiration. I remember another occasion when I was with a friend looking at a picture of a rather large and formidable yet happy Palestinian woman, her arms folded across her chest. This friend summed up the whole ambivalence with his remark: 'There is the Palestinian woman, in all her strength … and her ugliness.' The picture of this woman, by Jean Mohr, seems to say something that we have not really been able to touch upon. That experience is one that I, as a man, in this Palestinian sort of mess, am beginning to try to articulate.

In After the Last Sky you say that, having lived inside Western culture for a long time, you understand as well as any non-Jew can hope to do what is the power of Zionism for the Jewish people. You also describe it as a programme of slow and steady acquisition that has been more efficient and competent than anything the Palestinians have been able to put up against it. The problem is that any attempt to provide a critique of Zionism is faced, particularly nowadays, with the charge that it is anti-Semitism in disguise. The retort that you are not anti-Semitic but anti-Zionist is always, or often, greeted with: 'Oh yes, we know that code.' What you have done in this book and in The Question of Palestine is to offer a very useful, emotionally neutral critique of Zionism as an historical phenomenon. Perhaps you could say a few words about this.

In my opinion, the question of Zionism is the touchstone of contemporary political judgement. A lot of people who are happy to attack apartheid or US intervention in Central America are not prepared to talk about Zionism and what it has done to the Palestinians. To be a victim of a victim does present quite unusual difficulties. For if you are trying to deal with the classic victim of all time—the Jew and his or her movement—then to portray yourself as the victim of the Jew is a comedy worthy of one of your own novels. But now there is a new dimension, as we can see from the spate of books and articles in which any kind of criticism of Israel is treated as an umbrella for anti-Semitism. Particularly in the United States, if you say anything at all, as an Arab from a Muslim culture, you are seen to be joining classical European or Western anti-Semitism. It has become absolutely necessary, therefore, to concentrate on the particular history and context of Zionism in discussing what it represents for the Palestinian.

The problem, then, is to make people see Zionism as being like anything else in history, as arising from sources and going somewhere. Do you think that Zionism has changed its nature in recent years, apart from the fact that it has become subject to criticism?

One of my main concerns is the extent to which people are not frozen in attitudes of difference and mutual hostility. I have met many Jews over the last ten years who are very interested in some kind of exchange, and events in the sixties have created a significant community of Jews who are not comfortable with the absolutes of Zionism. The whole notion of crossing over, of moving from one identity to another, is extremely important to me, being as I am—as we all are—a sort of hybrid.

I would like to ask you a couple of more personal questions. You say that to be a Palestinian is basically to come from a Muslim culture, and yet you are not a Muslim. Do you find that a problem? Have there been any historical frictions in this respect?

All I can say is that I have had no experience of such frictions. My own sense is that our situation as Palestinians is very different from Lebanon, where conflicts between Sunnis, Shiites, Maronites, Orthodox and so forth have been sharply felt historically. One of the virtues of being a Palestinian is that it teaches you to feel your particularity in a new way, not only as a problem but as a kind of gift. Whether in the Arab world or elsewhere, twentieth-century mass society has destroyed identity in so powerful a way that it is worth a great deal to keep this specificity alive.

You write: 'The vast majority of our people are now thoroughly sick of the misfortunes that have befallen us, partly through our own fault, partly because of who the dispossessors are, and partly because our cause has a singular ineffectuality to it, capable neither of sufficiently mobilizing our friends nor of overcoming our enemies. On the other hand, I have never met a Palestinian who is tired enough of being a Palestinian to give up entirely.'

That's rather well put!

This brings me to my final point that, unlike your previous three books, which centred on the dispute between Eastern and Western cultures, After the Last Sky focuses much more on an inner dispute or dialectic at the heart of Palestinianness. After a period of extroversion, you suggest, many Palestimans are themselves experiencing a certain turning inwards. Why is this so? What has been your own experience?

Well, obviously much of it has to do with disillusion. Most people in my own generation—and I can't really speak for others—grew up in an atmosphere of despondency. But then in the late sixties and early seventies, a tremendous enthusiasm and romantic glamour attached to the rise of a new movement out of the ashes. In a material sense it accomplished very little: no land was liberated during that period. Moreover, the excitement of the Palestinian resistance, as it was called in those days, was a rather heady atmosphere, forming part of Arab nationalism and even—in an ironic and extraordinary way—part of the Arab oil boom. Now all that is beginning to crumble before our eyes, giving way to a sense of disillusionment and questioning about whether it was ever worthwhile and where we are to go from here. It was as an expression of this mood that I wrote After the Last Sky. The photographs were important in order to show that we are not talking just of our own personal, hermetic disillusionment. For the Palestinians have become a kind of commodity or public possession, useful, for example, to explain the phenomenon of terrorism. I found myself writing from the point of view of someone who had at last managed to connect the part that was a professor of English and the part that lived, in a small way, the life of Palestine. Luckily Jean Mohr had built up quite a large archive of pictures since he worked for the Red Cross in 1949. We came together under strange circumstances: he was putting up some pictures and I was working as a consultant for the United Nations. Since they would not let us write what we wanted, we said: 'Let's have a book and do it in our own way.' It represented a very personal commitment on both our parts.

The picture on the cover is really quite extraordinary—a man with a kind of starburst on the right lens of his glasses. As you say, he has been blinded by a bullet in one eye, but has learned to live with it. He is still wearing the spectacles … still smiling.

Jean told me that he took the photo as the man was en route to visit his son, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment.

Dinitia Smith (essay date 23 January 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Arafat's Man in New York," in New York, Vol. 22, No. 4, January 23, 1989, pp. 40-6.

[In the essay below, Smith provides an overview of Said's life and career.]

On the afternoon of December 14, a Columbia University professor returning home from London, where he'd delivered a lecture on Yeats, pushed open the door of his Morningside Heights apartment and found his wife and two children gathered around the television set. History was being made.

It was history that Edward Said, a Palestinian-born professor of English and comparative literature, had helped create. Said joined his family around the TV and listened as Secretary of State George P. Shultz announced that the United States—after years of refusing to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization—would begin talks with the group's representatives in Tunis. Said sank into a chair. "The taboo has been lifted," he said.

For years, the Palestinians, Israel, and the United States had been caught in a deadlock over the future of Israel. Now some of the old assumptions had begun to change—though how much is not yet clear. With prodding from the Americans, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat had finally made statements at a press conference, declaring Israel's right to exist and renouncing terrorism. The Palestinian National Covenant—the PLO charter—still pledges to "liquidate the Zionist presence in Palestine." But Arafat's statements—the last of a series of comments he made over several weeks—were seen as a significant move forward. All through these weeks, Said had been on the phone to colleagues in the PLO hierarchy, urging that Arafat make his position unambiguous.

As soon as Shultz's press conference broke off, the phone began ringing in Said's dark-paneled apartment. The news shows were calling to ask for more interviews.

In recent months, Said has become a familiar figure on American television, a distinguished-looking man of 53 dressed in well-cut suits, speaking in a perfect American accent, with a perfectly American demeanor—espousing the Palestinian cause. He is nothing if not a man of paradoxes. An American citizen, he has been a member of the Palestine National Council—the Palestinian parliament-in-exile-since 1977, and in November, at the P.N.C. meeting in Algiers, he helped draft the Palestinian declaration of independence. He serves as an independent, unaffiliated member of the council, not officially connected to the PLO (or any of its constituent groups, such as Fatah or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), though he is a PLO supporter.

Baptized as an Episcopalian, Said is a member of a minority within a minority—most Christian Arabs are Greek Orthodox. He has spent almost all his adult life in the United States, yet he is fighting for a land he's barely seen since childhood. He is an intellectual—one of America's leading literary critics—thrust into the role of political activist.

Said is a Palestinian living in a city of almost 2 million Jews—"My friends are only Jews," he says with perhaps only a little exaggeration. Yet he is an admirer of Yasser Arafat, a symbol of terrorism for most Jews. To Said, Arafat is a hero—"the old man," in the words that Arafat's followers often use to describe him. In the December [1988] Interview magazine, Said gave an affectionate account of sitting down with Arafat in Tunis for breakfast (a large salad bowl filled with cornflakes, over which the PLO leader poured hot tea. "I invented this during the siege of Beirut," he said). Said wrote that Arafat's "international stature has come to him as leader of a genuinely national and popular movement, with a clearly legitimate goal of self-determination for his people."

Opinions like that have put Said in a curious and sometimes dangerous position. There are phone threats, hate letters. In 1985, Said's office at Columbia was torn apart. (Victor Vancier, a member of the Jewish Defense League convicted of a series of J.D.L. bombings, later told writer Robert I. Friedman that the vandalism was the work of "Jewish patriots," but he would not say whether the J.D.L. had been involved.) Said worries about the security in his home and almost never gives out his phone number. But he says he tries not to become obsessed by the threats. "I'd get paralyzed," he says. When threats do come, "the city police and the FBI have been cooperative."

Perhaps the greatest paradox of all is that Edward Said is an academic, living and working in the world of ideas, while serving as a spokesman for a militant cause sometimes associated with terrorism. "I totally repudiate terrorism in all forms," he says. "Not just Palestinian terrorism—I'm also against Israeli terrorism, the bombing of refugee camps. I'm against collective punishment, like the detention of 850,000 Gazans by Israeli forces in their homes for a week during the meeting of the P.N.C. in Algiers."

Even Said's enemies acknowledge that he has never been involved personally in terrorist acts. Yet, in Algiers last November, Said sat in the same conference hall as Mohammed Abul Abbas, a member of the PLO executive committee who was convicted in absentia by an Italian court for the murder of the American Leon Klinghoffer, an old man in a wheelchair, during the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro.

Abbas is "a s―, a degenerate," says Said. Yet, "in the conditions of exile polities, very strange things occur." What's more, Said says, Shultz and President Reagan have met with Israeli prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. "Shamir was involved with terrorist activities in the Stern Gang," Said says, "and Begin at Deir Yassin," the Arab village attacked in 1948 by the Irgun, Zionist commandos led by Begin. Several hundred Arab men, women, and children were killed.

Questions about terrorism stalk Said wherever he goes, often overwhelming his analysis of the Middle East situation. Last year, while being interviewed for a BBC documentary, Said was again asked to explain his position on terrorism. "I'm totally against it," he said. But "I've always been much more impressed by the extent of Palestinian suffering."

"That seems very clear," the interviewer commented, "but very cold and unfeeling."

Said looked taken aback. "I'm not sure what you mean—unfeeling."

The interviewer said he was referring to Said's response.

Again Said expressed disapproval of terrorism. "It doesn't advance a political goal," he said—and then pointed out that "terrorism was first introduced into the Middle East by Zionists in the twenties."

For Said, all questions of Palestinian terrorism are over-shadowed by what he sees as Israeli terrorism against Palestinian civilians. "The situation of the Palestinian is that of a victim," he says. "There is a moral difference. They're the dispossessed, and what they do by way of violence and terrorism is understandable. But what the Israelis do, in killing Palestinians on a much larger scale, is a continuation of the horrific and unjust dispossession of the Palestinian people. Far more Palestinians—by a ratio of 100 to I—have been killed by Israelis than Israelis have been killed by Palestinians."

Many prominent Jews are troubled by Said's statements. Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, former vice-president of the World Jewish Congress, is a research scholar at Columbia's Middle East Institute. He has debated Said publicly. "I called Sabra and Shatilla a pogrom in 1982," says Hertzberg, referring to the massacres of Palestinian refugees outside Beirut by right-wing Christians while Israeli troops stood by. "When he has spoken out against Arab terrorism, his voice has been very muted and politically circumspect," Hertzberg says.

"He puts on a very nice face for an American audience," says Yossi Gal, a spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Washington. "With his American accent, he tries to put on a positive picture in an attempt to manipulate the media—that this is what the PLO is all about. Americans know the PLO equals terrorism, not the PLO equals Edward Said equals Columbia University."

Morris B. Abram, former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, calls Said "a skillful propagandist. If Professor Said is the man he would have Americans believe he is, let him urge that the Palestine National Council repeal the Palestinian Covenant, which calls for the destruction of Israel."

Said has heard these criticisms before. "I'm not an apologist or paid propagandist," he says. "I do what I do out of commitment. I want people like Abram to point to things I've said that are not true. People don't refute my arguments—they just attack me personally. This attempt to defame my character and to slander me is because they cannot answer the factual truth of what I say."

As for the Palestinian National Covenant, "it nowhere calls for the destruction of Israel," says Said. He argues that when the framers of the document in 1964 wrote about the need to "liquidate the Zionist presence in Palestine," they "didn't say 'Jews.' The word 'Zionist' meant the movement that threw us out of our own country. That had to be defied and reversed." He goes on to add that, in any case, he thinks Arafat's statements and the resolutions of the P.N.C. "directly supersede" the covenant.

Increasingly, Said is being asked to explain the Palestinian cause to American audiences. Last March, George Shultz invited Said and his friend and colleague on the P.N.C., Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, professor of political science at Northwestern University, to Washington to talk about the Palestinian situation. Before they got down to business, Said and Shultz discussed their alma mater, Princeton. "Shultz said we needed credible and representative Palestinians," says Said—adding, with irony in his voice, "like myself, who have Ph.D.'s, not terrorists."

Also in March, Said was invited to attend Sabbath services and deliver a talk at Congregation B'nai Yisrael in Armonk, New York. It was Said's first time in a synagogue. "I was moved," he says. "I appreciated the gesture very much." Rabbi Douglas E. Krantz says the reactions to Said's talk "were more or less positive," but "what was most important about the visit was that the conflict was humanized in our sanctuary."

Last December, Said was invited to speak at a lunch at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs. Guests included Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Columbia professor who was Jimmy Carter's national-security adviser, and Robert Jervis, professor of political science and a specialist in national security. The atmosphere was cordial, yet Said was nervous, the sweat running down his face, his voice dry as he delivered a summary of the Palestinian uprising and of events in Algiers.

Brzezinski, for once, seemed to be on Said's side. "I admit the Palestinian position has evolved, whereas the Israeli position has not," he said.

There were questions from around the table. Jervis asked if one of the problems in the Middle East wasn't "the floridness" and the "exaggeration" of the Arabic language itself, "making for the difficulty of a political understanding."

Later, Said observed that Jervis's remark "typifies the clichés that come from ignorance and fear. Arabic is no more florid than any other great language. It can be used floridly, to conceal intention, but that's true of every language!"

The gathering was in many ways typical of Said's daily life. Always a gentleman, yet always a stranger, he in some ways never quite seems to belong.

He was born into an old Jerusalem family in 1935, delivered, he says, by a Jewish midwife. His father, Wadie, was already an American citizen, having fled to the United States to avoid the Ottoman draft. In 1917, Wadie joined the American Army and served in France. After attending college in Cleveland, he returned to Palestine and became a wealthy businessman, the head of a company that made office equipment and published books. Said's mother is half Palestinian and half Lebanese. She grew up in Nazareth, where her father was the first Baptist minister in Palestine.

The family home was in a comfortable neighborhood of West Jerusalem, near the King David Hotel. Said was the oldest and the only boy. Mother and son were very close. Wadie Said was more severe. "He taught me to judge myself and others by unmeetable standards," says his son.

Said's memories of Jerusalem are filled with "images of the sun, pastel colors, people wearing dark-colored clothes, peasants and sheepherders…." He remembers "idyllic" family gatherings on the slopes of Mount Carmel, at picnic lunches along the Sea of Galilee. A family picture of Said from his early childhood shows a little Arab boy with dark skin and curly hair, wearing a kaffiyeh. In Palestine, he says, he had "a sense of belonging that I never had after that again." But his father "hated Jerusalem," Said remembers. "He said it reminded him of death."

Said went to St. George's, an Anglican school attended by Jerusalem's aristocracy, where his father had been a student and star athlete. A plaque with his father's name among the first elevens (the equivalent of the varsity cricket team) still hangs there, and Said says he dreams of one day taking his own son, Wadie, to see it.

As Said approached his twelfth birthday, the British Mandate in Palestine was in its final days, and Jerusalem had been divided into zones. Soon Said would need a pass to get from his home to his school. "The situation was dangerous and inconvenient," Said remembers. Said's family left in December 1947 for Cairo. "I certainly didn't think I was never going to return," Said says.

In the spring of 1948, with the British gone, war broke out between the Arabs and the Jews after the Arabs rejected a U.N.-sponsored partition of the country. Within months, the rest of the Said family were refugees. "I have uncles in Athens, Washington, in Amman, in Pittsburgh, England, Switzerland," says Said.

While many Palestinians landed in refugee camps, Said and his parents, like other upper-class families, resumed their privileged existence. (Some of the children of these families later formed the nexus of the modern PLO Ieadership.) Compared with other Palestinians, "I suffered very little," Said admits.

But for all Palestinians, no matter what their class, says Said, the loss of Palestine has been known forever after as the nakbah, the disaster. "Since ancient times," he says, "the worst punishment given a man was exile and separation from his natal place. It is the most horrible fate, a permanent fall from paradise."

In Cairo, Said attended the American School along with the children of U.S. diplomats. Later, he entered Victoria College in Cairo, known as the Eton of the Middle East. Among the students at the school (which had a branch in Alexandria) were the future King Hussein of Jordan and Adnan Khashoggi. The head boy in Said's house at the school was the future actor Omar Sharif, then known as Michel Chalhoub. Said says Sharif—who was four years older—was a bully and Said "hated" him. Said felt like a stranger. "Most of the people at the school had been there all their lives," he says.

Victoria College was supposed to turn its students into little English gentlemen. Some of the teachers were shell-shocked veterans of World War II. One, Said recalls, "sometimes started to shake" in class. Said remembers writing "essays on the enclosure system in England. I knew more about the enclosure bill than any other subject. Arab language and literature were comic subjects."

Said's mother arranged for him to be tutored in Arabic and given lessons in riding, boxing, gymnastics, and piano. On Sundays, "I went to Sunday school at the Anglican church in the morning and in the evening went to the Presbyterian church. I know the King James Version and the Book of Common Prayer very well." The result of these lessons was to turn Said into something of a modern polymath, an expert on the literature of many lands, an excellent athlete, a pianist of nearly concert-level skill.

In 1951, Said defied one of his teachers at Victoria College, and his parents and the faculty agreed that "my career in the British system was not going to prosper." So he was sent to Mount Hermon, an "austere evangelist school," as he recalls it, in Massachusetts. Said was miserable. He had never been away from home before, he had "no place to go at Christmas," and he saw his parents only in the summer. "I did brilliantly, but I was always penalized somehow," he remembers. "There was always a moral disapproval." He was happy, though, at Princeton. "For the first time in my life, I was able intellectually to flourish," he says.

During the summers, Said continued to return to Cairo, but Nasser's revolution in Egypt in 1952 changed forever the nature of Arab politics, marking the rise of Arab nationalism. By 1963, with a "wave of socialism" passing over Egypt, "there was no place for a man like my father," says Said. The family moved to Lebanon. "My life has marked a period of cataclysmic changes," he says. "Whole countries disappearing, whole nations realigning." The exodus from Cairo was traumatic for the Saids, and ever since then, the phrase "after Cairo" has been a family refrain. Said's father died in Lebanon in 1971. His mother and two of his sisters lived through the siege of Beirut by Israeli forces in 1982, and—though his mother is currently in Washington—she and the sisters maintain homes in West Beirut.

In 1962, as a graduate student in comparative literature at Harvard, Said met his first wife, an Estonian-American who was a friend of his sister's at Vassar. The marriage was troubled. Said says his wife had "little interest in Arab culture."

For his Harvard Ph.D. dissertation, Said chose the Polish-born writer Joseph Conrad, like Said an exile. Conrad became a crucial figure in his life. In an essay, "The Mind of Winter: Reflections on a Life in Exile," published in Harper's in 1984, Said quotes Conrad: "It is indeed hard upon a man to find himself a lost stranger, helpless, incomprehensible, and of mysterious origin, in some obscure corner of the earth." The dissertation was later turned into his first book, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography.

In his early years in America, Said says, he had "little political consciousness of myself as an Arab." But the 1967 defeat of the Arabs in the war with Israel changed him forever. He saw "the tremendous support for the Israeli victory and the total lack of support for the Arab position. I began to radically question my presence in this society."

He separated from his first wife in 1968 and began to "rediscover" his identity as an Arab. On a trip to Lebanon in 1970, Said met Mariam Cortas, a Lebanese Quaker who, like Said, came from a wealthy family. "I fell in love with her," says Said, and they were married at the end of the year. They have two children: Wadie, now seventeen, and Najla, fourteen, both students at the Trinity School.

At the time of his second marriage, Said was teaching at Columbia and making his reputation as a scholar. He was among the first literary critics to introduce the writing of French structuralists like Claude Lévi-Strauss, and the post-structuralist Michel Foucault, to American audiences. The French structuralists wrote that the human mind has an innate structuring capacity, which it imposes on the outside world. Human thought, consciousness itself, human myths and kinship patterns, all have "deep structures," and it is the scholar's task to uncover them. In 1975, Said published Beginnings: Intention and Method, about the way intellectual endeavors—works of history, novels, and poems—begin and the significance of the author's choice of a beginning. Like much of Said's early scholarly writing, it is influenced by the structuralists and nearly impossible for an ordinary person to read. The book was awarded Columbia's Lionel Trilling prize.

During the seventies, Said became increasingly involved in the Palestinian cause. His cousin by marriage, Kamal Nasser, a poet and spokesman for the PLO in Amman, was killed in Lebanon in 1973 by Israeli commandos coming in from the sea, Said says. In 1977, he became a member of the Palestine National Council. "I've never really wanted to have even a semi-official affiliation," Said says. "I did it out of solidarity and commitment."

In 1978, he published the book for which he's best known, Orientalism, an examination of the way the West perceives the Islamic world. The book has a striking cover: a nineteenth-century painting, The Snake Charmer, by the French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme. The painting shows a naked Arab boy, with a snake wound round his body, being regarded lasciviously by a group of Arab men. To Said, the painting epitomizes the West's "malicious" misconceptions about Arabs.

In the book, Said purports to show the way the Orient is portrayed as "mysterious" and "sensual" and Arabs and Muslims as "evil, totalitarian and terroristic." To Said, the West's vision of the Islamic world is "a web of racism, cultural stereotypes [and] dehumanizing ideology." He argues that Orientalism is like a form of anti-Semitism, as if "the Jew of pre-Nazi Germany has bifurcated. What we have now is a Jewish hero … and his creeping, mysteriously fearsome shadow, the Arab Oriental."

The book caused an uproar. Bernard Lewis, professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton, called it "false" and "absurd." He argued that it "reveals a disquieting lack of knowledge of what scholars do and what scholarship is about."

Still, Orientalism was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and has changed the face of scholarship on the Arab world and the Third World in general. Professional groups have devoted symposia to the book, and it has been translated into fifteen languages.

Since Orientalism, Said has turned away from pure literary scholarship. In The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983), which won the René Wellek Prize of the American Comparative Literature Association, Said argued that scholars are social beings interpreting works that have been created in the midst of political events. His books The Question of Palestine (1979), Covering Islam (1981), After the Last Sky (1986), and Blaming the Victims (1988) have taken on an increasingly political tone. A new book, Culture and Imperialism, is scheduled to be published next year.

Today, Said continues to live uneasily poised between two cultures, Arab and American.

"Whether I'm with Americans or with Arabs, I always feel incomplete," says Said. "Part of myself can't be expressed. I always have a sense of being slightly at a disadvantage. There is always the sense that being Arab carries a special charge of being delinquent, guilty by association."

At home, he speaks Arabic—"a language I have loved more than any other," he has written. (Said also speaks French and reads Italian, German, Spanish, and Latin.) His apartment is filled with the mixed symbols of the cultures he inhabits—a poinsettia for Christmas, pillows covered with Palestinian weavings, jeweled boxes of beaten silver from Egypt.

In the outside world, Said seems thoroughly American, playing squash at the Columbia gym with friends, many of them Jews. To his close friend Jonathan R. Cole, recently named the provost of Columbia, Said is "a brilliant scholar, in his own way equal to Lionel Trilling.

"We haven't had a great many political discussions," says Cole, who is Jewish. "I definitely agree with him that we have to have an accommodation to the Palestinian question. The question is whether or not his friends reconstruct his positions to what they want to hear. If he supports the stereotypical PLO position calling for the annihilation of Israel, then I don't agree with him."

To some of Said's friends, his quality of separateness, of being apart from the dominant culture, has the effect of making him seem like a Jew. David Stern, assistant professor of medieval-Hebrew literature at the University of Pennsylvania, was an undergraduate student at Columbia when he first met Said. Stern is an observant Jew and a Zionist. "I felt a kind of sympathy with him as an outsider, in the same way as I felt an outsider," says Stern.

To Cole, Said "is a marginal man, as many Jews are. It's difficult for Edward to feel of a place. Of course, that's a situation that Jews have been in for many centuries. Edward and many of his Jewish friends are more similar to each other than to people who came from Western Europe."

Yet the similarity between Said and Jews ends when Said is asked about the Holocaust. Three years ago, he and his wife went to see Shoah, Claude Lanzmann's movie about memories of the Holocaust. "I'm sure we were the only Arabs there," Said remarked in the BBC documentary. Today, he says he was disappointed in the movie. "I knew Lanzmann had gotten money from the Israeli government for it," he says. "It was a disturbing film because of what it revealed about European anti-Semitism, [yet] ideologically, it provided an argument for Zionism that impinged on me as a Palestinian. It seemed to me much more about present-day politics than it did about the past. It's all part of a justification for the Palestinian situation, an argument for dispossessing Palestinians.

"I don't say there is an equation between the suffering of the Jews and the Palestinians," Said adds, "but the suffering of Jews doesn't thereby entitle them to dispossess us!"

Despite Said's commitment to the Palestinian cause, he has never gone back to Jerusalem and has visited the West Bank only twice, briefly, for family weddings (both times before 1967). Now that he's become a prominent spokesman for the Palestinian cause, Said is no longer welcome in Israel. Last year, when he was invited to Bir Zeit University on the West Bank to lecture, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir said he would refuse Said a visa if he tried to return.

But even if there were a Palestinian state. Said would probably never live there. "It's too late for me. I'm past the point of uprooting myself again," he says. Besides, "New York is the exilic city. You can be anything you want here, because you are always playacting; you never really belong."

If he will never live in Palestine, why fight so hard for a Palestinian homeland? "I'm not fighting for the nationalistic element," Said says. "I'm fighting because I have a tremendous anger at an unacknowledged injustice to an entire people. Not a day goes by when I don't think in the minutest detail of how a relatively innocent people have been made to suffer this kind of tragedy, while the Western World celebrated their oppressors."

Now that the United States is talking to the PLO, Said says, his goal is an international peace conference. "We want to break down the taboos and naturalize the Palestinians, so they are not seen as monsters, as Nazis, etc. It's very important that American Jews and Israeli Jews understand how the Palestinians require from them acknowledgement of the immense historical injustice inflicted on us as a nation."

Said's hope is for "an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, in some kind of confederation with Jordan. There is an Israeli law of return; there should be an equivalent Palestinian law of return—that is an extremely important and sensitive issue. All Palestinians feel they have a right of return. But we are talking about numbers, both Jewish and Palestinian, that will simply overwhelm the capacity of both states to absorb—there have to be limitations on both states. They can't do everything they want. They have to negotiate some formula together."

Even as Said envisions a future Palestinian state, the thought of it makes the scholar-intellectual in him uneasy. "I feel deeply uncomfortable with nationalism," he says. "My commitment to the cause is because of the injustice to and sufferings of people of whom I'm a part. Nationalism itself doesn't interest me. I can see it as a necessity, but I myself am not interested in successful nationalism."

There is no sign that Said's advocacy of the Palestinian cause has affected him professionally. At Columbia, where he makes a distinctive figure striding about campus in a loden-green coat and a red-paisley scarf, Said is something of a cult figure. His lectures, which touch on fashionable trends in structuralism and deconstruction, are well attended. In 1983, he was invited to deliver the University Lecture at Columbia, considered a great honor. He is constantly invited to speak at other universities and has won most of the major awards of his profession. It takes twelve pages on his résumé to list all his books and essays. (In his spare time, he is also music critic for the Nation.) Three years ago, when he turned down an important offer from Harvard, Columbia gave him a bigger apartment with a new kitchen. "I get promotions, salary increases, all the perks," he says.

Last December, after the P.N.C. conference in Algiers, New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger invited Said to have lunch with editors at the paper. Two days before the lunch was held, Arafat issued his statement recognizing Israel. Usually, discussions about the Palestinian situation have been dominated by questions about the Palestinians' refusal to recognize Israel. Now, at the luncheon, "it was as if an obstacle to discourse had been removed," Said says. The editors asked about the events that had led up to Arafat's statements and about the future. The conversation was so lively that Said hardly had time to eat the seafood salad that had been set before him.

Still, even as he and the newspaper editors sat together in an eleventh-floor dining room, in Israel, on the West Bank, the violence was increasing. By the end of the day, eight Palestinians in a funeral procession had been shot dead by Israeli soldiers, and the Palestinians were continuing to riot.

Edward Said with Bonnie Marranca, Marc Robinson, and Una Chaudhuri (interview date March 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Criticism, Culture, and Performance," in Performing Arts Journal, Vol. 1, No. 37, January, 1991, pp. 21-42.

[In the following interview, which originally took place in March, 1989, Said speaks out about his music criticism, the role of the public intellectual, the significance of performance of drama and music, and the influence of "interculturalism" on the construction of artistic canons.]


[Bonnie Marranca:] Since you write on music performance, tell us how you feel about this activity in your life, and how it is perceived by others in the literary world.

[Edward Said:] I think the isolation of musical culture from what is called literary culture is almost total. What used to be assumed to be a kind of passing knowledge or literacy on the part of literary people with regard to music is now non-existent. I think there are a few desultory efforts to be interested in the rock culture and pop music, that whole mass culture phenomenon, on the part of literary intellectuals. But the world that I'm interested in, the music of classical performance and opera and the so-called high-culture dramas that have persisted largely from the nineteenth century, is almost totally mysterious to literary people. I think they regard what I do as a kind of lark. I've demonstrated my seriousness by giving a series of lectures last spring, the Wellek Lectures at the University of California at Irvine, which are normally very heavy-duty literary theory lectures. I gave them on what I call musical elaborations, of which the first lecture of three was on performance. It was called "Performance as an extreme occasion." I was interested in the role of music in the creation of social space. In the third lecture I talked about music and solitude and melody, which are subjects that interest me a great deal. But I don't think one can really worry about music seriously without some active participation in musical life. My own background is that of a pianist. I studied piano quite seriously when I was an undergraduate at Princeton and with teachers at Juilliard. So I think what interests me in the whole phenomenon is not so much the reviewing aspect. I prefer trying to deal with the problem of the composer and the problem of performance as separate but interrelated issues.

[Marranca:] Your music criticism seems to be different from your literary criticism. Not only is the subject matter different, but it doesn't seem to be as—let me see if I can choose the right word, because I don't want to mean it in any kind of pejorative sense—it's lighter, it's not as dense and politically engaged. Of course, it doesn't always lend itself to that, depending on the subject matter. On the other hand, the piece that you did on Verdi's Aida is a model for a new kind of theatre history. But it seems to me that there is something you allow yourself to do in music criticism that is not there in your literary criticism.

What I'm moved by in music criticism are things that I'm interested in and like. I am really first motivated by pleasure. And it has to be sustained over a long period of time. I don't write reviews; I think that's a debased form, to write a kind of scorecard, morning-after kind of thing about performance. So what I like to do is to go to many more performances than I would ever write about and then over a period of time, certain things crystallize out of my mind as I reflect on them and think about them, and the music I'll play over. In the end, what I really find abides are the things that I care about. I don't know what those are until after a period of time has elapsed. It's a different type of occasional writing from the kind that I do in literary criticism, where I'm involved in much longer terms of debates. Whereas in this I don't really engage with too much in music criticism, because most of it is to me totally uninteresting. There are a couple of interesting music critics around. Not the journalistic ones. Andrew Porter in the New Yorker I think is challenging and quite brilliant at times. And then there are people who write from the extreme right wing, like Samuel Lipman, who writes for The New Criterion, and Edward Wasserstein, who writes for the New Republic, who are very intelligent music critics. And that's about it. The rest is really a desert—people who write about music in a non-musicological way.

On the other hand, I have had lots of response from young musicologists, who write me about some of the issues that come up. For example, I wrote a piece about feminism in music and the problem of that. And I've written about the problems of political power and representation over years in some of the things I've done for The Nation. But my overriding concern is a record of a certain kind of enjoyment, which I think can be given literary form, without drawing attention to itself as a kind of tour de force. "Lighter" is the word you used, I would call it glib and superficial.

[Una Chaudhuri:] Do you think that performance, as a category, has something to do with the difference?

Tremendously. That's what I'm really interested in. I think the thing that got me started was Glenn Gould. It was really the first extended piece that I wrote which appeared the year he died, or the year after he died—'82 or '83—in Vanity Fair. I'd long been fascinated with him. And I also was very interested in the phenomenon of Toscanini. Just because it seemed to me that both of them seemed to be musicians whose work, in a certain sense, was about performance. There was no attempt to pretend they were doing something else, but they had sort of fixated on the notion of performance and carried it to such an extreme degree that it compelled attention on its own, and it attracted attention to the artificiality of performance. And to the conventions of it, and to the strange—in the case of Toscanini—well, Bonnie, you write about it, too, in your essay on performance versus singing—the difference between performers who heighten the occasion and those who turn it into a kind of extension of the drawing room or social occasion. So performance is very interesting because then there's the other problem, that you don't have either in theatre, the visual and/or literary arts, in that the performance of music is so momentary—it's over!—I mean, you can't go back to it, anyway, really. And so there's a kind of sporting element that I'm trying to capture. I talked about it once with Arthur Danto who said, for example, if you read his pieces, they're all about going back over to an exhibition, leaving aside what he says and what his attitudes and his ideas are about art. I can't do that. So I have to go back, really, to my recollection. And my attempts, in my own mind, to restate it or experience it in another context.

[Marc Robinson:] On the whole idea of performance, let me draw you out a bit on opera performance, especially the staging of it. For so many people in the theatre, the whole world of opera is a foggy, dead zone that most of us don't go to because the theatricality of it is so conservative. But now many of the experimental directors are going back to opera—Robert Wilson, Peter Sellars, Andre Serban—and trying to revive it from a theatre background. Where do you see opera performance going?

Well, it's a tremendously interesting subject that excites me in many different ways. I think for the most part there is a deadness at the heart of opera performance, largely because of institutions like the Met, which for one reason or another—some of the reasons are perfectly obvious—has been dominated by what I call Italian verismo opera—and strengthened in this ridiculous kind of thing by the revival, that began in the '60s, of the bel canto tradition. The result of this is that a kind of hegemony has formed between the blue chip opera companies like the Met, and this repertory, and has frozen out a large amount of really extraordinary music. It has hardened performance style into a ridiculous conventionalism which has now become the norm. It infects everybody, even the greatest singers. It is certainly true of Pavarotti, sort of on the right; and on the left, Jessye Norman. You see what I'm trying to say? It's narcotized audiences. The thing I cannot understand is how people can sit through operas at the Met.

[Robinson:] I remember when you reviewed the Strauss opera Erwartung and were so disappointed. Didn't you say something about how it would be much more rewarding just to stay at home and stage it in your mind?

Exactly. Or watch it as a concert performance with Jessye Norman. It's the story of a woman who's going mad. And she's looking for her betrothed. The text is written—texts in operas are very interesting—by a Viennese medical student. The text is not of great literary value, but it's about hysteria and it bears an interesting relation, Adorno says, to Freud's case studies. So it is a minute, seismographic dissolution of a consciousness. Now here is this wonderful singer who hasn't got a clue what it's about, much too large in size to represent neurasthenia and hysteria and all this kind of stuff. As the opera progresses she goes deeper and deeper into the forest losing her mind and looking for her fiancé. And then it's discovered she really might be a patient in a mental institution who's run away. And right in the middle of the set—right in the middle of the stage—is this enormous grand piano. What is a grand piano doing in the middle of a forest? So I opined that the reason she was going mad was that she couldn't figure out what to do with the grand piano. Which produces a kind of—I mean, you could say—it's a kind of perverse version of the opera. It's a glorious misinterpretation of the opera. That's not what's intended; it was supposed to be a deeply serious kind of thing, and it just didn't work. That's what the Met does, and I don't understand how it continues to do that.

[Robinson:] Maybe the consequence of that is there are certain works of music-theatre that simply shouldn't be staged. You always hear that with dramatic literature, there are certain "unstageable" texts—an awful lot of Shakespeare

Yes, that's certainly true, but a lot of those derive from performances where the unstageability of the piece can be made evident, you know, like a late Ibsen play, When We Dead Awaken. It has a lot to do with musical performance as well as opera,… That is to say, how do these—this is a sort of Gramscian phrase—how do these hegemonic canons get formed? I mean, for example, the exclusion of French opera is really quite extraordinary. There is a wonderful tradition of French music and French drama—music-drama—that just doesn't find its way onto the American stages. Think of Rameau; think of Berlioz; think of most of Rossini, aside from The Barber of Seville. I mean, Rossini was a French opera writer. Berlioz; you never see him. Bizet is the author of ten operas, of which Carmen gets fitful performances—Carmen is one of the great masterpieces—but precisely because it's kind of an anti-French and anti-German opera, in a way. Then there's Massenet and Fauré. Why all this verismo and then a little smattering of Wagner—Wagner sort of turned into Italian….

[Marranca:] I think the last time we spoke we talked a little bit about the Philip Glass operas, about whether you had seen Einstein on the Beach, Akhnaten, or Satyagraha. Are you interested in the contemporary repertoire?

I am. I've heard those and I've seen videos of them—one or two of Glass's things. It's not a musical aesthetic that moves me tremendously. It doesn't seem to me to exploit to the maximum what is available there.

[Marranca:] What about as critical material, in the sense of writing about or looking at the Akhnaten opera…. Even in terms of political themes I would have thought they'd attract your attention.

That's true. It's just … I don't know, I can't explain it. As I say, I work with fairly strong likes and dislikes, pleasures and so on … I don't derive the kind of interest from Glass that I would have found, say, in other contemporary composers, like Henze. I think Henze is a more interesting writer of opera.

[Marranca:] I was interested to read in a recent interview—one of the things you mentioned in talking about your writing—how the concepts of polyphonic voice and chorus interest you. Could you elaborate on that in terms of your own critical writing?

These are things it takes a while to fetch out of one's own interests and predilections. I seem to have always been interested in the phenomenon of polyphony of one sort or another. Musically, I'm very interested in contrapuntal writing, and contrapuntal forms. The kind of complexity that is available, aesthetically, to the whole range from consonant to dissonant, the tying together of multiple voices in a kind of disciplined whole, is something that I find tremendously appealing.

[Marranca:] How do you extend it to your own essays?

I extend it, for example, in an essay I did on exile, basing it on personal experience. If you're an exile—which I feel myself, in many ways, to have been—you always bear within yourself a recollection of what you've left behind and what you can remember, and you play it against the current experience. So there's necessarily that sense of counterpoint. And by counterpoint I mean things that can't be reduced to homophony. That can't be reduced to a kind of simple reconciliation. My interest in comparative literature is based on the same notion. I think the one thing that I find, I guess, the most—I wouldn't say repellent, but I would say antagonistic—for me is identity. The notion of a single identity. And so multiple identity, the polyphony of many voices playing off against each other, without, as I say, the need to reconcile them, just to hold them together, is what my work is all about. More than one culture, more than one awareness, both in its negative and its positive modes. It's basic instinct.

[Chaudhuri:] Do you think there are certain cultures and cultural practices that are more encouraging of polyphony?

Absolutely. For example, in music, one of the things I've been very interested in—and it occupies the last part of the three sections of my book on music [Musical Elaborations], which will appear next year, is a kind of opposition between forms that are based upon development and domination. Like sonata. Sonata form is based on statement, rigorous development, recapitulation. And a lot of things go with that: the symphony, for example, I'm staying within the Western, classical world; certain kinds of opera are based upon this, versus forms that are based upon what I would call developing variations, in which conflict and domination and the overcoming of tension through forced reconciliation is not the issue. There the issue is to prolong, like in a theme and variation, in fugal forms. In polyphony like, in my own tradition, the work of Um Kulthum. She was the most famous classical Arab singer of the twentieth century. Her forms are based upon an inhabiting of time, not trying to dominate it. It's a special relationship with temporality. Or the music of Messiaen, for example, the great French avant-garde composer who I think is divine. You see the dichotomy of that. On the one hand, domination/development; on the other, a kind of proliferation through variation and polyphonic relationship. Those are the culture practices that I think one could use as a typology of other culture practices: they're based on the whole idea of community, overlapping vs. coercive domination and enlightenment—the narratives of enlightenment and achievement that are to be found in novels.

[Chaudhuri:] I'm very interested in what you say about this idea of inhabiting the time of performance, instead of dominating it.

Trying to ride it. It's a phrase that comes out of Gerard Manley Hopkins who has a very strange relationship with time in his poetry, especially the last part of his first great poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland. There's this whole thing where the question of whether you try to resist the time and erect the structure, or you try to ride time and live inside the time.

[Chaudhuri:] I think of theatre performance as such, as somehow demanding that the time be inhabited. That is, it makes its own demands, even in the masterful performer, who may try to dominate it, but may not succeed.

Yes. There really is a difference in musical performance between people who are involved in remaking the music and inhabiting it in that way, as opposed to just dispatching it with efficiency and tremendous technical skill.

[Robinson:] It is also very much in the nature of the exile. I mean, there's a sense that you're either living in the past or living in an ideal future, and the present is such a dangerous equivocal realm where you can't place yourself, and yet you're forced to.

What's interesting about it is, of course, that you get a sense of its provisionality. That's what I like about it. There's no attempt made to pretend that it's the natural way to do it. It's giving up in a temporal sort of way to that moment.

[Robinson:] Such a balancing act too. Both in terms of time, but also in terms of the exile's relationship to the world. On the one hand, you have the wonderful worldliness or the ability to partake of so many regions. And on the other hand, the enforced isolation. How does one balance between those two?

I don't know. I don't think there's a formula for it. I think one can call it a kind of traffic between those situations.


[Robinson:] The whole idea of private space connects to that and might be a topic to pursue. I'm often very moved by your idea of the secular intellectual, the secular artist, partaking of the public world in a real, strong way. And yet all the changes that are going on now in Eastern Europe started me thinking about alternatives to that point of view. There was an anecdote of the East German playwright Heiner Müller—he had always been in opposition to the government—who was asked by somebody from Western Europe, "Aren't you excited now that the chains are off, you're able to write your plays that really do take on the political situation, take on the government, what have you …" And he said, "No, actually, freedom now means freedom to read Proust, to stay at home in my library." That seems to signal a rediscovery of private space, a retreat from what used to be an enforced secularity.

Privacy for me is very jealously guarded, because so out of my control is the public dimension of the world I live in, which has to do with a peculiar sensitivity and intransigence of the Palestinian situation. And thinking about it for the last fifteen or twenty years has been very difficult for me to guard. Partly the music has been very much that way, because it's a non-verbal idiom. I've been involved in the thick of these battles over what one says, what one can say, and all that kind of stuff. The public has been so much with me it's been impossible for me to retreat into the private. Although, obviously, we all do have a kind of intimate private life. But it's not recoverable for me in any easy way. In the last couple of years—partly because I'm getting older—I've been deeply resentful of how much, quite against my will and intention and any plan that I might have had, public life has usurped so much of my time and effort. By that, I don't mean only politics. I mean teaching, writing, the whole sense of having an audience—sometimes completely unpredictable and against my will. So that inwardness is a very, very rare commodity. I'm not sure that my case is a special case. I think it may be true of more people than we suspect.

[Chaudhuri:] Do you think that somehow a certain kind of engaged intellectual is being made to carry more cultural burden than ever before?

Well, I feel it. I can't speak for others. I find it very hard to speak for others, because I'm in a strange position. I mean, I don't have as much time for reflection. And that's why, for me, the musical experience has been so important. Because it's something that isn't charged and inflected in quite the ways that some of the other things I've been doing have been. I just feel that for the public intellectual it can be extremely debilitating. It's almost paranoid: something you say can be twisted into a thousand different forms or only one different form that can have untold consequences. And in my case, also, I have many quite different and totally impermeable audiences. I write a monthly column in Arabic for one of the largest weeklies in the Arab world. And then the constituencies you have, necessarily, in the world of European languages is also very different. So it's extremely draining, just to try to keep up with it, much less to contribute.

[Robinson:] I wonder if we're going to see some of the models of the intellectual artist change, as is the case already in Eastern Europe, with many who are now retreating from that public role—seeing it as a burden, and now evolving into a secluded hermeticism. A lot of the artists there want to rediscover beauty.

I understand that perfectly. What we live in, in a way, is what Eliot called a wilderness of mirrors: endless multiplication, without tremendous significance, but just a spinning on. And you just want to say: enough. I don't want too much to do with that. And therefore, one of the things that I find myself thinking about, not only privacy that as we talked about earlier is virtually impossible, but also looking at performance exactly like Gould, who understood this problem, and because of that, therefore, was able to focus and specialize and control what he did to the extent that it wasn't a limitless spinning out. There was this kind of—now this hasn't been written enough about or noted about Gould enough—massive effort on his part from the moment he thought about a work to practicing, preparing, and then performing it, and then recording it. He is one of the unique examples of somebody who was a public performer, whose attempt was to enrich the art of performance by, at the same time, controlling it. There is something, of course, quite cold and deadening about it, at the same time. But on the other hand, it's an interesting model to think about. Not many people do that. Most people tend to be profligate and they want more multiplication. There is a sense in which he wanted that, but he wanted to control it as much as possible. Perhaps because he feared that being on the stage had already showed him what was likely to happen: that he would just become a creature of this public space.

[Robinson:] Genet might be another example, a man who was always preserving the private realm.


[Robinson:] He was able to understand what went on in the Mid-East because of his experience of outsiderhood.

[Chaudhuri:] And also in the plays as well.

[Marranca:] Beckett, too.

But what you feel in Genet and Gould you don't feel in Beckett, that is, that there's a flirting with danger. I've never felt that about Beckett. Who can't admire him—but on the other hand there is a kind of safety in Beckett's work that you don't find in Genet. In Genet you feel the incredible risk involved in all of his drama.

[Chaudhuri:] It's also a provocation, isn't it?

[Marranca:] One of the things that strikes me about Beckett is that he's so great a writer and so overpowers theatricality that it's not necessary ever to see him performed. But Genet gains by being in the theatre…. We've been talking about the private moment and the Eastern European situation, the sense of aloneness and solitude that somehow seems to be demanded after so strong a public life.

The death of Beckett set many people wondering about just what will come after Beckett, of course. And in some ways it seems it's the end of the universal playwright and the international dramatic repertoire. Also, because culture has become so public and so much a part of spectacle, and where there's so little emphasis on the private moment, it seems to me that drama, which is such a private, reflective, intimate form anyway, is falling further and further down in the hierarchy of forms experienced by serious people who would ordinarily have gone to theatre, those who read serious novels and go to the opera. People like Havel and Fugard became known not necessarily because they are great playwrights. They got into the international repertoire because of their politics and their symbolic value. It seems more and more that drama will be a kind of local knowledge. And in the theatre we see the ascendancy of spectacle, of performance, rather than drama. International performers like, say, Laurie Anderson or Wilson, make things that can travel in culture.

Or Peter Brook…. But even Laurie Anderson, and Brook in particular—what underlies them, also, paradoxically is a kind of modesty of means. It's not like a traveling opera. It has, in fact, a kind of easily-packed baggage, which you can transport from country to country and do with a small repertory, the same pieces. But I think one thing that you didn't mention about drama—that in the Palestinian situation, for example, which is the only one I can speak about with any assurance—is that the drama has a testimonial value, which is different from symbolic, when you talk about symbolic. That is to say—take Joseph Papp cancelling that Palestinian play, The Story of Kufur Shamma last summer. It wasn't because of the content of the play, it was Palestinians talking about their experience. That was what was threatening. And that's why he had to cancel it. So on that level it is local knowledge, but a local knowledge that is frequently engaged in translocal issues. Things that are of interest to other places. I suppose the burden placed upon the playwright and the performer is somehow to translate this local situation into an idiom that is contiguous to and touches other situations.

[Marranca:] In that way, I suppose, drama can travel. But so much of it now, when you compare the theatre of the last four, five, or six decades—what used to be considered international and of interest to an international audience—no longer appears on Broadway. For example, when was the last, say, German or Hungarian or French play on Broadway? In this sense the international repertoire is shrinking.

Although, I'll tell you, Bonnie, I was in Delphi last summer giving a talk at an International Conference on Greek tragedy. I talked about Wagner, I believe. Every night there was a performance of a play in the theatre at Delphi. And I was there for two performances, the second of which was extraordinary, the performance by Wajda's troupe of a Polish-language Antigone

[Robinson:] I saw it in Poland.

You saw it in Poland. Well, I saw it in Delphi. And the audience was entirely Greek … modern Greeks, obviously. It was overwhelming. It seemed to me to have there a peculiar mix of things. It was the "OK cultural festival," it was the antique representation of self that was acceptable to the powers-that-be, because it's sponsored by the Greek government which is in a great crisis at the moment. It was an occasion for the local folk. OK, all that. But in addition, it was for me a very powerful theatrical experience. I don't know which performance you saw, because there were several versions. Where did you see it?

[Robinson:] In Krakow in '85. It was a very bad time, politically, for Poland.

Were there transformations of the chorus?

[Robinson:] Yes. The chorus changed throughout the play—moving from bureaucrats—maybe Parliament members—to protesting students to, finally, shipyard workers, like those from Gdansk who started Solidarity. In a Polish theatre, it becomes extremely powerful. Actually, it's an event that makes me question or at least want to take issue with your idea, Bonnie, about the universality of a play, and mourning the loss of Beckett.

No, I think what she's talking about—which I'm interested in—the great master theatrical talent that produces, I have to keep using the word over and over again, a masterwork of the sort that created the nineteenth century repertory theatre, that continues into the late symbolic tragedies of Ibsen and Strindberg, and then moves into Brecht and then Beckett. There's a pedigree here that you're alluding to: people who dominate the stage. The model is one of domination. I don't regret its end, to be perfectly honest with you, because of a lot of what goes with it. In the same way that you could say, well what about the great—think of this—what about the great Austro-Germanic symphonic tradition that begins with Haydn, goes through Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, I suppose Wagner's in there a little bit, Mahler, Bruckner, Schöenberg … and then what? Nothing. It ends. And you get these local nationalists, you know, Bartok. I mean, it took place, but we can live without it. It can be respected and memorialized in various ways, but I'm not so sure of that, given the damage to other surrounding clumps it overshadows and dominates. It produces a certain canon or canonicity.

[Robinson:] Yeah, and aren't we all trashing the canon!

Not trashing. It isn't the be-all-and-end-all, is what I'm saying.

[Marranca:] I understand your point of view about attacking universality, of course, but the issue is that in drama there's almost nothing else. There are plenty of musical traditions to follow. There are plenty of great novels that are breaking out of the mode and being enjoyed by wide groups and nationalities.

Yes, that's true.

[Marranca:] But with drama, the whole thing collapses, because if there's no international repertoire, then it's a gradual decreasing of the form itself. And what's left are just the bestsellers, the topical plays that somehow travel, and then the classics. But maybe two of Ibsen, or a few of Brecht. What I'm saying is the other traditions are so much richer, and the repertories are so wide, but if you begin to have a form which worldwide audiences lose interest in—in terms of the new—then I think it's a problem for the form, and that that's different than, say, the situation in music.

[Robinson:] But isn't that a Romantic idea, that of an international work of art?

[Marranca:] But they still exist in art, if you look at paintings from many, many countries, a lot of it even looks largely the same, and there are good and bad works. I see nothing wrong with large groups of people in different cultures around the world appreciating the same work. That always happens in terms of fiction, for example.

The way you describe it, it certainly sounds special and peculiar to the drama. But why is it?

[Marranca:] One of the things I hinted at before is that what we are seeing now are international spectacles found in several cultural festivals, works by Brook or Laurie Anderson, whose recent piece can be just as accessible in Japan or Western Europe or Brazil, or someplace else. Often we're seeing a kind of internationalization of performance. When I use the word "performance." I mean something different from the theatre. It's not textbound, it doesn't deal with a play. Performance work is often highly technological, it reflects a certain transfer of pop imagery and music.

Recognizable and commodified styles.

[Marranca:] Exactly. And they are understood by people all over the world now, because of the international youth culture. And that has unseated drama somewhat

And also because of film and television and all the apparatus of the culture industry.

[Marranca:] So that the great theatres now tend to remain in their own countries and build their repertoires on the classics, redo them, and are rejuvenated by new people. But we don't see this travel in theatre that we're seeing in video or visual arts, or fiction, or "performance" as a genre in itself.

And, of course, in music you find it in the cult of the traveling maestro or the celebrated pianist or the important diva and tenor, and so on and so forth.

[Robinson:] Maybe theatre is less suited to this kind of travel because of the holdover of the idea that a play should somehow address the issues of the people in front of it, the audiences. It's the most socially-connected of the arts, of course. And I would think people would be reluctant to give up that possibility of engagement that the theatre provides, in a much more immediate way than art, music, or TV.

[Chaudhuri:] There's another way of looking at this. There has always been this dimension of locality in the theatre, this connection to a specific time and place. And it's always been special to the drama. Now, for all its power technology is not going to promote a better means of a direct collaboration with people than the theatre event. So that this "local knowledge" characteristic may be what will save the theatre, and give it its future.

But she mourns it. I think you really do have a nostalgia for the great figures. Or the great forms. It's a kind of Lukacian, early Lukacs—you know. The Soul and Its Forms … a kind of Lukacian forlornness and melancholy, which is there. I think you're right. I'm not saying you're wrong.

[Marranca:] To tell you the truth, I'm more interested in the idea of performance than I am in drama, with a very few exceptions. Of course, as a publisher, knowing what it's like to sell books world-wide, on a very practical basis I find a loss of interest in drama.

What does that mean? You've lost interest in the drama and you watch the performance. In other words, it would matter more to you that Vanessa Redgrave was acting in a play, rather than the play was, say, Macbeth, or something like that. Is that what you mean by performance?

[Marranca:] No. I mean something else. I've lost interest in conventionalized stagings of drama. In that case, I would rather sit home with a play and not see it. Though I take a larger interest in performances such as Wilson's work, and some avant-garde performance.

[Chaudhuri:] That's really a question of quality, isn't it?

[Marranca:] Yes.

See, the other part of it is, and I think it's very important for people like us, who are interested in these issues and questions, not simply to celebrate the avant-garde—that is to say, the novel, or the exciting and unusual that come along in the cases of Peter Sellars or Wilson—but also, to stimulate greater dissatisfaction and anger on the part of audiences who now sit sheepishly through unacceptably boring reproductions of masterpieces. That's the part that I find the most puzzling of all. Why is it that the level of critical sensibility has sunk so low? The threshhold for pain is so high, that people can sit through abysmal "conventional" reproductions of classical masterpieces in the theatre or in opera or in music rather than experience something quite new in a contemporary work or a dangerous or innovative re-staging of a classical work. I don't understand that. Do you understand it?

[Marranca:] Well, certainly part of it, but not all of it, is that the commentary is so bad on the papers of note—that's one major issue.

Well, there it becomes an important thing to talk about. This is where some of Gramsci's analysis of culture is very important, where you can look at the papers of note and the people who write commentary as sort of organic intellectuals for theatre interests. In other words, they are advance guard, in the military sense—advance guard organizers of opinion and manufacturers of consent for important interests in the theatre, whose role is to colonize and narcotize and lobotomize audiences into accepting certain kinds of conventions as the norm. I think that's an important part of one's work: to raise dissatisfaction at this time.

[Marranca:] You know, the other thing is that, unlike the art audience, for example, which always wants to see something new, the theatre audience and music audience basically want to see the greatest hits in familiar settings. And so the audiences are fundamentally different, even though they might be the same people.

[Robinson:] But sometimes that struggling with those greatest hits can be very fruitful, and writers are doing it all the time. Hofmannsthal will deal with the Electra story as handed down and absorb it into a creation of his own. Heiner Müller will write Hamletmachine in order to kill Hamlet.

Or, in some cases, to keep adapting to the changing conditions of performance imposed on him by the patrons.

[Robinson:] It seems like there are two ways for contemporary artists to deal with this burden or oppressiveness of the classic tradition, and the canon. One is just to keep pushing it aside and write or compose new work. And then the other one—Hofmannsthal, Heiner Müller—is to try to absorb it and then remake it somehow, to kind of neutralize it, recharge it in a subversive way.

I'm of the second opinion. In all of the discussions that have been going on in literary studies about the canon, and the whole question of the Western tradition, it seems to me that one of the great fallacies, in my view, has been the one that suggests that you, first of all, show how the canon is the result of a conspiracy—a sort of white male cabal—of people who, for example, turned Hawthorne into one of the great cult figures of American literature and prevented a whole host of, for example, more popular women writers of the time, or regional writers, and so on…. Therefore what is enjoined upon holders of this view is you push aside Hawthorne and you start reading these other people. But that is to supplant one canon by another, which, it seems to me, really reinforces in whole idea of canon and, of course, all of the authority that goes with it. That's number one. Number two—half of this is my education and half of this is my age and predilection—I'm interested in the canon. I'm very conservative in the sense that I think that there is something to be said, at least on the level of preference and pleasure, for aspects of work that has persisted and endured and has acquired and accreted to it a huge mass of differing interpretations, ranging from hatred to reverence. It's something that I find enriching as a part of knowledge. So I'm not as willing as a lot of people to scuttle it. My view is to assimilate to canons these other contrapuntal lines.

You could take the extreme view of Benjamin: every document of civilization is also a document of barbarity. You can show—and I've tried to show it in this book that I've been writing on cultural imperialism for ten years—that the great monuments (well, I did it in the Aida case) of culture are not any less monuments for their, in the extreme version, complicity with rather sordid aspects of the world. Or, in the less extreme case, for their participation, their engagement in social, historical processes. I find that interesting. I'm less willing to toss them overboard and say, "Let's focus on the new." I mean, I find the idea of novelty in and of itself doesn't supply me with quite enough nourishment.

[Robinson:] The whole canon becomes an incredibly sharp weapon for a non-Western writer, too. Somebody like Soyinka can take The Balcony, or The Bacchae, or Threepenny Opera and rewrite them as parables of colonialism.

And not only that, but in the best instances—I think more interesting than Soyinka is the work of the Sudanese novelist Tayeb Salih. He's written several novels, but his masterpiece is a novel called The Season of Migration to the North—it came out in the late '60s—that is quite consciously a work that is reacting to, writing back to, Conrad's Heart of Darkness. This is a story, not of a white man who comes to Africa, but a black man who goes to Europe. And the result is, on one level, of course, a reaction to Conrad. In other words, this is a post-colonial fable of what happens when a black man goes to London and wreaks havoc upon a whole series of English women. There's a kind of sexual fable. But if you look at it more deeply, it not only contains within it the history of decolonization and reaction to Western imperialism, but it also, in my opinion, deepens the tragedy by showing this man's reactive revenge, which to many readers in the Third World, in the Arab and African world, is a just revenge. But Salih does it fresh because it's futile, pathetic and ultimately tragic. Because it reinforces the cycle of isolation as insufficiency of the politics of identity. It is not enough to just be a black wreaking havoc on a white, there's another world that you have to live in. And in that sense, it's a much richer and more interesting work than Conrad, because it dramatizes the limitations of Conrad. And I'm second to none in my admiration for Conrad, but this is a quite amazing type of thing which is in the novel, which is quite powerful in its own sense—it's in Arabic not in English—depends on the Conrad novel, but is independent of it at the same time. It's quite fascinating.

[Robinson:] And that may be a solution, as it were, to the whole problem of locality of a work of art. Because what you are describing can be both a very potent work in a local context, but it's also an intercultural work.

Absolutely. And that's where I finally disagree with Bonnie's idea. In the implied contrast between the local and the universal, I think the local is more interesting than the universal. It depends where you look at it from. If you look at it from the point of view of the colonized world, as Fanon says, the universal is always achieved at the expense of the native. I'll give you a perfect example—look at the case of Camus. Camus is the writer who, practically more than anyone in modern French culture, represents universality. A more careful reading of the work shows that in every instance of his major fiction, and even the collections of stories, most of them are set in Algeria. Yet, they're not of Algeria. They're always parables of the German occupation of France. You look even more carefully at that and you look for the point of view of Algerian independence, which was achieved after Camus's death in 1962—and of course, Genet answers to this, because Genet was involved in the same issue in The Screens. If you look at that and you see what Camus was doing throughout his work was using the cultural discourse of the French Lycée—which gives rise to universalism and the human condition and the resistance to Nazism and Fascism and all the rest of it—as a way of blocking the emergence of an independent Algeria…. It seems to me, there is the importance of local knowledge which you bring to bear upon this text. And put it back in its situation and locale. And there it doesn't become any less interesting, it becomes more interesting, precisely because of this discrepancy between its universal reach and scope on the one hand, and reputation; and on the other, its rather more complicit local circumstances. But maybe we're making too much of it …

[Marranca:] I think in some sense we're talking about dissimilar things. Literature and the general secular intellectual life lead a more ongoing life in terms of debate and internal politics than drama does. I simply wanted to point out, if drama was no longer going to add in some sense to an international repertoire, and we were only going to have a local drama, which I value also, then that means something entirely different. For example, in drama we don't really have secular theatre intellectuals in the sense that literature does. Almost all discourse and dialogue and debate on theatre issues is either in the reviewing mechanisms of the popular papers, which don't have any kind of interesting debate going on internally, or in marginalized journals like our own, or in the academic world. So that theatre issues are not brought to bear on general cultural-political issues in the same way that other subjects are treated now, in science or in literature. So I think that this kind of loss is more serious for theatre than it would be in the novel.

I think you're absolutely right, and I think—yes, I see your point. That's a much larger way of putting it.


[Chaudhuri:] About the canon—this idea of not just throwing over one canon and putting another one in its place—it really seems that what's missing in that approach is that many people are not looking at how these things are taught and how they're presented. They're really only looking at what is taught.

Yes, exactly, although "what" is important, also. The exclusion of certain "whats" is very interesting.

[Chaudhuri:] But it's almost as if one doesn't want to give up something deeper, which is certain models of evaluating texts….

I call them models of veneration, and that's what they are.

[Chaudhuri:] That veneration is transferred to something else, and it leaves you in the same abject position vis-à-vis the text or the art work or whatever.

Well, it is one of the constitutive problems of academic debate in general, but it's basically unanchored in real engagement with the real world. It's largely theoretical. So the "what," on the one level, is equally important. It's a claim to certain kinds of authority and turf and so on. But the "how," you know, the "how" becomes relatively weightless, in a certain sense; it becomes one method among others. I'll give you an example of what I'm trying to say. Look at the result of all the massive infusion that American literary, and I suppose, cultural studies in general, have received through "theory" in the last thirty years: structuralism, poststructuralism, deconstruction, semiotics, Marxism, feminism, all of it. Effectively they're all weightless. I mean they all represent academic choices and a lot of them are not related to the circumstances that originally gave rise to them. For example, Third World studies in the university are a very different thing from Soyinka or Salih in their own immediately post-colonial situation trying to write a narrative of the experience. You know how sometimes a critic like Ngugi talking about decolonizing the mind is one thing for somebody who's been in prisons, lived through the whole problems of neo-imperialism, the problems of the native language vs. English, etc. They're very different things than somebody deciding, well, I'm going to specialize in decolonization or the discourse of colonialism. So that's a very great problem.

[Chaudhuri:] The academy is actively rendering them weightless

In a certain sense you can't completely do away with that, because the university is a kind of utopian place. To a certain extent, these things should happen. Perhaps the disparity between the really powerful and urgent originary circumstances of a cultural method, and its later transmutation as a theoretical choice in the university, is too great.

[Chaudhuri:] Do you think it should remain utopian? Maybe that's part of the problem, that this is a model that has outgrown its usefulness.

I think that's where we are right now. We're watching a very interesting transformation. Most students. I think, the good students here, my students—and I know this from direct contact with them—are really no longer interested in theory. They're really interested in these historical, cultural contests that have characterized the history of the late twentieth century. Between racism and imperialism, colonialism, various forms of authority, various types of liberation and independence as they are reflected in culture, in aesthetic forms, in discourses and so on. So that's where I go. The problem is how you relate that to social change at a time when it seems everything is now moving away from the contests that determined the history of the twentieth century hitherto—the contests between socialism and capitalism, and so on. So it's a very troubling moment. I think the important thing is to be exploratory.

[Marranca:] You know, in fact, in the little piece in The Guardian that you wrote, you mention that you felt somehow the history of philosophy and politics, and general drift of intellectual life, was really almost inadequate to deal with the new situations.

I think it is. I think it certainly is.

[Marranca:] What directions might this view of the arts and sciences coming together somehow in some new understanding take? Where would you like to take it in your world?

Without getting too specific and detailed. I think that if you take a general thing that you've been interested in, interculturalism, I think that's obviously where it's going. That is to say, various types of integration between formerly disparate or different realms, like politics, history, and aesthetics. But rather than just leaving it at that, it seems to me that new kinds of formations seem to be particularly interesting and important. One would be relationships of interdependence and overlapping. We've had a tendency, you see, to think of experiences in national terms. We say there's the Polish experience, there's the French experience, there's the Haitian experience, there's the Brazilian experience. It seems to me that that's pretty much over, where one could give a certain amount of fidelity and attention to basic national identities. What's interesting is the way the national identities have historically, in fact—and the present moment facilitates that—interacted and depended upon each other. I mean the relationship between Brazil and North America is very, very dramatic now in the situation of the rain forests. The relationship between North Africa and the European metropolis is very dramatic now because of the presence of a large number of Muslim immigrants in France.

What you begin to realize is the universality, therefore, not of stabilities, which have been the prevailing norm in cultural studies, but of migrations: these massive transversals of one realm into another. That seems to me an entirely new subject matter. Refugee studies versus the studies of stable cultural institutions which have characterized the paradigms of the social sciences and the humanities of the past. That would be one major thing. Another would be the study of what I call integrations and interdependence versus the studies dominated by nationalities and national traditions. The conflict between emergent transnational forces like Islam which is a subcontinental presence, it's an Arab presence, it's now a European presence. There's a total reconfiguration of the cultural scene that can only be understood, in my opinion, historically. You could see elements of it already in the conflict between Europe and the Orient, for example, which I talked about twelve or thirteen years ago.

[Marranca:] Do you have any thoughts on interculturalism as it relates to performance or any of the other kinds of things you might want to take to your work, besides the Aida model of doing theatre history?

Not at this stage, no, because I'm so mired in contested regions between cultures. I'm very much, I'm afraid, marked by that. In other words, I'm really a creature whose current interest is very much controlled by the conflict between the culture in which I was born and the culture in which I live at present. Which is really quite a strange phenomenon. It's not just that they're different, you know, but there's a war going on and I'm involved on both sides of that. So it's very difficult for me to talk about interculturalism, which would suggest a kind of sanity and calm reflectiveness.

[Marranca:] Do you think of interculturalism as a kind of orientalism?

Well, it can be. Yes, absolutely. Because I think there's a whole range of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. We haven't gotten to that stage yet, I don't think, of being able to talk about it in an uninflected way, in a way that doesn't bear the scars of contests between the North and the South, or the East and the West. I mean, the geographical configuration of the world is still very strongly inscribed, at least in my vision of things.

[Robinson:] Drawing out of what's just been said, it seems that there's good interculturalism and bad interculturalism. But after I read Orientalism, a great paralysis set in.

Sorry about that.

[Robinson:] Every time I consider or reflect on another culture, I feel my "power" position coming into relief. But is the alternative to that power just a greater distance or isolationism? I don't want that.

No, no, no. I don't think it's possible. You know, I think one of the great flaws of Orientalism is the sense that it may have communicated that there is no alternative to that, which is a sort of hands-off sort of thing. That's not what I would imply. And I think, at the very end I say something like that. That there is a kind of "already given," you know, a sort of messiness and involvement of everyone of everyone else. It's just that I would like to think that the inequalities, as between, say, a native informant and a white ethnographic eye, weren't so great. I don't know how to talk about this without seeming to congratulate myself, but it was interesting, to me at any rate, that Orientalism—partly because I think that it was already in the air—seemed to have released a lot of quite interesting work that went way beyond it. It instigated a certain kind of self-consciousness about cultural artifacts that had been considered to be impervious to this kind of analysis. And the irony is it didn't make them less interesting, it made them more interesting. So I think the history of orientalism—I don't mean the book, I mean the problem—is really the history of human—how shall I put it?—human meddling, without which we can't live.

Look, any time you globalize, let's say East vs. West, you can come up with convincing formulas that always suggest the triumph of the West. That's why Naipaul is successful. I mean, that's the basis for the Naipaul appeal. He says the world is made up of people who invent telephones and those who use them. Where are the people who use telephones? We don't know that. See, you can always fall into that trap; the trap that C. L. James never fell into, because he said if you're a white man you can say you have Beethoven, and the black man's not supposed to listen to Beethoven, he supposed to listen to Calypso. That's a trap you can't fall into. You've got to be able to make the distinctions and use what you want and think of it as part of the possession of all mankind or humankind. I don't know how to get to that point without waging the struggle on some very local and clearly circumscribed level.

So on one level it seems to me that there's a need for historical understanding of various contests. That's why I don't believe in "literary studies." I don't believe in the study of English literature by itself. It should be looked at with West Indian literature, with American literature, with French literature, with African literature, with Indian—you understand what I'm saying? The deep historicization of the circumstances of production of culture and along with that, an acute understanding of the extent to which every cultural document contains within it a history of a contest of rulers and ruled, of leaders and led. And third, that what we require is a deep understanding of where we would like to go.

Frank Kermode (review date 7 November 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Off the Edge," in London Review of Books, Vol. 13, No. 21, November 7, 1991, pp. 3-4.

[In the following review, Kermode discusses the musical and political themes of Musical Elaborations.]

The Wellek Library Lectures at the University of California, Irvine, are meant to be about Critical Theory, and up to now they have, for good or ill, been faithful (in their fashion) to that intention: but it was an enlivening idea to ask Edward Said to talk about music as well, or instead. Said is a good enough pianist to understand what the professionals are up to. He knows a great deal more about music than most amateurs, and argues persuasively that it should not be left entirely to the rigorous mercies of the musicologists. The result is this very interesting, excited, crammed little book [Musical Elaborations], in which admirable and questionable propositions jostle one another so bewilderingly that it isn't always easy to know exactly where one is, or what might come next, rather as in a late Beethoven quartet.

There are really two principal subjects, and they remain somewhat at odds with one another. The first is a dutiful act of loyalty to the fashionable notion that works of art must be removed from the sphere of aesthetics for subjection to cultural-historical analysis. The most illuminating sort of writing about music, Said says, is 'humanistic' rather than merely aesthetic or technical—it must have its various roles in society and in history, its relation to the discourses of political power, strenuously investigated, just as literature is nowadays primarily a matter for 'cultural studies' and routinely submits 'to ideological or psychoanalytic analysis'. Many pages of the book politely argue with Adorno, who did that sort of thing, though before it became the vogue, with magisterial strength and gloomy inclusiveness. Said, deferential but still his own man, characteristically points out that to treat modern music as a reflection or portent of the world's present or impending ruin is actually a Eurocentric view, taken, with unconscious colonialist arrogance, to apply universally.

He knows far too much about music to believe that the musical canon is, like the literary one, a white male bourgeois fraud, and the second subject of his transgressive sonata is, roughly, the experience of music in solitude, of private performance and properly creative listening. This is far more interesting, and it establishes the right of Said's book to be taken more seriously than if it had offered nothing but a Foucauldian exercise in musical 'archaeology' or a New Historicist negotiation between musical and other discourses.

His views on world politics, and on literary and cultural history, are seriously held and already well-known, and he was of course under no obligation to put them aside when writing these lectures, even if they seem to have no very intimate connection with his personal experience of music. His most political moment occurs in a slightly apologetic digression on the life and work of Paul de Man. As everybody knows, de Man's most notorious war-time article argued that to tidy the Jews away somewhere—say, into 'a Jewish colony isolated from Europe'—would not be much of a loss to European culture; and commentators have rightly been shocked at this perhaps juvenile but callous anti-semitism. Said's point, however, is that at the time when de Man was writing there already was such a homeland, in which the indigenous population was already being expropriated. The youthful Nazi sympathiser was casually recommending Zionism; and Said, whatever he's supposed to be discussing, will not lose his opportunity to point out the connection that existed between right-wing Zionism (now represented by Yitzhak Shamir) and 'officials of the Third Reich'.

These are serious matters but they have very little to do with music. It is as if he wanted to remind himself, and us, that there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle. It cannot have been easy for one who can lose himself, as Said can, in the apparently autonomous structures and private pleasures of music to take this line, but a sense of civic or intellectual duty drags him away from contemplation and compels him to write about these 'worldly' matters.

More germane to his musical interests, though still classifiable as cultural criticism, is his study of the conditions of modern performance—for instance, the alienating social arrangements of the concert hall. 'Performances of Classical music', he rightly observes, are 'highly concentrated, rarefied and extreme occasions'. Performance is a feat quite distinct from composing, which it has in large measure displaced from public interest.

Nowadays sharply differentiated from composers, performers are also clearly marked as separate from their audiences. They are even dressed differently. Most members of the audience play no instrument, can't get to know music by playing piano transcriptions as they once did, and in any case couldn't hope to play the way the pianist does: so they observe him or her in alienated but reverential ignorance, much as they might a pole vaulter.

True; and more might be said on this head. The most effective deterrent to concert-going is the nonsense in which all, performers and audience alike, feel obliged to participate, perhaps to establish that elusive rapport—the absurd, ritually prolonged applause, the ceremonial entrances of leader and conductor, the marching off and on-stage, the standing up and sitting down, all reaching its farcical nadir in the yelling, stamping foolery of the Proms. Nor can these antics be altogether avoided by staying away, for they are invariably described with affectionate condescension by Radio 3 announcers, who, day in and day out, do so much to represent every kind of music as a cosy indulgence for retired persons.

Said laments, along with Adorno and many others, that social and technological developments have gone far towards ruining Classical music by making it available in this way, or in recorded performance, invariant and therefore falsifying. He also deplores the musical pollution of our aural environment ('the demotion of music to commodity status'). On the other hand, he dislikes the way musicologists barricade themselves behind abstruse textual analysis, not risking the more 'humanistic' approach which places music in social and psychological settings. It sometimes appears that he wants music to suffer all the pains literature is currently undergoing (often at the hands of critics who remain unfamiliar with the private experiences that literature can provide).

This is conscientious, but it seems strikingly at odds with the preferred inwardness of his own experience of music; and it makes for a certain apparent confusedness of exposition. It is not easy to grasp the structure of these three lectures right away; listening to them must have been strenuous, despite the relief of musical illustrations. Said talks about a great many things, digresses, honours his critical commitments, and returns, with some relief but too rarely, to music as such. So there is a continual struggle between an intense private love of music and a conviction that the modern way of treating the discourses of art as unprivileged in relation to other discourses ought to be applied to music as to everything else.

Hence the stress on professional performance. The pages devoted to Toscanini and Glenn Gould are extraordinary. Said has to weigh against their admired interpretative skills the fact that they in different ways conspire to the maintenance of a social order: Toscanini giving performance appropriate to the sponsorship of a giant industrial concern, Gould abjuring the concert hall but making that very gesture an index of apartness and a permanent part of his performance. He most approves works which transgress social norms, or musical norms socially imposed—for example, Cosi fan tutte and Bach's 'Canonic Variations' on Von Himmel hoch, the latter because it is so enormously and gratuitously in excess of the 'pious technical sententiousness' of the chorale: 'pure musicality in a social space off the edge'.

He nevertheless complains about Bach fawning on the Elector of Saxony (and, presumably, Frederick the flautist), insisting that we ought to 'read' the B minor Mass not only for its 'astonishing demonstration of piety and invention' but as an instance of this crawling servility: 'the awe we feel in the Credo … reinforces the separation between ruler and ruled, and this in turn is made to feel "right" in great outbursts of joy (et resurrexit and hosanna).'

I don't find this acceptable. Is there not a surprisingly elementary confusion between music and how it was paid for? Not that it is wrong to be interested in the original situation of such a work, or for that matter to relate Aida to the 'European domination of the Near East', or, for that matter, to acknowledge Mozart's endless willingness to comply with the demands of the people he wrote for and the customs of the countries he wrote in. But some discrimination is surely needed. The tone of dedications and letters soliciting patronage from potentates may strike us as embarrassing, but their language was surely well understood as conventional. You wouldn't write so when sending a manuscript to a publisher or even applying to the Arts Council for a grant, but in either case you would do appropriately what Bach was doing appropriately. Dr. Johnson wanted a patron for the Dictionary and the fact that we remember the case chiefly because he didn't get one doesn't mean he didn't quite properly try to. And surely the equation between specific sections of the Mass and the reinforcement of the political hierarchy is rather crude? Who would be bold enough to say that Said's own achievements are attributable to his willingness to benefit by pleasing the American academy? That the arguments of his splendid Orientalism are the counterpart of his desire to establish himself as an original, an émigré with distinctive gifts, and that we should 'read' him in this mode as well as the other? For he is surely affected by consciousness of his position in the top rank of American critics—at times he even writes like them, affecting that slightly condescending clumsiness that now passes for a grace in those circles. Yet I, and I daresay he too, would call it an impertinence to judge his work in that manner.

What makes his book valuable is simply his profound understanding of music and its performance. There is, in the final lecture, a fascinating account of what it was like to listen to Alfred Brendel playing the Brahms Piano Variations, Op. 18, a work he had not known, though he at once realised its connection with the String Sextet in B flat. He subtly distinguishes between that experience, and the experience of listening, in the same recital, to the Diabelli Variations, a work he knew well, so that during its performance he was attending to Brendel's interpretation rather than to the music itself, as he had done with the Brahms.

What is admirable in such anecdotes—including a few pages on the Arabic singer Umm Kalthoum, heard in his youth in Cairo, and a reminiscence of his own teacher Ignace Tiegerman—is an unmistakable and eloquent musicianship. The final lecture takes off from Proust's many meditations on music, and again Said's deepest pleasure seems to lie not in exhibitions of cultural criticism but in the recognition of music that occupies 'a social space off the edge', music that he experiences as indifferent to, as 'transgressing', cultural norms and conventions.

He applauds (but cannot spell) Messiaen and admires the Metamorphosen of Richard Strauss, 'an essay in almost pure repetition and contemplation'—'pure' because independent of contemporary preoccupations and pressures not strictly musical, 'radically, beautifully elaborative, music whose pleasures and discoveries are premised upon letting go, upon not asserting a central authorising identity'.

This passage, stressing the privacy of his experience of this late Strauss work, comes almost at the end of his book. It seems decisive, until he adds a last sentence that hardly seems relevant to what he has just been saying: 'in the perspective afforded by such a work as Metamorphosen, music … becomes an art not primarily or exclusively about authorial power and social authority, but a mode for thinking through or thinking with the integral variety of human cultural practices, generously, noncoercively, and, yes, in a utopian cast, if by utopian we mean worldly, possible, attainable, knowable.' Here the exaltation he feels when he listens to the Strauss, sensing its solitude within his own, has got itself illicitly transferred, out of a sort of academic loyalty, to a professional critical programme for which he probably cares much less.

In short, the switch from private ecstasy to 'cultural practices' reflects a conscientious unwillingness to let go himself, and, in writing about music, to refrain transgressively from obeisance to professional formations and deformations. And yet, in the end, his awareness of the conflict between pleasure and duty adds to the interest of a remarkably rich and interesting book. Some obscurity, and some wavering of the expository line, may at least tempt one to read it again in search of the full sense of the argument, thus to be rewarded by the proof Said offers, out of his own experience, that when great music is heard by good listeners all talk of cultural criticism, and of aural pollution and European decadence, ceases for the moment to matter very much. Here if anywhere, in the solitude of the intent listener, is that small utopia, worldly, possible, attainable, knowable.

Malcolm Bowie (review date 29 November 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "A Whole New Approach," in Times Literary Supplement, November 29, 1991, p. 8.

[In the review below, Bowie praises Said's diverse insights and ideas about music in Musical Elaborations, concluding that the book enriches yet further problematizes music criticism.]

Let it not be said that writers on music cannot write, for some of them certainly can. Here is Gerald Abraham, for example, discussing Chopin as melodist in A Hundred Years of Music:

He had an instinct amounting to genius for inventing melodies that would be actually ineffective if sung or played on an instrument capable of sustaining tone but which, picked out in percussive points of sound each beginning to die as soon as born, are enchanting and give an illusion of singing that is often lovelier than singing itself.

The contrast between the continuous cantilena of, say, Bellini's melodies and the broken continuity of Chopin's has found its way into Abraham's syntax and given his sentence its own tune. He works hard to combine the technical description of sound-production with a lively account of musical pleasure being sought and found. But writing about music often goes awry when this sort of equilibrium is lost. Music criticism as a humanistic discipline is threatened on the one hand by technical analysis far in excess of its occasion and, on the other, by an empty striving for expressive effect.

Edward Said, in [Musical Elaborations, a] lecture series originally delivered at the Irvine campus of the University of California, is extraordinarily good at getting the balance right and at enlisting new rhetorical tools for the description of musical composition and performance. The lectures offer a set of trenchant notes towards a new kind of interpretative criticism. What writers on music most need, according to Professor Said, is an active awareness of what has been going on recently in neighbouring fields of interpretation, including feminism, cultural sociology and deconstruction, and a greater willingness to reconnect the quasi-autonomous musical work to the social and political force-fields in which it is produced, heard and studied. The new critical discourse that Said envisages is not, however, designed simply to create a public envelope for private artistic experiences. Said has much grander ambitions for it: to find ways of building bridges between the intimate, note-by-note unfolding of structured musical argument and the ambient structures of society, and, in due course, to do this systematically, without resorting to a trivial play of analogy between the two realms.

In producing his provisional sketch of this new, wide-ranging yet integrated approach, and in beginning to map an acoustic space that is also a social space, he is greatly assisted by the semi-technical term announced in his title: elaboration. This, it soon emerges, is a matter of working out and working through, of bringing complex structures to birth from simple-seeming initial motifs, and of allowing the labour and the laboriousness of musical craft to be commemorated by the critic even as he relives the easeful rapture that listening to music can bring. For music to be elaborate in Said's sense—which is derived in part from Gramsci—it has to be multiform, occupy the realm of transformational process and produce its effects of complexity, plenitude and completeness by an arduous espousal of the temporal dimension. And there is no real point in trying to cheat your way out of your time-boundedness, for music that refuses to be elaborate and temporal rapidly becomes shallow.

Said writes brilliantly about the musical works that for him best exemplify the self-delighting "elaborative" imagination at work. Bach's canonic variations on "Von Himmel hoch" are the supreme emblem of this creative furor. This work is

an exercise in pure combinatorial virtuosity. The melody is set first in the bass, then in the soprano, then in middle voices, all the time that the figural elaborations imitate each other in strict canon writing at different chordal intervals. Yet the overall impression communicated by the work is of something plastic and benign: the fearsomely problematic contrapuntal difficulties negotiated by Bach are, as it were, completely disguised. Moreover, the chorale melody itself is displaced so often from one register to the other that we sense Bach's ability to dislodge even the chorale's pious technical sententiousness with polyphonic manipulations that testify to a demonic power.

By skilful use of notions drawn from modern literary study, writing of this kind speaks with appropriate energy and nuance about qualities of Bach's counterpoint that could easily have been allowed to ebb away in a well-behaved technical analysis. Even the unexplained side-step from "benign" to "demonic", in describing the general potency of a single piece, has its own contribution to make: Bach's inventiveness can indeed strike the hearer as obliging at one moment and disruptive the next—or by turns supremely sane and almost mad. Glenn Gould caught something of the same terrifying uncertainty when he spoke of the great fugues as belonging both to the civilized intercourse of human beings and to the unpeopled Northern wastes.

Baroque fugal and variation forms suit Said's argument well when he needs to characterize the ordered multifariousness of musical thought, for these forms allow many things to happen at once and do not drive over-zealously towards a pre-ordained harmonic goal. Over and against this vision of creative freedom, he sets the actual or potential rigidities of sonata form. For Said, the trouble with this celebrated organizing device, especially in its long-lived Viennese incarnation, is that it encourages a cult of wilfulness and control among composers. If they fail to take precautions, their chosen structure can make them: dominative, coercive, authoritative, combative, overtly administrative and executive….

These and other adjectives, as they rain upon the sonata principle during the final pages of the book, seem to be gate-crashers from another kind of polemic altogether. They are charges that a gentle university humanist might be goaded into making against a particularly offensive Dean, but they have little aesthetic or political force when directed at Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, or even at their imitators. Said caricatures the role of the sonata development section—it is "the space opened up between two strongly marked poles, the inaugural declarations, which is where the theme first gets stated, and at the end, which is where a final cadential formula winds things up"—and has nothing to say about the extremes of tonal uncertainty and waywardness that the great Viennese composers discovered there. The very longevity of sonata form can be explained in terms very different from those that Said deploys with such relish. Could it not be that the centrally placed zone of uncertainty in sonata movements remained fascinating for so long precisely because it introduced an asymmetry between the "strongly marked poles" of exposition and recapitulation, made it impossible for the one simply to repeat the other and provided an ironic counter-weight to the rhetoric of authority and control?

This is a wonderfully alert and audacious book, and one that, inhabiting border territory, has a proper readiness to be speculative and to take risks. Said is one of those major scholars who can bring a new comparative discipline into view before our eyes without appointing himself as its founding mandarin or its proprietor. He never loses sight of the fact that there is still much shared work for literary and musical scholars to do if the project sketched here is to bear fruit. And the book has an informing tension that other border-dwellers will immediately recognize. The pleasure principle draws Said back to an enraptured intimacy with the work of art, and an astute anthropological intelligence draws him away again to the highly organized social world that composers, patrons, performers, entrepreneurs and concert goers inhabit. The book is full of insights into matters that fall in the transitional region between "pure" musicality and music as social act: from the pianist or composer as superstar, to the rise of audio culture and to the role of personal reminiscence in the listener's experience of musical time. Said proceeds with zest and demythologizing acerbity.

At the end of the final lecture, the elegiac self-referentiality of Richard Strauss's last works brings Said to his own profession of faith. What the humane study of music now most requires is "a mode for thinking through or thinking with the integral variety of human cultural practices, generously, non-coercively, and, yes, in a utopian cast, if by utopian we mean worldly, possible, attainable, knowable". It is perhaps rather strange that the inward and backward-looking intensities of Strauss's Metamorphosen should bring us so abruptly to a progressive, public-spirited and outward-looking research programme such as this, and stranger still, when we remember the author's earlier exhortations, that nothing should be said about the ruined fabric of German society at the time. The pursuit of musical pleasure has won the day, in the present book at least. But as a whole, Professor Said's pioneering work makes possible a richer and more problematic view of Metamorphosen, and of much else.

J. B. Kelly (review date 26 April 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Imperial Masquerade," in National Review, Vol. XLV, No. 8, April 26, 1993, pp. 48-50.

[In the review below, Kelly blasts Said's representations of the British empire in Culture and Imperialism.]

In the beginning was the word. Impérialisme was coined 150 years ago, during the period of the July Monarchy in France, as a label for the attempts being made within the country to reclaim Napoleonic ideas and to reimpose the former imperial system. Passing into English as "imperialism," it was employed by British political writers in the 1850s and 1860s to describe the principles, imperial rather than republican, upon which Louis Napoléon sought to organize the government of France after he assumed the title of Emperor in 1852. The word had no connection at the time with what was later to be known as "the British Empire." Indeed, even so scathing a critic of Britain's acquisition of overseas territories as Richard Cobden never employed the word in his diatribes against imperial rule.

Only in the last quarter of the century did "imperialism" come into use to denote, usually with a degree of disapprobation, the process of imperial expansion. It was used by the Liberal leader William Gladstone in the aftermath of the Eastern Crisis of 1877–78 to condemn the conduct of the Tory prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, in moving the British fleet to the Dardanelles, dispatching Indian troops to Malta, and annexing Cyprus. Gladstone was not opposed to the existence of the British Empire but rather, as he explained at the time, to its extension by armed conquest and its maintenance by military force, a system he termed "imperialism." Four years later, of course, he occupied Egypt. The word was also used in British political circles by critics of the Second Afghan War (1878–79) and of the Zulu War, which took place at the same time. Once introduced into the sphere of African affairs, the word spread and flourished over the next twenty years during what came to be known as "the Scramble for Africa."

Since that day it has undergone countless changes of meaning in everyday usage, largely under the influence of Marxist-Leninist dogma. Not only has "imperialist" supplanted "imperial" as the adjective normally derived from "empire" but it has proceeded through a series of mutations, each more outlandish than its predecessor, until now it is no more than a husk of a word into which anyone may cram whatever tortured meaning he cares to. So it is with Edward W. Said, who in his new book subsumes under the heading "imperialism" virtually every contact Europe has had with the outside world since the eighteenth century. Not being an historian, he obviously feels himself absolved from any obligation to respect the imperatives of historical scholarship, and free to prosecute the Western world at will for the crimes he says it has committed against the peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Culture and Imperialism continues and broadens the attack Said launched a dozen or so years ago in Orientalism, which argued that the very study of the Middle East by Western scholars was an imperialist act, for it furthered the aims of imperial powers and contributed to Western perceptions of the Arabs as inferior and of Islamic culture as second-rate. Now he argues, more ambitiously, that not only did the West lay Africa and most of Asia under the imperialist yoke, but it also forced its culture, especially its literary culture, upon the African and Asian peoples, at the same time deriding or denigrating their indigenous cultures. However, as opposition to imperial rule grew, eventually finding expression in nationalist struggles for independence, a literature of resistance and liberation developed among the native intelligentsia and their sympathizers in the West, which ultimately neutralized the pernicious influence of imperialist literature and paved the way for the downfall of European dominion in Asia and Africa.

At least this is what I understand Said's thesis to be. His writing is so diffuse, obscure, and overwrought that it is difficult to make out what it is he is trying to say—even though he repeats himself ad infinitum throughout the book. Take, for instance, this passage, on British histories of India.

Whereas these official versions of history try to do this for identitarian authority (to use Adornian terms)—the caliphate, the state, the orthodox clergy, the Establishment—the disenchantments, the disputatious and systematically skeptical investigations in the innovative work I have cited submit these composite, hybrid identities to a negative dialectic which dissolves them into variously constructed components. What matters a great deal more than the stable identity kept current in official discourse is the contestatory force of an interpretative method whose material is the disparate, but intertwined and interdependent, and above all overlapping streams of historical experience.

There are interminable acres of prose like this—muddled, inflated, impenetrable—which testify to nothing more than the author's awesome capacity for self-indulgence.

According to Said, the English novel was "immensely important" in the formation of imperial attitudes. "The novel, as a cultural artifact of bourgeois society, and imperialism are unthinkable without each other." A dubious proposition at best; but let it go. He chooses four novelists whose work for him embodies and promotes the ideas current in their day about the British Empire—Conrad, Kipling, Jane Austen, and Dickens. Conrad and Kipling one can understand, especially as they knew the East at first hand. But Austen and Dickens? It seems that by casually referring to Antigua in Mansfield Park Austen revealed that she had the empire in the back of her mind most of the time, that she was nevertheless indifferent to the condition of the subject peoples ("in Mansfield Park [she] sublimates the agonies of Caribbean existence to a mere half dozen passing references to Antigua"), and that she dodged facing up to her true responsibility to denounce imperialism and all its works.

Dickens in Great Expectations sent the convict Magwitch off to Australia, apparently a dreadful place unfit for decent Englishmen, which showed that Dickens knew a thing or two about what it felt like to be a despised colonial lad. Conrad, of course, as evidenced by the sentiments he expressed in Nostromo, Lord Jim, and Heart of Darkness, was a hopeless case, handicapped by "crucial limitations in vision," imbued with the "paternalistic arrogance of imperialism," and willfully blind to the existence of Africa's native culture. Kipling, surprisingly, is let off fairly lightly: although irredeemably tainted with the sin of imperialism, at least he knew India intimately and wrote about its people with sympathy.

To Said the mission civilisatrice of Britain and France in Asia and Africa was little more than a fraud. It conferred no benefits upon the native peoples but resulted only in "the murder, subversion and endless instability of 'primitive' societies." The eminent social anthropologist Ernest Gellner, of Cambridge University, has already exposed at length in the Times Literary Supplement the errors, omissions, and fallacies of Said's arguments about the French Empire in North Africa. I shall confine myself, therefore, to Said's animadversions on the British Empire, which take up a good third of his book.

It need hardly be said that he hasn't a good word to say for the empire. Its sole purpose, it seems, was to oppress and exploit the peoples of Asia and Africa who were unfortunate enough to fall under Britain's malevolent sway. The only legacy it conferred was to make its former subjects, whether white, black, or brown, feel rejected and despised. How Said could come up with such a grotesque caricature, so much at odds with the historical evidence, defies understanding. The answer, in part at least, may lie in the sources he cites in his notes. These consist in the main of partipris works of Marxist or neo-Marxist provenance, among which revisionist studies of the New Left school predominate—the "innovative work" to which he refers in the passage quoted earlier. His exemplars include such authors as V. G. Kiernan, Noam Chomsky, and Ali Mazrui. His sacred texts are vituperative tracts such as Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth. The standard authorities, such as the six-volume Cambridge History of the British Empire or the equally massive Cambridge History of India, are nowhere to be seen. Nor are any of the works of the great scholars of British imperial history. Very peculiar.

Said's big thought, which he proudly italicizes, is that "the enterprise of empire depends upon the idea of having an empire." Not for him the old notion that much of the empire was acquired haphazardly, in a fit of absentmindedness, as it were. No, it was all part of a grand design, the intellectual foundations of empire being laid before the edifice was created. This, of course, is all nonsense. What Said is obviously unaware of is that the very word "empire," as applied to the overseas possessions of the Crown, did not come into use in Britain before the middle of the nineteenth century, by which time all these possessions, with the exception of the tropical African dependencies, the Boer republics, and a handful of Pacific islands, had already been acquired.

His lack of acquaintance with elementary facts about the empire shows up prominently in his section on British India, which he examines through the medium of Kipling's Kim. After beginning with the solecism of the "British East India Company" he goes on to speak of "British colonial officials" (India was never a colony administered by the Colonial Office but, eventually, an empire administered by the India Office), and to categorize India as "a territory dominated by Britain for three hundred years." In reality, it was not until the Battle of Plassey in 1757, which consolidated the hold of the English East India Company on Bengal, that one can properly speak of the beginnings of British rule in India. It was not until nearly a century later, with the conquest of Sind and the Punjab in the 1840s, that one could talk of British "domination" in India. From there to independence in 1947 was a hundred years.

Said seems to believe that the abolition of suttee and female slavery only came in the wake of the Indian nationalist movement. So much for the labors of Dalhousie as governor-general in the 1830s. Incidentally, Said is strangely silent about the centuries-old Arab slave trade from Africa, which was suppressed not by Arab nationalists but by intransigent "imperialists" like Palmerston.

The "Great Game" is defined by Said as "a sort of political economy of control over India," which would have raised a laugh beyond the Hindu Kush. Does he know when and how the term originated, or anything at all about the contest between Britain and Czarist Russia in Central Asia? Has he at least read Curzon? One doubts it. The great viceroy never appears in his book—although Christopher Hitchens, Alexander Cockburn, and Anthony Lewis all get favorable mention. Said further informs us that "after 1857 the East India Company was replaced by the much more formal Government of India." It was not. The Government of India had existed, in name and in fact, since 1834. It was the Crown, on the revocation of the Company's charter in 1858, that assumed through the India Office (the renamed Board of Control) direct responsibility for the governing of India, and sovereignty over those territories where the Company had been sovereign. Details, perhaps, but one tends to weary of an author whose pages are studded with historical inaccuracies of every kind, who has never read an imperial dispatch in the original, yet considers himself fully entitled to pontificate at will about the deplorable nature of British rule in India.

He is equally at sea with the rest of the empire. Until the eve of the Second World War, he tells us, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, like the tropical colonies, protectorates, and other dependencies, were governed directly from London. Evidently he knows nothing of the Balfour Declaration (of 1926 on Dominion status, not that of 1917 on Palestine) or of the Statute of Westminster of 1931 which accorded constitutional recognition to the independence of the Dominions. That's what comes of failing to read the right books on the subject. Another instance of this failure, one among many, occurs in the section of his book devoted to the literature of resistance to imperialism. He writes, basing himself on a book by an Arab nationalist, George Antonius, that "the Arabs, after liberating themselves from the Ottomans in 1917 and 1918, took British promises for Arab independence as the literal truth." If the Arabs "liberated themselves" from Ottoman rule, one wonders what the armies of the British Empire were doing in 1914–18 in places like Gallipoli, Egypt, Palestine, and Iraq. As for the accusation of British bad faith toward the Arabs, Said is on shaky ground in relying upon Antonius's book, The Arab Awakening, which is a work of pure advocacy, written for the purpose of influencing British thinking on Palestine on the eve of the Second World War. Moreover, its shortcomings have been devastatingly exposed by a far greater scholar than Antonius, the late Elie Kedourie, in his classic study In the Anglo-Arab Labyrinth. Said does not so much as mention this book, the existence of which he surely must, as a committed Palestinian nationalist, have been aware of.

The final fifty pages of his book are so embarrassing to read that it would be a kindness to draw a veil over them. He is outraged by the American air raid on Libya but not by the destruction of the Pan American airliner over Lockerbie or the French UTA airliner over Niger, the handiwork of Libyan terrorists. He deplores the war against Iraq, although he admits that Saddam Hussein was naughty to attack Kuwait. He concedes that the Middle East is in an appalling mess, the causes of which he quickly ascribes to the period of British and French domination, although he then goes on to lament that in those days, as compared with now, one could travel freely and in safety from Syria to Egypt. He holds the United States responsible for the Indonesian massacres in East Timor. He blames many of the troubles in the world on a demonic trio of "fundamentalists"—Ayatollah Khomeini, Pope John Paul II, and Margaret Thatcher. And so on.

What emerges from these semi-coherent ramblings is Said's abiding hatred of everything the British Empire stood for and everything the United States stands for in the world today. A strange emotion for someone who was educated at Victoria College in Egypt, an institution founded by the British for the education of the scions of the Arab upper classes, and who has found a rewarding academic career in the United States, crowned by appointment to a chair at Columbia University. But that is his affair.

Robert Hughes (essay date 21 June 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Envoy to Two Cultures," in Time, Vol. 141, No. 25, June 21, 1993, pp. 60-2.

[In the following essay, Hughes summarizes the controversies and achievements of Said's life.]

Huge as American academe is, it has few public intellectuals—men or women whose views carry weight with general readers off-campus. Near the top of any list of such people is a tall, elegantly tailored, 57-year-old American of Palestinian descent who for the past 30 years has taught English and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York City: Edward Said.

Said (pronounced Sigh-eed) owes his fame partly to his cultural criticism, notably his 1978 book Orientalism, a study of how ideas and images about the Arab world were contrived by Western writers and why. Now comes Culture and Imperialism. A plum pudding of a book, with excursions on such matters as Irish-nationalist poetry and the building of an opera house in Cairo for the launch of Verdi's Aida, it is the product of a culturally hypersaturated mind, moving between art and politics, showing how they do or might intermesh—but never with the coarse ideological reductiveness of argument so common in America nowadays. Said's theme is how the three big realities of empire—imperialism, "native" resistance, decolonization—helped shape, in particular, the English and French novel. Culture and Imperialism includes brilliant readings of Conrad, Kipling, Camus, Yeats and other writers. It has been extolled by such critics as Camille Paglia and Henry Louis Gates Jr., and roundly damned by others, especially English ones, who fixated on Said's suggestion that an awareness of Caribbean slavery ran under the ironic tranquillity of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. In England you can dump on God, Churchill or Prince Charles, but touch Jane Austen and you're toast.

So is Jane Austen why Said's office at Columbia has been vandalized, and why he has received death threats from Jews, Iraqis, Palestinian extremists and Syrians? Is his dislike of poststructuralism the reason why thousands of American Jews think of him as an enemy, the P.L.O.'s man in New York? Guess again.

The fact is that Said, though by no means the only public Arab intellectual in America, is the most visible one: the voice of Palestine in exile. For more than 20 years he has been writing in defense of Palestinian rights and against the usurpation of Palestine territory by Jordan and Israel. His books on the subject, like The Question of Palestine (1979), are written, he says, "to bear witness to the historical experience of Palestinians."

Hence the attacks. A few years ago, an article on Said ran in Commentary magazine under the defamatory headline "The Professor of Terror." In 1985 his name turned up on a "confidential" blacklist circulated by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, implying that he was one of a group of "pro-Arab propagandists" in American academe who "use their anti-Zionism merely as a guise for their deeply felt anti-Semitism." When an academic association exposed this document, B'nai B'rith hastily retracted it and disowned its author. But trying to defend Palestinians against Israel's massive propaganda resources in America is, by any standard, an uphill slog, and Said has no illusions about it. "My endless beef with the Palestinian leadership is that they've never grasped the importance of America as clearly and as early as the Jews," he says. "Most Palestinian leaders, like Arafat, grew up in tyrannical countries like Syria or Jordan, where there's no democracy at all. They don't understand the institutions of civil society, and that's the most important thing!"

Said is not, in fact, a Muslim, but an Anglican. He was born in Jerusalem in 1935, the son of Arab Christians; his father, a wealthy merchant, fled to Cairo in 1947. English church, English education. In Cairo he went to Victoria College, "the Eton of the Middle East"—an anomaly, as Said remembers it, in an Egypt seething with anti-British feeling. Willy-nilly, this training ground for the colonial élite made him a child of Empire, giving him "a wonderful, very tough, English public-school education—ceaseless work." Its teachers were all English, extras from Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, "nostalgic for home and free to cane the little wogs under their tutelage. There was general denigration of Arab society and the Arab world. The place to be was England. What mattered was English culture and English ideas."

At 15, fractious young Edward was expelled for "rowdyness," whereupon his father, who held dual Palestinian-U.S. citizenship, sent him to a boarding school in Massachusetts—"a tremendous dislocation for me, but academically very easy, after what I'd come from." At 18 Said became an American citizen. He went to Princeton for a year, studying literature, music and moral philosophy. Then he transferred to Harvard, where, after five years, he got a doctorate in English literature. Looking back, Said thinks, the odd thing about his student years was that "I never attached myself to a mentor, never at all. It's my perverse streak—I'm a natural autodidact."

This liking for the self-taught is at the heart of Said's attitude toward work. He thinks the narrowness of students' reference is "one of the great generational dividers," and dislikes the current academic obsession with "professionalism," which basically means finding and keeping your knowledge slot in an overpopulated field. This, he complains, is apt to turn lively undergraduates into timid graduate students "afraid of stepping outside the consensus." Professionalism, as understood in American academe today, "means you learn all the current rules of how to say things. I think that's one of the reasons why intellectual life in America is so stunted. It's a colossal bore. I'm much happier being a shameless amateur, in the original sense of loving things and doing them because you're curious about them, not because you have to."

Said's amateur passion, his violon d'Ingres, is music. He is an accomplished pianist; in April he gave duet recitals in New York and Washington with the Lebanese pianist Diana Takieddine. For some years he wrote music criticism for The Nation, and in 1991 he published a collection of his essays, Musical Elaborations. Today, afflicted by leukemia and acutely aware of the shortness of life, he is thinking of writing "a memoir of my pre-political life, which ended in 1967. What a strange world I grew up in!—a vanished world now. It's very hard even to find traces of it. I can let memory play all the tricks it wants. I want that, actually. Then maybe I'll write some fiction."

His writing and teaching have always ranged widely. Their base—laid long ago at Harvard—is the tradition of German philology, exemplified in America by the émigré scholar Erich Auerbach (1892–1957), that explores the modes and levels of representation in Western writing. "Representation"—how we see other cultures, how we depict them in our own through imagination and stereotype—is the core of Said's work, especially of Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism. But Said despises what he calls "the minority mentality" on American campuses. "My books are one long protest against it. The status of victim is not a passive blanket that you pull over yourself. You can always do something. Anyway, there's no such thing as a pure unmediated culture, any more than there's a pure unmediated self. All people, all cultures, are hybrid. I'm against essentialism. I'm against provincial nationalism. Yet people still insist on getting it wrong; they make the most absurd constructions on my work. It's not about saying imperialism was bad—you don't need a book to tell you that." Not the least absurd is the idea that Said's criticism aims to downgrade the classics by unmasking some of their authors' social or political assumptions. "How can you not believe in quality? I can't stand that line, it's so stupid."

Politics—and the haunting, obsessive questions of Arab identity—entered Said's life long after music and literature. His effort to put them together started after the 1967 war with the seizure of the West Bank. "Many of my friends who had studied in America began to be drawn back, and I began to be involved in the re-emergence of Palestinian nationalism." He set out to relearn classical Arabic. He got extra encouragement from his wife Mariam Cortas, the daughter of a Lebanese educator. "Mariam also grew up in the Middle East, but in an entirely Arab system."

The canard that Said supports Arab terrorism goes back to the '70s, and it is supported, his critics say, by the fact that from 1977 until 1991 he was a member of the Palestine National Council, a Palestinian parliament-in-exile consisting of some 400 members worldwide, which serves as an umbrella for the P.L.O. as well as for nonmilitary and nonterrorist organizations. Never mind that Said has always urged the P.L.O. to seek the conference table, not the car bomb, or that, to the U.S. government, the P.N.C. and the P.L.O. were wholly distinct. For the Israeli right and its American supporters they were one and the same thing. Thus in 1988, at the height of the Israeli crackdown in occupied Palestine, when Secretary of State George Shultz proposed talking to Said and another Palestinian-American professor, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, to discuss his Middle East peace effort, Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir vehemently objected. The meeting took place anyway.

None of Said's political foes have been able to cite a single utterance by him that could be construed as anti-Semitic or as condoning either tyranny or terrorism. Hence they fall back on innuendo, smear tactics or—in the case of Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi whose recent book Cruelty and Silence, directed against Arab acquiescence in the horrors of Saddam's regime, also fiercely attacks Said—on distortions of his views. The feud between Makiya and Said has been seized on, to the pleasure of neither, by American anti-Arabists. Said, declaimed A. M. Rosenthal in the New York Times last April, is the kind of Arab intellectual who preaches to other Arabs that "the enemy is, guess—the West, not the despotisms among whom they chose not to seek tenure." Such folk, he added, are the "silent servants" of terrorism and tyranny.

And such punditry is wide of the mark. Far from lending support to Middle Eastern despotisms, Said has harshly criticized them. He spoke out (while academe remained largely silent) for Salman Rushdie against the Iranian mullahs and their fatwa: "Those of us from the Moslem part of this world cannot accept the notion that democratic freedoms should be abrogated to protect Islam." He has inveighed against Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Hafez Assad in Syria. The "traditional discourse" of Arab nationalism, he wrote on the eve of the Gulf War, is "unresponsive, anomalous, even comic." The Arab media are "a disgrace," incapable of dealing with "life in the Arab world today with its terrible inequities, its self-inflicted wounds, its crushing mediocrity in science and many cultural fields." In sum, if Said is the Arab world's propagandist, it should hire a new one fast. He has always rejected the "tyranny and atavism" of Islamic fundamentalism, in the name of the secular, liberal and humane strand in Arab culture whose voices are silenced by Middle Eastern regimes and ignored in America. "People try to characterize me as a spokesman for the Arab states," says Said, "but I'm not. I've always tried to retain my independence. I've always spoken out against the leaders."

He isn't optimistic about the future, on either side. He sees Americans clinging to their Arab stereotypes—the fat grasping sheik, the crazy fundamentalist bomber. Meanwhile, "most Arabs today, including cultivated ones, have no hope of any kind of cultural exchange between them and the West. The mood is so desperate. The fundamentalist movement is in a sense an act of desperation: "The West won't listen to us, so we turn away from them.' That's the most discouraging thing, to me—the wholesale condemnation of America and the West, without trying to discover that America is a very contradictory, various place." Were ever two cultures so far apart, so blinded by their own distorted images of each other? But what better subject could there be, in this insanely fractured time, for an authentic humanist like Said?

Michael Wood (review date 3 March 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Lost Paradises," in New York Review of Books, Vol. 41, March 3, 1994, pp. 44-7.

[In the following review, Wood appraises the strengths and weaknesses of Culture and Imperialism, linking its ideas to Said's earlier writings.]

What redeems certain empires, or perhaps only the British, according to Conrad's Marlow, what saves them from mere rapacity, from being "just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale," is "the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to." At this point in Heart of Darkness Marlow is said to break off. It is "only after a long silence" and "in a hesitating voice" that he speaks again, and starts to tell the story of his journey to Africa and his meeting with the mysterious and dying Kurtz.

Marlow stops speaking, presumably, because he is troubled by the metaphor he has stumbled into. Bowing down and offering a sacrifice don't sound like the activities of an organized and enlightened Western mind. They sound like idolatry, even if the recipient is an idea rather than a barbarous deity. The very thing that (perhaps genuinely) distinguishes the British from the ancient Roman and the modern Belgian empires identifies it with the supposed savages it is unselfishly dispossessing of their land, and worse still, with Kurtz himself, the European who has gone native, whose house is surrounded by human skulls, and who has himself become someone to bow down before and offer a sacrifice to. African chiefs are said to "crawl" to him. As so often in Conrad, an argument begins to collapse into its opposite. There is a slippage at the heart of empire, a crack in its definition of itself.

Other features of empire are intact and unthreatened in Heart of Darkness, though, and even Conrad seems quite untroubled by them. The epigraph to Edward Said's powerful recent book picks up the passage on Marlow's idea a little earlier, and continues into the quotation as given above:

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it …

As the carefully understated irony makes clear, Conrad was not a racist in the most obvious and virulent sense; he did not believe in the superiority of one race over another, and repeatedly mocks the very notion. But he did believe in race itself, as almost everyone did until more recently than we care to remember. Conrad welcomed the stereotype of the African savage, even if he thought (or because he thought) we were all savages at heart. He could see that Europeans might be as wild and morally benighted as Africans, or even more so, because of the veneer of their hypocrisy and refinement; he could not see that Africans might have their own enlightenment and civilization.

This is an effect of culture, or rather of power experienced as a cultural inflection, and such matters are the theme of Said's book [Culture and Imperialism]. But culture doesn't simply respond to power; it shapes the moral world in which power is exercised and encountered. In one sense Culture and Imperialism is a sequel to Said's Orientalism (1978); in another it is, as he says, "an attempt to do something else." Like Orientalism the newer work describes a culture of dominance, the way realities of power are both registered and masked in language and behavior; but it also explores cultures of resistance, the ways in which an ancient or emerging culture can speak within and against domination.

Thus Culture and Imperialism has a brilliant, affectionate chapter on Kipling's Kim ("we can watch a great artist … blinded by his own insights about India"), a scrupulous and painful chapter on Camus's fiction and its relation to Algerian independence ("Camus's narratives have a negative vitality, in which the tragic human seriousness of the colonial effort achieves its last great clarification before ruin overtakes it"); a complex, many-angled account of Verdi's Aida and its first performance in Egypt. But the book also has an intricate response to Yeats's situation as an entangled postcolonial poet ("His greatest decolonizing works concern the birth of violence, or the violent birth of change"), and a passionate account of what Said calls the voyage in, the moment in writing when the children of empire take up their own argument in the alien language they have been taught. Said's chief examples of this voyage, discussed in sympathetic detail, are C. L. R. James's The Black Jacobins and George Antonius's The Arab Awakening: he also makes acute comments on Ranajit Guha's A Rule of Property for Bengal and S. H. Alatas's The Myth of the Lazy Native.

No longer does the logos dwell exclusively, as it were, in London and Paris. No longer does history run unilaterally, as Hegel believed, from east to west, or from south to north, becoming more sophisticated and developed, less primitive and backward as it goes.

The new perspective requires not a denial of what comparative literature used to be in the grand days of Spitzer, Auerbach, and Curtius but an extension of its interest to works of historical and sociological learning, and a reexamination of its old hierarchies, its (sometimes) implicit but (always) unmistakable Eurocentrism.

The real hero of Said's book is anonymous and collective; everyone who has been silenced or misrepresented by an empire, but who has said enough, or left marks enough, to encourage the chance of liberation. Frantz Fanon comes close to being the named hero, the bearer of a "cultural energy" which could move us beyond nationalism, seen as the continuing grip of empire's hand, into an authentic humanism, a term to be stripped of its conservative and self-congratulating intonation. "It is a misreading of Fanon," Said suggests, "not to see in him something considerably beyond a celebration of violent conflict." I'm sure this is right, although Said's dismissal of Fanon's support of armed struggle as "at most tactical" is a little swift—it was more than that—and doesn't even evoke "the justified violence of the oppressed," a phrase Said uses elsewhere.

However, Said's topic at this point is not violence but nationalism, and he already has enough difficulties on his hands. He doesn't want to refuse nationalism its legitimacy as a form of resistance to its imperial domination; he wants us to see that there are many forms of nationalism, courageous as well as crazy and tyrannical ones. But he also wants nationalism to be critical of itself. Only in this way can it modulate into liberation, and put an end even to the ghosts of empire. At this point, words like "universal" might make a comeback, because they would represent not the projection into time and space of whatever our civilization happens to be, but the discovery of authentically shared human grounds, old and new.

It will be more difficult to rehabilitate "objective," a word often found in the same lexicon, not because there are no common truths or because subjectivity is all we have left, but because "objectivity" has served too many forms of Realpolitik, has too often meant merely an insufficient curiosity about the status quo, as when the facts (our facts) are assumed to take care of all argument. Said quotes Fanon as saying that "for the native, objectivity is always directed against him." There are other objectivities, of course, which may be helpful to the native or which may be the native's own, as when an investigation reveals the lies and distortions of a crooked or unscrupulous oppressor. But even there, even when a relative objectivity can be substantiated and agreed on, there are also passion and polemic, not the mere, aloof disinterestedness the word "objectivity" mostly seems to proclaim.

This is a delicate matter, which haunts all of Said's work—indeed haunts much modern scholarship in all kinds of fields. He acknowledges the force of various Nietzschean skepticisms about the possibility of truth and knowledge, but clings to the idea that "there is such a thing as knowledge that is less, rather than more partial than the individual … who produces it" and that what he calls "the seductive degradation of knowledge" can be resisted. All knowledge is potentially political, we might say; it doesn't have to be, shouldn't be politicized.

Taking a cue from Raymond Williams, Said describes the elaborate involvement of culture in empire as "a structure of attitude and reference." This capacious phrase, almost obsessively repeated, begins to wear a little thin, or to look more like a talisman than a concept. Of course Said must have some such ample container if he is to recognize the ways in which texts are and are not determined by historical circumstance, but I still worry about the bagginess of the term. Is there anything that won't go into it? Like Williams, and like Lukács, his other maître à penser, Said deals frequently in the very broadest of propositions. The difficulty with them is not that we can't assent to them but that we can scarcely see what it would mean not to.

Said himself is certainly aware of this problem, and in his earlier book The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983) speaks of the risk of "soupy" designations and "sloppy" notions. Here he writes of the "unacceptable vagueness" which may attend words like imperialism, and offers two responses to this concern: we need to look at the details and differences concealed by the general term; we must not use them to avoid the hard realities lurking in the vagueness itself. This is persuasive, and in the case of empire the vagueness is a product of the sheer size of the phenomenon, of the fact, say, cited by Said, that by 1914 "Europe held a grand total of roughly 85 percent of the earth as colonies, protectorates, dependencies, dominions, and commonwealths." As a result, empire lingers almost everywhere, in minds and economies, even when it is supposed to have gone, and Said can plausibly speak of our political "context" as still "primarily imperial." We need to remember that the culture of empire often includes a magisterial denial of the possession of anything like an empire, or an interest in any such thing, as when the interventions of the United States in Asia and Latin America and the Middle East are pictured not as imperial gestures but as humble, even altruistic acts of peace-keeping. Or when the British and the Belgians indulged in the metaphors of bringing light to darkness which so caught Conrad's attention.

There are overstatements in Culture and Imperialism, uncertainties, contradictions. "The novel … and imperialism are unthinkable without each other." This is either untrue (people have been thinking of them separately for ages, that is what Said wishes to change) or a truism (all historical connections, however tenuous, look inevitable to hindsight). Said eloquently identifies and rejects the rhetoric of blame which riddles so many discussions of empire, but what he himself says very often sounds like blame, and he's the one who tells us that Conor Cruise O'Brien lets Camus "off the hook" by converting the historical fact of Western dominance in Algeria into the more metaphysical notion of "Western consciousness and conscience in relation to the non-Western world." There is an interesting analogy between Verdi's "imperial notion" of the total art work and the imperial gesture (Verdi's and others') which premieres in Egypt an opera about the same country's ancient splendors and miseries, a form of homage that looks a little like a takeover. But "imperial" is still a metaphor here, it elides Verdi's own opposition to Austrian imperialism, and to say that the notion and the gesture "dovetailed conveniently" makes the suggestive network of connections, what Said calls the "ghostly notations" of musical and political history, look like a pretty blunt operation after all. I'm still puzzling over what I think is wrong with the suggestion that Austen "sublimates the agonies of Caribbean existence to a mere half dozen passing references to Antigua." Is it that they are not agonies to her, even if we feel they should be; and that the word sublimates blurs the issue?

To note all this is not to demand of the critic some impossible delicacy or poise, but to remind ourselves that Said, like the rest of us, has more than one passion. A Palestinian who lives and works in New York, and a Christian Arab who was educated in Egypt and the United States, he inhabits a complicated, multiple world; and his book itself is speaking to several different audiences. If some readers are distressed by his insistence on the worldly embroilments of literature, others are upset by his kindness to his enemies. It is surprising, and affecting, to read that Said finds the famous images of empire—Gordon at Khartoum, Kurtz in Africa, T. E. Lawrence conspiring in the desert, Rhodes "establishing countries, estates, funds as easily as other men might have children," Bugeaud frenchifying Algeria, "the concubines, dancing girls, odalisques of Gérôme, Delacroix's Sardanapalus, Matisse's North Africa, Saint-Saëns's Samson and Delilah"—"haunting, strangely attractive, compelling." Some of those images seem a good deal more haunting and attractive than others, and certainly Said goes further than I would when he thinks Yeats's espousal of fascism "arrogant if charming."

What is important about Said's "contrapuntal reading" of works of literature—a reading in which ordinarily separate histories are allowed to play against each other, to produce not harmony but a complicated polyphony—is not its occasional bluntness or its sometimes overstated claims, but the range of insight and argument it makes possible. It is not only a matter, as he too modestly says, of provoking "a newly engaged interest" in canonical texts, or of making them "more valuable as works of art." It is a matter of learning how to find, in literature and elsewhere, what Said calls "a heightened form of historical experience": which I take to mean finding history in places where it ought not to have been lost, amid our favorite formalisms and decorums, for example.

This is what Said's demanding discussions of Camus, Flaubert, Forster, Gide, Yeats, Césaire, Neruda, and many others do for us. The point, to parody Marx, is not to appreciate the world but to understand it. We see the "strengths" and "limitations" of works we care about. Conrad's Nostromo, for example; we catch the references they themselves make to things we have forgotten, as I shall suggest in a moment in relation to Jane Austen; we gain or regain a "sense of the human community and the actual contests" that go into the formation of national and other histories, those of the British in India, for instance, and the Indians under the British; and we recognize in empire and its legacy "a compellingly important and interesting configuration in the world of power and nations." There is no exaggeration in such a claim, and by analogy we recognize other missed or displaced configurations too.

Culture and Imperialism is a hospitable book—surprisingly hospitable perhaps for a volume with such a turbulent topic, and for an author with such a (well-earned) reputation as a polemicist. It is a work of prodigious learning, littered with warm acknowledgments of authors and titles. Its very pages look like an active community of scholarship, and Said speaks eloquently of the university as a "utopian space" where politics are (must be) an issue but where such issues are not "imposed or resolved." We may think of the space as wider than the university, as appearing wherever thought and argument are active, wherever criticism in Said's sense occurs. The "social goal" of criticism, he says in The World, the Text, and the Critic, is "noncoercive knowledge produced in the interests of human freedom"; and he asks, in a rather Jamesian turn, "What is critical consciousness at bottom if not an unstoppable predilection for alternatives?"

Literature itself would be a utopia in this sense, an idea we find in Kundera, for instance ("the novel is incompatible with the totalitarian universe"). But then this same utopian, critical space, if much wider than the university, is still pretty slender overall, threatened even within the university, vulnerable to all sorts of conformities, and always at risk when the predilection for alternatives, whichever way they run, is treated as treason.

There is an excellent example of regainable historical experience in Austen's Mansfield Park, which Said controversially discusses in Culture and Imperialism. Said's case seems at first sight very much overworked; a few mentions of Sir Thomas Bertram's possessions in Antigua support a whole structure of argument about empire and slavery. Said shows analogies between running an estate and writing a novel, and between restoring order at home, where the young folks have been putting on a play, and keeping order abroad, where the natives are no doubt restless. When he writes that "there is nothing in Mansfield Park that would contradict us" if we were to pursue such connections, a proper skepticism arises in us. This is how lawyers talk when their evidence or their witnesses are shaky.

But Said's evidence is not shaky, and he is if anything too discreet about it. He says, correctly but without quoting, that Austen continues to link colonial expansion with domestic morality "right up to the last sentence." If we turn to that last sentence with questions about slavery in our mind, we are likely to find it disconcerting. Should we have questions about slavery in our mind? Well, Austen had; it's her later readers who haven't.

In the last words of the novel we learn that the parsonage at Mansfield

which … Fanny had never been able to approach but with some painful sensation of restraint or alarm, soon grew as dear to her heart, and as thoroughly perfect in her eyes, as every thing else, within the view and patronage of Mansfield Park, had long been.

The restraint and alarm have to do with the former inhabitants of the parsonage, who include Fanny's meddling and snobbish aunt, her glittering rival for the love of her cousin Edmund, and a man who made her an offer it seemed she couldn't refuse; but "patronage" reaches out into a world beyond Fanny's immediate experiences, and picks up discussions earlier in the novel.

There is surely a smile at Fanny's enthusiasm in the words "thoroughly perfect," and a restriction implied by "in her eyes." The place is not perfect, because nowhere is. Austen has just said, in one of her milder relativizing touches, that "the happiness of the married cousins … must appear as secure as earthly happiness can be." How secure is that? How secure did Austen think it was? She goes on to specify by implication that this happiness involves "affection and comfort," and—a nice touch—the death of the incumbent at the parsonage, so the happy couple can move in. I don't think we should read Austen as sneering here, or doubting the happiness of the married cousins. But it is a worldly happiness, and the projected perfection, as Fanny herself knows, involves a plantation in Antigua, part of the patronage if not of the view of Mansfield Park. Said's point is that it is precisely not part of the view because it is taken for granted: "Austen reveals herself to be assuming … the importance of an empire to the situation at home." This is true enough, although of course there is no reason why Austen should not make such an assumption. More troubling is the implied attitude to the management of empire, and here Austen begins to look rather more like Conrad than you would expect.

Austen, like Conrad (and most other English novelists writing before this century), accepts the idea of overseas possession; she fails to express any considerable interest in the human objects of British colonial attention, undoubtedly caught up in the "recent losses" Sir Thomas Bertram has sustained "on his West India Estate," part of the "experience and anxiety" he met there—although indeed his losses and anxiety may well have to do with the approaching abolition of the British slave trade rather than its heartless flourishing.

But Austen does express unease, or allow space for unease, about the morality of overseas possession. Sir Thomas, having taken his mousy niece into his house as an act of kindness, is surprised, on his return from Antigua, to find she has grown into an attractive young woman. "Your uncle thinks you very pretty, dear Fanny," her cousin Edmund says. "You must really begin to harden yourself to the idea of being worth looking at…. You must try not to mind growing up into a pretty woman." Edmund means to be kind, and has tried to frame his father's compliments with an appropriate moral reservation: "Though they may be chiefly on your person, you must put up with it, and trust to his seeing as much beauty of mind in time." Even so, "being worth looking at" is pretty brutal, and "beauty of mind" here sounds like the stuff you get at question time in the Miss World contest.

But the real problem here, which makes Fanny "distressed by more feelings than he was aware of," is that she is in love with Edmund, and we are to imagine the strange torture of hearing these things from his mouth but not from his mind and heart. Edmund, blind to all this and not yet in love with Fanny, says she needs to talk to her uncle more, she is "one of those who are too silent in the evening circle." At this point Austen makes an astonishing connection, which I should certainly not have seen without Said's instigation, between the commodification of women and a more notorious commerce in human flesh. Fanny says:

"But I do talk to him more than I used. I'm sure I do. Did not you hear me ask him about the slave trade last night?"

"I did—and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther."

"And I longed to do it—but there was such a dead silence!"

Fanny goes on to explain her diffidence: she didn't want to seem more interested in her uncle's doings in the West Indies, or specifically, "his information," than the man's own daughters were.

There is a lot of work for the reader to do here, and different readers will do different work. It's possible to see this moment as not about the slave trade at all: mention of it merely signals Fanny's seriousness and the empty-headedness of the Bertram girls. The dead silence is one of boredom. This certainly is how Edmund sees the matter, but his mind is not fully on it: he is thinking, as his next speech shows, about how wonderful Mary Crawford, the woman he is currently attracted to, is. And can it be true that Sir Thomas would have been pleased by further questions about the slave trade? What was his answer to the first? Perhaps the dead silence was his, and Fanny describes her diffidence because she doesn't want to seem to complain. Or she is embarrassed at the memory: she didn't mean to cause trouble or seem like some sort of radical, she only wanted a wise and authoritative answer to her no doubt foolish qualms.

For Said the dead silence suggests that the cruelty of the West Indies could not be connected with the civility of places like Mansfield Park, "since there simply is no common language for both." This is certainly the effect of the silence, and it is certainly the way many readers of Jane Austen see the matter. Several English reviews of Said's book thought the idea that Austen might (or might not) have anything to say about slavery was his chief and most ridiculous idea, and were illustrated with rather demure-looking prints of the novelist, as if she were a cultural icon to be saved from political desecration. But the silence in the novel must be local, rather than a reflection of the culture at large. The British slave trade was abolished in 1807, and most commentators assume the novel (written in 1811) to be set in the years just before that. The subject would have been much discussed, and might have been discussed even at places like Mansfield Park. Fanny was trying and failing to talk about the news. If the silence is Sir Thomas's, rather than simply that of boredom, we still have to guess at its source. Is he an embarrassed anti-abolitionist, or does he just think women shouldn't talk about these things? Is he fed up with all the talk about the slave trade, or just too distressed to talk any more?

Of course, we can't take these questions very far without writing our own novel; but that is not a reason for dropping them entirely. Slavery is not questioned in such a scene; but it is remembered, and there is no comfortable place for a critic or reader to be. The writing is so understated, so delicately unforthcoming, that at first we can only note the presence in it of a question that, in older, less contrapuntal readings, Fanny might be thought too frightened to ask and Austen might be thought too genteel to entertain.

Austen offers several stories here, or several possibilities of story, and such a move invites us to think about Said's suggestion that "narrative itself is the representation of power," a point he also made some time ago in a London Review of Books article called "Permission to Narrate." It's not that the powerless don't have stories, and it's not only that they don't get to tell the stories they do have. It's that they are scarcely perceived as capable of having stories, their stories are not so much refused as ruled out, unimaginable as pieces of recognized history. "With no acceptable narrative to rely on, with no sustained permission to narrate, you feel crowded out and silenced."

It's true that the acceptance of official stories often leaves little room for anything else, and that a person who doesn't share the assumptions of those stories will often seem to be mute. But there are narratives of resistance as well as of dominance, and Said's own work—his literary and cultural criticism, his writing on music, his polemical writing, his moving essay-memoir After the Last Sky (1986)—is itself full of stories, even if they are often brief and submerged, and sometimes only implied.

Or they are counternarratives, reversals, recoveries, refusals of a familiar or prevalent tale, the one that takes up most of our space and time. They are like the story of Said's mother's Palestinian passport, told in After the Last Sky: it is torn up by a British official during the Mandate in Palestine, since as a married woman she can no longer need it and since, the official told her, her administrative absence would create a legal space for a Jewish immigrant from Europe. Or the story, told in Culture and Imperialism, of the Arab Protestant minister who learns that the European and American authorities in his community now want Arab Christians to join the Orthodox Church, to return to the East, so to speak, as if a whole hundred years' missionary venture was just a Western caprice which could simply be called off.

Said sometimes writes of alternatives to narrative, of "lateral, non-narrative connections," or "anti-narrative energy" or "anti-narrativist waywardness"; but these are actually narratives themselves, other ways of telling, to adapt the title of one of John Berger's books. They are "broken narratives," in Said's own phrase, scraps of story, dissolutions, or diversions of the tyrannical single narrative. After the Last Sky transcribes a grimly comic interview in which a captured Palestinian is interviewed on Israeli radio:

"And what was your mission in South Lebanon?"

"My mission was terrorism … in other words, we would enter villages and just terrorize. And wherever there were women and children, we would terrorize. Everything and all we did was terrorism…."

"What's your opinion of the terrorist Arafat?"

"I swear he's the greatest terrorist of all…. His whole life is terrorism."

At one point, Said indicates, the man being interviewed makes a terrible linguistic joke or slip. He belongs to the "Popular Front for the Liberation [tahrir]—I mean Terrorization [takhrib]—of Palestine."

What is happening here relates only indirectly or ironically to the actual horrors of terrorism and violence, on either side of the fearful situation in Israel and Palestine. Even if this man were a terrorist, his performance would be a parody, a caricature of a nightmare. Of course, he might be frightened into this talk and just groveling. Or he may be brutally, blatantly cynical.

But the reading Said offers is the most persuasive one. The man lives inside a powerful story, and can defend himself against it only by mockingly accepting everything it says. We are looking at a dominant myth in action, one which says that there is only one kind of terrorism ("theirs") and that all captured Palestinians are terrorists. You can't answer such a myth, you can't even tell a clear counterstory that anyone will believe. You can only travesty it, repeat it as if it were a buried fable. Said says,

This story and several others like it circulate among Palestinians like epics; there are even cassettes of it available for an evening's entertainment.

That story is scary too, of course. What if the parody turns back into a simplified, murderous version of the real thing? Well, we have to believe in the dark and lively sense of humor of those who are being entertained, which is a way of saying we have to believe they are as human as we are; no more, no less.

Two of Said's broken narratives in particular bring his work into focus for me, hang in my mind like elusive emblems of what that work is about. One concerns artists of great gifts, composers, novelists, or critics, whose historical situation or relation to language becomes a cage or an impasse: their very achievements lead them to frustration, they demand more of the world and themselves than either can give, their immense successes are caught up in what feels to them like failure. Swift, Hopkins, Conrad, in Said's accounts of them, all enact versions of this grand but hard story. There is also Yeats, struggling to "announce the contours of an imagined or ideal community" in the violent reverse of an ideal world. Put together, these glimpses of brilliant and baffled artistic careers begin to resemble Adorno's account of modern music, which finds an austere integrity in the dead end into which it drives itself. And also lurking somewhere here perhaps is the example of Said's Princeton teacher R. P. Blackmur, who spoke of failure as "the expense of greatness," and said (of Henry Adams) "a genuine failure comes hard and slow, and, as in a tragedy, is only full realized at the end."

Said is drawn to these tales, and Adorno is an important figure in the argument of Musical Elaborations (1991), and in the relaxed and elegiac Lord Northcliffe Lectures which Said recently gave at University College, London. But the story I hear in his work is finally less stately and more dynamic than the one Adorno tells, more direct and less mournful than the one we meet in Blackmur. The artist is a hero, not because he wins or loses but because he acts, because he is faithful against the odds to a difficult idea of the self and the world.

The other broken narrative is a version, or an anticipation, of the story of the obliging terrorist. It echoes through Said's writing in quite different contexts, early and late, and it is the implied story, the narrative behind the narrative, of Orientalism. This book is very emphatically about the "system of ideas" by which the West has mapped the East, and says it acknowledges only "tacitly" the "lives, histories, and customs" of those who actually live in so-called Eastern lands. Said insists that he doesn't believe in any "real or true Orient," "some Oriental essence" to be opposed to a set of essentially wrong Western views. It's the very invention of the Orient that is the problem; it allows learning and sympathy and literature and adventure but it always risks tumbling into myth. Said quotes the scholar Duncan Macdonald on the Oriental's "liability to be stampeded by a single idea," and comments on the liability of Macdonald and his colleagues to be stampeded by a single idea about the Orient. In one of the quietest and most telling moments in the book, Said suggests that the "difference is slight" between the history the West has given the Arab since 1940 and the history it has taken from him. Much is to be learned from the thought that a theft and a gift might, in certain contexts or perspectives, be almost the same.

But then there are real people in the imaginary East, and Said's tacit acknowledgment of actualities is louder than he perhaps thought it was at the time, since it embodies a genuine passion for the unrepresented, for those who can't speak, but who flicker in the pages of Orientalism whenever Said invokes a neglected human history. He writes for example of "the disparity between texts and reality," of "the Islamic people as humans," of "individual Arabs with narratable life histories." What else but this reality, the untold story of this reality, would make Orientalism such a problem-filled enterprise? Just how narratable those neglected life histories are, and by whom, is of course the question we are looking at. Said doesn't want to speak for the silenced or the ignored—the Orientalists are already doing that—he wants their silence to be heard.

Not all Orientals are silent, of course, and not only Orientals are silenced; Said's broken narrative comes into play wherever representation overwhelms the represented, and we can all think of parallel examples. This is to say that the story, as a story, concerns a group or groups of people who are unable to represent themselves not because they cannot speak or have no stories, and not even because they have been repressed, although that is often also the case. It is not even chiefly a question of their access to the means of distribution of narrative, although that too is of course important. They cannot represent themselves, Said is saying, because they are already represented, like the interviewed terrorist. A monstrous imitation stands in their place, and is worked like the chess-playing puppet Walter Benjamin evokes at the start of his "Theses on the Philosophy of History." They are different from us and their difference, usually but not always construed as inferiority, is who they are. They have no other life.

At the same time the silence of these peoples has a charm of its own and is a criticism of our noisy speech. This is not to justify their silencing but to say they are not only victims, and I find I want to associate the habits of secrecy Said attributes to the Palestinians in After the Last Sky ("We are a people of messages and signals, of allusions and indirect expression," there is "something withheld from an immediate deciphering") with what he calls the "reticence, mystery, or allusive silence" of music, the modesty of its wordlessness. These reticences are worlds apart, of course, but they share the sense of a realm that language can point to but cannot name, that only community or the art of listening can inherit. In Musical Elaborations Said quotes Proust on the subject of books being the work of solitude and the children of silence, and thinks of the phrase in relation to Brahms: "I found myself coming to a sort of unstatable, or inexpressible, aspect of his music, the music of his music, which I think anyone who listens to, plays, or thinks about music carries within oneself." This is not a retreat from the world, or a denial of worldliness. It is one of the ways, and among the most valuable, in which we live in the world. Solitude is part of who we are, and it can, in communities of trust, open out onto shared silences, the imagined music of our music.

Such communities are fragile and intermittent. They are places where allusions are enough, and silences count as much as words; where words too still count but have been relieved of the burden of assertion and will. They are often more a memory than a fact, and sometimes not even a memory. They are like home as Said describes it at the end of Culture and Imperialism, evoking the exile of Erich Auerbach, who fell into the East at Istanbul and found in his mind the Europe he had lost. Said quotes Hugo of Saint Victor, who thought that love of home should give way to a love of "every soil," which in turn, for the person who had become "perfect," should yield to a sense that "the entire world is a foreign place." Said's comments on this passage are wonderfully delicate and subtle, and can be seen as offering an original reading of Proust's suggestion that true paradises are lost paradises:

Exile is predicated on the existence of, love for, and a real bond with one's native place; the universal truth of exile is not that one has lost that love or home, but that inherent in each is an unexpected, unwelcome loss. Regard experiences then as if they were about to disappear.

This is a truth for those who have lost their love and home, and for those who have not; and for those who have returned to them. Exile, as Said suggests earlier in this book, can be a happy and an unhappy condition, a chance of belonging "to more than one history." It can be suffered or sought, or imaginatively borrowed. It is a way of understanding loss, and a way of knowing what there is to lose, the paradise that can't exist until it's gone.

David K. Shipler (review date 26 June 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "From a Wellspring of Bitterness," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. 99, June 26, 1994, pp. 9-10.

[In the following review, Shipler expresses mixed emotions for the themes of The Politics of Dispossession.]

Quite some time ago, in what I believe was my only encounter with Edward W. Said, we compared notes on where we lived in Jerusalem—he as a Palestinian boy until 1947, I as a correspondent for The New York Times more than 30 years later. It turned out that both our homes were in the lovely, quiet neighborhood of Talbiya, an elegant quarter where well-to-do Arab families earlier in this century built houses with thick stone walls, now covered with flowering vines of bougainvillea. The places where Mr. Said and I lived were separated by a few blocks, a few decades, a few wars and the great divide of dispossession.

Talbiya's Arab residents began fleeing in 1947, just ahead of the warfare that engulfed Arabs and Jews as Israel struggled to be born. Jews quickly occupied the abandoned houses, making Talbiya a mixed, and tense, neighborhood until February 1948, when Jewish troops used a sound truck to threaten the remaining Arabs into leaving. Since then, Talbiya has been populated almost entirely by Israeli Jews, which has made Mr. Said's truncated childhood in Jerusalem a wellspring of bitterness.

This may be important in understanding why a man of such intellect does not know how to speak to people who do not already agree with him. Buried in his newest collection of vitriolic writings. The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination, 1989–1994, are serious ideas about Islam, the Arab world, Palestinian strategy and United States policy. These are coupled with provocative and justifiable assaults on American caricatures of Islam and Arabs and on the unwillingness of American society to give the Palestinian people "permission to narrate" their own story. The Arab world is condemned for failing to understand the West and for squandering its oil wealth on new hotels instead of great libraries.

But reading Mr. Said is like being yelled at for hours on end, and it takes a good and willing ear to appreciate his calmer passages of insight, to hear the essential melodies that run beneath the discordant onslaughts. Consider the 1991 gulf war, on which he spends several chapters. He assaults "the unmistakably racist prescriptions of William Safire and A. M. Rosenthal of The New York Times, as well as Fouad Ajami of CBS." And what is the author's basis for this grave charge of racism? That they "urged the most unrestrained military attacks against Iraq." That hardly proves racism, an epithet he uses to try to silence the opposing side in a broader debate over how the Middle East should be interpreted—the side that gives weight to the region's historical tribal instincts as elements of contemporary conflict. Mr. Said calls that view "Orientalism," condemns it as racist and thereby muddies his legitimate complaint about the American demonization of Saddam Hussein and the underlying perception of Arabs and of Palestinians as primitive, corrupt, sub-human, worthy only of being bombed and humiliated.

Mr. Said is a master of overstatement whose numbing invective often vitiates his arguments. But he does put his finger on a crucial truth about the way we see Arabs, pointing to a remarkably ignorant sentence about Saddam Hussein in a 1990 Foreign Affairs article: "He came from a brittle land, a frontier country between Persia and Arabia, with little claim to culture and books and grand ideas." Mr. Said counters that Baghdad was "the seat of Abbasid civilization, the highest flowering of Arab culture between the ninth and 12th centuries, which produced works of literature still read today as Shakespeare, Dante and Dickens are still read…. Baghdad produced at least five of the greatest 20th century Arab poets, and without any question all of the top artists and sculptors."

He might help us see more clearly the Arab world's multilayered cultures and histories if he wrote less about American misperceptions and more about Arab reality; an example is his final chapter, "The Other Arab Muslims," which expertly distinguishes between what is Islamic and what is Arab, between orthodox Islamic observance and militant politics. Since Mr. Said is a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and not a scholar of the Middle East, he is most readable when he is slightly journalistic, etching sharp portraits of thinkers he meets on a visit to Egypt, for instance, or recounting his first trip to Israel, in 1992.

Aside from an introduction and an epilogue, The Politics of Dispossession is a collection of essays, Op-Ed pieces and dialogues (most notably one between Mr. Said and Salman Rushdie) published from 1969 to 1993 in The Nation, The New York Times, The New Statesman, Arab Studies Quarterly, The New Left Review, Mother Jones, and elsewhere. Structurally, they produce an unfortunate result: Because each is immersed in the issue of the moment, together they create a drumbeat of repetitiveness and no sense of evolution in the author's thinking. They repeat factual errors of the time, such as the exaggerated figure of 20,000 killed in Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. They contain only superficial accounts of policy developments in the Palestine Liberation Organization, despite Mr. Said's membership on the Palestine National Council, the Palestinians' nominal parliament, from 1977 to 1991. Consequently, The Politics of Dispossession is susceptible to the same criticism that Mr. Said levels against Bernard Lewis's Semites and Anti-Semites in a review reprinted here. "He has now patched together a disorganized and tendentious book out of articles that have appeared elsewhere."

Two shifts of viewpoint are evident but unexplained. After years of excoriating Israel as racist and imperialist, he writes abruptly in 1991: "Israelis are not white Afrikaners; nor are they like French settlers in Algeria. They have a history of suffering and of persecution."

The second concerns Yasir Arafat. In 1983, when he was organizing terrorism and preaching the defeat of Israel, Mr. Said saw him as "a major leader" who had shaped Palestinians into "a national community" and "made the P.L.O. a genuinely representative body." Eleven years and 300 pages later, after signing the "ill-considered and stupid" P.L.O. agreement of mutual recognition with Israel, Mr. Arafat is suddenly autocratic, remote, not freely elected and, with his colleagues, "should step aside." Edward Said thus becomes the Norman Podhoretz of the Palestinians.

I confess to an unfair advantage: I know most of the people Mr. Said assails, including moderate Israelis who have long worked for coexistence with the Palestinians; he attacks them not only for their ideas but also personally, with a contemptuous tone that sounds false notes in every case. His line about Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times, for example, could easily apply to Mr. Said himself: "He offers advice to everyone about how much better they could be doing if they paid attention to him." Still, this book makes you think—if you can think while gritting your teeth.

Ian Gilmour (review date 10 July 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "The Broken Promised Land," in The Observer, No. 10578, July 10, 1994, p. 16.

[Below, Gilmour sympathizes with Said's attitude about the Palestinian issues discussed in The Politics of Dispossession.]

The most remarkable feature of the Arab-Israeli conflict has been not the great military and political success of the state of Israel or the hardship and misery imposed on the Palestinian people, but the West's heaping of praise and reward on the oppressors, and blame and penalty on the victims—a stark contrast to South Africa. Europe has for some time been more even-handed; not so the United States.

The struggle for Palestine is often thought to be one between two rights: both Arabs and Jews have a right to the land, But, initially at least, that was far from true. As late as 1917, Palestine was 90 per cent Arab. There had long been a small Jewish presence there, but by no stretch of imagination did the Jews have a secular right to Palestine. Hence, God had to be invoked.

The difficulty was that religious Jews did not believe in political Zionism—which means the turning of Arab land into Jewish, and the substitution of Jews for Arabs—and political Zionists did not believe in God. Virtually all leading Zionists had been non-believers. The founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, was so little guided by the Old Testament that he would have been happy to settle for Uganda as the Jewish State.

As George Steiner put it: 'Zionism was created by Jewish nationalists who drew their inspiration from Bismarck and followed a Prussian model.' Yet somehow the idea got home that God had given Palestine to the Jews who, therefore, had a natural right to the land. So, as Edward Said writes in this impressive collection of finely textured essays, The Politics of Dispossession, 'a national movement whose provenance and ideas were European took a land away from a non-European people settled there for centuries'.

Unfortunately, that process was begun by the British. By the Balfour Declaration of 1917, wrote Arthur Koestler, 'one country solemnly promised to another the country of a third'. That promise was not only freakish, as Koestler said, it was politically frivolous. Having been Chief Secretary of Ireland, Balfour well knew the results of sectarian bitterness and land disputes, yet he recklessly foisted them on to Palestine with the disastrous consequences that we know. In 1948, by a strikingly thorough policy of ethnic and geographical cleansing, the Israelis drove out five sixths of the Palestinian population and so comprehensively destroyed 400 out of 500 Palestinian villages that no trace of them now remains.

Edward Said is chiefly concerned, however, with the last 25 years when the Palestinians have had to contend not with British frivolity but with American malevolence. He himself was born in Jerusalem, and when his family was 'dispossessed and displaced in 1948' he finished his education in the United States, where he is now Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia. In 1967 he became actively involved in Palestinian affairs; since then in addition to writing a number of notable books he has been the most cogent and eloquent defender of the Palestinians and their right to self-determination.

That has been no easy task. There is no decent argument against Palestinian self-determination, as the American public evidently recognises. But the Palestinians are 'the victims of a victim' who in America is unusually powerful, and the views of the public count for little against the pro-Israeli lobby, to which the Senate is unfailingly obedient. Hence the Palestinian case has been customarily vilified or ignored, and American aid showered upon Israel. (That relatively well-off country gets nearly half the total American foreign aid budget. Per capita, Israel gets 700 times as much as sub-Sahara Africa.) With few exceptions American governing circles have been humiliatingly subservient to the Israelis.

The US media are little better. The owner of the once-liberal Atlantic Monthly and US News and World Report was only uncommonly candid in directing: 'I will not have a word of criticism of Israel in any of my publications.' Columnists such as A. M. Rosenthal and William Safire are mere Zionist propagandists. Others such as Anthony Lewis, William Pfaff and Stephen Rosenfeld are brave and fair, but they are a small minority.

Israel, therefore, can do much as it likes, and the unconsulted American tax-payer foots the bill. The internationally recognised frontiers of Israel leave the Palestinians just 23 per cent of Palestine—hardly an excessive proportion for the indigenous inhabitants. Yet, by building a mass of illegal settlements, Israel has stolen some 40 per cent of that remnant. In the Gaza strip 5,000 Israeli settlers and the Israeli army still occupy more than half as much land as 800,000 Palestinians.

The United States has underwritten such activities as well as the accompanying Israeli violence. It has effectively paid for the bullets which have enforced a brutal occupation—live ammunition has routinely been fired at children throwing stones, hundreds of whom had been killed and wounded. Torture has been prevalent, yet American hypocrisy is easily equal to treating the Palestinians as the offenders instead of as victims who deserve reparations.

As the settlements still grow apace, Said is gloomy about the future. He has no time for the Arab governments, little for Yasser Arafat. And he believes the incompetently negotiated Oslo Peace Accord to be 'an instrument of Palestinian surrender'. This fine book shows him to be an angry man; it also shows that he has much to be angry about.

Tom Narin (review date 8 September 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "What Nations Are for," in London Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 17, September 8, 1994, pp. 7-8.

[In the following review, Narin relates the dual themes of dispossession and nationalism of The Politics of Dispossession and Representations of the Intellectual to Said's politics and personal philosophy.]

The politics of dispossession is nationalism—an overgeneralisation which at once calls for precise qualification. It is quite true that not all nationalists are dispossessed: possessors have their own (often strident) variations on the theme. It is also true that nationality politics did not originate among the crushed and uprooted: indeed its primary source was the nouveaux riches or upwardly mobile of Early Modern times, in Holland, England and France.

However, their national-state politics only became nationalism later on, when these entrepreneurial societies inflicted their success on the rest of the world in the 19th century.

This infliction was Progress, which caused the un-progressed to feel for the first time dispossessed in the general and inescapable sense which amounts to an '-ism'. And it was out of that sense that the storm of modernisation emerged. The rest of humanity's patchwork-quilt could neither evade industrialisation nor put up with it on the imperial terms initially offered. The result was a counter-blast aiming at modernity 'on our own terms'—the terms (inevitably) of what existed before the newly-rich (and armed) nations emerged to rewrite the entire script.

That script—the 'history' which some imagined terminating around the year 1990—was mined by the very reality which it sought to recompose. In the dominant storm-centre itself a certain calmness could prevail: a false calm, as Edward Said repeatedly says in these books [The Politics of Dispossession and Representations of the Intellectual], founded on arrogance, ignorance and superior military force. The metropolitan view was that Progress was greater than its bearers and destined to triumph, regardless of the particular language it spoke. The Russo-Soviet or Anglo-British empires were simply vehicles for its dissemination. But outside the centre, wherever the contemporary frontiers of 'development' happened to be, metropolitanism was perceived as the exploitation of Progress in order to eternalise a particular national hegemony. Their civilisation will end by dispossessing us.

For collectivities, dispossession brings decease. The same is not of course true for individuals. All individual Palestinians could theoretically have opted to become, or at least have tried to become, Israeli, Jordanian, Syrian or (one of Said's own identity-dilemmas) American. This option has always been warmly viewed in imperial or sub-imperial capitals like Tel Aviv. But in practice it applies only to the educated. The unvoiced logic beneath it goes like this: if only the 'intellectuals' (trouble-makers) would mind their own (individual) businesses and honestly assimilate, then the non-intellectual majority would, after a certain lapse of time, well … disappear. Before nationalism arrived to change things, most ethno-linguistic communities we know about did disappear—or more accurately, were 'disappeared' in the Argentinian sense, like the Picts of North-Eastern Scotland. There was a time not long ago when the Palestinians looked like ideal candidates for disappearance. They could see the last sky coming, and after it nothing. Right up until the peace agreement last year there was no certainty of reprieve.

Another way of reading nationalism is just that: no more disappearance. For the majority of the collectivity, the collectivity itself remains the sole redemptive possibility. Hence its 'death', though metaphorical, is all too easily translatable into individual or familial terms. On the West Bank and Gaza, even though many Palestinians became successful exiles and émigrés like Said, there could never have been two million individual escape routes of that kind. If 'Palestine' doesn't make it, few Palestinians will. The point is not quite that nationalism is a matter of life or death—like the rawer nature which once prevailed—but that 'nationalism' has altered the nature of the species to make it such a matter.

The Politics of Dispossession and Representations of the Intellectual can be read as a single meditation on this theme. An intellectual ear marked for escape and successful metropolitan assimilation has turned back, and tried to assume the burden of those left behind. The burden is a crushing one. In a sense frankly admitted in these pages, it is too much for him or for any other individual. He has become the best-known intellectual spokesman of the Palestinian cause, yet was always far too honest and too honourable to be merely its loudspeaker. As the gross contradictions and failings of the cause have accumulated over thirty years, he has been unable to avoid registering and criticising them. So more is collected in Politics of Dispossession than scattered essays and reviews. It reads like a memoir of the Stations of the Cross, one continuous journey through the agonies and humiliations which have broken him apart—above all when inflicted, as so often, by those 'on his own side'. The critique of Arab nationalism and Palestinian parochialism in these pages is more devastating than anything put out by Zionists or the US Israeli lobby.

Said suffers from acute identity problems. So do all nationalist intellectuals. But since he is a famously fashion-conscious individual critics have rarely resisted the temptation to mock his identity-pangs. Paul Johnson wrote of him recently in the Sunday Times as 'a fashionable figure' with 'modish problems of identity … It is not clear to me,' Johnson continued, 'who, or what, the real Edward Said is.' The implication is that 'identity' in the political or nationalist sense is something like posturing in front of a mirror, but Johnson is the poseur here, not Said.

My father as a boy sold crowns of thorns to tourists near the Sepulchre … Yet a few yards away, underneath a declivity in the city wall, we stumbled on Zalatimo, the renowned pastry shop whose speciality mtaqaba was a great family favourite. A wizened old baker was in there stoking the oven, but his ancient form suggested something only barely surviving.

Astonishingly, Said Sr., the Jerusalem relic-vendor, turned into an ace moderniser: he was the man who, via his Egyptian business, introduced filing and the typewriter into Arabic culture. He saw identity principally as a question of backbone, and was chronically upset by his son's inability to stand up straight, in the ramrod style approved by the Boy Scouts and Victoria College, Cairo. The family were Greek-Orthodox Christians, converted to Anglicanism in the late 19th century. When young Edward's vertebral slackness got too pronounced for them he was packed off to America, aged 15. He had never seen snow, and was compelled to invent a new personality at a puritanical New England boarding school. A few years later he escaped to Princeton, and then in 1963 to New York's Columbia University as a teacher, where he has remained for thirty years.

This background provides an unusual identity-humus. What he likes most about New York is its anonymity. Self-consciously nationalist intellectuals are often susceptible to cosmopolitanism: secretly (or in Said's case openly) they feel most at home on the neutral terrain of exile and alienation. The very mechanism of identification—'standing up for' a people and a cause—requires a certain distance, an implicit separation of the self from background and community. A nation can only realise itself—register its patent rights, so to speak—in a voice that is recognisable to another, broader community, and which can give those rights an objective, inter-national resonance. The intellectuals, who articulate the message, can seem to occupy an ambiguous position; both sides can accuse them of betrayal. Said has had more than his fill of this.

Conservative metropolitans such as Johnson like to portray nationalism as an invention of intellectuals. There is some trite truth in this: all ideologies, including fogeyism, must initially be synthesised by the educated, a process which may then be misrepresented as wilful 'forging', 'dreaming up' etc. However, an ideology which has convulsed the world must be more than wilful. At this deeper level it is nationalism which has invented modern intellectuals. Their pre-history lay in the European Renaissance and Enlightenment; but these only prepared the ground for the increasingly extra-European modernity of which nationalism is an inescapable part.

The development of industrial modernity could not avoid gross unevenness; the antagonisms that arose from such disparity were bound to be registered; those observing and reacting to them sought another language for the new facts; that language had to be at once vernacular (accessible to the less educated) and universal (translatable into rights and principles). It had to transcend, rather than 'disappear', the parochial and ethnic. It had to establish a new connection with the universal and only the paradox of 'nation-ism' (as it might also have been called) could do this. Its machinery for doing so took the form of distinct nationalist intelligentsias: egg-heads of ethnos, who placed (as Said does) increasing emphasis on the choice of what once lay far beneath any conscious choice: 'identity'.

'Nationalism' is in one sense no more than a general title for this language—the evolving tongue of modernity. Said began to speak it in earnest in 1967, after the Six-Day War; 'That awful week in June', he calls it, when he grasped more fully that 'I was an Arab, and we—"you" to most of my embarrassed friends—were being whipped.' From this cat-o'-nine-tails initiation was born Orientalism, his most celebrated work. Imperialism had fostered a self-interested mythology of the Arab Orient, he argued, in which academics and poets had colluded with missionaries, statesmen and entrepreneurial desperadoes. The result was a romantic conception frequently exalted by love. But (alas) this was love for the noble natives as they were, or rather as they were imagined to have been—infants of an Edenic Islam untarnished by Atlantic pollution (including filing cabinets and typewriters). The converse of such affection was of course contempt, mutating into hatred whenever the natives went 'beyond themselves'. Orientalism demanded they stick to their true, veiled selves. Failure to do so merely revealed (as in the 1967 war) their congenital inability to adapt to modern ways; as useless with tanks as with democracy and women.

Arabism and anti-Arabism have something in common: the belief in a Pan-Arab Geist capable of effective, nationalist-style unity. Although he started off wanting to subscribe to this, an irreverent observer like Said could not long put up with it. He soon realised that it was no better than Pan-Hellenism and Pan-Slavism: conservative ideological trances induced by a rhetoric of racial solidarity to stifle popular and national trouble-makers—notably trouble-makers like him. In the introduction to The Politics of Dispossession (one of the best parts) he recounts how an earlier study of Palestine failed to find an Arab publisher.

It's an interesting footnote to all this that when The Question of Palestine came out … a Beirut publishing house approached me about an Arabic translation. When I agreed, I was stunned to learn a moment later that I would be expected to remove from the text any criticism I had made of Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the rest. I refused, and to this day none of my books on Palestine has been translated into Arabic.

His new one stands even less chance, unless West Bank self-rule makes unexpectedly quick progress.

To get anywhere, Palestinian nationalism had to distinguish itself from this miasma. The author's quaint way of putting it is as 'a reductive process', or 'an attempt to decompose Arab nationalism into discreter units finely sensitive to the true cost of real independence'. It took the Palestinians twenty-five years, through a series of fearful defeats—the worst of them at Arab hands, in Jordan, Lebanon and Kuwait, 'The countries that make the loudest noise in support of Palestine treat Palestinians the worst,' he remarks angrily. On the other hand, when the intifadah mobilised the population of the Occupied Territories against Israeli control from 1987 onwards, it met with at least limited success quite rapidly. 'Recognition' is not a gratuitous extra benefit for a nationalist movement: in a sense it is the whole point (even if elaborate negotiations are needed subsequently to establish a polity). By March 1988, Said recalls, this was in effect won and symbolised in the meeting between himself, another Palestinian professor and Secretary of State George Shultz: the world now had to confront the reality of a limited but indefeasible national demand, one which would not be disappeared. Even so the effects of the confrontation were further postponed by the Gulf War, and the PLO's reckless support for Saddam Hussein.

Said sometimes wobbles badly on the latter topic. 'Both wrong and embarrassingly silly,' he concedes; but at the same time he denounces Israeli peaceniks for using such support as an excuse to break off relations—'as if the Palestinian situation under Israeli military occupation had been just wonderful before the Gulf War.' This is feeble rhetoric. I shouldn't imagine the Israelis thought that for a second; but the Iraqi Government had just been raining missiles down on them (as well as preparing a new big-gun variant of the Final Solution).

Orientalism was a scathing analysis of metropolitan-racialist nonsense. But nationalist counterblast always carries its own danger: an obsessive over-attunement to its object of denunciation. Reading these pages, one feels that the-cat-o'-nine-tails will never cease its work, the skin never grow back over the tortured nerve-endings. In part this has been a consequence of Said's particular circumstances. In New York he has had to endure daily combat with another kind of exile intelligentsia, the formidably organised Israeli-American lobby. European readers who are not aware of how aggressive and unscrupulous that mode of nationalism can be will find The Politics of Dispossession enlightening. It must have been like fighting the Six-Day War over and over again.

The obsessive undertow of Orientalism brought Said into conflict with Ernest Gellner. Reviewing a successor-volume, Culture and Imperialism, in the Times Literary Supplement, Gellner accused him of 'inventing a bogy called Orientalism' and attributing to it a far too pervasive cultural influence. The attack was twofold. First, Gellner was accusing Said of not locating his chosen cultural polemic accurately enough within a grander, epochal framework—the 'transition from agrarian to industrial society', which has long been Gellner's own preferred theme. He argued, secondly, that because it lacked this degree of theoretical articulation, the anti-Orientalist crusade had too often sunk into a banal vindication of its victims. If most Western scholarship and writing about the East is Orientalist conspiracy, then hope must lie exclusively on the other side: in the camp of those put down, crassly categorised, or adored for the wrong reasons. But the trouble with this anti-imperialist 'camp' is the hopelessness of so much of it; vile dictators, censorship, clerical mania, and traditionalism incompatible with any sort of modernisation (Western-led or not).

On the first count I feel Gellner is quite right. Said is no theorist, and rarely situates his cultural forays within a wider historical perspective. It is quite true that Progress was bound to take off in one region of the world rather than another. Unevenness could only have been avoided with guidance from outer space by something like the miracle-stones in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001. Progress might have erupted out of China, in which case some Atlantic equivalent of Edward Said might by now be denouncing Occidentalism and the near-universal contempt displayed by the academic lackeys of Peking for the bulbous-nosed and straight-eyed. Or it might (like homo sapiens itself) have come out of Africa. In that case both Said and Gellner would today be fulminating jointly over Septentrionalist delusions about colourlessness: the vacant brain-pans supposed natural to the pigmentally-challenged, with their slime-grey eyes, ratty hair and squeaky-voiced irrationality. In fact, for reasons still imperfectly understood, it originated in Atlantic seaboard societies and gave the initial leverage to a congeries of pinkoid clans.

On the second count, I am not so sure. Out of unevenness came nationalism, including the sort Edward Said defends, and I would have thought that in the long run the victims would be likely to tell a better and more accurate story about what happened to them, and about their own social and cultural histories before the big developmental change.

The trouble is, we live in the short run. And within this they will go on finding it extremely difficult to tell their story without rhetorical aspiration (which is what Gellner was denouncing). The reasons for this are not (as the victimideology tends to assume) subjective and moral ones—betrayal, bad faith and so on. They are institutional. Colonised and less-developed societies lack the means to evolve an adequate cultural riposte to the 'advanced' offensive. By contrast, the imperialists are over-endowed with professorships, research institutes, well-heeled anthropologists and literary periodicals (as well as with missiles and aircraft-carriers). Most serious inquiry can only be done from their point of view, even if the risks of Orientalist astigmatism remain inherent in it. All the same, to get a sense of the opposite and what it means, The Politics of Dispossession will serve better than Gellner. 'There isn't a single decent library in the Arab world,' Said complains:

To do research on our own past, our culture, our literature, we still have to come to the West, to study at the feet of Orientalists, many of whom have openly declared themselves enemies to Islam and the Arabs … [But neither has there been] any effort to pour money into Western universities to promote the study of Arab and Islamic civilisation, to promote that study in our interests. On all sides it is evident that as Arabs we are the world's intellectual and moral lumpen-proletariat.

So what 'the long run' entails is long indeed; a more integral process of modernisation, within which 'lumpenproletarian' status can be left behind, and both state and civil institutions built up. That is what nations are for. Or at least, no better way of doing it has yet been lastingly demonstrated. 'The Arab world,' Said continues, 'is undergoing a premature technocratisation' on the lines laid down by his own father: typewriters before democracy, as it were, leading to the ascendancy of the right-wing brutalism typified by Saddam Hussein and President Assad.

However, 'the Arab world' is a large part of this problem, not a solution. It denotes not a nation but something more like a 'people', in that purplish after-dinner sense so dear to Winston Churchill: 'the English-speaking Peoples' who have spread themselves round a bit, acquired a sense of destiny, retained certain elements of common culture—and never quite got over it. Under Thatcher some of us thought that curse would never go away. One of the few alleviating features of Majorism has been that it too has faded amid the general grime. Feeling that 'a world' is on one's side is a serious malfunction. Yet victim-status makes it more tempting to indulge such feelings, since 'worlds' may always be imagined as possessing a redemptive secret denied to mere nationalities. If the secular version lets down the dispossessed, then an even headier possibility can step in: the 'other world' of a common faith, in this case Islam.

Not that Said can be accused of wobbling in that direction. He remains aggressively secular: 'We must see the issues concretely, not in terms of the happy and airy abstractions that tend to dominate our discussions. What distinguishes the truly struggling intellectual is, first, his or her effort to grasp things as they are in the proper methodological and political perspective, and, second, the conception of his or her work as activity, not as passive contemplation.' This is the recipe for struggle which is also outlined in Representations of the Intellectual. Said has nobly lived up to its criteria during his long activity as champion of the Palestinian national cause. Among nationalist intellectuals I know or have read about, I cannot think of anyone less like the 'Professor of Terrorism' so often invoked by the US-Israeli lobby.

The accusation has been revived none the less, in connection with his denunciation of last year's agreement between Arafat and Rabin. The story here is mainly in the Introduction and the Epilogue to The Politics of Dispossession. The former recounts his mounting disillusionment with the PLO leadership long before the historic accord. The most surprising aspect of this to many readers will be the mulish parochialism of that leadership. In Said's account it had no idea at all of how American politics and public opinion functioned. All through the Eighties

Arafat was neither fighting to expand solidarity for Palestinians in the West nor nurturing the logical Palestinian constituency … of liberals: dissenters, the women's movement, and so on. Instead he and his associates seemed to be looking for patrons in the West who would get them a solution of some sort. This quixotic fantasy originated in the notion that the United States worked like, say, Syria or Iraq: get close to someone close to the Maximum leader and all doors will open.

When the door did inch open at last. Arafat rushed to get his foot in. In 1985 he had told Said that he had no intention of ending up 'with nothing to show for his decades of effort against the Zionist movement'. Said now accuses the PLO of accepting something uncomfortably close to nothing: the tiny roof of Gaza and Jericho against the last sky, the most cramped space for manoeuvre one can imagine qualifying for 'self-government'.

But Said's denunciation of this climb-down is at once accompanied by modest, practical proposals for making the most of it—for enlarging the space and turning his country into a genuine nation. He contrasts the old nation-building slogan of Zionism—'another acre, another goat'—to the apocalyptic assertiveness which has dogged both Arab and PLO rhetoric. In the new situation, he suggests, a version of the former must now be worked out for Palestinians.

This 'counter-strategy' is a nation-building prospectus founded upon maximisation of the very few assets the Palestinians possess. This almost uniquely dispossessed people, he argues, has one hugely under-exploited advantage: perhaps the largest, most able and most dispersed intelligentsia any national movement has ever been able to claim. Zionism is the obvious historical precedent; but it should also be remembered how divided Jewish intellectuals were, and how strong anti-Zionism remained among them until World War Two. By contrast, Said observes:

Throughout the Arab world, Europe, and the United States there are extraordinarily large numbers of gifted and successful Palestinians who have made a mark in medicine, law, banking, planning, architecture, journalism, industry, education, contracting. Most of these people have contributed only a tiny fraction of what they could to the Palestinian national effort.

What is now required is an international effort at nation-state building—qualitatively different from the earlier efforts of the PLO and the intifadah—an invention of 'ways of countering the facts with our own facts and institutions, and finally of asserting our national presence, democratically and with mass participation'. Small-country, secular, democratic, institutional, acre-and-goat nationalism, in other words, assisted by a diaspora middle class. It resembles Jewish nationalism minus the Zionist component. Also, it is virtually the opposite of what Saddam Hussein, King Hussein, President Assad and (intermittently) the PLO have stood for: the 'Arab world' of dictatorial cliques, violent paranoia, mass oppression and (potentially) theocratic convulsions. No wonder they hate the Palestinians so much: paradoxically, the most hopeless of causes offers the only real hope on the Middle Eastern scene.

George M. Wilson (review date October 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Edward Said on Contrapuntal Reading," in Philosophy and Literature, Vol. 18, No. 2, October, 1994, pp. 265-73.

[In the following review, Wilson examines Said's notion of "contrapuntal reading" exemplified by Said's close reading of Jane Austen's novel Mansfield Park in Culture and Imperialism.]

Edward Said's rich and powerful new book, Culture and Imperialism, offers, as one strand of its multifaceted discussion, methodological reflections on the reading and interpretation of works of narrative fiction. More specifically, Said delineates and defends what he calls a "contrapuntal" reading (or analysis) of the texts in question. I am sympathetic to much of what Said aims to accomplish in this endeavor, but I am also puzzled about some key aspects of his proposal. I will begin by presenting a brief sketch of my understanding of what a contrapuntal reading involves, and I will then explain some of the doubts and puzzlement I feel. Unfortunately, there is much that Said says about even this limited topic that I will have to by-pass, but I hope to say enough to initiate some helpful discussion of the issues. I should note that although the topic of "contrapuntal reading" recurs with significant emphasis throughout his book, Said's direct explication of the enterprise is scattered across several chapters, and the relevant remarks tend to be, in each instance, fairly brief. Given this state of affairs, I have tried to extract a reasonably unified account from a wide range of passages, and I hope to have done so as sympathetically and accurately as possible. Nevertheless, the fact remains that what follows is my reconstruction of the view that Said adumbrates.

Contrapuntal readings are meant to interweave, mutually qualify, and above all, superimpose the legitimate claims of internal or intrinsic readings of a work, on the one hand, and the claims of various forms of external critique, on the other. Such readings rest upon the fact that any literary fiction refers to or depicts a complex of materials that have been drawn from the actual world, e.g., actual people, places, institutions, and practices. These items are taken up and variously deployed within the wider imaginative project of the work. It is crucial to this deployment that the intended audience can be expected to bring to the text a set of background "attitudes" concerning the relevant real world materials, and that these beliefs, concerns, ideological presuppositions, etc., are elaborated within the work's embedded patterns. Thus, the text is anchored in what Said calls "a structure of reference and attitude," and this structure constitutes the base from which a contrapuntal reading chiefly proceeds. Reading contrapuntally, interpreters move back and forth between an internal and external standpoint on the work's imaginative project, with special attention to the structure of reference and attitudes it contains. From an internal standpoint, interpretation aims at explanation that respects the strategies and the density of the textual elements they implicate. It is important that the internal standpoint articulate the work's vision as compellingly as possible, not only because this has an obvious interest of its own, but because the persuasiveness of commentary from an external standpoint depends upon giving full credit to the sophistication of the text. (We will return to this point shortly.)

An external standpoint examines the problematic seductiveness of the work's capacity to guide its audience's responses and seeks to define the limited degrees of freedom within whatever complexity it establishes. By reminding us of information about the structure of reference that the work ignores, distorts, or minimizes and by reminding us that the structure of invoked attitudes has plausible alternatives that the work has effectively excluded, the external standpoint situates the text critically within a wider field of imaginative possibilities. As Said formulates the point, we read from an external perspective "… with an effort to draw out, extend, give emphasis and voice to what is silent or marginally present or ideologically represented" in the work.

In elaborating the account above, I have spoken of "intrinsic readings" of narrative fictions, and it will help to fill in my sketch if I specify the fairly standard conception I have in mind. Said does not address this as a separate topic, but I believe that the following remarks are fully compatible with what he seems to presuppose. In reading a story, it is fictional for the reader that he or she is learning of a sequence of narrative events, and the reader is generally licensed to ask after explanations of why and how the fictional history transpires as it does, where these explanations are to be framed in terms of the "implied" workings of the fictional world. The agents, events, and situations of that world are configured into various significant connections, and it is this network of fictional explanatory connections that readers try to infer. In searching for a global meaning of the work, audiences hope to arrive at a surveyable pattern of narrative-based explanation and thus to survey the narrative events in a manner that opens them up to plausible perspectives of moral, psychological, or political evaluation. When they read from an internal standpoint, readers employ a framework of explanatory background assumptions and normative principles that they take to be authorized for the work in question—authorized, perhaps, in the light of the author's intentions concerning such matters. However, when these same readers move contrapuntally outside their internal standpoint, they will knowingly adopt explanatory and evaluative frameworks that depart more or less radically from anything that the author or the intended audience could be expected to endorse. And they will do so on the grounds that the alternatives chosen are relevant to the questions raised by the work and are justified by what is independently known or seriously contended about its real world references. Within the internal dimension of a contrapuntal reading, one constructs the articulated upshot of participation in an authorized game of make-believe. Within the external dimension, one's reading rides piggy-back upon this participation and is responsive to whatever grounds one has for rejecting or, at least, resisting full involvement in the imaginative enterprise encouraged by the text.

As I mentioned earlier, Said does not attempt to work out in detail an explicit account of contrapuntal analysis. It is clear, in fact, that readers are intended to be instructed by the various extended examples of the practice that he provides. The first such extended instance is given in his commentary on Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, and it is the special role of this analysis to initiate readers into the methods and rewards that contrapuntal reading purports to offer. This sample interpretation does seem to me to be highly instructive, but I think we are taught equally about the prospects and the problems that a contrapuntal strategy engenders. Since Said discusses the novel at some length, I will consider only some of the arguments he puts forward, but, for reasons I will subsequently explain, the issues that emerge are, in my judgement, symptomatic of deficiencies or lacunae in his overall account.

Said reminds us that Thomas Bertram, Sr., the owner of Mansfield Park, is also the owner of extensive plantations in Antigua. In fact, through most of the first half of the book, he is absent from his home and from England because he has had to attend to his troubled business affairs on that island. This absence is crucial to the early development of the plot. Because he is away and his rather stern domestic management has lapsed, the normal ordering of life at Mansfield Park is falling into serious disarray. The situation is dire: heavy and improper flirting has been dangerously intermixed with indecorous preparations for an amateur theatrical. Fortunately, Mr. Bertram returns from his journey just in time to rout the imminent production and to quash the immediate causes of this decline into impropriety.

As Said notes, references to Mr. Bertram's Antigua holdings are relatively few in number, and they are made almost in passing. For example, it is never explained just what business it is that calls him to his plantation, and we learn nothing about how this business is resolved. From Austen's point of view—or so it seems—the visit to Antigua is little more than a plot device designed to motivate Mr. Bertram's lengthy absence, and that absence is made to last just long enough to build to a significant mid-point crisis. On a standard reading of the novel, the fact that it is at his Antigua plantation that Mr. Bertram is occupied appears to be incidental to the main narrative and thematic concerns.

However, Said's contrapuntal analysis of Mansfield Park insists that we are not to accept the targeted fictional fact as being merely incidental in this way. If the book invites us to unthinkingly and unblinkingly pass over the point that the economy and well-being of Mansfield Park substantially depends upon a distant Caribbean plantation, we are required to resist this heavily freighted invitation. And this is so, Said contends, because we need to reimagine the novel in full cognizance of the imperialistic presuppositions that lie only thinly buried beneath the apparently casual references to Mr. Bertram's overseas ventures. Whatever Austen did or didn't know about British colonialism in the Caribbean and elsewhere, we know that Mr. Bertram's fortune is sustained by the exploitation of foreign territory, the oppression of native peoples, and, more specifically, upon slavery among the workers on his land. Out of all these matters and more, in the novel only the question of slavery flutters equivocally into sight for just an instant and then immediately disappears.

Now, it is important that we be tolerably clear about what is supposed to be at stake in connection with a contrapuntal reading here. We can surely grant that Jane Austen and her readers accept, apparently without hesitation or demurral, most of the ideological underpinnings of British imperialism in the early 1800s. Moreover, as Said repeatedly points out, this situation remains largely unchanged as we pass through the ranks of major and minor British writers during the century. Said is also absolutely right to claim that it is disturbing to observe how thoroughly even the crudest presuppositions of empire are left unquestioned within English literature despite the wealth of liberal and humanistic values that much of this literature supports and even celebrates. Still, as deplorable as this massive historical circumstance may be, it is by now a familiar fact that the English public, from economic top to bottom, were deeply and unreflectively imbued with the precepts, perceptions, and assumptions that underwrote for them the legitimacy of colonialism. It is really not surprising to discover that a stringently imperialist ideology recurs in work after work during the period in question. It may shock for a moment that even Jane Austen is implicated in the framework of imperialist thought, but, having registered the shock, we should conclude that it would be more amazing if she were not. Suppose, therefore, that all of this is granted. Nevertheless, none of these reflections do much to clarify the more particular promise that contrapuntal readings of Mansfield Park and other canonical novels will alter, in substantial detail, our comprehension of fine-grained narrative development. How, according to Said, is this elaborate counterpoint of interpretative vision supposed to be achieved?

In his analysis of Mansfield Park, Said advances several lines of commentary that might seem to help us with this question. For example, he suggests that we should view the heroine, Fanny Price, as a value-laden import into the Bertram household. That is, much as imports from the Antigua plantation are needed to support the domestic arrangements at Mansfield Park, so also, but in a complementary fashion, Fanny should be seen as the bearer of resources from outside which serve to reconsolidate and strengthen the Bertram family's power and standing. Working from this analogy, Said is able to read much of Fanny's story as a kind of allegory of the Bertram's unacknowledged dependence upon the wealth and other goods that they must regularly appropriate and employ. He says, "It is no exaggeration to interpret the concluding sections of Mansfield Park as the coronation of an arguably unnatural (or at very least, illogical) principle at the heart of a desired English order."

However, the comparison of Fanny to exports from Antigua strikes me as thin and arbitrary. It is simply too easy to propose linkages of this ilk and to spin alternative "allegories" from them. First, the sense in which Fanny has been imported into the Bertram circle is equivocal. It is true that they have brought her from her home in Portsmouth to live at Mansfield Park, but it is also true that the Bertrams are her kin—she is their niece and cousin. Second, and more important to present concerns, it is arguable that Fanny embodies the natural piety and virtue that give moral sense to Mr. Bertram's principles and a spiritual foundation to the proper way of life at Mansfield Park. Of course, the influence of this piety and virtue has been, like Fanny herself, neglected and misunderstood by the Bertrams. It takes the sundry disasters occurring toward the end of the novel to recall them to the true nature and importance of these underlying values. If one chooses to adopt this analogy instead, one will not be inclined to view Fanny as an import from outside, but rather as the unlikely receptacle of the values that have always supplied the Bertrams with their solidity and strength as a family. When the hearts and heads of others have been temporarily distracted, it is Fanny who holds fast to the family's ethical heritage. At any rate, this suggestion, quite different in force from Said's, seems at least its equal in plausibility.

Said also elaborates a different proposal that is considerably more promising. Our basic conception of Mr. Bertram and all that he stands for in the novel can seem to be transformed if we attempt to grasp and assess the character of the man while bearing sharply in mind the implications of his undepicted role as owner of a plantation in Antigua. On the whole, the book treats him as a worthy and honorable person. In particular, it endorses the strictness of his management of Mansfield Park. The estate will not run properly without his constant surveillance of its daily affairs, without his rigorous regimentation of his family's behavior, and without the overall discipline he enforces. The novel plainly demonstrates the vigilance that is demanded if plausible but pernicious threats like the Crawford siblings are to be rebuffed. And yet, when we imaginatively consider what Mr. Bertram's surveillance, regimentation, and discipline might amount to in the Antiguan context, we can easily form a vivid idea of how his stern, uncompromising 'virtues' could have a darker, more disturbing cast. Said suggests that we should view Mr. Bertram's rule over his plantation as a natural extension of the regime he has established at Mansfield Park. But, the former, we may be sure, will not have been tempered by familial affection nor by the laws and civilities that govern genteel life in the English countryside. Thus, according to Said, we are licensed to use our presumptive knowledge of Mr. Bertram's activities in Antigua to fill out our sense of his values, attitudes, and temperament. When we do refashion our moral portrait of him in this manner, the novel's largely benign conception of the man will be significantly disturbed.

In some ways, it seems to me that this proposal has considerable force, but, at the same time, it is also difficult to place it coherently within a broader reading of the novel. Let me offer just one illustration of what I have in mind. Said nowhere mentions the fact that Jane Austen renders some stern judgments of her own about Mr. Bertram, and one can wonder where these judgments fit within a contrapuntal reading in Said's mode. For instance, it is made very clear that Mr. Bertram has enthusiastically pushed his oldest daughter into a disastrous marriage with a rich and fatuous neighbor, and his enthusiasm for her nuptials derives significantly from the prospect of the vast, adjoining properties that the united families will control. Similarly, Mr. Bertram turns rather ferociously upon poor Fanny when she perspicaciously rejects Henry Crawford's proposal of marriage. In his view, Fanny has been offered a startling promotion in wealth and social standing, a promotion to which she has no natural claim, and her perversity in refusing the offer moves him to considerable harshness towards his niece. There is no question but that Austen shows Mr. Bertram to be seriously wrong in his actions and judgments in these two cases. He is convicted, at a minimum, of greed, pride of place, cold insensitivity, and a considerable degree of outright cruelty. Mr., Bertram is supposed to be a "good man," but, in these matters and some others, he is unambiguously condemned. Now, if we are reading Mansfield Park contrapuntally, it seems as if we should be allowed to employ these indictments to condition and modify our sense of the novel's relations to its Antiguan references. If Mr. Bertram is found to be at fault within his own family in the ways just described, why shouldn't we extend the verdicts and read him as even more strenuously faulted for his conduct as a colonial exploiter? Certainly, these very same "faults" would yield much graver consequences when exercised at his West Indian plantation. On Said's approach, as we have seen, we are entitled to bring our knowledge of British imperialism to bear upon our assessments of Mr. Bertram when he is portrayed at home. This is held to be a reasonable extension of our background knowledge into our imaginative involvement with the story. But then, why isn't it equally legitimate to bring the novel's negative moral judgments to bear upon the character when we imagine him in his business in Antigua? Isn't this an equally reasonable extension from the contents of the novel to our broader impressions of the implicit background? And, if this kind of extension is sanctioned, do we have in Mansfield Park a very early exemplar of an anticolonial novel, albeit one that is framed within the trappings of a domestic moral tale?

Naturally, I regard these last interpretative suggestions to be as absurd as Said himself would take them to be. Nevertheless, I don't see that there is anything in Said's discussion of and methodology for contrapuntal reading that would rule them out. We cannot object, as we might naturally wish to, that the whole subject of Antigua in Mansfield Park is too incidental to bear this sort of interpretative weight. As I indicated earlier, Said insists that the topic is not to be dismissed upon these grounds. What troubles me, in this and other of Said's examples, is the following. For all the merit of Said's objectives in developing the concept of contrapuntal reading, the constraints he appears to recognize upon acceptable analyses are far too weak. Given the goal of opening up a work to a range of alternative external perspectives, readers are permitted to employ any background assumptions and evaluative principles that have some relevance to some facet or dimension of the work. After all, even perspectives that are severely marginalized within the work are to be admitted. What is more, readers are not to rely upon their normal perceptions concerning the relative weight and importance of various elements in the text. And, finally, there can be no overall requirement that contrapuntal interpretative views must be consistent with the work taken in its entirety. The contrapuntal reader will often take special interest in the contradictions that a text can be forced to reveal. But then it is no wonder that, when these and similar constraints have been dropped, readers find themselves floundering among a confusing motley of radically diverse possibilities. (I have only hinted at the ease with which a host of possibilities can, with a little ingenuity, be constructed.)

The chief difficulty, in my opinion, is not that there are somehow too many possibilities, as if we knew the number of satisfactory readings that a work can generate. Rather, we should be troubled by the following consideration. Whenever we have a particular, powerful contrapuntal reading, such as the ones that Said produces in his book, it is usually a minor exercise to conceive of alternatives which apparently have equal force and epistemic status but which also contradict or stand in significant conceptual tension with the original. And then, viewing the overall situation from this perspective of interpretative conflict, it is likely to strike a reasonable critic that the choice of any one of the competing readings will be arbitrary and tendentious. It is liable to seem that each of the alternatives generated is less the result of sensitive but responsible attention to the text and more the product of an adamantly insisted upon outside agenda. Since Said, in his impressive investigations, plainly wants to avoid this insidious appearance, he needs to tell us more about the nature and evidential requirements of interpretation in the style he favors. He needs to fill out, as he has not yet done in Culture and Imperialism, the conditions that a convincing contrapuntal reading must satisfy.

Fawzia Afzal-Khan (review date Winter 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of Culture and Imperialism, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 229-30.

[Below, Afzal-Khan favorably reviews Culture and Imperialism, noting the lucidity of Said's prose style.]

Edward Said's latest book, Culture and Imperialism, is, as the title more or less announces, a study of the ways in which the culture of imperialism preceded and undergirded the colonial enterprises of the big European powers of yesteryear, England and France, and, in today's world, how the same process continues with America playing the role of imperial giant. In many ways, the book is a continuation of the kind of "worldly" scholarly criticism Said inaugurated in his groundbreaking study, Orientalism, and in both books he is at pains to show how "great" works of Western literature have not been produced in a sociopolitical vacuum dubbed "objective art" but rather have been cultural expressions of the age's zeitgeist. Such a thesis allows Said to proffer what he himself calls "situated" or "contrapuntal" readings of texts as varied as Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, and Kipling's Kim. Thus, he is able to show how the so-called domestic novel of manners—of which Mansfield Park is such a typical example—derives from and is dependent for much of its value-coding on Britain's imperial activities abroad, a connection or "collusion" which has not been much commented upon by critics until very recently (or much noted in contemporary cultural work of the West): "More clearly than anywhere else in her fiction, Austen here synchronizes domestic and international authority, making it plain that to hold and rule Mansfield Park is to hold and rule an imperial estate in close, not to say inevitable association with it. What assures the domestic tranquillity and attractive harmony of one is the productivity and regulated discipline of the other."

Reading Said's prose is a most gratifyingly lucid experience for the critic and student of literature overburdened with the theoretical jargon that gained so much ascendancy in the past decade or two in the American academy, following its infatuation with French poststructuralism. It is heartening also to read someone whose scholarship is as wide-ranging and learned as his. It is therefore puzzling and somewhat disappointing that he should show so little awareness or acknowledgment of the work done by many post-colonial feminist critics on the topic of gender and imperialism, most especially that of Gayatri Spivak ("Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism") and, more recently, Jenny Sharpe in The Allegories of Empire. Aijaz Ahmad's critique (in In Theory) of Said's "difficulties with gender" certainly ring true here, but then Ahmad doesn't do much better himself; after all, the triad he concentrates on is all-male: Said, Rushdie, and Marx!

What propels Culture and Imperialism forward from Orientalism is its acknowledgment and explication of the "Culture[s] of resistance" which sprang up and continue to do so everywhere in the world as a response to colonialism and imperialism and which have, in the realm of culture, led to a proliferation of counternarratives that have subverted the dominant discourse. The chapter "Resistance and Opposition" is well worth reading for its insightful references to and analyses of the works and lives of such great anticolonialist figures as Aimé Césaire, Amil Cabral, Frantz Fanon, and C. L. R. James; a very interesting portion of the chapter concerns Yeats and his legacy in the Irish Resistance to Britain's hegemony.

By far the most moving section, however, is the concluding one, "Collaboration. Independence and Liberation," which may be said to reveal Said's idealistic core, what Ahmad deridingly refers to as his commitment to "High Humanism" but which I prefer to think of as his hope and belief in the highest principles of humanity. What is ironic (vis-à-vis Ahmad) is that Said links this vision for a future of humanity with Marx's vision as well—a vision, based in the words of Césaire and linked by James to the words of T. S. Eliot, that would embrace all of humankind and not just an elite class of the West. The lines that Said quotes many times in his book come from Césaire's famous poem "Return to My Native Land": "And no race possesses the monopoly of beauty, / of intelligence, of force, and there / is a place for all at the rendezvous / of victory." He also cites James's "contrapuntal" use of these lines, with other similar ones from Eliot's poem "Incarnation" ("Here the impossible union / of spheres of existence is actual"). This is how Said interprets James's contrapuntal usage:

By moving so unexpectedly from Césaire to Eliot's "Dry Salvages," verses by a poet who, one might think, belongs to a totally different sphere, James rides the poetic force of Césaire's "truth unto itself" as a vehicle for crossing over from the provincialism of one strand of history into an apprehension of other histories, all of them animated by and actualized in an "impossible union." This is a literal instance of Marx's stipulated beginning of human history, and it gives to his prose the dimension of a social community as actual as the history of a people, as general as the vision of a poet.

Now granted that this is a very "liberal" interpretation of Marx's vision, and indeed Said himself goes on to acknowledge a few sentences later that he doubts there is any kind of "repeatable doctrine, reusable theory … much less the bureaucracy of a future state" to be gleaned from such an anti-imperialist liberatory rhetoric. Nevertheless, such an acknowledgment of the rhetorical power as well as the limits of discursivity (projecting an ideal unity of West and non-West) also gives the lie at least to Ahmad's charge of poststructural "irrationalism" against Said, which appears rather irrationally founded (not to say contradictory) itself.

Far from "pander[ing] to the most sentimental, the most extreme forms of Third-Worldist nationalism" (Ahmad), Culture and Imperialism, which is a culmination of Said's evolutionary thought to date, embodies transnational and transcultural hopes and aspirations—fitting for an intellectual who has carved an admirable space for himself in the metropolitan culture of American academe, exiled from his native Palestine. It is not that, as an exile, he has forgotten or rejected what he calls a very "real bond with one's native place." A sense of homeland is indeed very sweet, but intellectual integrity born of exile demands that one not "derive satisfaction from substitutes furnished by illusion or dogma, whether deriving from pride in one's heritage or from certainty about who 'we' are." For, as Said astutely notes, no one today is "purely one thing." Labels like "Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American" are just that: labels. Although Said recognizes the weight and reality of cultural differences, traditions, languages, et cetera, he is convinced that "survival … is about the connections between things." To be able to think sympathetically and "contrapuntally" about others means, in the Saidian scenario, "not trying to rule others, not trying to classify them or put them into hierarchies."

Barbara Smith (review date 28 January 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "After Oslo," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. 101, January 28, 1996, p. 19.

[In the review below, Smith generally praises the themes and tone of Peace and Its Discontents but notes that "the articles are dated."]

An intellectual, says Edward W. Said, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, must be a rebel against prevailing ideas. In Peace and Its Discontents he follows his own precept well: few can match the pungency with which he challenges conventional wisdom on the Middle East peace process—the belief that it is an ineluctably good thing, threatened by self-evidently bad extremists.

Mr. Said mounts his challenge from high moral ground, having long favored a political solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. But the Oslo compromise he finds contemptible. His people, the Arab-American argues fiercely, have been gulled into giving away their trump—Israeli desire for Arab recognition—for little more than a pat on the back from the United States. The interim argument leaves residents of the West Bank and Gaza subservient to Israel, and also subject to the petty dictatorship of Yasir Arafat, a leader he finds beyond redemption.

A fatal weakness of the peace agreement, he argues, is that it squanders the gains and sacrifices of the intifada without getting in return any commitment from Israel on Palestinian self-determination, the status of East Jerusalem or repatriation or compensation for the Palestinian refugees. It splits the Palestinian nation in half, writes Mr. Said (who was displaced from his birthplace in Jerusalem in 1948), offering no future at all to the 55 percent, many of them stateless, who live outside the occupied territories.

Peace and Its Discontents brings together articles written after the September 1993 Rabin-Arafat handshake and is addressed primarily to an Arab audience. Though some of the articles have also been published in American and European magazines, they were originally written for Al Hayat, a leading Saudi-owned Arabic newspaper published in London, or for Al Ahram, a weekly newspaper published in Cairo.

Their sorrow and their anger are good, scolding stuff, an articulate tirade against perceived folly and uncritical applause. But, inevitably, the articles are dated. And since they were written before Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, some are off-key. Mr. Said's argument is based on the premise that the Oslo agreement enabled Israel to attain all its strategic and tactical objectives without its having to cede anything of value in return. Tell that to the Likud opposition, let alone to Rabin's confessed murderer. His assumption, moreover, that the terms of the agreement give Israel no cause for complaint or fear sits oddly with the current state of that country, now torn by religious and political dissension.

Mr. Said writes that Palestine must be restored "to its place not simply as a small piece of territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, but as an idea that for years galvanized the Arab world into thinking about and fighting for social justice, democracy and a different kind of future." This sounds high-minded, but the Palestinians' fight, so far as it existed, got nobody anywhere: the Arab world obtained neither social justice nor democracy, and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza continued to suffer from a repressive occupation. Now, at least, Israel has moved its troops out of most of the main towns in the West Bank and Gaza, and Palestinians have held free elections. What happens next is unknown.

The Oslo agreement is a gamble. The issues that matter most were left to the talks on a permanent solution, due to start in May. The Palestinians have no guarantee of getting what they want, or anything like it. Mr. Said expects the worst and could well turn out to be right: he certainly has reason to mourn the gap now yawning between the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and those in the diaspora. But he tosses aside the inevitable question: what should the Palestinians do instead? Surely, he says impatiently, among six million Palestinians any number of alternatives could be found. Yes, but what were they then and what are they now?


Principal Works


Further Reading