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The Intellectual Life of Edward Said
A review of "Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said" by Timothy Brennan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 464 pages, 2021
“The claim that Iraq gassed its own citizens has often been repeated,” wrote Edward Said in 1991. “At best, this is uncertain.” He bemoaned that only the “alternative press” took seriously the hypothesis that Halabja was an Iranian false flag operation. As proof of Saddam Hussein’s innocence, he cited a War College report that had been compiled when Iraq was an American regional ally. In short, Said grasped the flimsiest of conspiracy theories—furnished by the War College, no less—to criticize U.S. interventions in the Middle East. It is thus somewhat surprising to find Timothy Brennan—in Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said—claim that “along with Noam Chomsky and a few others [Said] tore the ‘confidential’ off the official cover story.” Brennan nowhere mentions Said’s Halabja skepticism. That omission is bad on its own; it feels outright misleading in light of Brennan’s praise of Said.
If Brennan polishes Said’s record, he shows less care for Said’s critics. He characterizes Cristopher Hitchens’s essay on Orientalism as mere “slander” and mocks him for “posing as an erudite fluent in German and conversant in Goethe when he was nothing of the kind.” At no point in that essay, however, did Hitchens pretend to be fluent in German. All he did was quote from an English translation of Goethe’s West-östlicher Diwan. This is not to say that Places of Mind is uncritical of Said—its hagiographic moments can be numbered on only two hands. But it is far too generous, and leaves readers with a warped impression of Said’s critics.
Consider Brennan’s treatment of Ernest Gellner’s review of Culture and Imperialism, which he summarizes thus: “[Gellner] had trashed Culture and Imperialism in The Times Literary Supplement in 1993 on the grounds that culture does not matter and that the Western empires did more good than harm.” But those were not Gellner’s claims. On the contrary, Gellner wrote that “the problem of power and culture … is too important to be left to lit crit.” And he pushed back on Said’s assertion that culture was “indispensable” for imperialism—which is not the same as saying that it didn’t matter. Nor did Gellner claim that imperial virtues outweighed imperial vices; rather, he objected to Said’s premise that injustices between colonizer and colonized were worse than injustices within those two groups.
Perhaps Gellner’s most hard-hitting criticism was that Said’s grasp on the history and culture of North Africa—particularly Algeria—was tenuous at best. Brennan inadvertently verifies this by characterizing Said’s view of Soviet realpolitik in the Middle East as a “mixed blessing.” In contradistinction to the U.S., Said thought the USSR should not be viewed as a hostile, external force in the region. “I have never publicly criticized the Soviet Union,” he said, because “the Soviets have never done anything to harm me, or us.” The theme of Places of Mind is contradiction; its epigram, taken from On Late Style, reads: “… not as harmony and resolution but as intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction.” Given that Said confessed to being “most unknowledgeable about Soviet history,” while nonetheless pronouncing favorably on its Middle Eastern policy, “unresolved contradiction” feels like a fitting theme indeed.
Brennan informs us that Said distrusted George Orwell—hardly surprising for someone who never criticized the Soviet Union. What is surprising, however, is that Brennan calls Orwell a “self-styled” socialist who together with André Gide, in Said’s mind, was “busy echoing the consensus by declaring their ‘disillusionment’ with socialism.” That summary misrepresents the nature of Orwell’s career—he was not “echoing” consensus, nor was he “disillusioned” with socialism. He was a socialist whose views were only posthumously assimilated by establishment consensus.
Having travestied Orwell, Brennan moves on to Leszek Kołakowski, the exiled Polish philosopher who helped inspire the Solidarity movement. He tells us that Said repudiated Kołakowski’s Cold War “balancing act” between right and left. Kołakowski, we are told, tried to “elude middlebrow censure by denouncing leftist gods.” This is wholly inaccurate. The reason for Kołakowski’s break with Soviet communism was emphatically not to avoid “middlebrow censure.” Among the real reasons for his break was his hatred of anti-Semitism—officially sponsored by the Polish state, becoming particularly virulent following the 1967 Six-Day War. And to point out the obvious: middle-brow censure in Stalinist Poland was firmly on the side of the USSR.
Said preferred György Lukács to Kołakowski. Brennan says that this was because Said “could personally relate to the Hungarian philosopher’s ability to acrobatically dodge official censure, being dissident while surviving constant pressure from above and on all sides, as an independent thinker in the Soviet sphere.” But Lukács didn’t remain an independent thinker or dissident. He toed the Party line throughout the Stalinist years. Even in the late 1950s, in Kołakowski’s words, “Lukács was one of the most timid and cautious critics of Stalinism, never questioning its basic principles but only certain manifestations.”
Places of Mind is an intellectual biography, so it is remarkable that it gets this much intellectual history wrong. Is Brennan familiar with Lukács and Kołakowski only through the works of Said? Perhaps. But why then does he imply that Orwell was not a true socialist—for surely he must have read Orwell?
Since Brennan focuses on Said’s intellectual life, there is little new information about his personal life. It is not a prurient biography. I have no problem with that, though others might. Sometimes, however, I wish Brennan would provide more details. For example, shortly before Said entered Harvard he was involved in a traffic accident in Switzerland. His Alfa Romeo crashed into a motorcycle. Said ended up in coma. The motorcyclist died. That incident is brushed aside in a single brief paragraph. Said’s sexual life, meanwhile, has been almost entirely elided. The only memorable sex-related episode is from where Michael Rosenthal—Harvard friend of Said’s—walks in on Said and his girlfriend. Said is unflappable. “Without showing the slightest embarrassment, Said ignored the compromising situation and, having just taken his orals, started grilling Rosenthal on the novels of Wyndham Lewis as though nothing had happened.”
It is, I think, worthwhile going over Said’s Cold War connections because they position him within a broad Marxist tradition. Though never slotting neatly into any category, Said wanted “to be seen as a sober materialist.” Brennan rescues this Marxist side of Said, which he encapsulates thus: “It is reasonable to agree with the Irish poet Seamus Deane that Said was not a Marxist, but only if we recognize the wildly different degrees to which one can be ‘not a Marxist.’” Over his career, Said moved from Foucault to Gramsci. And many of his friends and allies—including Mahmoud Darwish—started their careers as writing fellows within the Soviet bloc. If he never fully endorsed Marxism, that was because he thought its theories too restricted to the West. “I have yet to see—to my mind—a satisfactory translation of European Marxism into Arab or Third World terms.” He would eventually himself contribute to that translation.
Many have thought that Said’s Marxism was little more than modish affectation. Sadiq Al-Azm, for instance, called it “cosmetic.” Nowhere, he said, was Marxism part of the “fundamental structures of his analysis.” Similarly, Noam Chomsky challenged anyone to find a place in Said’s work where Marxism is an essential feature. Brennan has now answered that challenge. He notes that Said, in “The Future of Palestine: A Palestinian View,” examined the “class role of the intellectuals” and the “national bourgeoisie.” And Said makes good use of his Marxist principles in The End of the Peace Process. Brennan is convincing on this point. He is right to view Said as operating within the Marxist tradition. I think, however, it says something about Said’s intellectual ambiguity that so many of his closest readers missed this fact.
The image of Said that emerges from Places of Mind is of a man who transcended his own shortcomings. He was a member of the elite on the margins of society. That social position seems to have reinforced his insecure vanity and petty boastfulness. He took more care with his suits—only the very best were good enough—than with his sentences. His prose is bloated and repetitive. It is “driven more by ideas than by form,” as Brennan delicately puts it. Said didn’t really care about phrasing. He put his thoughts on paper and seldom bothered rewriting; but I could have guessed that without Brennan telling me.
Said, however, was larger than his faults. He could teach Proust in perfect French. Having been tutored by Ignace Tiegerman, he could play the piano nearly to concert standards. And he founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra together with Daniel Barenboim. Said had real courage and fortitude. His Columbia University office was vandalized on numerous occasions, usually by fringe Israel sympathizers. He was called the “Professor of Terror,” and had to face scurrilous insinuations that he was not really Palestinian (while he spent most time in Egypt, he was born in Jerusalem to a Palestinian family and attended school in Palestine and his family owned property there).
When rumor spread that he was a U.S. spy, he received serious death threats. It got so bad that he had to have bulletproof windows in his office. Meanwhile, the FBI put him under surveillance, compiling a 238-page file. He handled it with remarkable grace. “I don’t do victimhood,” he remarked. With compensations like these, I am ready to overlook most of his faults—including his preference for cheap blends over single-malt scotch.
The epigram of Places of Mind is well chosen because Said contained multitudes—ironies, if not contradictions. He was the epitome of highbrow intellectualism. American popular culture, he claimed, had no value for him. But he watched lots of TV and kept rereading the novels of Robert Ludlum. His religious convictions were also contradictory. On some occasions he said he was atheistic, but on others he talked and behaved like a Christian. He fathered the field of postcolonial studies but thought very little of its practitioners—indeed, he objected to the very notion of a “post” colonial world. He looked up to Chomsky but preferred his French theorists; in one essay, “Linguistics and the Archaeology of Mind” (1971), he measured Chomsky’s linguistics against Jacques Lacan’s post-Freudianism. Chomsky said he was “utterly astonished that Ed could even begin to take this stuff seriously.” In reply, Said told him to read Barthes.
Said never resolved how to view the crossroads between culture and politics. “I don’t want you to think of me as treating literature only as a vehicle for my convictions,” he told a friend prior to the publication of Culture and Imperialism. One moment he criticized Marx for his views of imperialism, the next he insisted that it is wrong to measure old texts by the standards of later eras. His engagement with the ’60s left was equally paradoxical. He positioned himself firmly on the radical side, but when a group of students interrupted his class he phoned campus security. University should be a refuge from politics, he thought. His stances seem to have confused even his colleagues. He sent Lionel Trilling a letter complaining that “the love of mind and learning” was threatened at Columbia. Trilling misinterpreted it. He thought Said complained about the bad effects of the 1968 protests on intellectual morale. Said, on the contrary, meant to stress the importance of professors siding with students.
No one can survey the intellectual landscape of the 20th century without reckoning with Said. That is largely because of Orientalism. “For half his readers the book was a triumph,” Brennan writes, “for the other half a scandal, but no one could ignore it.” Few books have faced such sustained criticism, but its core thesis is often misunderstood. Orientalism, Brennan writes, “was not only, or even mainly, about the Orient and its scholars.” Rather, it was “a meditation on the degree to which representation is part of reality, not just its rendering in words.” Very well, but how can such meditations proceed except through rigorous analysis of the Orient and its scholars? It seems to me Brennan misses the point when he charges critics of Orientalism with overlooking Said’s central contention. One of the most common criticisms, moreover, is that Said merely points out what is obvious: many cultural studies from the 19th century will contain cultural prejudices of the 19th century. Likewise, to the extent that Said’s “theory of representation” is true, it is common sensical. Of course orientalist scholarship is part of the phenomenon it studies. Who would deny it?
For someone picking up Orientalism for the first time, Brennan’s chapter on it is an excellent place to start. He goes through the usual charges: it ignores German orientalism; it homogenizes a baggy field of inquiry; Said knew little about the scholarship he indicted. He tactfully excuses such shortcomings. “Said’s overstatements were designed to unleash a purifying indignation in his readers.” If that required giving his biases “free rein,” in Bernard Lewis’s words, then Said nonetheless thought it worthwhile. He felt he had political justifications for using the broader kind of brush. Orientalism, Brennan informs us, seems to have grown out of a project Said meant to undertake with Chomsky on flawed representations of the Middle East. The books that followed—The Question of Palestine (1979), Covering Islam (1981)—were little more than outtakes from the original project. That is to say, Said thought of Orientalism as a polemical work. In a letter to the British historian Roger Owen, he called it “a contribution to the struggle against imperialism.”
Said criticized his left-leaning academic colleagues for not engaging politically. They had reduced Marxism to a mere reading technique or lifestyle. He successfully resolved not to let his own work slip into such irrelevance. Orientalism should thus be seen as a synthesis of scholarship and polemics. Like his hero Jonathan Swift, he was both a man of action and a man of ideas. He wrote essays on Bach and Conrad; he was responsible for the famous line that Arafat delivered at the U.N. in 1974: “Don’t let the olive branch fall from my hand.” His office was lined not only with books but with a large map over the strongpoints of the Israeli Defence Forces. Said’s intellectual battles were political, and the political was personal. In a debate against Bernard Lewis, shortly before he rose to give his speech, he whispered to a friend in Arabic, “I’ll fuck his mother.” He combined the political with the intellectual: his friends would jokingly refer to him sometimes as “Eduardo,” the cultivated Italian Renaissance man, and sometimes as “Abu-Wadie,” the typical nom de guerre of Palestinian militants. It is this largeness of mind—Said’s Swiftian capacity—that keeps bringing me back to his writings.