The Elusive Edward Said – Edward Said, Watcher of the Elusive Subject

Palestinian polymath Edward W. Said died in 2003, but it was not until 2021 that a full intellectual biography appeared, one that correctly situates his life in relation to both the political and intellectual history of his time and how, within this story, it emerges.

There has been a recent vogue for full biographies like this. Benjamin Moser’s enormous tome, almost a detail-by-detail love letter to Susan Sontag, is one, as is Kate Kirkpatrick’s revealing and revisionist work on Simone de Beauvoir. There are two problems with the in-depth investigations that go into this work. The first is that, ultimately, the heroes are made human – human to the point of fragility. Those who want iconic figures learn that their icons fart and smell like everyone else, maybe even more than everyone else.

Susan Sontag: Overcoming Representation


Second, the biographer takes a stance of God’s view, knowing his subject intimately, perhaps even more intimately than close friends and family might claim. Amid all the evidence cited, some almost forensic in its details, there is finally a series of sweeping judgments and evaluations that serve to ensure a lasting place on the privacy podium. The danger is that books can become as much about the author as they are about the subject, or about the author’s relationship to the subject.

You don’t know what i know

Timothy Brennan was Said’s doctoral student at Columbia University, and when he says Said had a theatrical habit of suddenly stopping mid-stage dramatically to emphasize a point, one is essentially asked to imagine Brennan walking the wide Columbia trails with Dit and suddenly having to turn around to see Said come to a dramatic stop. It makes his writing look not only intimate but compelling, as if to say that if you haven’t seen those dramatic breaks, you don’t know anything about Edward Said, or you don’t know enough, or you just don’t know. not what I know.

But Said deserved an intimate biography. Books about him have tended to be attacks, either focusing on his politics – even more controversial in Palestine than in the United States – or focusing solely on his cultural and literary theorizing. Said was claimed by post-colonialists as their founding father, emphasizing their own connections to theorists he cited, such as Michel Foucault, Theodor Adorno, Giambattista Vico, and Georg Lukacs.

These appropriations often failed to take into account Said’s disenchantment with Foucault and the possibility that he had not read all of Adorno, while post-colonialists could simultaneously find Lukacs too dense and Vico too distant in the time for immediate use beyond sound clips in a discipline. established in the guilt of modernity. Despite all of this, Said is excellent as an advocate for dropping names in post-colonial studies.

Brennan is more insightful and discriminating. He clearly read these theorists himself, although he does not emphasize the work of Franz Fanon and Aimé Césaire, which were also important to Saïd. It would also appear that Brennan relies on reporting the work of Arab thinkers admired or hated by her supervisor.

Where the book tries too hard and becomes excessive is in the attempt to pass judgment on musicology, Said having been both a high-grade classical pianist and music critic. Said himself has been criticized enough by many professional musicians as an amateur coming out of his depth, and Brennan gives no evidence of his own musical training to back up some of his sweeping claims. Of course, music gave Said one of the few institutional achievements to his name in the struggle in the Middle East – the West East Divan Orchestra which he founded with Daniel Barenboim as a living example of cooperation between Arabs and Jews. .

It also served as a rebuttal to a stubborn West with its stereotypes that Arabs, and indeed Palestinians, might not be as familiar with classical music as anyone in the West. I myself attended an opera recital in a Palestinian mayor’s house in which the Japanese soprano sang in Arabic with great satisfaction. This cosmopolitanism was what, of course, Said lamented as lacking in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) under Yasser Arafat.


Brennan deals at length with the politics of Palestine, the lack of scale and vision on Arafat’s part, but none of this is given to the intimacy that accompanies his accounts of American academia and politics. American. The singular, almost tribal nepotism of Arafat’s entourage is noted but without sociological questioning. It was Saïd who served as the occasional intermediary between American figures such as George Schultz and Arafat, and some of the American political eminencies with whom Saïd dealt claimed to have read “Orientalism” and, in fact, to have admired it. .

But Arafat saw in such numbers only the possibility that their presumed sense of nepotism, presumed identical to his, would include him and the PLO as worthy recipients of indulgence, support and favor. The American or European seen as the “great man” was precisely what Said hated in the “Orientalism” which was rampant in Middle Eastern scholarship – which others know the Arabs better than the Arabs. Arabs.

Of course, the reaction in the United States by diligent members of the left, after the impact of Said’s greatest book, has been to ban the word “oriental” without necessarily learning more about the Arab world, and again learn less from Arab academics themselves. .

On “Orientalism”, Said’s magnum opus, Brennan is superb. In his sequel, “Culture and Imperialism,” Brennan rightly reveals that he too is an important scholar and gives a superb interpretation of the book’s strengths and weaknesses, its core contradictions and sometimes aimless wanderings while noting everything. so is the power of the book. .

But if the reaction to Said’s most significant works in the West is ironic – an early interpretation of the “awakened” vocabulary proscription – it is more tragically ironic that his ideas are not appreciated in Palestine itself. Forbidden for a time by Arafat, Said’s works have no resonance among today’s youth, whether they support the PLO or Hamas.

Neither her theoretical writings, essentially highly sophisticated anti-imperialism, nor her reluctant final position of seeking a state with equal rights, a sort of confederal but interwoven Israel and Palestine, seem immediately relevant or inspiring to a young woman. generation anticipating that once again they will be locked in a deadly struggle with the Israelis. When I taught a master’s degree course at the prestigious Bir Zeit University just outside Ramallah, Said was a stranger to my students.

Brennan does not fully enter into these ironies and the esteem tragedies they imply. What his book does is present a valiant man with polymathic skills and deep commitments. Brennan at least reveals what many of her audience wanted to know, looking at this increasingly lean, but still handsome, remarkably sartorial man in the style of the best English tailors. Worn out by cancer, he was treated to the end by a Jewish doctor in the best medical facilities in New York.

Cosmopolitan and transgressive in terms of dichotomies and standard opposites, Said was highly regarded in my own institution, the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. During a guest lecture, a serious student said that if he stood up to play my violin in the path of an Israeli bulldozer, it would surely stop. Here Said assumed his best New Yorker, almost Jewish skepticism, and simply said, “You wanna bet? This rare common touch was what was lacking in his life and made all of his great efforts and achievements wait for nearly two decades for full appreciation. For now, and for a long time, Brennan’s is the best we have.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Fair Observer.

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