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Activist, Professor, Politician, Aesthete — the many contradictions of Edward Said

You could read any of Edward Said’s books, but you couldn’t take them home with you. Looking back, this was obviously a metaphor for something or other. At the time it seemed like a simple-enough fact—but then, I was only a freshman.

The Edward Said Reading Room opened in the spring of 2011, eight years after Said died of leukemia and a few months before I started college at Columbia. I liked it because it was small enough to pace through without losing sight of my laptop, and because the late professor had had fantastic taste in books. There were about 2,000 of them on the shelves, all from his personal collection and spanning most of his favorite subjects: Arabic modernism, classical music, the Frankfurt School, the two-state solution, the 19th-century realist novel. If book collections are always self-portraits, this was the grandest self-portrait I’d ever seen. So, no: students weren’t allowed to check these books out of Butler Library — that would have chipped the paint.

Said taught literature at Columbia for 40 years. During my four as an undergrad, he came up so often it felt like he still did. There were posters everywhere for upcoming Said conferences, usually featuring a photograph (for some reason it was always black-and-white or sepia) of the man himself glaring back at the camera, daring you not to attend. In one of my first classes, a student answered the professor’s question by connecting the subject at hand — I forget what it was — to Orientalism. I was impressed, until he gave some other subject the same treatment two days later. Later I took a seminar with a buoyant Estonian professor who went on dropping hints about “my ex” long after everyone had figured out who that was.

He was a tenured professor who never stopped fighting for the dignity of Palestinians, a thinker who also threw rocks.

He was bigger than his ideas, so that by the time you got around to the ideas you’d already learned to admire him. Said was (along with Walter Benjamin) the closest thing to a saint in the unsaintly land of literary theory: an erudite engagé, a tenured professor who never stopped fighting for the dignity of Palestinians, a thinker who also threw rocks. And though he died much too soon, he lived long enough to see the beginning of his canonization. As a young man, he’d complained about the “infamous egos” of the Parisian intellectual scene — wasn’t it odd, he asked, that the same thinkers who’d questioned the cult of the author had become infallible, semi-cultish authorities themselves? By the early 2000s, Said was well on his way to becoming one of these authorities, and it troubled him.

In his new biography “Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said, Timothy Brennan does Said the kindness of de-canonizing him. He is tough on Said when Said is petty or cavalier, and he praises Said when Said is original or brave. More importantly, though, he understands that Said was mostly somewhere in the middle, and this middle is a good biographer’s real subject.

The important facts about a person’s life have a way of hiding in plain view; meanwhile, the trivia stand in for the life itself. Blake Bailey’s new, 800-page Roth biography spends so much time on divorces and blowjobs he almost makes you forget (as Joshua Cohen recently pointed out in Harper’s) that Roth spent an actual majority of his adult waking life sitting alone at a desk. Next to Bailey’s hot air, Brennan’s biography is a cold shower. An entire layer of gossip has been scraped off of Said’s life like algae; the closest thing even resembling a bombshell is that Said once made up a story about having dated Candice Bergen. Already this has disappointed more than a few people — and so we find Dwight Garner in the Times craving a little more algae, just one measly blowjob.

Another way of putting this is that Brennan never forgets the most important fact about his subject: Edward Said was a professor who spent most his life reading, teaching, and thinking about books. “If along with Chomsky, Hannah Arendt, and Susan Sontag [Said] was the best-known U.S. public intellectual of the postwar period,” he writes, “he was the only one of them who taught literature for a living.” Unlike a lot of celebrity professors, Said seems to have been good at teaching — Brennan, who studied with him in graduate school, has kilowatts-worth of glowing memories.

Said was an activist, a journalist, a concert pianist, a thwarted novelist, a dandy, an epicure, a devotee of tennis, an occasional cad. But “professor” was the shortest distance to these other points.

This isn’t to say that Said wasn’t many other things — an activist, a journalist, a concert pianist, a thwarted novelist, a dandy, an epicure, a devotee of tennis, an occasional cad. But “professor” was the shortest distance to these other points, a role he kept up while playing many different ones. In an essay from 1959, he recalled an argument with an Egyptian medical student who demanded to know “what on earth I was doing studying literature. Egypt is a poor country, its people ill and under-nourished, her arable land scarce and thirsty.” Said responded that literary scholarship could still offer something to the unfortunate, even if it couldn’t feed them: “the politics of the heart.”

I’ll admit I winced the first time I read that phrase — but what does that say about me, and about academia? I doubt there’s a single humanities Ph.D. who hasn’t fretted over the problem Said is describing. The difference is that Said took the problem seriously enough to do more than fret. He didn’t march in the streets (and, to his lasting chagrin, he sicced the campus police on Columbia students who did in 1968). But he set up Arabic studies departments across the United States; debated the politics of Zionism with its most prominent advocates; and spent the early years of the War on Terror fighting for the portrayal of Middle Easterners as full human beings. None of this fed the under-nourished. But American involvement in the Middle East really was, and still is, a fight about how Middle Easterners should be portrayed (in CIA briefs, on the news, in movies, in presidents’ speeches) — and as long as this was so, who better than Said to represent the Left? He did what humanities professors always talk about doing but never seem to do very well: he took academic notions of subjecthood and agency and made them central parts of politics. Which is what they are.


Said was born in Jerusalem, to a wealthy family, and grew up mostly in Cairo. His father was Palestinian and held American citizenship; his mother was Lebanese. He was raised Christian and attended Mass every Sunday until his teens. None of these things seem that sensational, but decades later they were all flung back in his face by desperate opponents, as if not being poor or Muslim or a full-time resident of Palestine were the fatal flaws in his ideas. In 1999, Commentary published a 5000-word article by Justus Reid Weiner, claiming to slice through “30 years of carefully crafted deception” and reveal the shocking truth about Said’s childhood — the implication being that this uppity professor had no business talking about Palestine, since he wasn’t a true Palestinian. A few weeks later, Said published his memoirs. Weiner’s shocking truths turned out to be pretty much the same ones Said himself had just put, more eloquently, to paper: he was born in Jerusalem, to a wealthy family, and grew up mostly in Cairo, etc. Here, it’s worth noting that Commentary is the same magazine that used to feature Clement Greenberg and Hannah Arendt.

To be fair, this wasn’t the cruelest thing an American publication asserted about Said, or even the stupidest (he was compared to a Nazi more than once). But it was, in some ways, the most telling: when you can’t disprove a theory, you have to challenge the theorist’s right to theorize. To quote Said’s close friend Noam Chomsky: “In order to speak about social reality, you must have proper credentials, particularly if you depart from the accepted framework of thinking.” Said had degrees from Princeton and Harvard, so it became necessary to invent credentials for him to lack.

How to write the biography of a man whose biography was constantly being called into question?

How to write the biography of a man whose biography was constantly being called into question? Brennan is brisk with Said’s upbringing — almost as if to say So his family had a summer house in Lebanon, what’s the big deal? He writes movingly about Said’s relationships with his mother and with his sisters, and later about his friendships with Chomsky and the novelist Elias Khoury. But this is intellectual biography, not just biography, and for Brennan (whose last book, to give you some idea, was about Hegel and colonialism), Said’s richest relationships were with dead thinkers, not living friends or relatives. “Places of Mind” is, welcomely, a short book — 370 generously margined pages in my edition — and many of them are spent unpacking Said’s impressions of Georg Lukács, Giambattista Vico, Joseph Conrad, Erich Auerbach and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Intellectual biography is still a form of biography, of course, but “Places of Mind” downplays facile connections between Said’s life and ideas — e.g., that his writings on late style sprang from his sense of nearing death by leukemia. The ideas aren’t disconnected, but Brennan puts them on a long, loose leash.

The criticism could be made, I suppose, that by placing so much stock in close readings of dead Western academics, Brennan neglects too much of what was unique about Said’s life, and makes him into the one thing he wasn’t — just another Western academic. It’s a difficult problem, but I respect the solution. I don’t see how anyone could fault Brennan for emphasizing intellectual biography over biography when his subject is an intellectual, even one with a life as fascinating as Said’s. Said’s theories and political activism were, plainly, informed by his Palestinian heritage and the outsider perspective that came with growing up between Egypt, Lebanon, and the United States—then again, how many rich globetrotters went on to become professor-activists? The analogy with Said’s work is almost too perfect. Brennan plays down the material side of his subject’s life—the when and where, the friends and family—and makes the ideas a force in their own right. Which is to say, he writes about Said the way Said wrote about Orientalism.


This has to be some kind of record: so far, I’ve written 1700 words about Edward Said but not a single one about what Orientalism actually is. Fish tend to forget that they’re surrounded by water, of course, and when I was in college Orientalism was the water in which all humanities students swam. Whole courses were built on its premises. It was as uncontroversial as gravity.

This is an excellent reminder, I should add, of what a cramped, windowless place the ivory tower is. Orientalism, the theory that Western study of the Middle East is not just tied but inextricably tied to colonialism seems as ridiculous to many as it seems self-evident to a few. By “many,” I don’t mean the unwashed masses. In a 2019 interview, the venerable journalist Janet Malcolm cited Said’s “Orientalism” as an example of the “bee-in-your-bonnet genre,” in which the author has an “obsessive thesis” that the reader can’t help but root for, as one roots for the underdog team in a sports movie. The crazed ambition, the near-impossibility of proving the thesis, are the key to the genre’s charm.

At some point since its release in 1978, “Orientalism” went from bee-in-your-bonnet book to plain old book.

At some point since its release in 1978, “Orientalism” went from bee-in-your-bonnet book to plain old book. Its obsessiveness came to seem perfectly reasonable, at least to some. Maybe the War on Terror sparked the change. With 9/11 on everybody’s mind, with Bush’s policies casting a shadow over everything from elementary school syllabi to french fries, with generals passed off as “terrorism experts” on the news every night, Said’s most ambitious claims no longer seemed ambitious at all. With the resurgence of “Orientalism” in the early 2000s came a new backlash, starring some of Said’s old opponents, such as Professor Bernard Lewis, as well as some ex-friends, such as Christopher Hitchens, showing himself to be a contrarian first and a leftie second. How could it be true, they asked, that all Western scholarship of the Middle East—all of it—was tinged with colonialism? Surely Said couldn’t be serious. He was being unfair. He was exaggerating. Ergo (these were the Dubya years, after all), he was helping the terrorists.

In one important sense, Said’s opponents understood “Orientalism” better than Said’s followers: Said’s points were crazily ambitious, sweeping to the point of unbelievable. They were also, mostly, correct. You could say this about much of his other work. What’s most astonishing about his essay on Jane Austen, “Mansfield Park,” and imperialism, which provoked a flurry of apoplectic rebuttals when it was published in 1990, it is how un-astonishing it seems in 2021. Of course Fanny Price is a kind of indentured servant, making her fortune in a New World! Of course Sir Thomas’s administration of Mansfield Park is linked to his administration of slave colonies in Antigua! Of course an author’s silences and omissions are fair game for literary critics! Was there ever a time when people thought otherwise? (The nineties, really?) But to reread Said is to see how apolitical the study of the novel still was only 30 years ago, and to understand how much polemical thrust was required to shake the field awake. As Hitchens said, to go from controversial to uncontroversial is “the sure sign of the authentic pioneer.”

Said worried about becoming uncontroversial, just as he worried about becoming another infamous, criticism-proof ego. These are splendid worries for a professor of literature to have — most are in no position to worry that their ideas will be misinterpreted, because nobody cares what their ideas are—and it’s worth trying to take them seriously. By which I mean trying to see the controversy beneath present-day consensus, praising Said when he gets it right and taking issue with him when he gets it wrong.

I was reminded of this as I read Vivek Chibber’s recent essay “Orientalism and Its Afterlives,” which does an unimpeachable job of evaluating Said’s most famous book one point at a time. What Chibber finds isn’t quite stellar enough to justify that book’s place in the pantheon. As he sees it, Said makes two main arguments: one true but not remotely original and the other original but not remotely true.

The first, true argument is that the discourse of Orientalism was and remains a justification for Western imperialism — an elegant, Marxist-inflected way of thinking about history, one which had already been articulated, less boldly and less eloquently, by scholars such as Anouar Abdel-Malek (who later complained that Said hadn’t cited him). The second, untrue argument is that the discourse of Orientalism was a primary cause of Western imperialism. For this to be so, Chibber rightly points out, there would have to be something uniquely powerful about the West’s capacity to fantasize about its distant neighbors — to put it another way, the reason that the West colonized the Orient and not the other way around, would have to be that the West dreamed bigger. Which is decidedly not what Said is trying to argue.

It’s revealing, nevertheless, that Said chooses to argue for literature, albeit Orientalist literature, as cause rather than effect, a historical force in its own right rather than a bellwether of force. Isn’t there a certain amount of self-flattery at work here? If literature is the engine of history, what more powerful title could there be than literature professor?

This is a strange thing to suggest of Said, since Said of all people — all professors, at least — didn’t need to flatter himself with delusions of historical influence. He was historically influential. Anwar Sadat wanted him to head the Palestinian delegation at the Geneva peace talks. The Department of State tried to get him to convince the PLO to recognize Israel. He sat on the Palestinian National Council for 14 years and used his clout to push for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. When he quit the Council in 1993 to protest the Oslo Accords (which he called “Palestinian Versailles”), it was international news.

If Said showed that “the politics of the heart” was more than a slick phrase, he also showed that it was something less than a coherent practice.

In the end, though, he was a literature professor. While it’s true that he found ways of marrying scholarship with politics, it wasn’t always a happy marriage. Said revolutionized the study of the Western canon but worried that his approach had helped reduce books to dry husks of political ideology. He wielded real political power for many years but wondered, toward the end of his life, if his influence as a journalist had become too peripheral. Literature and politics clashed at least as often as they reinforced each other: if Said showed that “the politics of the heart” was more than a slick phrase, he also showed that it was something less than a coherent practice — one reason why so few attempt it themselves (cowardice and laziness are two others). When Noam Chomsky was asked to name some intellectuals who had fulfilled their moral and political responsibilities, he came up with only three: Said, Howard Zinn, and Eqbal Ahmad. All three are dead now, and Chomsky is 92.

The Onion had a good headline: “Exhausted Noam Chomsky Just Going To Try And Enjoy The Day For Once.” Needless to say, he fails. He keeps getting reminded of how terrible the world is. He’s too smart not to be exhausted. It’s something of a cliché that responsible intellectuals are supposed to worry about the world, all the time. Edward Said was an exemplary worrier. He loved good wine and well-tailored suits, but he was too smart not to be exhausted by the political challenges he’d set himself. As I’ve said, I think plenty of professors are. The difference is that Said didn’t let exhaustion exhaust him (the same goes for Chomsky). He lobbied ceaselessly for Palestinian rights and still found time for poetry. He lambasted the media for racism but found time to pen a long, loving analysis of “Così fan tutte.” He was a pure politician, and he was a pure aesthete. If these things sound like contradictions, it’s because they are. Reading Brennan’s biography, however, you wonder why anyone would choose to live any other way.

Jackson Arn is the Forward’s contributing art critic.


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