Anyone who watches the last recorded interview that Edward Said gave will feel great sympathy for the man. Still urbane and fluent, he was so wracked by his long disease that was soon to kill him, and so evidently suffering, that he could not even listen any longer to his beloved music, let alone play the piano, which he had always done with talent and skill early in his life, having considered a career as a professional musician.
There were other reasons for longer-term sympathy for the radical academic and founder of “postcolonial” studies, whose life is chronicled in Timothy Brennan’s new Places of Mind. A highly talented man with beautiful manners, he was never completely at ease with himself, I think because there was always a conflict between his patrician western cultural taste and what he felt his political sympathies ought to be. A man who lived in New York but insisted on Savile Row tailoring and who sent to London for a certain kind of tobacco could not be an altogether convincing tribune for the suffering masses of the Middle East, particularly the Palestinians.
He had spent most of his childhood in Faroukian Cairo, full of charms for the upper classes; his childhood was gilded, but not therefore happy. The extent of his rarefied protection from the harsh daily struggles of the average impoverished Egyptian may be gauged by the fact that he received tuition from the Polish virtuoso, Ignace Tiegerman, who was exiled in Cairo. He was a gifted pupil who was able to take advantage of his advantages, but my surmise is that he never fully overcame his guilt at his own privilege. He could neither abandon the consequences of his privilege nor accept them with complete equanimity, a conflict common to many upper-class radicals. In addition, because of his background as an Egyptian Anglican, he could never be quite sure of complete acceptance anywhere: hence the tension that resulted in his highly destructive works. It could not have been comfortable being Edward Said, for all his enormous success and accomplishments.
An Opaque Apology
As with so many intellectuals, Said’s cultural influence was greater than his merits; if he had not had such inflated influence, he would hardly merit as long a biography as this. It would not be quite fair to call Places of Mind a hagiography, for it admits of minor criticisms of its subject, of the Dr. Chasuble variety (“I myself am peculiarly susceptible to draughts”), but it is clearly a work of apologetics.
It is bad in a number of respects. To begin with, much of it is appallingly written, as one would now, alas, expect of an author who is a professor of humanities. There are many passages whose meaning, if any, will be opaque to those who have not themselves received a miseducation in a university department of humanities; opacity and meaninglessness will not, of course, trouble those who have done so. Whole passages read as if they were taken from speeches by a literary theorist who had somehow become a member of the Soviet Politburo:
Swift, of course, was literally a Tory, but despite being a monarchist, he had learned from hard political experience the need for verbal order in a style that was “unyielding, hard, right.” And he achieved this, Said suggested, by complicating the definition of “text” in two ways: first by nimbly switching from one genre to another depending on the needs of the occasion in which a direct address of the reader was required. Gulliver’s Travels, for instance, seemed troubled by the way writing becomes a substitute for events. Swift’s writing, therefore, was for Said “a far less integral activity than speaking.”
By the end of the paragraph, the author himself, to say nothing of the reader, has forgotten that there were supposedly two ways of “complicating the definition of ‘text.’” We never hear of the second way (thank goodness); but if the author of this passage had written “simplifying” in place of “complicating,” it would have conveyed no different meaning to the reader. Moreover, the word “therefore” is employed in a fashion that divorces it from any perceivable logical operation; the conclusion drawn is about as logical as “I think, therefore tomorrow we will have fog.” And to what, exactly (or even approximately), is writing a far less integral activity than speaking? We never hear.
Often sentences are simultaneously ugly and unclear: “Not owning up to his fiction had partly to do with feeling his strength in traits that militated against it.” Does it refer here to the owning up or to the fiction itself? Of the aesthetic quality of the sentence I will not speak. Suffice it to say that it is not euphonious.
The author, in his acknowledgments, thanks those who subjected his book to “merciless editing.” One dreads to think, therefore (and I mean therefore), what it was like before. And I couldn’t help noticing also that the number of persons thanked for their assistance in its production was probably greater than my entire acquaintance. As the late Paul Hollander pointed out in a very amusing essay, this is the way with modern acknowledgments.
The problems with the book are not merely stylistic. Many times the author’s judgments are evasive or wrong. He is liberal with his abuse of those with whom he does not sympathise. Arthur Koestler, for example, is mentioned briefly, and solely, as a Cold War writer for hire, a grotesque slur on a man who, whatever his faults, was a very considerable writer and whose anti-communism was certainly not a mere meal-ticket. Roger Scruton is called an “oddball philosopher,” presumably because he had the temerity to go against the academic pieties of the time (a time in which, incidentally, the author claims it was difficult to be a left-wing intellectual, though Scruton’s book on the New Left was withdrawn by its mainstream publisher as a result of protests from academics, such that he had to buy up all the copies and sell them himself).
Even more egregious is his characterisation of George Orwell: “His [Said’s] appraisal of the Left was careful to avoid the balancing act of George Orwell and other self-styled ‘socialists’ whose art was to elude middlebrow censure by denouncing leftist gods . . . ” This is worse than preposterous. I have written two essays highly critical of Orwell—in one claiming that his Homage to Catalonia was an apology for totalitarianism, which he so strongly later repudiated—but I would never have claimed that he was the craven figure here depicted.
As for David Hume, he has a walk-on part as “a racist” (and nothing else). This is like writing “Shakespeare, the well-known poacher,” or “Darwin, the well-known hypochondriac.”
All the more striking, then, is the acceptance of Said’s admiration for Sartre as “one of the greatest intellectual heroes of the 20th century,” in part because he was so “open-minded” about “actually existing socialism.” To be open-minded about the deaths of tens of millions of people and the establishment of totalitarian tyrannies does not seem to me a virtue, but on the contrary a terrible vice, all the worse in the context of libelling those such as Koestler who exposed it for what it was. Striking also is the absence, when Paul de Man is mentioned, of any reference to de Man’s vile anti-Semitic articles written in occupied Belgium during the war: if one used the author’s logic, one would have to conclude that he was a Nazi sympathiser (which would, of course, be utterly absurd).
Loose thinking pervades this book—the style is the man himself. For example, Brennan suggests that one of the reasons that Said admired Conrad as an author is that, like Said, Conrad wrote in a “borrowed” language. But the situations of the two men with regard to English were completely different. English was Said’s native tongue; he spoke it at home, all his parents’ letters to him were in English, he was educated entirely in English, and he was always most at ease in it, though he spoke Arabic and French; with Conrad, English was his third or fourth language, not at all native to him. This makes his achievement as one of the greatest prose writers in English all the more remarkable, of course, and the contrast of his prose with Said’s all the more painful. The two men’s relations with English were simply not analogous, and one doesn’t have to be a professor of humanities to realise this.
The author twice quotes, with admiration and without comment, Theodor Adorno’s dictum that all human relationships are now entirely commercial. It is perfectly possible to lament certain aspects of modern commercialism without going in for this gross and even sinister exaggeration. Are my relations with my wife commercial? With my next-door neighbour? With my friends? With my professional colleagues? Is a society conceivable in which all human relations are commercial? Adorno’s dictum is an eructation of disgust more than a thought, astonishing in its crudity of meant literally.
And, of course, his “insight” that America is the continuation of Nazism by other means, is also quoted. There is much wrong with America (as there is with all societies), but it resembles Nazi Germany in the way that a banana resembles a tuna fish. Adorno’s idiocy was all the more reprehensible because he was himself a refugee from Nazi Germany.
Taking the Measure of Said
There is a tiny anecdote that captures the evasiveness of the author (and of Said). A taxi driver in Cairo once asked Said whether he was a Moslem. Said answered, “Alhamdulillah” (praise be to God). Obviously, the taxi driver would take this to mean “Yes,” though of course, it could also mean the opposite. I don’t blame Said in the least for this evasion: who wants to get into an argument with a Cairene taxi driver over religion or the existence of God? I would have answered something similar myself. But where both Said and the author are blameworthy is in not asking themselves why in the circumstances Said could not be straightforward or truthful by saying that he was of Christian origin but was now agnostic or atheist?
Similarly, we read that “as a Christian in the Middle East who, like others, had to navigate inherited colonial arrangements, Said was only too aware of the pitfalls awaiting multiethnic political arrangements based on identitarian allocations of power.” This suggests, without quite saying so, that religious conflicts were inventions of colonial arrangements, but only wilful ignorance or dishonesty could sustain such a view. In 1860, for example, in Lebanon and Syria, there was a war between the Maronites and the Sunni and Druze, with massacres on both sides. The Christian quarter of Damascus was destroyed with a thoroughness reminiscent of the present war, and 12,000 Christians were killed. This had nothing to do with “colonial arrangements.” And I doubt that today’s average Coptic Christian would agree with the author’s statement either.
Brennan has a strange way of dealing with criticisms of Said. He calls the famous article in Commentary, drawing attention to Said’s fabrications about his own past, “malicious”—as if proof of malice were refutation in itself. The article was indeed intended to destroy, or at least severely damage, Said’s reputation: but if the allegations were true, such that he falsely claimed to have fled Jerusalem in 1948, it deserved to be destroyed. And there is no strong denial in the book that Said did sometimes fabricate his history in a very gross fashion, let alone refutation of it.
The author likewise dismisses, very airily, criticisms of the book, Orientalism, for which Said is most famous, and without which a biography would probably not have been commissioned. The criticisms are that the book is muddled, incoherent, inaccurate, and self-contradictory—as well as malicious, of course, but malice is not in itself a refutation of its arguments. The biographer suggests that the criticisms are trivial and beside the point: but if incoherence, inaccuracy, and self-contradiction are not important criticisms, it is difficult to know what important criticisms could be.
I am sure that if I had known Edward Said personally, I should have liked and perhaps admired him. But he did enormous harm with crass statements such as the following: “It is therefore correct that every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.”
Thus speaks the precursor, or if you like the St John the Baptist, of Robin DiAngelo. Said projected his self-hatred onto the whole of the west and its history: the important question is why so many in the west were willing and eager to have it projected on to them and make it their own.
This book does not even ask the question. One of the blurbs on the rear cover of the book calls Said one of the greatest intellects of our time. If so, it reflects more on our time than on Said, just as this book reflects the state of the humanities in our universities.