Lately Said.

My favourite new book this year was Manan Ahmed’s Where the Wild Frontiers Are. A review of the book and another (infinitely worse) book is part of the Sunday Guardian’s cover package today. It was what initiated all the suicidal gloom I inflicted you with last week, and why I began reading Said below. Writing this review was very glee makin’, which has been relatively rare this year, and if it weren’t terribly rude I’d crosspost in a jiffy.

We shall have to settle for essay(s) on Said instead, both published in early November. I compare Manan to him in my review (v. grandiloquent, agreed, I hope he forgives me) and it might be amusing to read them together? ‘Tis a good excuse to put it up, anyway, and an updating bogey needs little else.

The Late Edward Said

November offers caramels of granite.


Like world history

Laughing at the wrong place.

Tomas Tranströrmer, November in the Former DDR

 “November is a mournful month in the history of Palestine” begins Edward Said’s obituary for the venerable Isaiah Berlin.   November, he continues, frames the Palestinian tragedy.  The Balfour Declaration began the British policy of “demographic transformation” within mandate Palestine on November 2, 1917. The U.N. partitioned Palestine in November 1947; the Yom Kippur war ruined Palestine forever by November 1973.  In less than sixty years, four million people became refugees, both at home and in exile.  Edward Said, emblem of this diaspora, was born in Jerusalem eighteen years after Balfour began eroding his country.

 Edward Said’s life was devoted to dispelling cobwebs. He was destined to be a stranger in many strange lands, growing up a Christian in Cairo and dying an Arab in America. This eclectic heritage fashioned a thinker willing to probe every truth, and skepticism was the cornerstone of his advice to aspiring intellectuals.  Be alert, he warns descendants, to the threat of seizure.  Never allow your conscience to be subsumed in service to illusions.  He elaborates upon this duty in Representations of the Intellectual:

“That this involves a steady realism, an almost athletic rational energy, and a complicated struggle to balance the problems of one’s own selfhood against the demands of publishing and speaking out in the public sphere is what makes it an everlasting effort, constitutively unfinished and necessarily imperfect.”

We are a wound, Said is saying, a wound that fights.

 Said investigates the cleavages language inflicts upon reality; the perpetual battle over meaning in a postmodern cosmos. He explores, across the body of his work, the osmosis through which ideology infects language and language affects knowledge. All along his sprawl, he contemplates exile. “Exile is life led outside habitual order”  he observes “no sooner does one get accustomed to it than its unsettling force erupts anew.”

To be uprooted, for Said, is to be trapped a contrapuntal calendar that is forever oscillating against history.  His writing is a process of negotiation with this fate, and the notion of distance –  between a critic and his text, a writer and his world, a maestro and his music –  is central to his thinking.

Another of Said’s contributions to thought is ‘secular interpretation’. This is an idea that writers like Judith Butler and Talal Asad have since evolved. Said’s version (it grows more complex in later iterations) intends to construct an intersecting culture; a civilisation which, in effect, chooses from all the world’s thinking whilst discarding those elements that can be divisive or demeaning. Said’s understanding of nationalism is an excellent example of this ethos.

The dense fabric of secular life”,  he notes in one interview, “can’t be herded under the rubric of national identity or can’t be made entirely to respond to this phoney idea of a paranoid frontier separating ‘us’ from ‘them’… The politics of secular interpretation proposes a way of dealing with that problem, a way of avoiding pitfalls, by discriminating between the different “Easts” and “Wests”, how differently they are made, maintained, and so on” 

 Individual books develop these impulses into distinctive trajectories.  The iconic Orientalism (1978) introduced the “Other” into our cultural lexicon and made him a legend in ivory towers everywhere. He builds upon this theme in Culture & Imperialism (1993). Within these books, Said terraforms comparative literature by highlighting the exclusion embedded within European perceptions about the rest of the globe.  It’s not as much about denunciation, he argues, as about dismissal. Colonial writing doesn’t disagree with native experience,  it undermines and ignores it.  His first Palestine trilogy,  beginning with The Question of Palestine (1979),  grounds the abstract reasoning of this criticism in concrete experience and historical fact.  Another book echoes Said’s poet-compatriot Mahmoud Darwish in its demand: where should birds fly after the last sky?

Said calls his escape from epistemologies that debase their subjects a ‘politics of abduction’, suggesting that such politics demands a bold imagination eager to extrapolate without filters. ‘Tis only when you notice everyone that you can include them in the future.

Richard Teschner

Covering Islam (1981) is the bridge between Said’s early books and Culture & Imperialism. The slim book was written during the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution and published one year before the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon’s Sabra and Shatila camps.  It combines an analysis of news coverage about contemporary Islam with the insights of Orientalism and the historical sensibility of The Question of Palestine.  

With all these pundits bemoaning barbaric Muslims again,  Said wonders, does the onslaught of liberal sanctimony signify renewed imperial interest in the region?  The years would prove his nightmare to be true, and by the first Gulf war he was critiquing American foreign policy and Arafat equally. The Politics of the Dispossession (1994) collects political essays written between “Black September” (the expulsion of the PLO from Jordan in 1970) and the Oslo Peace Accords. Israel consistently infringes upon human rights, Said insists within its pages, meanwhile the PLO collapses morally and politically.  Together, the two books exemplify Said’s mature writing, his ‘exfoliation from a beginning’.

Covering Islam and Dispossession were directed at the West and written from the perspective of an ambassador from countries lost to modernity.  Despite his unflagging effort on behalf of the Palestinian cause, Said was neither effusive nor romantic about his nation’s prospects. There isn’t a harsher critic to be found of the post-Oslo Palestinian Authority.  He was staunchly opposed to the fantasy of reclaiming Palestine with violence, and was amongst the earliest proponents of a dialogue with Israel to restore the 1967 borders.  His pragmatism, while wise, rendered him unpopular, and he remained marginal within the liberation movement. The early Palestine books hadn’t even been translated into Arabic when Dispossession was published.

 After Dispossession,  Said’s focus shifts radically. Witness to the deepening shadow of neoliberal America over the Arab world, he cultivates the nearly impossible contortions expected from an exiled exile. He revisits Palestine to write a childhood memoir (Out of Place, 2000) and starts writing for Arab newspapers. He borrows faith from Faiz, believing that cages will dissolve when imprisoned men open their eyes.  His work in this period is more reportage than commentary, stacking maps upon fact upon death tolls in an excruciating tapestry of suffering. He manages to locate hope amidst the wreckage: the courageous activists on both sides of the evanescent border, the Al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000, the ingenuity of a nation inured to deprivation. These columns culminated in his second Palestine trilogy: Peace & Its Discontents (1995),  The End of the Peace Process (2000), From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map (2004).

 The key to reading Said is following in his footsteps: construct a chronology, track trajectories of thought, torment yourself with text until you locate context.  In his criticism, Said is the consummate professor, detached and authoritative. The conceptual analysis is incisive, his normative thrust provocative and precise. The arguments are eloquent, the sentences elegant, the conclusions evident.   In his books about Palestine, especially in the early essays of The Politics of Dispossession, he is more liable to prickly defensiveness, qualifying each insight and eternally in transition between the personal and political.

Mark Harmon

If Edward Said was the epitome of the “rootless cosmopolitan” as the historian Tony Judt  styled him, it was not for lack of love for his homeland.  It was fate, not destiny, that made him the spokesperson for a neglected nation, while his decision to wield his voice like a weapon is the bravest choice anyone in the business of ideas can make. By his final Palestine book- 2004‘s From Oslo to Iraq – Said is splendidly suave again, if bitterly (and justly) angry.

In the history of art late works are catastrophes” Edward Said notes in his virtuoso finale On Late Style.  This book contains his finest literary performance,  linking poetry to drama to music to an abiding love for the philosopher Adorno:

Late style is what happens if art doesn’t abdicate its rights in favour of reality…it is the predicament of ending without illusory hope or manufactured resignation.. For Adorno, lateness includes the idea of surviving beyond what is acceptable and normal.. Fully conscious, full of memory, and also very (even preternaturally) aware of the present… [lateness is life as] an ageing, disobliging, and even embarrassingly frank former colleague who, even though he has left one’s circle, persists in making things hard for everyone. 


 This essay combines  “Remembering Edward Said”, published in TSGand bits of “Come November”, a Hebdomad post. Today’s tumblr stuff is also manan-shaped — a collection of links to his blog, Chapati Mystery + infatuated blather+ Darwish poem.

Leave a Reply