Years ago, I read a famous essay by Edward Said about Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. I grew up reading Austen, and adoring her, so the essay, a central chapter of Said’s Culture and Imperialism (1993), made a deep impression on me. Said pointed out that in Austen’s novel, the comfort and order of the landed gentry rests on a plantation in Antigua, a place that is key to the story and yet barely mentioned within it.
While the family patriarch, Sir Thomas, is “away tending his colonial garden,” a sugar plantation employing slave labor, his children go astray. What ultimately reestablishes “the domestic tranquility and attractive harmony” of Mansfield Park is the management and productivity of the far-off estate, which allows Sir Thomas to return where he belongs. The importation of wealth from the invisible, subordinate plantation—and the good judgment of the novel’s heroine, the poor, meek and upright Fanny Price—allows Mansfield Park to prosper. An analysis of the “moral geography” of the novel shows how Austen was “more implicated in the rationale for imperialist expansion” than she at first appears.
Yet Said concludes, somewhat surprisingly, that the stain of slavery on Mansfield Park is not a reason to summarily condemn Austen or dismiss her work. “What I have called the rhetoric of blame, so often now employed by subaltern, minority, or disadvantaged voices, attacks her, and others like her, retrospectively, for being white, privileged, insensitive, complicit,” he writes. “Yes, Austen belonged to a slave-owning society, but do we therefore jettison her novels as so many trivial exercises in aesthetic frumpery? Not at all, I would argue, if we take seriously our intellectual and interpretative vocation to make connections, to deal with as much of the evidence as possible, fully and actually, to read what is there or not there.” From our own later perspective, Said writes, we can read both the historical power dynamics embedded in the story and the individual lives that Austen dramatizes so brilliantly. The task, he says, is to see both together.
Said’s essay startled me. Like so many other readers, I had not noticed or thought about the plantation in the story—and that was his point. Said managed to bring this to my attention without cutting me off from a work that I continued to admire for many other reasons. In fact, he showed how noticing this additional detail could enrich my reading of Austen. Seeing more than one thing at once—what Said came to call “contrapuntal” reading—was part of his lifelong effort to put together the past and the present, power and individuals, culture and politics, and to say something original and just about the world we live in.
The effort began long before that essay, in Said’s coming to terms with his own fragmented identity and the various, sometimes opposing elements of his thought. Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935. He grew up in Cairo, where his family belonged to a Protestant Palestinian émigré middle class that lived a privileged yet somewhat marginal existence. They paid frequent visits to Palestine until his extended family was driven into exile after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. (He only returned to visit Palestine, after 45 years, in 1992.) The 1952 Free Officers coup, which overthrew the Egyptian monarch and ended British colonialism in Egypt, spelled the end of the cosmopolitan world of Said’s youth. His parents resettled in Lebanon, where they also had family connections. Yet Said never felt at ease in the “dreary” Lebanese village where his family summered every year, and with time and the eruption of the Lebanese civil war, he grew increasingly aware of how alienated he was from “the political alignments in Lebanon—sectarian, byzantine, and often invisible.” He felt divided between the English of his education, steeped in colonial power, and the Arabic spoken at home, which he made an effort to formally study much later in his life.
In Out of Place, the remarkably honest, delving, spiky memoir he wrote before his death of leukemia in 2003, Said noted, “I have retained this unsettled sense of many identities—mostly in conflict with each other—all of my life, together with an acute memory of the despairing feeling that I wish we could have been all-Arab, or all-European and American, or all–Orthodox Christian, or all-Muslim, or all-Egyptian, and so on.” But he would also turn this weakness into a form of conscious freedom: “I … have always felt the priority of intellectual, rather than national or tribal, consciousness.”
The tensions only grew with his professional accomplishments and acclaim. A professor of literature at Columbia University who was deeply versed in the Western canon, Said founded the field of postcolonial studies but was skeptical of identity politics. An admirer of Joseph Conrad and the seventeenth-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, he exposed the complicity of Western culture and knowledge production with racism and imperialism, but never stopped believing in a humanistic approach to education “centered upon the agency of human individuality and subjective intuition, rather than on received ideas and approved authority.” He could be vehement and at times polemical in intellectual and political debates, but in literature he prized duality and ambiguity, and explored it on the page in a restless, fluid style that has often been compared to music. The story of Said’s life as well as his work is one of him learning to turn the experience of being unsettled into the one place where he could find himself.
Timothy Brennan’s new book, Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said, describes itself as an “intellectual biography” of the Palestinian-American scholar. The book touches on all the main facets of Said’s work: it chronicles early mentors and influences; unearths the drafts of abandoned novels; recounts the genesis of Said’s books in lectures, workshops and unpublished chapters; and maps out his connections in New York’s media world and among Arab intellectuals in Beirut. We learn of Said’s travels, his musical tastes, the notes he received from fellow celebrities.
As someone who’s lived, reported on and studied the Arab region for the last eighteen years, I am the kind of reader who is quite familiar with Said as a public intellectual and has felt the impact of his thought on my own. But there’s much of his scholarship I don’t know; I was hoping this book would help me fill in the gaps, guide me to a sharper understanding of what made him so distinctive and influential, and what to make of his legacy now. And although Brennan’s biography covers the many facets and periods of Said’s life, it doesn’t weave them into a particularly revealing portrait. At the end of nearly four hundred pages, I felt that I had learned both too much and too little about Said, had been inundated with information without acquiring much insight.
In its early chapters, Brennan’s book recounts Said’s unhappy childhood as part of a cultivated, isolated, upper-class family, and his fraught relations with his emotionally repressed, overpowering father and his emotionally manipulative, adored mother. At home and at his various (British- and American-run) schools, Said felt himself to be constantly misunderstood, treated unfairly and found lacking. He had a lifelong pattern of hostility to authority even as he was deeply wounded by criticism and disappointed not to receive recognition. After being sent to a prestigious American boarding school at age sixteen, Said studied at Princeton and Harvard. Having abandoned plans of becoming a doctor or a professional pianist, he took up a post as a professor of literature at Columbia, where he taught for the rest of his life.
There Said wrote Orientalism, the work that would make his reputation when it was published in 1978. The scholarly study, Said acknowledged in his introduction, was also “an attempt to inventory the traces upon me, the Oriental subject, of the culture whose domination has been so powerful a factor in the life of all Orientals.” Said defined Orientalism as much more than the academic study of the Orient by Western scholars, philologists and enthusiastic amateurs (the traditional meaning of the term). He described it as a Western style of thought—found among colonial administrators, scholars in every field from botany to economy and writers and artists in every genre—that defined the Orient as the very antithesis of the West. Orientalism constructed an imaginary—exotic, despotic, depraved—Orient and made it into an object of study and a field over which to exercise authority; this process didn’t only justify colonialism as it took place but created a discourse that laid the ground for it.
Brennan describes Said’s book as “not just a critique of static, essentialized identities but a whole theory of knowledge in the service of power … an indictment of English and French scholarship on the Arab and Islamic worlds.” The book was also an indictment of contemporary scholars such as Bernard Lewis, whom Said accused of peddling anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry. Modern-day Orientalists, Said argued, served U.S. imperial projects and Israeli interests by portraying Arabs and Muslims as irrational, hateful, retrograde extremists whose religion was synonymous with terrorism, and who only understood force.
When it was published, Orientalism faced criticism not only from right-wingers and apologists for colonialism but also from Marxist-Arab friends such as the Syrian intellectual Sadik Al-Azm, who objected to Said’s characterization of Marx’s views, and faulted him for creating his own essentialized view of an unchanging Western attitude to the East, spanning ancient Greek plays to medieval anti-Islamic polemics to nineteenth-century colonialism. There was also criticism from scholars whom Said admired such as Abdallah Laroui, Jacques Berque and Maxime Rodinson, who remarked that Said was “inadequately versed in the practical work of the Orientalists.” Brennan writes, “Even Said’s admirers found Orientalism at times unalert to contradiction, too willing to corral unlike thinkers into the same camp.” Moreover, “overstatements marred his argument,” and at times “he sounded close to denying that any non-Oriental could ever write an account of the Orient without identifying with his or her own country’s foreign policy.”
Brennan covers these objections, but he also repeatedly suggests that Said’s work has been fundamentally misunderstood. “Most failed to notice Said’s genuine ambivalence toward Orientalists,” he writes. “Misunderstandings plagued the book’s reception.” For “the book was not only, or even mainly, about the Orient and its scholars”; it was “a meditation on the degree to which representation is part of reality.”
But for many of us, Orientalism’s influence is tied to that reality more than to any theorizing about representation. Its relevance is grounded in the way its claims about the past reverberate in the present. The backdrop to all the arguments about the book is persistent, pervasive Western interference in the Middle East—including U.S. support for Israel, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, various interventions to prop up or topple Arab dictators, the imposition of sanctions against particular regimes and the massive sale of weapons to others. And the justifications for these policies churned out, as the occasion requires, by pundits, commentators and more or less credible scholars.
By the time I was starting out as a journalist in Cairo in 2003, the premise of Said’s work, whether we had read it or not, was part of the air we breathed. In the circles I traveled in, we aimed to be alert to anti-Muslim and anti-Arab prejudice and mocked reporting that trafficked in offensive clichés. But as the United States prepared to invade Iraq, it could not have been more obvious how low the bar had been set for qualifying as a Middle East “expert,” and how often these experts recycled the stereotypes Said had identified. Said’s old enemy Bernard Lewis was on hand to explain once again the roots of “Muslim rage”; Raphael Patai’s 1973 book The Arab Mind, which argued that Arabs are obsessed with sex and have no work ethic, was a touchstone for the neocons of the Bush administration.
As the Lebanese novelist Dominique Eddé put it, Said’s argument had “the great merit of providing an overview—at the level of thought and imagination—revealing the extent to which the racism of the past was still present.” In her 2017 book Edward Said: His Thought as a Novel, Eddé paints her own intimate, incisive portrait of Said and their decades-long relationship. She acknowledges the tendency toward overstatement in Orientalism, but she argues that the book’s lack of subtlety is the key to the power of its arguments. To say that the book raised more questions than it gave answers is a compliment, she writes. “Orientalism is a book that lends itself to critiques—I would go so far as to say that critique is crucial to the vitality of its content, to its survival. Its ambition was too great to be fully satisfied, and its subject too complex to permit a definitive thesis.”
Brennan mentions Eddé and her book only to quickly dismiss her account as self-interested and partial. Yet Eddé’s book explores Said’s character with an assurance, empathy and imagination that Brennan’s lacks; it insists on the importance of emotion, ego and personal history to Said’s thought and indeed to all intellectual debate. As someone with a similar in-between identity as Said, (the Francophone, Lebanese) Eddé has firsthand knowledge of the difficult binds Said sometimes found himself in. She faults him gently for focusing almost exclusively on foreign domination over indigenous factors that have also contributed to the Arab world’s predicament, its “period of stagnation in the twentieth century, with a collective loss of creativity and a terrible permeability to Islamist illusions.” But Eddé also understands why those illusions were not Said’s focus. As a Western-educated Christian Arab who had a privileged upbringing under a colonial regime, Said thought he had a moral obligation to denounce Western imperialism when the chance arose. His work was “a way of repaying those debts, with remarkable consistency and precision, and ultimately shedding them, or at least owing less.”
Said repaid his debts most consistently in his advocacy on behalf of the Palestinian people and their right to dignity and self-determination. As a U.S. citizen, a humanist scholar and an articulate, educated figure ensconced within a Western seat of learning, Said was particularly well-placed to refute stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims being violent, intolerant or undeveloped. After the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, in which Israel gained control of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights, Said also became engaged with political advocacy on behalf of the Palestinian cause, alongside his friend Ibrahim Abu-Lughod.
One should not underestimate the toll and risk of speaking out as frequently and consistently as Said did, especially when challenging the widespread support in the United States for Israel. Said was that rarity, a Palestinian who was listened to in the West. (Brennan credits him with singlehandedly changing the editorial vision of the London Review of Books on the subject of Israel-Palestine). His influence in shifting the terms of the debate can be partly gauged by the aggressiveness with which he was targeted over the years. When Said spoke out against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, he received volumes of hate mail; his office was firebombed a few years later. The FBI compiled a 238-page file on him. Brennan mentions that the only office besides Said’s that “had bulletproof windows and a buzzer that would send a signal directly to campus security” was that of Columbia’s president.
Said was smeared as being either not Palestinian enough (because he grew up in Cairo) or too Palestinian by far. In 2000, on a visit to southern Lebanon, where the Israelis had just withdrawn after an eighteen-year occupation, Said joined others in a crowd in throwing a stone at the Israeli border fence. A photograph of this symbolic gesture of solidarity—celebrated in the Arab world—was seized upon in the West as evidence that Said supported terrorism, and a media fracas ensued in Israel and the United States. Said was called, not for the first time, the “Professor of Terror.”
Far from being an apologist for terrorism, Said was always sincerely opposed to political violence. He denounced anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, which often seeped into Arab criticism of Zionism, and was always direct in his criticism of Arab autocrats and the Palestinian leadership. In fact, in his advocacy for Palestine, Said displayed the same independence and wariness of dogmas as he did in his academic career. He remained steadfast in his principles, but pursued them in his own flexible, singular way.
Once close to Yasser Arafat and himself an independent member of the Palestine National Council, Said fell out with Arafat over the Oslo Accords, which he rightly lambasted as a disastrous concession that would doom any chance of an independent Palestinian state, given Israel’s military and territorial control and the ongoing construction of settlements. (Said compared the PLO to Vichy, and Arafat tried to have his books banned in the West Bank and Gaza.) In 1993, the year when the first of the two Oslo Accords was signed, Said met the Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim, and struck up an intense friendship. They founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a project that brings musicians from Palestine, Israel and other countries together and that is based on “the conviction that there is no military solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and that the destinies of Israelis and Palestinians are inextricably linked.” (The collaboration created tensions within Said’s family, which largely supported a movement to boycott Israel.) Said also began to advocate for a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, arguing that the two-state solution had become unattainable.
As he did in his relationship to the Palestinian struggle, Said carved out his own complex “in-between” position in the burgeoning academic canon wars of his time, and in the discussions about postcolonial studies. Brennan tells us that Said was one of the early adopters and popularizers of French structuralist and poststructuralist theory before becoming disenchanted with it and its use in the American university, and circling back to a more traditional humanist view that emphasized the importance of interpretation and of acknowledging human agency within various networks of power.
Said’s essay “Traveling Theory” explains his misgivings about Foucault, once a source of inspiration. A definition of power that says “Power is everywhere” can erase “the role of classes, the role of economics, the role of insurgency and rebellion,” he writes. Intellectuals have a responsibility to identify and to differentiate between different forms of power, to acknowledge agency and struggle and to envisage, even to work for, change: “If power oppresses and controls and manipulates, then everything that resists it is not morally equal to power, is not neutrally and simply a weapon against that power.” Otherwise, “a once insurgent theory” such as Foucault’s can become little more than “cultural dogma,” appropriated by schools and institutions and acquiring “the status of authority within the cultural group, guild, or affiliative family.” It becomes a way for scholars “to justify political quietism with sophisticated intellectualism.”
Brennan also notes Said’s complicated view of postcolonial studies and identity politics. He tells us that although Said supported greater diversity in academia and incorporating more non-Western writers in the curriculum, he abhorred “fixations on personal ‘identity,’ which was rapidly becoming the field’s reason for being as nonwhite students and professors fought their way into formerly closed positions of authority. He had led the way, creating a movement larger than himself but one that was now outside his control and inspired by a body of thought he was busy rejecting.”
Brennan describes the new young scholars from formerly colonized countries who were “often from well-to-do families with political connections,” and had “migrated to the metropolitan university in part because of the openings Said had created.”
But once there, and feeling their newfound power, they subscribed to a “big bang” theory that no resistance to colonialism had existed before them. The idea seemed to be that one had to be a member of an oppressed racial, ethnic or national group in order to resist imperial injustices, and an equation was drawn (one Said had always opposed) between what one knows and what one is.
This remark raises the question of Said’s legacy within the contemporary university but merits further elaboration. Brennan briefly references the work of the scholar Aijaz Ahmad, who saw Orientalism as providing postcolonial elites entering Western academe with narratives of oppression that were professionally advantageous, but does not explain Said’s reaction to such critiques.
I find Said’s own stance on the relationship between identity and knowledge more ambiguous than Brennan allows—as Said’s hesitancy to express his reservations publicly suggests (Brennan writes that “the intensity of his dismay was, as usual, much clearer off the record”). I would say that while Said believed that representation—in both senses—mattered, he was too interested in originality, in breaking down boundaries, to accept rigid categorizations in theory or in life.
A sad fact of Said’s career is that, despite his unstinting work and global profile, the causes in which he believed have advanced little. The prospect of a Palestinian state has, as Said predicted, disappeared, and the conditions under which Palestinians live are more inhumane than ever. As I finished writing this piece, legal proceedings that would displace more Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem and hand those homes over to settler groups had precipitated protests by Palestinians, which were violently repressed. Hamas fired rockets into Israel from the blockaded Gaza Strip and Israel bombed hospitals, schools, mosques, apartment buildings and the headquarters of news agencies there, killing at least 232 people, including 66 children.
In part because of Said’s work (he wrote a whole book about tendentious media coverage of Islam), I would argue that Western reporting on the region has improved; it’s much more likely today for that reporting to be carried out by journalists of Arab backgrounds or who have at least studied Arabic. In some quarters of U.S. media and culture, there is greater awareness of prejudice against Arabs and Muslims and more nuanced portrayals, such as the TV show Rami, or the Palestinian short film The Present. Yet the most simplistic and negative depictions of Muslims also persist unabated; after twenty years reporting on the region, I still see the same old tropes popping up periodically, with alarming ease. As a journalist, I’ve tried to learn from Said to resist those tropes as much as I can (I don’t claim to always be successful) and to try to write from an in-between position that does not assume the superiority of my Western audience over my Eastern surroundings. Yet whatever progress may be taking place at the level of cultural representation, little has been achieved on the level of actual power relations or U.S. foreign policy, as Trump’s “Muslim Ban” and Biden’s unwillingness to criticize the Israeli bombing of Gaza attest.
Meanwhile, as Orientalism has become a touchstone within the academic study of the Middle East, the wide popularity and sometimes indiscriminate use of the concept threatens to turn it into a rote accusation. In the worst cases, it is used in ways that are reductive and dismissive rather than revealing. In my own writing, I invoke it very sparingly, often finding it more useful to describe how something is Orientalist than to state that it is. That’s not to say that the historical impact of colonialism and imperialism, the hypocrisy and prejudice of Western foreign policy, shouldn’t be emphasized, especially as it continues unabated, backed by so much bad faith and amnesia. The challenge is to break out of a simple cycle of denunciation and denial, and of the confines of a discourse analysis that, accurate as it may be, doesn’t offer much new.
Said himself always wanted to say something new. His vision of the intellectual, based on his unique profile, seems even more of a rarity today. He was unapologetically erudite but politically engaged; eager to have an impact on public discourse; someone who didn’t fit in, took risks, roamed freely between disciplinary fields and theoretical frameworks, and didn’t so much discard tradition as assimilate and reinterpret it. Whether he was writing about Jane Austen novels or about the possibility of Palestinian self-determination, Said implored his readers to “make connections, to deal with as much of the evidence as possible.”
He may not have always been able to reconcile all the elements of his life and thought; to always maintain the balances and support the connections he reached for; to resolve the contradictions and gaps his work encompassed (his late writing focused on the concept of “irreconcilability”). Yet at its best, his writing was capacious, surprising, subtle, cultivating a critical consciousness that he described as “an unstoppable predilection for alternatives.”
Photo credit: Alex Majoli / Magnum Photos. West Bank, Ramallah. Posters of Edward Said plastered all over town, 2003.