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28 April 2021

The contradictions of Edward Said

Why the intellectually restless author of Orientalism was an icon to the left, and an irritant to everyone else.  

By Thomas Meaney

I wanted to be the next Edward Said!” declares Farouq, a character in Teju Cole’s 2011 novel, Open City. Farouq is a former graduate student from Morocco who works at an internet café in Brussels, where Cole’s narrator, Julius, meets him. Julius admires Farouq’s fluency in literary theory, which rustles into life when Farouq speaks. He is a little attracted, and a little repulsed, by Farouq’s political passion.

In the late 20th century, Said was one of the most globally recognised intellectuals of the left. For the Farouqs of the world, he was their man on the inside of the Western academy. In the 1980s and 1990s, when the Said phenomenon was just lifting off, one imagines the combined forces of the American-Israeli right must have savoured the fact that their most prominent foe was an effete Anglican Arab and Joseph Conrad specialist, ailing from leukaemia, who would rather be playing piano.

But Said presented unrelenting opposition. It only sweetened the irony that he did so by pushing the phenomenon of “discourse” – which his opponents thought was nonsense – in his own direction. “He enjoys the glamour of diasporism and the rectitude of nationalism,” lamented Leon Wieseltier, a former student. The trouble for Said’s ­antagonists was not merely that he made defending the Palestinian cause respectable, but also elegant.

For most of his life, the response of Western liberals was something like that of Cole’s narrator: a little attracted, a little repulsed. Matters were only complicated by the sense that there appeared to be at least three Edward Saids to choose from: the assiduous importer of French theory into Anglo literary criticism; the cold-eyed analyst of politics in the Middle East; and the Burberry-clad scholar of the Western canon, who could barely tolerate his own adherents.

Timothy Brennan is a former student of Said, but not an overly reverent one. When the idea of a biography was dreamed up by Said’s literary agent Andrew Wylie, with parameters set by Said’s widow, there were worries that the resulting book would be a sanitised account. Fortunately, Places of Mind turns out to be a remarkably unhindered and often incisive intellectual portrait of its subject. The book’s strength is also its limitation: it primarily views Said from an American perspective. There will be the standard objections that Brennan doesn’t plunge us into Said’s erotic world – most of the later affairs are skirted over. But the drama of his mind is given a good airing. Brennan concentrates on what Said most cared about in his work: a wise decision, since those are the reasons we still read him.

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In Places of Mind, Said emerges as an intensely restless figure; a rushed, even sloppy stylist, capable of preening vanity, pettiness, even intellectual facileness. But, as Brennan shows, much of this was compensated for by altogether rarer qualities: political courage and stamina (Said’s FBI file ran to 238 pages), unflinchingness about power, quick humour, an autonomous aesthetic dimension, playful curiosity, and an ability to see and make connections about larger patterns of thought that left most of his ­specialist colleagues in the dust.

From the beginning, Said was an elite on the margins. He was born in Jerusalem in 1935, in what was still part of the British Mandate of Palestine. Shortly before the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, his family moved to Cairo, where Said was groomed by the Arab Christian bourgeoisie of the period: pian0 lessons, Kipling, ­Shakespeare, Latin, French, Hollywood movies, Anglican hymns. There were whispers about massacres in their homeland, but the family was not political.

Unusually among the Arab schoolboys attending Victoria College, “the Eton of the Middle East”, Said was a natural-born American (Said’s father had served in the First World War and thereby received US citizenship). After Said was expelled for bad behaviour, in order to keep his American citizenship, and put some distance between him and his doting mother, Said’s father sent his son to boarding school in Massachusetts. In his memoir, Out of Place, Said recorded the experience as a vale of loneliness, and would lick his wounds for decades after not being chosen to speak at graduation, despite ranking at the top of his class.

As Brennan shows, however, Said appears to have fitted in more than his memoir ­suggests, and even more snugly as an ­undergraduate at Princeton, then at the high tide of chinos and tweed, where Said satisfied his passions for literature and music.

It has been a commonplace to believe that Said was radicalised by the Six Day War in 1967. In fact, as Brennan stresses, this transpired earlier, with the Suez Crisis (an episode that would radicalise many members of the British New Left). Said’s first political article, which appeared in the Daily Princetonian, was a defence of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s fight for national survival. In some sense, Said’s ­political isolation in the America of the tranquillised 1950s was due to a cultural time-lag that he had experienced by growing up in the decolonising world.

In the postwar years, the Said family had imbibed the American Popular Front culture of the 1930s. The musician-activist Paul Robeson represented the America Said knew as a child, but not the one he found when he got there. The young Said’s support of Nasser – he would later become more critical of Arab nationalism – also marked a declaration of independence of sorts from his father. Factions of the same anti-colonial uprising that Said supported vandalised his father’s stationery business in Cairo, a fact that, even in later years, Said could not quite bring himself to acknowledge.

If the political radicalism was present, the young Said’s interests were still mostly elsewhere. The glimpse we get of his undergraduate life is of a joy-seeker, cruising around in an Alfa Romeo, searching for women, saturating himself in music and literature. In one telling scene, Said speed-reads an advance copy of Doctor Zhivago in front of his college roommate over the course of five hours. “There, done,” he says.

After he graduated, Said returned to Cairo, “basically to play piano”, he later recalled. At the feet of the Polish virtuoso Ignace Tiegerman, Said became a concert-ready player. But his confidence in pursuing the life of an artist was hobbled by uncertainty over where his talents lay. Said would briefly turn to ­fiction, but was stopped in his tracks after the rejection of a short story by the New Yorker in 1965.

In Minima Moralia (1951), Theodor Adorno described how a scholar of independent means entering a professional setting often has to apply himself harder in order to keep imputations of dilettantism at bay. So it was for Said. In later years, he would make it seem like his dissertation topic – Joseph Conrad – was daring, when in fact the subject was, if anything, a safe choice, though one that opened on to his future themes: dislocation, the elusive self, ­questions of power and representation.


In 1963, Said was hired by Columbia University in New York, where he would remain for the rest of his life. Columbia had created a kind of halfway house in the college for footloose artists and intellectuals; Said’s colleagues included professors such as Lionel Trilling, but also poets like Kenneth Koch. As a young professor, Said appeared to be set to become a New York intellectual in the mould of Edmund Wilson and FW Dupee. Yet any complete metamorphosis was compromised by his relative openness to French theory.

In 1968, Said wrote most of Beginnings, hard on the heels of Frank Kermode’s A Sense of an Ending (1967), for which it formed a kind of companion. Whereas Kermode had argued that visions of apocalypse and transition were an inevitable form of sense-making about the present, Said argued that there was likewise a kind of discernible intention in beginnings – new nations, new interpretations, new artworks – that contemporary theory, which questioned the very idea of “origins”, was turning away from.

The Said of the 1960s presents some unflattering aspects. He would remember himself on the side of the students during the anti-Vietnam protests that swept the Columbia campus in those years – which he was – but Brennan gently corrects the record. When one of his lectures was interrupted, Said would recall that his own students came to his defence and convinced the intruders that he was “on the right side”, though in fact Said appears to have hurried from the room to call campus security.

Said also instinctively disliked Martin Luther King, Jr, who he took to be “a tremendous Zionist”. The eruption of the 1967 war forced Said’s reckoning with the academy and with the milieu of the New York intellectuals in which he had been embraced as a junior member. He began making regular trips to visit his mother, then living in Beirut, and the war coaxed him into making contacts in the ­Palestinian underground.

[see also: Philip Roth and the repellent]

By the late 1970s, he was close to the Palestinian leadership, informally representing it in meetings with the US State Department, buffing up Yasser Arafat’s speeches, and translating the 1988 Palestinian Declaration of Independence, authored by the poet Mahmoud Darwish. One of the major revelations of Brennan’s biography is the extent to which Said was influenced by the Arab Christian liberal humanist Charles ­Malik, a drafter of the 1948 UN Human Rights Declaration and a friend of the Said family, who, Brennan shows, effectively planted the idea for Said’s Orientalism. “How much good and how much harm has Orientalism done?” Malik asked in the pages of Foreign Affairs in 1952. A quarter of a century later, Said would make his reply.


Orientalism is now an infamy inseparable from Said’s name. The book, published in 1978, was itself a bridge in his life. For the first extended time, he joined his political commitment with his literary and scholarly interests. As an artefact of the era, Said’s contribution can scarcely be gainsaid. He foresaw, by a decade or more, the ideological overdrive that the US policy elite was heading into in the Middle East, where a bogeyman replacement for Soviet communism was being auditioned.

The thrust of the book was aimed at the scholarly handmaidens and facilitators of Western arrogance and hubris. But while its political import was salutary, it is difficult to deny that, intellectually speaking, Orientalism suffers from incoherence.

As the sociologist Vivek Chibber recently argued, Said makes two contradictory arguments in the book. The first is that ­Orientalism is the ideological reflection of European imperialism, which was rooted in the logic of empire. But alongside this, Said argued that Orientalism had its origins in the very structure of the Western mind, which required an Eastern “other” to operate. In this part of the book, it was the discourse of Orientalism that made ­imperialism possible, not the other way around. The Arab Marxist Sadiq Jalal al-Azm seized on this inconsistency at the time, and wrote a vigorous counter-argument. Said never publicly responded.

As a publishing phenomenon, Orientalism vaulted Said to international renown. It also clarified the new political fault lines of the New York intelligentsia. The local liberal establishment – not to mention neoconservatives – closed ranks around it. The 1967 war had had an unmistakable effect: it replaced the question of socialism in ­political and intellectual journals with the question of Israel. Magazines that had debated where to draw the line on welfarism or the Soviet Union in preceding decades now had one all-important “question” before them.

The unreconstructed Orientalist Bernard Lewis savaged Orientalism in the New York Review of Books, while the New Republic transformed itself into the anti-Edward-Said weekly. Meanwhile, the uncritical ­reception of pro-Israeli tracts went on apace in the liberal ecosystem. In 1983, the New York Times respectfully reviewed Benjamin Netanyahu’s rabid collection Terrorism: How the West Can Win. When Said debated the then ambassador Netanyahu on TV, the ­latter refused to appear in the same room as Said, because, he claimed, he was afraid that the Columbia English professor might try to kill him.

In the years leading up to the war on terror, Said published countless articles on how the construction of the “terrorist” was becoming the sole prism for Western understandings about Islam. It was a development all the more unnecessary considering the efflorescence of Western scholarship on Islam in the postwar decades. But according to the whims of the Western media in the 1980s and 1990s, millions of ordinary Muslims in Indonesia, Pakistan, the Middle East, Europe and beyond had to be fitted into the stereotype of the Muslim terrorist.

Brennan is alive to the irony of Said’s position in the last two decades of his life, when he presided over the rise of post-colonial theory that he wanted little to do with. Said never quite reflected on his own role in licensing the kind of identitarian pleading that he himself would later deplore (“I don’t do victimhood,” he once remarked).

Nevertheless, one of the most remarkable features of Said’s post-Orientalism trajectory was how far he moved away from much of the theory that had underpinned it. His 1983 book The World, the Text, and the ­Critic was an elaborate adieu to Foucault and company. In Freud and the Non-European, one of his last books, he distanced himself from his more wayward followers. “I have often been interpreted as retrospectively attacking great writers and thinkers like Jane Austen and Karl Marx because some of their ideas seem politically incorrect by the standards of our time,” he wrote. “That is a stupid notion…”


While Said had every material and reputational incentive not to redouble his interest in Western Marxism, that is what he did. Brennan has well excavated this latter desire of Said’s “to be seen as a sober materialist”. My own suspicion is that, as Said’s involvement in the brute realities of Palestinian politics increased, so his taste for Foucauldian theories of power, as they were conventionally understood at the time, waned. György Lukács superseded Georges Poulet, Gramsci superseded Foucault, while Raymond Williams became Said’s honoured elder.

In the 1980s, Said started appearing in the pages of the New Left Review and the London Review of Books, where he found congenial homes for his political diagnoses and literary criticism. He also renewed his internationalism in a more expansive register, fusing the Palestinian cause along a common front: the Kurds, South Africans, African Americans. In some sense, Said’s position on nationalism was classically Leninist: beware of large-nation chauvinism; support the self-determination of oppressed peoples; as soon as the oppressed become the oppressors, oppose them.

The 1993 Oslo Accords marked the last major political line in the sand for Said. It did not require much ­textual training to see that the accords were a disaster for the Palestinians. A diplomatic masquerade, billed as a first step towards a “two-state” solution, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank would more than triple in the two decades after the accords were signed. Alongside Israeli strategy, Said did not hesitate to expose the depredations and corruption of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation leadership. Arafat had signed up to become Israel’s own enforcer. In books such as The End of the Peace Process, Said was at his most forensic: he became an expert on the facts of the ground, and used alternative forms such as the film documentary to capture them.

His very existence needled both the Israeli and Palestinian establishments, while his scholarship and politics continued to join fruitfully, as in late great essays such as “On Lost Causes”, which meandered from Jude the Obscure to Arafat the Unready. A lost cause was only a lost cause until its adherents decided it was, he believed, though denying the power of the opposition only set the cause back. Perhaps it was with this longer historical view in mind that he threw his cards in for the one-state solution.

In Said’s vision, a binational state where both Palestinians and Israelis would both have their own right to return, but also be protected by minority rights, was the only plausible, humane future. Both peoples could pursue their communal identities within the same state, in the manner of Swiss cantons. The idea has a Jewish pedigree that stretches from Judah Magnes and Hannah Arendt to the contemporary German-Israeli philosopher Omri Boehm. It is all too easy to dismiss Said’s old proposal as hopelessly unrealistic. With its vision of Palestinian and Israeli identities remaining fixed long into the future, it could ­conversely be deemed not utopian enough.

Today, the binational solution has never been further from the minds of the opposed parties. The Western media went into an uproar when Putin annexed the Crimea in 2014. There was barely a ­murmur of protest in 2020 when Netanyahu declared the same intentions for large parts of the West Bank. Such double standards would not have surprised Said. Visitors to his apartment in Manhattan noted that along with his well-stocked shelves and formidable collection of classical music records, the Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities kept a map with the current positions of the ­Israeli Defense Forces.

Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said
Timothy Brennan
Bloomsbury, 464pp, £25

Thomas Meaney teaches at Humboldt University in Berlin

[see also: Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem: a powerful reckoning with violence]

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This article appears in the 28 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new battle of ideas