Said expressed the true tragedy of the postcolonial intellectualby David Herman / November 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
In death, as in life, Edward Said polarised opinion. Indeed, it is hard to think of any other major intellectual of the last 30 years who has so divided people. At least Noam Chomsky’s critics acknowledge the importance of his work in linguistics. With Said, there is little about his life or work that people agree on.
The recent obituaries tell the tale. To his admirers, mostly from the third world or the academic left, he was “a great scholar, a brilliant mind, … an uncompromising fighter on behalf of human dignity” (Hanan Ashrawi). The Independent called him “one of the greatest intellectuals and public activists of our time.” “No critic,” wrote Jacqueline Rose in the Observer, “has had such a profound influence on how we think and teach today.” Moustafa Bayoumi, writing in the Village Voice, called Said “possibly the greatest intellectual of the last 50 years.”
His critics, especially on the right, disagreed. The Wall Street Journal accused him of having “practically invented the intellectual argument for Muslim rage.” The Daily Telegraph called Said’s account of his early life “selective and highly misleading.” Even his longtime friend Christopher Hitchens followed an outspoken attack on Said’s best-known work Orientalism in September’s Atlantic Monthly with a tribute in the Guardian which questioned Said’s political judgement and wrote of his “tendency to self-pity.”
Of course, left and right often divide over a politically partisan scholar. But Said’s obituaries are more deeply split – the admiring pieces are the worst hagiography, while the negative ones are reluctant to find any achievements in his work. Only Hitchens, who broke with Said over the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, mixes criticism and praise.
What was it about Said that made him such a controversial figure? There are two sets of reasons. The first are to do with what Said symbolised, the second with the work itself.
Said’s career coincided with three great shifts in our intellectual culture: academic, political and media-inspired. First, there were the dramatic changes in the humanities in the 1970s and 1980s: the theory revolution, the rise of the academic left and the heyday of postcolonialist theory. Said was in the vanguard of all of them.
Said was a central figure in the rise of literary theory. His early critical essays are peppered with references to Barthes and L?vi-Strauss, Saussure and Jakobson. In the early 1970s he wrote his first essays on Foucault. His first major book, Beginnings (1975), established him as one of the leading literary theorists in America. It was a spectacular calling card: he seemed to have read everything, especially the canonical names of the theory revolution: Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, Saussure and the French structuralists and poststructuralists. He was already immersed in the ideas that would dominate literary criticism for the next decade, and which were key to his breakthrough 1978 book, Orientalism.
As the universities became the last bastion of Marxism and the new left, Said was ahead of the game. When I studied with him at Columbia in the early 1980s, he was teaching classes on Gramsci, Lukacs and Raymond Williams. He had read the entire western Marxist canon and could reel off quotes at will. But by the mid-1980s, Said had moved on. He was looking for a language which could speak to both his theoretical interests and his personal experiences as a Palestinian. Long before most other critics in America, he had discovered a new set of thinkers who had written about colonialism, race and identity – CLR James, Tagore, Fanon – and he put their insights together with the work of a later generation of postcolonial writers and theorists, including Henry Louis Gates, the Subaltern studies group, Rushdie and M?rquez, Achebe and Mahfouz.
For 30 years, wherever the intellectual fashions and energies went, Said was already there. He wasn’t there because it was fashionable. He was there because he was on a quest to find ideas that would speak to his experience. When he felt that these ideas no longer delivered, he moved on. Foucault was too pessimistic, Williams too Anglocentric, and so on. By the end of his life he had come to the artists who spoke to his experience of illness and imminent death. His last great essay was on late Beethoven.
The academic context was important to Said’s reputation. Even more crucial, however, was the political context. Said’s career coincided with the growing conflict between America and the middle east. A year after Said published his first book, on Conrad, came the six day war. Orientalism was published in 1978, the year before the overthrow of the Shah, two years before the Iran-Iraq war. Culture and Imperialism, Said’s last major work, came out in 1993, two years after the Gulf war.
Born in Jerusalem to Palestinian and Lebanese Christian parents, brought up in Cairo, fluent in Arabic, Said became the best-known Palestinian intellectual as Islam, Israel and the middle east emerged as the great geopolitical issues of our time. From 1914 to the death of Stalin, Germany and Russia were the central issues for the west. Between the Korean and Vietnamese wars, Asia dominated debate, at least in America. From 1967, and especially after the late 1970s, there was a shift: from the Soviet Union and Asia to Islam and the middle east. In 1971 Said wrote his first piece for Le Monde Diplomatique, in 1973 for the New York Times, in 1979 for Time. Between his op-ed columns and his wider theoretical writing on orientalism and empire, Said was a key figure.
This brings us to the third important context for understanding Said’s huge reputation. His career also coincided with the rise of the media intellectual. Said was fascinated by figures like Walter Lippmann – perhaps the most influential political journalist in mid-20th century America – and around the late 1970s and early 1980s, he wrote a series of essays on the role of the intellectual, “experts who were members of a ‘specialised class,’ ‘insiders’ who instructed everyone else in what was good or bad.”
He wrote that in 1981. In the same year, Covering Islam was published, subtitled “How the media and the experts determine how we see the rest of the world.” In these essays, and in Covering Islam, Said writes as an outsider, but it is around this time that his own media career took off. Handsome, young, articulate and opinionated, Said was a gift for a generation of media executives and producers. He presented a programme for Channel 4’s 1986 series The Arabs, talked about Culture and Imperialism on BBC2’s Arena, gave the 1993 Reith lectures (on “Representations of the Intellectual”), was a regular speaker on The Late Show and Start the Week, and wrote for major newspapers in Britain, America, France and the middle east. His ideas coincided with what was most fashionable and influential in Anglo-American universities; he was a passionate Palestinian spokesman at a time when the middle east and Islam came to dominate the news; and he was a fluent speaker at a time when the intellectual moved from the lecture hall to the television studio.
Above all, Said was a lightning conductor for the issue which has come to divide the western liberal and left intelligentsia: Israel and the Palestinians. This in turn has become a symbol for a broader theme, the legacy of colonialism and the relations between west and non-west. In Culture and Imperialism, Said speaks of “the emergence of a new intellectual conscience.” At the centre of this conscience, especially in left and liberal circles in Britain, France and America, is the question of what the west has done – and is doing – to non-white, non-western populations. Israel increasingly divides us not because of the rights and wrongs of particular Israeli policies, but because Israel is, after the end of apartheid, of Portuguese colonialism, of white rule in Zimbabwe, and of British rule in Hong Kong, the last state ruled by (largely) white Europeans in Africa or Asia.
As a theoretician and as a polemicist, Said devoted much of his life to championing the Palestinian cause and later the cause of colonial peoples everywhere. The most eloquent tributes to his life and work have come not from the comparative literature departments of the US and Britain, but from young journalists and intellectuals in the postcolonial world, writing in the Hindustan Times, the Palestine Chronicle or aljazeera.net.
To his admirers, Said symbolises a larger resistance movement, an international battle for justice and freedom. But is it possible to evaluate his work without having to take sides, buying into a particular package of political opinions and critical theories? Is Said’s work only to be truly valued in a few dozen comp lit departments and by the intelligentsia of the postcolonial world, or was he truly one of the great intellectuals of our time, speaking to many audiences in many places?
The achievements are clear enough. Said was a bold thinker of great intellectual ambition. Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism took on great themes: how the west has thought about the east over centuries, from Dante to TE Lawrence, looking at literature and anthropology, philology and travel writing; and then broadening out still further in the second book to the connections between empire and culture, especially the novel, roaming from 16th-century Ireland to Magwitch in Australia, from references to plantations in Jane Austen, to Camus in north Africa.
In both books, and throughout his critical writing, Said crossed disciplines, mixing history and literature, music and philosophy. Apart from his first book on Conrad, all his other published work on literature and culture moved out from the narrow world of academic specialisation. In his best book, Reflections on Exile (2000), he ranges from pianist Glenn Gould to 1930s Tarzan films, from Hemingway to the film The Battle of Algiers, from Egyptian belly dancers to Bach. His 20 or so books include analyses of the media coverage of the “Iran crisis” and dialogues with Daniel Barenboim, lectures on music and Freud.
He was also one of the leading oppositional intellectuals of his time, dedicated to – in his words – “speaking truth to power.” Power, in his work, was not just military, political or economic power but, drawing on Foucault, the power to produce knowledge, images, versions of other people which become accepted as the truth. This relationship between knowledge and power lies at the heart of Said’s work. Part of his intellectual restlessness was the search for a better way of thinking about this relationship, how political or imperial power connected to cultural power.
The voice that emerges from these essays and books is, in many ways, decent and humane. Said always opposed religious fundamentalism and secularism was a key term for him. He passionately supported Salman Rushdie against the fatwa. He backed a two-state solution, accepting Israel’s right to exist, before most other Palestinians. The introduction to Reflections on Exile is a passionate statement of his creed: of the virtues of seeing the world as irreducibly mixed, heterogeneous and contradictory.
It is interesting to come across his essay on Kipling’s Kim, in Culture and Imperialism. For the first time in that book, he writes with enormous personal warmth about Kipling and his creation, Kimball O’Hara, orphaned, white, but brought up as a child of the Lahore bazaars, an outsider with one foot in both worlds. Like Said himself, a Palestinian Christian living in America, at home on Riverside Drive and yet not, able to write evocatively of growing up in pre-war Cairo and yet far removed from that world too.
This sense of never quite being at home drew him to an unlikely canon of thinkers and writers. Conrad, of course, and Adorno too. But also outsiders and eccentrics like Vico, Swift, Orwell, and Auerbach writing Mimesis in exile in Istanbul. The writers and thinkers who mattered most to Said have all stood on the edges of their culture.
We should also acknowledge the areas Said marked out: orientalism, colonialism, the experience of the Palestinians. Before Said who wrote about them with such authority? And after Said, who can read those English and French accounts of the east in the same way again?
The achievements are undeniable. He was a stimulating teacher, perhaps at his best as an essayist, and by all accounts a generous friend. Yet the failings are equally obvious. There are the routine errors of historical fact. And there are the rash generalisations, wilful misreadings, strange omissions, a persistent nastiness of tone and his terrible prose, what JH Plumb called “self-posturing verbiage.” Said’s most acclaimed books are mostly badly written, dense with jargon, full of interminable sentences. At times, to a nonspecialist, they are unreadable.
The larger failings are to do with his basic ideas, and lie at the heart of Said’s major work, Orientalism, in particular. As Hitchens has pointed out, one of the remarkable omissions from that book is German orientalism, which, like most areas of 19th-century German scholarship, mattered. Said barely mentions it. He writes, as if in explanation of the omission, “At no time in German scholarship during the first two thirds of the 19th century could a close partnership have developed between orientalists and a protracted, sustained national interest in the orient.” The main argument of both Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, is that neither orientalism and imperialism could exist without the other. But Germany never had an empire like that of England or France in the middle east, or anywhere else in the orient, and yet it produced important orientalist scholarship. It leaves a big dent on Said’s central thesis.
Here, as elsewhere, Said writes of “the orient” as if there were one generalised phenomenon called “orientalism.” But there were many wests and many orients, some of them in conflict with each other, changing significantly over time. Rarely does he distinguish between vicious late 19th-century racism, early 19th-century titillating exoticism, medieval Christian polemics against Islam, more or less disinterested scholarship or out and out philo-orientalism from any period. Surely these distinctions matter. How can such different work be lumped together?
I hesitate to write “disinterested” scholarship, but Said can be referring to nothing else when he writes in Orientalism of “the work of innumerable devoted scholars who edited texts and translated them, codified grammars, wrote dictionaries, reconstructed dead epochs, produced positivistically verifiable learning?” Throughout the book Said is highly suspicious of orientalist knowledge, mired as he claims it was in relations of power. But does this apply to “codified grammars” and “edited texts” or not? What makes certain kinds of knowledge dubious because of its relations with imperial (or in the case of German, nonimperial) power and other kinds acceptable?
What is the relationship between orientalism, as a general set of discourses and representations, and individual orientalists? When Said writes that “orientalism is a form of paranoia,” or that “the orientalist attitude” is “profoundly anti-empirical,” does he mean this to be true of all orientalists or just some? What is the relationship between early or mid-19th century writing about empire and late 19th-century orientalism, produced in the heyday of empire? At one point we are told “the European awareness of the orient transformed itself from being textual and contemplative into being administrative, economic, and even military.” This is hardly surprising since before the 1860s Britain and France had fewer colonies in the middle east, but how much does this transformation matter?
In Orientalism, as in Culture and Imperialism 15 years later, the relations between knowledge and power are central. They are at the heart of Said’s originality. But what exactly are the relations between knowledge (or culture) and imperial power? We get endless vague formulations – “the general relationship between culture and empire,” “the connection between the pursuit of national imperial aims and the general national culture,” “the interpellation of culture by empire” (all from Culture and Imperialism). At times it all gets rather long winded: “the literature… therefore creates what Williams calls ‘structures of feeling’ that support, elaborate, and consolidate the practice of empire.” These phrases assert rather than prove a relationship.
Again and again, Said writes of orientalism as if it is a homogenous machine for producing imperial discourses. But what kind of history of ideas is this? Which discourses were most influential and on whom? Governing elites? State institutions? Public opinion? Distinctions between cultures, between genres and between different periods are blurred. Connections between key concepts are ill-defined and inexact. The relations between history and culture are a mess: French colonies in north Africa aren’t mentioned, German scholarship is left out, politicians and generals remain on the periphery.
The genres and writers Said discusses tend to be obscure, esoteric and scholarly – mid-19th century French philologists and forgotten British travel writers. Popular writers fare less well. In the whole of Orientalism there are five references to Kipling and none to Haggard. Popular culture is almost completely absent. Newspapers writing about “the yellow peril” and images of Gordon at Khartoum, Fu Manchu and Valentino’s The Sheik, the adventure stories of GA Henty and Wilkie Collins, surely had a greater impact on western thinking about the orient than a few arcane journals and highbrow novelists? None of this features.
Said sees western aggression everywhere, but eastern aggression doesn’t seem to exist. Centuries of invasion by Moors, Turks and Huns count for nothing. “Islam excepted, the orient for Europe was until the 19th century a domain with a continuous history of unchallenged western dominance.” This makes no sense. Then we get, “Doubtless Islam was a real provocation in many ways.” Yet almost a thousand years of domination and threat, from Moorish Spain to Turks at the gates of Vienna is passed over in barely a page and is never mentioned again.
The orient is singled out for special victim status. And like most victims it is presented (in Orientalism, less so in Culture and Imperialism) as passive, inert, dominated by omnipotent western discourses and representations. There is no contest, no opposition.
Moreover, Said makes almost no connections between orientalism and the other dark sides present in Victorian thought. Racism, antisemitism, degeneration theory, homophobia, misogyny, extreme nationalism: each has its own rich history of prejudice. Antisemitism is hardly ever used in Orientalism to mean Jew-hatred. Instead, orientalism is “a strange, secret sharer of western antisemitism.” “Semites were not only the Jews but the Muslims as well.” Said so blurs the distinction between antisemitism as hatred of semites and as Jew-hatred, that at times it’s difficult to know which he means. What about Arab antisemitism? There are two references. Both are dismissive and disbelieving. Arab antisemitism and decades of pogroms and anti-Jewish violence, before and after the creation of the state of Israel, disappears. There is virtually nothing on disturbing aspects of the Arab world in the past, or the antisemitism, tyranny and nationalism of the postcolonial period. Is this “speaking truth to power”?
This leads to a larger, more painful issue: the tragedy of the postcolonial intellectual caught between the west and the realities of the postcolonial world. Said wrote during a time of growing reaction and conservatism in the west. It was a time of crisis for the international left. And a part of that crisis has been the loss of hope that has followed the wars of liberation in the third world. The rise of fundamentalism, the intolerance towards minorities, the millions dead from communal and ethnic violence, from war and state terror. Purely in terms of numbers, this has been one of the great catastrophes of modern history; much of it self-inflicted.
Over the past 25 years, Said celebrated the rich literature of anti-colonialist resistance, drawing people to the work of Tagore, Fanon and CLR James. But now that independence has been achieved, where is there a progressive, secular constituency, let alone a government, which is committed to Said’s values of peace, democracy, religious tolerance and ethnic pluralism? Throughout the middle east and the postcolonial world such constituencies are marginal, on the defensive or under threat.
Said did at times acknowledge this state of affairs. “It is a sink of corruption and mediocrity and the most appalling and murderous tyrannies,” he said of the Arab world in one interview in Power, Politics, and Culture. Elsewhere, in the same interview in 1992, he said, “the Arab world itself… is a catastrophe. You have regimes… which are deeply unpopular. You have the resurgence of Muslim religious feeling. You have a brain drain… And, above all, from my point of view, you have a cultural class, let’s say, who are either silent or in hiding abroad.”
Said always deplored intolerance, nationalism and fundamentalism. And yet much of this has been said in passing. The tyranny and violence of postcolonial societies was never a major target for Said, compared, say, with 19th-century orientalism, late 20th-century US imperialism or postwar Zionism. The intellectual, he believed, should be on “the other side of power.” That turns out to be the other side of western power.
Said would have argued that is because it is the west that has the power. Who has the “smart” bombs, the gunboats and the hi-tech tanks? Who has the great television networks and film companies? But an even-handed position would acknowledge both the realities of western power and the violence imposed by Arab and other postcolonial dictators. There are a few references in Orientalism to Arab antisemitism and in Culture and Imperialism to the threat posed by Islam over centuries to Europe and to fundamentalism. But these references are minor and peripheral. They add up to less than his critiques of Jane Austen or Flaubert.
Instead of reflecting, at length, on the historical catastrophe of postcolonialism, Said’s work took other forms: self-pity; shooting the messenger (his repeated attacks on VS Naipaul or Samir al-Khalil, an outspoken critic of Saddam Hussein); and evasion, downplaying the threat of Palestinian revanchisme.
It is as if history froze at the moment of The Battle of Algiers and the death of Frantz Fanon, the Algerian critic of colonialism. Which is what makes his interview with Gillo Pontecorvo, the Italian Jewish director of The Battle of Algiers, one of the most haunting moments in Said’s work. Pontecorvo made his masterpiece about anti-colonialist revolt in the mid-1960s; Said went to interview him in 1988.
By then Pontecorvo’s career had come to a standstill. Perhaps the greatest cinematic voice of anti-colonialism, he was finding it almost impossible to fund projects either in the postcolonial world or the west. The interview is sticky. Everywhere in Said’s article the language is of defeat and silence. He talks of how Pontecorvo is “blocked.” He asks him about postcolonialism. “I drew a blank from him.” For Pontecorvo, the battle against colonialism is less black and white than it once seemed. Israel, he tells Said, “is more complicated and less clear than France and Algeria.” Surely he’s right, but Said can’t accept this and goes away, defeated by this encounter. The difficulty of this interview speaks eloquently of the tragedy of Said’s position.
Said was not reduced, like Pontecorvo, to silence. The op-ed pieces and columns poured out: denouncing Arafat and Sharon, criticising 11th September as an act of terrorism and the US media’s response, trying to find a humane middle position.
But was this position humane or utopian? An interview in August 2000 with the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz is full of wishful thinking, evasions or no answer at all. How would a Jewish minority be treated in a Jewish-Palestinian state? “A Jewish minority can survive the way other minorities in the Arab world survived.” “The genius of Arab culture,” he says a moment later, “was catholicity.” These replies do not belong to the real world of Hamas and Saddam Hussein, of the fatwa against Rushdie and suicide bombers. They sound perverse coming from someone whose father saw his business destroyed by an Egyptian mob, and when he died in 1971 his father could not be buried in Lebanon because “no resident was willing to sell us land for a little plot on which to grant his wish.” “He was,” Said writes, “too much of a stranger in death to be allowed in.” “The genius of Arab culture,” as Said knew only too well, also includes the mob. The one-state solution he envisages in this interview would provoke a bloodbath greater than anything the middle east has yet seen. This is because the western values of law, tolerance for minorities and human rights that Said believed in are not shared by enough of the Palestinians for whose cause he gave so much of his life. He knew that but nowhere does he say it.
None of the accounts of Said that I have read have acknowledged these tragic aspects of his life, or found a way to combine that with praise for the real achievements. It is only fair to say that the achievements were his alone, but the silences and failures are shared by many.