Celebrity Dining: The Lost Worlds of Edward Said

Celebrity Dining: The Lost Worlds of Edward Said

Celebrity Dining:

Exiles
often have conflicting feelings about their adoptive society, and Edward Said
was no exception. As a Palestinian in the United States, he recognized the
country’s pervasive racism and violence, but he also knew its educational
system made his career as a renowned and prosperous thinker possible. His life
was indeed filled with paradoxes and contradictions. He was one of the
twentieth century’s most influential anti-colonial writers, who mostly studied
his colonizers’ literature; a proponent of Palestinian liberation who wrote in
English and mostly for English-speaking audiences. Few statements capture his embrace
of such tensions more than his surprising claim in an interview with the
Israeli newspaper
Ha’aretz that he was now the only heir to the Jewish
tradition of radical criticism. “I’m the last Jewish intellectual,” he
exclaimed. “You don’t know anyone else. All your other Jewish intellectuals are
now suburban squires.… I’m the last one.”

Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said

by Timothy Brennan

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 464 pp., $35.00

As
comical as this statement can seem, Timothy Brennan’s new biography, Places
of Mind: A Life of Edward Said
,
suggests it captures Said’s unique place in
public life: a Middle Eastern exile who provided an original explanation for
American imperialism, powerfully condemned it, and successfully reached mass
audiences. By telling Said’s life, from his childhood in British-ruled
Palestine to his death in New York in 2003, Places of Mind seeks to
explain his unique ability to blend intellectual production and public activism.
Impressively researched and powerfully written, it charts Said’s many triumphs:
his revolutionary scholarly writings, which became classics and are taught
decades after their publication; his rise as a media celebrity (an unusual
fate for an academic); and his role in making the Palestinian national movement
a source of international fascination. For Brennan, who was Said’s student and
is an accomplished literary scholar in his own right, his teacher was
everything a humanist should be. By embracing his status as an “outsider”—an
exile, a Palestinian, an Arab—he successfully infused America’s mainstream with new ideas and political visions.      

Yet
by claiming to be a “Jewish” intellectual, Said was doing more than placing himself
in the company of giants like Franz Kafka or Theodor Adorno. What he
recognized, and what Places of Mind sometimes misses, was the tragedy of
his career: how by his life’s end, the causes for which he fought were
ultimately defeated. The Palestinian liberation movement, whose cause animated so
much of Said’s writing, was headed toward ruin (a reality that he was among the
very few to realize). And the humanities, whose flourishing made his career
possible, were entering a downward spiral from which they show no sign of
recovery. Reflecting on Said’s life, in short, is not only a chance to
celebrate groundbreaking achievements. It is also an invitation to recognize, soberly, some of our era’s heartbreaking misfortunes.  


Colonialism
is a brutal business, and this was certainly true of British rule in the Middle
East. Whenever locals protested the empire’s authority, as Palestinians did
during the so-called “Great Revolt” of 1936 to 1939, British troops responded
by demolishing entire neighborhoods, imprisoning thousands of civilians in
concentration camps, and putting hundreds to the gallows. Like many other
colonialists, however, the British also sustained their rule in the region by
offering alluring opportunities to some of their subjects. Those willing to cooperate
could gain access to British markets, find jobs in the colonial bureaucracy,
and send their children to European-run schools. These were the carrots that
Europe’s “civilizing mission” dangled in front of its subjects’ noses: Submit
to us, colonialists promised, embrace our language and culture, and maybe, one
day, some of you would control your own fate.

This
was the duality that made the young Said. Born in British-ruled Jerusalem in
1935, much of his childhood took place in the shadow of the Palestinian
national trauma. While his parents, Hilda and Wadie, rarely talked politics at
home, other relatives often protested their people’s fate. The price of
political oppression was even more apparent once British troops were replaced
by the armed forces of the Jewish Yishuv, which decimated the Palestinian
national movement. In 1947, Said’s parents fled to Cairo, which rapidly became
home to many hungry and dispossessed Palestinian refugees. At the same time, colonialism
helped cushion the Saids from some of this brutality. Not only were they
affluent merchants, but they also benefited from being Anglican, a tiny
minority that enjoyed preferential treatment by British authorities. Said’s father
supplied office materials to the British (which ran the formally independent
Egypt), and Said was sent to study in the elite schools of British
missionaries. Nothing demonstrated colonialism’s contradictory imprint on his
family more than his regal first name, Edward, which his mother chose because
she admired the Prince of Wales—a fact that Said bemoaned his entire life. 

When
Said’s parents sent him to the U.S. at age 15, he would find a similar
pattern of simultaneous subjugation and inclusion. In his years as a student,
first at an elite prep school in New England and then at Princeton, Said was
alienated by the other students’ oppressive self-absorption. Almost all white,
they were confident in the superiority of their Anglo-Saxon heritage and considered
Arab culture primitive. As he put it in a note uncovered by Brennan, “to be a
Levantine” in the U.S. meant “not to be able to create but only to
imitate.” At the same time, the postwar U.S. system of higher education
provided remarkable opportunities. After Princeton, Said enrolled in Harvard’s
graduate program in European literature, and in 1963, he was hired as a
professor at Columbia. Ivy League prestige, as it often does, opened many
doors, and Said quickly learned how to prosper in the world of U.S. letters. He
published a book on Joseph Conrad, built ties to the New York literary world,
and began contributing essays to magazines like The Nation. For all the whiteness
and Euro-centrist ethos of American academia, Said cherished his success in it. To
his parents’ dismay, he preferred to spend most of his summers in New York, feverishly
churning out academic writings.    

These
paradoxes of imperial power do not get much attention in Places of Mind,
and its first chapters say frustratingly little about the colonial Middle East
or the Cold War U.S. This is a missed opportunity, as the
similarities between the two systems would later become crucial to Said’s intellectual
and political agenda. Most important, both the British and Americans elevated
certain minorities (Christians in the Middle East, Jews in the U.S.)
to justify their subjugation of others (Muslims under British rule, Black
people and other people of color under white U.S. hegemony). The two cultures also
similarly viewed their elites’ culture as universal, a sacred trust they had to
bestow upon humanity. Both British and American elites were therefore eager to
demonstrate that “outsiders” like Said, who appreciated the brilliance of Western
culture, could join their club, as long as they fully assimilated and
“overcame” their non-Western origins. It is likely that these parallels informed
Said’s later insistence that the U.S. emulated European empires. And
it is clear that his effective navigation in both inspired his later claim that
colonialism was not just oppressive but also creative, that hegemonic cultures could
possess a certain allure even for their victims.       


Said’s
career up to the mid-1960s was headed in a predictable direction. Groomed by
and for WASP institutions, he was on the path to become a footnote in their
history, yet another scholar who studied the European canon and reproduced
elites in his teaching. But the convergence of two revolutions, one
intellectual and one political, soon upended this trajectory. Harnessing their
energies, Said went on to produce one of the twentieth century’s most important
intellectual events.
 

In
its most impressive chapters, Places of Mind reconstructs Said’s participation
in these two revolutions. The first was post-structuralism. Under the influence
of philosopher Jacques Derrida, a group of French scholars launched blistering
attacks on Europe’s intellectual traditions. Even after the Enlightenment, they
claimed, Europe remained obsessed with enshrining hierarchies and binaries (between
men and women, “primitive” and “civilized”); the most urgent task was to
dismantle those. While Said is not always associated with this school today, he
was among the first to embrace it in the English-speaking world. He took part
in the early conferences on post-structuralism in the U.S. and was one
of the first to utilize its concepts in his writings. He borrowed especially
from Michel Foucault and his provocative depiction of the link between
knowledge and power. Artists and thinkers, Foucault claimed, were rarely
individuals who challenged authority. Most of the time, they reproduced and
reinforced their society’s structures of authority, making them seem natural
and even benevolent.

The
second project that Said joined, and for which he became especially famous, was
the Palestinians’ renewed struggle for self-determination. After the shock of
the 1967 war, which initiated Israel’s military rule over large Palestinian
territories, Palestinian activists and leaders sought to make their cause the
center of international attention. They appealed to international institutions
and launched multiple violent attacks on Israel to keep their struggle in the
headlines. While Said had little personal interest in returning to Palestine
(by that point he considered his exile a permanent condition), he joined this
campaign and quickly became its most prominent international figure. He
published fiery essays that compared the Palestinian struggle to other
anti-colonial struggles in Asia and Africa and helped launch organizations that
called for an end to the West’s support for Israel. His eloquence and rare status
as a Palestinian at the center of U.S. letters made him into an icon. Palestinian
politicians and leaders, some of whom he met in person during a prolonged
academic stay in Beirut, sought his advice; in 1974, he helped edit and
translate Yasser Arafat’s historic address to the United Nations, the first by
any Palestinian leader in that forum. Three years later, Said became a member
of the Palestinian National Council, the coordinating organization of the
Palestinian national movement.

Bringing
these two projects together was hardly an obvious undertaking. Post-structuralism’s
philosophical musings, with its notoriously impenetrable jargon, seemed worlds
apart from the blood and sweat of daily Palestinian resistance. Yet in his
monumental Orientalism (1978), Said fused these two projects to provide a
new understanding of Western attitudes toward the Middle East. Drawing on his
own experiences as a beneficiary and victim of colonialism, Said claimed that Europe’s
colonial domination in the Middle East did not rely merely on military or
political might. Rather, it was a vast intellectual project, in which countless scholars
and novelists voluntarily rushed to explore, interpret, and explain why Europe had to dominate the “Orient.” Said further argued that the Orientalist project
was in fact foundational to Europe’s own self-understanding. As Europeans
sought to define themselves as rational, industrious, and self-controlling,
they simultaneously identified the Orient’s people as emotional, lazy, and
pathologically obsessed with sex.

This
claim about colonialism’s centrality to Europe’s identity would have been
enough to make Orientalism an intellectual bombshell. But Said went even
further, using his literary study to explain the aggression of modern American
diplomacy. Said argued that the collapse of formal European empires after World
War II did little to diminish the orientalist mindset. Rather, orientalism continued
to flourish in the U.S., where journalists, artists, and scholars conflated
their country with a “civilization” that they contrasted with the Middle East’s
alleged primitivism and fanaticism. Indeed, Said maintained that U.S. diplomacy
in the region, and especially its unwavering support for Israel, reproduced Europe’s
earlier racism, arrogance, and myopia. U.S. diplomats and their Israeli allies inherited
the view of Arabs as inhuman and thus dismissed their political demands as
emotional and even animalistic outbursts. Said’s most scorching invective was directed
at Middle East specialists like Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis, whom he acidly
described as the intellectual foot soldiers of U.S. imperialism. Their writings
about the Arabs’ supposed fanaticism, he wrote in a related essay, provided “not history, not scholarship,
but direct political violence.”  

Said,
in short, exposed how knowledge and art worked in the service of oppressive power.
And in so doing, he forever transformed the meaning of the word orientalist: Rather
than a term for a scholar of the Middle East, it now became an adjective describing
a racist and paternalist worldview.  


Orientalism’s sweeping claims could hardly leave readers
indifferent, and Brennan masterfully traces both the admiration for and
backlash to Said’s masterwork. Conservative commentators predictably dismissed
Said as an ignorant trespasser who failed to understand the West’s greatness as
he downplayed the orient’s failings. In a lengthy review, Lewis lambasted the book as
“insouciant,” “outrageous,” and “reckless,” inaugurating a rhetorical dual with
Said that would continue for decades. Even more sympathetic readers highlighted
the book’s limitations. Scholars like the French historian Maxime Rodinson
noted that Orientalism was far too sweeping in approach. The study of
the Orient, he noted, was a diverse field, and many of its proponents hated
empire. Other supportive readers questioned the book’s focus on ideology and
representation. Wasn’t colonialism ultimately driven by economic exploitation? The
critique that stung the most came from Arab and Pakistani Marxists, who lamented
that Said unintentionally strengthened Muslim conservatives. The Syrian
philosopher and activist Sadiq Al Azm, for example, argued that by depicting
European knowledge as hopelessly tainted, the book “poured cold water” on the
effort to popularize Marxist ideas in the Middle East and bolstered lazy
anti-Western sentiments. 

These
misgivings, however, did little to diminish Orientalism’s impact on the international
republic of letters. Appearing in 30 languages, it was widely celebrated as a
fresh and sophisticated assault on Western arrogance, one equal to
anti-colonial classics like Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (1961).
“Here for the first time,” Palestinian historian Tarif Khalidi wrote, “was a
book by one of us telling the empire basically to go f— itself.” In a world
reeling from the manifold disasters perpetrated by the U.S. in Vietnam,
understanding the connections between Western self-righteousness and violence
seemed more urgent than ever. Said helped inspire the work of countless
literary scholars, philosophers, historians, and political scientists who
mapped colonialism’s intellectual legacies in the present. He was the founding
figure of what in the 1980s became known as “postcolonial studies.” The impact
of this intellectual project spilled beyond academic circles. After Orientalism,
theater programs, museum catalogs, and Hollywood films began to adopt less Western-focused perspectives.

According
to Brennan, Said in fact infused the humanities with renewed significance. Works
like Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism (1993), which
expanded its insight to more novels, demonstrated the centrality of literature
and art to political discourse. Said turned the traditional Marxist view of
culture on its head. He claimed that novels and images were not mere expression
of social domination but their very heart; they informed how journalists
covered world affairs, how citizens thought about politics, and how politicians
enacted policies. Countless students and scholars came to view the study of
stories, movies, and representation as political action, and journalists the
world over courted Said, endlessly asking for his take on political matters.

Places
of Mind
’s last chapters trace
Said’s rising prominence to the position of celebrity. As a testament to his
triumph, they catalog the mind-numbingly abundant prizes and honors he
received, describe his never-ending stream of interviews on radio and TV, and depict
his collaborations with many famous artists, such as the conductor Daniel Barenboim.
Yet along with the rapid ascent came frustration. Said’s publications may have
made a splash, but they were unable to materially advance the Palestinian
national cause, which suffered defeat after defeat.


For
Said, stories were essential to the struggle for Palestinian self-determination.
If Americans so enthusiastically lavished Israel with weapons and supported its
cruel occupation, he claimed, it was not out of some hard-nosed calculation, but
because they bought into a particular narrative, one in which persecuted Jews had
heroically defeated their evil Arab neighbors. According to Said, this story
was sustained not only by relentlessly pro-Israel politicians, magazines, and
TV shows but by the fact that Americans were rarely exposed to Palestinian
perspectives. Said noted that this was true even for those who were deeply
critical of Israel’s actions. Noam Chomsky’s Fateful Triangle (1983),
for example, condemned U.S. diplomats and Israeli politicians for enabling the horrific
massacres of Palestinians in Lebanon, but it, too, relied on Western sources
and did not include Palestinian testimonies.

Alongside
his campaign against the orientalist tradition, Said therefore launched an
effort to open new spaces for Palestinians in the Western imagination. As he
wrote in the essay “Permission to Narrate” (1983), the task was to forge “a socially
acceptable narrative” that would allow people to empathize with Palestinians
and view them as fellow humans. Venturing beyond European literature, Said
sought to integrate Arab perspectives into the Western literary canon. While
most of his academic work remained focused on English and French authors, he
also began studying Palestinian writers like Mahmoud Darwish and helped facilitate
their translation into Western languages. And he collaborated with photographer
Jean Mohr on After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives (1986), a collection
of images and short texts that depicted Palestinian people in everyday activities.

 Yet
readers largely ignored After the Last Sky and similar projects, and
most certainly did not lavish it with the prizes and honors that were showered
on Orientalism. They were mostly interested in the analysis of the
West’s colonialism; oppression’s victims were an afterthought. Said was
painfully aware that this part of his work had limited impact, and during the
1980s and 1990s he became progressively despairing about the prospects of Palestinian
liberation. “The road forward is blocked,” he ruefully wrote, “the instruments
of the present are insufficient, [and] we can’t get back to the past.” His
gloom only grew after the Palestinian leadership signed a tentative peace
agreement with Israel in 1993 (the so-called Oslo Accords), which Said
predicted would not lead to statehood but to deepening occupation. By the end
of his life, he was politically isolated; his books were even banned in the
Palestinian Authority over his criticism of Yasser Arafat’s authoritarianism.

Said’s
high hopes for literary studies—that they would lead the expansion of the
world’s political options—also proved fleeting. Said’s career, in fact, was not
only a rare exception but also a product of broad intellectual sources. It emerged
from the 1970s and 1980s, when debates about the literary canon roiled institutions
of higher learning and figures like Paul de Man and Alan Bloom were famous. But
by the early twenty-first century, the humanities began to decline. Students
were beginning to abandon them, a trickle that would soon become a flood. In
such a world, Said was quickly becoming a monument for a passing era. He was
one of the last literary scholars to gain the public’s attention; when he
lamented being the “last Jewish intellectual,” he in part recognized he was not
likely to be followed by others. His increasing alienation from his adoptive
country was reflected in the location of his grave. At his request, it stands
not in New York, where he spent most of his career, but in Beirut, where he was
only an occasional visitor. 


If
Said’s words still resonate today, it is because the evils he helped expose are
as powerful as ever. In the two decades since the 2001 attacks, orientalist
sentiments have only intensified: Western politicians still treat Muslims and
Arabs as fanatical terrorists, and Western media still perpetuate those
narratives. As historian Maga Nasser recently noted,
of the thousands of pieces run by The New York Times and The Washington
Post
on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, barely 1 percent were written by
Palestinians. The grip of orientalism on U.S. knowledge production has in fact only
tightened since Said’s passing. In 2002, the historian Daniel Pipes, who began
his career with a campaign against Orientalism, founded the organization
Campus Watch, which has targeted scholars who express sympathy with Palestinians. The
case of Fresno State University in
California
was probably
the most on-the-nose expression of Said’s lasting relevance. In 2016, the
university’s leadership posted a job ad for its newly created Edward Said chair
in Middle Eastern studies, only to abruptly call off the search by summer of
2017.

Just
like his life, Said’s legacy is a paradox. His ideas are relevant exactly
because their political impact was limited: The vast campaign he launched in
scholarship, the media, and political activism could not dislodge orientalist
bigotry. Similarly, Said looms so large in the humanities because a career like
his is now hard to imagine. Rather than blazing a path for other literary
scholars to become influential political commentators, he turned out to be among
the last humanists with a public presence. Those who share in his quest for a
more equal and humane world still face the question that always vexed him: If
one has a humanist story to tell, how to make others listen? 

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