A New Biography of Edward Said, Reviewed

“Professor of Terror” was the headline on the cover of the August, 1989, issue of Commentary. Inside, an article described Edward Said, then a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, as a mouthpiece for Palestinian terrorists and a confidant of Yasir Arafat. “Eduardo Said” was how he was referred to in the F.B.I.’s two-hundred-and-thirty-eight-page file on him—perhaps on the assumption that a terrorist was likely to have a Latin name. V. S. Naipaul willfully mispronounced “Said” to rhyme with “head,” and asserted that he was “an Egyptian who got lost in the world.” Said, an Arab Christian who was frequently taken to be Muslim, recognized the great risks of being misidentified and misunderstood. In “Orientalism” (1978), the book that made him famous, he set out to answer the question of, as he wrote in the introduction, “what one really is.” The question was pressing for a man who was, simultaneously, a literary theorist, a classical pianist, a music critic, arguably New York’s most famous public intellectual after Hannah Arendt and Susan Sontag, and America’s most prominent advocate for Palestinian rights.

Multiple and clashing selves were Said’s inheritance from the moment of his birth, in 1935, in West Jerusalem, where a midwife chanted over him in both Arabic and Hebrew. The family was Episcopalian and wealthy, and his father, who had spent years in America and prided himself on having light skin, named him after the Prince of Wales. Said always loathed his name, especially when shortened to Ed. Sent as a teen-ager to an American boarding school, Said found the experience “shattering and disorienting.” Trained at Princeton and Harvard as a literary scholar in a Euro-American humanist tradition, he became an enthusiast of French theory, a partisan of Michel Foucault. In “Orientalism,” published two decades into a conventional academic career, Said unexpectedly described himself as an “Oriental subject” and implicated almost the entire Western canon, from Dante to Marx, in the systematic degradation of the Orient.

“Orientalism” proved to be perhaps the most influential scholarly book of the late twentieth century; its arguments helped expand the fields of anti-colonial and post-colonial studies. Said, however, evidently came to feel that “theory” was “dangerous” to students, and derided the “jaw-shattering jargonistic postmodernisms” of scholars like Jacques Derrida, whom he considered “a dandy fooling around.” Toward the end of his life, the alleged professor of terror collaborated with the conductor Daniel Barenboim to set up an orchestra of Arab and Israeli musicians, angering many Palestinians, including members of Said’s family, who supported a campaign of boycott and sanctions against Israel. While his handsome face appeared on the T-shirts and posters of left-wing street protesters worldwide, Said maintained a taste for Rolex watches, Burberry suits, and Jermyn Street shoes right up to his death, from leukemia, in 2003.

“To be a Levantine is to live in two or more worlds at once without belonging to either,” Said once wrote, quoting the historian Albert Hourani. “It reveals itself in lostness, pretentiousness, cynicism and despair.” His melancholy memoir of loss and deracination, “Out of Place” (1999), invited future biographers to probe the connection between their subject’s cerebral and emotional lives. Timothy Brennan, a friend and graduate student of Said’s, now warily picks up the gauntlet, in an authorized biography, “Places of Mind” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Scanting Said’s private life, including his marriages and other romantic liaisons, Brennan concerns himself with tracing an intellectual and political trajectory. One of the half-concealed revelations in the book is how close Said came, with his Levantine wealth and Ivy League education, to being a somewhat refined playboy, chasing women around the Eastern Seaboard in his Alfa Romeo. In Jerusalem, Said went to St. George’s, a boys’ school for the region’s ruling castes. In Cairo—where his family moved in 1947, shortly before Jewish militias occupied West Jerusalem—he attended the British-run Victoria College. There he was chiefly known for his mediocre marks and insubordinate ways; his classmates included the future King Hussein of Jordan and the actor Omar Sharif.

Cairo was then the principal metropolis of a rapidly decolonizing and politically assertive Arab world. The creation of the state of Israel—following a U.N. resolution, on Palestinian land—and the refugee crisis and wars that ensued were on everyone’s mind. Yet Said inhabited a bubble of affluent cosmopolitans, speaking English and French better than Arabic, and attending the local opera. When he was six years old, he started playing the family piano, a Blüthner baby grand from Leipzig, and he later received private lessons from Ignace Tiegerman, a Polish Jew famous for his interpretations of Brahms and Chopin. Said’s father, who ran a successful office-supply business, was socially ambitious, and his time in America had given him a lasting admiration for the West. At one point, he considered moving his entire family to the United States. Instead, in 1951, he contented himself with dispatching his son to Northfield Mount Hermon School, in rural Massachusetts.

Brennan shows how much Said initially was, as he once confessed, a “creature of an American and even a kind of upper-class WASP education,” distanced from the “uniquely punishing destiny” of an Arab Palestinian in the West. Glenn Gould recitals in Boston appear to have registered more with him than the earthquakes of the post-colonial world, such as the Great Leap Forward or the anti-French insurgency in Algeria. The Egyptian Revolution erupted soon after Said left for the U.S., and a mob of protesters burned down his father’s stationery shop. Within a decade, the family had moved to Lebanon. Yet these events seem to have had less influence on Said than the political currents of his new country did. Brennan writes, “Entering the United States at the height of the Cold War would color Said’s feelings about the country for the rest of his life.” Alfred Kazin, writing in his journals in 1955, already worried that intellectuals had found in America a new “orthodoxy”—the idea of the country as “world-spirit and world hope.” This consensus was bolstered by a professionalization of intellectual life. Jobs in universities, media, publishing, and think tanks offered former bohemians and penurious toilers money and social status. Said began his career at precisely this moment, when many upwardly mobile American intellectuals became, in his later, unforgiving analysis, “champions of the strong.”

Nonetheless, his own early impulse, born of an immigrant’s insecurity, was, as he later put it, to make himself over “into something the system required.” His earliest intellectual mentors were such iconic figures of American literary culture as R. P. Blackmur and Lionel Trilling. He wrote a prize-winning dissertation on Conrad; he read Sartre and Lukács. In his early writings, he faithfully absorbed all the trends then dominant in English departments, from existentialism to structuralism. Devoted to Chopin and Schumann, he seems to have been as indifferent to blues and jazz as he was to Arabic music. He adored Hollywood movies, but there is no evidence that, in this period, he engaged with the work of James Baldwin or Ralph Ellison, or had much interest in the civil-rights movement. When students protesting the war in Vietnam disrupted a class of his, he called campus security.

Brennan detects a hint of what was to come in a remark of Said’s about the dual selves of Conrad: one “the waiting and willing polite transcriber who wished to please, the other an uncooperative demon.” Much impotent anger seems to have long simmered in Said as he witnessed “the web of racism, cultural stereotypes, political imperialism, dehumanizing ideology holding in the Arab or the Muslim.” In a conversation filmed for Britain’s Channel 4, Said claimed that many of his cultural heroes, such as Isaiah Berlin and Reinhold Niebuhr, were prejudiced against Arabs. “All I could do,” he said, “was note it.” He watched aghast, too, the critical acclaim for “The Arab Mind,” a 1973 book by the Hungarian Jewish academic Raphael Patai, which described Arabs as a fundamentally unstable people.

It’s not hard to see how Said, upholding the “great books” courses at Columbia, would have come to feel intensely the frustrations that writers and intellectuals from countries subjugated by Europe and America had long experienced: so many of the canonical figures of Western liberalism and democracy, from John Stuart Mill to Winston Churchill, were contemptuous of nonwhite peoples. Among aspiring intellectuals who came to the U.S. and Europe from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, a sense of bitterness ran especially deep. Having struggled to emulate the cultural élite of the West by acquiring a knowledge of its literature and philosophy, they realized that their role models remained largely ignorant of the worlds they had come from. Moreover, the steep price of that ignorance was paid, often in blood, by the people back home.

It was the Six-Day War, in 1967, and the exultant American media coverage of Israel’s crushing victory over Arab countries, that killed Said’s desire to please his white mentors. He began reaching out to other Arabs and methodically studying Western writings about the Middle East. In 1970, he met Arafat, initiating a long and troubled relationship in which Said undertook two equally futile tasks: advising the stubbly, pistol-toting radical on how to make friends and influence people in the West, and dispelling Arafat’s impression that he, Said, was a representative of the United States.

In “Orientalism,” Said’s uncoöperative demon at last burst into view. He boldly defined himself as the “product of the historical process” of colonialism, and set out to “inventory the traces” upon him of a culture “whose domination has been so powerful a factor in the life of all Orientals.” The book’s main thrust was a critique of Western intellectual culture; as Brennan puts it, “The media, think tanks, and universities were witting or unwitting collaborators in the foreign policy adventures of their respective states.” For a book that launched a thousand academic careers and plenty of opaque jargon, this was a simple point. It was also by no means original. Noam Chomsky had been making much the same argument since the nineteen-sixties, and anti-imperialist thinkers and activists had long noted the nexus between knowledge and power in imperialist countries. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, in the late nineteenth century, had denounced Reuters for its biased coverage of anti-British protests in Iran; Simone Weil had called for a sustained reflection on the experience of the colonized. At Said’s own university, Franz Boas had attacked the pseudoscientific racial theories used as justification by white supremacists.

What made “Orientalism” distinctive was its immense panoply of Western learning—the fruits of Said’s Ivy League training—and its audacious crossing of disciplinary boundaries: history, philology, anthropology, literary studies. It was also striking that Said, avowedly indebted to Foucault, concerned himself with representations rather than with the represented—with the discourse of imperialism rather than with its actual workings or its manifestation in social and economic inequality. “Orientalism” had little to say about the role of overwhelmingly male class interests in imperial conquest, the expansion of industrial capitalism, or the fate of women, peasants, and workers. Nor did Said confine his time frame to the previous two centuries, when the modern imperialisms of Europe and America became globally powerful, primed to generate widespread if largely defective knowledge about Orientals. He insisted that Orientalist thinking justified colonial rule not after the fact but “in advance,” positing an unbroken Western tendency to represent Orientals as inferior, running from ancient Greece through Renaissance Italy to the New York Times.

Perhaps against Said’s own wishes, “Orientalism” ended up describing an eternal and unbridgeable gulf between Western and non-Western societies. While discrediting much knowledge produced in Europe and America over two millennia, the book displayed no awareness of the vast archive of Asian, African, and Latin-American thought that had preceded it, including discourses devised by non-Western élites—such as the Brahminical theory of caste in India—to make their dominance seem natural and legitimate. Unsurprisingly, upper-caste ideologues of Hindu supremacism approvingly cite “Orientalism” when railing against Western scholars of Indian religion and history. The book’s critique of Eurocentrism was in fact curiously Eurocentric, and its vision of an internally consistent and coherent “West” had much in common with the “Plato-to-NATO” genealogy of the free world popularized during the Cold War. In both narratives, the ancient Greeks, Renaissance Italians, and French sages of the Enlightenment had all contributed to the making of “Western Civilization.”

When the book was attacked by old-style Orientalists such as Bernard Lewis, who questioned its author’s grasp of Arab and Islamic history, Said could effortlessly defend himself. Lewis, later a favorite historian of Dick Cheney and a theorist of “Muslim rage,” was too damning an illustration of Said’s thesis. Said was much more vulnerable to criticisms from the Oriental subjects whose debasing misrepresentations he had set out to expose. The most devastating of these came from the Indian critic Aijaz Ahmad. Writing fourteen years after the publication of “Orientalism,” Ahmad examined why and how a book with many obvious and great flaws became a cult classic among academics. He noted that Said’s preoccupation with representations rather than with material interests, and his prioritizing of racial inequities over class and gender oppressions, had proved especially useful to upwardly mobile academics who came to American universities from the developing world. These intellectual émigrés, largely male, were often members of ruling classes in their respective countries—even of classes that had flourished during colonial rule. Yet, Ahmad wrote, Said’s book furnished them with “narratives of oppression that would get them preferential treatment, reserved jobs, higher salaries.” For a posher kind of Oriental subject, denouncing the Orientalist West had become one way of finding a tenured job in it.

Ahmad also pointed out that Said, critiquing an evidently corrupted humanist tradition, offered, as an antidote, merely a lit-crit version of humanism—“very textual attitudes towards the histories of colonialism and imperialism.” In the nineteen-eighties, “Orientalism” helped forge a seminar-room mode of activism. By 1992, Richard Rorty could take aim at an instantly recognizable type: “One of the contributions of the newer left has been to enable professors, whose mild guilt about the comfort and security of their own lives once led them into extra-academic political activity, to say, ‘Sorry, I gave at the office.’ ” In retrospect, “Orientalism,” no less than Orientalist books about Muslim rage and the clash of civilizations, seems to belong to an era of cramped political horizons. Politicized young people today are unlikely to confine themselves to Foucault-style discourse analysis when they confront the crushing realities of inequality, gutted public services, mainstream racism, and environmental calamity.

Said moved on from his trendsetting book almost as quickly as he had moved on from the various English-department trends he once embraced. Brennan writes that, though appreciative of efforts to “diversify faculties in terms of ethnicity and national origin,” Said was troubled by the way “Orientalism” encouraged “fixations on personal ‘identity’ ” in academia. Having helped create the field of post-colonial studies, Said began to wonder whether post-colonialism was even a valid category, given the ongoing depredations of colonialism in large parts of the world. As if to deride academia’s cult of specialism, he pointedly extolled the figure of the freelance intellectual and the unaffiliated amateur. He started to read widely in non-Western literatures, and to invoke, sometimes too indiscriminately, Asian and African writers and thinkers whom he had left unmentioned in “Orientalism.” With the support of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, then an editor at Doubleday, he helped usher Naguib Mahfouz’s fiction into English. Most important, in a series of books, articles, and television appearances, Said assumed the often cruelly discouraging task of educating Americans about Palestine.

His publisher, Pantheon, rejected “The Question of Palestine” (1979), the first of Said’s many book-length attempts to make Americans understand the fate of the Palestinian people. Eventually published by Times Books, “The Question of Palestine” made him, Brennan writes, “a pariah among the pro-Israel wing of New York publishing.” Meanwhile, a prospective Beirut publisher asked Said to remove his criticism of Syria and Saudi Arabia from the book. Political disasters in the Middle East also kept undermining his cause. Israel’s Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, who doggedly opposed a Palestinian state, was encouraging Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, territories seized from Palestinians in 1967. In June, 1982, Begin authorized a military invasion of Lebanon—where many Palestinian refugees had fled—ostensibly to drive out Arafat and militants. Thousands of civilians died, and infrastructure was left in ruins.

At home, Said found himself up against a reactionary right that, rolling back the gains of the progressive movements of the nineteen-sixties, had created a much stronger basis for itself than the academic left had. Embedded deep within the Reagan Administration, it could, Kazin wrote in 1983, “always be depended upon to support Begin.” This right-wing network exercised outsized influence. Saul Bellow, who recoiled from Begin, nonetheless seemed to believe Commentary’s description of Said as a professor of terror, and endorsed a 1984 best-seller, Joan Peters’s “From Time Immemorial,” that denied the existence of Palestinians in Palestine before the Zionists arrived. An article in the Wall Street Journal in 1999, titled “The False Prophet of Palestine,” claimed that Said had fabricated his childhood in Jerusalem, a defamatory accusation later repeated in Time. In 2003, testimony against Said from a fellow at the Hoover Institution became a centerpiece of hearings for a House bill that sought to regulate much post-colonial scholarship.

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