The Worlds of Edward Said

The Worldly Exile

Edward Said’s life and afterlives.


Seventeen years after his death, Edward Said remains a powerful intellectual presence in academic and public discourse, a fact attested to by the appearance of two important new books. After Said, edited by Bashir Abu-Manneh, offers assessments of Said’s vast body of scholarship by a dozen noted writers and academics. The Selected Works of Edward Said, 1966–2006, edited by Moustafa Bayoumi and Andrew Rubin, two former students, is an expanded version of The Edward Said Reader, which was published a few years before his death in 2003. The Reader offered us a full picture of Said’s breadth and influence as a public intellectual; the new collection is more than 150 pages longer and includes eight essays that didn’t appear in the earlier volume, plus a new preface and an expanded introduction. The newly included essays range from overtly political sallies to reflective meditations on the “late style” in music and literature that were published posthumously. Some of them, like “Freud and the Non-European,” reflect concerns that preoccupied him toward the end of his life and are among the most complex and subtle of his writings. Others remind us how widely read he was, how broad his interests were, and how penetrating his insights could be. Coupled with the reflections on his major works in After Said, they also give the reader a sense of the consistency of his politics, imbued with a universalist and cosmopolitan humanism that sat at the center of his literary and political writings.

It is not surprising that so many people are still reading and grappling with Said’s ideas. His extensive oeuvre includes 25 books, many of them monuments in their field, such as Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism. He was the founding father of an entire academic domain—postcolonial studies—that has thrived despite a certain critical distance toward it on the part of its putative parent. In his 40 years at Columbia University, Said mentored numerous scholars, many of whom hold prominent positions today in literature and other departments throughout the Anglo-American academy, and the influence of his scholarship also extends far, leaving its mark on the study of the Middle East, anthropology, and art history. Forty-two years after its publication, his most influential work, Orientalism, is still widely taught to undergraduate and graduate students around the world.

Over those four decades, Said became probably the most eminent public intellectual of his generation, producing a wealth of essays, articles, and long interviews (on everything from Middle Eastern politics to classical music and psychoanalysis) and writing for a broad general readership as well as his academic peers. His public involvement ranged from contemporary affairs to debates about the history of empire, but it was most pronounced where Palestine was concerned. Through his writings, his media appearances, and his activism, Said did more than anyone else to make the question of Palestine better understood in North America. Although this advocacy earned him many admirers in the United States and the rest of the world, including among Palestinians, it also earned him powerful enemies in the academy, the media, and elsewhere. Nonetheless, at a distance of nearly two decades since his death, it is clear that their enmity has done little to diminish his legacy or the immediacy and relevance of his ideas.

Edward Said was born in British-ruled Palestine and grew up in Cairo at a time when Egypt was nominally independent. He was initially schooled in an educational system deeply marked by British colonial influence. The name of an elite institution he was expelled from, Victoria College, tells it all, and struggling to fit in, he also spent parts of his youth in Lebanon and Palestine. His well-to-do family lost homes, businesses, and property in Jerusalem as a result of the Nakba in 1948, and although the young Said was somewhat cushioned from the material consequences, these events had a considerable impact on him—as did the neocolonial political, social, and cultural environments in which he grew up.

Said was sent to the United States to complete his high school education at a New England prep school, which he graduated from in 1953. Then he enrolled at Princeton, where he studied under the critic and poet R.P. Blackmur, and completed a PhD at Harvard, writing on his fellow exile Joseph Conrad. Said was, for all intents and purposes, a fairly conventional scholar at that point, winning a coveted appointment in the English and comparative literature department at Columbia in 1963 and publishing a book on Conrad and the autobiographical element in his novels. But world events—in particular the Israeli-Arab War in 1967—marked a transformative moment for him. Witnessing these developments both from afar in New York and in Lebanon during summers with his family, he came to realize the disjuncture between what was happening in the Middle East and how it was depicted in the West. This realization informed nearly all of the work that followed: first with Orientalism, published in 1978, and then with The Question of Palestine the next year.

What made Said’s writing so revelatory for nonspecialists was how his arguments broadened our horizons and constantly challenged our assumptions. He did this in person as well—in conversations with friends, in lectures, and in seminars filled with attentive students. My brother, who was a Columbia student, introduced me to Said in the years after 1967 as we all absorbed the shock and the consequences of that year’s war. Soon I discovered that as much of a pleasure as it was to read Said, it was an even greater pleasure to listen to him. One was drawn into a wide-ranging conversation about literature, music, philosophy, philology, and politics, all illuminated by the extraordinary sense of urgency that seemed to drive him from very early on. His capacious range and his application of that knowledge to history and politics was inflected by his strong personal commitments, which made his work far richer and more interesting than that of any other theorist or literary scholar then writing in the Anglo-American academy. Part of its lasting appeal, in fact, is that it continues to speak to us in much the same fashion: blending a broad, interdisciplinary humanistic knowledge with attention to pressing global concerns.

Said’s 1997 essay “On Lost Causes” in the Selected Works offers a wonderful example of this. It progresses from an extended meditation on four late novels by Miguel de Cervantes, Jonathan Swift, Gustave Flaubert, and Thomas Hardy to a coruscating critique of the Oslo Accords as a defeat for the Palestinians, one that led many to believe that Palestine was a lost cause. The essay is suffused with a sense of melancholy: The reader knows that in writing about these authors’ novels, Said was likely penning an essay that would count among his own final works. Refracting his disappointment with the outcome of the Palestinian liberation struggle in the late ’90s through the grim pessimism of Cervantes, Swift, Flaubert, and Hardy, Said provided a much more illuminating assessment of the post-Oslo landscape than any ordinary political essay could have—and he did so while shining a light on the four novels as well. Very few literary critics and professors of literature wrote like this then, and even fewer do so today.

The best articles in the excellent After Said exhibit the same combination of literary fluency and political acuity. Bashir Abu-Manneh’s introduction astutely stresses the centrality of politics to Said’s criticism and to his entire career—a judgment that is fully borne out by a careful reading of the eight new essays in the Selected Works. Abu-Manneh helps us better understand Said’s political evolution, noting the impact on him and an entire Arab generation of the 1967 war and how it spurred his turn to overtly political writing on Palestine and the Middle East. Abu-Manneh adds that this impact “marked everything Said did afterward,” leading him to become “his generation’s most influential cultural critic of empire” and “a defender of the colonized and oppressed,” all based on “his firm anti-imperial principles.”

This post-1967 awakening constituted a remarkable shift for a conventionally trained literary critic whose first two books, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography and Beginnings: Invention and Method, gave little indication of what was to come. Said’s new political orientation infuriated many of his contemporaries, in particular those offended by his advocacy for the Palestinian cause and his critique of American imperialism, as well as those who disliked his insistence that if literary criticism and, indeed, humanism were to have value, they would have to be infused with an appreciation of context, worldliness, and the political stakes of all cultural expressions. By demanding that Palestinians be allowed “permission to narrate” their own history, in the words of another of his famous essays, Said challenged a hegemonic narrative fashioned over many decades that replaced Palestine with Israel and entirely ignored or systematically denigrated the Palestinian people. In so doing, Said reopened the question of Palestine, which opponents of Palestinian rights had hoped was permanently closed. They could never forgive him for this, and their hostility pursued him for the rest of his life—and continues to do so beyond the grave.

Although the turning point in Said’s thinking was spurred by the 1967 war, it first became visible in a spate of publications in the late ’70s and early ’80s with the appearance of Orientalism, The Question of Palestine, and Covering Islam. In Said’s earlier works, one can discern some of the features that made his later writings so powerful. His early sympathy for and identification with Conrad, for example, was at least partly a recognition by one multilingual exile writing in a language that was not his mother tongue of the similarities in the trajectory of another such exile. Like Conrad, Said sensed himself to be in some way out of place, which was not coincidentally the title of his 1999 memoir. Also like Conrad, Said was intimately aware of the world outside his immediate one. This sense of alienation and worldliness proved to be a powerful combination and allowed him to inhabit a far wider and more diverse set of perspectives than his peers. He could see what others rooted in “the West” often could not—especially about Western culture.

Said’s alienation and worldliness were at the heart of the complexity and richness of his work; they lent him a sharper awareness of and sympathy for other cultures and stirred inside him a pointed disdain for the placid provincialism and monoglot lack of reflection among many leading figures in the American academy. Although he shared the class and educational background of many of his peers, he insisted that we see beyond the parochial bounds of the ivory tower and the self-referential culture of the West. While this critical attitude was expressed most saliently in Orientalism, it characterized much of Said’s mature work, both critical and political. In one of his last offerings, “The Return to Philology” (on what he called this “most unmodern” branch of learning), his erudite analysis is informed by a sense of the larger stakes of the specific political moment: the war in Iraq and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s casual dismissal in 1996 of the thousands of Iraqi deaths in that decade as a result of US-mandated sanctions.

Said deftly interlaced philosophy and literature with political critique. Although his political writings could be blunt, even scalding, he most often wielded a sharp scalpel in his criticism and did so with elegance and élan. The best of the essays in After Said do likewise, often using literary analysis to make subtle political points. At the same time, they avoid the hagiography that is unfortunately prevalent in many of the works on Said. Both Abu-Manneh’s introduction and Robert Spencer’s “Political Economy and the Iraq War” question the lack of an underpinning in political economy in Said’s writing on imperialism in general and on recent US policy in the Middle East in particular, although they do so while underscoring the lasting value of his interventions.

Similarly, Vivek Chibber’s “The Dual Legacy of Orientalism” offers one of the most acute and fair-minded expositions of the flaws in what he nevertheless recognizes as a “great book.” Although he notes the distance between Said’s “profound commitment to humanism, universal rights, secularism, and liberalism” and the disavowal or at least skepticism of postcolonial theory toward these values, Chibber writes that Orientalism “prefigured, and hence encouraged, some of the central dogmas of postcolonial studies.” While Said’s analysis brought a sophisticated critique of imperialism to the mainstream, Chibber observes, it fed an approach that undermined that very critique by excising its economic dimensions—a point that serves as one of the key subtexts in this collection. Although Said is one of this era’s fiercest critics of imperialism, missing from his analysis is a grounding in political economy, a failing that robbed his critique of some of its potential force and gave license to his postcolonial followers to move away from Marxism.

Equally penetrating is the analysis by Seamus Deane in his essay on Culture and Imperialism. Sympathetic to Said’s commitment to Palestine, to his harsh reading of the depredations of imperialism, and to his opposition to the US war in Iraq, Deane nevertheless traces some of the shortcomings in his ambiguous attitude to anti-colonial violence. Contrasting Said’s views with those of Fanon, Deane points to “a willed mystification about the question of violence” throughout Said’s writings.

Attempting to understand why he was so uncomfortable writing in more direct terms on the vexed question of anti-colonial violence, Deane notes that Said was likely “severely compromised” by living in a country where a virulent bias against Muslims, Arabs, and especially Palestinians had led (and continues to lead) many to invariably code their acts of violence as “terrorism.”

Deane is equally thoughtful in analyzing Said’s intervention in the so-called culture wars toward the end of Culture and Imperialism, arguing that by focusing on such a trivial matter, he marred the conclusion of his groundbreaking book. Ultimately, Deane observes wryly, Said’s effort to “woo the American academy by means of culture” into opposing imperialism was as fruitless as “cajoling a cat into altruism.”

If many of the essays in After Said involve a sympathetic but often critical engagement with his work, there are several that also extend the power of his insights and political vision. In “Said and the ‘Worlding’ of Nineteenth-Century Fiction,” Lauren Goodlad points out that, as even friendly critics have conceded, Culture and Imperialism often disconnects questions of empire from those relating to the globalization of capital, but she then makes a compelling case that the book still performed a major service by helping to “deprovincialize” European literature and culture. Whatever flaws exist in Said’s nonmaterialist understanding of empire—his assertion, for example, that imperialism is driven by an “almost metaphysical obligation to rule”—he still shined a powerful spotlight on a subject that had been absent from most previous studies of European novels. By doing so, he not only challenged a smug Eurocentrism that endures in the academy to this day but also redirected his readers’ attention toward a politics that can help us move past it. As Jeanne Morefield notes in her contribution to the collection, Said sought to foster “a humanism capable of escaping Eurocentrism’s yawning maw,” a liberalism that could confront its tendency to sanction “destruction and death for distant civilians under the banner of a benign imperialism.”

Like Goodlad and Morefield, Joe Cleary makes a persuasive case for what some of Said’s critics miss, with his essay “Said, Postcolonial Studies, and World Literature.” He, too, disparages a significant portion of postcolonial theorizing, siding with Said’s argument that many of its practitioners have proved “far more invested in insider disputes about the minutiae of favored modes of theory than in the worldly socio-intellectual concerns that had provoked the theories in the first place.” While Said’s peers settled “into a phase of institutional consolidation…with a fairly predictable canon of modern Anglophone writers,” Cleary writes, Said, even in the last stages of his illness, “continued to produce searing essays that testified to his undiminished abilities as a politically committed thinker.”

As After Said and the Selected Works reveal, Said was not only politically committed; he never really stopped arguing. His vision remained, to the end, both worldly and alienated. He insisted that we see past our own national or parochial cultures in order to better understand them. He called on us to expand the narrowness of our moral and political imaginations and to see the world in its entirety as our common home. As an exile as comfortable in New York as in Beirut, Cairo, Paris, or London, he infused his literary style with a cosmopolitan ease and his often urgent politics with a cosmopolitan humanism—a humanism that remains a potent antidote to the cloistered and often nationalist chauvinism that seems to be ascendant even in an age of global crises.

Said’s internationalism and cosmopolitan humanism are perhaps his most important legacies. Human life and its challenges—whether they be pandemics, climate change, perpetual war, or neoliberal policies that impoverish the many to enrich the few—force us past the confines of national or cultural boundaries. One can only imagine how Said would have responded to the malign forces that have sabotaged the effective handling of these ongoing crises. As Saree Makdisi proposes in “Orientalism Today,” “the most appropriate thing” in the face of such folly “would be to read Edward Said all over again, as though for the very first time.”

The Selected Works and the essays in After Said remind us that it is not enough to produce good ideas and generate critical perspectives today; we must expand the very horizon of our thinking both geographically and morally. Ideas and culture must be fought for not only in the cloistered precincts of academia but also out in the world, in the public arena. That was what Said, while always the consummate academic, did for his entire career, and it remains a vivid example for others—scholars, writers, students, activists, and ordinary citizens. Said wrote about the experience of rereading Freud’s essays:

That we, different readers from different periods of history, with different cultural backgrounds, should continue to do this…strikes me as nothing less than a vindication of his work’s power to instigate new thought, as well as to illuminate situations that he himself might never have dreamed of.

Much the same can be said of Said. As a literary critic, a teacher, and a political activist, he addressed the world with a passion and commitment that speak to us today.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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