The Radical Critique of Edward Said

Four new books about the life and works of Edward Said remind us of his towering intellectual significance – and his indispensable contribution to understanding Palestine's struggle for liberation.

In the eighteen years since his death in 2003, there might be no time we’ve missed Edward W. Said more than the present one. The Palestinian-born, US-based literary scholar, journalist, political activist, musician, and philosopher was defined by qualities we currently very conspicuously lack. A relentless, unanswerable critique of Zionism that never once lapsed into antisemitism or conspiracy theory; a writer with a ferocious hatred of Euro-American imperialism that was combined with a deep knowledge and regard for the very culture he aimed to displace and destroy; a lover of Jane Austen, Joseph Conrad, and Rudyard Kipling who stressed their complicity in imperialism, and dedicated much of his work to popularising twentieth-century Arabic novelists and poets; an Arab, an Anglican who preferred the original Book of Common Prayer, and an exile writer of such cosmopolitan sophistication that when, near the end of his life, he told an Israeli daily ‘I am the last Jewish intellectual — the only true follower of Adorno’, he was clearly not entirely joking.

People love to try to reduce Said, and complain about him not being quite one thing or another, and he obviously revelled in embodying what the slow-witted would consider to be contradictions. His reputation as a stone-throwing Palestinian firebrand (‘professor of terror’) went alongside his Savile Row suits and impeccable manners. He would prefer to call his approach ‘contrapuntal’. Too much of a tranche of recent biographies and studies of Said, all three by friends of his, seem based on trying to reduce his immensity, turning him into either one thing or another. The Iranian-American critic Hamid Dabashi’s On Edward Said is mainly about Said the intellectual militant, and runs sometimes poignant reminiscences of his friend alongside somewhat routine demolition jobs on the likes of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, American imperial liberal Mark Lilla, or the famous Orientalist Bernard Lewis, as anti-Saids. Its mirror-image is Lebanese fiction writer Dominique Eddé’s life of her friend ‘as a novel’, which largely treats him as a tortured ineffectual luftmensch; if Dabashi’s book tends to tub-thumping and hackwork, then Eddé’s tends towards preciousness and a certain theory-bathos (‘shortly before his death, I surprised and, I think convinced Edward that (his) “W” initial was his “double-you” ’)

American professor Timothy Brennan’s newly published life is much better than these, largely because it has a scale appropriate to the vast totality of its subject, treating the entire complex breadth of Said’s life and thought, drawing on archival research and dozens of interviews. A book that contains a major factual error on the British Mandate in Palestine in its first few pages should perhaps pull its punches with the failings of others rather more than it does, but on the whole, Places of Mind is an excellent book. Ranging from snapshots of Said’s upper-middle class upbringing in Jerusalem and Cairo to the oddly respectful FBI file kept on him as an American academic, and from close readings of Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism to accounts of the controversies around them, this is largely a well-judged, humane, and often funny book. Brennan has a particular ability to recall Said’s delight in sudden code-switching (before a notoriously bruising debate with Bernard Lewis, telling colleagues — in Arabic — ‘I am going to fuck his mother’). It also stresses how much Said, for all his critiques of Marx, was a man firmly of the left, one who regarded his closest intellectual allies to be English Marxists such as John Berger, Raymond Williams, and E. P. Thompson.

Places of Mind also has the virtue of being published alongside a new Selected Works. This is not an essay collection (there is already a good one, Reflections on Exile, published in 2000), but rather a compendium of extracts, ranging from his early work on Conrad (with the near-self-portrait of a writer whose sense of style emerged from being a ‘self-conscious foreigner writing of obscure experiences in an alien language’), his devastating account of ‘Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims’, and excerpts from his major books and his autobiographical writings. Hopefully it should introduce many to his deeply original final works such as Freud and the Non-European and On Late Style, both of which make invigorating reading in an era obsessed with authenticity.

There is now a certain shame in being reminded of basic lines on Israel–Palestine which have been forgotten in the shabby politicking of British party politics: too many forgot that ‘institutions whose humanistic and social (and even socialist) inspirations were manifest for Jews were precisely, determinedly inhuman for the Arabs.’ So perhaps the last word could go to Dabashi, in an address he gave on his death in 2003. ‘Siding with Said is an awakening. Mourning Said is a vigilance’. This is truer today than it ever was.

Review of:

Places of Mind: a Life of Edward Said by Timothy Brennan (Bloomsbury, 2021).
On Edward Said by Hamid Dabashi (Haymarket, 2020).
Edward Said: His Thought as a Novel by Dominique Eddé (Verso, 2019).
The Selected Works of Edward W. Said, 1966–2006 (Bloomsbury, 2021).

About the Author

Owen Hatherley is the culture editor of Tribune. His latest book, Red Metropolis: Socialism and the Government of London, is now out from Repeater Books.