The game of biographical “gotcha” is a perennially popular form of ideological blood sport. The goal is to find an incriminating datum that will leave a permanent stain on the target’s reputation, make his defenders look like craven apologists, and give the general public a ready-made judgment that can be wielded without too much reading or thought. If the anti-communism of George Orwell or Arthur Koestler bugs you, you can point to recent allegations that the former was a snitch and the latter a rapist. If you resent the fact that your college professors forced you to read I, Rigoberta Menchú, you can rejoice in the discovery that she embellished some important details of her life story. Didn’t Karl Marx beat his wife? And what about Freud’s thing for his sister-in-law and his taste for cocaine?
To this list now add Columbia literature professor Edward W. Said, the subject of a fiercely debated article in the September issue of Commentary. The article, by American-born Israeli legal scholar Justus Reid Weiner, contends that Said, who was born in Jerusalem to a Christian Arab family in 1935, has over the years deliberately obscured some facts about his early life, and amplified others, in order to create the impression that he was, of all things, Palestinian.
Not so fast, says Weiner: Said’s childhood was not “the parable of Palestinian identity” marked by dispossession from a beloved homeland and the subsequent pain of exile. Instead, Said “grew up not in Jerusalem but in Cairo, where his father, an American citizen, had moved as an economic expatriate approximately nine years before Edward’s birth and had become the owner of a thriving business; and there, until his own departure for the United States as a teenager in 1951, the young Edward Said resided in luxurious apartments, attended private English schools, and played tennis at the exclusive Gezira Sporting Club as the child of one of its few Arab members.”
A similar account of Edward Said’s youth can be found in a new book called Out of Place, the author of which is Edward Said. The book, Said’s 17th, is a wrenching, intimate account of growing up in Cairo’s wealthy Levantine expatriate community, of summering in the dreary Lebanese resort town of Dhour el Shweir, and of visiting the family home in Jerusalem, sometimes for as long as several months. Weiner claims that the memoir is an elaborate sleight of hand and speculates that Said decided to “spin” the story of his past–by telling the truth about it–when he heard about Weiner’s inquiries. In the weeks since his essay appeared, Weiner’s motives, methods, and assertions have been roundly attacked by Said and his friends, and Weiner has made some attempt at clarification. (Click for a recap of the controversy and links to relevant articles, or click here for my review of Out of Place.)
Just who is Edward Said that his family’s real estate holdings and his grammar school records rate 7,000 words in Commentary, not to mention three years of research by a scholar in residence at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs? Followers of Middle East politics, as well as viewers of the NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, where Said often appears, know him as an eloquent spokesman for the Palestinian cause. Readers of The Nation know him as a formidable reviewer of opera and classical music. Several generations of graduate students in a number of disciplines know him as the author of Orientalism. The 30,000 literary scholars who make up the membership of the Modern Language Association–minus one who resigned in protest earlier this year over Said’s election–know him as Mr. President. Readers of Al-Hayat, a London-based Arabic-language newspaper, and Al-Ahram, a Cairo weekly, know him as a regular commentator on politics and culture. Each of these identities–political activist, literary scholar, university professor, public intellectual–are, in Said’s case, inordinately complex in and of themselves. The tensions between them–between intellectual, aesthetic, and political impulses that are felt with enormous passion and expressed with great vehemence–make Said an uncommonly interesting, and endlessly controversial, intellectual figure.
Most controversial–and most misunderstood–has been Said’s involvement in Palestinian affairs. He has published half a dozen books on the plight of the Palestinians, including The Question of Palestine (1979), After the Last Sky (1986), and Peace and Its Discontents (1995), a scathing critique of the Oslo peace accords, which Said calls “the Palestinian Versailles.” These writings, his relationship with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, and his many years of service in the Palestine National Council (the now-defunct Palestinian parliament in exile, from which he resigned in 1991 after being diagnosed with leukemia) have invited smears and misrepresentations: A decade ago Commentary branded him “The Professor of Terror.” New York magazine once called him “Arafat’s man in New York.” And he showed up last spring, unnamed, in TheNew Yorker’s special “Money” issue as a well-dressed Columbia don rumored to be “on the payroll of the PLO.”
Until very recently, Said has been an insistent voice for Palestinian statehood: He helped to draft the PLO’s “Algiers Declaration” of 1988, which linked this aspiration to the recognition of Israel’s right to exist. Over the years, he has often said that his own place in such a state would be as its toughest critic. Even as he has been unsparing in his indictments of Israeli and American policy, he has not let Arab governments–or the Palestinian leadership–off the hook. He has assailed the corrupt, authoritarian regimes that rule most of the Arab world, punctured the ideological phantasms of Pan-Arabist nationalism and reactionary Islam alike, and bemoaned the impoverished state of Arab cultural and intellectual life. He has also, within the Palestinian camp, been a consistent advocate of reconciliation with Israel and an opponent of terrorism. The Question of Palestine called for a “two-state solution” at a time when the official PLO ambition was total control over British Mandatory Palestine. The book, published in Israel in 1981, had, as of the mid-’90s, never been translated into Arabic or published in any Arab country.
In 1978, in the wake of the Camp David accords, Said delivered a message from Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to one of Arafat’s top aides indicating that the United States would recognize the PLO as a legitimate party to peace talks in exchange for recognition of Israel. Arafat ignored the message. Fifteen years later, when Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn, Said, who had been invited to the event by its patron, Bill Clinton, stayed home. Since then, as bien-pensant American opinion has embraced the “peace process,” Said has bemoaned Arafat’s “capitulation” and grown increasingly disgusted with the chairman’s dictatorial rule over a few scraps of occupied territory and with Israel’s continued expropriation of Palestinian lands. In the New York Times Magazine last spring, he wrote that the Palestinian state toward which the peace process seemed, however pokily, to be tending could not provide democracy and justice for the Palestinians. Instead, he called for a single, “bi-national” state based on a constitution (something neither Israel nor the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority currently has), with “the idea and practice of citizenship, not of ethnic or racial community, as the main vehicle for coexistence.”
But to treat Said solely, or even primarily, as a political figure is necessarily to produce a distorted view of his life. He is, first and foremost, a literary critic, who wrote his Ph.D. at Harvard–on Joseph Conrad, a lifelong obsession–under Harry Levin, one of the champions of a comparative approach to literary study. Said’s subsequent work has retained much of the expansive spirit and rigorous methodology of Levin’s teachings. Beginnings: Intention and Method, the book which made Said’s academic reputation, is a bulky study of how novels begin, carried out through painstakingly close formal analysis and displaying crushing erudition.
But Said’s fame outside the American academy rests on Orientalism, his sweeping account of how Western art, literature, and scholarship have produced a deformed, biased picture of Arab and Muslim culture in the service of colonial domination. The impact of Orientalism far exceeded its subject, vast though that was. In addition to laying the groundwork for “post-colonial” studies as an area of inquiry, the book inspired a flurry of scholarship devoted to “the other”–to groups of people who, by virtue of race, gender, sexuality, or geographical location, are unable to represent themselves and so (to echo the line from Karl Marx that serves as the book’s epigraph) “must be represented” by those more powerful. And Orientalism, with its harsh critiques of European philology and American social science, contributed to an epistemological shift in the American academy: Traditional disciplines were no longer to be taken for granted as the vehicles of objective knowledge but themselves became the objects of ideological analysis.
Both Said’s methods and his substantive claims have come under attack. Because his theoretical debt to Michel Foucault and his unabashedly political intentions marked him as an avatar of the emerging academic left, a lot of the criticism came from traditional scholars. In the New York Review of Books, for example, the Princeton historian Bernard Lewis, one of the chief modern villains of Orientalism, decried Said’s inflammatory tone and questioned his knowledge of history, philology, and Arabic. (To read Lewis’ piece, click here. For Said’s angry response, click here.) But the most sustained assault on Orientalism’s premises, and on its prestige, came from the left. In a book called In Theory–a wholesale slaughter of the sacred cows of the postmodern Western intelligentsia–the Indian Marxist literary critic Aijaz Ahmad raised further questions about Said’s mastery of his sources and accused him of self-aggrandizement and insufficient political discipline. Whereas Lewis attacks Said for trashing the norms and values of traditional scholarship, Ahmad rebukes him for hewing too closely to them. And while Lewis believes Said to be motivated by a crude anti-Western leftist animus, Ahmad finds him altogether too enamored of the canons of European literature and avers that Said possesses “a very conservative mind, essentially Tory in its structure.”
Lewis and Ahmad are both right. Orientalism and its even more ambitious sequel Culture and Imperialism are works of passionate, almost agonized ambivalence. To read them is to encounter a mind at war with itself and the world (and ready to go to war with his critics, as any number of exchanges over the past quarter-century will show). Said’s evident love of the literature and music of the West continually collides with his righteous anger at what the West has done to the rest. His desire to use literary criticism as a weapon on the side of the oppressed sits athwart the pleasure he takes in letting his mind play over the meaning in a novel or a poem. The results are books at once exhausting in their detail and maddening in their omissions, uneven in tone, overreaching and underargued. “He is easily distracted” the critic John Leonard remarked in an appreciative review of Culture and Imperialism, “answering too many fire alarms, sometimes to pour on more petrol.”
Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism are unquestionably incendiary, but they are also permanent and exemplary works of late-20th-century criticism, in no small part because they invite so much argument, because for all the intellectual authority they project they remain open, vulnerable, provisional. And they also fulfill the basic mandate of literary analysis, which is to illuminate the works they discuss: To return to Verdi’s Aida, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or Kipling’s Kim after reading Said on them is to find them richer, stranger, and more complicated than you had ever imagined.
More than anyone else in his generation, Edward Said has sought to embody an unfashionable, perhaps obsolescent idea of the intellectual–immersed in culture and committed to politics, placing “criticism over solidarity,” speaking truth to power, and steering clear of gods that fail. There was a time when this idea flourished more widely–even in the pages of Commentary.