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A Critical Humanist among the Professional Experts

Review of Edward W. Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), xxxv + 617 pp. ISBN 0-674-00997-5 [ISBN-13: 978-0674009974] and Edward Said: The Last Interview, a documentary by Mike Dibb, Interviewer Charles Glass, DVD extended version, 208 minutes (Estate of Edward Said, 2004).

Bob van der Linden

Said, Relections on Exile and Other Essays, cover image
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For forty years, Edward Said (1935-2003) taught at Columbia University, where he was a Professor of English and Comparative Literature. Besides being principally responsible for the emergence of "postcolonial studies" as a dominant form of literary and cultural criticism, he was a forthright pro-Palestinian activist (and in that role, at least in the United States, a familiar TV personality). His criticism and activism came together in the ideas that Western culture can not be understood without its links to imperialism and that knowledge, far from being politically neutral, is contaminated by power and interests. In Said's eyes, Israel therefore solely was a pseudo-European state created by Western imperialists on originally Arab lands. The FBI, in fact, held him under surveillance since 1971 and significant portions of his file still are "Classified Secrets."

Except for the contextual "Introduction: Criticism and Exile" and the essay about Samuel Huntington's "The Clash of Civilizations?" (in which he blames the latter for propagating a mentality of "Us Against Them"), the chronologically organized essays in Reflections on Exile were written between 1967 and 1998. Throughout the bulky collection (whose topics include Ernest Hemingway on bullfighting, Tarzan, the Egyptian belly-dancer Tahia Carioca, Moby-Dick, the "shamelessly pro-colonial renegade" V.S. Naipaul and autobiographical memoirs), there are numerous, sometimes repetitive, references to thinkers that were critical to the development of his thought: Theodor Adorno, Michel Foucault, Georg Lukács, Friedrich Nietzsche, Giambattista Vico and, perhaps most important, Joseph Conrad. What remains striking is the agreement and growth of Said's standpoint over the years. Yet in his writings, as he explains in relation to what probably remains the first history of the "other," his most famous Orientalism (1978), he never believed in an Archimedean point that existed outside the contexts he was describing or the possibility "to devise and deploy an inclusive interpretive methodology that could hang free of the precisely concrete historical circumstances out of which Orientalism derived and from which it drew sustenance" (p. 300). For Said, inspired by the eighteenth century humanist Vico, concrete historical circumstances, especially those of dislocation, exile, migration and empire, were critical to any understanding of the past and present. As a result, he was disappointed with "post-modern" theory because it "reduced and in many instances eliminated the messier precincts of "life" and historical experience" (p. xviii). Alternatively, the fact that historians, often rightly, criticized Said's historical method (see for example: Mackenzie 1995 and Washbrook 1999) does not make his work less significant because at least he stirred up debate in an ever-since growingly important field of study: the relationship between West and non-West (especially Islam).

In 1991, Said was diagnosed with leukaemia and afterwards he stopped giving interviews. In September 2003, nonetheless, he made a final exception and for more than three days spoke about his life and work. The Last Interview begins with a Roland Barthes quote: "The only sort of interview that one could, if forced to, defend would be where the author is asked to articulate what he cannot write." Said's topics and arguments in the documentary obviously much overlap with his writings in Reflections on Exile, yet they gain force by his passionate and eloquent speech (even in response to a seemingly pre-arranged set of questions). Speaking about his illness, he makes clear his physical repulsion against giving up. Like his father, he was a compulsive worker, who just kept going without looking backwards. He seldom relaxed nor rested and always believed that with determination and will power things simply could be done. While the essays in Reflections on Exile mostly are "in the realm of the aesthetic" (p. xxxiv) rather than political, one third of The Last Interview concerns the Palestinian struggle, especially his differences with Arafat and critique of the Oslo agreement. What kept Said going during periods of most severe illness, he states, was his anger towards a picture of Sharon in his mind. Otherwise, he praises the civil initiatives voluntarily coming from within Palestinian society and, closely related, the growing resistance against Arafat's regime. He becomes particularly involved however when he speaks about his relationship with the musician Daniel Barenboim, who was born in Buenos Aires but grew up in Israel and freely performed in Palestine. According to Said, projects like these do not have a specific political message but are immensely important for providing an example of the possibility of fruitful Israeli-Palestinian relations (see also: Barenboim and Said 2002).

Born in Jerusalem, Said grew up there and in Cairo as a member of an elitist Palestinian Protestant family and was educated in Egypt and the United States. Later, he saw himself as a New Yorker "in exile" and in this context, in Reflections on Exile, he cites a twelfth century monk from Saxony, Hugo of St. Victor:

It is, therefore, a source of great virtue for the practised mind to learn, bit by bit, first to change about invisible and transitory things, so that afterwards it may be able to leave them behind altogether. The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land. The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong man has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his (p. 185).

Generally, Said was pre-occupied with the public role of the "un-accommodated" intellectual as "an opponent of consensus and orthodoxy," speaking "the truth to power" (p. 502). Exile, besides being an intellectual condition fed by moral anger against "the mass institutions that dominate modern life" (p. 184), for him simultaneously meant a distance from all cultural identities and an opposition to all orthodoxies of both the colonizer and the colonized. Crucial to Said's feeling of being "in exile" perhaps remains his notion (as explained in The Last Interview) that he always led a kind of double life. While he competently finished his education in various established institutions and over time became a respected scholar, his other "escapist" self above all was a voracious reader of fields that interested him (like philosophy) and a dedicated musician.

All in all, one wonders if Said did not confuse his being "in exile" (the cover of Reflections on Exile shows a detail of Domenico Peterlin's painting "Dante in Exile," c. 1865) with the actual state of every critical humanist in opposition to the professional expert who serves power while pretending to detachment. Equally, his reflections on exile remain somewhat curious because of his own robust identity, i.e. being someone who, from student to scholar, spent all his life in academic institutions, led a domestic life, and had undulating interests in literature, music and Palestine. As he states during The Last Interview, he certainly was not disappointed with his life in the United States because his cosmopolitan identity had allowed him to come into contact with people whom he definitely would not have met when living in Palestine. Further, Said labels himself a 'formalist' as his principal interest were difficult high cultural forms in literature, speech and, indeed, music. Being an accomplished pianist himself, music for him was "a unique branch of aesthetic experience" that as an everlasting source of sustenance "sharpened as well as deepened" his other, "more superficially worldly concerns" (p. xxxii). Hence, he often also used musical language when discussing other fields: counterpoint, parallel lines etc. Yet, what if he had been more interested in musical improvisation (jazz, being the music of the twentieth century!) than in classical counterpoint: would he perhaps then have felt less "in exile" and more in tune with the times?

For Said, the American university was the last utopia for an individual and independent intellectual (though he warns against the danger of guild membership and to be suspicious about awards). He enjoyed teaching: "to ask questions," "to trouble the mind" and "to stimulate resistance," if only to reach a few. Though, on the whole, his position undeniably was a moral one, he never saw himself as a solver of problems. Despite his involvement in the Palestinian struggle, he refused to become dogmatic and his thinking always allowed a transcendent dimension. Indeed, this openness might have been one reason for the criticism against his writings. Alternately, it can be seen as another example of cross-fertilization between his thought and his interest in music. At the end of The Last Interview, Said states that there are two ways of dealing with getting older. Some people become more reconciled with life: they settle their quarrels or adhere to the quietism of non-involvement and reach some semi-holy state. His experience of age, on the contrary, was that of greater intransigence and complexity. This awareness of the irreconcilability of life encouraged him to go on and open avenues for younger people, friends and others. So this remarkable, versatile and complex personality retained hope even in the light of his enduring illness and political disappointments.

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Works cited:

Barenboim, Daniel, and Edward W. Said, Parallels and Paradoxes. Explorations in Music and Society, New York: Pantheon Books 2002.

MacKenzie, John. M., Orientalism: History, Theory and the Arts, Manchester: Manchester University Press 1995.

Washbrook, D.A., "Orients and Occidents: Colonial Discourse Theory and the Historiography of the British Empire" in The Oxford History of the British Empire, Volume V: Historiography, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1999.


About the Reviewer:

Bob van der Linden (Ph.D., University of Amsterdam 2004) is the author of Moral Languages from Colonial Punjab: the Singh Sabhas, Arya Samaj and Ahmadiyahs (New Delhi: Manohar forthcoming 2007). His current research project concerns the relationship between music and empire in Britain and India. Besides being an independent scholar based in Amsterdam, he is a practised musician and a tour-leader to India and China.

Citation Styles:

MLA Style Citation:
van der Linden, Bob. "A Critical Humanist among the Professional Experts." Other Voices 3.1 May 2007. May 24, 2024 ‹http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/cbowman/index.php›.

Chicago Style Citation:
Bob van der Linden, A Critical Humanist among the Professional Experts. Other Voices 3, no. 1 (2007), ‹http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/cbowman/index.php› (accessed May 24, 2024)

APA Style Citation:
van der Linden, Bob. (2007, May). A Critical Humanist among the Professional Experts. Other Voices, 3.1. Retrieved May 24, 2024, from http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/cbowman/index.php


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