Scholar Sees Connections between Literature and Political Legitimacy

By Nina Mehta. Nina Mehta, a. freelance reviewer, lives in Plainsboro, N. J. | The Christian Science Monitor, April 12, 1993 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Scholar Sees Connections between Literature and Political Legitimacy

Nina Mehta. Nina Mehta, a. freelance reviewer, lives in Plainsboro, N. J., The Christian Science Monitor

IN "Prejudices" (1919), the splenetic American journalist and social critic H. L. Mencken wrote: "A great literature is chiefly the product of inquiring minds in revolt against the immovable certainties of the nation."

"Culture and Imperialism" is Edward Said's rebuttal.

A public intellectual and literary theorist who describes himself as a Christian Arab exile in the United States, Said is a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York. He is probably best known as the West's media-savvy dean of Palestinian causes and friend of the Palestine Liberation Organization. On television and in print, he has insisted eloquently, and often combatively, that the West's international struggles are expressions of modern imperialism's guiding pr inciple that to rule a country is to represent its culture.

In his landmark book "Orientalism" (1978), Said argued controversially that "the Orient" was a construction of the West - a fictive reality bolstered by scholars in putatively objective disciplines - that institutionalized the stereotypes and assumptions necessary for the West to maintain its hierarchical relationship with the Islamic Middle East. Since then it has been Said's cross-disciplinary task to question the interpretations that transform an entity (a country, people, or religion) into its repres entation in Western media, politics, and literature.

Said's new book, "Culture and Imperialism," the long-awaited sequel to "Orientalism," shifts the focus provocatively from scholarship to literature and broadens the base to include colonial representations of other regions as well as the literature of resistance from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

His main argument is that imperialism is buttressed and legitimized by imperial cultures. Having noted in earlier books that authors develop through imaginative writing, he here suggests that nations shape themselves and consolidate their authority in the world through their national literature.

Accordingly, he traces the hegemonic cultural roots of three dominant Western empires in the last two centuries - Britain, France, and the United States - to the 19th-century European realistic novel, the genre that rose to the occasion of colonialism. Imperialism and the novel, he maintains, "are unthinkable without each other."

Braiding together political philosophy, history, literature, and literary criticism in dense, often knotted paragraphs of theory and formal analysis, Said is least effective when trying to get the various arguments in this book to cohere. Curiously, since he spends so much time discussing the literature of formerly colonized countries, he devotes minimal attention to the intermingling of genres and the effect of the Western novel on third-world narrative forms. In addition, like other influential academi cs with bold ideas, he sometimes forces his material to conform with his thesis - for the alleged good of the discipline, naturally.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Scholar Sees Connections between Literature and Political Legitimacy


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?