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
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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.

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