Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

The Late Style of Edward Said

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

The Late Style of Edward Said

Article excerpt

Edward Said's interest in "late style"--a concept drawn from Theodor Adorno's account of Beethoven's late music--was explicitly channeled to a book project that was not, however, completed in his lifetime. Yet, a careful reading of Said's completed late work--the book on humanism and the political journalism of his last two years--reveals an exercise in late style as such: in other words, the work of an intransigent and restless spirit, unsatisfied with the certainties pronounced in his name, and focused on a mode of interrogation against the grain of identity--what the author called the task of secular criticism.

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Edward Said's interest in "late style"--a concept drawn from Theodor Adorno's account of Beethoven's late music--can be traced back to the early 1990s. It represented initially the next in a line of writings on literary and musical criticism, following Culture and Imperialism (1993) and Musical Elaborations (1991). But it would also be fair to say that "late style" was conceptualized by Said out of the disruptive experience of his illness, and the consequent confrontation with mortality. Because Said had always been adverse to religious or transcendental solutions, his personal encounter with mortality was unlikely to have led to intellectual projects that exemplify some sort of spiritual quest, an exercise in philosophical redemption, or a retrospective settling of affairs.

The writing of his memoir Out of Place (1999)--which, by his own account, proved difficult to complete-was hardly an attempt to round out the contours of his life or provide a retrospective reference for some sort of Saidian totality. In addition to being, in a concrete and avowed sense, an attempt to recall and reconfigure in writing a social world now lost forever, the memoir strove to map a network of beginnings, and hardly to account for a totality of life from some endpoint of thought. It might be said that Out of Place was Said's first exercise in late style, much as it signified, de facto, the deferral of writing the envisioned essays that would make up the book on late style. As a narrative of beginnings--and much like Said's first exercise in literary criticism, Beginnings (1975)--the memoir was an extensive meditation on the parameters of secular life, on a person' s struggle to create meaning solely within this world, even in historical instances when the world seemed recalcitrant and adverse to any sort of meaningfulness.

The book on late style was never completed, though various essays or bits and pieces in lectures and occasional writings over the last fifteen years suggest that the project was always alive and imminent. The recent publication in the London Review of Books of an essay "Thoughts on Late Style," a fragmentary but brilliant exposition of the problem Said was pursuing, puts forth a whole other framework in which to perceive Edward Said's last works. (1) (We might note, incidentally, that the graduate seminar Said occasionally taught at Columbia University during those years carried the double title "Last Works/Late Style.") By last works, I refer to his book Humanism and Democratic Criticism (2004), and the political journalism of the last years, collected posthumously as From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map (2004) and published with an insightful introduction by New York University historian Tony Judt and an elegant and moving afterword by Wadie Said, the author's son.

Even the most elementary account of Edward Said's life and work makes evident that his literary and political worlds were intertwined in a delicate but persistent fashion, though kept intact in their disciplinary parameters, conducted simultaneously as distinct but interrelated elements of a life project, which he explicitly authorized as the task of secular criticism. But what exactly distinguishes these last works within the protracted project of secular criticism that might enable us to speak of the late style of Edward Said? …

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