Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Edward W. Said, Intellectual

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Edward W. Said, Intellectual

Article excerpt

For years, he was a familiar face on the network news-an urbane, articulate man, invariably dressed in an elegant suit and tie, who could always be counted on to provide polished, unaccented, pro-Palestinian (or, more generally, pro-Arab or pro-- Moslem) spin on recent Mideast developments. Yet Edward W. Said is more-much more-than just another TV talking head. A longtime professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University as well as a former president of the Modern Language Association, Said is also largely responsible for the influential school of literary and cultural criticism known as "postcolonial studies." Which is not as far removed from being a Palestinian spokesman as it may sound, for, as Said has made clear in such works as The Question of Palestine (1979), he views Israel as (above all else) a product of colonialism-a pseudo-- European state carved by Western imperialist powers out of lands rightly belonging to the subjects of empire.1

Said has been in the spotlight for a long time now, but in the last two or three years-and especially since September 11, 2001 -his public profile has been higher than ever. Vintage Books, after reissuing several of his works in matching paperbacks, published his memoir, Out of Place, in 1999. In the next year, two new volumes appeared from Vintage: The End of the Peace Process, a sizable gathering of articles and op-eds on the Middle East, and The Edward Said Reader. These were followed in 2001 by Reflections on Exile, a hefty collection of essays, and Power, Politics, and Culture, a lavish compilation of Said's interviews.2 In these times when major publishing houses almost invariably disdain collections of anything, the treatment accorded Said's essays, op-eds, and interviews-which tend not only to date rapidly but also to repeat the same broad points over and over again-is nothing less than stunning. On the dust jacket of Power, Politics, and Culture, Nadine Gordimer ranks Said "among the truly important intellects of our century." Surely his publishers would appear to be telling us that something extraordinarily important is indeed going on here-- though, in the aftermath of the events of September 11, one might reasonably wonder if any of those publishers have reconsidered their enthusiasm.

What is going on here? Let us begin at the beginning. The son of a Lebanese mother and an affluent Palestinian father (whose World War One service for Uncle Sam won him U.S. citizenship), Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935, was baptized in the Anglican Church, and grew up as a member of Cairo's privileged set. Fluent from childhood in both Arabic and English, he attended exclusive British and American schools in that city, then went on to a New England prep school, to Princeton, and to Harvard, where he received his doctorate. He began a fairly typical career in the American academy, only to be politicized (he has said) by the Six-Day War. Before long he was working closely with Yasir Arafat (with whom he has since fallen out) and serving as a member of the Palestine National Council (from which he has since resigned). He became a familiar media presence. And with his book Orientalism (1978), he also attained academic superstardom. Examining at length the works of T. E. Lawrence, Sir Richard Burton, and Ernest Renan, among others, Said argued in Orientalism that Westerners have long looked upon the Orient, and in particular upon Moslems and Arabs, with a condescension born of ignorance, solipsism, and a colonialist mentality.3

Orientalism made some valid points: there is something wrong, for example, with the fact that many American students who receive comprehensive educations in Western civilization gain only the most rudimentary understanding of the world's other civilizations. (The fact that many students are graduated knowing very little about any civilization is another topic altogether.) But ultimately, Said's thesis amounts to a truism: that people look at the "other" through their own eyes, and tend to judge alien cultures by their own culture's standards. …

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