Magazine article The Spectator

Working into the Night

Magazine article The Spectator

Working into the Night

Article excerpt

ON LATE STYLE by Edward Said Bloomsbury, £16.99, pp. 176, ISBN 074758365X . £13.59 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

The influence of an intellectual is not necessarily proportional to his merit. The late Edward Said was a prime example of this dissociation between influence and merit.

His most famous book, Orientalism, has had a profound and lasting effect on writing about the Middle East, yet it is badly written, worse argued and uses evidence so selectively that it is little short of mendacious.

Said, however, was a literary critic and accomplished amateur pianist as well as a political polemicist, and in this posthumous work he considers what he calls 'Late Style'.

Unfortunately, it has long been fashionable in some intellectual circles to discuss concepts to which no very clear definition can be given, the better to discourse about them with an air of profundity, and I am afraid that late style is one such concept.

Insofar as I was able to extract any meaning from this term, as used by Professor Said, it is this: that certain artists with an awareness of impending death create works that, far from expressing reconciliation or resignation, are technically challenging, emotionally jarring and frequently anticipatory of developments in the art form of which they are an example. The artist who creates them is indifferent to the reception of his work by the society around him. Beethoven's last quartets, for example, exhibit late style.

Since Professor Said did not have an opportunity to revise his book, perhaps it would be unfair to criticise his manner and style too harshly. Perhaps also he would have clarified what is at present opaque or at best faintly translucent, though personally I rather doubt it. Clarity, after all, clarifies banality as well as depth. Here, early on, is a typical passage:

To locate a beginning in retrospective time is to ground a project (such as an experiment, or a governmental commission, or Dickens's beginning to write Bleak House) in that moment, which is always subject to revision.

It always astonishes me that someone who has spent a lifetime studying great literature can write, or even think, such a sentence. …

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