Edward Said: A Life Without Taste
A new biography of the author of "Orientalism" is written by an admirer, but no admirer should want you to read it.
Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said, by Timothy Brennan, (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux: 2021), 464 pages.
In 1950 New Yorker writer Lillian Ross met up with Ernest Hemingway. The novelist had just arrived in New York from Havana. He had come to purchase some duds, catch up with his friend Marlene Dietrich, and talk with his editor, Charles Scribner, about his new book Across the River and into the Trees. He had agreed to permit Ross to accompany him as he made these various pit stops, along with a final one at the Metropolitan Museum. Ross’s account begins with her lauding Hemingway, saying that he “may well be the greatest living American novelist and short-story writer.” In later years, she insisted that her record of Hemingway’s visit was meant affectionately, and she may well have been sincere. Yet the Hemingway she depicts is a sybarite, a drunk, a pill-popper and an all-purpose blowhard. He talks in self-infatuated terms about his achievements and his reputation. He day-drinks from a hip flask as he wanders about the museum, offering inane views of the paintings and their painters, some of whom he had known. He talks in a pidgin American Indian dialect and quite literally patronizes his son. As the piece appeared in the New Yorker, which was then the country’s foremost source of opinion regarding highbrow fiction, his standing as an author has never entirely recovered from it.
If Timothy Brennan’s new biography of literature professor Edward Said were any good, or if it had appeared first in a similarly august publication, it would probably have had the same effect on Said’s reputation. It would seal its doom. I suspect it will not, but only because it’s atrociously written and was not excerpted prior to publication.
Its author is a former student and a devoted acolyte of Said’s. He admires the sometime Columbia University professor and Palestinian nationalist. He sees Said’s commitment to esoteric left-wing dogmas and his engagement with the most inscrutable aspects of post-structuralist philosophy as heroic, and he believes that Said’s windy, tedious, out-of-print examinations of the currents of modern literature are weighty and profound. What he cannot do is write. Indeed, it speaks notably ill of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux that they published it, as much of the tome seems not merely unedited but unread. Just within the first 75 pages, I encountered dozens of instances of faulty syntax and grotesquely inappropriate word choices. Brennan uses the word gloss when he means cast, employs beckoning for probing, repertoire for vocabulary, kept close for enjoyed, insubordinate for instigator, canonized for introduced, itinerant for unsettled, and insouciance for disregard.
That is hardly damning of Said, of course. The only way in which it might be considered so is that Brennan is someone Said “taught.” What is devastating is what the book reveals about Said’s political beliefs, his character, and, most notably, his wholesale lack of anything that could be construed as aesthetic taste or sensibility.
It happens that my older brother was among the many Columbia students who took Said’s undergraduate modern fiction class during the 1980s. It also happens that my brother found in an old book shop the syllabus to the same class as it had been taught in the 1920s. Said had barely altered the list of readings. Simply put, he was running a class in modern fiction that was stuck in the past. Reading Brennan’s biography you can readily understand why. As Brennan tells us, Robert Ludlum was among his favorite writers. Similarly, he loved inane action movies—the Arnold Schwarzenegger version of Total Recall was a particular object of affection—and hated art films. And though he was a talented pianist and had even seriously considered a career as a concertizing performer, he was enthusiastic in his discussions of Arnold Schoenberg but critical of Mozart.
Where aesthetics were concerned, he was an idiot. If there were such a thing as tone deafness in vital matters of taste, he possessed it. He had inherited a list of highbrow modern novels and kept teaching it, as he was fundamentally unable to judge literature. Indeed, the only area in which he seems to have shown any real understanding was clothes; one has the sense that, though his followers took his opinions on the arts seriously, the field in which he might best have made a contribution was as a fashion essayist—say with Italian Vogue or Women’s Wear Daily.
Like so many in the academy, Said saw art as little more than a medium by which to advance political aims. As Brennan puts it, in talking about the genius of Salzburg, Mozart’s
lightheartedness hid an abiding darkness…a cynical unchanging order that Said indirectly condemned as morally unacceptable, as was that of Richard Strauss (given his own chapter in [Said’s book] On Late Style), who in his late work of the mid-twentieth century actively sought to go back to the eighteenth century by composing reactionary confections that showcased tonal harmonies showed off his talents for artifice as a way of retreating from the world of human affairs.
That art had value in itself was a point that largely escaped Said.
It follows then that not only was Said’s own writing plodding and bland, but that he had little awareness or responsiveness to style. Consequently, though he was a Conrad scholar, he did not focus on the Polish author’s formal gifts, and the Conrad novel he most admired, Nostromo, may well have been his worst written. It should also be no surprise that Edward FitzGerald turns up in this account of Said’s life, but F. Scott Fitzgerald does not. To the same degree, Said showed only the barest interest in the most psychological authors. For this reason Noam Chomsky’s name appears on roughly one of 10 pages of the biography, as do Marx’s and Foucault’s. However, Chekhov is nowhere in the index, and neither is Tolstoy, Turgenev, Eliot, Maugham, or Zola.
The lack of understanding that Said displayed in his literary criticism carried over to his political views. Why did he split with the Palestine Liberation Organization and why did they eventually ban his writings from being sold in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip? As Brennan reveals, Said considered the Oslo Accords to be a betrayal of the Palestinian cause as it called for a Palestinian state. Doggedly impractical and very much a prisoner of the Ivory Tower, Said was convinced that a unitary Jewish and Muslim state of Israel was possible, and he opposed a division of the country; no matter that hardly any Palestinians (or Israelis) wanted this.
Brennan is honest enough to admit that few in the field of Oriental Studies have much regard for his most influential book, Orientalism. Brennan concedes what is an open secret: The book’s anti-Western message and its claim that 19th-century Europeans almost uniformly viewed the Middle East with hostility and contempt is one-sided, distorted, and willfully misleading. But this was typical of Said’s political writings, which were often startlingly wrongheaded.
That was shown most comically with the publication of his book, Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See Islam and the Rest of the World. Its aim was to persuade readers not to believe the claims that Islamic radicalism was a vital force in the Middle East. That, Said maintained, reflected hysteria in the Western media and “orientalist” misunderstanding of the region. Among the book’s most pointed assertions was that Khomeini wasn’t really calling most of the shots in Iran and that the West should try to engage with the country’s more moderate president, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr. The book was published on May 29, 1981. Within three weeks of that date, Bani-Sadr had been impeached by Iran’s rubber stamp parliament, the Revolutionary Guard had taken possession of the country’s presidential palace, and Bani-Sadr had fled for the United States.
Inevitably, a final subject of Brennan’s biography is the man, Edward Said, himself. Here Brennan reveals the ways in which Said repeatedly lied and misled others. One particular focus for this was his frequent blackening of the reputation of his father, a seemingly admirable man, if a Christian and a successful small capitalist. (Horrors!)
It is perhaps not necessary to review the distortions in Brennan’s biography and in Said’s own accounting with regard to Israeli and Palestinian politics. No matter. What emerges in Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said is a man who represents all the worst aspects of contemporary academia: a persistently self-congratulatory figure who has read much but understood next to nothing, a commentator on art who saw it exclusively in its service to politics, and a determined political actor who knew almost nothing of the actual world.
Jonathan Leaf is a playwright and critic living in New York.