Said by Said

Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said by timothy brennan. new york: farrar, straus and giroux. 464 pages. $35.

The cover of Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said

THE FIGURE OF EDWARD SAID might not appear to need much rescuing. Seventeen years after his untimely death from leukemia, almost all his books remain in print. His groundbreaking Orientalism (1978), considered the founding text of postcolonial studies, has been translated into over thirty languages. More than forty books have been written on Said, not to mention the one memoir, Out of Place (1999), written by Said himself. New reflections on his work are published each year, ranging from tributes to critiques, in academic journals and mainstream outlets alike. Meanwhile, Said’s concepts have become so canonical that they appear almost intuitive. Terms like “Orientalism,” “worldliness,” and “secular criticism” are now indelibly associated with Said’s name. Given his eminent political status during life, and his immanent cultural presence in death, to talk about Said these days is to risk contending with how much has already been said.

Said’s momentous influence has to do with how broadly his ideas circulated as well as how often they were denounced. A Palestinian exile who spent most of his life in America, Said straddled many worlds, as an academic, teaching literature at Columbia University, and as a public intellectual, writing on topics ranging from classical music to US foreign policy. It was his remarks on the Middle East, however, and Palestinian-Israeli relations especially, that drew the most ire, and often from all sides. (The FBI kept a 238-page file on Said, and he had the only office at Columbia, besides the president’s, with bulletproof windows and a buzzer straight to campus security.) Given the sheer amount of writing not only by but on Said, it seems at first surprising, and then inevitable, that no one has yet managed a comprehensive biography of him: there’s too much ground to cover, too many aspects of his long and controversial career to accommodate. Timothy Brennan’s rather remarkable Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said seeks to rectify this.

The “special challenge in writing an intellectual biography,” as Brennan puts it, involves reconciling the many sides of a career that was, in Said’s case, so expansive as to seem at times contradictory. Places of Mind takes pains to paint a full picture of Said’s Arab and American selves as they come together, while also elucidating how his writing on Palestine, literature, music, public intellectuals, and the media all intertwine. An old student and friend of Said’s, Brennan is himself a formidable scholar, having authored numerous books and essays on topics from world literature to Hegel to jazz. But despite his personal relationship to his subject, Brennan quickly recedes into the background, following a short preface. (The same cannot be said, for instance, of H. Aram Veeser in his 2010 Edward Said: The Charisma of Criticism.) Previous books on Said have been organized around thematic chapters or individual essays. Without neglecting critical analysis, Brennan attempts to tell something more like a story. What emerges is a remarkably careful and considered narrative of Said’s life from cradle to grave—an account that is both synthesis and corrective.

Riffing on the title of Said’s memoir, which renders an image of the exile as always “out of place,” Places of Mind turns inward—to reveal the intellectual center of a seemingly roving career. Said wrote of the “Western imaginative geography” in Orientalism, but in Brennan’s book it is Said’s own imaginative geography that allows us to glimpse the full reach of his thinking. Born in Jerusalem, raised in Cairo, and educated in America, Said experienced from an early age the shifting boundaries of place and belonging that would come to define his work. His upbringing was characterized by a restlessness both geographic and intellectual. After an early obsession with music, Said turned, under the guidance of a few key mentors, to studying philosophy and, finally, literature. He would increasingly venture into more publicly engaged forms of intellectualism after being hired by Columbia’s English department, but it was always literary criticism that grounded him.

Edward Said, 1983.
Edward Said, 1983. Jean Mohr

“If along with Chomsky, Hannah Arendt, and Susan Sontag he was the best-known U.S. public intellectual of the postwar period,” writes Brennan, “he was the only one of them who taught literature for a living.” Places of Mind takes the task of the intellectual biography to heart: it understands Said’s life by way of his work, and understands his work by way of the thinker at its center. That’s not to say that Said’s thought was uniform. If anything, he recognized and often relished his own contradictions: a critic of Orientalism who was also an Anglophile, a social scientist who was also an aesthete, a radical leftist with expensive tastes. Yet for Brennan, Said was, above all, a literary critic, and the only way to understand him is through reading, well, his literary criticism.

Places of Mind is as much an intellectual biography as a kind of literary criticism on literary criticism. In immensely readable prose, Brennan flexes his expertise as one of the world’s leading authorities on Said. Drawing on Said’s archives and letters, Brennan cites—like any responsible literary critic—primary material as evidence or even counterevidence against Said’s own self-presentation. Brennan does so not to undercut his subject, but to portray him in a fuller, more nuanced, setting. Said’s intellectual restlessness, he observes, is already apparent in early work such as Beginnings (1975), which helped popularize the then still relatively novel poststructuralist thought of Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze. “Just as he was introducing these theorists, all still living and at the height of their powers, to American readers, he was moving beyond them.”

For while Said never felt at home anywhere in the world, that position also granted him a critical superpower. Orientalism was accused of internalized Eurocentrism and anti-Europeanness alike, but what both readings missed was Said’s genuine, and genuinely ambivalent, engagement with Orientalist “images, rhythms, and motifs.” Said was, after all, raised on the Western canon, though it was ultimately his cultural distance from it that allowed him to look at it with an eye at once discerning and admiring. “In Said’s mind,” writes Brennan, “Orientalism’s success had everything to do with his having learned their lessons well.” Orientalism put Said on the map. But those who had been following his work were “unlikely to miss that the book was a meditation on the degree to which representation is part of reality.” Here, once again, it’s literary criticism, and its attention to cultural representation, that allows Said to make connections others might miss:

If there was one thing Orientalism was about, it was that the humanities have political consequences, not only because of the weight and scope of influence wielded by Orientalist scholars but in the particular sense that literary critics (rather than politicians, journalists, or social scientists) study representation. Only they can explain how a mania like Orientalism takes shape and acquires, as he put it, “mass density and referential power.”

In Said’s work, literature becomes a kind of decoy for polemical or politicized forms of criticism. As early as graduate school, he was “injecting ideas” by the more experimental Continental philosophers “between the lines of his otherwise safe dissertation” on Joseph Conrad. Said’s second book was to be a study of Jonathan Swift, in which he hoped to smuggle an oblique takedown of structuralism. “If the Conrad book surreptitiously brought the English literary canon face-to-face with Continental philosophy,” explains Brennan, “the Swift study was to have quietly exposed the political disaster lurking in theories of the autonomy of language.” The Swift study never came to fruition, as Said was becoming increasingly politicized in the wake of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and antiwar movement of 1968 and 1969. In its place, Said published Beginning—his treatise on the role of the public intellectual and the relationship between rhetoric and policy—in which, we might say, the subtext of the Swift book became manifest. For Said, Swift stood as a cautionary tale for the engaged public intellectual—“a political activist who saw firsthand the sordid realism of a power that eventually beat him down,” who nonetheless offered a model for how the contemporary critic could be. Even as Said ventured to write more explicitly politicized work, his training in literary studies was never far behind.

As Brennan examines Said’s rise as a celebrity later in life, he emphasizes Said’s attention to problems of representation and narrative in the media. His book Covering Islam (1981), about the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979–80, was essentially a work of media criticism that was also research for how Said might himself, as Brennan puts it, “use media more creatively.” In its examination of the narratives Americans used in portraying Palestinianism and Zionism, Covering Islam was, much like Orientalism, a practical demonstration of the political force of literary theory.

To many of his contemporaries, Said recalled an older model of humanist criticism. Brennan compares him to Giambattista Vico, Erich Auerbach, and Raymond Williams, scholars whose worldliness and range of reference Said admired and sought to emulate. Today, as the humanities are imperiled by new methods battling for legitimation, he appears even more remote. Such pressures can be felt throughout Places of Mind, and especially in its final pages, which make a bid not only for the value of the humanities, but for humanism itself. Along with being a defense of Said’s legacy, the book is a defense of a certain type of literary criticism. The care with which Brennan attends to Said’s writing, as well as its uneven reception, is palpable on every page. Brennan is an exemplarily generous reader of his mentor’s work, often offering correctives or complications to Said’s most notorious critics. At the same time, he is steadfast in giving Said’s critics’ credit where it’s due.

In narrating Said’s life with such self-conscious panache, Brennan recenters the fundamental problem of what it means to tell somebody else’s story. Places of Mind carefully teases out a life of Said, not only revealing its contradictions, but also showing how a contradiction might, in the moment, appear more like a still-unfolding act of thinking, or a willingness to change one’s mind. It is impossible not to see the fondness and intimacy running below the surface of Brennan’s account. Any close reader will notice the ways the book takes interpretive liberties with Said’s immense output, making certain connections stronger or more consistent than they might actually have been. But for all the care Brennan devotes to his version of the story, he leaves room for the ways it could have been otherwise.

Jane Hu is a Ph.D. candidate and writer living in Oakland.