Stone Thrower and Scholar: Edward Said’s Ferocious Unity

The Edward Said Reader , edited by Moustafa Bayoumi and Andrew Rubin. Vintage, 472 pages, $15.

Did you see the newspaper pictures last month of Columbia University professor Edward Said? He wasn’t photographed in his campus office or before a classroom of undergraduates or strolling in Morningside Heights–too commonplace for Mr. Said. He was in south Lebanon, in a throng of people hurling stones at the barbed-wire fence separating Lebanon from Israel. Mr. Said was celebrating the Israeli withdrawal from the area; he called throwing rocks at the border fence a “harmless act of joy.”

Edward Said is that rare intellectual who fuses erudition with a fierce and unwavering activism. Born in Jerusalem in 1935, he has rarely strayed from his favorite cause: equal rights and sovereignty for Palestinians. And yet Mr. Said was not trained as a political scientist or a historian. He is a professor of literature who has written extensively on Conrad, Yeats and Austen; his most influential book is Orientalism , a study of British and French literary representations of the Near East.

So where is the true center of Mr. Said’s thought? Some readers may have indeed wondered whether there are two distinct Edward Saids: one who writes about the Western literary tradition and another who denounces Zionism’s degradation of the Palestinian people.

The publication of The Edward Said Reader , a new collection of his diverse writings, should eliminate the temptation to make such facile divisions. The editors of this volume (one a graduate of Columbia’s English department and the other still a graduate student there) have made the wise decision to organize it not by genre or theme but by chronology. This may seem an obvious choice, but it should not be ignored. The chronological approach encourages us to focus on the continuity in Mr. Said’s thought amidst the great fluctuations in his material. This volume–though culled from literary monographs, political tracts, cultural critique, essays on music and a memoir–gives us Edward Said in his ferocious unity.

Mr. Said’s worldview is unified because he does not really consider literature at all distinct from life. Metaphysical approaches to reading, like New Criticism, or systematic modes, like structuralism, are not for the pragmatic Mr. Said. Literature exists in and describes things of the real world; thus, the architecture of novels and the patterns of verse cannot be examined in sheer aesthetic terms. “It is the critic’s job,” Mr. Said wrote in 1982, “to provide resistances to theory, to open it up toward historical reality, toward society, toward human needs and interests.” He would eventually call this manner of reading “secular criticism.” Influenced by Michel Foucault, Mr. Said would pursue the relations between writing and authority–exploring how institutions of power shape our access to literature, even when we believe that access to be unmediated.

The most notorious essay in this collection, a study of Mansfield Park entitled “Jane Austen and Empire,” is a fine example of secular criticism. Mr. Said focuses on the English country estate of the title, inhabited by the novel’s heroine Fanny Price but financed by the slave labor on her uncle’s plantation in Antigua. Mr. Said exposes a conspiracy of “interests and concerns spanning the hemisphere, two major seas, and four continents.” There is an unspoken compact, he argues, between the domestic authority on the estate at Mansfield Park and the slave trade in the West Indies. “The question of interpretation, indeed of writing itself, is tied to the question of interests,” he contends. “We must not say that since Mansfield Park is a novel, its affiliations with a sordid history are irrelevant or transcended.”

This kind of reading helped launch a thousand miserable volumes of diatribes masquerading as responsible criticism. When weaker minds give voice to political complaint within literary studies, the result can seem ridiculous, often because it is so easy. But Mr. Said never loses sight of the literary dimensions of the authors he examines. He rails against “the invasion of literary discourse” by fashionable methodologies. He expresses concern that his study of Austen will encourage readers to “jettison her novels as so many trivial exercises in aesthetic frumpery.” And if he reads novels politically, he also understands politics novelistically: In his political essays, he compares the absurdities of the Palestinian situation to “some comic fantasy produced in the imagination of a Swift or Kafka.” When, therefore, in the interview that concludes the volume, Mr. Said confesses, “I’ve never felt that my own interest in literature and literary issues has been a hindrance to me,” you know it’s an understatement. His literariness informs every essay collected here.

Literary sensibility makes his political writings more fluent, more urgent and more effective. Several essays on the subject of Palestine are collected here, including “The Palestinian Experience,” “Permission to Narrate” and the galvanic “Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims,” a much-cited chapter from his 1979 book The Question of Palestine . Mr. Said’s thesis is that Zionism has been effective by “being a policy of detail, not simply a general colonial vision,” by which he means that Israel has subjugated the Palestinians by stunning them with specific policies and laws (especially the systematic post-1967 Israeli settling of the West Bank and Gaza) to which they have had no answer.

Mr. Said’s Palestine writings, spread over four decades, catalog Israel’s transgressions, its gradual solidification of land and power in the Middle East. Over the course of his career, he loses faith in Yasir Arafat, breaks with the P.L.O. and rejects the Oslo accords as a humiliating compromise. The tone of these political writings is about one part sadness and five parts outrage. We are confronted with a furious intelligence in constant stupefaction at the injustice in his native land–and at the West’s indifference to it.

Yet his sadness is never overwhelmed by his outrage. With Mr. Said’s writings condensed and assembled, you begin to understand that it isn’t political jeremiad or polemic that defines his voice; it’s melancholy. The central theme of his collected writing isn’t really the Palestinian experience (indeed, some critics have pointed out that Mr. Said spent most of his childhood comfortably in Cairo, and therefore should not claim to have shared the Palestinian experience). His great theme is the exile’s experience. Just consider his heroes, all of whom he discusses in this anthology: Joseph Conrad, the Polish exile writing in English; Jonathan Swift, born in Ireland but deeply ambivalent about his native land; Erich Auerbach, the scholar of European literature who wrote his great work, Mimesis , as an exile in Istanbul during the Second World War; and Theodor Adorno, the German critic who fled the Nazis, escaped to Southern California and hated it.

The title of Mr. Said’s most recent work, Out of Place , helps explain his fascination with these figures. The book is a memoir of his childhood in the Middle East, but its title signals a crucial motif in his life–his sense of being a perennial exile. The editors of this volume compare Mr. Said’s elegiac tone to Proust, but there is a major difference: Mr. Said seeks to recapture a lost place, not a lost time. The melancholy that permeates this book is always a function of space; Mr. Said moons about the lost geography of his childhood, the disputes over land in Palestine, the tragedy of Yeats’ Ireland, the sinister provenance of estates and plantations in Jane Austen’s England.

In Edward Said’s world, there is no border fence between fictional landscapes and geopolitical zones. This anthology succeeds in condensing the work of an intellect defined otherwise by its great expanse.

Aaron Matz has reviewed fiction and literary criticism for The New York Observer and The American Scholar .