A study of Edward Said

One of most interesting men of his time, a new book revisits last great public intellectual

Edward Said, then a professor of English and comparative literature, in his office at Columbia University in New York on July 9, 1998. Timothy Brennan refers to his new book, “Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said,” as an “intellectual biography.” (Photo: NYTimes)
The subtitle of Timothy Brennan’s new book, “Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said,” is somewhat misleading. “A Life” implies an honest attempt at portraiture — a stab at wrestling a blood presence onto the page. In other words, a proper biography.اضافة اعلان

In his preface, Brennan refers instead to his book as an “intellectual biography”, which is a subtly different animal. In this case, the result is a dry, dispiriting volume, one that frequently reads like a doctoral dissertation. It’s an uninspired parsing of academic texts and agendas. What the large print giveth, the small print hath taketh away.

It hardly seems fair to fault an author for not writing a book he didn’t intend pg 12 new.indd to write. Yet a sense of missed opportunity lingers over “Places of Mind.” Said (1935-2003) was an especially complicated and vivid human being, one of the most interesting men of his time.

Born in Jerusalem and educated in the United States at Ivy League schools, he was a debonair polymath, among our last true public intellectuals. The book that put him on the map, “Orientalism” (1978), is a foundational work of post-colonial studies.

Veterans of the 1980s and 1990s will recall that Said (pronounced sah-EED) was omnipresent. An urbane spokesman for the Palestinian cause, he appeared on “Nightline,” “Charlie Rose,” the BBC and anywhere else he found a perch.

He served as president of the Modern Language Association and played a vital role in the translation and publication in America of Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz’s books, before Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1988.

The flow of Said’s personality helped make him who he was. He was seductive, ineluctably charming, impeccably dressed. “Can you imagine a man,” he was heard to say, “too busy to go to his tailor?”

A great deal of “Places of Mind” is spent situating Said in a firmament of thinkers that includes Marx, Freud, and Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Noam Chomsky. This positioning matters, but the overlay rather swamps the book.

Brennan seems to be speaking to others in his fields of expertise, not to an eager and curious general reader. A typical sentence, and let me pause to find a short one, is: “There is little doubt, though, that Said’s spatial view of music was negatively influenced by the Schenkerian method.” This book has not merely dead nodes but entire dead zones.

It’s ungainly in other ways. Its chronology is a jumble. Events that sound important — an “intellectual mugging” that Said underwent at Skidmore College — are hinted at but not unpacked.

Said’s family moved to Cairo in 1947 after the United Nations divided Jerusalem into Jewish and Arab halves. Said’s family was Christian. He was baptized in the Church of England. He attended elite schools in Cairo. His classmates included, though Brennan leaves out this information, actor Omar Shariff and the late King Hussein of Jordan.v

Said was a member, from 1977 to 1991, of the Palestine National Council, a parliament in exile. He was heckled for being in the PLO camp, for being close to Yasser Arafat until the two men fell out after the Oslo peace accords.

In 1991, Said learned he had chronic lymphocytic leukemia, which would kill him 12 years later. He lived long enough to rail against the Patriot Act after September 11; he called the legislation “the Israelization of US policy.”

There has been so much good writing about Said’s thinking and about his way in the world — that perhaps my hopes for “Places of Mind” were simply too high.