Those who find the limitless smugness of Edward Said annoying will be delighted to read his pained account of the day he was forced to deal with a distorted echo of his own theories. He tells the story in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Harvard University Press), his new collection of articles and lectures.
It happened a decade ago at a seminar on imperialism at an American university. Said, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, gave a paper extending the arguments of his most influential book, Orientalism, published in 1978, which explained that Western portrayals of Arab life expressed and encouraged imperialistic prejudices. In his paper he discussed 19th-century Western consciousness, and then he invited questions from the floor.
The first one shook him. The questioner, a black woman history professor, announced that her question was "very hostile." She noted that in his first 13 pages he had mentioned no one except white European males. "How could you do such a thing?" she demanded.
Edward Said, of all people, suddenly found himself shoved onto the wrong side of history. He explained that he was discussing long-ago European imperialism, which involved no non-white females, and mentioned that his paper was part of a book that would later discuss people like C.L.R. James, a Caribbean intellectual.
That did him no good whatsoever. His questioner insisted, with what Said calls "stupefying confidence," that this answer was unsatisfactory because James was dead.
Said waited for the rest of her argument, but she was finished. She clearly believed that she had made a point by showing that he didn't mention living non-European women, period. Afterward he was unsettled, and chagrined that his response had been so weak. But he wasn't disturbed enough to see that he was partly responsible for that professor's bizarre complaint.
After all, Said routinely scours literature and history for examples of Western bias. No thinker has done more to popularize the term "Eurocentrism," which means seeing history and culture from an exclusively European perspective. He has led the battalions of anti-imperialists who have somehow put a whole continent on the defensive. Often, in discussing writers as different as Dickens and Jane Austen, he blithely ignores the author's intentions so that he can make his own point, just as the historian at the seminar ignored his intentions.
The late Irving Howe described professors like Said as "guerrillas with tenure." Said served on the national council of the Palestine Liberation Organization and offered advice to Yasser Arafat, until he decided Arafat was too soft. That's standard guerrilla-with-tenure behaviour.
But last July 3 he surprised everyone by stepping briefly outside this role and throwing a rock at Israeli soldiers, a performance captured by a newspaper photographer. Said was embarrassed when the picture was published, but made himself look much worse with his explanation: "The spirit of the place infected everyone with the same impulse, to make a symbolic gesture of joy that the occupation had ended," he wrote. "I had no idea that media people were there or that I was the object of attention." In other words, he wouldn't have made that gesture if he had known he would be caught, surely a farcical argument from a writer who delights in exposing the hypocrisy of others.
His admirers have wondered why he threw that rock. My guess is that his action sprang from the severe contradictions at the core of his life.
He's an intellectual who has often defended the PLO, which is anti-intellectual on principle: As soon as it acquires a little power it closes down discussion. A harsh critic of the West, he has nevertheless lived in the West for half a century, as part of that most characteristically Western of all institutions, a liberal university; it would be impossible to imagine his ideas and books being produced anywhere except the West. This must involve a certain guilt. Should someone dedicated to the oppressed of the Third World be enjoying all the pleasures and freedoms of a brilliant New York career? Perhaps rock-throwing was an impulsive groping for expiation.
There's always been something a little suspicious in the way he handles criticism, as if he wasn't entirely sure of his arguments. He's no better when facing sophisticated opponents than he was with that angry historian.
The truth is, he's a thought-disturber who doesn't like to have his own thoughts disturbed. He deals with the criticism of Bernard Lewis, the academic author of many superb books on Arab history, by calling him a "publicist." And Said is not above trying to evoke our pity, as when he looks back on "my lonely fight on behalf of the Palestinian cause."
He's a man of great natural charm who often feels called upon to suppress his charm in print, lest it undermine his seriousness of purpose. But most of Reflections on Exile and Other Essays emphasizes his sophisticated and ingratiating side. He writes about Bach, about Hemingway and bullfights, and about the charms of the Cairo where he grew up. In "Homage to a Belly Dancer" he describes meeting in her old age one of the great sex symbols of his youth, Tahia Carioca, who danced at King Farouk's wedding in 1936 and went on to make more than 200 movies.
One of Said's great heroes is Glenn Gould: "He played every piece as if he were X-raying it, rendering each of its components with independence and clarity." When Said goes to visit another of his heroes, Gillo Pontecorvo, the director of The Battle of Algiers and other films, he interrupts a discussion of political cinema to note one of Pontecorvo's musical enthusiasms. "J'adore Gould," says Pontecorvo.
In perhaps his most memorable piece, "Jungle Calling," Said claims that Tarzan, as Johnny Weissmuller played him in a dozen movies, is one of the noble figures in pop mythology and should be revived and celebrated. Said finds in Weissmuller's face a story of stoic deprivation and sees Tarzan as an immigrant, "vulnerable, disadvantaged, and ... pathetic." He thinks Hollywood unintentionally created Tarzan as "a forlorn survivor ... a permanent exile."
Said's eloquent essay turns out to be criticism as psychological projection. Writing about Tarzan, he tells us how Said, in moments of reverie, sees Said.