Said of the Sixties

Although Brennan’s book prioritizes Said’s English-department dramas, his longstanding anti-militarism is arguably at least as interesting a thread to follow, and one that seems destined to stay interesting longer.

Revising Said’s “out of place” self-image is a project worth pursuing further

Timothy Brennan. Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2021.

The outlines of Edward Said’s life are relatively well known. When he was 12, his prosperous, multilingual, well-connected family was able to leave Jerusalem, where he was born in 1935, just ahead of the violent ethnic cleansing that chased out the lion’s share of the Palestinian population. The family re-established itself in Cairo. Few commentators can resist adding that while they were of course never allowed to return, Martin Buber (of “I/Thou” fame) resided for some years in the family’s Jerusalem residence, neglecting to address his otherwise appealing ethical message to those whose dwelling he occupied. Embarrassingly but inevitably, Zionist critics tried to use Said’s school years in Egypt (where he was a classmate of the boy who, as a movie star, would later call himself Omar Sharif) as evidence that he was not really Palestinian, and hence had nothing to complain about.

After finishing high school in the US, then taking a BA at Princeton, Said gave up his plan of becoming a concert pianist, though he never gave up the piano. He got a PhD in comparative literature at Harvard and quickly became a rising star in literary studies. This was the early 1960s: the beginning of so-called “French theory,” which Said mastered and championed early, before much of it had been translated, with a leg up from the French-speaking cosmopolitanism that had permeated the family in Egypt. He published a philosophically complex book on Joseph Conrad in 1966 and got tenure at Columbia. With his English tailoring and his gentlemanly manner, he seemed to fit in well with Columbia’s somewhat staid “Great Books” atmosphere. Then in 1978 he published Orientalism, a scathing and comprehensive indictment of Western views of the Middle East over the past two centuries, and this “unlikely bestseller,” as Timothy Brennan writes in Places of Mind, his recent biography of Said, made Said suddenly world famous, a frequent guest on television shows, a passionate spokesman for his fellow Palestinians and for what was then still called the “Third World.”

In the 1980s, a new academic subfield claimed Said as its founding father: postcolonial studies. Although the field was inspired by his writings, it had emerged without his active intervention, and he was ambivalent about it. In the same years he became known as a leader of the Palestinian movement-in-exile. His unusual visibility both as a scholar and as a political figure made him a target, with some of his critics being more or less hysterical Zionists who branded him a terrorist (it was not so long ago that that style of critique did not merit reproof from the mainstream media) and some raising more reasonable questions. His office was broken into and defaced; he received death threats; the FBI, of course, had a file on him (it apparently runs to 238 pages, only 147 of which have been released). Perhaps because of his political commitments, perhaps for other reasons, he reconsidered his philosophical investment in “theory” and came to align himself with humanist universalism. This confounded some readers of Orientalism, who had taken the West’s humanism as a primary object of that book’s critique.

In 1991 Said was diagnosed with chronic leukemia. He marked that moment by practicing with a professional pianist and performing a defiant and triumphant concert. Both his scholarly and his political writing continued at a feverish pace. In 1993 he published Culture and Imperialism, a sequel of sorts to Orientalism, and he delivered on the BBC the prestigious Reith Lectures on the subject of intellectuals. Deeply disappointed with the Oslo Accords in the same year, he became a vocal critic of Arafat. Some in the Arab world answered in kind, hinting perversely that he must be an agent of the Americans. Arafat banned his books. His output did not slacken, however, through his twelve debilitating years of treatment. In 1999 he came out with a wildly successful memoir of his childhood, Out of Place. He finally succumbed to leukemia in September 2003 after watching in anger as the US invaded Iraq earlier that year.


What does Timothy Brennan add to this outline? A great deal. The heart of his book is its discussions of Said’s writing, which are searching, lively, well-informed, and on the whole quite fair-minded. Could the book be described as an intellectual biography? Well, a biography that pays no attention to money or sex is missing out on some opportunities. Brennan sketches an engaging portrait of his brief first marriage to the Estonian Lacanian Maire Jaanus, but there is not enough about Said’s wife of thirty-three years, Mariam, a strong political ally and partner in many enterprises, or about the couple’s two children. His squash partners will no doubt wish something could have been said about his style on the court. On the other hand, Said’s immense charm does come across, and even readers who knew him well will probably learn things they didn’t know. For example, that Said was in therapy all his life (excessive distance from father, excessive intimacy with mother), or that he spent the year before graduate school (1957­–58) working in his father’s stationery business in Cairo, or that there were two books he worked on all his life but could not complete, or that he more than once tried his hand at fiction writing and, rejected by the New Yorker, gave fiction up for a quarter century. Drafts of unfinished novels are not unheard of among literature professors, especially tenured ones, but in this case the summarized plots sound pretty good, and, in Brennan’s analysis, reveal a great deal about Said’s complicated feelings toward the Middle East.

And how could those feelings not be complicated? The Said children, addressed by their mother in Arabic, would respond to her in English—yet they studied Arabic seriously in later life. Their father, Wadie, sometimes signed his name William, and placed William rather than Wadie behind the initial of Said’s middle name. The family’s financial interests suffered when Nasser came to power—his father’s business was burned down—and the family ended up leaving Cairo for Beirut in the early 1960s, once again a departure with no return. Yet the family “applauded the insurrections that had driven Farouk from power and nationalized the Suez Canal Zone.” Nothing here is simple.

Brennan’s title, Places of Mind, boldly refers to the title of Said’s memoir, Out of Place, and much of the book’s early chapters reads like a critical annotation of the memoir. With help from the testimony of family members, especially Said’s four sisters, it spends some time correcting both Said’s view of the family and his view of himself as a precociously alienated child, a perpetual misfit and outsider. (Memoirs are notorious for sowing discord among siblings.) Brennan is noticeably more critical toward the memoir than he is toward the sources that encourage him to revise it. But one of the reasons to read the biography as a genre is its power to reveal how an individual life takes its richest meanings from its place in what is happening outside and around it—and revising Said’s “out of place” self-image is a project worth pursuing further.

“Over the course of his career,” Brennan writes, “there were two huge undertakings that he worked on for decades and never completed. One was a study of intellectuals.” If that study was never completed, then according to Brennan the Reith Lectures, published as Representations of the Intellectual in 1994, does not count as that study. Inspiring as the lectures are, they seem more reliable as an account of how Said saw himself, “as an “outsider, ‘amateur,’ and disturber of the status quo”—in short, as the child the memoir portrays. About the category of the intellectual, one would have to look elsewhere. It is not always the work of the intellectual to disturb the status quo, and one alternative—in evaluating both Said’s own biography as well as his theory of the intellectual—would be to try to identify ways in which, despite his background, Said was not an outsider but did belong. He belonged, for example, to the 1960s.

Said is not usually seen as a Sixties person. It was not to be expected that the student protests at Columbia in 1968 and 1969 would be a formative experience for him, then already in his mid-thirties and a faculty member. In 1968, as it happens, when antiwar protests broke out and students occupied the administration buildings, Said was “sequestered” in Urbana, Illinois on a fellowship. When he got back to Columbia, he “was one of only a handful of professors . . . to support the national student strike, sponsored by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), against the elections that year, agreeing not to hold classes on campus in solidarity. His take on the college Left, however, was complicated.” Expressing various “gripes with the student protesters,” Said defended the autonomy of the university. “He took the position of many other faculty that despite the obvious justice of the students’ demands, intellectual life should not be disrupted.” In 1970 we find him organizing a pro-Palestinian sit-in.

The other book Said never completed was on Jonathan Swift. Two qualities drew Said to the satirist: 1) Swift’s willingness to expend his combative energies on the controversies of his moment, without worrying about what posterity would or would not understand, and 2) his horror at organized violence, a consistent and politically inconvenient stance for which he felt there was no present constituency. Both of these features, with which Said identified strongly, encourage us to “place” Said, as intellectual, in the moment of the 1960s, which were, in addition to being the period of “theory,” also a generative period of outrage against American militarism in Vietnam and elsewhere. Although Brennan’s book prioritizes Said’s English-department dramas, his longstanding anti-militarism is arguably at least as interesting a thread to follow, and one that seems destined to stay interesting longer.

Said was “transfixed,” Brennan tells us, by Noam Chomsky’s essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” a passionate protest against American foreign aggression that came out in the New York Review of Books in 1967. Said’s enthusiasm led to friendship and solidarity between the two men (Chomsky was the first person to read the initial draft of Orientalism), but I bring it up here because the essay took for granted a distinct theory of intellectual life—a very 1960s theory, one might say, and a theory that denies that the intellectual must be an outsider or misfit. One wonders whether, had Said finished his book on intellectuals, he might have borrowed from Chomsky a theory of the intellectual that was better suited than the Reith Lectures to his own erudite and gracefully belligerent performance in that role.

Public opinion on the protest movements of the Sixties, which Chomsky examines in the essay, was puzzled by the question of what motivated them: “what has made students and junior faculty ‘go left’ . . . amid general prosperity and under liberal, welfare state administrations. . . . Since these young people are well off, have good futures, etc.,” Chomsky writes, paraphrasing Irving Kristol, “their protest must be irrational. It must be the result of boredom, of too much security, or something of this sort.” In short, the protesters are privileged. Chomsky does not deny the privilege. On the contrary, he casts it as intrinsic to the responsibility of intellectuals. “Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth.” The responsibility of the intellectual is a direct function of “the unique privileges that intellectuals enjoy.”

Privileges? Nothing would be further from the profile of the outsider intellectual offered in the Reith lectures. About Said personally, on the other hand, the term has always been in play. With his comfortable perch at Columbia, not to speak of his family background, his classical tastes in music, or his Anglophile clothing, it was inevitable that he would be charged with elitism. Brennan, who spends a lot of time negotiating Said’s relations with Marxism, defends him against the accusation that he was inattentive to class. But what Brennan says about Said’s fascination with Lukacs and Gramsci doesn’t really respond to that accusation; both served largely to make Said’s case that cultural work is politically important. Neither was centrally interested in political economy, and it’s political economy that Said’s accusers most often find lacking in his treatment of imperialism. Said’s Marxist critics, like Aijaz Ahmad, are also right to object to Orientalism’s critique of Marx on India. Rather than making an ontological distinction between a European “us” and a non-European “them” (that’s Said’s own definition of Orientalism), Marx was merely saying about the political potential of Indian peasants (after a whole-hearted denunciation of the British) what he had already said about the political potential of French peasants in the Eighteenth Brumaire: under present social conditions, don’t expect anything revolutionary from them. (On the other hand, Brennan might also have added—it’s a better defense—that Marx did not know how to understand or face the phenomenon of overwhelming majority support in the metropolis for military adventures and occupations overseas. On that score, Said could not get help from Marx, and help is what he needed—the sort of help he gets from Chomsky.)

Though he makes Said out to be quite sympathetic to Marxism, Brennan flirts with a class analysis that carries with it a seemingly unintended sting. Non-European scholars “from South Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East,” many of whom “migrated to the metropolitan university in part because of the openings Said had created” in postcolonial studies, were “often from well-to-do families with political connections.” This is of course Said’s own socio-economic profile as well. If Brennan is right that this class profile encouraged postcolonial critics to pretend that their identity had earned them the right to represent resistance to colonialism—a resistance that (so they implied) was otherwise missing from the metropolis—one might be tempted to conclude (though Brennan does not) that the same was true for Said himself in Orientalism. Brennan’s line is that, for whatever reason, Said did not share in the postcolonial elite’s “general loathing for a Western entity dubbed ‘modernity’” and stoutly opposed the idea that what you know depends on what you are. In any event, he goes on, Culture and Imperialism can be understood as an effort to restore a balance between Orientalism’s unsparing critique of Western culture and Said’s own appreciation both of its masterpieces and of Third World voices (kept out of Orientalism) that learned a great deal from those masterpieces.

Fair enough, but you can glimpse another possible interpretation of the class issue if—thinking again of his friendship with Chomsky—you see Said as a somewhat delayed representative of Sixties outrage against American aggression abroad. Elitism may be an unavoidable accompaniment to anti-militarism. Said’s commitment to anti-militarism, originating with his early indignation at the Vietnam War and renewed periodically by new American bombings and invasions in the Middle East and elsewhere, was nourished throughout Said’s life by American military, economic, and diplomatic support for Israel. None of this violence was unpopular in the United States. None of it could be described as undemocratic. In resisting militarism, Said could not depend on support from an upswelling of “decency” from the general public, nor specifically from the working class, however much that class was called on to put itself in harm’s way on behalf of the American military project. People with money could of course not be depended on to resist American militarism, but neither could people without money. And those who did resist it could always be framed as a cosmopolitan elite.


The arc that Said himself gave to his life is not entirely reliable. He tells the story of withdrawing from Foucault and “the kind of anti-historical and starkly theoretical position I seemed to be advancing in Beginnings.” But James Clifford made it clear in an early review that Orientalism was already torn by conflicting commitments for as well as against humanism, and as Brennan notes, those conflicts are even apparent three years earlier in Beginnings itself. Indeed, at the very beginning of his career, when “Said was quickly becoming known as the apostle of ‘theory,’” Brennan declares that “the thought horrified him.” It makes little sense, then, to think of Said as riding the theory wave and then jumping off. What he got from theory’s reversal of text and critic was the conviction that “criticism, not necessarily fiction, was where the deepest cultural recesses of society were laid bare”—in other words, that the work of the critic mattered in the world and to the world. This commitment remained consistent throughout his career, whatever his take on Foucault and company, and it’s one reason why his fellow critics came to embrace him, despite political and theoretical differences. His supposedly “theoretical” positions also look different in the light of his political commitments—for example, his impatience with identity. Unlike the Sixties movements for racial, sexual, and gender justice, anti-militarism has no natural or guaranteed constituency, hence (like “theory”) it tends to be skeptical of the very principle of identity.

Though Said described himself as “not a joiner,” his life as an activist on behalf of Palestine, on which Brennan is rich in both detail and analysis, involves his intersection with quite a number of organizations, from the US Department of State, which consulted with him, to the Palestine National Committee, to which he was elected in 1977. Readers will perhaps be surprised to see the number of Said’s friends and colleagues who ended up the victims of Israeli assassination squads. He himself was threatened with assassination—but this time by Palestinians, enraged that he had judged suicide car-bombings to be an ill-advised tactic. On Palestine, Brennan writes, “Said’s position had been heretical for much of his career, recognizing the state of Israel before others in his own camp, stressing the sufferings of the Jewish people, not only those of his own, and insisting on mutual recognition.” It was a dangerously independent position. During his last ten years, from 1993 to 2003, “Said’s political life revolved almost completely around his goal of a one-state solution in Israel/Palestine.” Said had supported a two-state solution when that seemed the best chance for peace with a maximum of justice. When it no longer did, he changed his mind. This is a good illustration of how the intellectual is subdued—as described in those bits we have of the unfinished books on Swift and the intellectual—to the element of temporality.

At Said’s death, John Berger commented, heartbreakingly, that “For all his personal charm, and the almost scary array of intellectual and moral weapons, the central political objective of his life seemed as far away as ever.” But one could also say, with Brennan, that “he brought America over to him, or a significant swath of its intellectuals anyway, creating a high-minded dissidence for the professional classes in which anti-imperialism was the new common sense, multicultural authority much less rare, and the force of culture in political struggle an acceptable version of the facts.” The leukemia that ended his life did not entirely subdue him, or the collective energies that flowed through him. Common sense is now more likely to take a step back from military adventurism than it used to be, and for that Said deserves a considerable amount of credit. Critics are now much more likely than they used to be to express concern about interest in dalits and tribals, about the indigenous minorities in their countries of origin, about the shame of their undeserved privilege. In Palestine, things as always look grim. But there are a lot more people now who are willing to point the finger of blame where it belongs.

If you like this article, please subscribe or donate to support n+1.

Related Articles

Issue 26 Dirty Work

you break off a piece of delicious biscotti / yeah. that would be a lot more realistic / after all you’re so interested in realism

September 18, 2008

In class, his self-effacement and self-presentation were comical—of course, he was self-conscious of that too.

October 17, 2016
Eight Women in Love
November 6, 2017
Not Every Kid-Bond Matures

More by this Author

August 4, 2009

So once upon a time there was an enchanted world and now it’s gone. Or is it?

Issue 24 New Age

Any debt to the living takes precedence over any debt to the dead.

November 25, 2015
Barbarians at the Gates
January 9, 2014

Let me say it again: the kind of diversity I wanted him to address but didn’t find in his book is economic diversity.