Edward Said: An ‘intellectual’ biography

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.

In his preface, Mr 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. 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 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 and engagé men of his time.

Born in Jerusalem and educated in the 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 was omnipresent. An urbane spokesman for the Palestinian cause, he appeared on “Nightline,” “Charlie Rose,” the BBC and anywhere else he found a perch.

Said taught literature at Columbia. His lectures were so forceful that attendees would approach afterward wanting to touch him. He wrote for elite and mass publications. He was a gifted pianist who sometimes played publicly, and he wrote music criticism for The Nation.

He served as president of the Modern Language Association and played a vital role in the translation and publication in America of the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz’s books, before Mahfouz won the 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 gifted mimic, he seemed to have memorised the entirety of Monty Python.

Mr Brennan does not entirely avoid the details of Said’s life. He’s thorough, in fact, on the childhood. But in the final two-thirds of the book, the life is skimped; it’s an afterthought, pushed into corners.

Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said

Author: Timothy Brennan

Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Price: $35; Pages: 437

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

Mr 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. The author is a poor quoter of Said’s work.

Said grew up in Cairo. His family was Christian, and he was baptised in the Church of England. He attended elite schools in Cairo, where his classmates included, though Mr Brennan leaves out this information, the actor Omar Sharif and the future King Hussein of Jordan.

Said’s family was wealthy; his prosperous father ran an office equipment store. In 1951, his parents sent him to an American prep school, the Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts. He was accepted at both Princeton and Harvard but chose Princeton, Mr Brennan writes, because it was thought to be more congenial to foreign students. He later earned a PhD from Harvard in English literature.

At Columbia, where he began teaching in 1963, Said was the best teacher many had ever seen. He was a walking liberal education. Woe to those, however, who were ill-prepared. In Columbia’s student paper, a reporter wrote that Said commanded “the telekinetic powers necessary to eject unwanted students from his seminar rooms by sheer force of irate facial expression.”

He didn’t believe in politicising his classrooms, he said. He taught courses on literature; Joseph Conrad, especially, was an endless fascination to him. Exile was the central knot of his being, yet he never taught on the West Asia.

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

Said was threatened with assassination. His office was firebombed. “Apart from the president of the Columbia,” Mr Brennan writes, “only Said’s office had bulletproof windows and a buzzer that would send a signal directly to campus security.”

He was married twice, and had two children. Women were said to find him irresistible. Mr Brennan writes about Said’s brief affair in 1979 with the Lebanese novelist Dominique Eddé.

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 Israelisation of US policy.”

There has been so much good writing about Said’s thinking and his way in the world — in Salman Rushdie’s memoir, in Christopher Hitchens’s Hitch-22, in essays by friends and colleagues such as Tony Judt, Michael Wood and Tariq Ali, among others — that perhaps my hopes for Places of Mind were simply too high.

©2021 The New York Times News Service

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