An urbane and sophisticated Ivy League professor of English literature, specializing in the work of Joseph Conrad, Edward Said was also the author of a gun-toting Yasir Arafat’s first speech at the UN, praising terrorism and condemning “Zionist racists and colonialists.” Said later broke with Arafat because he felt the latter made too many concessions at Oslo. But Said is best known for his 1978 book Orientalism—one of the most influential works in the humanities of the last half-century—which argues that all Western scholarship about the Middle East or Islam is fundamentally untrustworthy, and itself an exercise in imperialism. Sameer Rahim, reviewing a new biography of Said, explores his contradictions:
Towards the end of his life, [Said] elevated “intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction” into a credo—these words serve as the epigraph to Timothy Brennan’s new biography, Places of Mind. But Said’s intransigence was not always admirable, and his contradictions often mere confusion. He veered from trashing European scholars of the orient to venerating their achievements; from defending Islam against Western calumnies to condemning fundamentalists who had learned his lessons all too well. Finally, he returned to Western high culture after making his name labeling it as complicit with colonialism.
References to Islam and the Arab world began to appear in his literary criticism, though they were hardly complimentary. In 1975’s Beginnings, he argued that Arab novelists were parasitic on European models. . . . It is impossible to understand the conflicted, uneven, and sometimes misleading nature of Orientalism without first recognizing Said’s secret fear that critical portrayals of Arabs by Europeans might have a point. Partly this was ignorance. He seemed uninterested in those eastern thinkers—not all Arabs or Muslims—who had influenced the West’s orientalists, argued with them or absorbed their insights. Famously, there is very little Arabic actually quoted in Orientalism.
Illustrative of Said’s intellectual shortcomings is an analysis of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, on which Rahim comments:
When the heroine Fanny Price asks her uncle Sir Thomas Bertram, who owns Antigua plantations, about slavery she reports there “was such a dead silence!” From this Said extrapolates the novel’s “affiliations with a sordid history”—the slippery term “affiliations” does a lot of work here—arguing that Mansfield Park “opens up a broad expanse of domestic imperialist culture without which Britain’s subsequent acquisition of territory would not have been possible.” No Austen, no British Empire.
Said, however, burdens the author with both too much responsibility—the empire would likely have rumbled on without Austen to grease its ideological wheels—and too little credit. Fanny boldly raises the issue with her uncle because she sees parallels between her own situation as a poor relation and that of his slaves. Sir Thomas’s “dead silence,” as well as that of his complacent family, shows up their moral blankness, not the author’s.