NS Gundur reviews Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said, by Timothy Brennan

A new biography of Edward Said maps his Arab and American identity and illustrates how his writings on Palestine, music, public intellectuals and literature intertwine.

Every child who dies from the wars in West Asia disappears from the world without knowing that the shell that hit the roof has come with a long history – the struggle for territory, the problem of imaginary communities, the colonial bickering, and most of all. , the chasm of religious faith among several other threads. In such moments, what does it mean to read Timothy Brennan’s intellectual biography on the Arab-Christian-Palestinian English literature professor Edward Said, who was a defender of the rights of Palestine?

To be in the place

If Saïd’s life can be read like a novel, as his friend Dominique Edde puts it in her Italian biography, translated into English by Edward Said: his thought as a novel (2019), two themes dominate the professor’s story: the sense of place and the politics of representation. The dislocation of human beings from places and the dispossession of land belonging to a people not only animate his writings but are also the source of his broader intellectual concerns. Brennan’s biography attempts to capture this theme by making a distinction between the places of the spirit and the place where he lived. According to Brennan, Said was a man rooted “with imagination in Palestine and indeed in New York”.

Saïd’s memories, Not out of place (1999), which arose out of the intensity of facing imminent death when diagnosed with leukemia, was an attempt on his part to come to terms with his troubled identity, being an Arab-Palestinian in the Western world. . The memory mapping of the territories – Jerusalem, Cairo, Beirut, Lebanon, Egypt and even the United States – expresses his desire for Arab culture in the most exalted sense.

Like Timothy Brennan, another Said student, H. Aram Veeser wrote a critical biography, Edward Said: The charisma of criticism, in 2010. Drawing on previous life accounts, what Brennan attempted in his teacher’s biography is something ambitious – as he obliquely mentions in the Preface – he tries “to paint a full picture of the Arab and American self. of Said as they come together and explain for how Said’s writings on Palestine, music, public intellectuals, literature and the media are intertwined ”.

Intellectual journey

The use of carefully selected details of Said’s life and the tracking of the beginnings of his intellectual journey distinguish Brennan’s account. There are some little-known facts that Said fans might look forward to: Said, a movie buff, who watched a porn movie Deep Throat as well as Hollywood action thrillers; his love affairs; his efforts to bring peace and harmony between Israel and Palestine through musical association and performances, and the friends and enemies he made in his wake; and his love for fountain pens and Rolex watches, among others.

In addition to crisp accounts of the contexts in which Said’s writings took shape, in Places of spirit, it is interesting to come across certain facts that arouse our curiosity. For example, at one point Said wanted to collaborate with Noam Chomsky on a book that would deal with false representations of West Asia, but Chomsky was unable to due to other commitments. Then Said went alone and Oorientalism was the result. Finally, what Brennan achieved in her thick description of Said and his time is an account of how Said got to the top of his college job – what it took for Said to become what he is. become.

Therefore, Places of Spirit reveals Said’s struggle with his first book, Beginnings (1975), and how he paved the way for his bestsellers Orientalism (1978) and Culture and imperialism (1993). We learn that Said tried different ideas and authors, dropping some and negotiating with others. His work project on intellectuals and a book on Swift never saw the light of day. His mentors at Princeton and Harvard trained him during his formative years, and he was shaped so much by various intellectual traditions and disciplines ranging from German philosophy to Auerbach’s philology, French textuality and theories of speeches by Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida at Gorge Lukacs, Musical reflections by Raymond Williams and Adorno. While much of the space is devoted to Said’s life with music, his constant struggle for the Palestinian cause lurks in most of the chapters.

Representation levels

Although Brennan does not indulge in long interpretations of Said’s work, he does provide explanations, clarifying some reading errors. For example, to critics who thought Said was wrong in reading Orientalists, Brennan specifies that “rather than assessing the accuracy or inaccuracy of the Orientalists’ account of Arab and Islamic life, Said wanted to dwell on the interior chambers of the representation itself. , on the extent to which representation is part of reality, not just its translation into words ”. Said was one of the most misrepresented intellectuals of his time. In 2000, the media misreported Said’s symbolic gesture of throwing stones at the Lebanese border like throwing stones at Israeli soldiers, and in fact in 1989 it was reportedly titled Professor of Terror.

Brennan’s astonishing research and deep understanding of Said, the man and his works, allowed her to bend the narrative, break the linearity and give different vignettes not only of Said, but also of his interlocutors, allies and adversaries. . The rich archival material and interviews with 96 people gave Brennan’s study a documentary depth that captures the spirit of an era – its people and its places.

Places of Spirit: A Life of Edward Said; Timothy Brennan, Bloomsbury, ₹ 385 (Kindle edition).

The writer teaches English literature at Tumkur University, Karnataka.

About Norma Wade

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