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Edward Said

By Richard Poirier

I am here to talk about Edward Said, a dear and close friend for over forty years, someone alive in my memories of him as one of the sustaining pleasures of my life. But about personal feelings of this sort it’s best, I think, to talk in private, and this isn’t in any case the right time or place to go into them. I hope to be of more benefit to him by describing what I take to be the distinction of his accomplishments in a lifetime of work and by putting in perspective some of his political thinking, which has often been, and still is, too hastily understood.

Borrowing from Emerson, Frost once remarked that in the minds of most people, thinking is the same as voting. And it can be said at the outset that to read Said as if he were casting a ballot on one issue or another, is to miss what he is about. He proves to be an essentially meditative writer, someone who demands of himself that there be a large measure of consistency between the criteria developed in his work as a literary and music critic, and the criteria that infuse his political judgments, particularly when these have to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He could be contemptuous of the critical practices of academic colleagues who bring their politics with them into their reading of literature, music, or film and in his own writing and teaching he moved resolutely in the opposite direction. Thus, his assessments of the fairness and workability of political structures, including proposed peace settlements in the Middle East were, to an often determining degree, shaped by the aesthetic criteria he had already developed in his assessments of literary or musical structures.

In books of his devoted almost wholly to political issues, like The Question of Palestine in 1979, or, in 1988, Blaming The Victims, his political analyses are shaped, phrased, and in considerable part explained in critical vocabulary adopted by him earlier in the literary and musical analyses that are the illustrative core of what is at present the most influential of his twenty-three published books, his 1978 Orientalism. And in several interviews, he has called attention to the fact that in the interval between Orientalism and, fifteen years later, Culture and Imperialism, he wrote many of his essays on music, including the Wellek lectures, that became Musical Elaborations in 1991. “Most of my writing about music,” he remarked, “is really focused on contrapuntal work. I mean that’s what interests me the most; even forms like opera interest me, I think, for that reason: forms in which many things go on simultaneously. And my favorite works in this genre are works that are not what you would call developmental or sonata-form works, but, rather, works that are variation structure works, like the Goldberg Variations, for example, or Bach’s Canonic Variations and it’s that structure that I found tremendously useful in writing Culture and Imperialism. This is a long-standing predilection of mine; it’s the kind of music I’m most interested in and one of the reasons I was so compelled by Glenn Gould, which I think had a direct bearing on this book.”

It helps in any effort to understand him, to know that long before he wrote about political questions, indeed quite early in his life when he had yet to write anything out of school, he had discovered an instinctive preference for the kind of arrangements he would later be advocating for an end to Israeli-Palestinian hostilities. I mean to suggest that the thinking that goes on in Said’s writing is governed not by abstractions but by metaphors, so that both parties must, as he sees it, be persuaded to find a way to live together in a difficult harmony wherein each side has been enabled to resist subjugation to the other. If it is to have any chance of working, the arrangement, as he imagines it, would have to be contrapuntal, almost exactly as the Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines that term: a musical arrangement whereby two or more melodic lines achieve a harmonic relation while still maintaining their linear individuality. Neither would be fenced off, and, in the struggle to remain itself, either one might choose to act as eccentrically as Glenn Gould was known to do in the performance of a musical score. Gould is one of the heroes of Musical Elaborations, where he is described in the most laudatory terms. Like Said, he demonstrated a distinct preference for contrapuntal work, notably in his exploratory performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. He liked to highlight, really to put to the test, the most blatant degree of individuality that might be allowed any one melodic line without in the process suppressing another. The potential disruptiveness of Gould’s performing style extended to his stage mannerisms, as he slouched over the keyboard, audibly mumbling to himself. And the results were, as they were intended to be, powerfully transformative. He succeeded in moving the focus of attention away from the often-deadening conventions of musical performance, understood as a polite, submissive occasion, and to concentrate it instead on the innovative doings of the performer, the techniques by which he discovers new life in the work by confounding any merely routine organization of musical time. It is as if Gould wants to discover in Bach’s composition not only a place for himself but a creative receptivity to the eccentricities be brings to it. He discovers, as Said himself claims to have done, the unique advantages of being an exile, of learning to work in a place while existing, in his mind at least, outside it.

It is not entirely surprising that Edward, in 1999, chose the title Out of Place for his memoir. Ostensibly it is a book about his experience of exile, beginning at age twelve, when he and his family were driven from their home in Jerusalem as a result of the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. They moved to Cairo, where he was educated at an exclusive private school, and was then sent off to complete his formal education in the United States: first at Mt. Herman, then at Princeton, and, after that, for a doctoral degree in Comparative Literature, at Harvard. But as I read the book, not always in the way he intended it be read, Edward emerges as a displaced person, an exile in spirit, even before any actual, geographic displacements occurred. It was I suspect a feeling he was born with, a part of his nature.

Which is perhaps why when he describes the educative advantages of being exiled, his metaphors are, again, derived from his musical experiences, which are among the earliest he remembers. This should be a factor of considerable importance to anyone trying to cope with the complexities of his thinking. But in remarks as brief as these, I can’t do much more than offer in testimony a passage he wrote for Harpers in 1944, an essay subtitled “Reflections on Life in Exile.” “Most people are principally aware of one culture, he writes, “one setting, one home; exiles are aware of at least two, and this plurality of vision gives rise to an awareness of simultaneous dimensions, an awarenessto borrow a phrase from music, that is contrapuntal…There is a unique pleasure in this sort of apprehension, especially if the exile is conscious of other contrapuntal juxtaposition that diminish orthodox judgment and elevate imaginative sympathy.”

That last phrase is a good enough description, it seems to me, of what Edward hoped to accomplish in his life and in his workto “diminish orthodox judgment and elevate imaginative sympathy.”


Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 13, 2003.

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