Reflection On Exile And Other Essays

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What is the role of the scholar, especially the literary critic, inside and outside modern academe? What does it mean to experience exile, or displacement, or to be "between worlds"? How may the Western world adequately represent that of Islam, and vice versa? How may one resist the fashionable postmodernist notion, annexed by neoconservatives, that history is over, and how may one instead interpret and contest the continuing narratives, marked in new ways, of long-standing ideologies such as nationalism and imperialism? Readers conversant with major works by Edward Said such as Orientalism (1978), The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983), and Culture and Imperialism (1993) will find these and other familiar themes reprised throughout this collection of forty-five essays published (except the final one) in books and periodicals from 1967 to 1998. All readers may wish to explore this collection alongside Said's memoir, Out of Place (1999). For relative newcomers to Said, who died in September 2003, the collection will serve as an ideal primer in the evolution of a critical position that established his international reputation—and gained him some fierce opponents—as a leading intellectual voice in the humanities.

In his introduction, "Criticism and Exile," Said sets out his stand clearly and carefully, touching on all the major themes and experiences that informed his work. By offering some autobiographical background, the author helps the reader understand those particular circumstances that molded him into one of the most visible and controversial literary scholars of our [End Page 292] time. Said brings to this engaging (very much in the Sartrean sense) corpus of ideas his own rich experience as a Palestinian who grew up in a post-1948 refugee family, who was educated in British schools in Egypt and Lebanon, and who taught English and comparative literature at Columbia University for forty years. One of the many pleasures of this volume lies in Said's command of the personal essay, which he compares (in a 1985 piece on Glenn Gould) to a musical recital in its "occasional, re-creative, and personal" form (229). He chooses it also "as a way of exploring what was new and original in our time regardless of professional hobbles" (xiii). For Said is an increasingly uncommon specimen: a scholar who was fully immersed in and excited by a range of intellectual positions and theoretical debates, yet able to expound on them in an eloquent and refreshingly jargon-free prose. Furthermore, he was a scholar for whom academy-bound theory and interpretive games, as much as the "traditional" scholarship they seek to replace, are at best solipsistic, at worst irresponsible. He believed firmly that literature belongs in and has meaning for the world and that we ignore this at our peril. In Salman Rushdie's words, Said "has always had the distinguishing feature that he reads the world as closely as he reads books."

Bedrock elements in the foundation of Said's thought include a critique of Eurocentrism, an opposition to empire that becomes central after Orientalism, and "the realization that cultures are always made up of mixed, heterogeneous, and even contradictory discourses" (xv). Said resists unhistorical and formalist criticism; at the same time he is wary of the pitfalls of political correctness, of "insider privilege" that perpetuates "the exclusions one should always oppose" (xxxi). Historical experience, still critically important, suggests "an opening away from the formal and technical toward the lived, the contested, and the immediate" (xxxi). He is at pains, however, to stress that his essays are by no means intended to deliver political messages; rather, they permit him to negotiate an "interchange between politics and aesthetics" that is "productive," "endlessly recurring," and "pleasurable" (xxxiv).

The eponymous essay (originally published in Granta in 1984) crystallizes a number of ideas explored at greater length in Representations of the Intellectual (1994), his 1993 series of Reith Lectures. Said seeks always to place his critique of fixed ideas and value systems in the context of lived experience. For him, to be an exile is to remain always skeptical...

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