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Beginning Again: Rereading Edward Said

From: College Literature
Volume 40, Number 4, Fall 2013
pp. 7-13 | 10.1353/lit.2013.0043

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

If there is some especially urgent claim to be made for criticism . . . it is in that constant re-experiencing of beginning and beginning-again whose force is . . . to stimulate self-conscious and situated activity.

—Edward Said, Beginnings

It is hard to believe that it is ten years since Edward Said’s untimely passing. Such was the intensity and activity of his last decade that it seemed impossible that such energy could simply come to a halt. This special issue of College Literature seeks to mark and honor his anniversary. It also seeks to take stock of how we read Said’s work now and how that work may yet function as a critical and intellectual resource for the future.

Said’s “career” was highly unusual in various ways. He lived within the very predicament he wrote about—between Western, Anglophone academia and the Arab world, between America and Palestine—and his work sought to mobilize and deploy cultural and intellectual materials which were themselves outcomes of this very particular historical and cultural juncture. Said was uniquely acculturated: born in Jerusalem, he grew up in Palestine, Egypt, and America, where he trained in comparative literary studies. But this variegated cultural heritage was always shot through in complex ways by the often-violent geopolitical changes that shaped Said’s world from his birth onward: the disappearance of historical Palestine after 1948 and 1967 and, equally, the developing and increasingly violent interventionist relationship between the United States and the Arab world in the period after the Cold War. This meant that his understanding of the sphere of culture, even in its highest Arnoldian sense, was always of it as rifted and striated by conflict, power, exile, and pain. His earliest work on Conrad, filtered through the phenomenological criticism that offered a productive alternative to the New Criticism then dominating the literary academy, may have concentrated on the shifts and movements of the Polish exile’s mental and emotional state; but there was no doubt as to the importance of the extraordinary life of mobility, alienation, and exile lived against the background of political instability and revolution to this phenomenology of Conrad’s mind. Conrad’s life and writing spoke to Said precisely because of this difficult and complex experience of self-division, and the compelling struggles of self-creation in writing and thought it seemed to necessitate. It is this that explains Said’s interest not only in literal exiles such as Erich Auerbach in Istanbul and America, Frantz Fanon in Algeria, or Jonathan Swift moving back and forth between England and Ireland, but also in figures he perceived as radically divided internally, such as T. E. Lawrence or Michel Foucault. His early analysis of Conrad in Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (1966) may seem profoundly different from the later reading in Culture and Imperialism (1993), but there are important continuities there to be seen.

By the 1990s, Said had become the “Edward Said” we now remember: a global icon of intellectual radicalism and engagement, read as eagerly in India or Japan as in the US or Britain. Given the power and charisma of this figure—denouncing the Gulf War of 1991; producing within weeks of the Declaration of Principles in 1993 the most prescient and clear critique of the Oslo Process; setting up the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra with Daniel Barenboim in Weimar in 1999; writing literary and musical analysis, political commentary, and literary journalism with equal fluency—it is necessary to remember the excitement and importance of the period when Said was making that role. This process of creation occurred in the 1970s, a decade which surely comprised a set of anni mirabiles for him, with the publication in quick succession of a series of career-making books: Beginnings in 1975, Orientalism in 1978, and The Question of Palestine in 1979. All the while, Said was writing and publishing the essays that would be collected in The World, the Text, and the Critic in 1983—perhaps his finest book. This is a breathtaking torrent of work of the highest order: a major critic arriving almost fully formed. But one needs to remember that Beginnings in particular is a text...



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