How should we think the analytical purchase of the family of English terms derived from the Latin root fuga? How might we productively pose the anachronistic musical form of contrapuntal theme and variation—the fugue—alongside Hannah Arendt’s figure for “those whom the twentieth century has driven outside the pale of the law” (175)—the refugee—and what Fred Moten has called “a desire for and a spirit of escape and transgression of the proper and the proposed” (“Uplift” 336)—fugitivity? Edward W. Said’s posthumous On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain might seem an odd entry-point for such questions. While Said offers definitive theorizations of contrapuntalism as method, of exile as both an intellectual and deeply historical position—and On Late Style returns to these notions—one would imagine him to be wary of the ahistorical and smoothly totalizing ways in which Arendt’s notion of the refugee have been taken up in certain strains of recent political theory. Even as On Late Style dwells on the issue of aesthetics and form, the work in the black radical tradition to locate and theorize the aesthetic forms of what Moten calls an “appositional enlightenment” (“Freedom” 274) seems beyond the purview of Said’s periodic treatment of black radicals like C.L.R. James, Aimé Césaire, and Frantz Fanon.
Nevertheless, Said’s brief and fragmentary book, culled from a series of lectures, essays, and seminar notes begun in the early 1990s, offers a surprisingly generative terrain from which the question of “fuga” emerges in all its contemporary gravity. He had meditated on the problematic of late style for some time; the concept appears in several of his late works, most notably in his December 2001 lecture on Freud and the Non-European. Here Said analyzes Freud’s Moses and Monotheism as a “late” text that refuses claims to “pure” identity categories even as it confronts the horror of Nazi genocide and the erasure of the “non-European” from the history of Palestine. But using “lateness” only as a means of analysis engenders different effects than to make it the object of analysis, as it is in On Late Style. How we should read this late work, and to what end, is far less clear, but this very question potentially makes reading On Late Style more useful. Scholars interested in the articulation of the aesthetic, the political, and the discrepant trajectories of modernity should read this work with ears wide open.
“Fuga” helps us approach On Late Style in precisely the way Said might want: as a counterpoint both to his other late works and to the broader landscape of contemporary imperial culture in which it appears. In the book’s foreword, Mariam Said recalls her husband’s simultaneous attempts at the end of his life to complete three quite discrete projects. “Today I will write the acknowledgements and preface to Humanism and Democratic Criticism,” Said informed her with renowned will one Friday morning several weeks before his death, referencing his argument for the ethical importance of secular humanist practice in a post-9/11 United States; “The introduction to [a collection of journalistic essays entitled] From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map I’ll finish by Sunday. And next week I’ll concentrate on completing Late Style, which will be finished in December” (vii). Given the contours of Said’s immense critical output, we should not be surprised when, in his battle with debilitating leukemia, this final burst of contrapuntal productivity takes the form of a vigorously political counterpoint: to escalating U.S. military designs in the Arab World, to the Bush Administration’s not-so-tacit support of intensified apartheid policies in Israel/Palestine, to the popularized racist figure of the dehumanized Arab, and to the full frontal attack on the intellectual class meant to silence the critique of such dire conditions.
Reading On Late Style contrapuntally also suggests a longer, if more obscured, genealogy of Said’s engagement with the specific problematic of lateness. As he routinely described his own...