Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said
Timothy Brennan’s extraordinarily detailed biography of Edward Said shines the spotlight on the Palestinian intellectual and leads the reader through an intricately woven narration of his life. Summing up the book in one word, “contradictions” resonates the most. Edward Said’s life is at once chaotic and centred, reflected both in his work and his life.
The book draws on testimonies of relatives and friends, FBI files on Said, as well as his vast writing repertoire, to bring together an image of the intellectual.
The book’s preface speaks of how Edward Said had become misrepresented. “It had, in other words, become easy to turn aid into a series of placards without depth or nuance.” Brennan’s book does the opposite – the context given to Said’s works and writings makes for quite a challenging read.
"Said’s personal life is interspersed between reams of discussion of his literary endeavours, his political formation and continuation"
It is not just the dearth of subjects and interests which captured Said’s attention, but also the embedded contradictions which, for Said, may also have spelled a constant philosophical exploration.
The book never takes focus off the ramifications of exile. For Said, who was born in Jerusalem, grew up in Cairo and educated in the United States, the concept of exile remained a constant theme throughout his life and literary works.
While the book includes episodes of Said’s personal life, it is through his main interests: politics, literature and music, that his image starts to take shape.
Brennan traces and evaluates Said’s academic life, which remains a constant and prominent aspect even as his involvement in Palestinian politics increased. Literature, philosophy and music provided the platform for Said, from which his own musings would unravel.
Throughout his academic career, Said met with and kept correspondence with various intellectuals worldwide, including Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault.
Literary criticism, Brennan notes, was one main way of understanding Said’s complex thought processes. In the book, Said is seen as in constant intellectual motion, moving ahead of authors whose work he analysed and imparting his own thoughts.
Brennan writes that Said was described by Palestinian historian Tarif Khalidi as “a philosopher who had migrated into literature.”
Considerable attention is devoted to Said’s well known works, “Orientalism”, “Culture and Imperialism” and “The Question of Palestine” – the latter taking a unique approach in the US, and which many publishers turned down.
Brennan describes the book’s approach thus: “Refusing to view Palestinians as victims huddled in squalid camps, Said fashioned a portrait of a people whose styles of movement and exchange evoked a loosely linked regional identity without strict borders.”
Of noteworthy attention is Said’s perception of the role of the intellectual, which he describes as “an influencer, a moral thinker in academia.” His involvement in Palestine in the post-1967 war led Said to various collaborations, although he refused allegiances with any Palestinian political faction. He was chosen to edit Yasser Arafat’s 1974 UN General Assembly speech – It was Said who was tasked with making the speech resonate with a US audience.
The book also describes his loyalty to Yasser Arafat, until the Oslo Accords. Brennan writes, “the promises and failures of the Palestinians’ movement moved Said inexorably towards the role not only of intellectual spokesperson but of active cadre.”
"If anything is to be gleaned from this book, it is the concept of process, evaluation and change, which might also pose a challenge to the contradictions which Said himself embodied through a brilliant career"
According to the FBI’s surveillance of Said, he was the “unofficial liaison between the US and the PLO”. In the aftermath of the Oslo Accords, Arafat had Said’s books banned from the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
The book refers to how in 1989 Said predicted the downfall of the Palestinian National Council (PNC), during an interview, in which he stated disgust at “a leadership that went about acting the supplicant, treating the US government like a “big white father” when the United States was really acting as an attorney for Israeli interests.”
It is perhaps one of Said’s biggest contradictions that he had pushed for negotiations between Israel and Palestine upon the basis of the two-state compromise, given that the outcome was immediately described by Said as a betrayal.
Said was also a proponent of the one-state solution, which he envisaged as the result of a process departing from the two-state politics. However, the Oslo Accords failed to secure any rights for the Palestinian people, Brennan writes, “Although the treaty promised peace between Israel and Palestinians and had been universally heralded in the media, Said took on the lonely task of showing it to be a betrayal.”
Places of Mind is an intellectual biography. Said’s personal life is interspersed between reams of discussion of his literary endeavours, his political formation and continuation. Anecdotes here and there testify to a character at times at odds, spontaneous yet thoughtful, on occasions unable to cope with situations that evoke strong emotions.
Brennan’s work is meticulous and vivid. If anything is to be gleaned from this book, it is the concept of process, evaluation and change, which might also pose a challenge to the contradictions which Said himself embodied through a brilliant career and his foresight in relation to Palestinian politics.
Ramona Wadi is an independent researcher, freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger specialising in the struggle for memory in Chile and Palestine, colonial violence and the manipulation of international law.