Timothy Brennan was a distinguished student of Edward Said. Since he started his graduate school studies in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in the early 1980s, he became fascinated by his mentor, and maintained close contact with his life and thought until the end.
In academic circles, Brennan came to be recognized as the authentic voice of Edward Said, as his various writings on Said demonstrate. His book “Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said,” published in March by Farrar in New York, is a phenomenal biography that uncovers the intellectual and political workings of the renowned scholar.
Brennan has succeeded in producing a profound analysis of Said’s literary and political career, being himself a prominent critic and intellectual familiar with the conflicting feelings generated by exile in the great man, who embraced the Palestinian Arab within the American context. Brennan spent over ten years researching Said’s files at Columbia and interviewing many people who knew Said.
Brennan’s biography examines Edward’s Said’s approach to Western literature (English and American in particular), which represented the literature of colonial hegemony under which Said lived during his early years. Brennan raises the question: How can a great intellectual living in exile like Said be so fascinated by the literary and cultural heritage of the hostile West, which considered such heritage a divine and superior component to be bestowed on the inferior Orient?
Said found no contradiction between embracing the creative element of the hegemonic culture of the oppressor, while maintaining his own culture.
The Western elite somehow thought that Said, who was educated in the Western tradition and mastered its language, would be fully qualified to “join the club” and become one with it once he suppressed the Arabic component in him. But Said found no contradiction between embracing the creative element of the hegemonic culture of the oppressor, while maintaining his own culture. He even introduced the musical term “contrapuntal” to settle the situation.
In fact, Edward Said presented a fresh reading of Western works of art, as Brennan shows in his discussion of “Culture and Imperialism” (1993). Said went beyond the usual dimension of the social context of art. The West wanted its literature to be approached without, for example, a reading of the imperialist element in Jane Austin’s “Mansfield Park” – where the main character works abroad to earn the money needed to improve Mansfield Park in England. Or, to enjoy Verdi’s “Aida” without taking account of its imperialist background.
One issue which receives Brennan’s attention is the knowledge used by or for imperialists, as a powerful tool towards the survival of imperialism during and beyond its era. This question of relation between knowledge and power reflects Foucault’s impact on Edward Said, and is especially demonstrated in “Orientalism” (1978). Like Foucault, Said is very critical of those intellectuals, or pseudo-intellectuals, who fail to challenge authority and “speak truth to power”— Said’s own words, which became part of popular discourse and vernacular. Rather, such intellectuals’ concern imitated the institutions of authority, reproduced its system, and gave it back to the same hegemonic authority, to licence and justify its dominance again and again. Said referred to this group of intellectuals as “professional,” because they made themselves tools to serve the power structure, which should be targeted by them instead.
The “Representation of the Intellectual” is another crucial issue for Said, as Brennan reminds us, especially in the BBC Reith lectures. In those lectures, Said calls for a free intellectual who puts himself in the service of humanity and democracy, liberating himself from the oppressive restraints of society, in order to rise above racial and ethnic limitations.
Said called for a free intellectual who puts himself in the service of humanity and democracy.
Timothy Brennan tells us how Edward Said lived as an intellectual celebrity in New York surrounded by Jewish friends, from Lionel Trilling to Noam Chomsky. He also adds how Said greatly admired those celebrities of Jewish origin like Erich Auerbach. It is worth noting that Said introduced the new editions of “Mimesis.” Brennan expounds on one of Said’s most interesting statements, made in a feature published in Ha’aretz by the Israeli journalist Ari Shavit in 2000. During the interview, Said exclaimed: “I am the last Jewish intellectual. You don’t know anyone else. All your other Jewish intellectuals are now suburban squires. . . . I am the last one. The only true follower of Adorno.”
When Shavit felt beaten in the interview, he became evasive, and Said grew annoyed. According to Brennan, while taking stock of his interlocutor, Said thought to himself: “Look at you. You claim to be representing a people and a civilization, and you don’t get it at all. You are not understanding what it means to be a Jewish intellectual, one committed to worldliness and universal justice. You may have weapons and resources, but intellectually and morally you are already lost, and it’s just a question of when others figure it out.”
Said’s response to Ari Shavit is confirmed by the fact that over the years many Israeli intellectuals quit Israel when they realized that they have no place in an apartheid state. Indeed, some well-known Israeli intellectuals who were first allured by life in Israel and then decided to leave after they had been disillusioned include: Noam Chomsky, who early in his life lived on a kibbutz; Tony Judt, who said that Jews who left Europe did not leave Europe back – a reference to European imperialism carried with those immigrants to Palestine; Ilan Pappé, whose book on “Ethnic Cleansing in Palestine” is well-known; Avi Shlaim, who wanted to live close to where his mother lived in Israel, but “could not bear Israeli politics towards Palestinians;” and Daniel Barenboim, a great pianist and conductor and a citizen of the world, who said good-bye to Israel after he had gone to the Knesset and poured criticism on Israeli bigotry.
Many Israeli intellectuals quit Israel when they realized that they have no place in an apartheid state.
It is important not to misunderstand Said’s claim to be a “Jewish” intellectual. What Said means, according to Udi Greenberg, is that by “placing himself in the company of giants like Franz Kafka or Theodor Adorno,” he acknowledges the great tradition of those intellectuals, while lamenting the fact that this tradition is not equally acknowledged or practiced by their fellow Jewish intellectuals and overruled by the authority of the Zionist ideology. That is why Tony Judt described Said as “The Rootless Cosmopolitan.”
Timothy Brennan has written an articulate biography of a most devoted intellectual to the Palestinian question. Recognizing Said’s passion, and sharing his views on the injustice to Palestine, Brennan dedicates his work “to the Palestinian people,” in memory of Edward Said.