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‘Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said’ review: In exile, rooted to Palestine

Every child that succumbs due to wars in West Asia disappears from the world without knowing that the shell that hit the roof came with a long history — the contest over a territory, the problem of imagined communities, colonial chicanery, and above all, the chasm of religious faith among several other threads. In such times, what does it mean to read Timothy Brennan’s intellectual biography of Arab-Christian-Palestine Professor of English literature Edward Said, who was an advocate of Palestine’s rights?

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Being in the place

If Said’s life can be read as a novel, as his friend Dominique Edde formulates in her Italian biography, translated into English as Edward Said: His Thought as a Novel (2019), two themes dominate the story of the professor — a sense of place and the politics of representation. Dislocation of human beings from places and dispossession of land that belongs to a people not only animate his writings but also they are the source of his larger intellectual concerns. Brennan’s biography tries to capture this theme by making a distinction between places of mind and the place he lived. According to Brennan, Said was a man rooted “imaginatively in Palestine and actually in New York”.

Said’s memoir, Out of Place (1999), which came out of the intensity of facing imminent death when diagnosed with leukemia, was an attempt on his part to come to terms with his troubled identity, being an Arab-Palestinian in the western world. The mapping of territories in the memoir — Jerusalem, Cairo, Beirut, Lebanon, Egypt and even the U.S. — articulates his longing for Arab culture in the most exalted sense.

Like Timothy Brennan, yet another student of Said, H. Aram Veeser wrote a critical biography, Edward Said: The Charisma of Criticism, in 2010. Building on earlier life narratives, what Brennan has attempted in the biography of his teacher is something ambitious — as he obliquely mentions in the Preface — he is trying “to paint a full picture of Said’s Arab and American selves as they come together and to account for the ways that Said’s writings on Palestine, music, public intellectuals, literature, and the media intertwine”.

Intellectual journey

The use of carefully selected details of Said’s life and the tracing of the beginnings of his intellectual journey set Brennan’s account apart. There are little known facts that Said’s fans might look forward to: Said, a movie buff, who watched a porn flick Deep Throat along with Hollywood action thrillers; his romantic liaisons; his effort to bring peace and harmony between Israel and Palestine through a music association and performances, and the friends and foes he made in its wake; and his love for fountain pens and Rolex watches, among others.

Besides crisp accounts of the contexts in which Said’s writings took shape, in Places of Mind, it is interesting to come across certain facts that arouse our curiosity. For example, at some point of time Said wanted to collaborate with Noam Chomsky on a book that would deal with spurious portrayals of West Asia, but Chomsky could not due to other commitments. Then, Said went alone and Orientalism was the result. Finally, what Brennan has achieved in his thick description of Said and his times is an account of how Said arrived at the pinnacle of his academic work — what it took for Said to become what he became.

Accordingly, Places of Mind reveals Said’s struggle with his early book, Beginnings (1975), and how it paved the way for his bestsellers Orientalism (1978) and Culture and Imperialism (1993). We come to know that Said tried different ideas and authors, abandoning some and negotiating with some others. His project of working on intellectuals and a book on Swift never saw the light of day. His mentors at Princeton and Harvard groomed him in formative years, and he was shaped as much by diverse intellectual traditions and disciplines from German philosophy to Auerbach’s Philology, from French textuality and discourse theories of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida to Gorge Lukacs, Raymond Williams and Adorno’s musings on music. While a fair amount of space is devoted to Said’s life with music, his constant struggle for the Palestine cause lurks in most chapters.

Levels of representation

Though Brennan does not indulge in long interpretations of Said’s work, he does give explanations of them, clarifying certain mis-readings. For example, to the critics who thought that Said was wrong in reading Orientalists, Brennan clarifies that ‘rather than gauging the accuracy or inaccuracy of the Orientalists’ account of Arab and Islamic life, Said meant to dwell on the echoing inner chambers of representation itself, on the degree to which representation is part of reality, not just its rendering in words’. Said was one of the most mis-represented intellectuals of his time. In 2000, the media misreported Said’s symbolic gesture of stone-throwing at the Lebanese border as hurling stones at Israeli soldiers, and in fact in 1989, he was allegedly titled Professor of Terror.

Brennan’s astonishing research and deep understanding of Said, the man and his works, have enabled him to bend the narrative, breaking the linearity and giving different vignettes of not only Said, but also his interlocutors, allies and adversaries. The rich archival material and interviews with 96 people have lent Brennan’s study a documentary depth that captures the spirit of an epoch — its people and places.

Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said; Timothy Brennan, Bloomsbury, ₹385 (Kindle edition).

The writer teaches English Literature at Tumkur University, Karnataka.


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