Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2019

The Charisma of Edward Said

The Charisma of Edward Said
edward-said-portrait

He loves a country and he leaves.
[Is the impossible far off?]
He loves leaving to things unknown.
By traveling freely across cultures
those in search of the human essence
may find a space for all to sit . . .
Here a margin advances. Or a centre
retreats. Where East is not strictly east,
and West is not strictly west,
where identity is open onto plurality,
not a fort or a trench . . .
—“Mahmoud Darwish bids farewell”

Edward Said was often photographed. He had a knack for organizing the image, typically appearing as a richly upholstered six-footer, his bold stripes and patterns from a Savile Row tailor, hair like black whipped cream. Hearts throbbed for him. But the best-known image is very different. In it, he is throwing a stone at an Israeli guardhouse. Instantly published around the world, this photo instigated calls for Said’s dismissal from Columbia University with a corresponding passionate rush to his defense. No other photo captures so economically Said’s ability to make your head snap back and wonder, Can he really get away with that?

Said throwing the stone | Getty Images

Said’s career blended erudition, pride, audacity, eloquence, magic, power, and a good location. A prominent, self-declared Western humanist, presenting himself as a raging Jeremiah or a Romantic outsider—the Manfred of Lord Byron, stalking the Higher Alps and spitting poison at Europe; or a Jonathan Swift, gnashing imprecations at Western civilization. To put it like that announces the self-division that cleaves Said’s whole enterprise. He was Western to the bone. His chosen doubles were Western heroes, riven and tormented figures such as Lawrence of Arabia, whose self-description as “a standing civil war” fascinated Said because it named his own condition. His interest in bisected eccentrics, the Genets, Vicos, and Conrads, lay in his quest to avoid the fateful stalemating of the contradictory gifts he saw in Lawrence, a civil war fought to a standstill. Said’s intractable contradictions produced a kind of restless energy—and no end of academic tut-tutting from his more cautious colleagues—but nothing held him back. He was, of course, an intellectual rake, a fundamentally unpredictable character whose ultimate professional and cultural centrality never extinguished his charming eccentricity.

Friends admired Said’s charisma and enemies feared it. Charisma means different things to different people. Max Weber’s description, which is fundamental to ensuing definitions and debate, was grounded in religion. In Weber’s famous paradigm, the supreme charismatic figure, Jesus, blazes briefly only to have his brightness dimmed as the Christian church reduces his one-of-a-kind example into offices, sinecures, rituals, repetition, rote formulas, and gray bureaucracy. Charisma turns into routine.


Literary critics are sadly incomparable to Jesus Christ. They develop exclusively within the institutions that train, house, reward, package, and market them.


Middle-class students who entered graduate school during the U.S. war on Vietnam prized Weber’s definition of charisma because it threatened and rebuked established institutions. The first generation of Said students tended to chant, “Tune in, turn on, drop out.” About the university specifically, their directive was, “Shut it down!” By contrast, John Guillory feels “the Weberian motif of the ‘routinization of charisma,’” has little application to academic people. It has been tacitly assumed to apply equally well, he writes, to religion and academic literary criticism, but literary critics’ charismatic authority “was never exclusive of, nor incompatible with, [their] institutional authority.” For Guillory, an unmodified use of Weber’s version of charisma obscures its real workings at the university. Our thinking about superstar literary critics “will not advance very far if its divergence from the Weberian ‘ideal type’ is not acknowledged at the outset.” Yale Professor of Comparative Literature Paul de Man serves as Guillory’s example of post-Weberian charisma, but arguably Said could work even better.

Guillory shows how badly the Weberian paradigm fits academia. Not only are literary critics sadly incomparable to Jesus Christ, they also develop exclusively within the institutions that train, house, reward, package, and market them. Unlike religious charismatics, critics are inseparable from their institutional wrappings. Harold Bloom would not be Harold Bloom were he working at Burger King. His identity resides in his institutionality: he is Yale Professor of English Harold Bloom. And that is true, mutatis mutandis, across the board. Derrida would not be Derrida were he not J. Derrida, agrégé of the École Normal Supérieure in Paris. Quality presses (such as Harvard or Gallimard) make their own contribution to a growing reputation, as do TLS or the London Review of Books, by providing prominent reviews that in turn produce invitations to speak at “R-1 [Doctoral research]” universities. Only a broad, expensive, coordinated effort can give a lowly English professor the pearly luster of charisma. It happens only to a few. And those few are produced: they do not produce themselves.

Two events occurred around 1981, just as Said achieved the first peak of his notoriety. One was the rise of literary theory superstars who attracted the attention of the general literate public. The other was a debate over literary professionalism. Guillory offers a plausible explanation of the first. Theory stars were, he writes, “the free agents of pure charisma. It is not difficult to see that the deployment of this category was driven by the interests of competitive university administrations, for whom the content of theory, subversive or otherwise, was largely irrelevant.” He concludes, “What mattered was that the charisma of the master theorists could be converted into bureaucratic prestige.”

Guillory’s materialist account of this competitive market for theorists depends heavily on Pierre Bourdieu, the late French sociologist who updated Marxist materialism by adding his own important studies of “symbolic capital.” A panoply of workers and institutions labor to confer symbolic value on certain persons and objects. Consider the famous example of Marcel Duchamp’s work, “The Fountain.” To acquire value beyond its retail price as a common piece of manufactured plumbing, the dealers, the gallery, reviewers with their training and experience, art journals, academic quarterlies, biennales, conferences, underground publications, auction houses, and art investors must collude in “consecrating” it as a work of art. An equally diverse array of interlocking institutions invest in the literary critic, and receive the benefits of the star that they have consecrated. Bourdieu insists that

the charismatic ideology of creation . . . prevents us asking who has created this “creator” and the magic power of transubstantiation with which the “creator” is endowed . . . thereby avoiding any enquiry beyond the artist and the artist’s own activity into the conditions of this demiurgic capability.

In Said’s case, by 1981, the thirty-two-year-old tennis-playing clotheshorse of 1967 was well on his way to demiurgic status. Bourdieu’s materialist version of charisma suggests just how that happened.

Bourdieu offers an amusing account of the typical professorial gestures and tricks: “verbal acrobatics, hermetic allusion, disconcerting references or peremptory obscurity, as well as the technical tricks . . . such as the concealment of sources, the insertion of studied jokes or the avoidance of compromising formulations.” He might well have added to the list the professorial practice of grandly denouncing his own profession. American critic and fervent pro-professionalism gladiator Stanley Fish was always particularly incensed by this ritual of self-flagellation. The institutionally created critic-professor is actively encouraged to display independence, even to the point of attacking the institution itself. Doing so enhances the university’s own socially consecrated role as the sanctioned place for freedom of speech.


Whenever Said broke with norms of decorum, his employer, Columbia University, sprang to his defense.


Said’s own exhortations for professorial courage must be seen in this light. The final chapter of his manifesto on the intellectual vocation, entitled “Speaking Truth To Power,” identifies himself as one of a tiny band “whose stentorian voices and indelicate imprecations are hurled at humankind from on high.” He is “someone able to speak the truth to power, a crusty, eloquent, fantastically courageous and angry individual for whom no worldly power is too big and imposing to be criticized and pointedly taken to task.” He is “someone whose place it is to publicly raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations.” Much more of the same follows, in this book and elsewhere, but that last phrase deserves careful attention. Bourdieu’s measured account of charisma as a valued corporate commodity renders Said’s idea that intellectuals can avoid compromise with governments and corporations romanticized, if not self-contradictory.

A look at Said’s own record proves Bourdieu right. Whenever Said broke with norms of decorum, his employer, Columbia University, sprang to his defense. After he threw his famous stone at Israel, and calls were heard for his disciplining and dismissal, the University Provost Jonathan Cole issued a public defense of Said’s right to “speak” and gave no inch of ground to his critics. Said supporters hailed Columbia for this act of rare courage. By this means, the university further established its pristine integrity as a utopia of individual freedom, where even the upper administration could speak its mind without constraint. Some insiders even saw Cole’s letter as a throwback to feudal standards of personal loyalty: after all, Cole was Said’s squash partner.

But the hard-hearted might conclude that neither love nor Romanticism nor an anti-corporate impulse made Columbia defend Said. Other Said-inspired upheavals, such as the revelation that he had exaggerated some details of his past, were also instantly slapped down by Columbia. After devoting so much institutional energy and authority to establishing so charismatic a professor, the university was determined to protect its investment. Said was fond of saying, with a conspiratorial twinkle in his eye, “They let me get away with this because I dress so well.” The truth is that “getting away with this” was precisely what Columbia paid him handsomely to do.

The university was not alone. In keeping with Bourdieu’s assertions, other institutions also defended the consecrated bearer of charisma. The liberal press (which is another industry devoted to charisma-production) also repeatedly sprang to Said’s defense. A way to understand the attack upon and the defense of Said is to compare the treatment given to Jackson Pollock circa 1955. The vulgar fulminated that their five-year-olds dripped paint better than Pollock, while experts recognized his genius and praised it. Supporting Pollock became a mark of social, intellectual, and cultural superiority. In Said’s case, political superiority was involved as well. Each institution and corporation had its policy. For example, in the midst of an uproar over his purported habit of falsifying his past, the London Review of Books commissioned a well-known pro-Palestinian muckraker to write a piece about the controversy. When he turned in the 5,000 studiously researched words, the editors killed his article because he admitted that Said had exaggerated.


In addition to Said’s anointment by Ivy League institutions, he was an expert practitioner of the irrational aspect of charisma.


Accepting Bourdieu’s reading deflates Said’s proclamations of the courage demanded to speak truth to power. “If the institution tolerates and so strongly encourages disrespect for the accessories and even the institutional rules,” writes Bourdieu, it does so in “the service of the institution and through it the institution’s social function.” Unsurprisingly, that function is the conservative one of reproducing the social system as it is. For Said, real intellectuals (read: himself and his followers) stand alone while throngs hurl insults and labor ceaselessly to bring these heroes low. But his football-coach-like commands to show steely courage when telling off the institution belong to the scripted routines of professorial conduct. Far from subverting the social and political norms, these fervent proclamations—always delivered in a seasoned preparatory-school bark—strengthen the power that they hope or purport to oppose.

The stone-throwing episode marked the end of Said’s political arc and the planetarity of his charisma. Completely apolitical until 1967, he entered the public fray as a writer trying to correct misperceptions of the Arab peoples that had come to his attention during the “six-day war.” He excelled in this as-yet-unnamed cultural criticism, and his successes brought him to the center of PLO power. By 1974 he knew Yasir Arafat and the PLO elite. In 1979 he was meeting quietly with U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and almost worked out a deal for an independent Palestinian state. Throughout the 1980s he hobnobbed with MacNeil and Lehrer, Ted Koppel, Phil Donohue, and other media marchers. He debated ambassadors and heads of state. By 1990, he had taken on the aura of a political prophet.

In addition to Said’s anointment by Ivy League institutions, he was an expert practitioner of the irrational aspect of charisma. Linked by Weber to “the berserk with manic seizures of frenzy,” the foundational theory of religious charisma tied it to prophets, outsiders, and pirates. Organization men or women were excluded from possessing it. Bourdieu points to this irrational core, comparing charismatic professors to magicians who induce their audiences to suspend disbelief. Said’s ability to get very angry on short notice enhanced this aspect of his charisma and made him a most compelling television talk-show presence. His righteous anger grabbed the television viewer by the lapels and made Said’s style a perfect fit for the sound-bite era.

But Said finally became frustrated and bored with the media. By the end of the twentieth century, he had tired of the “local” American scene and gone outside Europe itself. He withdrew from celebrity glitz, and, apart from low-key televised conversations with Charlie Rose, focused on the Middle East, Asia, and the Southern cone. His purest political statement was the photo, in which, sans his trademark finery, he had gone down to the dusty streets of the intifadah and taken his station beside the anonymous shabab and revolutionary children who had nothing left to lose. It is a penitential, revisionary, and profoundly moving self-portrayal.


Said’s trilogy let in the raucous, populist, vulgar, and comic atmosphere of real people—the public men and society women, the mountebanks, tyrants, and thugs who make the world go round.


When I met Said on the Columbia campus in 1968, he was still an Englishman. He embodied a style of high conservatism prey to fits of wild improvisation. His continual revolutions and intellectual self-transformations made him a charismatic teacher and his graduate seminars were pure inventions of theoretical imagination. One was called “egotism” and another was entitled simply “Repetition.” He invented a lexicon that no writer can do without today: Orientalism, worldliness, culture and imperialism, “intellectuals,” Palestine itself. None of these concepts would have their current urgency if Said had not lent them the force of his intellect as well as the glow of his celebrity.

Said’s intellectual and political lives curved along comparably rounded arcs. Starting as a literary theorizer who gave that epithet part of its forbidding air of impossible difficulty, he soon abandoned the theory craze and found an audience wider than the academy. Calling his method “worldliness,” he published a trio of books, Orientalism, Covering Islam, and The Question of Palestine. The trilogy cracked the airless vessel of French-inspired literary theorizing and barged into the exclusive clubrooms of Middle East scholarship. It let in the raucous, populist, vulgar, and comic atmosphere of real people—the public men and society women, the mountebanks, tyrants, and thugs who make the world go round. Orientalism had its glamour, after all: scholars and statesmen, artists and adventurers, poets and prelates all had their featured moments in Said’s study. By conjuring with these varied figures, the eccentrics and writers like Richard Burton and Chateaubriand, the political rhinos like Balfour and Cromer, by meeting them all on their own terms, Said took on much of their reflected glamour, variety, and exoticism. Reversing Bourdieu’s model, he does not passively wait to receive charisma from institutions of Orientalism; he steals it with his swashbuckling pen. Bourdieu might respond that the literary institution remains the author of this demolition job, since the institution itself weaned him on Aristophanes, Lucian, Pope, and Swift, and taught him the ferocious art of flaying dunces. Nonetheless, he chose his own models, always favoring a literature that was “parasitic on what it responds to.” Orientalism is at once a searing attack, an elegy, a work of literary criticism (for none of the examples is there by accident) and an inspired essay of cultural criticism.

Perhaps we tend to see Said as more isolated than he was. He was never without gifted peers, and there were some monumental talents among his American and French contemporaries, particularly Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Said conveniently identified this pair with the two strands of theory that shaped him and precipitated his anxiety of influence. When two charismatics meet, however, there can be only one issue: combat. “In principle only one side can be in the right” (Weber, 1968). By 1983 Said’s celebrated renunciation of literary theory was inevitable. He ceased to pay homage to the thirty-year French theoretical Renaissance, but he never ceased to admire it, remaining soaked in its values and struggling to extend them. Foucault may have helped to start the train of thought that led to Said’s interest in local knowledge, much as Derrida and his American counterpart, Paul de Man, led to his brilliant re-conception of literature as a form of rhetoric. But Said was not a proto-postmodernist. He stands up for the individual text or author for very little. He wrote, “Empirically in the case of Orientalism (and perhaps nowhere else) I find this not to be so.” Why there and nowhere else? He offers no argument and no rationale. It is his one article of faith.


As a like-minded rebel, Said had to admire Foucault’s sovereign contempt for professional rules.


Said’s deepest meditations study the survival of genius within deadening routine, the oppositional force of the individual among institutions or schools of thought. As a like-minded rebel, he had to admire Foucault’s sovereign contempt for professional rules. Reluctant to credit his direct competitor for critical charisma, however, he looked around for a substitute progenitor. Somewhere he discovered as his ally the antique philologian, Gian’battista Vico. This eighteenth-century Neapolitan schoolmaster was an unabashed idealist who fashioned a powerful response against the dominant materialist thought of his time. He could stand in for deconstruction because he too asserted the primacy of rhetoric over logic. Vico wrote that the first primitive people (“stupid, insensate, and horrible beasts”) thought and spoke in poetry. They felt rather than thought; they imagined rather than abstracted. All they had, mentally, was a poetic ability to make metaphors. They were irrational, but their irrationality made them more productive, powerful, and creative. In refusing to consider culture and society as involuntary effects of the environment, and by inflating poetry to the status of the single, substantial shaping force of civilization, Vico’s ideas understandably appealed to an English professor, as they appealed to another Vico devotee, James Joyce. It was Vico’s flamboyance and unrepentant humanism that recommended him to the equally flamboyant characters of Joyce and Said. But even more so it was his cavalier disdain for ordinary rules. Vico himself charismatic—though distant enough in time so that, unlike Foucault, he needn’t be fought to the death. Though both were subverters of Enlightenment faith in Reason, Vico was the more surprising. An Enlightenment figure himself, he hinted that the Enlightenment was pregnant with the anti-Rationalist seed of its own undoing.

Vico was a strangely modern voice, urging “something outside mere logical sense.” He was unrestrained by the Apollonian orderliness of the printed page, and he had nothing of the faded monkishness that Said understandably loathed. Indeed he was hardly rational at all. Along with his positive appreciation of poetry, he offered an unusually negative valuation of syllogism, sorites, and logic. For him, the fall of civilization resulted from the rise of the status of reasoned thought. Each cycle of rise and fall reflects ever-increasing abstraction. The history of human society consists largely in what Weber calls the routinization of charisma: the growth of prose out of poetry, reason out of fantasy, democracy out of autocracy. This evolution culminates in the ironic awareness that all the original poetic perceptions, and the institutions based upon them, are false. Wheeling from primitive anarchy to civilization and back to barbarism can by no means be called cumulative advancement. “Progress” is hardly the word for such a sequence, for the arrival of abstract reasoning heralds the imminent end of human society. Ironic consciousness leads to social disintegration. Predictably, when society collapses, a new age of bestial irrationality begins, but this era is even worse than the first, for now humans have thought themselves into the condition of “beasts made more inhuman by the barbarism of sense” (Vico, 1970). Nowhere had any Enlightenment figure so roundly endorsed irrationalism.

Vico spoke powerfully to Said, who endorsed self-contradiction and dismissed the claims of consistency. “Charismatic authority is specifically irrational in the sense of being foreign to all rules” (Weber 1968). Said found Vico’s antinomian views a bracing affront to the posturing of American scholars and raissoneurs who proclaimed the indisputable, scientific rationality of doctrines such as racism, Orientalism, and Eurocentrism, or for that matter to the professionalized literary scholars who identify with the American Medical Association in their assurance that each year they offer ever-better diagnoses and improved services. Keeping faith with poetry, with its flashes of perception in defiance of all rational categories, was the true idealism.

The second influential strand of contemporary theory, that of deconstruction, entered Said’s repertoire largely in the displace form of Vico. Both deconstruction and Vico demolished Enlightenment Reason’s arrogant self-assurance. Said’s style itself was a self-contradiction; he used his own version of Vico’s poetic speech to wrest an active function away from the pure passivity of abstract thought. Both his prose style and his thought persistently demonstrate his devotion to poetic speech, his distrust of abstractions, and his dismissal of Panglossian faiths of all kinds—especially the kind called radical communism. “My reading of Adorno,” Said wrote at the end of his life,

with his reflection about music at its center, sees him as injecting Marxism with a vaccine so powerful as to dissolve its agitational force almost completely. Not only do the notions of advance and culmination in Marxism crumble under [Adorno’s] rigorous negative scorn, but so too does anything that suggests movement at all (Late 14).

Nonetheless, Said moved away from high theory on a bridge made up of theory’s own insights. What he called “disciplines of detail” was the local knowledge” under whose banner marched interpretative anthropology, sociology, the New Social Movements, and New Historicism. What he called “speaking truth to power” encompassed the “rhetorical” arts of persuasion and delivery. This was a different version of rhetoric than in deconstruction or in the sub-disciplines of rhetoric and composition. Today rhetoric is usually understood as expression (elocutio), meaning figurative language. This was the aspect seized upon and revived by deconstruction and other theories (e.g., Hayden White’s Metahistory) that sought to revitalize literary studies with a (very strange) return to rhetoric. Rhetorical Invention was also encroaching on the traditional literary syllabus, with Freshman Composition being taught not as literature courses but as “rhet/comp” courses. But, while there were many deconstructors and composition-rhetoric people, only Said championed the art of delivery. He alone proposed that a critic by definition had to fight for a political movement.


Said’s impulsiveness and subjectivity that appeared evocative but untrustworthy in literary studies gave him tremendous presence on mass media, in auditoriums, and in the press.


His later work followed a rhetorical journey to the promised land of Local Knowledge mapped out by his intellectual generation. “Think Globally, Act Locally” condenses this idea to back-bumper proportions. Having revolted against the subject (call it consciousness or the author) by using anti-humanist firepower (the statistical table, the philological laboratory, the stagecraft of culture), Said turned on his anti-humanist French allies, cut loose their structuralist and postmodern weaponry, and dove into an American-anthropologically inflected strategy of local action. Once he landed in local knowledge, he never turned back. The Question of Palestine offers 238 pages of local knowledge, only five of which are devoted to anything even vaguely theoretical. From then on, descriptions of the Palestinian situation grew into a series of studies of a single, local problem in media and culture (Covering Islam [1981], After the Last Sky [1986], Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question [1988], The Politics of Dispossession [1995], The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After [200], From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map [2004], plus hundreds of biweekly columns for Al-Majalla, and then Al-Ahram and Al-Hayat, periodicals published in Europe and Egypt for a largely Arab readership). The books came faster and faster because they were empirical studies or responses to current events.

Said’s later polemical essays, to say nothing of his public speeches, required colorful reactions, and the research they called for was collateral to his journalistic activism. The impulsiveness and subjectivity that appeared evocative but untrustworthy in literary studies gave him tremendous presence on mass media, in auditoriums, and in the press. His strength lay in those two long-neglected planks of the rhetorical curriculum: memory and delivery. His charisma grew, and his audience grew with it.

Passionate reactions to events in Said’s local journalism had the effect of emphasizing his personality. This partly erased his earlier alliance to thinkers like Derrida and Foucault—who had de-centered, fragmented, and dispersed the sources of human achievement—and, like them, he became an intellectual celebrity. In other words, the process of breaking away from the humanist thinkers of Enlightenment and Victorian culture and confirming the death of the author led back to the very image of a white mythology that he had once worked so hard to kill off. His own identity was bound up with charisma-drenched Romantic such as George Gordon, Lord Byron, a much earlier public heartthrob who also yoked a literary career to a revolutionary politics, subordinated logic to poetry, and celebrated the East at Europe’s expense.

In important respects, Said remained true to his first impulses. His last unfinished books flaunted the self-contradictions with which he always seemed so comfortable. In Humanism and Democratic Criticism, his particular brand of crusading liberal politics offered prescriptions, remedies, and solid promises that all would turn out well, if only people would follow his advice. That reassuring optimism was checked sharply in On Late Style, with its pessimistic message that, truth be told, all systems of traditional and rational authority stamp out human individuality. These two books flatly contradict each other. They meet just the sort of conflagration that incinerates all modestly rational identities. He said all that he felt had to be said, and the messages seemed inconsistent, so much the worse for consistency. That said, Late Style, with its off-beat title and its convalescent heroes, was by far the more Saidian and successful book.


Said’s career, his thought, his style, are all understood best through the lens he provides in his essays on Swift.


Considered in light of Late Style’s mediation on failure, alienation, and death, his last “political” initiative—an orchestra composed of young Arab and Israeli musicians—appears as both an atonement and a withdrawal. It seemed to reverse his long-held conviction that a creative person had to be rooted in a political movement. The orchestra stood outside of any political movement. Instead, it reestablished an aesthetic realm divorced and protected from the sphere of ethics and politics. But this was the very separation that Said had always fought against. Perhaps he felt that the orchestra could serve as an aesthetic projection of a political goal. At the same time, the West-Eastern Divan Workshop and Orchestra crystallized his own style of rhetorical performance. With no logical argumentation at all, it simply showed that Jews and Arabs could literally harmonize their differences. It was eloquence of a non-logical, even somatic kind.

The unlaid ghost of Jonathan Swift looms over this story. Swift recognized that an idea and a conquest usually arrive together. Allied to a nascent political force, the Irish community, which he played a part in creating, he walked the line between criticism and communal solidarity. He had no interest in philosophical consistency; he was compelled by shame and disgust. He was accused of poisoning the wells of high cultural enjoyment, and his self-contradictions were noted. Said sympathized with all these tendencies. He might well have been thinking of himself when he said of Swift, pay less attention to the ideas, and more “to the deployment and disposition of his energies, his local performances.”

Said’s career, his thought, his style, are all understood best through the lens he provides in his essays on Swift. There he writes:

We do him a greater service if we accept the discontinuities he experienced in the way he experienced them: as either actual or imminent losses of tradition, heritage, position, history, losses located at the center of his disjointed verbal production.

Added to the disjointedness expressive of “actual or imminent losses,” “most of [Swift’s] writing was precisely occasional: it was stimulated by a specific occasion and planned in some way to change it.” In that praise for occasional writing, one could read a very early prediction of Said’s much later vast production of occasional and polemical writings about Palestine. The accent on writing in order to change specific occasions also holds steady right to the end. Call it Charismatic Activism, which begins only when the established social order is set aside: “The artist who is fully in command of his medium nevertheless abandons communication with the established social order of which he is a part and achieves a contradictory, alienated relationship with it.”

Said’s roots were entangled with an older, native tradition. While he was finishing graduate school at Harvard and applying for his first professorship at Columbia, Lionel Trilling still presided over the Columbia College English Department. Jacques Barzun, Henry Steele Commager, and Meyer Schapiro strode like Colossi on College Walk. They had an aura and expected to receive due deference within the hothouse confines of South Field, Hamilton Hall, and the insular neoclassical campus perched like a tiny Athens atop the hill above Harlem. Said was much younger than these examples of eminence grises, but he was unmistakably ruling class.

Both Trilling and Said were ethnic men in what was still, in pockets, a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant redoubt. Like Trilling, Said believed that writing communicated more through its form than by its explicit statements—although unlike Trilling, he held that “no synthesis is conceivable” and that the privileged forms are “anachronism and anomaly.” Both men were cultural critics. They gave their respective historical moments a “ruling personage,” which is as Taine explained, “the model that contemporaries invest with their admiration and sympathy.” It was appropriate that Said won the first annual Lionel Tilling Award for his book, Beginnings: Intention and Method (1975).


“God!” Barbara exclaimed. “He sounds like such a bastard. He is such a bastard!”


When Trilling was still a Columbia College undergraduate, he had written a pair of short stories about two young men on the make. In each story, a young university man needs to repress the crude but eccentric and brilliant—and very Jewish—side of himself. Although Trilling possessed a charisma of his own, the painful insecurities and self-consciousness displayed by the characters in these early stories are the antithesis of grace, exuberance, equanimity, mystique, positive energy, joie de vivre, charm, personal chemistry, allure, potency, in short, everything Said embodied.

In Trilling’s story, the would-be-assimilated narrator denies his own Jewish roots by snubbing the alarmingly déclassé Hettner. In writing a short story about this fraught self-betrayal, Trilling was gnawing at a central ethical dilemma in then-contemporary Jewish intellectuals’ young lives. He tried to keep his secret-sharer Hettners at arm’s lenth. Geraldine Murphy, Trilling’s best critic, calls him the “shrinking violet. He always wore a pressed suit and looked unbearably worried, as if he were physically gulping back down the earthy, uncultivated Hettner concealed within himself. At most, this indecorous (for Gentiles) Jewish core was permitted a brief cameo appearance in Trilling’s juvenile work of fiction, which was published in Menorah Journal for a presumably Jewish audience. It was a most discreet self-meditation.

Said had none of Trilling’s uptightness and timidity. He had come of age amid worldwide decolonization and liberation movements. Perfectly assimilated and socially-superior, more European, more bourgeois, more cultivated than his peers, he was instantly more “at home” in the Ivies than Trilling ever could have been. No one believed he was an Arab, above all a Palestinian, for he looked supremely at ease in every suit he wore, down to his gym suit. His privileges, his money, his British boarding-school voice, his looks, his athleticism, his easy sexuality: the symbolic capital was inexhaustible. He could afford to be nice to anybody he liked, even, on occasion, to lumpish, lower-middle-class, not-very-interesting characters from upstate New York.

The success of Jewish assimilation inhibited Trilling in ways that Said could ignore. If Said showed little anxiety on any occasion, he had less reason to: he had few competitors. Where were the Palestinian Prousts, Adornos, Abby Warburgs, Bernard Berensons, Peggy Guggenheims, Gertrude Steins, and Phillip Roths? His first experiment with ethnic narrative, entitled “Cairo Recalled” and written for the Condé Nast glossy House & Garden, is a field day of social privilege. Soirees, manicured playing fields, armies of white-clad servants, lawn tennis, regal courtyards, cotillions, and concerts, and parties, and wonderful clothes: “their poignancy for me is that I am certain they will never recur.” An opulent Jewish drawing room was banal, cliché; a Palestinian world of luxe et volupté had jaw-dropping novelty.

Unembarrassed by anything, Said openly declared that he was a work in progress, going public to pursue his disputes with the PLO, making sure his political battles played out before as big an audience as he could find, turning his life into a fight card that announced the successive and concurrent bouts. He had to go looking for fights because, in most respects, he was totally at home. His account of Bicker at Princeton gives a small but telling example. Three of the exclusive eating clubs vied to get him as a member, while his less desirable roommate looked on, increasingly distraught. Said finally consented to join the club that threw in the roommate as part of the deal. His open-armed acceptance by WASP America sorted rather ill with his self-concept as a Romantic outside. And at some point around 1972-3, a conscious act of abdication took place. He decided to become an Arab.

“That Bastard Said”

I heard of Said before I even got to Columbia. I went to New York in late March, when my upstate gulag was locked in dirty snow. Sparrows and pigeons were scavenging around the trashcans when I reached Morningside Heights and my host and sometime evil companion, Cousin Barbara, introduced me to her roommate, Mary Wise. Mary was a leggy Minnesotan who had attended the then-entirely WASP preparatory school for girls, Dana Hall. On this sunny day, she was talking about her thesis advisor, Edward Said.

Having done her M.A. under Said, she now wanted to enter the doctoral program in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, and he had just refused to write her a letter of recommendation. Barbara and I shifted uncomfortably. Conspiratorial glances accompanied every mention of Said. What did that mean? I knew it had something to do with romance or even sex. Mary’s rope of dark blonde hair was working loose out of its French twist. We were outside, in the garden of International House that stood just across Claremont Avenue, opposite Barbara’s Deco-glass apartment building foyer. As Mary went through what she had said and what Said replied, she began to rub her slingbacks together. One of them eventually dropped off and made a hollow noise on the flagstone sidewalk.

“God!” Barbara exclaimed. “He sounds like such a bastard. He is such a bastard!”

I pieced together a rough impression of this bastard. He was young, brilliant, an Arab, sexy, unpredictable, arrogant, unyielding, unfeeling—in fact, a total bastard. After a while, the breeze off the Hudson picked up, and we decided to go. Mary leaned on me, getting back into her shoe. And for my part, I had made up my mind. I would go to Columbia and major in English.


This essay is a chapter reprinted from Edward Said: The Charisma of Criticism (Routledge, 2010) with permission from the author and publisher.