If there was one figure central to postcolonial studies and the intellectual force behind the Palestinian meeting with Western academia, it was undoubtedly the late Edward W Said. Although he was an American citizen –his father having fled to the US to escape Ottoman conscription in World War One – Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935 and raised in Cairo. He was very much an international and intercultural figure from his youth.
Despite his education in famed Western institutions such as Princeton and Harvard Universities, as well his academic career at Columbia University, Said was also involved intricately in the life of the “Near East”, and was all too familiar with its cultural and intellectual rhythms. Through ground-breaking writings such as his book Orientalism (1978), he delved into the West’s psyche and exposed some of its deep-seated prejudices towards the region and its people.
His unique ability to traverse both the East and West and their intellectual currents is put down to his “earlier nomadic existence [which] helped explain his shifting cultural allegiances.”
Throughout his career, Said was the figurehead of the Palestinian cause in the West as well as one of the most effective intellectuals of the 20th century whose legacy lives on. Even though he was an Anglican Christian, he was an outspoken defender of the Muslim world and Islamic culture, making him both controversial and beloved to many.
Anyone who knows anything about Edward Said, knows all of this. What many do not know, though, is that mental anguish plagued him throughout his life to such an extent that he was never without therapeutic help. Nor do many know about his complex familial pressures and disputes, and how others aside from himself viewed them. Timothy Brennan’s Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said, however, is the biography which reveals all of those niche and curious details.
Drawing on never-before published materials, including interviews with his family members, intimate friends and colleagues, as well as his unpublished poetic and fictional works – not to mention the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) files on him – Brennan paints a detailed portrait of Said.
It is no surprise, therefore, to learn that the author was a student of Said, was advised by him and was a close friend. As such, Brennan is a suitable fit as a biographer of the Palestinian intellectual. While rightly praising Said, throughout the book the author points out his flaws and reveals certain fallacies. Indeed, at times he even comes across as being rather harsh towards his old friend’s shortfalls, although that could very well be proof of the critical nature of an unbiased biography.
Another aspect that the reader cannot escape is the long and exhausting analyses of Said’s study of literature and the ideas he wrestled with in his academic career. From the descriptions of his relationship with each of his mentors and their influences on him to his numerous works on literary criticism, this biography leans heavily towards the academic side of Said’s life.
An example of this is when Brennan outlines the impact of two such mentors – Richard Blackmur and Arthur Szathmary – and compares the impact they had on the studious Said. While Szathmary had a “more general” influence and taught him “the essentials of critical thinking”, the author states that during Said’s undergraduate years “the more lasting influence came from Blackmur.”
Brennan also refers to Said’s character that later often made him controversial amongst peers and others in his field generally, pointing out that the ideas which “made his mentors unorthodox may seem obscure today, but [they] energised Said immensely.” Unlike the young Said, however, the mentors were fixtures in the corridors of academia and were therefore “sponsored by an establishment that protected and rewarded them for being acceptably edgy.”
Such detail is to be expected, as Said’s entire career was in academia – particularly comparative literature – and Brennan is in the same field, but it comes at a price. Readers have to endure such analyses throughout the book, and this may not be an easy read for those who simply want to know more about the subject’s life. It is something of an intellectual biography.
Above all, this extensive account of Said’s life shows the overwhelmingly human and vulnerable side of the man, while also shedding light on certain tensions with some members of his family. An example of this is when Brennan mentions how he “claimed that his father never wrote him ‘a truly personal letter,’ rather dictating them to his secretary and signing them ‘Yours truly, W. A. Said’.”
When his father Wadie asked him once to be more welcoming of visiting relatives and to contact a business associate in the US on his behalf, the young Said “replied that he was ‘rather tired of being told what a bad person I am, and how I am always falling short of the standards of… a good brother, son, etc.’ He added, ‘I think the time has come to start lecturing my sisters about how they should treat me in a way more properly befitting an older brother.’”
This incident is also one of the instances where Brennan points out Said’s flaws and exaggerations, revealing that his father’s request was found in one of the numerous “personal letters from his father, filled with hurt and insecurity” and which “are readily found among his [Said’s] papers.”
While the biography provides such insights into Said’s personal life and wounded perceptions, it also does due justice to his struggles with the Palestinian question. These included his shift from supporting the much-propagated “two-state solution” to backing the arguably more practical “one-state solution” following the disastrous Oslo Accords.
The book elaborates on his relationship with the powerful reactionary concept of Third-Worldism, especially at a time when national liberation and anti-colonial movements continued to evolve in the changing world towards the end of the Cold War era.
In many ways, Places of Mind… highlights the unfortunate fact that, almost two decades since Edward Said’s death in 2003, the Palestinian cause and its narrative remain muddled. Neither his warnings nor advice appear to have been heeded.