The World, the Text, and the Critic
Edward Said’s new book is a disconcerting example of a rational position sapped by alarming faults. As a practical and theoretical critic of literature, Said sacrifices accuracy and good sense to self-indulgent carelessness. His collection of essays deals with a range of writers from Swift to Conrad, with philosophers from Plato to Derrida, and with scholars from Ibn Hazm of the eleventh century to Professor Gerald Graff. But wherever I scrutinize the reasoning or try to verify the evidence, the weakness of his accomplishment disturbs me.
The main direction of Said’s theoretical argument is that a proper understanding of literary works is impossible without a knowledge of their historical setting. A literary text, he says, is “always enmeshed in circumstance, time, place, and society” (p. 35). In taking account of these facts, Said believes, a critic should also take account of social change, particularly of the relations between the classes ruling a nation and those that produce its wealth but have small part in its government (pp. 168-173). Said suggests that the design of a literary work reveals—if only by exclusion—the social and political strains, the processes of “acquisition and appropriation,” that make a society equitable or corrupt (p.23).
Said establishes his theoretical position in his opening chapters, and cites texts by Hopkins, Wilde, Marx, and a number of novelists, to demonstrate how literary works can involve the circumstances of their own production. For Said, the essay is the proper genre for criticism—and criticism is itself an activity that works into and out of a particular social world and historical moment.
After applying his principles to the writings of Swift and Conrad, Said returns to general issues. He deals with the relation of historical cycles, or “repetition,” to originality, or change, in the evolution of culture. Relying on Vico, Kierkegaard, and Foucault for his examples, Said argues that historical patterns are not merely innate but develop from responses to experience (p. 113).
So also, when he examines the relation between theory and originality, Said treats theoretical issues as springing from the historical situation of the critic himself. He argues therefore that the concept of “textuality” has made old notions of originality untenable. The term can no longer mean merely the first instance of a phenomenon but rather “a faculty for combinatorial play” (p. 138).
In other essays, Said surveys the practice of literary criticism today, calling attention to the new preoccupation with the way a text “functions,” but also regretting the tenuous linkage between criticism and the history of institutions (p. 155). He demonstrates the ironic ambiguity of the term “leftist” as a description of critics who seem to oppose established academic practice and yet whose literary essays seldom bear on political or social action (p. 162). Here he holds up Gramsci and Raymond Williams as examples worth studying. In the weightiest theoretical essay of his book, Said compares Derrida with Foucault, deeply appreciating the achievement of both men (and finding fault with both …