Edward Said
Edward Said; drawing by David Levine


What redeems certain empires, or perhaps only the British, according to Conrad’s Marlow, what saves them from mere rapacity, from being “just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale,” is “the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to.” At this point in Heart of Darkness Marlow is said to break off. It is “only after a long silence” and “in a hesitating voice” that he speaks again, and starts to tell the story of his journey to Africa and his meeting with the mysterious and dying Kurtz.

Marlow stops speaking, presumably, because he is troubled by the metaphor he has stumbled into. Bowing down and offering a sacrifice don’t sound like the activities of an organized and enlightened Western mind. They sound like idolatry, even if the recipient is an idea rather than a barbarous deity. The very thing that (perhaps genuinely) distinguishes the British from the ancient Roman and the modern Belgian empires identifies it with the supposed savages it is unselfishly dispossessing of their land, and worse still, with Kurtz himself, the European who has gone native, whose house is surrounded by human skulls, and who has himself become someone to bow down before and offer a sacrifice to. African chiefs are said to “crawl” to him. As so often in Conrad, an argument begins to collapse into its opposite. There is a slippage at the heart of empire, a crack in its definition of itself.

Other features of empire are intact and unthreatened in Heart of Darkness, though, and even Conrad seems quite untroubled by them. The epigraph to Edward Said’s powerful recent book picks up the passage on Marlow’s idea a little earlier, and continues into the quotation as given above:

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it…

As the carefully understated irony makes clear, Conrad was not a racist in the most obvious and virulent sense; he did not believe in the superiority of one race over another, and repeatedly mocks the very notion. But he did believe in race itself, as almost everyone did until more recently than we care to remember. Conrad welcomed the stereotype of the African savage, even if he thought (or because he thought) we were all savages at heart. He could see that Europeans might be as wild and morally benighted as Africans, or even more so, because of the veneer of their hypocrisy and refinement; he could not see that Africans might have their own enlightenment and civilization.

This is an effect of culture, or rather of power experienced as a cultural inflection, and such matters are the theme of Said’s book. But culture doesn’t simply respond to power; it shapes the moral world in which power is exercised and encountered. In one sense Culture and Imperialism is a sequel to Said’s Orientalism (1978); in another it is, as he says, “an attempt to do something else.” Like Orientalism the newer work describes a culture of dominance, the way realities of power are both registered and masked in language and behavior; but it also explores cultures of resistance, the ways in which an ancient or emerging culture can speak within and against domination.

Thus Culture and Imperialism has a brilliant, affectionate chapter on Kipling’s Kim (“we can watch a great artist…blinded by his own insights about India”), a scrupulous and painful chapter on Camus’s fiction and its relation to Algerian independence (“Camus’s narratives have a negative vitality, in which the tragic human seriousness of the colonial effort achieves its last great clarification before ruin overtakes it”); a complex, many-angled account of Verdi’s Aida and its first performance in Egypt. But the book also has an intricate response to Yeats’s situation as an entangled postcolonial poet (“His greatest decolonizing works concern the birth of violence, or the violent birth of change”), and a passionate account of what Said calls the voyage in, the moment in writing when the children of empire take up their own argument in the alien language they have been taught. Said’s chief examples of this voyage, discussed in sympathetic detail, are C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins and George Antonius’s The Arab Awakening: he also makes acute comments on Ranajit Guha’s A Rule of Property for Bengal and S.H. Alatas’s The Myth of the Lazy Native.


No longer does the logos dwell exclusively, as it were, in London and Paris. No longer does history run unilaterally, as Hegel believed, from east to west, or from south to north, becoming more sophisticated and developed, less primitive and backward as it goes.

The new perspective requires not a denial of what comparative literature used to be in the grand days of Spitzer, Auerbach, and Curtius but an extension of its interest to works of historical and sociological learning, and a reexamination of its old hierarchies, its (sometimes) implicit but (always) unmistakable Eurocentrism.

The real hero of Said’s book is anonymous and collective; everyone who has been silenced or misrepresented by an empire, but who has said enough, or left marks enough, to encourage the chance of liberation. Frantz Fanon comes close to being the named hero, the bearer of a “cultural energy” which could move us beyond nationalism, seen as the continuing grip of empire’s hand, into an authentic humanism, a term to be stripped of its conservative and self-congratulating intonation. “It is a misreading of Fanon,” Said suggests, “not to see in him something considerably beyond a celebration of violent conflict.” I’m sure this is right, although Said’s dismissal of Fanon’s support of armed struggle as “at most tactical” is a little swift—it was more than that—and doesn’t even evoke “the justified violence of the oppressed,” a phrase Said uses elsewhere.

However, Said’s topic at this point is not violence but nationalism, and he already has enough difficulties on his hands. He doesn’t want to refuse nationalism its legitimacy as a form of resistance to its imperial domination; he wants us to see that there are many forms of nationalism, courageous as well as crazy and tyrannical ones. But he also wants nationalism to be critical of itself. Only in this way can it modulate into liberation, and put an end even to the ghosts of empire. At this point, words like “universal” might make a comeback, because they would represent not the projection into time and space of whatever our civilization happens to be, but the discovery of authentically shared human grounds, old and new.

It will be more difficult to rehabilitate “objective,” a word often found in the same lexicon, not because there are no common truths or because subjectivity is all we have left, but because “objectivity” has served too many forms of Realpolitik, has too often meant merely an insufficient curiosity about the status quo, as when the facts (our facts) are assumed to take care of all argument. Said quotes Fanon as saying that “for the native, objectivity is always directed against him.” There are other objectivities, of course, which may be helpful to the native or which may be the native’s own, as when an investigation reveals the lies and distortions of a crooked or unscrupulous oppressor. But even there, even when a relative objectivity can be substantiated and agreed on, there are also passion and polemic, not the mere, aloof disinterestedness the word “objectivity” mostly seems to proclaim.

This is a delicate matter, which haunts all of Said’s work—indeed haunts much modern scholarship in all kinds of fields. He acknowledges the force of various Nietzschean skepticisms about the possibility of truth and knowledge, but clings to the idea that “there is such a thing as knowledge that is less, rather than more partial than the individual…who produces it” and that what he calls “the seductive degradation of knowledge” can be resisted. All knowledge is potentially political, we might say; it doesn’t have to be, shouldn’t be politicized.

Taking a cue from Raymond Williams, Said describes the elaborate involvement of culture in empire as “a structure of attitude and reference.” This capacious phrase, almost obsessively repeated, begins to wear a little thin, or to look more like a talisman than a concept. Of course Said must have some such ample container if he is to recognize the ways in which texts are and are not determined by historical circumstance, but I still worry about the bagginess of the term. Is there anything that won’t go into it? Like Williams, and like Lukács, his other maître à penser, Said deals frequently in the very broadest of propositions. The difficulty with them is not that we can’t assent to them but that we can scarcely see what it would mean not to.

Said himself is certainly aware of this problem, and in his earlier book The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983) speaks of the risk of “soupy” designations and “sloppy” notions. Here he writes of the “unacceptable vagueness” which may attend words like imperialism, and offers two responses to this concern: we need to look at the details and differences concealed by the general term; we must not use them to avoid the hard realities lurking in the vagueness itself. This is persuasive, and in the case of empire the vagueness is a product of the sheer size of the phenomenon, of the fact, say, cited by Said, that by 1914 “Europe held a grand total of roughly 85 percent of the earth as colonies, protectorates, dependencies, dominions, and commonwealths.” As a result, empire lingers almost everywhere, in minds and economies, even when it is supposed to have gone, and Said can plausibly speak of our political “context” as still “primarily imperial.” We need to remember that the culture of empire often includes a magisterial denial of the possession of anything like an empire, or an interest in any such thing, as when the interventions of the United States in Asia and Latin America and the Middle East are pictured not as imperial gestures but as humble, even altruistic acts of peace-keeping. Or when the British and the Belgians indulged in the metaphors of bringing light to darkness which so caught Conrad’s attention.


There are overstatements in Culture and Imperialism, uncertainties, contradictions. “The novel…and imperialism are unthinkable without each other.” This is either untrue (people have been thinking of them separately for ages, that is what Said wishes to change) or a truism (all historical connections, however tenuous, look inevitable to hindsight). Said eloquently identifies and rejects the rhetoric of blame which riddles so many discussions of empire, but what he himself says very often sounds like blame, and he’s the one who tells us that Conor Cruise O’Brien lets Camus “off the hook” by converting the historical fact of Western dominance in Algeria into the more metaphysical notion of “Western consciousness and conscience in relation to the non-Western world.” There is an interesting analogy between Verdi’s “imperial notion” of the total art work and the imperial gesture (Verdi’s and others’) which premieres in Egypt an opera about the same country’s ancient splendors and miseries, a form of homage that looks a little like a takeover. But “imperial” is still a metaphor here, it elides Verdi’s own opposition to Austrian imperialism, and to say that the notion and the gesture “dovetailed conveniently” makes the suggestive network of connections, what Said calls the “ghostly notations” of musical and political history, look like a pretty blunt operation after all. I’m still puzzling over what I think is wrong with the suggestion that Austen “sublimates the agonies of Caribbean existence to a mere half dozen passing references to Antigua.” Is it that they are not agonies to her, even if we feel they should be; and that the word sublimates blurs the issue?

To note all this is not to demand of the critic some impossible delicacy or poise, but to remind ourselves that Said, like the rest of us, has more than one passion. A Palestinian who lives and works in New York, and a Christian Arab who was educated in Egypt and the United States, he inhabits a complicated, multiple world; and his book itself is speaking to several different audiences. If some readers are distressed by his insistence on the worldly embroilments of literature, others are upset by his kindness to his enemies. It is surprising, and affecting, to read that Said finds the famous images of empire—Gordon at Khartoum, Kurtz in Africa, T.E. Lawrence conspiring in the desert, Rhodes “establishing countries, estates, funds as easily as other men might have children,” Bugeaud frenchifying Algeria, “the concubines, dancing girls, odalisques of Gérôme, Delacroix’s Sardanapalus, Matisse’s North Africa, Saint-Saëns’s Samson and Delilah“—“haunting, strangely attractive, compelling.” Some of those images seem a good deal more haunting and attractive than others, and certainly Said goes further than I would when he thinks Yeats’s espousal of fascism “arrogant if charming.”

What is important about Said’s “contrapuntal reading” of works of literature—a reading in which ordinarily separate histories are allowed to play against each other, to produce not harmony but a complicated polyphony—is not its occasional bluntness or its sometimes overstated claims, but the range of insight and argument it makes possible. It is not only a matter, as he too modestly says, of provoking “a newly engaged interest” in canonical texts, or of making them “more valuable as works of art.” It is a matter of learning how to find, in literature and elsewhere, what Said calls “a heightened form of historical experience”: which I take to mean finding history in places where it ought not to have been lost, amid our favorite formalisms and decorums, for example.

This is what Said’s demanding discussions of Camus, Flaubert, Forster, Gide, Yeats, Césaire, Neruda, and many others do for us. The point, to parody Marx, is not to appreciate the world but to understand it. We see the “strengths” and “limitations” of works we care about, Conrad’s Nostromo, for example; we catch the references they themselves make to things we have forgotten, as I shall suggest in a moment in relation to Jane Austen; we gain or regain a “sense of the human community and the actual contests” that go into the formation of national and other histories, those of the British in India, for instance, and the Indians under the British; and we recognize in empire and its legacy “a compellingly important and interesting configuration in the world of power and nations.” There is no exaggeration in such a claim, and by analogy we recognize other missed or displaced configurations too.


Culture and Imperialism is a hospitable book—surprisingly hospitable perhaps for a volume with such a turbulent topic, and for an author with such a (well-earned) reputation as a polemicist. It is a work of prodigious learning, littered with warm acknowledgments of authors and titles. Its very pages look like an active community of scholarship, and Said speaks eloquently of the university as a “utopian space” where politics are (must be) an issue but where such issues are not “imposed or resolved.” We may think of the space as wider than the university, as appearing wherever thought and argument are active, wherever criticism in Said’s sense occurs. The “social goal” of criticism, he says in The World, the Text, and the Critic, is “noncoercive knowledge produced in the interests of human freedom”: and he asks, in a rather Jamesian turn, “What is critical consciousness at bottom if not an unstoppable predilection for alternatives?”

Literature itself would be a utopia in this sense, an idea we find in Kundera, for instance (“the novel is incompatible with the totalitarian universe”). But then this same utopian, critical space, if much wider than the university, is still pretty slender overall, threatened even within the university, vulnerable to all sorts of conformities, and always at risk when the predilection for alternatives, whichever way they run, is treated as treason.

There is an excellent example of regainable historical experience in Austen’s Mansfield Park, which Said controversially discusses in Culture and Imperialism. Said’s case seems at first sight very much overworked; a few mentions of Sir Thomas Bertram’s possessions in Antigua support a whole structure of argument about empire and slavery. Said shows analogies between running an estate and writing a novel, and between restoring order at home, where the young folks have been putting on a play, and keeping order abroad, where the natives are no doubt restless. When he writes that “there is nothing in Mansfield Park that would contradict us” if we were to pursue such connections, a proper skepticism arises in us. This is how lawyers talk when their evidence or their witnesses are shaky.

But Said’s evidence is not shaky, and he is if anything too discreet about it. He says, correctly but, without quoting, that Austen continues to link colonial expansion with domestic morality “right up to the last sentence.” If we turn to that last sentence with questions about slavery in our mind, we are likely to find it disconcerting. Should we have questions about slavery in our mind? Well, Austen had; it’s her later readers who haven’t.

In the last words of the novel we learn that the parsonage at Mansfield

which…Fanny had never been able to approach but with some painful sensation of restraint or alarm, soon grew as dear to her heart, and as thoroughly perfect in her eyes, as every thing else, within the view and patronage of Mansfield Park, had long been.

The restraint and alarm have to do with the former inhabitants of the parsonage, who include Fanny’s meddling and snobbish aunt, her glittering rival for the love of her cousin Edmund, and a man who made her an offer it seemed she couldn’t refuse; but “patronage” reaches out into a world beyond Fanny’s immediate experiences, and picks up discussions earlier in the novel.

There is surely a smile at Fanny’s enthusiasm in the words “thoroughly perfect,” and a restriction implied by “in her eyes.” The place is not perfect, because nowhere is. Austen has just said, in one of her milder relativizing touches, that “the happiness of the married cousins…must appear as secure as earthly happiness can be.” How secure is that? How secure did Austen think it was? She goes on to specify by implication that this happiness involves “affection and comfort,” and—a nice touch—the death of the incumbent at the parsonage, so the happy couple can move in. I don’t think we should read Austen as sneering here, or doubting the happiness of the married cousins. But it is a worldly happiness, and the projected perfection, as Fanny herself knows, involves a plantation in Antigua, part of the patronage if not of the view of Mansfield Park. Said’s point is that it is precisely not part of the view because it is taken for granted: “Austen reveals herself to be assuming…the importance of an empire to the situation at home.” This is true enough, although of course there is no reason why Austen should not make such an assumption. More troubling is the implied attitude to the management of empire, and here Austen begins to look rather more like Conrad than you would expect.

Austen, like Conrad (and most other English novelists writing before this century), accepts the idea of overseas possession; she fails to express any considerable interest in the human objects of British colonial attention, undoubtedly caught up in the “recent losses” Sir Thomas Bertram has sustained “on his West India Estate,” part of the “experience and anxiety” he met there—although indeed his losses and anxiety may well have to do with the approaching abolition of the British slave trade rather than its heartless flourishing.

But Austen does express unease, or allow space for unease, about the morality of overseas possession. Sir Thomas, having taken his mousy niece into his house as an act of kindness, is surprised, on his return from Antigua, to find she has grown into an attractive young woman. “Your uncle thinks you very pretty, dear Fanny,” her cousin Edmund says. “You must really begin to harden yourself to the idea of being worth looking at…. You must try not to mind growing up into a pretty woman.” Edmund means to be kind, and has tried to frame his father’s compliments with an appropriate moral reservation: “Though they may be chiefly on your person, you must put up with it, and trust to his seeing as much beauty of mind in time.” Even so, “being worth looking at” is pretty brutal, and “beauty of mind” here sounds like the stuff you get at question time in the Miss World contest.

But the real problem here, which makes Fanny “distressed by more feelings than he was aware of,” is that she is in love with Edmund, and we are to imagine the strange torture of hearing these things from his mouth but not from his mind and heart. Edmund, blind to all this and not yet in love with Fanny, says she needs to talk to her uncle more, she is “one of those who are too silent in the evening circle.” At this point Austen makes an astonishing connection, which I should certainly not have seen without Said’s instigation, between the commodification of women and a more notorious commerce in human flesh. Fanny says:

“But I do talk to him more than I used. I’m sure I do, Did not you hear me ask him about the slave trade last night?”

“I did—and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther.”

“And I longed to do it—but there was such a dead silence!”

Fanny goes on to explain her diffidence: she didn’t want to seem more interested in her uncle’s doings in the West Indies, or specifically, “his information,” than the man’s own daughters were.

There is a lot of work for the reader to do here, and different readers will do different work. It’s possible to see this moment as not about the slave trade at all; mention of it merely signals Fanny’s seriousness and the empty-headedness of the Bertram girls. The dead silence is one of boredom. This certainly is how Edmund sees the matter, but his mind is not fully on it: he is thinking, as his next speech shows, about how wonderful Mary Crawford, the woman he is currently attracted to, is. And can it be true that Sir Thomas would have been pleased by further questions about the slave trade? What was his answer to the first? Perhaps the dead silence was his, and Fanny describes her diffidence because she doesn’t want to seem to complain. Or she is embarrassed at the memory: she didn’t mean to cause trouble or seem like some sort of radical, she only wanted a wise and authoritative answer to her no doubt foolish qualms.

For Said the dead silence suggests that the cruelty of the West Indies could not be connected with the civility of places like Mansfield Park, “since there simply is no common language for both.” This is certainly the effect of the silence, and it is certainly the way many readers of Jane Austen see the matter. Several English reviews of Said’s book thought the idea that Austen might (or might not) have anything to say about slavery was his chief and most ridiculous idea, and were illustrated with rather demure-looking prints of the novelist, as if she were a cultural icon to be saved from political desecration. But the silence in the novel must be local, rather than a reflection of the culture at large. The British slave trade was abolished in 1807, and most commentators assume the novel (written in 1811) to be set in the years just before that. The subject would have been much discussed, and might have been discussed even at places like Mansfield Park. Fanny was trying and failing to talk about the news. If the silence is Sir Thomas’s, rather than simply that of boredom, we still have to guess at its source. Is he an embarrassed anti-abolitionist, or does he just think women shouldn’t talk about these things? Is he fed up with all the talk about the slave trade, or just too distressed to talk any more?

Of course, we can’t take these questions very far without writing our own novel; but that is not a reason for dropping them entirely. Slavery is not questioned in such a scene; but it is remembered, and there is no comfortable place for a critic or reader to be. The writing is so understated, so delicately unforthcoming, that at first we can only note the presence in it of a question that, in older, less contrapuntal readings, Fanny might be thought too frightened to ask and Austen might be thought too genteel to entertain.


Austen offers several stories here, or several possibilities of story, and such a move invites us to think about Said’s suggestion that “narrative itself is the representation of power,” a point he also made some time ago in a London Review of Books article called “Permission to Narrate.”* It’s not that the powerless don’t have stories, and it’s not only that they don’t get to tell the stories they do have. It’s that they are scarcely perceived as capable of having stories, their stories are not so much refused as ruled out, unimaginable as pieces of recognized history. “With no acceptable narrative to rely on, with no sustained permission to narrate, you feel crowded out and silenced.”

It’s true that the acceptance of official stories often leaves little room for anything else, and that a person who doesn’t share the assumptions of those stories will often seem to be mute. But there are narratives of resistance as well as of dominance, and Said’s own work—his literary and cultural criticism, his writing on music, his polemical writing, his moving essay-memoir After the Last Sky (1986)—is itself full of stories, even if they are often brief and submerged, and sometimes only implied.

Or they are counternarratives, reversals, recoveries, refutals of a familiar or prevalent tale, the one that takes up most of our space and time. They are like the story of Said’s mother’s Palestinian passport, told in After the Last Sky: it is torn up by a British official during the Mandate in Palestine, since as a married woman she can no longer need it and since, the official told her, her administrative absence would create a legal space for a Jewish immigrant from Europe. Or the story, told in Culture and Imperialism, of the Arab Protestant minister who learns that the European and American authorities in his community now want Arab Christians to join the Orthodox Church, to return to the East, so to speak, as if a whole hundred years’ missionary venture was just a Western caprice which could simply be called off.

Said sometimes writes of alternatives to narrative, of “lateral, non-narrative connections,” or “anti-narrative energy” or “anti-narrativist waywardness”; but these are actually narratives themselves, other ways of telling, to adapt the title of one of John Berger’s books. They are “broken narratives,” in Said’s own phrase, scraps of story, dissolutions, or diversions of the tyrannical single narrative. After the Last Sky transcribes a grimly comic interview in which a captured Palestinian is interviewed on Israeli radio:

“And what was your mission in South Lebanon?”

“My mission was terrorism…in other words, we would enter villages and just terrorize. And wherever there were women and children, we would terrorize. Everything and all we did was terrorism….”

“What’s your opinion of the terrorist Arafat?”

“I swear he’s the greatest terrorist of all…. His whole life is terrorism.”

At one point, Said indicates, the man being interviewed makes a terrible linguistic joke or slip. He belongs to the “Popular Front for the Liberation [tahrir]—I mean Terrorization [takhrib]—of Palestine.”

What is happening here relates only indirectly or ironically to the actual horrors of terrorism and violence, on either side of the fearful situation in Israel and Palestine. Even if this man were a terrorist, his performance would be a parody, a caricature of a nightmare. Of course, he might be frightened into this talk and just groveling. Or he may be brutally, blatantly cynical.

But the reading Said offers is the most persuasive one. The man lives inside a powerful story, and can defend himself against it only by mockingly accepting everything it says. We are looking at a dominant myth in action, one which says that there is only one kind of terrorism (“theirs”) and that all captured Palestinians are terrorists. You can’t answer such a myth, you can’t even tell a clear counterstory that anyone will believe. You can only travesty it, repeat it as if it were a buried fable. Said says,

This story and several others like it circulate among Palestinians like epics; there are even cassettes of it available for an evening’s entertainment.

That story is scary too, of course. What if the parody turns back into a simplified, murderous version of the real thing? Well, we have to believe in the dark and lively sense of humor of those who are being entertained, which is a way of saying we have to believe they are as human as we are; no more, no less.

Two of Said’s broken narratives in particular bring his work into focus for me, hang in my mind like elusive emblems of what that work is about. One concerns artists of great gifts, composers, novelists, or critics, whose historical situation or relation to language becomes a cage or an impasse: their very achievements lead them to frustration, they demand more of the world and themselves than either can give, their immense successes are caught up in what feels to them like failure. Swift, Hopkins, Conrad, in Said’s accounts of them, all enact versions of this grand but hard story. There is also Yeats, struggling to “announce the contours of an imagined or ideal community” in the violent reverse of an ideal world. Put together, these glimpses of brilliant and baffled artistic careers begin to resemble Adorno’s account of modern music, which finds an austere integrity in the dead end into which it drives itself. And also lurking somewhere here perhaps is the example of Said’s Princeton teacher R.P. Blackmur, who spoke of failure as “the expense of greatness,” and said (of Henry Adams) “a genuine failure comes hard and slow, and, as in a tragedy, is only full realized at the end.”

Said is drawn to these tales, and Adorno is an important figure in the argument of Musical Elaborations (1991), and in the relaxed and elegiac Lord Northcliffe Lectures which Said recently gave at University College, London. But the story I hear in his work is finally less stately and more dynamic than the one Adorno tells, more direct and less mournful than the one we meet in Blackmur. The artist is a hero, not because he wins or loses but because he acts, because he is faithful against the odds to a difficult idea of the self and the world.

The other broken narrative is a version, or an anticipation, of the story of the obliging terrorist. It echoes through Said’s writing in quite different contexts, early and late, and it is the implied story, the narrative behind the narrative, of Orientalism. This book is very emphatically about the “system of ideas” by which the West has mapped the East, and says it acknowledges only “tacitly” the “lives, histories, and customs” of those who actually live in so-called Eastern lands. Said insists that he doesn’t believe in any “real or true Orient,” “some Oriental essence” to be opposed to a set of essentially wrong Western views. It’s the very invention of the Orient that is the problem; it allows learning and sympathy and literature and adventure but it always risks tumbling into myth. Said quotes the scholar Duncan Macdonald on the Oriental’s “liability to be stampeded by a single idea,” and comments on the liability of Macdonald and his colleagues to be stampeded by a single idea about the Orient. In one of the quietest and most telling moments in the book, Said suggests that the “difference is slight” between the history the West has given the Arab since 1940 and the history it has taken from him. Much is to be learned from the thought that a theft and a gift might, in certain contexts or perspectives, be almost the same.

But then there are real people in the imaginary East, and Said’s tacit acknowledgment of actualities is louder than he perhaps thought it was at the time, since it embodies a genuine passion for the unrepresented, for those who can’t speak, but who flicker in the pages of Orientalism whenever Said invokes a neglected human history. He writes for example of “the disparity between texts and reality,” of “the Islamic people as humans,” of “individual Arabs with narratable life histories.” What else but this reality, the untold story of this reality, would make Orientalism such a problem-filled enterprise? Just how narratable those neglected life histories are, and by whom, is of course the question we are looking at. Said doesn’t want to speak for the silenced or the ignored—the Orientalists are already doing that—he wants their silence to be heard.

Not all Orientals are silent, of course, and not only Orientals are silenced; Said’s broken narrative comes into play wherever representation overwhelms the represented, and we can all think of parallel examples. This is to say that the story, as a story, concerns a group or groups of people who are unable to represent themselves not because they cannot speak or have no stories, and not even because they have been repressed, although that is often also the case. It is not even chiefly a question of their access to the means of distribution of narrative, although that too is of course important. They cannot represent themselves, Said is saying, because they are already represented, like the interviewed terrorist. A monstrous imitation stands in their place, and is worked like the chess-playing puppet Walter Benjamin evokes at the start of his “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” They are different from us and their difference, usually but not always construed as inferiority, is who they are. They have no other life.

At the same time the silence of these peoples has a charm of its own and is a criticism of our noisy speech. This is not to justify their silencing but to say they are not only victims, and I find I want to associate the habits of secrecy Said attributes to the Palestinians in After the Last Sky (“We are a people of messages and signals, of allusions and indirect expression,” there is “something withheld from an immediate deciphering”) with what he calls the “reticence, mystery, or allusive silence” of music, the modesty of its wordlessness. These reticences are worlds apart, of course, but they share the sense of a realm that language can point to but cannot name, that only community or the art of listening can inherit. In Musical Elaborations Said quotes Proust on the subject of books being the work of solitude and the children of silence, and thinks of the phrase in relation to Brahms: “I found myself coming to a sort of unstatable, or inexpressible, aspect of his music, the music of his music, which I think anyone who listens to, plays, or thinks about music carries within oneself.” This is not a retreat from the world, or a denial of worldliness. It is one of the ways, and among the most valuable, in which we live in the world. Solitude is part of who we are, and it can, in communities of trust, open out onto shared silences, the imagined music of our music.

Such communities are fragile and intermittent. They are places where allusions are enough, and silences count as much as words; where words too still count but have been relieved of the burden of assertion and will. They are often more a memory than a fact, and sometimes not even a memory. They are like home as Said describes it at the end of Culture and Imperialism, evoking the exile of Erich Auerbach, who fell into the East at Istanbul and found in his mind the Europe he had lost. Said quotes Hugo of Saint Victor, who thought that love of home should give way to a love of “every soil,” which in turn, for the person who had become “perfect,” should yield to a sense that “the entire world is a foreign place.” Said’s comments on this passage are wonderfully delicate and subtle, and can be seen as offering an original reading of Proust’s suggestion that true paradises are lost paradises:

Exile is predicated on the existence of, love for, and a real bond with one’s native place; the universal truth of exile is not that one has lost that love or home, but that inherent in each is an unexpected, unwelcome loss. Regard experiences then as if they were about to disappear.

This is a truth for those who have lost their love and home, and for those who have not; and for those who have returned to them. Exile, as Said suggests earlier in this book, can be a happy and an unhappy condition, a chance of belonging “to more than one history.” It can be suffered or sought, or imaginatively borrowed. It is a way of understanding loss, and a way of knowing what there is to lose, the paradise that can’t exist until it’s gone.

This Issue

March 3, 1994