Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said

Timothy Brennan

Bloomsbury, £25

Review by David Pratt

Many years ago, 2002 to be precise, I was privileged to act as chairperson for a discussion and debate at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. The title of the event was The Middle East – What Next? Sharing the platform that day as guests were three of the region’s greatest authors. Israeli literary giants, Amos Oz and David Grossman, were joined by one of the finest chroniclers of Palestinian life, hopes and fears, the wonderful Raja Shehadeh.

Ask anyone who was in Edinburgh that afternoon and they will likely endorse the view that it was a memorable event. Looking back now, only one other contributor would have made the session utterly complete while squaring up the number of authors on the platform.

For what the audience didn’t know that day was that the organisers had originally also hoped to have among the guests one of the most revered and celebrated intellectuals of the 20th century, the remarkable Palestinian – Edward Said.

Said was to die of chronic lymphocytic leukaemia almost exactly a year to the month after that Edinburgh event. It was this illness, with which he had struggled for going on 12 years, that had prevented his attendance at the book festival and cut short the influential writing and lecturing of which there would undoubtedly have been more were it not for his untimely death aged 67.

I’ve always felt saddened by missing out on that opportunity to meet Said in person, but now have the consolation of knowing him much better through Timothy Brennan’s new biography, Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said.

As someone already fairly familiar with Said’s writing, notably his seminal 1978 book, Orientalism, examining the West's attitude to Islam and the East, and stand-out classic Culture and Imperialism (1993), I had a reasonable grounding in his kaleidoscopic work that explored everything from international diplomacy, literary theory and criticism to classical music and intellectual exile.

Having also read Out Of Place, Said’s 1999 memoir of his early life, I had wondered what more Brennan’s biography could reveal about this complex, vain and sometimes fiercely polemical and intellectually competitive man, who was born into a wealthy Palestinian Christian family in Jerusalem in 1935.

I needn’t have worried, for Brennan provides many fresh insights. A former student and friend of Said’s at Columbia University, he has also marshalled a phenomenal array of research material and interviews as well as having the authorisation of Said’s estate.

Letters, drafts of written work, released sections of a 238-page FBI file, early pages of the novels Said so wanted to write, all are pulled into sharp focus here by Brennan.

For me, two characteristics emerge from this biography that help give some understanding of what made Said tick. The first is a kind of intellectual nomadism and the second is that he was a man of opposites. I used the word kaleidoscopic earlier to describe the range of his work but Said himself seems at times to have lived a kind of spiritually dislocated existence that in ways chimes with the collective experience of his fellow Palestinians.

For here is a man shaped by location yet who never stands still, leaving him with the overwhelming sense of always being an outsider.

Jerusalem, Cairo, Princeton, Harvard, and global stops in between: Said, when not laying down his – often profoundly influential – ideas on paper frequently writing late into the night, was rubbing shoulders with the likes of Yasser Arafat, ANC leader Walter Sisulu, Noam Chomsky and John Berger, to name but a few.

If his personality was in great part shaped by place, so too, was it a result of contradictions in character. At times we have glimpses of someone who is impetuous, who does not suffer fools gladly, a person who could be self-absorbed and even narcissistic but who also outwardly engaged with myriad causes and individuals.

As Brennan details in the book’s closing sections, even his final resting place, “was not quite right”. Given that the political symbolism of Said’s life and engagement with the Palestinian cause would have made the “desecration of his grave an unfortunate possibility”, Said chose not to be buried in Palestine, but instead lies in a grave on a hillside in Brummana Lebanon, looking towards the land of his birth.

Some readers of this biography may have wanted more of what might be deemed an “intimate” study, digging deeper into Said’s personal rather than intellectual life, but I think the book would have suffered for that and Brennan maintains a wonderfully engaging balance between the two narratives.

Those close personal insights are here of course, including Said’s often-strained relations with his family, the breakup of his first marriage and subsequent one to Mariam. Never though are they fetishistically focused upon and to his credit the author, although closely acquainted with his subject, never allows this to overly interfere, preferring us to see Said in the round rather than a “version” of the character.

For many people today it’s perhaps difficult to grasp just how significant “public intellectuals” like Said were in the 1960s and 1970s. Such figures, like the French giants Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Michel Foucault, who Said was to meet and was ranked alongside, were to a young, educated generation, tantamount to celebrities.

Early in the book’s preface the author relates that, long after Said’s death, he was asked to give a speech about him at the University of Madras, South India. Expecting a smallish turnout, Brennan instead discovered that there was standing room only within a school gym-sized lecture hall packed full of students, community members and international visitors. Such was Said’s impact that, according to the Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, young people used to walk up to him after lectures, just wanting to touch him.

Those familiar with Said’s work, will find much that is new in this biography and be further enthralled by the man and the thinker. It’s published alongside Bloomsbury’s new volume, The Selected Works of Edward Said 1966-2006, and together, these titles make for terrific companion volumes.

Above all, though, they make me wish, more than ever, that Said could have made it to Edinburgh that day back in 2002, and I could have met the man himself in person.