On Edward Said
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Vladimir Nabokov was famous for advising his pupils to ‘fondle the details’. His Lectures on Literature scrutinise the implausibilities in Madame Bovary: ‘a novel in which a young and healthy husband night after night never wakes to find the better half of his bed empty; never hears the sand and pebbles thrown at the shutter by a lover; never receives an anonymous letter from some local busybody.’ And Nabokov deplored ‘big, sincere ideas which permeate [the] so-called great novel’. He is, then, the antithesis to Edward Said for whom literature is not a text but a pretext for a political agenda. Nabokov makes the distinction between educators, like himself, and educationalists ‘who talk about books instead of talking within books’. Edward Said is without doubt an educationalist.

In an interview from 1996, published in Power, Politics and Culture (2003), he says: ‘if I’d had a great teacher, I would have spent a lot of time trying to get out from underneath the sheer force of it, whereas, this way, I had had good teachers who had presented me with a lot of information, opportunities to read, and so on, but I never took in any systems of ideas.’

There are two implications here. The first is that a great teacher would also be an oppressive teacher, colonising the minds of his pupils, who would have to fight for intellectual independence. For Said, imperialism is omnipresent, the intifada (‘shaking off’) a given mental state. The second is that a great teacher would provide a system of thought within which his students can work. Elsewhere in the same book, Said elaborates on this: ‘if one is working with the texts of English literature, then one feels a great constraint. The problem there is that you have a responsibility to the material, which is a real one; but the main goal is to create in your students a critical consciousness.’

You might think that ‘responsibility’ to the text is not a ‘problem’ but requirement of good literary criticism. To invoke Nabokov again, think of Kinbote in Pale Fire and Kinbote’s absurd nightmare of solipsistic interpretation. Or think of Eliot’s ‘The Function of Criticism’, where he deplores criticism which brings to the cadaver on the table ‘parts of the body from its pockets’.

If, however, on the contrary, the ‘main goal’ is ‘to create in your students a critical consciousness’, what sort of critical consciousness does Said have in mind? He means political awareness, the consciousness of political issues that are inevitably inscribed in the text – obviously and explicitly in some cases, occluded and overtly counter-intuitively in others. For Said, politics means the exercise of power and strategies of resistance. If this is consciousness, a critical consciousness means judging the politics disclosed in the text by the critic. Not so far from the old Leavisite insistence on moral judgment, you might think – except that, in Said, disagreement can entail rewriting the author’s text politically, making black white. Making darkness in Heart of Darkness, for example, stand for the resistance of the colonised, rather than the moral depravity Conrad intends. He offers this brief statement of terms in ‘Secular Criticism’ (quoted from The Edward Said Reader): ‘The realities of power and authority – as well as the resistances offered by men, women, and social movements to institutions, authorities, and orthodoxies – are the realities that make texts possible, that deliver them to their readers, that solicit the attention of critics. I propose that these realities are what should be taken account of by criticism and the critical consciousness.’

To a degree, this is fair enough. The political world outside the text can leave traces on a text, and identifying these traces is a legitimate use of a critic’s time. Said argues, in effect, that political issues are vital, and if you can talk about them via literature, then literature is useful. However, where does this leave literature? Is literature then merely a form of unsystematic sociology? Obviously, Said (and others like him) would resist this reductive description and genuflect to aesthetic values – but in fact, beyond these broad declarations, his actual attention to specific words is intermittent and inaccurate. In literature, one can only find these traces of politics via the words on the page. So it is above all important for a critic to be able to read, to be able to present his ideas without misrepresenting the text he gets them from.

Said can’t read.

In particular, Culture and Imperialism (1993) shows this by his examination of two texts – Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901) and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899).

Heart of Darkness

Valentine Cunningham says Heart of Darkness is a text ‘about which interpreters feel licensed to say absolutely anything they like’ – a challenge Said willingly takes up. He may be squeamish about his contemporaries – ‘I don’t want to overinterpret Rushdie, or put ideas in his prose that he may not have intended.’ Conrad, though, seems dead enough to be assailable.

Said’s discussion of Heart of Darkness displays early on his method as a reader. Details of the text are picked out for their significance to Said’s argument, rather than their role in the narrative itself. For example: ‘[Marlow] alternates between garrulity and stunning eloquence, and rarely resists making peculiar things seem more peculiar by surprisingly misstating them, or rendering them vague and contradictory. Thus, he says, a French warship fires ‘into a continent’ ‘[…]

This is neither vague nor contradictory. The French warship is attacking a long and interrupted coastline without distinguishing features (‘the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water’), and its cannons have very little effect. Conrad says the ship is firing into a continent because that is what it looks like: the gesture is futile, the mismatch in scale complete, the description accurate.

Marlow, the narrator of most of Heart of Darkness, tells his story to a group of friends. Said’s interpretation of Empire is uncontroversial, even banal, the view of a political simpleton writing for simpletons – that imperialism was business, the discovery of new markets and raw materials. And he co-opts Marlow’s audience into his interpretation: ‘that this group of people is drawn largely from the business world is Conrad’s way of emphasising the fact that during the 1890s the business of empire, once an adventurous and individualistic enterprise, had become the empire of business.’ Said must consider this a clinching chiasmus, convincing in its rhetorical neatness.

Not really.

It is open to two objections. The first is that Marlow voices this platitude only to complicate it immediately: ‘It was just robbery with violence…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. [my italics]’ But equally, Marlow is sceptical of ‘all that humbug’ – of being cast as ‘an emissary of light’. The second objection is that Said misdescribes Marlow’s listeners: ‘this group of people is drawn largely from the business world.’

The group is not drawn mainly from the business world. It consists of an accountant, a lawyer, a director of companies, Marlow (‘a seaman’), and the unnamed narrator. By my count that gives us one businessman out of five. The group is the same one which listened to Conrad’s earlier story Youth – where we were told that what binds them together is not a sense of imperial purpose, but ‘the strong bond of the sea’. If we are in any doubt, Conrad dispels it when he reiterates the point at the start of Heart of Darkness: ‘Between us there was, as I have already said somewhere, the bond of the sea.’ In other words, the men are gathered to tell stories about what they have done, rather than why they have done them – they are old sailors reminiscing over a glass or two of grog.

‘Conrad shows us that what Marlow does is contingent, acted out for a set of like-minded British hearers, and limited to that situation.’ That is, the imperialist squint is a shared disability. Like-minded? We only get the reactions of his listeners to Marlow a few times in the novel, when Marlow pauses in his story. Here they are:

‘We looked on, waiting patiently – there was nothing else to do till the end of the flood; but it was only after a long silence, when he said, in a hesitating voice, ‘I suppose you fellows remember I did once turn fresh-water sailor for a bit,’ that we knew we were fated, before the ebb began to run, to hear about one of Marlow’s inconclusive experiences.’

‘For a long time already he, sitting apart, had been no more to us than a voice. There was not a word from anybody. The others might have been asleep […].’

‘Marlow ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha. Nobody moved for a time. ‘We have lost the first of the ebb,’ said the Director, suddenly.’

Maybe this is the reaction Said expects when he is himself surrounded by a group of ‘like-minded’ listeners – resignation at his predictability, narcolepsy, temporary catatonia. But it not possible that Conrad is suggesting Marlow might be a bore to his companions? ‘We felt meditative, and fit for nothing but placid staring’, Conrad tells us: suddenly Marlow breaks the silence with his announcement that ‘this too […] has been one of the dark places of the earth.’ Marlow’s high-sounding, coat-trailing conversational gambit elicits the following phlegmatic reaction: His remark did not seem at all surprising. It was just like Marlow. It was accepted in silence. No one took the trouble to grunt even […]’

This is not how a group of like-minded listeners might react, or even think of reacting. This is ‘just like Marlow’: no one say anything and maybe he’ll calm down. If not, we can always sleep through his yarn. How do we interpret the Director’s final comment? ‘We have lost the first of the ebb.’ You might argue that the group are by then so involved with Marlow’s narrative that they have overlooked the play of tides. Or you might as easily detect a reproach in the Director’s comment – a reproach directed against the length of Marlow’s yarn. Or you might think he very deliberately and dismissively changes the subject at the end of the story.

Said’s contention is that this group is complicit in Marlow’s story – a contention which falls a little flatter when one considers they might not even be listening. Marlow’s narrative in Heart of Darkness might not be indicative of that political convenience – the unified, homogeneous European imperialist attitude. It might instead be a story told by one man, at one time, largely to himself – a person whose take on imperialism is less trite than Said’s dog-eared polarity between the white exploiter and the black victim. Kurtz is a spoiled idealist. His report is eloquent with imperialism’s ‘altruistic’ high calling – the idea of civilisation so roundly ironised in ‘An Outpost of Progress’ – yet it concludes with the imperative, ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’

The next problem with Said’s analysis is his conflation of Conrad with his creation. He insists that Marlow’s inability to acknowledge the complexity of the world into which he travels is a failure on Conrad’s part. ‘[Kurtz and Marlow] (and of course Conrad) are ahead of their time in understanding that what they call ‘the darkness’ has an autonomy of its own, and can reinvade and reclaim what imperialism has taken for its own. But Marlow and Kurtz are also creatures of their time and cannot take the next step, which would be to recognise that what they saw, disablingly and disparagingly, as a non-European ‘darkness’ was in fact a non-European world resisting imperialism so as one day to regain sovereignty and independence, and not, as Conrad reductively says, to reestablish the darkness.’

Conrad is a pessimist. His novella argues that civilisation is a thin veneer. That savagery – the descent into darkness – is closer than we think. Kurtz, the ‘enlightened’ European, is his example. Said prefers his own optimistic, rallying message, his re-write of Conrad – that ‘darkness’ isn’t savagery but resistance to imperialism. We call this hindsight. We call this whistling in the dark. And it isn’t borne out by Mugabe, or by Winnie Mandela’s necklace burnings and Mandela United, or by the video of Samuel Doe in Liberia having his ears cut off by Prince Johnson, or by Wole Soyinka’s despair over contemporary Africa. The evidence seems to support Conrad’s pessimism.

There is of course a difference between the characters in a book and the author of a book. The characters are allowed to be cleverer than the author is (the author has done his research) or more stupid (the author is deliberately holding back). Marlow is portrayed as not knowing things which Conrad could easily have known, but which he kept out of the story in order to increase its effectiveness. The point of Heart of Darkness is not that Africa is incomprehensible to Conrad, but that Marlow does not understand it. All we are allowed to access are the accumulation of Marlow’s partial perceptions as he strives in good faith to make sense of his experience. He feels himself a trespasser in the country, and needs an ‘excuse for being there’: the ‘black fellows’ his ship comes in contact with are ‘natural and true’. Manifestly, Marlow isn’t a typical imperialist.

Said, however, says that ‘the whole point’ of Marlow and Kurtz’s stories is ‘imperial mastery […], civilization over the primitive dark continent’ – which is a coarse conflation of two very different characters, and an inaccurate simplification of the novel. Though he is feared by the company employees as a powerful, covert representative of ‘the gang of virtue’, Marlow is too small a cog to think of mastery over anything. Kurtz has no ‘restraint in the gratification of his various lusts’ – he is too mastered by barbarity to be master over anything either.

But although Said wants to portray Marlow as a benighted imperialist, Marlow does seem on occasion to transcend his Eurocentric mind-set. He realises the very thing Said says is impossible for him – that the ‘non-European “darkness” was in fact a non-European world’: ‘A great silence around and above. Perhaps on some quiet night the tremor of far-off drums, sinking, swelling, a tremor vast, faint; a sound weird, appealing, suggestive, and wild – and perhaps with as profound a meaning as the sound of bells in a Christian country.’

Marlow’s invocation of Christian Europe here insists on different worlds. Heart of Darkness is a story of moral discovery and moral exploration.

With Dickens, Said also misstates and misinterprets what is in black and white. He has a genius for launching himself off the diving board into what will soon prove to be a wet sponge:

‘At the opening of Dombey and Son, Dickens wishes to underline the importance to Dombey of his son’s birth:

The earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in, and the sun and moon were made to give them light. Rivers and seas were formed to float their ships; rainbows gave them promise of fair weather; winds blew for or against their enterprises; stars and planets circled in their orbits, to preserve inviolate a system of which they were the centre. Common abbreviations took new meanings on his eyes, and had sole reference to them: A.D. had no concern with anno Domini, but stood for anno Dombi – and Son.

As a description of Dombey’s overweening self-importance, his narcissistic obliviousness, his coercive attitude to his barely born child, the service performed by this passage is clear. But one must also ask, how could Dombey think that the universe, and the whole of time, was his to trade in?’

This is not a question which immediately springs to my lips. For Said, in other words, this vaunting ‘impossibility’ makes sense only if Dombey is the metonymic imperialist. In fact, the passage is a piece of creative blasphemy by Dickens, reworking biblical history from the creation to the birth of Jesus in order to provide a comic commentary on the phrase ‘he thinks the world owes him a living’. A charitable reader might think that Said was hinting at this when he uses the word ‘service’. But my patience is at an end. The passage does not raise questions of the relationship of literature to imperialism: it raises questions of the relationship of Dombey to the fictive world he inhabits, his misprision, his solipsism.

Said’s muffed justification for making these kind of connections is ‘explained’ in Power, Politics and Culture: ‘I mean, why do we need to talk about India when we talk about Thackeray, you could say. Or, others say, why do we need to talk about the West Indies or about the Mediterranean or even about India when we talk about Jane Austen? Or, why do we need to talk about India, or Egypt, or Australia if we want to talk about Dickens; they seem like extraneous things. My argument is that these, first of all, are the works of very public authors; nobody could be more public than Dickens. In the second place, obviously, all these authors – Jane Austen is the same – want audiences and, therefore, solicit their attention by these references. So that’s what I have in mind.’

But Said also argues that he is the first to discover these references. For example, his discussion of Mansfield Park in Culture and Imperialism considers how empire ‘suddenly provide[s] a fascinatingly expanded dimension’ to the novel – and how Mansfield Park ‘and indeed, pre-imperialist novels generally, will appear to be more implicated in the rationale for imperialist expansion than at first sight they have been’. I don’t think you can have it both ways: either the references are obvious and designed to solicit the attention of an audience, or they are hidden and therefore need to be uncovered by a critic.

Said says (in an interview from The Edward Said Reader) that he is ‘interested in the possibilities for the interpreter to bring out voices which, to the author […], may not have been apparent’: if they were not apparent to the author, then how could he or she use them to try and entice readers?

But on to Kipling.


Said begins his discussion of Kim by shooting himself in the foot. A novel which is meant to help connect English literature (in general) to English imperialism (in general) is described as being ‘as unique in Rudyard Kipling’s life and career as it is in English literature.’ The usefulness of the work to his argument, therefore, would appear to be limited. Is this just a diversionary tactic?

Extraneous material is brought in to ‘help’ explain Kim (and Kim) early in Said’s essay: ‘Readers of Victor Turner’s anthropological theories will recognise in Kim’s displacements, disguises, and general (usually salutary) shiftiness the essential characteristics of what Turner calls the liminal. […] That Kim himself is both an Irish outcast boy and later an essential player in the British Secret Service Great Game suggests Kipling’s uncanny understanding of the workings and managing control of societies.’

Yes, Kim is a liminal, marginal character. But one does not need Victor Turner’s theories to find this out. The text is enough. In fact, the third sentence of the novel starts to explain things: ‘[…] the English held the Punjab and Kim was English. Though he was burned black as any native; though he spoke the vernacular by preference, and his mother-tongue in a clipped uncertain sing-song; though he consorted on terms of perfect equality with the small boys of the bazar; Kim was white – a poor white of the very poorest.’

Even Said’s explanation of the role of the liminal character does not suggest a particularly ‘uncanny’ analytical ability on Kipling’s part. Kim has a pedigree which is familiar to even the most amateur student of detective fiction: the spy whose background enables him to blend into a number of situations. James Bond’s perfect French comes from his Swiss mother; Kim’s disguise is the result of total immersion in the culture he will be required later on to investigate. Said says that he doubts that a native was ever ‘fooled by the blue- or green-eyed Kims and T.E. Lawrences who passed among them as agent adventurers’. But there is a difference between those two figures. Lawrence existed, Kim never did. There are genre conventions which characters from novels are allowed to inhabit and observe, which do not apply to real people. Said is trying to connect two different things.

This desire to link disparate things leads to misreading of the text. For example (one among many) here is his analysis of the end of the story:

‘The novel concludes with the lama revealing to Kim that all is now well, for having seen

“all Hind, from Ceylon in the sea to the hills, and my own Painted Rocks at Suchzen; I saw every camp and village, to the least, where we have rested. I saw them at one time and in one place; for they are within the Soul. By this I knew the Soul has passed beyond the illusion of Time and Space and of Things. By this I knew I was free.”

Some of this is mumbo jumbo, of course, but it should not all be dismissed. The lama’s encyclopaedic vision of freedom strikingly resembles Colonel Creighton’s Indian Survey, in which every camp and village is duly noted. The difference is that the positivistic inventory of places and peoples within the scope of British dominion becomes, in the lama’s generous inclusiveness, a redemptive and, for Kim’s sake, therapeutic vision.’

But the lama is not conducting a survey like the Indian Survey. The difference is not that his version of events is healthier than Colonel Crichton’s. The lama is doing something completely different – he is going back over his own personal wanderings: ‘every camp and village, to the least, where we have rested.’ In no way is the lama’s vision of freedom ‘encyclopaedic’: it is the lama’s own experience of ‘the Way’. The two visions which Said contrasts are not comparable: the lama is not a ‘generous’ version of the Colonel.

Said further attempts to worsen the reader’s opinion of Kim by adding commentary not directly permitted by the text. He talks of how Kipling has an old Indian veteran describe the Indian Mutiny:

‘”A madness ate into all the Army, and they turned against their officers. That was the first evil, but not past remedy if they had then held their hands. But they chose to kill the Sahibs’ wives and children. Then came the Sahibs from over the sea and called them to most strict account.”

To reduce Indian resentment, Indian resistance (as it might have been called) to British insensivity[,] to ‘madness’, to represent Indian actions as mainly the congenital choice of killing British women and children – these are not merely innocent reductions of the nationalist Indian case but tendentious ones.’

Yes, they would be. But where in the cited passage does Kipling say anything about the choices being ‘congenital’? The connection Said suggests is just not there. Instead, Kipling represents the Indian’s behaviour as ‘madness’: aberrant, rather than congenital.

Said also insists on a focus to the novel, which, by his own arguments, is not there. The ‘main figure of worldly authority [in Kim] is Colonel Creighton’, we are told. Later in the same paragraph, ‘Creighton is seen infrequently and his character is not so fully-drawn as Mahbub Ali’s or the Babu’s’. Maybe Creighton’s relative lack of definition and visibility is what enables Said to make him the focus of his anti-imperialist, anti-British arguments. ‘Creighton […] works hand in hand with the novelist. If we can ascribe a consistent point of view to Kipling, we can find it in Creighton, more than anyone else.’

Two sentences later, we read: ‘When Mahbub Ali tells Kim that he must never forget he’s a Sahib, he speaks as Creighton’s trusted, experienced employee.’ But Mahbub Ali is not Creighton; he must surely be allowed to have opinions of his own. Said’s emphasis on Creighton exists so that the lines Said wishes to draw – between oppressor and oppressed – can be made to seem much thicker and more definite than the text allows them to be. The passage Said highlights is not a good example for him to have chosen: his summary is highly selective.

‘”Therefore, in one situate as thou art, it particularly behoves thee to remember this with both kinds of faces. Among Sahibs, never forgetting thou art a Sahib; among the folk of Hind, always remembering thou art–” he paused, with a puzzled smile.

“What am I? Mussalman, Hindu, Jain, or Buddhist? That is a hard nut.”

“Thou art beyond question an unbeliever, and therefore thou wilt be damned. So says my Law – or I think it does. But thou art also my Little Friend of all the World, and I love thee. So says my heart. […]”

Two words here are significant. And Said ignores them. They are: ‘Among Sahibs, never forgetting thou art a Sahib’. Mahbub Ali recognises, as do many of the characters of the novel (and many of the readers apart from Said), the fact that Kim’s identity is dependent on his environment (the reason why he is a good spy).

Indeed, the cited passage shows Kipling’s sensitivity: He acknowledges the distinctions within India to an extent which many of his contemporaries could not. A letter he wrote to his cousin Margaret Burne-Jones in September 1885 shows that Mahbub Ali’s is not an isolated moment of cultural knowledge. She had enquired about the oppression of the native in India. Kipling’s reply is notably humane and xulturally expert: When you write ‘native’ who do you mean? The Mahommedan who hates the Hindu; the Hindu who hates the Mahommedan; the Sikh who loathes both; or the semi-anglicised product of our Indian colleges who is hated and despised by Sikh, Hindu and Mahommedan […]?

It is this, Mahbub Ali’s discussion with Kim, and not Creighton’s pronouncements, that seems to fit closest to Kipling’s ‘point of view’.

It would be opening another can of tone-deaf worms to look at Said’s writings on music, but I should like to suggest one example which helps sum up the way in which he ignores the obvious possibilities in the service of his arguments. Writing about Aida, and the use to which Verdi put some sources on Egyptian ritual sent him by Ricordi: ‘He [Verdi] converts some of the priests to priestesses, following the conventional European practice of making Oriental women central to any exotic practice: the functional equivalents of his priestesses are the dancing girls, slaves, concubines, and bathing harem beauties prevalent in mid nineteenth-century European art and, by the 1870s, entertainment.’

There is not a hint that the change might be a structural one, in order to get some female voices into a male-dominated chorus. Without Verdi’s changes, there would only be two female characters in Aida.

The main problem with Said is his refusal to acknowledge that what the works say has to take priority over what he wants them to say. In the Said Reader interview, Said analyses his own bestseller Orientalism: ‘In Orientalism, I begin with a notion that interpretation is misinterpretation, that there is no such thing as the correct interpretation.’

This is not true, and Said himself, in Orientalism, confirms this: ‘When Disraeli said in his novel Tancred that the East was a career, he meant that to be interested in the East was something bright young Westerners would find to be an all-consuming passion; he should not be interpreted as saying that the East was only a career for Westerners.’

If Said truly believed that there was no such thing as the correct interpretation, then he could not make statements like this. There is an extent to which interpretation is confined: one can only draw conclusions based on the evidence one has – the text itself, the words on the page. Said refuses to take this as the foundation of his criticism. Instead texts are made to conform to an argument he already knows he wants to make. Mainly because he’s made it many times before.

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