Reflections on Exile by Edward W Said
Saturday, 13 October 2001
The key essay in this book, which also provides its title, was first published in 1984. Like much of Edward Said's writing, it is an attempt to ground abstract notions in real life, in this case to strip away romantic ideas about the state of exile and replace them with an acknowledgement of loss. "Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience," Said insists. In its 20th-century form, when millions of people were driven from their homes, forced migration was on a scale so large that he wonders why exile continues to be an enriching motif in modern culture.
Migration and asylum have since become major political issues. Millions of Afghans are currently in flight and Said's stark explication of how it feels to be an exile may be read as a warning. Exile is a jealous state: "It is in the drawing of lines around you and your compatriots that the least attractive aspects of being an exile emerge: an exaggerated sense of group solidarity, and a passionate hostility to outsiders, even those who may in fact be in the same predicament as you".
Said is Palestinian and obviously thinking about the plight of his own people, "exiled by exiles" in his striking phrase. But the essay also explains his enduring fascination with writers like Conrad – Said's analysis of Nostromo, in which he characterises the Polish-born novelist as "both criticising and reproducing the imperial ideology of his time", is included here – and, for less obvious reasons, Michel Foucault.
His obituary of the latter, recording Foucault's death in 1984, is one of the most measured pieces I have read on this brilliant but erratic thinker. People who have been torn from their roots, as Said has been, are obsessed with the workings of power, which might also be said to be Foucault's preoccupation. But he also embodies Said's ideal of the "intellectual with a transnational vocation": that intense, outward-looking curiosity continually on display in these essays.
One of the striking things about the collection is the variety of subjects and style, from the austere opening essay on Maurice Merleau-Ponty to Said's playful observations on Johnny Weissmuller's career as Tarzan. There is a vivid account of his boyhood in Cairo, and a hugely welcome debunking of the more extravagant claims made on behalf of George Orwell. Orwell's provinciality, his cheerlessness and the foolishness of his politics are all skewered, but Said's most revealing charge is that he wrote from bourgeois security. For Said, Orwell's political excursions are "tours in the garden" rather than travels abroad.
Said is far from denying the heightened perception of exiles, whose loss of home forces them into an intense engagement with a multitude of cultures. Of course it is hard to imagine his restless intelligence doing anything else, and one of the strands that emerges is his attraction to like minds. It is also possible, because the pieces were written over 30 years, to see his ideas broadening, from a natural sympathy with the dispossessed to a conscious awareness of liberation movements like feminism. The book is not arranged chronologically, which produces disjunctions: "Homage to a Belly Dancer", which struck me as surprisingly unanalytical in terms of sexuality, is not one of the earliest essays, but was published in 1990.
But the power of the collection resides, in the end, in its refusal of boundaries. Said is not reducible to a Palestinian writer or an exiled author or a hugely successful academic, although he is all these things. He is equally at ease writing about Naguib Mahfouz or Glenn Gould, Schumann or Moby-Dick. In that sense Said is a paradigm of what an intellectual should be, inquisitive without limits and perpetually pushing at cultural barriers. It is no accident that the book ends with his magisterial rebuke to Samuel Huntington, whose discredited claims about a clash of civilisations were revived by the Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi. Against such manufactured oppositions, Said poses the exile's achievement of "acting as if one were at home wherever one happens to be".
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