Archive | February, 2011

New Review of Edward Said: The Charisma of Criticism

21 Feb

Armenian Weekly
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In Edward Said: The Charisma of Criticism, an intriguing new quasi-biography of Edward Said, Aram Veeser presents the man he came to know in the 35 years he spent as his student, friend, and colleague.

From the beginning, it is evident that Veeser simultaneously admires, resents, and forgives his subject matter—the elusive, unpredictable, and prickly Said—leaving the reader at times perplexed and often bemused by the emotional undertones of this narrative. Veeser pulls through with theoretical and critical amplifications that amount to a multi-layered, bubbling study of a complicated “academostar.”

For Veeser, much of Said’s authority came from his charisma, tied tightly to his “institutionality.” From offering a dictionary definition of “charisma,” Veeser proceeds to discuss Max Weber’s religious-based description where “charisma turns into routine,” and moves on to John Guillory’s post-Weberian definition, which argued that a “divergent” form of the Weberian formula was needed for literary critics’ charismatic authority. However, the “superstar literary critics” are not exclusive of the institutions that house them, and neither is Edward Said of Columbia. “Harold Bloom would not be Harold Bloom were he working at Burger King. His identity resides in his institutionality: he is Yale Professor of English Harold Bloom,” holds Veeser. And thus, the very “proclamations” that “tell-off” these institutions “strengthen the power that they hope or purport to oppose.”

“Orientalism had its glamour,” writes Veeser, and that glamour, which emanated from the personalities featured in Said’s work—among them “eccentrics and writers like Richard Burton and Chateaubriand, the political rhinos like Balfour and Cromer”—is reflected on his person. “He does not passively wait to receive charisma from institutions of Orientalism, he steals it with his swashbuckling pen… Orientalism is at once a searing attack, an elegy, a work of literary criticism (for none of the examples is there by accident), and an inspired essay of cultural criticism.” However, the very routinization and institutionalization of his charisma paint Said’s world gray.

Younger critics don’t quite get Said, argues Veeser. They think, “Said wasn’t even boring.” In addition, no one seems to grasp what Said’s phrase “secular criticism” really means. “Secular criticism means dealing with minor points first and major ones later just as it means capturing “the sporting element.” It means attracting attention to the artificiality of performance. It means speaking with a mock-heroic English intonation. It means speaking against regimes even when speaking places you at risk. Said was always good at intimidation and shutting people down.” Said was the secular critic.

The book is organized in a peculiar way. It is comprised of 12 sections, with a Discursion following the first 11. The 260-page book has a 6-page long index, 9 pages of bibliography, 25 pages of notes, and a handful of photographs.

Boxes are strewn throughout the book with passages from Said’s and others’ writings. The first we encounter is “From Said’s Memorial to Foucault.” Others include “‘Impediments’ by Lionel Trilling,” “Said on Conrad,” “Examples of Vico’s Style,” and parts of interviews with such figures as Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Eqbal Ahmad, Edward Said, and George Khadder. Joseph Conrad, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Paul de Man, among many others, are also discussed in these pages, as is Said’s love for style and quality products.

While each chapter offers an analysis of the development and reception of Said, along with digestible loads of literary, social, and political criticisms, his Discursions are snapshots of an untold memoir, Veeser’s direct and indirect brushings with Said. For example, “Discursion 1 (That Bastard, Said)” recounts the time Veeser first heard of Said:

“Mary was a leggy Minnesotan who had attended the then-entirely WASP preparatory school for girls, Dana Hall. On this bonny day, she was talking about her thesis advisor, Edward Said.

“Having done her M.A. under Said, she now wanted to enter the doctoral program in English and comparative literature at Columbia, and he had just refused to write her a letter of recommendation. Barbara and I shifted uncomfortably. Conspiratorial glances accompanied every mention of Said. What did that mean? I knew it had something to do with romance or even sex…

“‘God!’ Barbara exclaimed. ‘He sounds like such a bastard. He is such a bastard!’

“I pieced together a rough impression of this bastard. He was young, brilliant, an Arab, sexy, unpredictable, arrogant, unyielding, unfeeling—in fact, a total bastard. After a while, the breeze off the Hudson picked up, and we decided to go. Mary leaned on me getting back into her shoe. And for my part, I had made up my mind. I would go to Columbia and major in English.”

In “Discussion 2 (Your Name is Aram),” Veeser tells of his first encounter with Said in the fall of 1968 at Columbia. As Veeser met with his advisor, Said, the latter, upon noticing Veeser’s middle name, seemed delighted and asked whether his new student spoke Armenian. Upon receiving a response in the negative, Said seemed to reprimand the young Veeser, and with a few friendly remarks quickly ended the meeting. “I found myself standing in the hall, having just experienced for the first time Said’s gift for extraordinary intimacy and steely, dismissive rejection—simultaneously. This pattern of embrace-plus-expulsion distinguished so many of his involvements… The meltingly warm embrace overlaid a cold and steady gaze, like two transparencies on an overhead projector,” reflects Veeser.

“All the themes of the book… the humanism defined as letting people be themselves; the inseparability of personal and political liberation; the love of excellence and the spirited encounter of superior minds; the crucial role of the enabler. Tolerance and permission occupy the center of this portrait… No less than his mocking comebacks and his relish for life in the big arenas, Said’s acquaintances remember him as… someone selfless enough to drift quietly into the background, who steps aside and takes pleasure in another’s self-fulfillment,” concludes Veeser.

H. Aram Veeser is an associate professor at the City College of New York whose once thoughtful act of sending a wheel of Flor the Escueva cheese to his former teacher, Edward Said, ended with the NYPD detonating the “suspicious object” in an armored vehicle.
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Nanore Barsoumian
Nanore Barsoumian is the assistant editor of the Armenian Weekly. She earned her BA from the University of Massachusetts (Boston), majoring in Political Science and English. Nanore is a passionate anti-war activist and deeply committed to making an impact on issues of contemporary relevance. She speaks several languages, among them Armenian, Arabic, and French. She has been a volunteer and a group leader with the Land and Culture Organization, working with the refugee community in Shatvan, Armenia, renovating the local school. She can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).