Edward Said Remembered: The Style of Intellectual Celebrity

by Richard Kostelanetz (October 2012)


No matter what one thought of Edward Said's politics or the question of fibs in his autobiography, this Columbia literature professor became an intellectual celebrity - a chaired academic who exploited his minority-moniker, in his case Arab-American, to command larger stages than his university classrooms, much as some African-American professors do and certain Jewish-American professors once did. Knowing that he became more prominent than nearly all other teachers of modern literature, he apparently felt that the slightest changes in his temper should be recorded and disseminated.

So it is scarcely surprising that, in a memoir published in the London Review of Books (7 May 1998), he wrote the following about the evolution of his literary style:

The net result in terms of my writing has been to attempt a greater transparency, to free myself from academic jargon, and not to hide behind euphemism and circumlocution where difficult issues have been concerned. I have given the name 'worldliness' to this voice, by which I do not mean the jaded savoir-faire of the man about town, but rather a knowing and unafraid attitude towards exploring the world we live in.

What should be made of such convoluted sentences whose style so egregiously undermines the purported thought of aspiring to write transparently? Is this the clumsy irony of someone who admonishes others “Never use a preposition to end a sentence with.” Consider its pomposity and witlessness (exemplified by “in terms of”), its mixing of high-falutin language (“euphemism,” “savoir-faire”) with financial lingo ("net result"), and even its colloquial prepositional conclusion.

This passage reflects the mentality of a privileged intellectual professionally insulated from readers less servile than his students and yet smug enough not to heed his own advice. To the degree that he apparently thinks he is currently writing clearly--that he thinks he is demonstrating the change he desired for himself - Said in his own words reveals a capacity for self-deception. You can imagine him completing such sentences with the exclamation "akerue," which is eureka spelled backwards.

You and I can't write with so much affectation; no one would publish us. Nor can most professors write so badly about their wanting to write clearly, especially for journals whose circulation, like LRB’s, numbers more than a few hundred. Once you understand how such other-worldly sentences are written and, wonder of wonders, published (and sometimes even reprinted), you get a window into a privileged world and a reason to doubt Said’s claim to tell truths about himself.

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RICHARD KOSTELANETZ’s Political Essays (Autonmedia) is indicatively dedicated to the memory of George Orwell.

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