2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
An excellent introduction,
This review is from: The Cambridge Introduction to Edward Said (Cambridge Introductions to Literature) (Hardcover)
Edward Said had a strange multiple life as an intellectual. On the one hand, there was the brilliant, maverick literary academic. Then there was the critic of colonialism, who played the major role in codifying Orientalism as the ways in which the colonising countries behaved towards and wrote about the colonised, and did so much to strip the thick veneer of delusion, sentimentality and jingoistic guff from the unpleasant reality of empire, although there has never been any shortage of paid shills willing to slap it all back on again. There was the alert and sensitive music-lover; the all-round cultural critic, writing memorable essays on belly dancing and comic books; the political activist, tireless in his efforts to promote a humane and feasible Palestinian nationhood. And then there was the other Said, the fictional one, the demon king of Palestinian nationalism as incarnated in the form of a Columbia professor, the feared and hated internal enemy, presumably because the real Said was so obviously urbane, cultured and intelligent and yet he - inexplicably! - seemed to align himself with the forces of darkness in the form of Palestinian terrorism.
Said himself wisely seldom bothered to defend himself against some of the more loony charges flung at him, knowing that when people are determined to tell outright lies about you to their fans, then nobody will be persuaded if you attempt to set the record straight; and in terms of political intellectuals about whom vast quantities of outright lies have been told by their enemies, Said has few rivals, although Noam Chomsky probably has the edge. Like Chomsky, Said never saw his own mission as an intellectual in especially complex or high-faluting terms. He distrusted intellectuals who sold their services to the authority of the state, which is why he ticked off the Palestinian authorities almost as much as he ticked off the American right.
Conor McCarthy is well-placed to write an introduction to Said's work. He teaches in the Department of English in NUI Maynooth, and his first book was a collection of bracing and provocative essays on various figures and tendencies in Irish culture of the last thirty to forty years. McCarthy was bracingly unafraid to take on critically acclaimed Irish writers and point out the evasions, contradictions, incoherences and general wishful thinking in their work. This book is somewhat different, being more in praise than in critique, although it's exactly what it says on the cover: an introduction, not a critical study. McCarthy leads us through the main themes of Said's work and gives us a very clear sense of how Said grappled with them. I could have used more about Said's writings on music, even though McCarthy gives a clear and concise account of Said's encounter with the thinking of Adorno; Adorno is a considerably more controversial figure within academic music studies than either Said or McCarthy appear to note, but then McCarthy is not in the Department of Music (and even if he were, it might be doubted that he'd be writing about Said on Adorno).
This book seems to me a model of how to write this kind of thing. It's informed,and enthusiastic but not apologetic. Sometimes people commissioned to write an 'introductions to' end up writing 'the problem with'; the old Fontana Modern Masters come to mind, the worst offenders being J.G. Merquior's 'Foucault', Donald MacRae's 'Weber' and most notoriously of all, Raymond Williams' 'Orwell'. (Orwell was a writer Said had a lot of problems with, and with good reason; but he still deserved better than Williams' condescension.) McCarthy's 'Said' is not a substitute for reading Said himself; Said was a lucid and elegant stylist whose works do not require detailed commentary to understand . But it's not intended to be. It dispels myths, points out lines of approach and suggests why anyone interested in thinking seriously about culture and society and the relationship between them needs to come to grips with Said, sooner or later. And that's exactly the point of a book like this.