Late Said


by Fakrul Alam

Edward W. Said, Freud and the Non-European. With an Introduction by Christopher Bollas and a response by Jacqueline Rose. Verso: published in association with the Freud Museum. London, 2003

——-. On Late Style. London: Bloomsbury, 2006

In the long, and characteristically eloquent, interview Edward W. Said gave a few weeks before he died on September 25, 2003 —an interview now available on videotape—the Palestinian-American critic talks about the difficulty he was having in reading, writing, talking, and even coping with the simplest demands of everyday life; the twelve-year struggle with leukemia had apparently drained the sixty-seven year old intellectual of all energy. And yet what strikes anyone watching the video is his alertneness and the effortlessness and compulsiveness with which he wants to tell posterity about his life and his works. Undoubtedly, Said was losing out in his battle with cancer, but obviously too here was a man determined not to go gently into the night and bent on explaining what he had been up to in a lifetime devoted to Palestine, art and culture, as well as the profession of English and comparative literature.

In fact, late in his life, Said seemed to have found an immense source of energy, as if before losing out in his race with time he would do everything he could to leave behind a legacy that would be truly distinctive. It was as if he had decided that his life should be as rounded as he could make it to be. Out of the 20 or so books that he authored in his lifetime, around ten were published in the last twelve years of his life; at least four more have come out posthumously. Of them, From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map (2004) is about the Middle East as seen by one of the fiercest critics of American foreign policy of recent decades; Humanistic and Democratic Criticism discusses the function of criticism in our time (2004), and the other two, Freud and the Non-European (2003) and On Late Style (2006) deal with a phenomenon that fascinated the dying scholar-critic, lover of classical western music and aesthete, something that he characterized as “late style”.

What is late style? It is something that Said sees heralding the culminating phase of a great artist’s career; a phase when the artist as an old man (Said does not discuss any woman artist who has distinguished herself by her late style in these books) has intimations of mortality and therefore forges a distinctive but disturbing manner of envisioning times past, the present, and the future. It is worthwhile here to remember that Said’s second book was called Beginnings (1975), as if to intimate that with it he was beginning again, decisively, swerving away from the conventionally scholarly inaugural book, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography. In the works under review, on the other hand, Said seems to have veered off towards an exploration of the repercussions of lateness in his favorite artists in the winter of his own life.

Of the two books that is the subject of this essay, Freud and the Non-European is a monograph-length work comprising the lecture Said delivered at the Freud Museum in London shortly before he died The main subject of the work is Freud’s perspective on Judaism and on its non-European origins. Said observes that for most of his career Freud scanted other cultures, except when he was trying to find evidence of atavistic impulses in the western unconscious when psychoanalyzing phenomena such as incest. Such Eurocentrism, Said concedes, may be seen as unexceptionable, given Freud’s family background and intellectual lineage, but he will not let the father of psychoanalysis off the hook so easily. Said notes that Frantz Fanon, “surely Freud’s most disputatious heir”, found such Eurocentrism dehumanizing, especially in the case of intellectuals supposedly upholding “the whole edifice of European humanism” and representing the pinnacle of enlightenment thought.

However, Said finds one instance in Freud’s oeuvre where he pays sustained attention to a non-European. This occurs when the psychoanalyst turned his attention to studying Moses in his last major work, Moses and Monotheism. Said remarks that it was written at a point of time when for many Jews the tenets of Judaism had hardened into Zionism. But ever the “overturner and a re-mapper of accepted or settled geographies and genealogies,” Freud makes no attempt at reconciliation with his faith in this late work. Instead, Said finds that Freud’s illness, the Nazi era, and the uncertainty of life for a Jew settled in Vienna had led him into an exploration of the tenets of the faith that he was born into and of the identity of one of its founders. To Said, Freud is almost reckless and quite defiant in emphasizing Moses’s Egyptianness and in stressing that many of the rituals that came to Judaism had affiliations with Egyptian rituals. Said suggests that Freud was proud of his Jewish ancestry but secular in his outlook. Indeed, he was quite critical of Zionism when it sought to promote Jewish immigration to Palestine. How different, Said implies, is the route taken by other educated Zionists who would blot out “Judaism’s non-Jewish background”! Said implies that these Zionists have leaned on archaeology to affirm their Jewish identity, resorting to knowledge as the surest means of constructing an ideology of difference. In contrast, Freud, he implies, was able to utilize the “intransigent and irascible transgressiveness” characteristic of the masters of “late style” to disturb, destabilize, and to disillusion people who want to hold on to consoling fictions or build edifices dedicated to nationalism and purity.

Late style, then, is style that goes against the grain, against what people have come to expect from the artist as a builder of imposing and pleasing edifices. It is a phenomenon, observes Mariam C. Said, in her moving Foreword to her late husband’s book, that preoccupied him at the end of his life. He had lectured on it in his last years, discussed it with friends and colleagues, and dealt with it in reviews and essays, obviously with a view to sorting his ideas into a book. Unfortunately, he was not able to finish the work even though he had left a lot of material behind at the time of his death. Eventually, Mrs. Said tells us, the book was put together with the help of some of his student assistants, best friends, and colleagues, and edited by his friend Michael Wood who, however, tells us that though he had “cut and spliced” in assembling the material, “the words are all Said’s own”.
On Late Style beings with Said’s meditation on “Timeliness and Lateness” where he observes that his focus will be on “the last or late period of life”, and on how in the case of some great masters, this was a period when “their work and thought acquires a new idiom”. This could be pleasant and harmonious, as is the case with Sophocles, Shakespeare, Rembrandt and Matisse, Bach and Wagner. But this is the road Said will not take. He is interested, as with Freud, with lateness “as intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction”; of style that “involves a nonharmonious, nonserene tension, and above all, a sort of deliberate unproductive productiveness going against…” The road he will travel in the book to investigate this form of lateness will lead him to reflect on the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno; composers like Beethoven, Mozart, Richard Strauss, and Benjamin Britten; writers like Euripides, Thomas Mann, Jean Genet and Giueseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa and C. P. Cavafy; and performers like the pianist Glenn Gould.

Undoubtedly, the major influence on Said’s concept of late style is the German thinker Adorno who first diagnosed the phenomenon of lateness in Beethoven’s final musical pieces which seem unfinished, testy, discontinuous, challenging, “unreconciled”. Such compositions, Said says, go well beyond what had been considered the signature music of the master musician and inaugurate the profoundly alienating note of modernity. As he puts it, seen from Adorno’s perspective, lateness is “a kind of self-imposed exile from what is generally acceptable, coming after it, and surviving beyond it”, anachronistic, out of time. Adorno himself Said sees as exemplifying lateness, living in the midst of life and yet standing apart, “always critical and ironic”. Or to quote Said’s pithy take on his favorite thinker’s stance, “Late style is in, but oddly apart from the present”.

But Said is as independent-minded, unconventional and spirited in his judgment as Adorno could be, and he does not hesitate to disagree with him when he wants to, as is the case when he takes up the case of Strauss’s late works. Adorno, it appears, was convinced that something like senility had overtaken the German composer as he set about to compose his final works. Said, however, feels that if Strauss went back to eighteenth-century idioms and forms in them it was not because he was musically opting to be a throwback but because he was reacting to the emotional turbulence of Wagner by becoming “more and more metamusical, self-consciously and visibly retreating from the world of human affairs into a meditative, composed order”. This is another variant of late style: the composer stubbornly resistant to contemporary fashions, even at the risk of sounding antediluvian—precisely like Adorno in his philosophical essays!

As an example of late style in Mozart, Said spotlights the composer’s delightful opera Cosi fan tutte. Typical of artworks composed by these masters in the final phase of their lives, this piece seems to be at odds with all his earlier works in being contrary to all expectations that he had generated till then. It is amoral, almost cynical about love, eccentric, taking a stance that puts it at the “the limits of acceptable, ordinary experiences of love, life, and ideas”. As far as Said is concerned, “Mozart never ventured closer to the potentially terrifying view he …seem to have uncovered of a universe shorn of any redemptive or palliative scheme, whose one law is motion and instability expressed as the power of libertinage and manipulation, and whose only conclusion is the terminal repose provided by death”.

The Said enthusiast knows that there are two Saids: one is the gutsy, abrasive, oppositional Arab-American critic of Orientalism and its reincarnation as U. S. imperialism; and the other is the cerebral, suave comparatist trained in classical music and philology. If you are a Said aficionado and have been reading this review, you must be wondering if the first Said, known best for his seminal work Orientalism, is at all present in On Late Style. If that is the case, have no fear, for in his chapter on Jean Genet Said brings his Palestinian preoccupations to the fore in considering the works of the French playwright and novelist.

Said celebrates Genet the author of The Thief’s Journal, a work “in the antithetical mode”, where this European writer views the Arab not to exoticize him but to humanize him. In the book we have the rare thing: a western artist supporting the Palestinian resistance and writing about it and its heroes with great sympathy. For Said, Genet is his hero because in his late work, Genet persisted in being unfashionably tied to the cause of the Palestinians. Significantly, Said is also attracted to Genet because of his knowledge that Genet was dying as he was writing this book but was “determined to present death as a weightless and unchallenging thing”.

To Said, both Lampudesa’s Leopard and Luchino Visconti’s film version of the novel are tinged with the melancholy of lateness; nevertheless, novel and film represent the waning of aristocracy unsentimentally and pessimistically. The novelist (and the filmmaker too!) works through a technique of unsparing realism, taking a subject apparently ripe for nostalgic Gone with the Wind kind of treatment but treating it ironically and with “scrupulous fidelity” to the truth. Like Adorno, the fixed point of the compass to which Said turns throughout the book in meditating on late style, Lampudesa and Visconti, appeared to have arrived at old age, wanting “none of its supposed serenity or maturity, or any of its amiability or official ingratiation”, opting instead to build a “platform for alternative and unregimented modes of subjectivity” in their winter of discontent.

In Glenn Gould Said celebrates the virtuoso performer whose rendition of Bach was provocative, exciting, and eccentric. “Aggressing”, as Said puts it, Gould goes against audience expectation to enter “a discursive realm where performance and demonstration present an argument about intellectual liberation and critique…radically at odds with the aesthetic of performance as understood and accepted by the modern concert audience”. Not satiated by such provocation, Said recalls how in the last phase of his life Gould withdrew from public performance to the recording studio to become even more transgressive in his interpretations of Bach, penetrating his score with “idiosyncratic subjectivity” if only to get to the heart of “Bach’s creativity”.

Michael Wood’s editing of Said’s unfinished manuscript is so good that not till the last chapter can one find in it any evidence of its incompleteness. But the final chapter of the book, titled (I think) by Wood “Glimpses of Late Style” and put together from four different pieces of writing, is a bit too miscellaneous in its content. One finds Said moving in it too rapidly from Euripides to productions of his work by the French director Ariane Mnouchkine and the Swedish genius Ingmar Bergman, and from the Greek-Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy to Thomas Mann’s Death of Venice and Benjamin Britten’s opera based on it. Nevertheless, Said’s essential point is clear throughout the chapter; he is, as everywhere else, celebrating late styles occasioned by exile or terminal situations that have in common “remarkable inventiveness and lapidary calm” .

One must be thankful to Wood for painstakingly putting the book together and for his subtle Introduction where he provides its context and points out how the dying Said took up the theme of lateness as a gesture of resistance. Wood is particularly insightful in commenting that the book was left unfinished not because Said ran out of time but because he did not want to pull down the curtain, irrevocably, on his life. As Wood puts it: “for all his deep interest in lateness and his awareness of the shortage of his own time, Said was not attracted by the idea of a late, dissolving self”.

As is true of all of Said’s major works—one thinks here of Orientalism; The World, the Text, and the Critic; Culture and Imperialism; Representations of the Intellectual and Humanism and Democratic Criticism—On Late Style is sure to get its readers thinking. After all, the strength of Said’s criticism has always been its power to stimulate and provoke. To provide just one example, for a Bengali reader the book can lead to a heightened appreciation of Rabindranath’s paintings. Surely, there can be few better instances of late style, of work that is profoundly original, disturbed and expressive and that goes against everything one had come to expect from the lyrical poet, the God-saturated visionary and builder of institutions, than the haunting paintings Rabindranath began to compose late in his life. Said’s book on late style can thus lead to a more profound appreciation of other writers and artists, including those in our own tradition.

March 6, 2007
Fakrul Alam is on leave from the University of Dhaka and now teaches English at East West University, Bangladesh.

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