Books: Cultural Amnesia — Edward Said |
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Edward Said (1935–2003) was the most spectacular intellectual asset of the Palestinians in exile. Because he had been exiled all the way to Columbia University, where he was professor of english and comparative literature, it was possible to say, as the perennial crisis in the Middle East continued to shape his scholarly and critical work, that he was caught between New York and a hard place. But there is no call to doubt his integrity just because he had been raised in transit on luxury liners, laurelled at Princeton and Harvard, and otherwise showered with all the rewards that Western civilization can bestow. What can be doubted is his accuracy. His influential book Orientalism (1978) painted a picture in which Western students of African, Arab and Eastern cultures had practised racist imperialism under the guise of a search for knowledge. The book was hugely influential: its “narratives of oppression” became the tunnels through which non-Western academics came to preferment in the West. Said’s ideas found such favour on the international left that he became a whipping boy for the right, but it is important to say that there were some Arab thinkers who equally found Orientalism a wrong-headed book. According to them, it encouraged a victim mentality by enabling failed states to blame the West for their current plight: a patronizing idea, common to the Western left, which the emerging non-Western intelligentsia would find that much harder to rebut when endorsed by someone with Said’s credentials and prestige. Though most of Said’s Western admirers were never aware of it, this ambiguity marked Said’s written work thoughout his career: he was continually telling the people he professed to be rescuing from Western influence that they were helpless in its embrace. A quality of self-defeating ambiguity also characterized Said’s role as a practical diplomat. In 1988 he helped secure the breakthrough by which the Palestinian National Council finally recognized the State of Israel’s right to exist, but in 1991 he resigned in protest at the Oslo peace process, before Arafat had even had a chance to scupper it. If a solution had been secured it could well have meant that the lives of everyone involved on the Palestinian side of the negotiating table would have been forfeit, but Said was unlikely to be put off by Arab extremists, who for a long time had been threatening him with death in one ear just as loudly as extreme Zionists had been threatening him in the other. Yet Said was exemplary in his insistence that Israel had an historic claim in Palestine and that anti-Semitism, with the Holocaust as its centrepiece, had better be understood by the Arab nations or there would be no end to the conflict. When he simplified history, it wasn’t because he was a simpleton: though many a buffoon hoped to acquire points for intelligence by sitting beside him, his dignity was unimpaired, and he still looked wise even when accompanied by Tariq Ali looking serious.

Said’s writing on the arts, at its best, has the exuberance that his writing on one art, music, always has. He played the piano to professional standard: a piquant demonstration that the Western and non-Western worlds of creativity had not been symmetrical. But his answer to that was convincing: if both sides had not created the music, they could both perform it. After his death, his orchestra plays on: the West-Eastern Divan, founded by him and Daniel Barenboim, has performed in the Occupied Territories. Said was an accomplished and charming man who presented his admirers on the left with the dangerous illusion that by appreciating his writings they were being fast-tracked to an understanding of the history of the Middle East in a refined form, without having to study it in further detail. There were non-Western scholars who thought that he had the same illusion about his nominal subject, and that no Orientalist has ever been more damagingly superficial than he. There can be no doubt, alas, that some of his themes were cartoons. His argument that every Orientalist racist imperialist scholar since the Enlightenment was furthering the territorial ambitions of his home country broke down on the obvious point that the best of them came from Germany, which before the twentieth century had no colonies to speak of. Simply because they believed in the objective nature of knowledge, the great European students of foreign cultures were all humanists before they were imperialists, and often defended the first thing against the second, out of love and respect. Today’s Indian scholars of Indian languages further the work of English scholars whose names they revere, one fact among the many that Said found it convenient either not to mention or never to know. Also his idea that Napoleon had wrecked Egypt’s advance into the modern age was not one shared by Naguib Mahfouz, who said that Egypt had Napoleon to thank for everything modern it possessed. Said was right to this extent, however: Occidental intellectuals find out very little about what is thought and written in the Oriental world. Very few of Said’s admirers in the West could begin to contemplate the fact that there are some bright people in the East who thought of Said as just another international operator doing well out of patronizing them, and with less excuse. I finished writing the piece that follows not long before Said finally succumbed to cancer, and I have left it in the present tense to help indicate that I was treating him as a living force, brave in a cause that was very short of his kind of soldier.

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I pressed harder. What about the admiring caresses lavished by the camera on Mathieu marching into Algiers?

ANNOYINGLY UNDATED except for its opening phrase, “A few months ago,” Said’s essay on Gillo Pontecorvo is the account of a personal meeting that probably took place in the late 1990s, by which time Pontecorvo had not made a film in many years. But he had once, in 1966, made a film that Said continues to admire as a masterwork of political analysis: The Battle of Algiers. I feel the same, but for different reasons, and by focusing on the second of these two quoted sentences it is easy to make the difference plain. Said wants the film to be an outright condemnation of imperialism, with no concessions made to the forces of oppression. Said thinks that the French claims to have extended civilization to Algiers had nothing to be said for them, and that the rebellious native Algerians, whatever atrocities they might have committed, were well within their rights, considering the magnitude of the atrocity that had been committed against them. I want the film to be what it is. It certainly does condemn imperialism, but it shows that the French imperialism in Algeria was the work of human beings, not automatons. It need hardly be added that Said is right about how their apparently successful colonial efforts in Algeria corrupted the French into illusions of manifest destiny. Elsewhere in the same book, Said gives an exemplary caning to Tocqueville, who was respectful enough about the repressed minorities in America, but who chose to despise Islam when he became gung-ho for a French Algeria.

Said’s only mistake, but a crucial one, is to question Pontecorvo’s directorial emphasis at the exact moment when Pontecorvo is being most sensitive. At his most sensitive, he is at his most comprehensive, and comprehending. In letting the camera, and thus the audience, be impressed by the French general’s heroic stature as he marches into Algiers at the head of his paratroopers, Pontecorvo shows why he ranks with Costa-Gavras as a true auteur of the political film. In Costa-Gavras’s film The Confession, there is a similarly penetrating moment when Yves Montand, released from gaol, meets his torturer in the street, and can show nothing except embarrassment, while the torturer (Gabriele Ferzetti) assumes that the victim will join him in blaming the whole episode on unfortunate circumstances. These are human reactions, in all their ambiguity. In The Battle of Algiers, the paratroopers’ commander, Mathieu (in real life he was General Jacques Massu), is greeted with rapture by the pieds noirs as he leads his soldiers down the main street. They cheer, weep, do everything but lay palm fronds before his polished boots. He is greeted with hosannas because he looks like a saviour. Here is the man who will take the necessary measures to ensure that our innocent children are no longer blown to pieces in the nightclubs and restaurants. When the camera is on him, it has the eyes of his worshippers. If the camera bestows admiring caresses, it is because the crowd is doing the same.

Since 1834, generations of the French in Algiers had grown up believing they inhabited part of France. In 1963 they believed de Gaulle when he said that Algeria would stay French. To them, the paratroopers looked like the guarantee that it would do so. The paratroopers believed it too, and the film, in its tragically logical unfolding, shows that belief being undermined by horror at the tenacity of the other belief that they encountered, and at what they must do to fight it. “Non siamo sadici,” the general tells the press: “We are not sadists,” and one of the measures of the film’s unique subtlety is that we believe they are not, even as they set about doing sadistic things. There is a key moment when a couple of the paratroopers say a respectful “Courage!” to the man who is about to be tortured. Said might legitimately have objected to that. In any military group conducting interrogation by violence, no matter how reluctantly the policy is pursued, there are always a few genuine enthusiasts who relish the opportunity to make their sinister dreams come true. But Said’s objection is directed elsewhere, at the very idea that the French in Algeria might have had a point in thinking that they had something to protect.

Wedded to his conviction that imperialism is always and exclusively a force bent on destruction, Said writes as if the French could have had no reason to believe in their mission civilisatrice. He writes as if they would only have had to take thought to see the truth. But they had been bred to believe that there was something to it. In the opening sequence of the movie, Pontecorvo showed that their belief was an illusion. As the future insurgents look on silently from the gaol window, an anonymous colleague, with frightening efficiency and speed, is executed in the courtyard. Civilization means the guillotine. But the pieds noirs thought the repression of the natives was incidental, not fundamental. They had developed a culture, had some reason to believe in its superiority, and were concerned to protect it. (There is a constant assumption behind Said’s writings that multiculturalism, in imperial times, was an a priori view that had to be suppressed by propaganda, rather than a view which grew out of the imperial experience as a result of the contact.) For the French in Algeria, their mission to rule by right was an understandable belief. Even Camus shared it to a certain extent: he could be single-minded in despising Nazism and communism, but he was in two minds about Algeria until his last day. How would Said have had Pontecorvo film the scene in question, the one about the paratroopers arriving in Algiers like redeeming heroes at the striding heels of their suave commander? Should the actor playing him have been uglier, even though Massu looked like a film star in real life? Should his dialogue have been less subtle, even though Massu was well aware that a holding action was the best that could be hoped for, and said so? Should he have been wearing a swastika armband?

Said has similar objections to the glamour of the Marlon Brando character in Pontecorvo’s other big political statement, Quemada! The imperialist looks too good. This bothers Said even though Quemada! like The Battle of Algiers, is scrupulous in attributing all the impetus and justification of history to the insurgents: scrupulous, relentless and disturbingly convincing for those of us who doubt the efficacy of the outcome. Said doesn’t doubt it, yet he detects in Pontecorvo a lingering tendency to admire the envoys of established power. The same tendency can’t be imputed to Said. One detects in him a puritanical determination to remain unsullied by the blandishments of his own cultural sympathies. As a critic and man of letters he has an enviable scope, but it is continually invaded by his political strictness. It would be foolish to blame him for this. If he had a secular Islamic intelligentsia behind him, he could leave a share of his self-imposed task to others. But he is pretty much on his own, and needs his absolutism if he is to fight his battle. Though his aesthetic judgements are often finely nuanced, there can be few nuances in his basic political position, so he is easily put out when the same turns out not to be true for an established Western radical he would like to admire without reserve. At the end of his encounter with Pontecorvo, he is disappointed to discover that Pontecorvo has been making commercials without telling anybody. The implication is that if Pontecorvo had lived up to the seriousness of his early masterpieces, he would now be living in a tent, and proud of it. But Pontecorvo, until 1956, was a Communist, and Said has underestimated—or, rather, overestimated—the grandees of the Italian Communist intelligentsia. Few of them ever embraced the privations of the proletariat. The Italian intellectuals of the post-war sinistra might have paid lip service to Gramsci but their true models were among the perennial left-leaning artists of Europe: the Picasso who disguised his limousine as a taxi, and the Brecht whose rough-looking blue work-shirts were tailored for him out of matted silk. The luminaries of the Italian left were concerned with taking their place in a current society, not a future one. Fundamentalism was corrupted by the temptations of civilization, and Said might eventually reach the conclusion that it would be better if the same thing could happen in the Islamic world.

In his fine long essay “Nationalism, Human Rights and Interpretation” (appearing as chapter 36 of Reflections on Exile) there is an encouraging sign that he has already reached it. He notes that the Lebanese writer Adonis, like Salman Rushdie, was reviled for suggesting that a strict literalism in the reading of sacred texts kills the spirit. Said is only a step away from saying that no text is sacred. He is brave enough to take that step: he is used to having his life threatened. His other fear is the disabling one: the fear of giving aid and comfort to the automatic enemies of Islam. But one is not necessarily an enemy of Islam for saying that although all good books are holy, no book is the word of God. Even the greatest books are the work of human beings, in all their frailty. Without the frailty, there would be no art, or even any thought. When Said saw the general up there on the screen looking so seductive, he thought that he had caught Pontecorvo in a weak moment. But the weak moment was a moment of strength. Pontecorvo had asked himself: “How would I have reacted, if I had been a French Algerian, and had been there in the street for the arrival of the strongman who had come to reassure me that my life had not been wasted?” By looking into himself, he was able to see everything else: the sign of the artist. As for Pontecorvo the ex-artist, he made those commercials in order to maintain his way of life as a figure of prestige, a man who counts. And after all, the prestige was impressively brought into play when Pontecorvo strode forward as a headline act in the demonstrations against the bombing of Afghanistan. There he was, up there on the screen: the great director, being lavished with the camera’s admiring caresses. One imagines that Said was pleased enough to see that.