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Reflections on Returning — Kamran Rastegar

Review essay: Edward Said’s Reflections on Exile.

In the wake American academy’s loss of its most inimitable and provocative public intellectual, there is little doubt that Edward Said’s work will continue to resonate with many of the most challenging academic and political issues facing scholars, activists and others. The recent publication of Reflections on Exile (2001: Harvard UP), now in a paperback form, should go far in making more accessible his thought to a wider general readership outside of that which has been engaged by his passionate political analyses. Indeed, this collection of essays, spanning the greater part of Said’s intellectual life, may well come to also become known as one of his more widely-accessible texts, presenting as it does both academic writing as well as personal reflections and thoughtful digressions on a wide range of topics from the literary, to the autobiographical, to the political. The diversity of subjects is engaging; while the implied theme of exile does indeed run through many of the pieces, the collection can hardly be said to provide a thesis on this or any other discrete theme.

Indeed, a general assessment of the term “exile” finds that in present academic parlance, it often is signifies somewhat competing domains; while retaining the literal meaning of a distancing from one’s homeland, it has also come to at times to refer to the various experiences of dispossession and displacement that both individuals as well as entire communities have been subjected to. So, in speaking of exile – which is often first thought of as an individualized and perhaps solitary experience – at times one may also intimate the communal and social experiences of diaspora, or even the modern legal category of the refugee. The expanse of meaning that discourse on exile has assumed has been symbolic of certain tensions within poststructuralist debates on the legacy of liberal humanism as well as in divisions between individualist vs. communitarian approaches to cultural criticism. These tensions often spill over to associations between the qualitative aesthetic measures of exilic cultural productions and the kinds of experiences the term exile is deployed to signify.

Discourse on exile – particularly when it relates to peoples forceably dispossessed of a claim to a home – intersects with liberal-humanist discourses on universal rights, and on attempts to conceive of international regimes for the protection of the personal, social and economic rights of all humans. The romantic image of the individual exilic cosmopolitan intellectual, whiling years away in marginal cultural spheres, or in hermetic metropolitan spaces (one cannot but help think of Eric Auerbach in Istanbul), thinking against the grain of the dominant ideologies of both home and host-land, seems extravagant when juxtaposed with the exigencies of dispossession experienced by mass social groups as a consequence of communal violence, war, or simply social and economic chaos. On this point the unity of a discourse on exile is challenged and undermined, and it is here, perhaps, that critical theory has generally been least dynamic in analyzing the aesthetic and social implications of exile. While acknowledging the loss the exiled individual experiences, much of contemporary cultural theory often ambivalently extols the irresolute identity exile gives rise to. This has in turn led to muted critiques of the tensions that have sometimes characterized poststructuralist approaches to the topic of exile.

Reflections on Exile may serve as a point for reflection upon some of these concerns. Comprising essays from most of Said’s prolific and formidable career (1967-2001), the issue of exile is more than simply the domain of the essay from which the title of the book is derived; it lurks behind nearly every exposition and every thesis therein collected. This collection indexes the degree to which exile as a theme has occupied the center or margins of Said’s work, from the earliest stages to his last years. The autobiographical essays included may lead one to source these experiences to his youth (something that is also suggested in his autobiographical book, Out of Place), which are experiences framed by both the tragedies of Palestinian dispossession and the fluidities of Cairene colonial and postcolonial cosmopolitanism. The unity of the collection comes from the coherence of Said’s encounters with the thinkers and texts that have proven to be the benchmarks of his writing – from Conrad to Fanon , or from Lukacs to Adorno, almost every text and author that merits Said’s attention is an individual for whom the issue of exile is central to his intellectual and cultural formation. In these essays, engagements with the theme of exile often coincide with a persistent paralleling of certain aesthetic and social concerns. This is most clearly observed in Said’s continuing focus on and exploration of the essay as literary and critical form. In this topic, a tension appears in the relation of aesthetic or formal considerations to the social context of exilic cultural production, and the kinds of limits one might imagine for the domain of the term “exile” – a tension not unrelated to the legacy of cosmopolitan exile in contradistinction to the current prevalent realities of dispossession; the experiences of diasporas and refugees.

As an example of this tension, in the first entry of the book, “Labyrinth of Incarnations” Said reviews Merleau-Ponty’s oeuvre, proposing that the latter’s turn to the essay was in reaction to the fact that “big books, with their forced systematic unity that draws one into its clutches, were less open to the vagaries of human experience.” (p. 6) The topic of the essay returns again in “Amateur of the Insoluble,” where Said considers Lukacs’ reflection that “in the essay its form becomes its fate, yet since the essay’s form is basically an idea of hesitating trial and of provocation, rather than of completed achievement, there is no fate in the essay.” (p. 25) In both quotes – from 1967 and 1968 respectively – Said’s attention to the anti-monumental potential of the essay as a critical form pre-echoes his later critiques of colonial and postcolonial discourse. In his more mature work, he begins to draw a clear parallel between exilic experience and the essay form – although, even in these early writings, it is clear that for him a fateless state of “hestitating trial and provocation” is one that may easily be attributed to the exilic imagination. The language Said employs to discuss both exile and the essay – in somewhat different contexts – derives from the same semantic domains. The title-essay “Reflections on Exile,” concludes that “exile is life led outside habitual order. It is nomadic, decentered, contrapuntal; but no sooner does one get accustomed to it than its unsettling force erupts anew.” (p. 186) Later, in a retrospective of the literary critic R. P. Blackmur’s work, Said writes that “the essay form expresses discomposure and incompletness; its meditative scope is often qualified by the essay’s occasional nature.” He valorizes Blackmur’s “essayistic critical mobility;” clearly, the nomadic quality of exile is permutable to the essay form, which is by nature as mobile and incomplete as exile is decentered and unsettled. The state of exile, in this telling, appears productive and challenging, matching the promise of the essay form for reconfiguring the sterile monumentalism of the book, or the complacent pleasures of a home.

Yet, Said’s later writing shows a somewhat more tempered tone where these hopes are concerned, and he appears even to reconsider the assertions that have been cited above. When, at the end of “The Politics of Knowledge”
he argues that “marginality and homelessness are not, in my opinion, to be gloried in; they are to be brought to an end,” he not so much rejects his earlier valorization of the cultural space that exile gives rise to, as he insists on retaining the principles of humanism as a priority for political commitments. It is perhaps on this point that Said most clearly draws a distinction between his positions and those of anti-humanist thinkers (such as Foucault, the subject of two essays of the book) whose work informs so much of his thought. It is also on this distinction that we may surmise that the issue of Palestine has affected Said most – for when he cautions against the “glorification” of homelessness, it is within the specter of continuing Palestinian dispossession that this idea most obtains. Given the chronological ordering of the book, it is understandable that Palestinian dispossession becomes more and more of a referent in the later essays of the book. Here the division between exile as a position of cultural experience, and refuge as a legal category of the liberal-humanist international regime is most palpable, and comes close to generating a paradoxical point in his thinking. Where the individual exile of the Palestinian intellectual has afforded him a position of resonant sympathy with other modern exilic thinkers, the tragedy of Palestine – reflected most bitterly in the experience of several million Palestinian refugees living far from their land after 1948 and 1967 – has led him to seek other modalities for comprehending and correcting its historical injustices.

In this collection, this concern is reflected at several points, particularly in Said’s essays on modern Arabic literature. In “After Mahfouz,” he argues that the “magisterial” mantle of the Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz – which has given Arabic narrative writing the stable “assurance of a point of departure” – has been passed on to writing that reflects the unstable and existential concerns of the Arab world exemplified by many Palestinian and Lebanese writers. (p. 319) Here, again Said finds the context of the latter group to offer greater critical possibilities because in their writing “form is an adventure, narrative both uncertain and meandering, character less a stable collection of traits than a linguistic device, as self-conscious as it is provisional and ironic.” (p. 321) Once again exile becomes a central motif; speaking of the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, he concludes that he “is an artist who gives voice to rooted exiles and the plight of the trapped refugees, to dissolving boundaries and changing identities, to radical demands and new languages.” Clearly, Said is here attempting to envision an aesthetic basis for critical and literary engagements with the issue of exile. By moving from a focus on the essay to experimental novelistic writing, he begins to posit that new narrative techniques are better suited for representing the expansive conception of exile – which includes “the plight of trapped refugees [and] dissolving borders” – than the essay may now be.

The exigencies of this tension – between the essayistic critical moment enabled by the exilic experience, and new writing forms to match the needs for a commitment to the discourse of humanism that empowers refugees and dispossessed – come to a head in Said’s later reflections on in the 1997 essay “On Lost Causes.” In attempting to reconcile the failures in the Palestinian leadership that culminated in the Oslo peace process, he finds solace in the history of literary explorations of disillusion as a state of being. From Jude the Obscure to Candide, Said’s concerns might be read as an attempt to posit the lost cause as one of the few locations from where a just mode of humanism might be theorized. The experience of Palestine, registered in the failure of international legal regimes to fulfill those covenants that give meaning to universal human right and specifically refugee rights, is nothing if not a lost cause par excellence. Yet, Said, through a reading of Adorno, concludes that “an alternative to resigned capitulation of the lost cause [is] the intransigence of the individual thinker whose power of expression is a power – however modest and circumscribed in its capacity for action or victory – that enacts a moment of vitality, a gesture of defiance, statement of hope whose ‘unhappiness’ and meager survival are better than silence or joining in the chorus of defeated activists.” (p. 552) In a later essay, “Between Worlds,” (which is explicitly concerned with the folly of the Oslo accords) he restates this thought, writing that “reconciliation under duress is both cowardly and inauthentic: better a lost cause than a triumphant one, more satisfying a sense of the provisional and contingent… than the proprietary solidity of permanent ownership.” (p. 567) In both essays, the lost cause not only demands commitment for its own political principle, but can be catechristically read as a moment of humanistic triumph – however much this claim must be qualified by the larger defeat it marks, however distant this triumph is from triumphalist narratives.    

Taking Said’s arguments a step further, one may argue that the continuing irresolution of the Palestinian refugee issue marks the failure of universalist claims of liberal-humanism. Yet, the experience of this failure – which has been repeatedly termed a lost cause – is also one small moment which, through the vital process of resistance (and through an insistence of the ‘right’ to return, as an outcome of the discourse of human rights) that a radical humanist position can be claimed, and humanism recovered. In this moment, the tender connections that Said makes between the exile’s intellectually privileged location – a position often valorized by literary and cultural critics – and the demand of the refugee, codified through a discourse of humanism (and extended to what we might term radical humanism by Said) are recoverable, if ultimately irreconcilable. These are buoyed, in a careful balance, by an exploration of the formal and aesthetic dimensions of representation, that offer momentary reflections upon not only upon the experience of exile, but also what must justly conclude it, his return, her universal right to do so. Reflections on Exile clearly shows the development of this kind of strategic, humanistic, yet thoroughly critical determination; a destination arrived at through a journey across the unsettled and rootless thrusts of Said’s essayistic prose. By doing so, this book draws our attention to some of the difficult paradoxes that Said’s work offered new ways of thinking through, in a way that few if any of his generation have been able to – it remains to be seen who may continue this role in his absence.

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