Charisma as Contradiction, Esoterica, Intellectualism, Ostentation, and Liberation

Review of H. Aram Veeser's Edward Said

The notion of criticism as charismatic in professor H. Aram Veeser’s Edward Said: The Charisma of Criticism was intriguing. I am not so interested in a biography, but — with my own acquaintance with Said’s oeuvre being confined to Orientalism, Covering Islam, and a few essays — I welcomed illumination on the thought of the prominent Palestinian-American (or is it American-Palestinian?) former professor of English at Columbia University Edward Said on resisting the occupation-colonization of Palestine.

Veeser begins by defining charisma, and his definition, which includes “extreme charm and a magnetic quality,” captures the essence of the dictionary meaning. Yet Veeser also describes — a seemingly oxymoronic — “charismatic anger,” as a hallmark of Said. Charisma is obviously very subjective, but Veeser tries to pin it down. The charisma stems more from the man than criticism per se. In the case of Said, Veeser writes that the professor was the recipient of an institutionally produced charisma that led to “demiurgic status.”

Edward Said

Veeser pays much attention to Said as a fashion icon, describing him as a “clotheshorse” who “was an expert practitioner of the irrational aspect of charisma,” enhanced, peculiarly, by his irascibility. The book is replete with inordinate references to Said’s sartorial reflecting the author’s preocupation with fashion. Yet in the iconic picture of Said throwing the stone at the Israeli occupation — “the planetarity of his charisma” — by donning a baseball cap, Said captures the quintessence of the prototypical American Joe.

Esoterica underlies Edward Said, as the book delves into rhetoric, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, post-colonialism, New Historicism, radical romanticism, liberationism, theory of “molestation,” secular criticism, Michelangelo’s sculpture Captive as allegory, the opera Aida as inspiration for historical scholarship, and the art of debate.

Veeser writes, “Unembarrassed by anything, Said openly declared he was a work in progress…” What did Said mean by this declaration? Is this unusual? Are not most of us works in progress? How many people feel that they are complete or self-actualized?

Veeser conveys Said’s avoidance to being pinned down. Said embraced criticisms directed at him and his work. With eel-like guile, criticisms of his “inconsistency” slid off him as he professed a predilection for “doubt and uncertainty” and a contempt for “determinism.” Passivity was abhorrent to Said.

Esoterica

Veeser writes that Said’s critics targeted his “turgidity of exposition, a tendency toward self-contradiction, an undisciplined slippage or dérapage, a poverty of argumentation, and a failure to reach decisive conclusions.”

These criticisms are well grounded, but as Veeser notes, Said converted them into strengths.

Is this charismatic? Who decides? This elusiveness of Said is reminiscent of Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud who posited a “theory” that was impervious to scientific scrutiny. However, the very fact that Freud’s psychoanalysis sought to escape scientific scrutiny and criticism led to its rejection in scientific circles. Should Said’s oleaginous musings be regarded with equal skepticism?

Edward Said
The Charisma of Criticism

By H. Aram Veeser
Publisher: New York: Routledge (2010)
Hardback: 262 pages
ISBN: 978-0-415-90264-9


Veeser’s book mirrors the esoterica of Said. Orientalism is an intellectual achievement, but its turgid prose demarcates its audience (appealing primarily to academics — as does Veeser’s Edward Said). Said’s use of jargon and citation of foreign writing in its original language — without translation — comes across as self-indulgent because, after all, what purpose do words that are incomprehensible to most readers serve?

The biography Edward Said is also peppered with sesquipedalianisms.

Orientalism

Veeser acknowledges that Said’s Orientalism is loaded with contradictions, and he explains that Said has craftily prepared an out: Menippean satire. Perplexing to its critics, Orientalism, as with Menippean satire, (similar to Freud’s use of denial to deflect cogent objections to the underpinnings of his psychoanalysis) attacked inimical ideas and systems through satire.

Veeser mixes criticism and praise of the writings of Said. For instance, he points to Said’s “rebarbative language” and “sumptuous glamour.” Is this charismatic?

Is Said’s admiration for the power of the Occident charismatic? Said commented on the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt:
 

“And all across them is written the power and prestige of modern European country that can do to the Egyptians what Egyptians cannot do to the French. I mean, there’s no comparable Egyptian survey of France.”

“You need the power to be there, and the expertise to see what the natives themselves cannot see.”

These remarks sound astoundingly Eurocentric coming from a distinguished Oriental professor. Whereby does Said assert that Egyptians (or the Mamluks) cannot see what is around them? Where were the historical French pyramids and treasures to be plundered by Egyptians? Which country would have been the power had the pyramid-building Egyptians chosen to survey France at the height of pharaohnic might? Power is ephemeral as the later pharaohs learned and as Napoleon soon learned when British admiral Horatio Nelson defeated his French navy in Aboukir Bay. The scoundrel Napoleon abandoned his men and skulked back to France with his booty.

Insider/Outsider

According to Veeser, philosopher Frantz Fanon’s post-colonial thought influenced Said. Fanon’s principle of reciprocal exclusivity, where white settlers live in rugged towns and men of ill repute populate the native towns, alludes to the dispossession of Palestinians and colonies erected by European Jews on the seized land. How, I wonder, did Said reconcile his living in the settler/colonial towns of the United States made possible by dispossessing the Original Peoples of Turtle Island?

Perhaps Said’s own “settler” lifestyle explains his support for recognizing the existence of Israel. Palestinian resistance to occupation was encouraged and justified. Yet Said attempted to circumscribe it. Said’s criticism of resistance to Zionist occupation was in turn criticized for its remoteness.

The author explores this belonging/nonbelonging of Said. For he is presented variously as both a part of, and a non-part of, the United Sates where he was educated, lived, and worked and the Middle East where he was born, grew up, and learned the language and culture.

Veeser’s own presentation of information on the Middle East stirs questions. In a 1999 interview with Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Veeser demonizes both Yasir Arafat and Saddam Hussein, asking if the act of Said translating an Arafat speech was equivalent to Arafat’s embracing Hussein? He asks about a “[negative] impact on the public.” [italics added]

First, what exactly is the embrace of Hussein by Arafat supposed to signify? Astonishingly, an Arab leader stands up to Zionism and US imperialism, and the Palestinians who have endured many decades of bystanding by much of the world and suffered the cudgels of Zionism and imperialism are supposed to – what? — stand by? What did the Palestinians have to lose from supporting Hussein? Some jobs for Palestinians and monetary support in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait? What could they have gained from supporting Hussein? It turned out to be unsympathetic exposure of their occupation in the Occident, but the hope was for liberation. Second, who is “the public”? Which public should Said be concerned about (acquiescing here to Veeser’s implicit assumption that Said should be concerned about public perception and reaction)?

Veeser calls the intifadah Said’s Waterloo because he helped co-opt it for the corrupt leadership of the passive Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from the active, disaffected Palestinian youth in the streets — from which Said backed away, but too late, writes Veeser.

Veeser interprets Said’s condemnation — from his book The Question of Palestine — of “the conservative version of the Palestine quest” as opposition to — in Veseer’s words — “the desire to push Israel into the sea and other such bluster.” What is the context for Veseer’s interpretation? Besides, how can a country be pushed into the sea? Said, states Veseer, belittled the total undoing of the Palestinian dispossession as “theological”!? As well, Said clung to a realist position that “the liberation of Palestine was neither possible nor really our goal, so why maintain so ludicrous a formula?” Since Said has a foot in more than one camp, who was “our goal” referring to? Presumably it referred to the Palestinian camp, but Said knew well of schisms in that camp, so it is puzzling who the outsider-insider Said was speaking for. Moreover, if the expression of such a formula is ludicrous for Palestinians, what should one conclude about the rejectionist position of the United States and Israel?

Said as Self-contradiction

Interestingly, Veeser channels Said’s self-contradiction to depict intimidation (“bullying”) as charisma, noting that Said was “always good” at “shutting people down.” In fact, Veeser states that Said was unburdened by reasoned argument or facts in debate; instead he used the freedom of rhetoric to his advantage. Veeser asserts, “Charisma depends on remaining unpredictable.”

Said manifests schism. Veseer writes, “A chasm divides the PLO man from the charismatic critic Said.” He states that Said “had to decide whether he was a Palestinian or an American,” while acknowledging that Said “was both.” It is part of the contradiction of Said, the “PLO insider” and “charismatic outsider,” the man who denied being a teacher and acknowledged that he was a teacher.

Veseer writes that Said “could not hold a coherent political line,” but he exposed “certain liberals’ covert double standards.”

Vesser turns to Marxist thinker Aijaz Ahmad who bridled at that discrepancy of the relatively wealthy Said vis-a-vis revolutionaries. Vesser argues, “Said earned the right to represent this [revolutionary] class by giving language proficiency glamour and symbolic value.” I demur. Is pedantry glamour in language? One wonders what is the symbolic value of esoterica? Truly, Said violates utterly the fundamentals to effective written communication — as logically proffered by George Orwell in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.”

Intellectuality and Charisma

Veseer seeks to further burnish the intellectual star of Said, claiming “one of the principal markers of academic status is proficiency in a variety of languages…” Arguably, this represents a self-incriminating bias. Is hubris academic or intellectual? Does such a marker respect intellectual diversity since not all people are similarly disposed to secondary language acquisition? And not all people receive the opportunity of exposure to various languages.

Veseer argues, “Teaching is perhaps the most transient of intellectual genres, the one that leaves the least material of visible traces.” This is an odd statement since intellectuality is immaterial and invisible. Vesser does not describe what a material or visible example of intellectuality would look like. Furthermore, good teaching (I prefer the word facilitating since it describes best what a good facilitator/teacher would do) should facilitate the development of critical thinking and healthy skepticism among learners — the necessary building blocks to intellectuality.

Nonetheless, Vesser imparts that Said produced “extraordinary works” — “a solid legacy of sorts.” Is this not a tangible, visible, material example that could be traced back to teaching?

Vesser fittingly wraps up his biography with another seeming contradiction. Of the “moneyed, prepped, polished, upper crust American prince,” Veeser asserts: “Said’s real impact lay in his humility.” Vesser defines this humility as being achieved through selflessness, encouraging the liberation of others — to be themselves: an expression of charisma. One wonders how Veeser reconciles this selfless humility versus Said who “offered himself as exemplum and imitable type” for television interviews.

Edward Said is a roller coaster read. It was at times stimulating, enervating, plodding, and racing. The reader is forced to confront Said the man, decide whether he is charismatic (criticism as charisma eluded me), consider his apparent contradictions, his causes, and his vanity; and then the reader will reflect them on the author Vesser, an admirer but not an acolyte of Said. Readers are challenged to ponder and draw their own conclusions from Veseer’s depictions of Said and his impact within literary academia and on any advancement in the quest for social justice for Palestinians.

Charisma is discussed throughout Edward Said, and the book raises many questions about the nature of charisma. Is criticism charismatic? Is self-contradiction charismatic? Was Said charismatic? Whether Said left a charismatic legacy is moot; he did leave an intellectual legacy. And that is how it will remain because Said, the man, is no longer a work in progress.

Kim Petersen is a former co-editor of the Dissident Voice newsletter. He can be reached at: kimohp@gmail.com. Twitter: @kimpetersen. Read other articles by Kim.