Today I'm miserable over the fact that after many years of dreaming, I haven't even yet reached the economic status of buying my own pianogrande. Or even the cheapest Russian piano available in local music stores, which would be enough to soothe my fiercest longings. Or even a used one from the Salvation Army store. But not an electric one - the bottom line goes there.
The sudden pain was caused, of course, by Edward Said, whom I'm reading again this weekend after some months' break. Edward the postcolonial theorist who makes perfect sense, and Edward the master pianist, who developed his methodological notion of contrapuntal reading while listening to Glenn Gould. Both men could be identified as masters of endless variations of a single theme.
The beginnings of contrapuntal reading could be traced from Said's dramatic biography. As a Palestinian exile in the US, his whole life was haunted by the idea of displacement. Said had no single home, but he had spent his childhood between Cairo, Jerusalem and his ancestral village in Palestine. New York was his most permanent home, and Columbia University the intellectual centre of his activities, but he never stopped writing as an exile. The benefit of this position was that it enabled Said to keep on resisting dominant patterns of thought, and dominant ways of reading a literary text. To read contrapuntally is not only to look at what went into the text but to learn to listen to its inner contradictions, and particularly silences. It is always more interesting what the text doesn't say than what it says. Here Said acknowledged indebtedness to French poststructuralist thought, particularly Foucault and Althusser. What was special to Said's understanding was the methodological rigor, his insistence that combining the intellectual energy of big poststructuralist theorists can produce a reading strategy - a strategy that can be applied in empirical studies. Said doesn't leave his students helpless - he always manages to offer ways of working in real life. Whether one agrees with his practical approach or not, at least within the realm of postcolonial theory one should notify that there is at least one iconic figure who was never hopelessly difficult. One can have the illusion of getting inside Said's head by doing some extra studies on his key informants (varying from Shakespeare, Kierkegaard, Gianbattista Vico, Gramsci, of course Marx and Engels, Frantz Fanon, Raymond Williams etc. etc.). The same cannot be said about the other two iconic postcolonial writers, Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha. Not even swallowing a few university libraries helps to get you there.
Said's metaphor of "worldliness" explodes all attempts to form narrow academic ghettos, area studies or think-tanks. He means seriously that all students, disregarding their field, should have some basic knowledge of both Arabic poetry and the classical European novel. When I started reading Said in the 1990s I was overwhelmed and enthusiastic about what he promised in Culture and Imperialism (1993): it is indeed possible to read Jane Austen from a postcolonial perspective, and one can put William Butler Yeats, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Aimé Césaire side by side and find common elements of resistance in their works. When working with Said, I remember promising myself that I'm never going to become a single issue or area specialist, that such a self-definition would be an eternal burden. I think I've kept the promise so far - my interests keep changing with the flow of time and through encounters with people.
In private life, I'm currently more interested in Said's literary theoretical texts rather than the highly politicized ones such as Orientalism. I find the literary critical pieces inspiring from the perspective of creative writing. As a wannabe writer of fiction, like most amateurs, I am stuck with hundreds of budding stories, which I always have the energy to work for the maximum time of two nights. What he writes about beginnings is truly soothing: the novel is an institutionalization of the human intent to begin. So one never knows which one of our many beginnings carries the jackpot. I believe that one day one of my budding beginnings will have the narrative force to run to its conclusion, that the best stories always write themselves through the body of the author.
PS: The image was downloaded from Salon Magazine's website. Please notify me if I've done wrong - I don't know if it is common property or not.