“Out of Place: A Memoir” by Edward Said — Absolutely Fascinating
It is hard now for me to pinpoint the moment when I became aware of the work of Edward Said and when it entered my personal and intellectual radars so to speak. (If interested in other posts on Edward Said, please see the post on On Being an Academic and a Public Intellectual and on Edward Said: Last Public Intellectual). Certainly, my first exposure to him was during my year in Oxford when I was trying to figure out who the Said Business School was named after. It turned out that there was another Said, someone who has nothing to do with the Said Business School, but who is a much more interesting man than the benefactor. But then my knowledge of Edward Said was limited by the odd fact I read that he was throwing stones at Israeli tanks somewhere in the Middle East, and at the same time, was an unlikely professor of English Literature at Columbia University.
It was later that I started to actively watching his interviews on YouTube and to read his essays. I started reading “The Orientalism” in 2014 in order to adapt it for my teaching at ADA University, but it was not a very smooth reading for some reason. My fascination with the figure of Said is as much personal as professional. On the personal level we share much in terms of uprootedness, the feeling of alienation and the general insecurity of existence and being. At the professional level, the whole field which Said started, the post-colonial studies, are an inspiration for my own work on trying to understand the power of narratives which go around the world in order to constitute imagined, fictional forms of governance which we collectively call “global governance”. The whole ideas of positionality, power, reflexivity, anthropology of policy, history and the literary aspects of policy are what fascinate me in policy at this moment and are easily if not inevitably traced to Edward Said’s legacy as a scholar, a mentor, an intellectual hero.
With this prelude, it perhaps becomes more comprehensible why I have enjoyed Said’s memoir “Out of Place” tremendously. He is a very good writer. His emotional honesty is truly formidable and urges one to become a better man. His moral stature is inspiring as an example of what is right or decent about humanity, and his background and struggles are all too familiar human ones. I think everyone will find something similar of reminiscent in the book to his or her own experiences of childhood, teenage or student years. And this particular ability to connect with the reader is perhaps what marks truly genial writers.
The book is about the first 25 or so years of Said’s life spent across Jerusalem, Cairo, Lebanon, London, Paris, Main, Princeton, Harvard and finally New York. He moved between cities, countries, cultures and worlds. And he has been at home nowhere. Hence, the “out of place” title of the book. Many quotes in the book are amazingly beautiful, so I have a hard time to pick a few. And besides, there are so many reviews online which you could read. I just want to bring two quotes: one on teaching and another on being “out of place”.
During the first weeks Baldwin assigned us an essay topic of a very unpromising sort: “On Lighting a Match.” I dutifully went to the library and proceeded through encyclopedias, histories of industry, chemical manuals in search of what matches were; I then more or less systematically summarized and transcribed what I found and, rather proud of what I had compiled, turned it in. Baldwin almost immediately asked me to come and see him during his office hours, which was an entirely novel concept, since VC’s teachers never had offices, let alone office hours. Baldwin’s office was a cheery little place with postcard-covered walls, and as we sat next to each other on two easy chairs he complimented me on my research. “But is that the most interesting way to examine what happens when someone lights a match? What if he’s trying to set fire to a forest, or light a candle in a cave, or, metaphorically, illuminate the obscurity of a mystery like gravity, the way Newton did?” For literally the first time in my life a subject was opened up for me by a teacher in a way that I immediately and excitedly responded to. What had previously been repressed and stifled in academic study—repressed in order that thorough and correct answers be given to satisfy a standardized syllabus and a routinized exam designed essentially to show off powers of retention, not critical or imaginative faculties—was awakened, and the complicated process of intellectual discovery (and self-discovery) has never stopped since. The fact that I was never at home or at least at Mount Hermon, out of place in nearly every way, gave me the incentive to find my territory, not socially but intellectually.
On Being Out of Place
Sleeplessness for me is a cherished state to be desired at almost any cost; there is nothing for me as invigorating as immediately shedding the shadowy half-consciousness of a night’s loss, than the early morning, reacquainting myself with or resuming what I might have lost completely a few hours earlier. I occasionally experience myself as a cluster of flowing currents. I prefer this to the idea of a solid self, the identity to which so many attach so much significance. These currents, like the themes of one’s life, flow along during the waking hours, and at their best, they require no reconciling, no harmonizing. They are “off” and may be out of place, but at least they are always in motion, in time, in place, in the form of all kinds of strange combinations moving about, not necessarily forward, sometimes against each other, contrapuntally yet without one central theme. A form of freedom, I’d like to think, even if I am far from being totally convinced that it is. That skepticism too is one of the themes I particularly want to hold on to. With so many dissonances in my life I have learned actually to prefer being not quite right and out of place.