Edward Saïd’s Influences
Check out the books, authors, and Big Ideas that influenced this critic.
Mansfield Park (1814) by Jane Austen
This is not your grandmother's Jane Austen. What, you think she's just a warm and fuzzy ironist with a soft spot for shipping quirky couples? Hardly. She's an imperialist in disguise.
How's that? Well, she lived in England during the height of British imperialism so it was kind of hard not to be one. Did she write all about it in her books? No. But that's precisely what I have a problem with: she ignored the realities of her era on purpose. Who wants to see the distasteful side of the economy? Do you want to see Chinese children sewing the clothes you buy at your local mall? It sure doesn't make for a pretty picture. Nor an escapist novel, for that matter.
But trust me, Queen Victoria was doing a whole heckuva lot more than worrying about family values and marrying off her young female citizens. So when I look at Mansfield Park, I see more than poor little Miss Fanny Price being raised by her rich uncle, Sir Thomas. I see Sir Thomas off dealing with problems on his plantation in Antigua (a charming little island in the Caribbean, in case your geography is a little rusty). And why's he so worried about his sugar plantations? Because he needs the slaves who are laboring under the hot sun to stay in line so he can continue to live like a high roller back in his estate in the British countryside. Truth revealed!
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
I had one of those mind-expanding experiences when I read Joseph Conrad's book Heart of Darkness for the first time. You may have read this chilling tale of a journalist who goes off the rails in the Congo and starts being worshipped by the natives. (That Kurtz is a real nut job. "Exterminate all the brutes"? No thank you.)
As any good literary critic knows, Heart of Darkness pointed a bony, accusing finger at Europe's atrocious colonial efforts in Africa—that "dark" world supposedly full of mystery and savagery and ruthless cannibals. And hey, props to Conrad for even taking this thorny issue on. I mean in that same year other authors (who shall remain nameless) were off writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz or The Interpretation of Dreams. (Get out of la la land and check out the world, you two!).
Through the eyes of the book's narrator, Marlow, Conrad really gives us a sense of how disturbing colonial Africa was. Being so critical and all, Marlowe did not reflect the opinions of your average British citizen of the time. And that Kurtz? Well, he just falls into the dark pit of colonial arrogance—Conrad makes that much clear.
And yet. And yet. Despite this great accomplishment on the part of Conrad, I always shed a tear at the end of the novel. Not because—spoiler alert!—Kurtz dies, but because Conrad just isn't able to imagine a world without imperialism. Even he can't fathom those natives ruling their own state. Heaven forbid. Nice try, Conrad.
Kim by Rudyard Kipling
Look, The Jungle Book is downright delightful. Even I can't resist Baloo the Bear. But—and I mean but—we have a problem here. I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't ask you to read Kipling's work in light of decolonization. We can't just pretend that Britain didn't control India for over a hundred years.
In fact, when we read anything—and I mean anything—written by a Brit about India, we need to look at the work and the author in the context of power and domination. There's a lot going on in Kipling's books that casts a bright light on the cultural and historical prejudices of the era.
Like I've said before, "Kipling not only wrote about India, but was of it" (Culture and Imperialism). Now ordinarily you might think that that means he'd be writing from a fairer viewpoint than that of some of his fellow Brits. Alas, not so much. When I take on the Kipper in my introduction to his book Kim, I urge readers to keep two things in mind: "One is that, whether we like the fact or not, we should regard its author as writing not just from the dominating viewpoint of a white man describing a colonial possession, but also from the perspective of a massive colonial system whose economy, functioning and history had acquired the status almost of a fact of nature" (source).
You may be asking what in tarnation all of that means. But all I'm really trying to say is that Kipling was on the side of power—a power so great that it not only went unquestioned, but it also was played off as an innate fact of life.
A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
Sometimes I can't believe this novel is still on high school reading lists. They banned Huckleberry Finn, but not this apology for colonial domination? Okay. Deep breaths.
I'm not ready to toss this work in with a flaming heap of books from the Twilight series (at least they don't have colonial domination in them!). But I really really really am not a fan. I just was not convinced that when all was said and done that Forster was really committed to social change—and I took a dim view of its attitude toward Indians looking to wrestle control of their own country.
At the end of the day, Forster clearly thought he was better than all of those officials running the British Raj like that scrappy crew of boys in Lord of the Flies, but in the end he obviously believed that the English (with their "imperial eyes") were the best bet for running the country. Beg to differ, dude.
Moses and Monotheism by Sigmund Freud
After I threw that little pebble at the Israeli guard tower (see "Political Views"), the Vienna Freud Institute uninvited me to give a big important lecture called "Freud and the Non-European." That really upset me because I've always been a big fan of that crazy, cigar-loving psychoanalyst.
Hard to believe, right? But I'm willing to look past Freud's huge focus on Europe because the guy gave fair shakes to Egypt, Palestine, Greece, and Africa—unlike other thinkers of his era who dismissed non-European cultures as lesser or inferior.
Freud also gets credit for not totally dismissing the idea that Moses, founder of Judaism, was an Egyptian—a non-European that is. That means he wasn't convinced that Mosaic religion (that was his old-school term for Judaism) was European. Ah, now isn't this interesting? Modern Jews are usually considered European, or at least belonging to Europe rather than, say, Asia or Africa. But Freud gives us a different way of looking at it.
So what, you may say? Well, I have long felt that scholars are way too interested in just clumping everyone into neat little national and religious groups, and I like that Freud messed up the program by saying that Moses was not European. Way to shake things up, Sig!