In the Time of Not Yet: On Edward Said’s Imaginary

200px-Edward_SaidMarina Warner in the LRB (photo from Wikipedia):

Edward Said first met Daniel Barenboim by chance, at the reception desk of the Hyde Park Hotel in June 1993; Said mentioned he had tickets for a concert Barenboim was playing that week. They began to talk. Six years later, in Weimar, they dreamed up the idea of a summer school in which young musicians from the Arab world and from Israel could play together. They hoped, Said remembered in Parallels and Paradoxes, that it ‘might be an alternative way of making peace’. It was in Weimar, he noted, that Goethe had composed ‘a fantastic collection of poems based on his enthusiasm for Islam … He started to learn Arabic, although he didn’t get very far. Then he discovered Persian poetry and produced this extraordinary set of poems about the “other”, West-östlicher Divan, which is, I think, unique in the history of European culture.’ The West-Eastern Divan: the orchestra had a name; it was never discussed again.

It seems odd that Said, the fierce critic of European Orientalism, chose to use the title of a work that, on the face of it, belongs in the Orientalist tradition. Goethe’s poems are filled with roses and nightingales, boys beautiful as the full moon, wine, women and song. Yet as Said saw it, Goethe’s lyric cycle is animated by a spirit of open inquiry towards the East, grounded in a sense of the past in art and culture, not in dogma or military and state apparatuses. He read it as calling for an understanding of individuality as a process of becoming and therefore fluid. He also believed that poetry can have the metaphorical power to proclaim a visionary politics. The cycle represented for him an alternative history and epistemology, concerned with the cross-pollination between East and West. It seemed to confirm the orchestra’s principle that ‘ignorance of the other is not a strategy for survival.’

Said’s approach was always historical; his work as a critic and intellectual was rooted in an examination of context, both cultural and political, and the orchestra, which this summer toured South America, embodies his commitment to the work of art as an actor in its time. The word theoria, he liked to remind us, means ‘the action of observing’; for him, theory was a dynamic, engaged activity, not a matter of passive reception. The theorist-critic should be a committed participant in the works he observes, and the works themselves aren’t self-created or autonomous but precipitated in the crucible of society and history. ‘My position is that texts are worldly,’ he writes in The World, the Text and the Critic. ‘To some degree they are events, and, even when they appear to deny it, they are nevertheless a part of the social world, human life, and of course the historical moments in which they are located and interpreted.’ The making of music is an event in this sense too.