Edward Said Remembered

Richard Kostelanetz

The Style of Intellectual Celebrity

No matter what one thought of the late Edward Said’s politics or the question of fibs in his autobiog­raphy, the Columbia literature profes­sor became an intellectual celebrity. He was a chaired academic who exploit­ed his minority moniker, in his case Arab American, to command larger stag­es than his classrooms, much as some African­American professors do and cer­tain Jewish professors once did. Knowing that he had become more prominent than nearly all other teachers of modern liter­ature, he apparently felt that the slightest changes in his temper should be recorded and disseminated.

So it is scarcely surprising that, in a memoir published in the London Review of Books (May 7, 1998), he wrote the following about the evolution of his literary style:

The net result in terms of my writ­ing has been to attempt a greater transparency, to free myself from aca­demic jargon, and not to hide behind euphemism and circumlocution where difficult issues have been concerned. I have given the name “worldliness” to this voice, by which I do not mean the jaded savoir­faire of the man about town, but rather a knowing and unafraid attitude towards exploring the world we live in.

What should be made of such a convo­luted sentence whose style so egregious­ly undermines the purported thought of aspiring to write transparently? Is this the clumsy irony of someone who admon­ishes others, “Never use a preposition to end a sentence with”? Consider its pomposity and witlessness (exemplified by “in terms of”); its mixing of highfalutin language (“euphemism,” “savoir­faire”) with financial lingo (“net result”); and even its colloquial prepositional conclu­sion. This passage reflects the mentality of a privileged intellectual, professionally insulated from readers less servile than his students and yet smug enough not to heed his own advice. To the degree that he apparently thought he was currently writing clearly—that he thought he was demonstrating the change he desired for himself—Said in his own words revealed a capacity for self­deception. You can imagine him completing such sentences with the exclamation “Akerue!,” which is eureka spelled backwards.

You and I can’t write with so much affectation; no one would publish us. Nor can most professors write so badly about their wanting to write clearly, especially for journals whose circula­tion is, like LRB’s, more than a few hundred. Once you understand how such otherworldly sentences are writ­ten and, wonder of wonders, published (and sometimes even reprinted), you get a window into a privileged world and a reason to doubt Said’s claim to tell truths about himself.


Richard Kostelanetz is a noted critic and author based in New York City. His Political Essays (Autonmedia) is dedicated to the memory of George Orwell.

Richard Kostelanetz

Richard Kostelanetz is a noted critic and author based in New York City. His Political Essays (Autonmedia) is dedicated to the memory of George Orwell.


The Style of Intellectual Celebrity No matter what one thought of the late Edward Said’s politics or the question of fibs in his autobiog­raphy, the Columbia literature profes­sor became an intellectual celebrity. He was a chaired academic who exploit­ed his minority moniker, in his case Arab American, to command larger stag­es than his classrooms, much …

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