Edward Said: The late author was just in time

Edward Said: The late author was just in time
Feature: Said's final study - of authors' and artists' final works - explores the conceptual landscape of creativity towards the end of one's life.
6 min read
03 February, 2015
Edward Said (1935-2003) was one of the greatest Palestinian American public intellectuals

There is a time for everything, and yet we always run out.

When death snatched Edward Said, it interrupted him in full flow and robbed him of the opportunity to complete the book he envisioned.

On Late Style
is the book in question: a collection of essays compiled and published posthumously, focusing on the late work of several artists.

Said's death on 25 September 2003 came shortly after he told his wife Mariam of his intention to complete this book with a publication date set for December of that year. But, as Samuel Beckett put it, death does not deign to make an appointment with us in advance.

The book deals with the phenomenon of a certain artistic approach, which seems to emerge in the latter stages of an artist's life. Said explores the conceptual landscape of a range of celebrated artists towards the end of their lives and how their ideas are expressed in a "new language".

This primary meaning of "late style", which sits at the heart of the book, was an idea Said had been mulling from the 1980s, and for which he was heavily indebted to the German philosopher Theodor Adorno (1903 – 1969).

Adorno was himself troubled by the power of the "late style" in the works of Beethoven, seeing it as a something of a negative influence: "Where one would expect serenity and maturity, one finds a bristling, difficult and unyielding - perhaps even inhuman - challenge."

Yet the idea of "late style" in Said's book also moves beyond this initial sense to become an inescapable fate to which the act of creativity is subject, and which - according to Adorno - no one can avoid. One "cannot transcend or lift oneself out of lateness, but can only deepen the lateness".

Against this background, Said nurtures a concept linked not only to the mature phase of the life, but also expressing a more universal relationship between the creator and time in general.

Said notes a tendency of artists to step out of time, indeed a refusal to have anything to do with it, rendering the artwork "non-temporal". A case in point is the Alexandrian poet Constantine P Cavafy (1863 – 1933), whose poems were not published in book form during his lifetime, though some were published newspapers and magazines.

Said speaks of his "late style" as having "the power to render disenchantment and pleasure without resolving the tension between them".

It is the prerogative of the artist to escape to worlds entirely outside of their temporal framework, to return to "ancient myth or antique forms such as the epic or ancient religious ritual..." - a choice seized on by the modernists, where "modernism" refers not so much to "newness" as to a movement of maturity and finality, a kind of maturity that has little time for youth.

     It is the prerogative of the artist to escape to worlds entirely outside of their temporal framework.

The bulk of Said's book is dedicated to musicians, reflecting the author's extensive musical knowledge.

Besides Beethoven, "lateness" is a quality evident in Strauss, who seems completely at odds in his late works with the wartime scenes Europe was witnessing at the time.

Said cites the relaxed air of the opera Capriccio, completed in 1941, in striking contrast to the dreadful events unfurling around the composer as he worked on it. Said suggests that Mozart "depicts an amoral Lucretian world… undomesticated by conditions of either piety or verisimilitude" in his operas, in comparison with those of Beethoven, Verdi operas and Rossini.

Moving on to writers, Said dedicates a short chapter to Jean Genet (1910 – 1986) and his play Les Paravents. This story of "the captive lover" would prove to be Genet's final work.

Reflected in the work is Genet's relationship with identity and with the Algerian and Palestinian revolutions. Said describes Genet's escape from identity, something he sees as "the process by which the stronger culture, and the more developed society, imposes itself violently upon those who… are decreed to be a lesser people. Imperialism is the export of identity".

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For Said, Genet's decision in his latter years to focus on the margins is "the most dangerous political choice". He invites us to understand this choice, "first of Algeria in the 1950s, then of Palestine in the period thereafter" as "a vital act of Genet's solidarity, his willingly enraptured identification with other identities whose existence involves a strenuously contested struggle".

This reading comes after Said tells us how he met Genet twice, the first time when he spoke at a political rally at Columbia University, and the second when he spent a long evening with him in Beirut, and how the impression he left was not at all like his writing. Said describes how he would plunge into long periods of silence, for "only when he is alone does he tell the truth".

Perhaps the boldest literary manifestation of the quality of "lateness" comes with the Sicilian writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896 – 1957), who did not begin his only novel The Leopard until late in life, waiting until he felt he was "saturated in the contemplation of other works".

     Tomasi di Lampedusa found his work continually rejected by publishers... until the year after the death.

Tomasi di Lampedusa found his work continually rejected by publishers, until the left-wing publisher Feltrinelli turned it into the top-selling novel in Italian history the year after the death of the author.

Four years later it was adapted into a film by Italian director Luchino Visconti (1906 – 1976), winning the Palme d'Or prize at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival.

With The Leopard, Said expands on the strategy of "lateness", which robbed Lampedusa of the chance to see the success of the novel he felt compelled to write by the sense that he was the "ultimate descendant of an ancient noble line whose economic and physical extinction culminated in himself".

The "late style" phenomenon clearly also graced the director Visconti, with his film adaptation of the book coming at the start of the final era of his filmmaking career.

Said sees Lampedusa and Visconti's conception of Italy's "southern question" as streets ahead of the approach taken by political thinker Antonio Gramsci (1891 – 1937).

He places Lampedusa's diagnosis and treatment of the topic in his Sicilian novel in sharp contrast to Gramsci's stance, seeing him as therefore politically hostile towards Gramsci - who was filled with his "pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will", with the belief that Italy's "southerners" had no interest in improving their situation "for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect; their vanity is stronger than their misery".

Said claims that Visconti intended with his film to embody Gramsci's theory of transformissimo - "the formation of an ever more extensive ruling class" - and perceives the film as "the collective account of southern decline… not only to record the real Sicily, but also to turn it into an object of enjoyable consumption".

On Late Style confirms the point Michael Wood makes in his introduction about the incompletion of Said's work. However, as he puts it, "we have no reason to be ungrateful for what there is". Wood compiled the material for the book from Said's articles and notes, and what we have in this impressive book are indeed Said's words, although he did not manage to draft the manuscript in the way he did his second book, Beginnings: Intention and Method (1975).

While we do not encounter the urgency of Beginnings or the same sense of historicity in the "late" literary composition of Said's final book, it is nonetheless laudable that the publication of Said's masterful writing was not jeopardised by his untimely death.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.