Quote of the Day : Edward Said on Imperialism

Edward Wadie Said was born in 1935, Jerusalem. He was one of the leading literary critics of the last quarter of the 20th century. Additionally, he was widely regarded as the outstanding representative of the post-structuralist left in America. He was a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, NY. The following quote is taken from Said’s influential book, Orientalism.

The Orient and Islam have a kind of extra real, phenomenologically reduced status that puts them out of reach of everyone except the Western expert. From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the orient could not do was to represent itself. Evidence of the Orient was credible only after it had passed through and been made firm by the refining fire of the Orientalist’s work.

Edward Said, Orientalism

Origins of the Quote

Edward’s Orientalism is a seminal book, written, read and used for research. ‘Orientalism’ for many was a term that described the Orient, the East. The exotic and then later the problematic. Without realising, years of reading had trained thought and trimmed it to understand the discourse that was laid out. It was published in 1979.

Said wrote, ‘the Orient was credible only after it had passed through and been made firm by the refining fire of the Orientalist’s work’ . While living away from my country I encountered the positioning of the gaze of the West over the East. Subsequently, my perspective changed. It was imperative to read and re-read Said. There are of course many who believe that he is immensely political in his academic guise. I feel differently.

I run with his daughter’s thought. Najla Said writes in her memoir that she pressed her father to explain the term in “simple English”. “The basic concept is that historically, through literature and art, the ‘East,’ as seen through a Western lens, becomes distorted and degraded so that anything ‘other’ than what we Westerners recognize as familiar is not just exotic, mysterious and sensual, but also inherently inferior.” Said explained to his daughter.

Let’s try and argue that down, it won’t be easy. Because he has put aeons of historical story telling into perspective.

The Person Behind the Words : Said & Orientalism

Said’s articulate oratory was legendary, he was a visible advocate of the Palestinian cause in the United States. Needless to say, that his views certainly earned him many enemies. It was a pre-9/11 world so nobody blew up his house or shot his family. But there were other impacts. His daughter for many years, while she attended the prestigious Chapin prep school, refused to own her Arab identity.

His wife Miriam, who was also his closest friend of many years has said that there was so much more to him than being just an Arab. It wasn’t a geographical location that would determine this tremendously talented man of letters.

The broadness of Said’s approach to literature and his other great love, classical music, eludes easy categorisation.

Edward Said, Palestinian by birth, examined literature in light of social and cultural politics. This aspect is also seen in Orientalism. He was an outspoken proponent of the political rights of the Palestinian people. He spoke about the creation of an independent Palestinian state.


In 1947, Edward’s father – Wadie, moved the family from Jerusalem to Cairo. It was to avoid the traumatic conflict that was beginning over the United Nations partition of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab areas. In Cairo, Edward was educated in English-language schools. Subsequently, he transferred to the exclusive Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts in the United States in 1951. His father was wealthy and Said had talent. He always wanted to write. He attended Princeton University (B.A., 1957) and Harvard University (M.A., 1960; Ph.D., 1964), where he specialized in English literature. Both the prestigious and exclusive ivy league schools that would prepare his thought. 

He joined the faculty of Columbia University as a lecturer in English in 1963 and in 1967 was promoted to assistant professor of English and comparative literature. Apart for his love for language he was a fan of Western classical, especially fond Schubert and Bach.

Edward Said and His Special Bond With The Heart Of Darkness

Said’s first published book, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (1966), was an expansion of the doctoral dissertation. Abdirahman Hussein said in Edward Saïd: Criticism and Society (2010), that Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (1899) was “foundational to Said’s entire career and project”.

Said points out how elements of the imperialist attitude come together in Heart of Darkness powerfully. Since these different elements cohere almost seamlessly in the novel. Said argues that Conrad’s novel epitomizes the “imperialist aesthetic.” The very use of this term is a provocative gesture; it is a way of suggesting that Conrad’s style reflects his political philosophy. He pushes the thought that the form of the novel itself is driven by its imperialist content.

Like fellow Post Colonialist Chinua Achebe, Said is critical of Conrad’s egregious Eurocentrism. However he refrains from focusing on race or racism as much as Conrad’s failure to allow the Africans any ability to resist European colonialism. Unlike Achebe, Said is interested in the fact that the novel is sensitive to the failures of imperialism. This is why I was lucky to have found his essay parallel to reading Conrad to study with.

He specifically targets the hypocrisy, excesses (through Kurtz), and the inherent corruption of the thought. Said argues that Conrad codes considerable ironic distance into his representation of the activities of the “Company” and its various employees. Said’s mode of reading is in tune with the onset of the “post-modern” era, when the modernist grand narratives no longer seem to loose relevance.

Some Final Thoughts : Orientalism

Orientalism remains his most influential book. And was credited with helping to change the direction of several disciplines, by exposing an unholy alliance between the enlightenment and colonialism. As a humanist with a thoroughly secular outlook, his critique of the western enlightenment seemed self-contradictory.

Miriam, his wife has spoken about Said. And how hard he worked on his theories, so what he created came from a lived space. There was no hypocrisy in what he presented. One may disagree with him but he remains till date an important view that must be considered while forming thought.

Check out our Quote of the Day archive where we bring you quotes hand picked by me, Divvya Nirula. Sharing the stories, people, moments behind the inspiration and thought provoking words.