Surprise! Said sticks to style

Prize-winning author, critic, professor and leading public intellectual Edward Said drew a standing-room-only crowd when he addressed his Houston Hall audience two weeks ago. But some attendees didn’t get quite what they expected.

Said’s talk, entitled “Reflections on Late Style,” was the keynote address of the Modernist Studies Association’s annual conference and an installment in the Penn Humanities Forum’s series on style. It attracted an audience of conference attendees, Penn students and faculty, and a fair number of lay Philadelphians, some of them sitting on the stage and lining the walls of Bodek Lounge.

The large showing of professors stood as testament to Said’s respect and standing in academia. The chair of Columbia’s Comparative Literature department, he served as president of the Modern Language Association in 1999.

But outside the world of conference panels and department heads, the Palestinian-American critic has gained prominence for his seminal works on post-colonialism and Palestinian issues.

So on Oct. 12, as war menaced ever closer in the Middle East, some who gathered in Bodek Lounge were surprised that the word “Palestine” never crossed Said’s lips. A few people left midway through the talk. Nearly half the room emptied out just before the question-and-answer session.

To those who stuck around, Said spoke for about 45 minutes on the apolitical topic of works that artists create late in life. Instead of dealing with artists such as Shakespeare and Verdi, whose late works are considered models of wisdom and serenity, he turned his attention to authors whose late works appear fragmented, difficult, “exiled” from their traditional audiences.

He reflected at length on Beethoven’s last compositions and the essays thereon written late in life by Marxist cultural critic Theodor Adorno. He also spoke of the posthumously-published novel “Leopard” by Sicilian aristocrat Lampedusa and the works of Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy.

Said said that in contrast to Beethoven’s highly-structured middle compositions, his latest pieces are distracted and episodic — reflecting the psyche of the aging Beethoven. “Beethoven inhabits these works as a lamenting personality. They are about lost totality.”
The talk, true to its title, was a loosely-bundled collection of reflections rather than a considered argument.

A medical student pointed out the appropriateness of Said’s choice of topic: “Here he is, in the later stages of his career, talking about how some people late in their careers do work that isn’t expected of them, that’s fragmented, that’s held together only by the fact of who it is. Given the events of the day, everyone wanted to hear what he had to say on the Middle East. We expected a pulling together of things, and he didn’t do that.”


Originally published on October 26, 2000