Dec/Jan 2009

Calamities of Exile

Two books survey the embattled intellectual legacies of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and Edward Said—and point up some surprising parallels in their careers.

Keith Gessen


Edward Said and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, dissident heroes of two sharply divergent political traditions, had a surprising amount in common. Both came from cultures that had been violently uprooted and dislocated; both were exiled, their lives threatened; both found refuge eventually in the United States—and became outspoken critics of this country. Both fought the regimes they opposed with words and the application of counternarrative. Both wrote famous accusatory tomes—Orientalism (1978), The Gulag Archipelago (1973)—that, through the sheer accrual of evidence, fundamentally altered the worlds they described.

Most interesting of all, both lived to see their political projects succeed to a degree they could never have anticipated. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991; Israel acknowledged the existence of the Palestinian people, and their right to a state, in the 1993 Oslo Accords. And both writers were, immediately and thoroughly, critical of what had once seemed their fondest wishes: While the West celebrated the Yeltsin regime, Solzhenitsyn warned that it was in irresponsible free fall; at almost the same moment, Said denounced Oslo as “a Palestinian Versailles.” Both, sadly, were right.

Two new books give us a sense of where the legacies of these men stand. The Soul and Barbed Wire, an overview of Solzhenitsyn’s life and works by two American scholars, is pure hagiography. While quasi-academic in form and published by a quasi-academic press, the book is willing to acknowledge that Solzhenitsyn had his critics only to label their criticisms “manifestly unfair.” The most relevant thing, claim Edward E. Ericson Jr. and Alexis Klimoff, is that Solzhenitsyn is the equal of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. You might have predicted, if you were a sociologist of academe, that two Solzhenitsyn specialists would say approximately that.

William V. Spanos’s The Legacy of Edward W. Said is something else altogether. It is much crazier, more entertaining, and clearly engaged in a live battle for Said’s legacy. Spanos is an unreconstructed Heideggerian, and this leads him to write the sort of sentences you might have thought had been embarrassed out of the American academy by the modish push for “public intellectuals.” Ha! Take this, public: “This was, in other words [my italics], the moment in Western history that, simultaneous with the expanding geographical horizon of the Eurocentric gaze, witnessed the compartmentalization of the knowledge of being into disciplines and the consequent reduction of its be-ing [author’s italics] to ‘fields,’ ‘domains,’ or ‘maps’ and further classifications and tabulations of its living details—that is, the development of knowledge/power relations that, according to Said, came to characterize the next (third) phase of the history of Orientalist discourse.” Which—actually—once you get used to the terminology, is not that hard to understand (except why is “ing” italicized?). But you do need to get used to it.

Spanos is on the de-fensive (let us say) because Said occupies such a crucial place in the history of recent humanistic thought. Orientalismthat is, the history of Western, specifically colonial, thought about the “East”—was an attack on the entire Enlightenment project of gathering knowledge; Said argued that all Western knowledge of the East was tainted by the political relations of the two regions—more precisely, by the West’s domination. And so all such disciplines of knowledge, no matter that they are written by erudite, sensitive scholars, are bad knowledges, because their ultimate purpose, their ultimate use, is itself domination.

The book caused a revolution in academic departments and resulted in the founding of the discipline of postcolonialism, which insists that the East speak for itself. Said lived to see that. He also lived to see, in the post-9/11 American fascination with the Middle East, the most remarkable Orientalist project since the country’s mobilization, intellectual and cultural, for the cold war. Sociologists, anthropologists, and historians have all been asked to get on board, led by none other than Bernard Lewis, the dean of American Orientalists and one of the bÍtes noires of Orientalism, who visited the White House shortly after 9/11 and then in 2002 published his rather prejudiciously titled book about the Arab world, What Went Wrong? Many, many other books and articles followed, an entire knowledge industry created out of thin air. And it didn’t take an unhinged Arab conspiracy theorist to tell you what these publications were about. “Why do they hate us?” they asked—but added, only barely under their breaths “And how do we kill them?” If anyone had doubted the essential truth of what Said had argued twenty-five years earlier, they could doubt it no more.

For his part, however, Said eventually felt that he had gone too far— or, anyway, that he had been taken up sometimes in the wrong quarters. He began to distance himself from both a too–ideologically rigid “multiculturalism” and what he perceived to be the too-abstract textual games of the French poststructuralists and their American acolytes. “Who benefits from leveling attacks on the canon?” he wrote in Raritan, his favorite American journal, in 1991. “Certainly not the disadvantaged person or class whose history, if you bother to read it at all, is full of evidence that popular resistance to injustice has always derived immense benefits from literature and culture [and that] great antiauthoritarian uprisings made their earliest advances, not by denying the humanitarian and universalist claims of the general dominant culture, but by attacking the adherents of that culture for failing to uphold their own declared standards, for failing to extend them to all.” For his part, Said took pains to trace his own lineage to unorthodox representatives of the traditional left, to Marxists like Theodor Adorno and Antonio Gramsci, and, especially in a last book, Humanism and Democratic Criticism, published in 2004, one year after the author died, argued strenuously against the “anti-humanism,” as he perceived it, of the poststructuralists.

This is where Spanos comes in, mounting what is essentially a book-length explanation of why the real Said belongs more properly in the poststructuralist, antihumanist camp. This means, for Spanos, placing him in the tradition of Heidegger and the later Foucault instead of Adorno and Gramsci. This doesn’t sound terribly interesting or important, but in truth it’s weirdly moving. First, you must imagine Spanos. As he reveals toward the end of the book, he was born in 1925. A first-generation Greek immigrant to America, he had barely arrived in Europe to fight the Nazis when he was taken prisoner. Like Kurt Vonnegut, who was in his division, he saw the Allies’ vicious firebombing of civilian Dresden. “I now believe the Dresden attack,” he writes, “like the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the indiscriminate B-52 bombing of North Vietnam, to have constituted mass murder in its utter indifference to human life.” With his fellow POWs, Spanos was forced to clear the rubble looking for bodies. Very early on, then, he developed a jaundiced view of “American exceptionalism”—and also, maybe, some small exposure to German culture. After the war, via Christian existentialism, he came to Heidegger and became a lifelong Heideggerian—following him in two directions, the existentialist and, later, the poststructuralist. In 1969, he began the process of founding boundary 2, the “first journal,” he explains, “to venture across the border established by Modernism.” He asked Said—then just a young professor at Columbia—to contribute to the first issue, which Said did. Ten years later, Said published Orientalism and became an international sensation. Spanos’s belief in him was confirmed. All was well.

And then? Said himself turned on poststructuralism. Worse, much worse, in 1987 Victor Farias’s Heidegger and Nazism came out in France. For various reasons—but partly because of the very triumph of Heideggerianism, which insists on a text’s or thinker’s ontological essence—Heidegger did not survive this controversy the way he’d survived previous ones. It didn’t help that later in the year, the chief American exponent of poststructuralism, Paul de Man, was revealed to have written for pro-Nazi publications as a young man in occupied Belgium. Heidegger was forever tainted, but Spanos was too old to adjust his thinking. And besides, why should he want to? He fought the Nazis with a gun; he has nothing to apologize for. Still, it must have been lonely these past twenty years.

And consider Said. Born in Jerusalem in 1935 to a wealthy, cosmopolitan Palestinian family, he grew up in Cairo, attending exclusive colonial schools and visiting family in Lebanon during the summer. At the age of fifteen—in part because of the war that the Arab countries had just lost to the new state of Israel—he was packed off to a prep school in Massachusetts. Well dressed, attractive, and no doubt quite polished, Said excelled at school but was, by his own account, unpopular (“alienated”). Then Princeton and Harvard. There was no such thing as an Arab intellectual then, in the United States: The hiring committee at Columbia, where Said would spend his entire career, was under the impression that Said was an Alexandrian Jew. There was also not much outside the canon then, and that was all right. Said’s first book, published in 1966, was about Conrad.

Then the 1967 war happened. The Israeli capture of the West Bank produced a Palestinian resistance movement; it also galvanized this solitary Palestinian-American intellectual, working away on literary theory in Morningside Heights. Gradually, after 1967, as Said tells it, he began to notice the way the Arab world was treated in the American press, and then, gradually, he began, with the help of Foucault’s early work on “discourse,” to sense the outlines of an entire Orientalist discourse of which newspaper reportage was just a minor, if influential, manifestation.

This is all simply to say: He was immensely lonely and didn’t get any less so. “Sometimes I have the strange feeling that I’m the only Palestinian in New York,” he said in 1986. This was a deliberate exaggeration, and of course in a way Said represented a tiny, wealthy, and, in his case, Christian minority that was not trapped by circumstances in Gaza or the West Bank. But if Orientalism sometimes takes its arguments too far, if it is at times too haughty to be convincing and at other times too petulant (“sometimes too forceful for comfort, sometimes too brilliant to be clear,” is how the New York Review of Books put it at the time), it is because it was a book written in anger and in pique.

Orientalism launched him to considerable fame, and as the “only Palestinian in New York,” he naturally became a spokesman for the Palestinian cause. He continued to write about Conrad, Erich Auerbach, and music, but he also took very seriously his commitment as an activist. He appeared on television during the mid-1980s to debate the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, the hysterical Benjamin Netanyahu, and penned countless articles on the Israeli occupation. Orientalism is his landmark work, and Culture and Imperialism a very urbane and readable follow-up—but page by page, his writing on the Palestinian issue is superior. It is drained both of the haughtiness and the sarcasm that sometimes mar his polemics and of the elliptical Foucauldian oracularity that makes some of his more theoretical literary criticism a little airy. “Arafat is finished,” he wrote after the collapse of Camp David. “Why don’t we admit that he can neither lead, nor plan, nor take a single step that makes any difference except to him and his Oslo cronies who have benefited materially from their people’s misery?” Tariq Ali defined the different registers of Said’s output well in his New Left Review memorial: “Foucault was, alas, an important influence,” he said of the critical theory. Yet “Said’s writings on Palestine have a completely different flavor from anything else he wrote, passionate and biblical in their simplicity.” Eventually, to put it crudely, Said was forced to choose where to put his best effort—politics or literature. Like a true literary man, he chose politics.

Hypermodern Said, arguing over the fate of the Holy Land, reached for biblical cadences; Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, trapped in far-off Russia, lived his life in the mode of a biblical prophet. Imprisoned in 1945 for writing anti-Stalinist letters from the front (where he was an artillery officer), he seemed to have enjoyed the opportunity to see the camps. Released in 1953, he moved to a small town, far from Moscow, teaching high school math and writing in secret. It was only after Khrushchev was well into his anti-Stalinization campaign that Solzhenitsyn decided he could submit his work for publication. The result was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a novella about life in a Kazakh labor camp, released in the Soviet Union in 1962 and translated into English a year later.

It was the last major work Solzhenitsyn would publish in Russia until 1989—but it was enough. Its appearance emboldened hundreds of people to contact the author with their own stories of the camps. Solzhenitsyn, who had dreamed as a true-believing youth of writing a great history of the Bolshevik Revolution, now sat down to write one of the camp system—an “archipelago,” as he called it, that “crisscrossed and patterned that other country within which it was located, like a gigantic patchwork, cutting into its cities, hovering over its streets.” He subtitled the book An Experiment in Literary Investigation because it was a work of excavation, imagination, and sheer will. Where Said mapped, in Orientalism, a powerful submerged discourse, so Solzhenitsyn traced in The Gulag Archipelago an entire system. It was a attack from which Soviet prestige—after the document was published in the West in 1973—never recovered.

At the time, there was talk in the Politburo of killing Solzhenitsyn or sending him back to a labor camp or prison, but in the end the Soviets thought it would be considered an act of generous humanity if they were merely to kick him out of the country. In a way, they were right—not because anyone made a case for the wonderful munificence of the Soviets for not imprisoning a Nobel Prize–winning author (Solzhenitsyn had received the award in 1970), but because, once in the States, he mostly took to insulting the West. His new home was a place where “the center of your democracy and of your culture is left without electric power for a few hours only, and all of a sudden crowds of American citizens start looting and creating havoc,” he told the Harvard graduating class of 1978. The Enlightenment had placed man’s reason at the center of the universe and abandoned God, and that, he explained, was where all of our problems began. “A split in the world,” he called it, and no doubt the phrase echoed in the minds of the graduates as they made a killing on junk bonds in the Reagan era.

In 1994, Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia, dramatically, landing in the Far East and traveling by train to Moscow, stopping every day to address crowds and hear out their complaints about the Yeltsin regime. He was a wholly unironic man heading straight into the age of irony (“with his Hollywood beard,” as one Moscow intellectual put it). At the end of it all was Yeltsin’s Kremlin, which gave him the highest honor it could think of: a TV show. For several months in 1995, every other week for half an hour you could turn on your television and see Solzhenitsyn preaching at you about what was wrong with the new Russia. Lots of things, as it turned out—it was becoming an “immoral” country, emulating the decadent West, and also (here Solzhenitsyn was absolutely right) turning its back on its obligations to its citizens. Of course, no one wanted to hear it—it was an era of insane optimism in the West and insane criminalism in the East. Solzhenitsyn’s show was canceled. When Yeltsin tried to give him a literary prize in 1998 (as the Russian economy was collapsing), he refused, saying he didn’t want an award from someone who had brought Russia to its state of ruin.

Three years later, not long after the former KGB colonel Vladimir Putin became president, Solzhenitsyn received him at his home outside Moscow. The symbolism was significant. One could say that Solzhenitsyn was old by then—he was eighty-three. But that’s also Spanos’s age today, and he hasn’t retreated from his beliefs one iota. As is their wont, the authors of The Soul and Barbed Wire blame the bad reaction to Solzhenitsyn’s measured embrace of Putin on uncomprehending critics (in this case, the neocons). They insist that a writer should be judged by his writing. But something important was revealed about Solzhenitsyn in his attitude toward Putin. Infamously, in 2007, he told Der Spiegel: “Vladimir Putin—yes, he was an officer of the intelligence services, but he was not a KGB investigator, nor was he the head of a camp in the gulag.” He trotted out the fact that George Bush the elder was once head of the CIA. It turned out Solzhenitsyn was less the enemy of state power than he was of a particular form of state ideology—the ideology of Lenin and Trotsky. And Trotsky, of course, was a Jew.

For there is one other thing that unites Said and Solzhenitsyn, and this is their fraught relationship with the Jews. Naturally, Jews were the people who kicked the Said family out of Jerusalem, and Israeli and American Jews would continue to be Said’s most implacable ideological opponents—Norman Podhoretz and Bernard Lewis, to be sure, but also Leon Wieseltier and, occasionally, the good people of Dissent. But it is often said that the Palestinians—comparatively well educated, cosmopolitan, displaced, and despised—are the Jews of the Arab world, and there are occasional appeals in Said’s work, which I do not think are staged, that ask us to see this. In the introduction to Orientalism, Said writes: “By an almost inescapable logic, I have found myself writing the history of a strange, secret sharer of Western anti-Semitism.” The line echoes Solzhenitsyn’s title for his late-in-life two-volume history of the Jews in Russia, Two Hundred Years Together (2001)—a strange and in some senses naive book, but then that’s Solzhenitsyn for you. The book is not anti-Semitic in the sense that it calls for the Jews to be killed, but the problem with it is well summarized by the authors of The Soul and Barbed Wire—“his hope is to clear the air and point out common ground so that Russians and Jews can move toward reconciliation.” An odd way of putting it, since Jews have lived in Russia for two hundred years. They are Russians.

An attitude toward the Jews has long stood in for an attitude toward modernity. Said was postmodern and Solzhenitsyn was premodern, though it’s unclear which of their worldviews will dominate the century to come. (Solzhenitsyn’s civilizational account of the world had a lot in common with that of Samuel Huntington, the man on whom Said spent more time pouring scorn in the last few years of his life than anyone except maybe Ariel Sharon.) Both questioned the effects of the Enlightenment on the contemporary world. Solzhenitsyn argued for the centrality of a group of people living for a long time in a particular place; Said argued for the centrality of those who have been chased from their homes forever—a steadily increasing proportion of the globe’s population.

If we are living, as we seem to be, in the last days of the neoliberal consensus, it means these kind of arguments, which the promoters of that consensus once dismissed or deemed permanently settled, will return again. Do we need a poststructuralist or a humanist Said? A merely anti-Soviet or a positively Russo-civilizational Solzhenitsyn? In the end, we’ll take what we need—but we should remember, as we build from a necessary base of solidarity, that some thinkers will forever be outside any camp, and there’s no use trying to enlist them.

Keith Gessen is coeditor of n+1.

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