From Exile to Resistance: An Intimate Portrait of Edward Said
Bahar Zamani
Krisis 2023, 43 (1): 190-194.
Review of Timothy Brennan (2021) Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said.
London: Bloomsbury.
Edward Said, Biography, Exile, Intellectual portrait
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC
BY 4.0). © 2023 The author(s).
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
From Exile to Resistance: An Intimate Portrait of Edward Said
Bahar Zamani
Places of Mind is the result of a lengthy association of the author with Edward Said. His in-
volvement with Said’s philosophy originates in the early 1980s as he started graduate studies
at Columbia University as his student. As time went by, Timothy Brennan grew intrigued by
his mentor, and they remained in steadfast friendship till the end of Said’s life. Brennan’s
sympathetic narration captures Said’s intimate traits, a sensitive intellectual yet a warrior with
a biting sarcasm who does not compromise with power. The book’s title is a conscious gesture
to remind us of Said’s displacement and life in exile. The author’s intimate relationship with
Said and his understanding of his thinking are evident throughout the book. The biography is
more of an intellectual characterization of Said than a critical study of his academic work. One
of the strengths of Brennan's memoir is his decade-long exploration of a treasure-trove of
source material previously unavailable to others, which sets his work apart from previous bi-
ographers. Through his deep engagement with Said's archives and correspondences, Brennan
uncovers the complex and nuanced thought processes that underlies Said's influential body of
In the first few chapters, Brennan progressively familiarizes the reader with an account of
Said’s personal life. His familial circumstances are described in great detail, as much as his
friendships and mentors. The reader becomes familiar with the influential women in the inti-
mate circle of Said’s life, including his mother, Hilda, who was an essential source of encour-
agement from his adolescence onwards. Compared to what Said offers in his autobiography,
Out of Place (1999), Brennan’s narrative contains a significant quantity of additional material.
He is well aware that Said’s autobiography is written from a subjective point of view, and
there are many details that he avoided sharing or twisted in his memoir due to emotional bar-
riers. Despite rendering numerous details of Said’s mental status in the early phases of his life
in the book’s first and second third, Brennan fast-forwards Said’s private life after his second
marriage and briefly explains his connection to his children.
Almost until the end of the second third of the biography, readers encounter intimate moments
and unpublished semi-autobiographical sensitive details of Said’s life. Brennan precisely por-
trays Said’s early private life and generously documents any impression of characters in
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
contact with him. However, in the last third of the book, he abruptly ends with the humanizing
characteristics of Said. He fades into Said’s professional performances and his contentious
career as an anti-colonial rebellion advocate. Brennan’s picturesque and appealing image of
Said’s world is entertaining, yet the work appears too lengthy to describe some of his life
events. Frequently, the book is more of a discussion of Said’s controversial figure in develop-
ing his work, and excessively explanatory of the complexities and contradictions of Said’s
character in the critical disputes in which he became involved.
Nonetheless, it is apparent in the biography that Brennan has the propensity to exalt Said with-
out addressing any obvious flaws or inconsistencies in his work. Brennan’s close relationship
with Said has a detrimental effect on how he interprets Said’s ideas by giving a too-optimistic
perspective of Said’s intellectual achievements. His lack of critical analysis emerges as a
source of bias in his narrative of Said’s life and work. It is crucial to recognize the limitations
of what can be comprehended through archives. Brennan’s over-reliance on his sources leaves
out essential facets of Said’s attitudes that are not covered by these sources, and is a potential
flaw in his work.
Throughout the book, Brennan focuses on Said’s mental journey. He paints a vivid picture of
Said’s premature adulthood, his quest to find himself, his political awakening, and how he
became engaged with philosophy in the first place. During Said’s extended summer stays in
Lebanon in his mid-teens, he became immersed in the discussions of Kant, Hegel, and Plato.
Later, at Princeton, he chose “Special Humanities” to develop his earliest obsession, music,
which was the first source of his intellectual life before philosophy and literature. Brennan
centres principally on Said’s critical political role as a literary philosopher. Rather than merely
envisioning this intellectual process, Brennan is attempting to comprehend how Said’s ideas
emanated from his subjective sentiments and formed his persona. He wishes to credit Said’s
qualifications by covering his compartmentalized mental universe and thinking patterns.
Various biographies of Said differ in their approaches and focus, as well as in their level of
critical engagement with Said's work and ideas. Some focus on his literary criticism and the-
ory, while others explore Said's political activism and his role as a public intellectual. Although
Brennan does not bring fresh insights into Said as a philosopher, he does try to do justice to
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
Said’s intellectual endeavours by clarifying misreadings of his diverse bibliographies, high-
lighting Said’s remarkable dedication to the classics of Western philosophy.
From Brennan’s perspective, Said’s work is a powerful illustration of how theoretical perspec-
tives heavily influenced by personal experience may be utilized to critique prevailing cultural
narratives. Emphasizing Said’s role as a public intellectual deeply committed to political and
social justice, Brennan points out that his legacy continues to influence current discussions
about cultural representation, power, and resistance. To get acquainted with Said’s intellectual
trajectory, Brennan takes the readers through his identity crisis, how he extracted his whole
philosophy from the issue of his exile, and how his blurring identity led him to deconstruct it.
Born in Jerusalem and raised in Cairo, Said comes from the geographical intersection of the
West and the East. With the greatest load of monotheistic absolutism and religious rites, his
origins heavily influenced his academic interests. Brennan densely depicts Said’s early years
in the United States, describing how he struggled to overcome the alienation he faced in the
country despite inheriting an American passport on the grounds of his father’s citizenship.
Said could not stop thinking about the stereotypes of the Orient in mainstream popular culture,
especially after visiting California for the first time at thirty-three. The book widely discusses
the issue of exile in Said’s life, which was one of his enduring intellectual concerns. His overall
analytical disposition was formed by exilic consciousness. Said saw the intellectual exile as
playing a vital role in contemporary culture. Being dependent on the East and the West and
feeling estranged from both, he perceived them as notions that work to construct an ideology
rather than an indication of geographical reality. By examining Said’s psychological and tem-
peramental dimensions, Brennan demonstrates how exile consciously and subconsciously
formed his identity. Said employs exile as a euphemism for his dialectical approach. For him,
the sense of meaning uprooted is more than just a tragic destiny bestowed upon him; the con-
cept of exile encapsulates Said’s sense of freedom. As Brennan formulates, an exile for Said
was “about being odd, awkward, and at home nowhere.”
The book reveals much information on how literary theory inspired Said’s thoughts. According
to his friend, Palestinian historian Tarif Khalidi, he was at his heart “a philosopher who had
migrated into literature.” Said’s thirst for poetry and his long-term research in history were
never literally addressed in his existing literature. Still, they were essential in the early years
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
of his intellectual development. Brennan has been relatively successful in conveying the mes-
sage that, for Said, literature was not only a passion but the cornerstone of his politics.
Despite extensive reading in psychoanalysis, existentialism, and phenomenology, Said re-
mained distant from these fields because he was far more concerned with how artworks are
created in a particular environment. He published his groundbreaking book Orientalism (1978)
in response to the war in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli war. The book is a comprehensive
philosophy of power that reveals the European impulse to normalize the alleged inferiority of
the East. Despite facing much criticism, it made postcolonial studies a valid academic field.
Said intended to emphasize that representation is a component of reality, not simply its ver-
balization. Said’s continual battle for Palestine is evident throughout the book. Yet, Brennan
covers Said’s tireless efforts to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli issue in considerable detail in
the book’s last chapters. The media pressure, the hate threats that Said was getting very often,
and the mental strain on him due to the overflow of responsibility, exacerbated his physical
health. A decade before he was diagnosed with leukemia, Said already felt tired. Friends and
family began to notice his ill health. He eventually lost the battle to leukemia in 2003, leaving
behind the tremendous legacy of uncovering the politics of presentation, and raising awareness
of the political repercussions of the humanities.
Rather than merely praising Said’s literary work, Brennan could have benefitted from stepping
outside Said’s intragroup intellectual circle and reflecting more on his works’ critiques.
Namely, Orientalism received massive criticism for how Said was essentializing the very cat-
egories of the East and the West he was trying to problematize. Brennan seems obligated to
protect Said in a favourable manner, which leaves him in a position of not taking criticism of
Said’s work into account. Brennan is cautious of jeopardizing Said’s public appeal. He occa-
sionally endorses Said’s arguments and presents some linkages in a more confident or con-
sistent light. Although full of profound insights, Brennan’s book swings between the inevita-
bility of intimacy and a lack of distance which limits a critical perspective. His intimate con-
nection to Said provides a rich engagement with his subject that subsequently elevates the
quality of his work. Still, this intimacy prevents a certain amount of distance required for a
critical viewpoint.
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
Bahar Zamani is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Art Theory and Cultural Studies at the Academy of Fine
Arts in Vienna, Austria. She has prior teaching and assisting experience in academic courses related to philoso-
phy. Her research's underlying epistemological curiosity is about recasting religious convictions into secular
logic, othered religious subjectivity, and the role of spirituality in postcolonial resistance.