Beginnings: Intention and Method

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Columbia University Press New York

Copyright © 1975, 1985 by Edward W. Said All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, xerographing, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. Manufactured in the United States of America Originally published by Basic Books Columbia University Press Morningside Edition 1985 Columbia University Press New York Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data Said, Edward W. Beginnings : intention and method. Reprint. Originally published: New York : Basic Books, 1975. Includes bibliographical references and index. 1. Literature—History and criticism—Theory, etc. I. Title. [PN441.S3



Library of Congress Catalog Number 77-17259 ISBN 0-23 1-05936-1 (alk. paper) 0-23 1-05937-x (pbk.: alk. paper)

p io 9876543


For Mariam Wadie Najla

Doctrines must take their beginning from that of the matters of which they treat. Vico, The New Science


Preface to the Morningside Edition (1985) Preface

xi xv





A Note on Translations


CHAPTER ONE Beginning Ideas


CHAPTER TWO A Meditation on Beginnings


CHAPTER THREE The Novel as Beginning Intention


CHAPTER FOUR Beginning with a Text


CHAPTER FIVE Abecedarium Culturae: Absence, Writing, Statement, Discourse, Archeology, Structuralism


CHAPTER SIX Conclusion: Vico in His Work and in This





405 IX



-L. HE kernel-essay of Beginnings was written during the winter of

1967—8; more of it developed in 1968 and 1969, and by the winter of 1972—3 most of it was completed. Published first in 1975, Begin¬ nings was one of a series of critical books forming what a distin¬ guished scholar has called the genre of “uncanny criticism,” that is, criticism not primarily based on the traditions, common-sense con¬ ventions and, we should add in honesty, pieties (as opposed to the practice) of historical or philological scholarship. Uncanny criticism was, J. Hillis Miller said, “a labyrinthine attempt to escape from the logic of words,” it often leads “into regions which are alogical, ab¬ surd . . . where it resists the intelligence almost successfully.” He sums up all these notions by saying that for the uncanny critics the moment when logic fails in their work is the moment of their deepest penetration into the actual nature of literary language, or of language as such. It is also the place where Socratic procedures will ultimately lead, if they are carried far enough. The cen¬ ter of the work of the uncanny critics is in one way or another a formulation of this experience which momentarily and not wholly successfully rationalizes it, puts it in an image, a narrative, or a myth. —(“Stevens’ Rock and Criticism as Cure, II,” The Georgia Review, Summer 1976, pp. 337—8)

As description of a relatively new critical departure—particularly in its correctly placed emphasis on the importance of rigorous atten¬ tion to rhetoric and language—this, I think, is an important pro¬ grammatic formulation. It does not, however, adequately character¬ ize what I was trying to do in Beginnings, at least not in the association between uncanny criticism and a certain futile or impotent irration¬ ality (whose presence has come to be represented by such words as “the abyss” or “aporia”). For in isolating beginnings as a subject of study my whole attempt was precisely to set a beginning off as ra¬ tional and enabling, and far from being principally interested in log¬ ical failures and, by extension, ahistorical absurdities, I was trying to xi

PREFACE describe the immense effort that goes into historical retrospection as it set out to describe things from the beginning, in history. This divergence within the field of uncanny criticism—also known as the New New Criticism—has increased with time. Ironically, however, the more uncanny, alogical and absurd the criticism the more it has come to resemble the old New Criticism in its formalism, its isolation of literature and “literariness” from “the world,” and its quasi¬ religious quietism. In a striking way this resemblance has vindicated the New Critics who, stemming from T. S. Eliot and I. A. Richards in England and proceeding through Brooks and Warren, Tate and Ransom (R. P. Blackmur always being eccentric and anomalous) es¬ tablished literary criticism as a guild practice affiliated not with mo¬ dernity but with tradition. The New Criticism celebrated irony and “the poem itself,” even as it reconciled opposites as a way of ensuring a cultural continuity based on close reading, a practice which in turn assured the existence of “our” republic of letters. All traces of the vital intellectual, political and social contexts sustaining that republic were in effect purged, as critical readers were left with a sense of the “monuments of unaging intellect” whose place in civilization would be assured because of their aura, their canonical importance, their re¬ vered centrality. This fairly isolated status given to the text has returned, but by the route discussed in Chapter Five of Beginnings, that is, via modern French critical thought and, in particular, its structuralist, post¬ structuralist, and deconstructive moments. In having failed totally to have predicted this surprising turn, I can only plead guilty. What nevertheless retains some validity in my account of structuralism was the insistence on its originally radical spirit which, decades later and many thousand miles away, would almost be snuffed out or coopted by disciplines and institutions. Whereas Perry Anderson’s recent ret¬ rospective survey of structuralism, In The Tracks of Historical Ma¬ terialism, claims that the germ of structuralism’s later domestication and apostasy were already planted in the movement’s early period, I still maintain that the determination of structuralism’s destiny was a question of subsequent history and decidedly different circumstances, mainly American and academic. If the analysis of structuralism presented in Beginnings has there¬ fore in spite of itself become part of a later trend, it must remain the main task of this preface briefly to reclaim and affirm the main crit¬ ical points of Beginnings, those which seem to the book’s author to have stood the test of time and, more important, to have had some value for later work. First is the notion of beginning as opposed to Xll

Morningside Edition

origin, the latter divine, mythical and privileged, the former secular, humanly produced,

and ceaselessly re-examined.

This notion or

something like it, has been an enabling one for much that has been of interest in recent critical work. Examples would not only include the revived attention to Vico (a philosopher central to Beginnings), but also such trends as the critique of domination, the re-examination of suppressed history (feminine, non-white, non-European, etc.), the cross-disciplinary interest in textuality, the notion of counter-memory and archive, the analysis of traditions (or, in Eric Hobsbawm’s phrase, the study of invented traditions), professions, disciplines, and cor¬ porations. Second, the association between narrative and textuality which in Beginnings occasioned a historically grounded study both of what a text is and how the form and representations of narrative fictions are based upon a desire—authorized as well as “molested” by the novelistic consciousness—to mime the life processes of generation, flour¬ ishing, and death. Out of this association developed a theory of au¬ thority linking authorship, paternal property and power to each other, and this consequently has been extendable to the social history of in¬ tellectual practices, from the manipulation and control of discourse to the representation of truth and “the Other.” Out of this of course has come a preliminary but concrete understanding of what hegemony in post-industrial (post-modern) society is about. I mention all these matters as to some degree having been intended by what I was trying to get at in my analyses of beginnings. I was not fully aware at the time of writing that Beginnings de¬ pended for much of its material and argument on the transition from modernism to what has been called post-modernism. My cultural biases are on the whole tinged with conservatism, as the sheer weight in my text given over to the great masterpieces of high modernism amply testifies. To a considerable extent then one of the central points made by Beginnings is that modernism was an aesthetic and ideological phe¬ nomenon that was a response to the crisis of what could be called fi¬ liation—linear, biologically grounded process, that which ties chil¬ dren to their parents—which produced the counter-crisis within modernism of affiliation, that is, those creeds, philosophies, and vi¬ sions re-assembling the world in new non-familial ways. Yeats’s A Vision, and Eliot’s Anglicanism are typical modernist examples of af¬ filiation; ideologically and socially, the rise of the syndicate, political party, guild, and State, as quasi-paternal but affiliatively organized authorities, is a parallel phenomenon, even if its consequences and dimensions are a great deal more far-reaching and varied than aes¬ thetic versions of affiliation. Certainly this is the burden of Orwell’s xm

PREFACE 1984, however much one may disagree with its extreme defeatism and pessimism. Post-modernism takes up the problem of affiliation, working through it with results that have become familiar to readers of Derrida, Foucault, Adorno, and others like them. All this may perhaps be less interesting than one final point: the vision or status of criticism implicit in Beginnings. Most reviewers correctly noted that one symptom of the book’s mode was its apparent uncertainty or hesitation between belles-lettres, on the one hand, and a kind of philosophical speculation on the other. We have seen that Hillis Miller’s phrase for this uncertainty is “uncanny criticism.” My feeling now is that the style of Beginnings, both in the book’s structure and its line of argument, was a hybrid language expressing a number of different things, all of them retrospectively significant to me, al¬ though urgent enough at the time. Obviously the list would be topped by the dissatisfaction felt at the notion that “literature” could be dis¬ cussed as a completely separate genre of human activity. Related to this dissatisfaction is the positive attitude that literature, history, phi¬ losophy, and social discourse and indeed most of the modes of writ¬ ing about men and women in history are, in fact, tangled up to¬ gether,









epistemological grounds in order to accomplish social goals of one sort or another, and that criticism if it is to be criticism and not only the celebration of masterpieces, deals with the separations, the entan¬ glements, the consequences of what Raymond Williams has recently entitled Writing in Society. None of this, however, diminishes the force—isolated or not—of writing itself, and it by no means prevents criticism from taking full, admiring stock of what proper words in proper places can so wonderfully accomplish. But if there is some especially urgent claim to be made for criticism, which is one of the major claims advanced by this book, it is in that constant re-experiencing of beginning and beginning-again whose force is neither to give rise to authority nor to promote orthodoxy but to stimulate selfconscious and situated activity, activity with aims non-coercive and communal. This at least is what I had in mind when I took beginnings for my subject; as to whether I have succeeded, much depends on the reader’s sympathy for first, as opposed to last, things. Edward W. Said New York May 1984



w„ is a beginning? What must one do in order to begin? What is special about beginning as an activity or a moment or a place? Can one begin whenever one pleases? What kind of attitude, or frame of mind is necessary for beginning? Historically, is there one sort of moment most propitious for beginning, one sort of individual for whom beginning is the most important of activities? For the work of literature, how important is the beginning? Are such questions about beginning worth raising? And if so, can they be treated or answered concretely, intelligibly, informatively? For this book these are the beginning questions. Yet once they are taken up a process of delimitation occurs—mercifully, since otherwise








discuss. I have concentrated on beginnings both as something one does and as something one thinks about. The two sometimes go together, but they are always necessarily connected when language is being used. Thus there is a particular vocabulary employedterms like beginning and starting out, origins and originality, initiation, inauguration, revolution, authority, point of departure, radicalism, and so on—when a beginning is being either described or pointed out. Similarly, when one actually begins to write, a complex


of circumstances





beginning enterprise. In language, therefore, writing or thinking about beginning is tied to writing or thinking a beginning. A verbal beginning is consequently both a creative and a critical activity, just as at the moment one begins to use language in a disciplined way,








thought begins to break down. Beginning is not only a kind of action; it is also a frame of mind,











pragmatic—as when we read a difficult text and wonder where to begin in order to understand it, or where the author began the work and why. And it is theoretic—as when we ask whether there is any peculiar epistemological trait or performance unique to xv

PREFACE beginnings in general. For any writer to begin is to embark upon something connected to a designated point of departure. Even when it is repressed, the beginning is always a first step from which (except on rare occasions) something follows. So beginnings play a role, if not always a very clearly understood one. Certainly they are formally useful: middles and ends, continuity, develop¬ ment—all these imply beginnings before them. A complex form, however, has a logic of its own. Does a beginning? if we assume the presence of beginnings here and there for the reflective artist, reflective critic, philosopher, politician, historian, and psychoanalytic investigator, a study of beginnings can all too easily become a catalog of infinite cases. My task in this book is precisely to avoid compiling such a catalog (even while being aware of its possibility) and to take up instead the question of beginnings in an interesting, fairly detailed, practical, and theoreti¬ cal way. I not only try to show what sort of language is used and what sort of thought takes place either as one begins or as one thinks and writes about beginning, but also I wish to show how forms like the novel and how concepts like text are forms of beginning and being in the world. Moreover, those changes that occur from one cultural period to the next can be studied as shifts in the notion of what a beginning is or ought to be. When one practices criticism today, for example, a highly circumstantial awareness of beginning to write criticism is in operation; we are less likely now than before to think that a writer’s life has an absolute prior privilege when it comes to understanding his work. Why is this so, and what should we now begin with as we study a writer’s work? What are the privileged terms and the principal aspects of critical awareness today? Any work that pretends to deal with such questions risks being embarrassed not only by its beginning but also by its continuity, its choice of subjects, its vocabulary. The potential for such embarrassment with this particular book is something I have not underestimated. My own critical terms (transitive and intransitive beginnings,






guished from origin—text, structure) are built upon associations of ideas which, as will become fairly evident, gather in a rather wide range of interests. Each of the book’s six chapters, or episodes, has an internal coherence that depends on some aspect of beginning; each covers a historical pattern (the development of the novel, for example) that does not stray very far from the core subject of beginnings, although paradoxically I find it possible in one chapter xvi


(Chapter 3) to discuss both the early and the late phases of the European








structure for studying beginnings, though not in a linear fashion. Perhaps my decision to quote Vico in the epigraph and to make his work the subject of my conclusion makes my (circular) point best—namely, that beginnings are first and important but not always evident,


beginning is basically an activity which

ultimately implies return and repetition rather than simple linear accomplishment, that beginning and beginning-again are historical whereas origins are divine, that a beginning not only creates but is its own method because it has intention. In short, beginning is making

or producing














result of

combining the already-familiar with the fertile novelty of human work in language. Each of my chapters builds on this interplay between the new and the customary without which (ex nihilo nihil fit) a beginning cannot really take place. The underlying interest

of an essay such as this book is its true theme: the community of language








beginning. To say this at the beginning is hopefully thereafter to avoid the conservative safety of language without history, and vice versa. Thus beginnings confirm, rather than discourage, a radical severity and verify evidence of at least some innovation—of having begun.




.[^URING some of the time I have spent working on this book I have benefited from the generosity of the John Simon Guggen¬ heim Memorial Foundation. In other ways, chiefly intellectual, I have incurred a great debt to my colleagues and students in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia College; it would be difficult to describe, or for that matter to thank, the extraordinary ambience of intelligence and friendship so often present on the fourth floor of Hamilton Hall. For the sympathetic reception of ideas, for the readiness to grant learning and speculation a high place, for the seriousness and wit of intellectual discussion there, I have found the collegiate atmos¬ phere of Columbia inimitable. Friends and colleagues in other places have been kind in similar, and similarly valuable, ways: it is a special pleasure to mention Sadek el-Azm, Monroe Engel, Angus Fletcher, and Richard Macksey. For help in the preparation of the manuscript I am grateful to Louise Yelin, Lydia Dittler and Massimo Bacigalupo. Jamelia Saied of Basic Books helped immeas¬ urably in putting the manuscript through the travail of editorial process and production. I was the undeserving beneficiary of freely given typing aid from Joan Ramos, Mona Iskandar, and Mariam Said. My wife’s affectionate understanding, in particular, sustained me during this very long beginning.


PERMISSIONS “The Tower” from Collected Poems by William Butler Yeats. Copyright 1928 by Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.; copyright renewed © 1956 by Georgie Yeats. Reprinted by permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., Macmillan Company of Canada Ltd., Michael Butler Yeats, Anne Yeats, and Macmillan of London and Basingstoke. “An Acre of Grass” from Collected Poems by William Butler Yeats. Copyright 1940 by Georgie Yeats; copyright renewed © 1968 by Bertha Georgie Yeats, Michael Butler Yeats, and Anne Yeats. Reprinted by permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., Macmillan Company of Canada Ltd., Michael Butler Yeats, Anne Yeats, and Macmillan of London and Basingstoke. “The Convergence of the Twain” from Collected Poems by Thomas Hardy. Copyright 1925 by Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. Reprinted by permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., Macmillan Company of Canada Ltd., and the Trustees of the Hardy Estate, and Macmillan of London and Basingstoke. “Of Mere Being” from Opus Posthumous by Wallace Stevens, ed. with an introduction by Samuel French Morse. Copyright © 1957 by Elsie Stevens and Holly Stevens. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., a division of Random House, Inc. Selected passages from The Collected Works of Paul Valery, ed. by Jackson Mathews, Bollingen Series XLV, Vol. 8, Leonardo, Poe, Mallarme, trans. by Malcolm Cawley and James R. Lawler. Copyright © 1972 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press and Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd. Selected passages from The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. by James Strachey. Reprinted by permission of Basic Books, Inc., Publishers. “Sonnet 23” from Sonnets to Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. by M.D. Herter Norton. Copyright 1942 by W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.; copyright renewed © 1970 by M.D. Herter Norton. Reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. German edition, Gesammelte Werke, Band III: Gedichte Die Sonnette an Orpheus II Teil XXIII, p. 335 (Insel Verlag, Leipzig, 1930). Copyright © 1955 aus “Saemtliche Werke, Band I” Insel-Verlag, Frankfurt am Main. Reprinted by permission of Insel Verlag. Selected passages from The New Science of Giambattista Vico. Revised trans. of the third edition (1744) by Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch. Copyright © 1968 by Cornell University; copyright © 1961 by Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch; copyright 1948 by Cornell University. Reprinted by permission of Cornell University Press. Two lines from Holderlin Poems and Fragments. publisher, University of Michigan Press.

Reprinted by permission of the

Selected passages from Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann, trans. by H.T. Lowe-Porter. Copyright 1948 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., a division of Random House, Inc. Selected passages from The Order of Things: An Archaelogy of the Human Sciences by Michel Foucault, trans. by Alan Sheridan-Smith. Copyright © 1970 by Random House, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon Books, Inc., a division of Random House, Inc. Selected passages from The Archaelogy of Knowledge by Michel Foucault, trans. by Alan Sheridan-Smith. Copyright © 1972 by Tavistock Publications Ltd. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon Books, Inc., a division of Random House, Inc. Parts of this book have appeared in Salmagundi, MLN, Aspects of Narrative, ed. by J. Hillis Miller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971), Modern French Criticism, ed. by John K. Simon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), Approaches to the Twentieth Century Novel, ed. by John Unterecker (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1965), and Boundary 2.



i N ALL CASES any work from which I quote whose original language is not English is cited in an English translation. Although I do this both for the sake of consistency and because I would like the reader to have direct access to everything in this book, I must explain my policy on translation. Every text not in English (with the exception of those in Russian) I have studied in the original language. Wherever possible, however, I quote from an already published English translation, which I have checked against the original. In instances where there is no translation available or where the translation in my opinion is inadequate, I have made my own (sometimes mainly literal) translation. The reader is therefore to understand that unless otherwise indicated translations are my own; bad as some of these may be, I have preferred at least to make do with translations, done amateurishly, that render exactly those notions from the original in a way I can control, than to use aberrant versions done by someone else. Doubtless my translations are not especially elegant. Nevertheless, I have often parentheti¬ cally included short passages in the original language for the reader’s benefit; also, I have always indicated sources for my trans¬ lation in the original, non-English texts.