Thursday, June 03, 2010
marina warner delivers first edward w said london lecture
New lecture series honors memory of Edward Said
by Susannah Tarbush
Nearly seven years after the death of the outstanding Palestinian scholar, author, music lover, and campaigner for Palestinian rights Edward Said, an annual lecture series in his memory has been launched in London with the inaugural lecture delivered by British scholar and author Marina Warner.
The topic of this first Edward W Said London Lecture, held in the British Museum’s BP lecture theatre, was “Oriental Masquerade: Fiction and Fantasy in the Wake of the Arabian Nights.”
Marina Warner is Professor in the Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex and holds positions at several other institutions. She is an intellectual of exceptional originality and breadth and has won numerous distinctions and awards.
Warner first got to know Edward Said in 1993 when he gave that year’s Reith series of BBC lectures. “He was a man of great warmth, and dazzling elegance, and huge presence and when he gave you his interest and his friendship it was a very great thing,” she recalled. He was “a mentor and catalyst to so many”.
The event was introduced by Professor Jacqueline Rose of Queen Mary, London University, and opening remarks were given by the eminent Jamaican-born sociologist cultural theorist Stuart Hall. Professor Rose described Said as “one of the – if not the - most important and influential public intellectual of his time. I know I am not speaking for myself alone when I say that he taught us what being a public intellectual might mean.”
Hall paid tribute to Said’s “capacious capacity for friendship and his deep influence on my thinking and writing.” He outlined some of Said’s hallmark concepts, such as “worldliness” and “contrapuntal reading”, and gave an overview of his books including the enormously influential “Orientalism” (1978).
The work of Said which touched Hall most personally was the memoir of his childhood and youth, “Out of Place”, partly because it carried so many echoes of , and correspondences with, Hall’s own experiences.
The BP Lecture Theatre was packed out for the lecture, which was sponsored by the A M Qattan Foundation and supported by the British Museum, London Review of Books and the Lebanese-British author Hanan Al-Shaykh.
Said’s widow Miriam Said had travelled to London for the event, as had his son Wadie and daughter-in-law Jennifer.
One focus of Warner’s lecture was the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (WEDO) founded by Said and the Argentine-born Israeli conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim. The orchestra began in 1999 when Said, Barenboim and the cellist Yo-Yo Ma held a workshop in Weimar, Germany, for young musicians aged between 18 and 25 from the Arab world and Israel.
Weimar was European Capital of Culture in that year, which also marked the 250th anniversary of the birth of the great German writer and poet Goethe. Said remembered that it was in Weimar that Goethe had composed the 1819 collection of poems “The West-Eastern Divan”, which was inspired by his enthusiasm for Islam and for Persian poetry.
The orchestra adopted as its name the title of Goethe’s cycle of poems. “The name of the orchestra was born: it wasn’t discussed further and it has remained – resonant, mysterious, a promise of possibility” Warner said.
The establishment of the orchestra was “politically heroic and anachronistic, and it remains so. Its existence brushed against the grain of so much in the region at that time, and its struggle to survive continues even more acutely now (the almost unimaginably deteriorating situation since then is not diminishing the difficulties).”
Warner did not elaborate on the difficulties that have faced the orchestra recently, with the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) alleging that WEDO violates the boycott and promotes “normalization”.
Miriam Said refuted the allegations in an article published in March, but in a response PACBI stuck to its previous line. Miriam has played an active role in the orchestra’s activities since Edward’s death and is vice president of the Barenboim Said Foundation. She described in her article how Said had described WEDO as “the most important thing I do in my life”.
Warner said that WEDO’s two founders “markedly rejected interpreting the orchestra as a political enterprise: in his 2006 Reith lectures Barenboim affirmed that the work of the orchestra was musical through and through.”
Warner examined how Goethe’s “West-Eastern Divan” poems embody the orchestra’s vision. The Divan became part of what the French literary scholar Raymond Schwab called The Oriental Renaissance in his 1950 study “The Oriental Renaissance: Europe's Rediscovery of India and the East, 1680-1880”.
Schwab’s book excited Said’s enthusiastic endorsement. “It explored how the culture and civilisation of the West was actively shaped by the encounter with Arabic, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures in ways that have not been sufficiently explored or recognised, even when the European debt to Arab science is remembered.”
Oriental Masquerade was the height of fashion in the 18th century in theatre, literature, philosophy and politics – for example in the writings of Montesquieu and Voltaire. Mozart’s opera “Cosi Fan Tutte”, which Said admired, used Oriental impersonation and masquerade.
In the opera Ferrando and Guglielmo appear in their masquerade with Ottoman style moustaches in order to prove the fidelity of their betrothed.
“The Albanian disguises of their fiancés trigger out-of character behaviour in the two young women,” Warner said. “Said chose to see past the light malice of the opera’s ideas about the ways of all women and suggest instead that it offers a deeper insight into human character.”
Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte “project a modern understanding of the self as changeable in relation to others, rather than atomised; identity does not possess fixed integrity, but alters as elective affinities work metamorphoses upon it.
Goethe was in his sixties when he began pouring out the poems of the “West Eastern Divan”. As Edward Said himself grew older, his thoughts turned to the effects of lateness in his essays “On Late Style” posthumously edited by Michael Wood and published in 2006.
Towards the end of her presentation Warner quoted from a lecture Said gave at Berkeley in early 2003, the year of his death in which he spoke of his WEDO project with Barenboim. Said asserted that separation between peoples and ignorance of the other is no solution to the problems dividing people. Cooperation and co-existence of the kind the project had experienced through living, performing and sharing music might be a help.
Warner concluded: “The courage of Said as polemicist developed this late style of furious ‘advocacy’ as well as invective. He never lost his fine fury, but the many antagonists of his insights are blind to the deep humanity of his vision and the possibilities he saw of making culture cross borders and even move them.”