An old student and friend of Said’s, Brennan is himself a formidable scholar, having authored numerous books and essays on topics from world literature to Hegel to jazz. But despite his personal relationship to his subject, Brennan quickly recedes into the background, following a short preface ... Previous books on Said have been organized around thematic chapters or individual essays. Without neglecting critical analysis, Brennan attempts to tell something more like a story. What emerges is a remarkably careful and considered narrative of Said’s life from cradle to grave—an account that is both synthesis and corrective ... Riffing on the title of Said’s memoir, which renders an image of the exile as always 'out of place,' Places of Mind turnsinward—to reveal the intellectual center of a seemingly roving career ... Places of Mind takes the task of the intellectual biography to heart: it understands Said’s life by way of his work, and understands his work by way of the thinker at its center. That’s not to say that Said’s thought was uniform. If anything, he recognized and often relished his own contradictions: a critic of Orientalism who was also an Anglophile, a social scientist who was also an aesthete, a radical leftist with expensive tastes. Yet for Brennan, Said was, above all, a literary critic, and the only way to understand him is through reading, well, his literary criticism ... as much an intellectual biography as a kind of literary criticism on literary criticism. In immensely readable prose, Brennan flexes his expertise as one of the world’s leading authorities on Said.
... impressive and rigorous ... The book has its surprises ... For a man with the surname Brennan, this biographer is remarkably silent on Said’s superb analysis (in Culture and Imperialism) of WB Yeats as a foremost poet of decolonisation—of the ways in which Yeats was not only the Irish Shakespeare but also (as Emer Nolan has wittily put it) its Salman Rushdie ... Timothy Brennan has his teacher’s aphoristic gifts ... He captures the lonely integrity of a man castigated as 'a designer Arab' by some of those he did most to defend.
Brennan writes that, though appreciative of efforts to 'diversify faculties in terms of ethnicity and national origin,' Said was troubled by the way Orientalism encouraged 'fixations on personal ‘identity’ ' in academia ... Brennan reports that Said’s 'battle to make the Palestinian story as sophisticated and persuasive as Israeli hasbara' had some small successes ... Besieged for much of his life by 'the superior power of incessantly repeated lies,' Brennan writes, 'he knew he was not going to win.'
[A] useful and rich explication of Said’s trajectory, from his first mentors—R. P. Blackmur at Princeton and Harry Levin at Harvard—to his affiliation with French theorists, to his firm rejection of their ahistorical, ungrounded approach in favor of a historically informed, pragmatically revolutionary vision—which, indeed, might overlap significantly with McCarthy’s ... Brennan is very fine on the evolution of Said’s thought and writing, as well as on his return, after his leukemia diagnosis in 1991, to the music that had been central to his youth (he was a pianist of near-concert-level accomplishment) and his creation, with Daniel Barenboim, of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. But the book’s professional focus can come at the expense of other aspects of Said’s life ... Brennan notes Said’s important friendship with his fellow Palestinian-American academic Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, but gives the reader little impression of the man. Similarly, Said’s other friends, his parents, sisters, wives, and children, are present in the text (as is one mistress, a writer named Dominique Eddé, though it’s implied that there were others), but remain largely ciphers ... Nevertheless, Said’s vitality and lasting importance as both a scholar and a public figure emerge strongly in these pages.
Brennan draws on an imposing array of material to write the first comprehensive portrait of one of America’s most distinguished postwar intellectuals ... Yet in recording the mile-wide scope of Said’s influences, the book at times comes off as merely an inch deep. Several ideas Brennan introduces — why we should look to poetry as opposed to fiction as the key to Said’s intellectual formation, for example — are subsequently abandoned, like an undeveloped roll of film ... Said was famously not one for acolytes and disciples, and it is good that Brennan is willing to read Said against Said ... While brimming with this kind of detail, Places of Mind is strangely cursory in other ways. Critical Saidian concepts, such as filiation and affiliation, flicker into view, assuming an unwarranted familiarity. Brennan often proposes suggestive angles only to dispose of them abruptly, as when he glosses over Said’s intellectual engagement with feminism. Part of the problem may be Said’s prolificness, his leaping eclecticism and relentless energy ... Without quite succeeding, Places of Mind aims to capture the thick Rolodex of names that steered Said as he developed those insights.
Mr. Brennan is altogether too true to the terms of his project, and his commitment to an examination of Said’s brainy side is (for the most part) fulfilled at the expense of the human dimension. Although his account of Said’s early years is rich with beguiling family particulars, Mr. Brennan lays bare much too little of his adult subject beyond his parsing and distillation of the scholarship Said produced in prodigious quantities ... The book is valuable because it skews in a literary direction, drawing readers away from some of the more conventionally celebrated Said fare. But however seductive we may find his aesthetic side—Said was a gifted pianist who forged a friendship with Daniel Barenboim—we cannot grasp Said the man without placing at center stage his adamant and passionate commitment to the Palestinian question. In a most astute observation—one of many in his intense and rewarding book—Mr. Brennan may have hit upon the reason why Said touches a raw nerve with Zionists. 'He was like a photonegative of his Jewish counterparts,' writes Mr. Brennan. The twin themes they dwelt on—exile and the immigrant experience—were Said’s story too, 'but from a very different angle.'
Impressively researched and powerfully written, it charts Said’s many triumphs ... paradoxes of imperial power do not get much attention in Places of Mind, and its first chapters say frustratingly little about the colonial Middle East or the Cold War U.S. This is a missed opportunity, as the similarities between the two systems would later become crucial to Said’s intellectual and political agenda ... In its most impressive chapters, Places of Mind reconstructs Said’s participation in these two revolutions. The first was post-structuralism ... The second project that Said joined, and for which he became especially famous, was the Palestinians’ renewed struggle for self-determination ... Orientalism’s sweeping claims could hardly leave readers indifferent, and Brennan masterfully traces both the admiration for and backlash to Said’s masterwork.
Brennan...thoroughly mined the archive held in Columbia University, where Said taught for his entire career ... Brennan’s achievement is to do justice to the many things Said was and to articulate the synapses that connected his different worlds, so ideas that had their birth in one found their use in another. He has provided us with what you might call a manual of Said; a map of his thoughts and his positions, which, change as they did, could always be traced to a core set of ideas and drives and to do this without ever blunting Said’s subtlety or smudging the clarity of his ideas ... [Said's memoir] Out of Place is, of course, the inescapable foil against which the first 100 or so pages of Places of Mind will be read—and found wanting ... He was pretty severe with that young self, so it feels somewhat de trop to have someone else piling in on it. I wonder, though, if Brennan’s harshness with the younger Edward was out of impatience to be once again in the company of the Said he knew—and loved ... This critical, generous and heartfelt biography will be a serious ally in the enterprise. The conversations continue.
Readers who ignore Brennan’s peripheral personal comments will nevertheless get the gist of them before they’ve gone 30 pages into this book: Brennan was Said’s friend and former student. This is not a bar to the writing of a biography, of course, but it can present an obstacle to writing an unbiased one. But it’s only an obstacle if you’re trying to overcome it ... Brennan is uniformly excellent in presenting the phenomenon of Edward Said, and in many senses that’s a more fundamental approach than presenting the man. The man, after all, made a nearly life-long career out of being a phenomenon, and a book that didn’t take that square on would be almost as unsatisfying as one that did. Brennan is powerfully eloquent on this fundamental Said paradox ... The brilliance of Brennan’s book is the way it so consistently turns the glare of the spotlight into flattering mood lighting. This is, of course, also its besetting flaw. His Said is the beleaguered humanist in every room of low-browed ideologues and closet (or cloak room) Zionists. When he’s misunderstood, he’s slandered; when he’s thwarted, he’s wronged. In his account, Said is a Caesar (when comes such another?) and it’s always the Ides of March.
... an exceptionally fluent intellectual biography that synthesises the complex influences on his work while outlining the details of [Said's] life ...Brennan’s biography makes clear that despite his at times disparate way of writing, and a tendency to range across literature, politics, music and beyond, Said was far from being the dilettante his opponents liked to claim. His books might be faulted for not knowing about this or that German orientalist, but a lack of completeness was inevitable in such expansive work. From early on he had absorbed philosophy, literary and critical theory, structuralism, poststructuralism, and the work of thinkers such as Heidegger, Vico and Gramsci, alongside the canonical novels he read as a committed teacher at Columbia University.
The subtitle of Timothy Brennan’s new book, Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said, is somewhat misleading. A Life implies an honest attempt at portraiture — a stab at wrestling a blood presence onto the page. In other words, a proper biography. In his preface, Brennan refers instead to his book as an 'intellectual biography,' which is a subtly different animal. In this case, the result is a dry, dispiriting volume, one that frequently reads like a doctoral dissertation. It’s an uninspired parsing of academic texts and agendas. What the large print giveth, the small print hath taketh away ... a sense of missed opportunity lingers over Places of Mind ... in the final two-thirds of the book, the life is skimped; it’s an afterthought, pushed into corners ... Brennan seems to be speaking to others in his fields of expertise, not to an eager and curious general reader.
Said’s proneness to anger does not prevent Brennan from presenting him as a secular saint ... Brennan usefully draws attention to the important role of Arab intellectuals such as Charles Malik, Sadik al-‘Azm, Ghassan Kanafani, Constantine Zurayk, Abdallah Laroui, Anouar Abdel-Malek and others in shaping Said’s thinking, even if that shaping sometimes took the form of his reacting against what they proposed, rather than agreeing with them ... Brennan is reluctant to accept that those who criticized Said might be writing in good faith ... Brennan usefully chronicles Said’s sometimes fraught relations with other Palestinian spokesmen and negotiators. But, though Places of Mind is a valuable guide to Said’s career and style of thought, the hagiography is consistently unreliable when it deals with those whom Said wrote about or who wrote about him. I leave it to other reviewers to praise the book more wholeheartedly.
... traverses some rather dense territory. Brennan presents the scholarly Said as a dazzling processing power operating at warp speed, a mind capable of metabolizing, reorienting and rendering theory with technological precision ... One of the strengths of the book’s exhausting focus on intellectual production and academic theory is to underscore that Said was never a polemicist with easy positions ... What’s missing across Places of Mind however, is the sheer joy of inquiry and volcanic passions Said brought to his own writing. With perfectly delivered witticisms, he infused inanimate concepts with such verve and style that to this day his books, lectures and interview transcripts seem to pulsate out from the page. For Said, thinking was not simply a place of mind, but rendered in body and soul. It was his music.
Brennan effectively uses a range of primary sources to provide insight into what influenced Said’s thinking, and how he handled criticism of his noteworthy work ... While there is a great deal of theory in this sweeping biography, Brennan has succeeded in writing an account that is both an act of love and a solid study of a fascinating man.
Brennan enjoyed broad access to his subject’s contacts and papers, allowing him to examine Said’s formative experiences and key relationships. The result is a warm and perceptive exploration of one of the twentieth century’s most compelling minds, and the passions that shaped it.
... sharply incisive ... Drawing on abundant archival sources, Said’s hefty FBI file, his published and unpublished works, and hundreds of interviews, Brennan, who remained Said’s friend until his death, traces the evolution of a boldly transformative, controversial thinker, considered to be the inventor of post-colonial studies ... Exemplary scholarship informs an absorbing biography.
[A] meticulous account on the intertwined personal, professional, and political lives of professor and public intellectual Edward Said ... Brennan’s work will be invaluable reading for students of Said or the postcolonial critical movement his work sparked.