Edward W. Said, On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain. New York: Pantheon, 2006.
How should we think the analytical purchase of the family of English terms derived from the Latin root fuga? How might we productively pose the anachronistic musical form of contrapuntal theme and variation--the fugue--alongside Hannah Arendt's figure for 'those whom the twentieth century has driven outside the pale of the law' (175)--the refugee--and what Fred Moten has called 'a desire for and a spirit of escape and transgression of the proper and the proposed' ('Uplift' 336)--fugitivity? Edward W. Said's posthumous On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain might seem an odd entry-point for such questions. While Said offers definitive theorizations of contrapuntalism as method, of exile as both an intellectual and deeply historical position--and On Late Style returns to these notions--one would imagine him to be wary of the ahistorical and smoothly totalizing ways in which Arendt's notion of the refugee have been taken up in certain strains of recent political theory. Even as On Late Style dwells on the issue of aesthetics and form, the work in the black radical tradition to locate and theorize the aesthetic forms of what Moten calls an 'appositional enlightenment' ('Freedom' 274) seems beyond the purview of Said's periodic treatment of black radicals like C.L.R. James, Aimé Césaire, and Frantz Fanon.
Nevertheless, Said's brief and fragmentary book, culled from a series of lectures, essays, and seminar notes begun in the early 1990s, offers a surprisingly generative terrain from which the question of 'fuga' emerges in all its contemporary gravity. He had meditated on the problematic of late style for some time; the concept appears in several of his late works, most notably in his December 2001 lecture on Freud and the Non-European. Here Said analyzes Freud's Moses and Monotheism as a 'late' text that refuses claims to 'pure' identity categories even as it confronts the horror of Nazi genocide and the erasure of the 'non-European' from the history of Palestine. But using 'lateness' only as a means of analysis engenders different effects than to make it the object of analysis, as it is in On Late Style. How we should read this late work, and to what end, is far less clear, but this very question potentially makes reading On Late Style more useful. Scholars interested in the articulation of the aesthetic, the political, and the discrepant trajectories of modernity should read this work with ears wide open.
'Fuga' helps us approach On Late Style in precisely the way Said might want: as a counterpoint both to his other late works and to the broader landscape of contemporary imperial culture in which it appears. In the book's foreword, Mariam Said recalls her husband's simultaneous attempts at the end of his life to complete three quite discrete projects. 'Today I will write the acknowledgements and preface to Humanism and Democratic Criticism,' Said informed her with renowned will one Friday morning several weeks before his death, referencing his argument for the ethical importance of secular humanist practice in a post-9/11 United States; 'The introduction to [a collection of journalistic essays entitled] From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map I'll finish by Sunday. And next week I'll concentrate on completing Late Style, which will be finished in December' (vii). Given the contours of Said's immense critical output, we should not be surprised when, in his battle with debilitating leukemia, this final burst of contrapuntal productivity takes the form of a vigorously political counterpoint: to escalating U.S. military designs in the Arab World, to the Bush Administration's not-so-tacit support of intensified apartheid policies in Israel/Palestine, to the popularized racist figure of the dehumanized Arab, and to the full frontal attack on the intellectual class meant to silence the critique of such dire conditions.
Reading On Late Style contrapuntally also suggests a longer, if more obscured, genealogy of Said's engagement with the specific problematic of lateness. As he routinely described his own intellectual trajectory, the U.S. response to the June 1967 War compelled Said to begin 'to think and write contrapuntally,' triggering an intellectual practice traversing the linkages between his work as a literary scholar and as a representative of and for Palestine ('Between Worlds' 562). Said's commitment to reconsider, revise, and even depart from his own interventions laudably refuses smooth simplifications. On Late Style's own fugal dynamic lingers at mezzopiano, staying quietly close to what he would call in another context a 'kind of exfoliating structure of variation' drawn from the musical performances of classical pianist Glenn Gould ('Interview' 3). What might it sound like if we turned up the volume on Said's engagement with Gould and other 'classics'? What hisses, pops, and buzzes might we hear, and how might they direct our thinking aesthetically, methodologically, and politically?
'I come finally to the last great problematic,' Said intones at the book's outset, 'which for obvious personal reasons is my subject here--the last or late period of life, the decay of the body, the onset of ill health or other factors that even in a younger person bring on the possibility of an untimely end' (6). Said's pathos on facing death is augmented by his readings of a cluster of aesthetic works he found most energizing. The self-described cultural conservative, who routinely defends a worldly reading of a pre-constituted Western canon, turns to a much-enjoyed set of high modern literary and musical texts that he 'personally' relates to, conjuring up memories of his own trips to the opera, the symphony, the cinema. On Late Style treats Beethoven's last works, Mozart's late opera Cosi Fan Tutti, Richard Strauss's representation of the eighteenth century, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's novel The Leopard and Luchino Visconti's subsequent film of the same name, Benjamin Britten's operatic staging of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, and various productions of Euripedes's tragic plays. Jean Genet's Les paravents and Un captif amoureux offer Said an opportunity to recall his face-to-face encounters with Genet himself in New York and Beirut. Readings of these works are rarely pursued in a consistently contrapuntal fashion, at least in the way Said theorizes it in Culture and Imperialism, with a worldly and politicized focus on 'interdependent histories' and 'overlapping characters' ('Interview' 3). The material on Genet is a welcome exception, helping Said navigate the distance between Genet's views of the Black Panthers, his interest in Palestine, and the posthumous staging of Genet's own late works in the wake of the first Palestinian intifada. Said's close reading of the work of Greek Alexandrine poet Constantine Cavafy has a similarly familiar contrapuntal logic. More often, though, Said operates at the close formal, technical, and textual levels found in much of his other writings on music, from Musical Elaborations to Parallels and Paradoxes, as his analysis attends to patterns of allusion, cooptation, and revision, giving scant attention to the social worlds in which such patterns emerge.
Each of these works registers 'late style' in often incommensurable ways, recapitulating Said's earlier concerns in a new more strictly formalist guise. If exile, worldliness, oppositional intellectual practice, and the like are recurrent themes in Said's corpus, late style becomes a way to describe their formal variations. Just as the intellectual is, at his or her most ethical, a figure for oppositional critical practice, late style 'involves a nonharmonious, nonserene tension, and above all, a sort of deliberately unproductive productiveness going against' (7). In Said's commitment to imagining the dialectical framework of exile, for instance, lateness emerges as 'a platform for alternative and unregimented modes of subjectivity, at the same time that [the artist-intellectual] . . . has a lifetime of technical effort and preparation' (114).
The staging of late style by one exemplary figure, the 'virtuoso intellectual' Gould, marks the 'full realization of a protracted and sustained contrapuntal invention, disclosed, argued, and elaborated rather than simply presented, through performance' (130). The placement of the final comma in this sentence is crucial: Said's own commentary on Gould and his necessarily public performance provides an evocative--if momentary--heuristic condensing the impulses of many of Said's other works. The journalistic essays that nearly every week documented the perilous position of Palestine under the schema of an ostensibly permanent 'war on terror,' the lectures reclaiming humanistic critique as the imperative terrain of democracy: these and so many of Said's other interventions unfold oppositional arguments, enacted, fleeting, both passing and facing the impasse of the current conjuncture. Gould's recorded performances of Bach's Goldberg Variations--one produced at the outset of Gould's career and one at its end--'[elaborate] an alternative argument to the prevailing conventions that so deaden and dehumanize and rerationalize the human spirit' (133). Indeed, on Gould's intellectual engagement with Bach's untimely contrapuntal works--in the face of the commoditizing impulses of a post-war classical music industry--Said captures some of the most fertile, dramatic, and condensed prose in On Late Style. The buzz we hear when we turn up the silence of that comma, a sound that in a moment will rub against another genealogy of music and performative methodology, makes us realize just how influential Gould was on Said's thinking.
While the material on Genet, Cavafy, and Gould in particular provides some useful departures for listening again to Said's contrapuntalism, more than anything this book stages his prolonged engagement with Theodor Adorno's writings on music, the culture industry, and the modern condition. The first chapter, 'Timeliness and Lateness,' draws on essays about Adorno published in the London Review of Books and Adorno: A Critical Reader, helping Said conceive of late style in Adorno's various writings on 'Spätstil Beethovens.' The late works of Adorno's Beethoven, Said recalls, amount to 'a moment when the artist who is fully in command of his medium nevertheless abandons communication with the established social order of which he is a part and achieves a contradictory, alienated relationship with it' (8). These works, Said continues in an oblique reference to his own early theorization, 'served as a sort of beginning point for all [Adorno's] analyses of subsequent music' (8). For Adorno and for Said, what is so generative in Beethoven's late style is the way its 'remorselessly alienated and obscure' aesthetics '[become] the prototypical modern aesthetic form' (14). This is late style's fugitivity: that as a form it maintains its own elusiveness, that as an intellectual position it is marked by its own fleeting trajectory of escape from the social order. It emerges when Said considers Adorno's critical engagement as a 'self-imposed exile from what is generally acceptable, coming after it, and surviving beyond it' (16). A consistent, willed oppositional stance that long animated Said's own intellectual practice, exile 'work[s] through the silences and fissures' that reveal modernity's deadening conditions of nationalism, domestication, corporatization, and privatization (15). The exilic intellectual's attitude enables her or him 'to avoid packaging and administration and is in fact to accept and perform the lateness of his position' (15), and recapitulates Said's own commitment to anti-dynastic thinking, to proceeding continually and constructively through an unsystemized method marked by what he describes elsewhere as 'restlessness, movement, constantly being unsettled, and unsettling others' (Representations 53).
For all its centrifugal movement outward, weaving variations on a theme, On Late Style nevertheless tends to collapse specific artistic works with the performance of criticism and the critics themselves. An Adornian reading of late style, for instance, metonymically stands in for Adorno himself:
Just as Adorno blends with his work, so too does Said, so much so that at the close of the book Adorno offers the enigmatic last word: 'in the history of art late works are the catastrophes' (160).
This cryptic collapse into catastrophe signals the denouement, the post-climactic turn before the close, but also the catastrophe of what Said calls the 'new and monstrous modern forms' of politics that Adorno's exile both bore witness to and militated against: 'fascism, anti-Semitism, totalitarianism, and bureaucracy' (23). These are precisely the twentieth-century formations that reveal for Hannah Arendt the terrible problem entwining the refugee, the law, and human rights. The preternatural present acutely diagnosed in Said's other late works hisses for a moment, louder here than anywhere else in the book. We might hear in this hiss the residue of Walter Benjamin's oft-quoted eighth thesis on the philosophy of history that, following Foucault and especially Giorgio Agamben, has received much recent critical attention. 'The tradition of the oppressed,' Benjamin writes in flight from Nazi Germany, 'teaches us that the 'state of exception' in which we live is the rule. We must attain to a concept of history that accords with this fact. Then we will clearly see that it is our task to bring about the real state of exception, and this will improve our position in the struggle against fascism' (392).
the concept of lateness . . . comes for Adorno to seem the fundamental aspect of aesthetics and of his own work as critical theorist and philosopher . . . being at the end, fully conscious, full of memory, and also very (even preternaturally) aware of the present. (14)
Taken on Said's terms, we might see late style as an aesthetic that registers the 'interdependent histories' and 'overlapping characters' ('Interview' 3) of modern catastrophe by effectively sounding the linkages between Nazi genocide; the dispossession and displacement of Palestinians in 1948 (routinely called in Arabic Al-Nakhba, 'the catastrophe'); and the continuing conditions of occupation and incarceration that maintain the West Bank and Gaza in a perpetual 'state of exception.' Contemporary readings of Foucault and Agamben reveal precisely such linkages, yet for Said they would likely come up short as accounts of universal human agency and will. Rigorous oppositional intellectual practice in counterpoint to its specific historical juncture, late style as modeled by Adorno and mirrored by Said, enables something more than simply a schematic reinscription of systemic dominance; it offers instead a fleeting attempt to 'improve our position,' knowing full well that capture might be lurking right around the corner.
Criticism of Said's reliance on the figure of the heroic individual artist-intellectual, which in On Late Style seems to include himself, would surely be well-founded. There is something notably out of joint, narrow in a way that harmonizes with Said's high modern archive, where intellectual practice operates at a level of remove liable to abstract late style from the forms of dense and textured sociality Said has long recognized, and that indeed he interrogates in various ways in so many of his late analytical and journalistic writings. Further, for all its focus on the single concept of 'late style,' the collection comes across at times as rambling, unfinished, unpolished--as we should probably expect from a text assembled posthumously. The title of the last chapter, 'Glimpses of Late Style,' might in this way stand for the necessary limitation, if also the speculative quality, of Said's own late style.
This stylistic roughness points the afterlife of Said's work quite beyond its intention and towards a different yet deeply related articulation of 'fuga,' one with a critical and critically important interdependent history that Said always keeps in view, even if he never substantively engages with it. This meaning emerges specifically out of a reading of the black radical tradition offered by Fred Moten, Brent Hayes Edwards, and other scholars working in the field of new jazz studies. It considers the aesthetics produced within the black radical tradition in ways that echo that fleeting moment in History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, where Foucault asserts not only that 'genocide is indeed the dream of modern states' (137)--what Said might see as Foucault's deadly totalizing vision of biopower--but also the much more nuanced and speculative statement: 'it is not that life has been totally integrated into techniques that govern and administer it; it constantly escapes them' (143). This emergent engagement with black radical aesthetics shares with Said a commitment to thinking very carefully about the formal logics of the musical, of the nonrepresentational, of the performative--the buzz we hear in the silence of that comma. But this engagement builds on the likes of Amiri Baraka and Nathaniel Mackey to consider specifically jazz music, jazz poetics, jazz practice as points of departure carefully attuned to the political imperative not merely to re-assert humanism's democratizing impulses (as Said does), or even to reveal humanism's catastrophic contradictions (as Said also does). Rather, this work begins to ask: what political as much as formal and methodological trajectories are revealed in the performative practices of freedom elaborated by the black radical tradition of Parker, Mingus, Miles, and Monk, for instance, in counterpoint to Gould, Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart? What would it sound like to take as an analytical framework not simply the hiss of emergency in the wake of Nazi genocide or the 1967 war, but more broadly the aesthetics of escape that continually confront Euro-American paradigms of sovereignty, that circumscribe and circumvent modernity's logic of white supremacy, that are, as Moten calls them, appositional to enlightenment--'remixed, expanded, distilled, and radically faithful to the forces its encounters carry, break, and constitute' ('Knowledge' 274)?
The deeply formal, literary, and political questions emerging from Said's late scholarly practice, it seems to me, might channel our future intellectual energies, even if such criticism rings of a certain belatedness as it buzzes in the comma describing Gould's politics of performance and hisses in the Benjaminian struggle against fascism. When we read On Late Style in the way I suggest, such questions push us to hear Said's contrapuntalism contrapuntally, through a frame that reveals its historical, its theoretical, its aesthetic analogues and antecedents in ways that might inform and transform it as they grapple with the persistent perils of modernity. When sounding On Late Style through its relation to 'fuga,' it is through and yet despite its anachronism that the text offers us a preternaturally fugitive glimpse at willful beginning in the face of continued catastrophe.
Department of English
University of Washington
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