An academic row turns personal

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The Independent Online
IN HIS latest book, Culture and Imperialism, the Palestinian- American scholar Edward Said raged against a 'code of politesse and ritual calmness' in Western academic circles which concealed a habitual arrogance towards the former colonial peoples.

When the book reached Ernest Gellner, an internationally renowned philosopher and former Cambridge professor, whatever calmness and politesse he may have possessed suddenly deserted him. In a lengthy review in the Times Literary Supplement in February, he savaged it, provoking a vitriolic public dispute which was still raging last week.

Professor Gellner has declared Professor Said a 'citizen of Woody Allen-land', guilty of 'unsustained, facile inverse colonialism', whose best-known work was 'entertaining but intellectually insignificant'. In return, Professor Said has denounced his accuser for 'incompetence', perpetuating 'ideological concoctions', producing 'reams of unsupported, unconcrete generalisations', and for indulging in the 'piffling trivia of the Common Room'.

All this was in print; a telephone call to each last week unleashed fresh torrents of abuse. From Cambridge, Professor Gellner accused his adversary of exploiting Western guilt about imperialism. 'He is coasting on the predicament of his Palestinian compatriots - which incidentally he does not share: he is a dandy and a Manhattan bon viveur.'

From New York came the answer: 'He didn't even read my book, but I have been reading his. They are woolly abstractions of the worst sort.'

These two men have never met, but professionally and personally they are undoubtedly opposites. Professor Said is a brash, radical chic Palestinian Christian of 57, whose approach to literature has had a powerful influence in recent years in several academic fields. Professor Gellner, 67, came from a Czech Jewish family and established his reputation as a brilliant polymath in the Sixties. 'Intellectually, these are two of the most exciting people around,' said a scholar who knows both.

What provoked the explosion? Culture and Imperialism is a critique of Western attitudes to the colonial and post-colonial worlds, drawing on literary sources on both sides. It extends the argument of Professor Said's most influential book, Orientalism, that in forming its views of the Third World the West must listen more to the voices of people who live there. If it did, he says, it might be less inclined to see the Muslim world as a monolithic adversary.

Professor Gellner's verdict was that the West must indeed listen to Third World voices, but it must not go too far. Colonialism, he argued, was but one aspect of a larger force in history, the rise of industry and technology - the colonisers were the ones who mastered this force first and the colonised the unlucky ones who must catch up. The by-products of colonialism, such as the literature of its perpetrators and victims, can only be properly understood in this wider context.

If Professor Gellner had stopped there, the debate might have sunk quietly. But he went much further. He bemoaned 'the prevalent mood of expiation for empire' which caused some Western academics to greet uncritically any arguments emanating from the Third World (by implication arguments such as Professor Said's). And he patronised Professor Said extravagantly. One of his principal conclusions, the review said, was an 'anodyne expression of shared pieties'. Elsewhere it observed: 'Said writes well, though not always lucidly,' and 'His heart is in the right place.'

Professor Said's furious reply focused the argument on the Islamic world. He accused his critic of a complete ignorance of the languages and writings of Muslims, and denounced his 'obsessive revulsion for Islam'. Had he not written, in an American journal in the Eighties, that 'Muslims are a nuisance'? Professor Gellner, he suggested, had unmasked himself as the archetype of the 'colonial' anthropologist that Culture and Imperialism set out to denounce.

Professor Gellner's friends rallied to his side, denying that he was anti-Muslim, and he wrote to the TLS pointing out that his statement that 'Muslims are a nuisance' had been ironic.

Last week, as the exchanges continued, the debate was drifting into matters of detail, but the personal abuse continued in the TLS, with such words and phrases as 'turgid', 'appallingly clumsy' and 'pure drivel'.

Both men stress that theirs is not a Jewish-Palestinian dispute. It is, in fact, a conflict between different academic schools. In a bitter jibe in the final sentence of his review, Professor Gellner declared: 'The problem of power and culture . . . is too important to be left to lit crit.'

This is an assault on the New Yorker's use of literature in the study of nations and cultures. Professor Gellner, primarily a philosophical and theoretical writer, prefers to base his anthropological views on traditional fieldwork by researchers who, as one of them put it, 'go out into the villages to live for a month or a year'. There can be no common ground here, for to Professor Said that sort of inquiry is a colonial act in itself.

(Photograph omitted)