The Endless Reading of Interpretation? Said, Auerbach, and the Exilic Will to Criticism

Guilan Siassi


In this paper I consider how Edward Said elaborates his concept of exile—as both a physical displacement and as a hermeneutical situation or mode of critical activity—in a transhistorical dialogue with Erich Auerbach. In his efforts to delineate the interrelation between cultural discourses and historical ‘regimes of knowledge,’ Said shows intellectual exile (which gives rise to secular criticism) to be the preliminary step in a concrete act of cultural recuperation: namely the re-appropriation and mobilization of texts, through an exilic will to interpretation and synthesis. Through a close examination of Auerbach’s ‘Philology and Weltliteratur’ and Said’s ‘Secular Criticism’ I compare the writers’ consciousness of their worldly socio-political situations, their humanistic goals, and their readings of cultural history—which they evaluate in the form of literary representations and interpretations of reality. Said locates agency in the exile’s liminal situation, his ‘unhomely’ un-belonging, which affords him a unique perspective and a certain mobility of critical thought. He believes that Auerbach, in his cultural alienation as a Jew exiled to Istanbul during World War II, adopted such a threshold position and could thus exercise precisely this exilic will to criticism as he wrote his magisterial Mimesis. Through a ‘worldly self-situating’ between inside and outside and a refusal of all binding filiations or affiliations that would limit his ability to move freely between the two spaces, the secular critic following the model of Auerbach, can mediate contrapuntally between dominant and minority culture, challenge authority, and indeed, redistribute cultural capital to produce ‘non-coercive knowledge in the interests of human freedom.’ Exilic readings thus become a tool and weapon of resistance, which simultaneously enable a critical recovery of one’s lost world and a reconstitution of the cultural mythos of ‘home,’ to impart historical, or at least aesthetic, coherence to the traumatic experience of loss.


Said; Auerbach; exile; loss; secular criticism; interpretation

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