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from Monday, August6th of the year2007.

This is a long weekend in Iceland, a sort of mid-summer Labor day. Traditionally, everybody goes to summer communities outside of the city and although we didn’t go away for the whole weekend, we managed to scoot out img_0321.jpgfor an evening to Skorradalur, where we ate a required four puffins each and then took a lovely stroll through the valley img_0331.jpg. The promise of the evening was a giant bonfire, but while we waited to see the telltale smoke rising from the edge of the community, Valgeir demonstrated his uncanny ability to skip stones with a really satisfying relationship between the Skip Lengths. In my various attempts to achieve a similar result, Valgeir took a bunch of photos, including this one below:


And when I saw it in the camera’s screen a few minutes later, I was immediately reminded of:


Of all places to be reminded of this bizarre incident! This image is the late Edward Said, throwing a rock across the Lebanon-Israel border in July, 2000. It became an iconic image at the center of a very complicated series of arguments about “symbolic gestures as free speech” as well as a broader “pen is mightier than the sword” conversation. Check out this article from the Columbia Spectator, or, if you have TimesSelect, search for it and see what turns up; it’s a very interesting little explosion. One of the great things about Professor Said was his ability to fight for a humanistic reading. One of the most horrifying apologetic/humanism Nodes in the last while is this nightmarish website “sorry everybody”, which is a bunch of people “apologizing” for having “their country” reëlect Bush. See if you can bear to look at it for longer than three whining people. Just now, as I was writing this, I was screaming at the screen at this one girl. Anyway. I’m not going to link to her ass because to forgive is divine, but stop apologizing! Get angry and get serious. Also learn to spell and stuff.

Anyway, Said’s was not an apologetic humanism at all, and he was so skilled in every imaginable surgical technique for reading that he could efficiently cauterize a wound in a text just as readily as he could, with a flick of the wrist, disable it. Look at his critique of our old pal Judith Miller’s God Has Ninety-Nine Names:

Here’s a typical sentence of insubstantial generalization: “And Syrians, mindful of their country’s chaotic history” (of what country on earth is this not also true?) “found the prospect of a return to anarchy or yet another prolonged, bloody power struggle “” ” (is this uniquely true of Syria as a postcolonial state, or is it true of a hundred others in Asia, Africa, Latin America?) “and perhaps even the triumph of militant Islam in the most secular” (with what thermometer did she get that reading?) “of all Arab states “” alarming.” Leave aside the abominable diction and jaw-shattering jargon of the writing. What you have is not an idea at all but a series of clichés mixed with unverifiable assertions that reflect the “thought” of “Syrians” much less than they do Miller’s. source

Oh, snap, right? He doesn’t let her get a word in edgewise; the text is so offensive to him that his answer is presented at the same time as her exposition; this is critique (albeit a little violent) that requires a musician to perform. You see this kind of back-and-forth in the Bach Passions, similarly divisive texts, I hasten to add. I wrote an essay in Columbia’s journal of literary criticism on a similar topic (Said’s readings as contrapuntal performances), which you can download here, if you’re interested. Said was a professor of mine in his last year of teaching and the class was enchanting, extreme, severe, amazing ““ everything I ever wanted from an educational engagement. I had a pretty intense shudder at the memory of that image, especially coming where and when it did.

Or maybe that shudder was the insane allergy attack I suffered seconds later? I had a really funny moment etopasfjolublar.jpg with our hostess where I was certain that I was having torrential post-nasal drip and she was really enthusiastically pressing this bottle of Tópas up to my mouth. Tópas, it should be said, is a nearly-poisonous but strangely delicious licorice-based Icelandic alcoholic drink. Let’s say that it is Recommended with Reservations.

The bonfire was gorgeous; it never really gets dark but remains crepuscular for six or seven hours now. Something about fire here seems so totemic and portentous ““ immolation-tastic and precious. Maybe it’s because wood is so scarce?

More on whaling etc. soon.


  • Unfortunately, Said’s comments on Miller aren’t particularly logical or incisive. Where, for example, does she state or even imply that only Syria has a chaotic history?

  • that last picture is gorgeous, how odd to be in a place that is perpetually dayish.

  • Lee–I think Said’s suggesting that, if a comment Miller makes about Syria could just as easily apply to any country, it’s padding the sentence. Any freshman comp instructor would have annotated the margins of this limp and useless passage in pretty much the same way.

  • Yes, I see your point, Danny. No wonder I nearly failed freshman comp (but did very well in logic). Perhaps I should have become a mathematician rather than a writer after all …

  • Danny, it seems you didn’t get my tongue-in-cheekiness, did you? It’s Said who’s actually generalising (all countries have a chaotic history).