Scholar and Writer Marina Warner Delivers the 2022 Edward W. Said Memorial Lecture

Her topic is the power of stories, especially those about the stranger, the diasporic wanderer.

Emily Johnson
November 02, 2022

On October 6, 2022, historian and writer Marina Warner delivered the Edward W. Said Memorial Lecture at the Lenfest Center for the Arts. The annual event honors the memory of Said, a University Professor of English and Comparative Literature, who taught at Columbia from 1963 to 2003. The event was co-presented by the School of the Arts, the Italian Academy, and the Society of Fellows/Heyman Center for the Humanities.

In her talk, titled Strangers in a Strange Land: Displacement, Sanctuary, and the Traveling Tale, Warner guided her audience on a journey that traced the enduring appeal of the story of the stranger, in relation to Said’s concept of the power of the diasporic wanderer.

How Stories Map Our Relationships to Power

As a scholar, Warner is known for her interest in stories and their telling. She has studied Joan of Arc, the worship of the Virgin Mary, the stories of Scheherazade and the 1001 Nights, and the fairy tale. Warner explores how stories map our relationships to power, our desires for guidance, and our tolerance for strangeness.

Warner is soft-spoken, even through a microphone, with a gentle, Oxonian accent. From her place on the podium, she proposed to draw for the audience the mythopoetics and significance of the Flight into Egypt, a narrative with lasting influence across centuries and borders.

In the final chapter of Said’s book Culture and Imperialism, Warner noted, he draws attention to what for him was “an emblematic figure of resistance—the diasporic wanderer, the refugee, the stranger.” Said argued that because of their otherness, displaced and migrant people represent a real, alternative possibility to the authority of the state. “What are the possible forms of expression for this ‘real alternative?’” Warner asked. “In this talk tonight, I’m going to propose that narratives present the prime medium, especially when inscribed onto the places where those who are out of place, or powerless, find themselves.”

At Home in Many Worlds

Throughout the evening, Warner wove in illuminating references to Said, both to the enduring power and relevance of his critical ideas, and to his life. Those who knew Edward, said Warner, felt that he was “at home in many worlds.” She recalled him as stylish, masterly, and elegant—a rigorous conversationalist, a beautiful piano player. Yet, she reminded us, he often felt himself out of place. As a Palestinian in Egypt, and then America, he strongly identified with the marginalized—the diasporic stranger in a strange land.

“‘Criticism,'” Warner read from Said’s The World, the Text, and the Critic, “'must think of itself as life-enhancing, and constitutively opposed to every form of tyranny, domination, and abuse.’” “I’ve always felt,” Warner said, “that artifacts created by the power of the imagination can reach more deeply and broadly than the finest scholarly criticism, and that the main arena of struggle is fantasy, magical narratives, forms of storytelling that flourish in popular milieu, among less valued elements of society.”

Such forms of storytelling, she continued, are “disdained by ruling orders, but enjoy the supreme distinction of being intrinsically informal and unofficial, extending opportunities beyond the control of hegemonic arbiters.”

The Flight into Egypt

As her prime example of the disruptive, decentralizing power of stories, Warner recounted the Flight into Egypt, which appears in the Christian Bible as well as the Quran, in many early versions—Greek, Latin, Syriac, Arabic, and Ethiopic. In most versions, the holy family—Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus—must seek refuge in Egypt to evade the wrath of Herod. “I’m tracing the story’s imprint on geography throughout the Nile valley and Egypt, displaying how a fantasy narrative can be realized,” Warner said. “Graven in rock and stone, announcing, it happened here, to people like you and me.” The story has been mapped onto the physical world, in the form of monasteries and sanctuaries all along the purported route of the flight.

Warner presented slides showing examples of the flight featured in art across centuries and cultures, beginning with several of Rembrandt’s paintings and sketches. Accounts of the flight, she pointed out, always identify with the holy family, “in their exposure and need, echoing the state of all forced exiles.” 

The tale is filled with magic. Warner described some of the miracles ascribed to the infant Jesus, many of which have echoes of folklore and fairytale: Jesus commands a tree to bend down to yield fruit to Mary, causes a cornfield to grow to conceal his family from soldiers, and gives life to clay birds. “In all the infancy apocrypha, the child has powers,” Warner said. “Dragons, lions, and other wild beasts bow down and adore him. He heals the sick and raises the dead. He slides down rainbows. When his schoolmates don’t show proper respect, he kills them, and then raises them from the dead.”

The Concept of Refuge

Warner explained that the concept of refuge in Egypt is present not only in the Christian tradition, but in Islamic and Arabic traditions as well, from the flight of Moses into Egypt, to the figure of Mary in the Quran. The Virgin occupies a place of great importance in the Quran. She is the only woman named in the Quran—as Maryyam, who gives birth to Issa, as the infant is known—and is a saint and prophet. 

Warner then discussed many fantastical episodes unique to the Arabic gospels, such as the infant Issa curing leprosy, and alluded to more stories in the Syriac versions. She noted similarities between the Quran and the apocryphal gospels, which were composed around the same time, in the same region. “The echoes between the texts are numerous, and resonate, but with marked differences,” she said. “It is obvious that from the third century to the seventh and eighth, a profusion of wonders and stories poured forth throughout the whole region, from Syria to Egypt, and that the Quran and the miraculous events told after the revelation of the prophet grew in this same territory; that an exchange of ideas, motifs, and images enriched the legacy of the two religions.”

Warner is deeply interested in the shared roots of these stories, and how they manifest in the physical world: “The marvelous does not remain only in tales, but is inscribed on the territory, conferring precise coordinates on the events, thus embodying material landmarks.” She reminisced about traveling to Egypt eight years ago, and showed photographs of a site called Matariyya, the location of a tree that purportedly sheltered the holy family. In years past, the site served as a place where many faiths converged. “Can a sacred event be imprinted onto territory without sectarian consequence, in ways that bring people together?” she asked. 

As tales of fantasy, accounts of the Flight into Egypt and the infancy tales have no historical accuracy, Warner added, yet this is precisely the source of their strength: “They do not demarcate strong borders. I think they offer an antidote to the edicts handed down by authorities, secular as well as religious, to define true culture.” 

Warner concluded by noting that fantasy narratives with such deep roots, tales about people “out of place,” shared in their many forms, have a heterodoxical and radical power that Said would have relished. 

Emily Johnson is a student in the MFA Fiction Program at the School of the Arts, and will graduate in 2023.