Beginnings is a truly remarkable work of criticism which, for some reason, has had far less than its due share of attention since appearing in 1975. Reviewers were probably bewildered, not only by the range and complexity of Said’s thinking, but also by the curiously reflexive or inward turn of argument which his text frequently takes. On one level, the book is a synoptic account of modern French structuralism, with extensive reference to Barthes, Foucault, Derrida and other leading lights on the Parisian intellectual scene. At the same time, it is angled from an off-centre nexus of preoccupying themes and problems which make it – properly understood – something other (and more) than a handbook of structuralist idees reçues. That ‘beginnings’, as a topic of thought, are profoundly difficult to grasp; that thought is both engendered and perpetually baffled when it broaches the subject of its own beginning; that texts, and modern texts especially, are caught up in the same problematics of relationship and origin – these are just a few of the questions raised by Said’s elusive commentary.
Yet beginnings are precisely not origins, at least in the sacred (or ‘dynastic’) sense of that word which Said associates with the authority of revealed religion. In a brilliant chapter on Vico’s New Science, Said takes up the Viconian distinction between ‘divine’ history – where everything is ordered by God’s