Edward W. Said (1935-2003).

AuthorRubin, Andrew N.

"To keep his mind alive is to keep Edward alive." Mariam Said, widow of the late Edward W. Said, June 2004

EDWARD W. SAID DIED QUIETLY in his sleep in the early hours of the morning of 25 September 2003. He died of complications from chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a deadly disease that he had struggled with since 1991. Said's death attracted widespread attention from all over the world. The Secretary-General of the United Nations issued a statement on the occasion, as did the crown of the Hashemite monarchy as well as other ministers of culture in Lebanon and elsewhere. That Said was the object of this collective expression of mourning explains the enormous and even universal loss represented by Said's death, as it also says something about the sustained force and widespread influence of his thought and writings.

In the literature seminars I took with him at Columbia University, I recall the sense of urgency, immediacy, and the flawless fluidity with which he would discuss the writings of Joseph Conrad, the music of Beethoven, or the way he would recount his personal impressions of C. L. R. James in the twilight of his life. No one less perspicacious than Edward Said could make such a convincing and eloquent argument for the theoretical connections between postcolonial historiography, classical music, and anti-imperialist politics that speaks not simply to his exceptional gifts as a comparative critic and an intellectual, but also to the development and reinvention of the scope of this new humanism, which late in his life he aimed explicitly to define.

What I came to learn about Edward, as his student, his research assistant, and friend, was that both his life and his work were part of a willful human and humane endeavor. "Everyday seems like the first day of school," he would say. Indeed, his unrelenting commitment to the world and to knowledge can be best understood in the terms of an embattled contradiction between his own particular human exertions--his repeated and physical defiance of his medical prognosis, his challenges to authority and the ideas which help to sustain it--and the processes by which universal principles such as freedom, justice, and truth were placed in the service of their antithesis. His writings and even his presence always seemed to express and even embody a kind of will. It was not simply that Said was extraordinarily talented at exposing the hypocrisies that are an inherent part of the prevailing way in which the world is mostly understood. Through his writing and lectures Said had the ability to make the most complex worldly and historical processes so simple and graspable, without ever reducing their sophistication or producing new orthodoxies that could somehow explain and comprehend everything. What was most inspiring about him is that he made us all feel like intellectuals, rooted in the hard and material world of literature, politics and culture.

His demystifying and explanatory powers were gifted, at times entrancing, and inspiring. His style of writing, argumentation, and even insult (of which he was also a master) was to draw a series of tightly and increasingly critical circles around his object; yet insofar as his strategy was one of elaboration, it persistently denied objectifying itself as a method that could be repeated and rehearsed, like some sort of chorus, over and over again. Yet history and experience were not beyond comparison for Said, and throughout his life he was a great friend of the South African anti-apartheid movement.

Though he saw significant differences between the Palestinian movement for national self-determination and the struggle against apartheid, he viewed the latter as an exemplary one. For Edward, the international moral outrage against the white supremacist government--founded on a policy of demographic separation, emergency decrees, white supremacist death squads, and the daily degradation of South African blacks--held a deep relevance for him. Most of all, the anti-apartheid movement's great achievement was the fact that it made its cause an international one. He viewed the struggle as an enormous human effort that had effectively undermined apartheid's international support by forcing nearly everyone to acknowledge our common humanity.

Yet for Edward, there were distinct differences between the experience of black South Africans and Palestinians. Unlike the white settlers of South Africa, a great many of the Jewish settlers were the survivors and relatives of one the most horrific crimes of the twentieth century. Their sheer presence shrouded the circumstances in Palestine with a complexity that Edward would once ingeniously and ironically summarize by declaring that the Palestinian people were "the victims of the victims."

The power of his message could be measured by the level of outrage of his critics. His Columbia University office was ransacked and he was subject to a seemingly endless litany of lies about his character. He was the subject of numerous efforts defamation. (1) He was branded as the "Professor of Terror," in spite of his repeated and eloquent efforts to argue that there was no moral foundation to the killing of Israeli civilians. Among the cheapest attempts was an essay in Commentary magazine in 1999. (2) Throughout its meticulously constructed narrative, filled with countless omissions and fabrications, Commentary, a small neo-conservative magazine, assailed Said's life as Palestinian by pretending to show that he was not really Palestinian, nor ever lived in Palestine, nor that his family was evicted from Palestine in 1947.

What was even more troubling, however, was that Commentary's essay was not merely a defamatory attack on Edward both as an intellectual and as an exile, but part of the much larger, concerted and consolidating cultural and political project through which Israeli and many American Jews attempted to undermine the existential and ontological category of the Palestinian as a human subject of occupation, dispossession and expulsion. From Golda Meir's statement that there "is no such thing as a Palestinian" to Joan Peter's hoax of a book, From Time Immemorial, Israeli national mythology (and the consensus which binds it together as a totalized military culture and society) has been the prevailing idea that all Palestinians, collectively, represent a terrorist threat and do not really exist as human subjects.

Yet Edward always saw reconciliation in the form of its antithesis or opposite. Humanity was capable of remarkable achievements, among the most significant the fact that despite Israel's ongoing policy of mass arrests, torture, political assassinations, endless curfews, detentions, housing demolitions; despite its contravention of countless U.N. resolutions, as well as the charter of the Geneva Convention, in spite of what amounts to the collective punishment of an entire people and their way of life--Palestinians have, over and over again, proven their ability to survive amid the gloomiest and most terrible of odds.

For Edward post-apartheid South Africa loosely provided a model of coexistence, interdependence, and reconciliation. What was crucial for him was that Israel accept its responsibility for the effects of 1948; that the Israelis' War of Independence was also Palestinians' War of Dispossession. How critically to account for the process that precluded the reconciliation between two seemingly irreconcilable histories, in other words, how to put an end to this parallel and paradox, was, in my opinion, the overriding theme throughout Edward's work of twenty-three books.

Works like Orientalism, The Question of Palestine, and Covering Islam focused on the politics of cultural representation. They provided a critical account of not only how the West portrays and supposedly attempts to understand the Other, but also in so doing, controls, manipulates and even produces the Other, which is, as a result, diminished, dangerous, and denigrated. Thus, in conventional discourse, are Palestinians terrorists and only terrorists, thus are Arabs, in the modern American mainstream's imagination, merely the objects of discourse and can scarcely, as human subjects, speak for themselves.

Indeed, no other book of Said's enjoyed the attention of Orientalism. (3) Since its publication in the United States in 1978, it has been translated into over twenty-four languages. It has been the subject of numerous conferences and the occasion of impassioned debates. Perhaps more than any work of late twentieth century cultural criticism, it has transformed the study of literature and culture. Yet for all of its success, Orientalism initially had difficulty finding a major publisher. Some publishing houses did not consider the book ground-breaking; still others were unwilling to back a book whose politics were at odds with the mainstream's view of Palestinians, Arabs, and Israel. Of the few publishers that expressed an early interest in it, the University of California Press offered Said a paltry $200 advance for the book. Eventually, however, Pantheon, renowned for publishing the works of intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, sent Orientalism to press in late 1977.

Orientalism's impact surprised both its publishers and even Said himself. For the topic of Orientalism--Europe's representations of the East--was not entirely new; other scholars had addressed the subject before. In 1953, for example, Raymond Schwab wrote Le Renaissance orientale (a fastidiously detailed study of Europe's nineteenth century experience of the Orient); a decade later, Anwar Abdel Malek wrote an influential article "Orientalism in Crisis" (a Marxist interpretation of Europe's representation of the "East"). In 1969, V.G. Kiernan wrote The Lords of the Human Kind (a history of European colonization). (4)

But Orientalism differed markedly from its predecessors. It brought together the philosophies of Michel Foucault...

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