International Socialist Review Issue 32, NovemberDecember 2003
Three tributes to Edward Said
A mighty and passionate heart
By Alexander Cockburn
Alexander Cockburn is editor, along with Jeffrey St. Clair, of the bi-weekly muckraking newsletter CounterPunch (www.counterpunch.org). He also writes a bi-weekly column in the Nation, "Beat the Devil." This article was written on September 25, 2003, the day after Edward Said died. © Alexander Cockburn, reprinted with permission.
A MIGHTY and a passionate heart has ceased to beat.
Edward Said died in hospital in New York City Wednesday night at 6:30 p.m., felled at last by complications arising from the leukemia he fought so gamely ever since the early 1990s.
We march through life buoyed by those comrades-in-arms we know to be marching with us, under the same banners, flying the same colors, sustained by the same hopes and convictions. They can be a thousand miles away; we may not have spoken to them in months; but their companionship is burned into our souls and we are sustained by the knowledge that they are with us in the world.
Few more than Edward Said, for me and so many others beside. How many times, after a week, a month or more, I have reached him on the phone and within a second been lofted in my spirits, as we pressed through our updates: his trips, his triumphs, the insults sustained; the enemies rebuked and put to flight. Even in his pettiness he was magnificent, and as I would laugh at his fury at some squalid gibe hurled at him by an eighth-rate scrivener, he would clamber from the pedestal of martyrdom and laugh at himself.
He never lost his fire, even as the leukemia pressed, was routed, pressed again. He lived at a rate that would have felled a man half his age and ten times as healthy: a plane to London, an honorary degree, on to Lebanon, on to the West Bank, on to Cairo, to Madrid, back to New York. And all the while he was pouring out the Said prose that I most enjoyed, the fiery diatribes he distributed to CounterPunch and to a vast world audience. At the top of his form his prose has the pitiless, relentless clarity of Swift.
The Palestinians will never know a greater polemical champion. A few weeks ago I was, with his genial permission, putting together from three of his essays the concluding piece in our forthcoming CounterPunch collection, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. I was seized, as so often before, by the power of the prose: how could anyone read those searing sentences and not boil with rage, while simultaneously admiring Edwards generosity of soul: that with the imperative of justice and nationhood for his people came the humanity that called for reconciliation between Palestinians and Israeli Jews.
His literary energy was prodigious. Memoir, criticism, homily, fiction poured from his pen, a fountain pen that reminded one that Edward was very much an intellectual in the 19th century tradition of a Zola or of a Victor Hugo, who once remarked that genius is a promontory in the infinite. I read that line as a schoolboy, wrote it in my notebook and though I laugh now a little at the pretension of the line, I do think of Edward as a promontory, a physical bulk on the intellectual and political landscape that forced people, however disinclined they may have been, to confront the Palestinian experience.
Years ago his wife Mariam asked me if I would make available my apartment in New York, where I lived at that time, as the site for a surprise 40th birthday for Edward. I dislike surprise parties but of course agreed. The evening arrived; guests assembled in my sitting room on the eleventh floor of 333 Central Park West. The dining room table groaned under Middle Eastern delicacies. Then came the word from the front door. Edward and Mariam had arrived! They were ascending in the elevator. Then we could all hear Edwards furious bellow: "But I dont want to go to dinner with *******, Alex!" They entered at last and the shout went up from seventy throats, Happy Birthday! He reeled back in surprise and then recovered, and then saw about the room all those friends happy to have traveled thousands of miles to shake his hand. I could see him slowly expand with joy at each new unexpected face and salutation.
He never became blasé in the face of friendship and admiration, or indeed honorary degrees, just as he never grew a thick skin. Each insult was as fresh and as wounding as the first he ever received. A quarter of century ago he would call, with mock heroic English intonation, "Alex-and-er, have you seen the latest New Republic? Have you read this filthy, this utterly disgusting diatribe? You havent? Oh, I know, you dont care about the feelings of a mere black man such as myself." Id start laughing, and say I had better things to do than read Martin Peretz, or Edward Alexander or whoever the assailant was, but for half an hour he would brood, rehearse fiery rebuttals and listen moodily as I told him to pay no attention.
He never lost the capacity to be wounded by the treachery and opportunism of supposed friends. A few weeks ago he called to ask whether I had read a particularly stupid attack on him by his very old friend Christopher Hitchens in the Atlantic Monthly. He described with pained sarcasm a phone call in which Hitchens had presumably tried to square his own conscience by advertising to Edward the impending assault. I asked Edward why he was surprised, and indeed why he cared. But he was surprised and he did care. His skin was so, so thin, I think because he knew that as long as he lived, as long as he marched onward as a proud, unapologetic and vociferous Palestinian, there would be some enemy on the next housetop down the street eager to pour sewage on his head.
Edward, dear friend, I wave adieu to you across the abyss. I dont even have to close my eyes to savor your presence, your caustic or merry laughter, your elegance, your spirit as vivid as that of dArtagnan, the fiery Gascon. You will burn like the brightest of flames in my memory, as you will in the memories of all who knew and admired and loved you.
An enduring commitment to resistance
By Helen Scott
Helen Scott is a professor of post-colonial literature at the University of Vermont.
EDWARD SAIDS memoir, Out of Place, speaks with moving eloquence to the homelessness of the Palestinian exile, watching the destruction of his country from afar. Yet it is hard to think of any individual more at home with the worlds dispossessed or so at ease with the cultures of all the worlds peoples.
The two realities are of course deeply related. As he constantly acknowledged, Saids personal history shaped his cultural analyses as much as it did his political beliefs. He says of his childhood: "I was educated entirely in British colonial schools in Palestine and Egypt, where all study focused on the history of British society, literature and values...it is important to understand the tremendous spiritual wound felt by many of us because of the sustained presence in our midst of domineering foreigners who taught us to respect distant norms and values more than our own. Our culture was felt to be of a lower grade, perhaps even congenitally inferior and something of which to be ashamed."1
These deeply felt wounds led to Saids brilliant critique of eurocentrismthe idea that Europes is the only valid (or indeed the only) cultureOrientalism, which since its publication in 1978 has been translated into, and continues to sell in, almost 20 languages.
Orientalism examines an immense body of European literature and traces the persistence of racist assumptions about European superiority and stereotypes of the "Oriental"primarily Arabs, but also other colonized populationsas inferior. His account of the continuing "web of racism, cultural stereotypes, political imperialism, dehumanizing ideology"2 that dominates contemporary U.S. accounts of Arabs and Muslims is even more important today.
Saids impact on English literature departments in Britain and the U.S. has been monumental, contributing to the development of postcolonial studies and generating an extensive body of critical work in its wake.
While some of these discuss orientalism in purely cultural termsas a set of ideas or attitudes separable from particular historical and social forcesSaid was always clear that "orientalism is associated with imperialism...it is a style of knowledge that goes hand in hand with, or is manufactured or produced out of, the actual control or domination of real geographical territory and people."3
Said saw literature and art first and foremost as products of history. He spoke of his debt to the English Marxists E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams who replaced bourgeois historythat of the rulers and the victorswith history from below, and restored "to individual works of literature and art the lived experiences of losers in the social contest."4
He cut through the concept that art is or should be "above" politics and illustrated the Marxist idea that the ruling ideas of any society are those of the ruling class, whether reflected in French novels of the 19th century or contemporary American universities.
But, importantly, Said saw culture not simply as a vehicle for ruling class ideology, but as a political battleground. His Culture and Imperialism turns to decolonization and the tremendous blossoming of culture that accompanied it, as Arabs, Asians and Africans threw off their colonial shackles.
This work reflects his enduring interest in, and commitment to, resistance, which is anchored in his personal history, particularly his deep affiliation with the Palestinian movement after 1967, and his involvement in the movement against the Vietnam War. Vietnam discredited the myth of academic neutrality: "No longer was it taken for granted that political scientists or sociologists were sage-like theoreticians or impartial researchers; many of them were discovered to be working, sometimes secretly and sometimes openly, on such topics as counterinsurgency and lethal research for the State Department, the CIA or the Pentagon."5
More broadly, Said saw himself as part of the vast dislocation of people in the wake of colonialism and war, and he allied himself with Third World communities in New York City from the time he moved there as a professor at Columbia University in 1963.
While recognizing and challenging ruling-class ideas as they emerge in literature, he never wrote off anything, and he also saw in culture a space where dominant ideas could be challenged and exposed, and alternatives opened up.
Saids particular genius was his ability to situate art and culture historically while also reading it on its own terms, what he referred to as "reading the work and its worldly situation." He saw each novel, short story or poem as an individual work, a product of a distinctive individual with particular influences and experiences, and his sensitive readings attended to their precise aesthetic and emotional impact.
His deep appreciation of culture spanned a dizzying array of artistic fields: Not only was he equally at home with the greats of European and American literatureWilliam Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Herman Melvilleand global postcolonial literature in English, French and ArabicC.L.R. James, Aimé Césaire, Naguib Mahfouzbut he was also an accomplished critic of music, producing fascinating analyses, for example, of operatic performances and pianists interpretations of Bach and Mozart.
Said refused to accept what Georg Lukács called the "antinomies of bourgeois thought:" the compartmentalization and classification of knowledge into discrete, separate boxes. He decried the absurd disciplinary divisions of academia, and advocated a very different model: "Instead of noninterference and specialization, there must be interference, a crossing of borders and obstacles, a determined attempt to generalize exactly at those points where generalizations seem impossible to make."6
His voice cut through the petty squabbles of academic departments with refreshingly scathing clarity: "The study of literature has gone in two opposed and in my opinion ridiculously tendentious directions: one, into a professionalized and technologized jargon that bristles with strategies, techniques, privileges and valorizations...lacking in engagement with the world, or two, into a lackluster, ostrich-like, and unreflective pseudo-healthiness that calls itself traditional scholarship."7
Said challenged establishment figures, referring to Alan Blooms Closing of the American Mind as "a long diatribe against an assorted set of villains, including Nietzsche, feminism, Marxism and Black Studies...(which) argued quite frankly for the universitys freedom to educate not large numbers of the deprived and disadvantaged but a small, carefully prepared and instructed elite."8 And he exposed the hypocrisy of the opponents of "political correctness" who rail against politicized scholarship but "have no difficulty accepting money from corporations and foundations outside the university who happen to espouse their own deeply conservative views."9
He was committed to reaching a much broader audience than fellow academics, which led him to place more value on communication than vanity and write with accessible clarity rather than dense jargon.
Above all else, Said was a true advocate of global culture. He rejected the idea of warring, pristine cultures "belonging" to particular nations, regions or groups, and championed the idea captured in a phrase coined by Aimé Césaire that he often quoted: "No race possesses the monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of force, and there is room for everyone at the convocation of conquest."
He rejected the idea of culture as "a tiny defensively constituted corner of the world" and instead embraced "the large, many-windowed house of culture as a whole"10 Said had a tremendous ability to find pleasure in culture, and to share that pleasure with others.
In his lifetime, and even on his death, many establishment figures have tried to silence Said. But these attacks are drowned out by the outpouring of testimonials from those who are on the side not of the oppressors but the oppressed.
The death of this great cultural critic is an immense loss to the world, but he will never be silenced, because he leaves behind a vast body of writing that is his gift to humanity.
At the end of an essay that reflects, aptly, on the association in music and literature between life and sound, and death and silence, Said paints a picture of the critical intellectual,
whose vocation it is to speak the truth to power, to reject the official discourse of orthodoxy and authority, and to exist through irony and skepticism, mixed in with the languages of the media, government and dissent, trying to articulate the silent testimony of lived suffering and stifled experience. There is no sound, no articulation that is adequate to what injustice and power inflict on the poor, the disadvantaged and the disinherited. But there are approximations to it.11
In the work that succeeded in this goal, and in the countless people across the globe inspired by him to continue the struggle, Edward Said lives on.
1 Edward Said, "Identity, Authority and Freedom," Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2000), pp. 3912.
2 Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1978) p. 27.