Edward Said (1935-2003): The exile-outsider who bridged East and West

A public intellectual who lived and thought in the contradictions of his time, Said challenged us to see the world in new ways.

Published : Oct 24, 2003 00:00 IST

Prominent US-Palestinian intellectual Edward Said addressing students and staff of the American University in Cairo 17 March, 2003.

Prominent US-Palestinian intellectual Edward Said addressing students and staff of the American University in Cairo 17 March, 2003.

We all knew Edward Said had been dying for more than ten years, from the time he was diagnosed with chronic leukemia. Some of us also knew that Edward had somehow transformed the banal business of dying into something “other”, “something rich and strange”: the passionate and rigorous ethic or aesthetic if you will, of living, of living in the present with grace, integrity, and as much plenitude as human kind can bear. We even thought he had found a way to postpone mortality indefinitely through sheer commitment and exemplary worldliness. But, even the Saids have to depart, but only after having discovered the difference between the clich that death is inevitable and the profundity that life is precious.

The following scenario had become quite routine during his final years. Someone would ask, “And how is Said these days?’‘ And someone else would respond, “Oh! Edward, he is doing just great. His last lecture at Columbia was quite amazing.” “But I thought he had been in hospital the last few days.” Or, here is a variation. “Oh, my God! I heard Edward had fainted away while attending a concert.” “True, but that was a while ago. Since then, he has been to London delivering lectures and, by the way, haven’t you read his last essay or his latest collection of essays?” We wondered if there were two Saids: one dying and the other just living on irresponsibly in deep disconnect with the other. But now it is all over except the music, as many of my friends who attended the funeral tell me. It was moving and graceful, they say, and it was all music: true, but always a variation. Edward would not have had it any other way.

It was my pleasure and honour to have experienced Edward Said as teacher and mentor, colleague and friend. It was the summer of 1982, and I was close to completing my doctoral work at the State University of New York (SUNY), Binghamton, when we first met at the School of Criticism and Theory at Northwestern University. I was his student that summer. You may all remember the war-torn Beirut of that summer, and Said had friends and relatives living in highly vulnerable areas. He would be flying around, visiting, organising, and giving lectures: but he would always be there at the School in time, giving it his all. Sure he would look worried, angry and frustrated, hassled, disillusioned and tired. But all of this would be transformed to pure intellectual edge when he came to teach his seminar. Words and the world would always meet, provocatively, creatively, often precariously. I remember his telling us that summer, and this was four years after the publication of Orientalism: “Can you believe it, can you believe it? The sheer gall or is it stupidity? The CIA wants to talk to me so that I can tell them about the Arab mentality.” To be misunderstood; that had somehow become his metier; mis-recognition from several perspectives, by different groups.

That was also the summer when Said presented in public, for the first time, his classic lecture, “Secular Criticism”, now a famous and much-debated chapter in his book, The World, the Text, and the Critic. If his brilliant and theoretically complex work Beginnings: Intention and Method had identified him as the gifted torch-bearer of post-structuralism and a creative follower of Michel Foucault, Orientalism had landed him in deep trouble. For in that book, he had “travelled” with Foucault to places perhaps not imagined. Foucault and he had dared to usher in politics into the study of culture and literature. What is more, he had acknowledged the East-West divide as pathology, with himself being one of its brilliant symptoms.

Would Said turn traitor to post-structuralism by implicating it in realpolitik, and conversely, would he infuriate the practitioners of the aforesaid realpolitik with his oppositional consciousness that alas was so “occidental” in its constitution and formation? So, his next book was awaited with a lot of enthusiasm and anxiety. Which way would he go and why? His talk that afternoon on secular, oppositional criticism would spell it all out. And Said was nervous. In the audience was none other than Paul de Man, Said’s distinguished colleague from Yale and a fellow professor at the School that summer. And, of course, de Man was then called the don of deconstruction, the high priest of post-structuralism. Said’s talk was clear and brilliant. There was no doubt that in his attempt to become more worldly and to bridge the gap between academic intellectuality and the world out there, he was leaving post-structuralism behind. He would be guilty of what a number of his aching post-structuralist allies would call recidivism: of relapsing back into old style humanism, and especially, after all that promising interrogation of humanism by way of Foucault and Jacques Derrida. In this regard, Edward Said reminds me of Jayakanthan, the (Tamil) writer-intellectual who would change and transform his positions and stances creatively and self-reflexively. But there was no way Jayakanthan could avoid the visceral hues and cries from his followers and readers who would feel abandoned by him, his maverick mobility.

Back to the story. Even as Said was completing his talk, in jumped the normally placid and imperturbable de Man critiquing “Edward” for his ill-thought relapse into Eric Auerbach, Matthew Arnold and his consequent abandonment of high theory. This was exciting to see de Man, Mr. Discourse himself, getting agitated and provoked into polemic. But before Said could respond and a bunch of us young hotheads could jump into the fray, in stepped the Director of the School: pacifying, neutralising and depoliticising the occasion, in short, much to our chagrin, taking up time and doing everything he could to take the sting away from the moment. And he succeeded.

So, why do I find myself owing so much to Edwards’s work, his example? Short answer: like Jean-Paul Sartre, like Chinua Achebe, Said was, in the final analysis, a public intellectual. He took risks; he put himself out there in the form of words that intended, in the form of manifestos, stances, critical opinions that would make him vulnerable to a whole range of responses: praise, endorsement, hagiography, rigorous critique and death threats. Like Sartre, he believed in commitment and engagement even as he enjoyed and luxuriated in the pleasure of high Western culture. Some of us would tease him, “Why don’t you write about popular culture, about the Beatles, rap, Dylan, the way you write about Beethoven, Wagner, and Bach?” That would never have happened, even if Edward had lived a hundred and beyond.

Like Achebe, who was unsparing in his criticisms of Nigerian nepotism, despotism, corruption and graft, Said too was no tame “insider”. His later day excoriations of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat were as deeply felt and thought out as his indictments of the state of Israel and its policy towards Palestinians. But unlike Achebe who would never condone Joseph Conrad’s “racism” in the name of aesthetic complexity or narrative ambivalence, Said believed in the reality of “contrapuntal” readings. In other words, he honoured and appreciated Conrad’s destabilisation of colonial sovereignty from within even as he pointed out Conrad’s complicity with colonialism. He was more double conscious, more ambivalent than Achebe. But could we not say that Achebe himself, having chosen to signify the English language the postcolonial way, was more double conscious and ambivalent than his friend and fellow writer Ngugi wa Thiong’O who abandoned English in favour of Gikuyu at a certain stage in his career.

What I find most endearing is that Said was not a totalising thinker who sought to rule out contradiction or synchronise the parts with the whole through some immaculate master plan. He lived during times of extreme contradiction and he was not afraid to present himself as a symptom of these contradictory times even as he sought to transcend contradiction by way of what he called, “secular, oppositional criticism”. Perhaps he romanticised “oppositionality”, as he sought to coordinate a space “between Culture and System”, as he attempted to find that space between absolute solidarity and absolute critique. No wonder he was always “out of place”, never at home except as exile-outsider. But he is no V.S. Naipaul, for his politics is much more situated though his exile has all the comforts of cosmopolitanism. His “metropolitan ambivalence”, in Aijaz Ahmad’s phrase, was in itself deeply historical. Some are born ambivalent, and others have ambivalence thrust upon them, but the important thing, as Said demonstrated over and over again, was how one produces that ambivalence as an act of conviction, rather than use it as a fatuous fait accompli. The same individual, within herself, can occupy multiple subject positions: dominant, hegemonic, Dalit, marginal.

SO, what are some of the constitutive contradictions that underwrite Said, the person and thinker? Well, here is a short list. How can Said the resolute anti-nationalist intellectual also be a champion of Palestinian nationalism? How can Said the demystifier of “orientalism” at the same time maintain staunchly that there is no “insider’s” or authentic truth about the “orient”? How can Said reconcile his chronic love of high Western culture and its many complicities with his advocacy of non-Western causes? How can Said the border intellectual (a phrase that my good friend and colleague from the University of California, Berkeley, Abdul JanMohamed, uses to define Said’s intellectual topos) speak for any body or constituency when he constantly denies home and homeliness? How can Said the consummate aesthete of cosmopolitan pleasures presume to speak for realities that have nothing to do with the cosmopolitan location? How can Said who has insisted on the crucial distinction between “what is being said” and “who is saying it” also maintain that he is against any form of identity politics that maintains that only Arabs can speak for Arabs and women for women? How can Said who is after all an academic intellectual also play fast and loose with isms and professional methodologies in his wish to be a maverick, oppositional voice? How can Said the individualist-elitist intellectual presume to speak for the people, wherever and whoever they may be? I wish my editor would stop me here forcibly, since the contradictions and the asymmetries keep proliferating.

I will begin with the understanding that these contradictions are productive contradictions. In other words, these are not errors to be rectified by some form of grand and unified thinking that will resolve these contradictions in the name of a superior truth. As I have already stated, I value “thinkers of contradiction”, such as a Foucault who cannot, a la Samuel Beckett, speak but must speak; or an Amitav Ghosh who has to dwell within the regime of “the shadow lines” of nationalism and only on that basis dare to “imagine with precision” beyond the damning finitude of the shadow lines; or an Ashis Nandy who visualises a “third world utopia”, but only after acknowledging that every elaboration of Utopia cannot but be symptomatic of the very imperfections of the point of view that is inaugurating the utopian vision; or a Gayatri Spivak who conceded that she is “outside in the teaching machine”. So too with Said’s work.

As for my critical attitude to his work, I have agreed and disagreed with him, in person and in print. But the point is not how much of his work is right and how much wrong. What is valuable is how the work of Said has indeed become a contested site, or a problematic as Partha Chatterjee might have it, wherein we can view the asymmetries, contradictions, and uneven-nesses of our day and age.

A complex and brilliant thinker

Let me address a few contradictions. I think all of us, professional as well as lay thinkers, are indeed ambivalent in our responses to nationalism, but are afraid to say so. It has not gone away, though perhaps it should have. In an ideal world, nationalism should have withered away, but in an all too real world that is structured in dominance and nurtured by it, developed nationalisms have it their way while Third World or subaltern nationalisms get shafted all the time. While talks go on about globalisation and transnationalism, powerful nations continue to follow mercantilist policies of protectionism and invite the weak nations to tear down their walls and become absolutely vulnerable to “free trade” and the “world market”. How can one jump out of nationalism when Palestinians continue to remain a legitimate people without a home? As Said would point out over and over again, what is most poignant and conscionable about the Palestinian situation is that the Palestinians are being persecuted by a people who were Holocaustal victims just a few decades ago; with the state of Israel functioning as the once tormented daughter-in-law now turned despotic mother-in-law. One of the last projects that Said was part of was a musical elaboration, with his Israeli friend and musician Daniel Barenboim in Spain, where the two conducted one of their many joint Israeli-Palestinian musical ventures.

In one of his several controversial essays, “Intellectuals in a Postcolonial World”, Said had suggested that the world needs to move beyond the politics of blame and guilt (and what is more memorable in this context than the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa), and that there is a dire need to think through and beyond the asymmetry that governs the relationship between the ex-colonisers and the ex-colonised who share, Said maintained, a common history but remember it differently.

It is in the same spirit that Said in his Culture and Imperialism exhorts the reader to generalise just when generalisations seem so unthinkable, and make coalitional connections just when such connections seem fantastic or far-fetched. Said’s message to the critic was to stay “between Culture and System”, that is, not to succumb to the pieties of an exclusively filial politics or to the seductions of methodological-professional or “istic” thinking that forgets that the world out there is more protean and more heterogeneous than “our philosophy has dreamt of”. He urged the academic intellectual not to be walled in by discourse or jargon, to make connections between her individual self and her professional function. What do we profess when we profess?, that is the question he asked. Are we mere mercenary meritocratic professional intellectuals who are happy to let the world shrink within their little “fiefdoms”, or are we human-generalists first and therefore professionals, in response to our human condition. But if one is to function in the “between”, one has to write in multiple registers. As he would keep advising me that entire summer, “Radha, find a way to write for large audiences. Write for the people, to reach general audiences. Keep producing your academic `masterpieces’, but find the time, and lots of it, to do the other kind of intellectual labour.” He himself had made that adjustment, writing expert and lay books, op-eds, political columns, music criticism, doing media appearances and so on.

I remember an afternoon the same summer when a bunch of us were discussing with Said the problem of realising one’s own politics. Someone was asking the question if it wouldn’t make more sense to choose a more real profession; in her case, become a lawyer, take up pro bono cases, and intervene as a feminist. (She is now both a formidable scholar and an influential Dean of Humanities at a top rate University.) Someone else was wondering how to affect and change the world as a university professor, and pat came Said’s reply, “Get tenure first.” And he went on to explain why. His was a pragmatic rationale. He did not believe that reality was any more real when you were a labourer, or a lawyer, an editor. He was not prepared to say mea culpa just because he was a Distinguished Professor at an Ivy League School. Nor did he care for the kind of self-reflexivity, the kind exemplified by Gayatri Spivak that insists on routing the political by way of the academic subject position. That would be too narcissistic for Said. He wanted to invite the world into the domain of letters, and use his sense of literary nuance and ambiguity in understanding the world.

He would often be intrigued why people loved jargon or adored thinkers who did nothing but handle jargon. And this, coming from a formidable scholar who knew that talk and could walk that walk. He chose to eschew methodological consistency and the card-carrying rigour of an “ist”. He used Antonio Gramsci in his own way, but was not a Marxist; he used Foucault, but was no poststructuralist. Nor was he an exemplary humanist. It is quite amazing how much he had in common with Foucault till the very end; in particular, the passion to speak truth to power, and the imperative to articulate non-coercive truths. Yet he had made a decisive break with Foucault. Honestly, Said did not care how he was pigeonholed or categorised. Often, in reading some of his later work I would find myself nodding in macro-political agreement while at the same time wincing at some of his specific readings of specific writers or theorists. I vividly remember presenting an impassioned paper on Foucault in Said’s seminar. It went really well, but throughout the discussion session, Said was challenging and provoking me in a constructive and dialogic way: “Come on Radha, tell me what does Foucault offer you that Gramsci does not, or Raymond Williams, or Noam Chomsky.”

I did have the pleasure of studying, in his seminar, a particular conversation that took place between Foucault and Chomsky on Dutch television in 1971. It turns out that during the first half of the conversation, Foucault and Chomsky are in sync; they are indeed political allies. (This is somewhat reminiscent of the post-Vietnam situation where Sartre and Bertrand Russell, two utterly irreconcilable philosophers, worked together as part of a tribunal that was investigating U.S. war crimes in Vietnam.) But the second half finds them in two incommensurable worlds. Chomsky the neo-Kantian believes in human nature and freedom as absolutes, as a priori categorical imperatives, whereas to Foucault “reason” itself is the product of unreasonable histories, freedom a regime and nature an ideological construct.

In our discussion that summer I was espousing, which I do to this day, the Foucauldian way of legitimating political agency, whereas to Said Chomsky’s was the right path. But I remember with gratitude the eagerness with which he debated me, not from a superior perspective, but as a senior colleague with a different conviction.

The last time I met him was about three years ago. He was looking wan, but was dressed as sharply as ever. He hated to talk about his illness. All his interests were extroverted. As one of his prized students and one of my good friends, Professor Gauri Viswanathan put it: Every time something happened in the Middle East (West Asia), it gave him an impetus to live, speak and write. At that meeting, over dinner, he asked me about myself, my family, my projects, and if I was also writing for a large audience. That evening he had given a lecture to a packed house, and it felt strange and eerie to see Edward manifest fatigue during question and answer. At one point, he requested the moderator if we could stop with just one more question.

But I, and we, those who agree with you and those who disagree with you, still have questions for you. And I, as a student, friend, and a political being in solidarity with you, wish with all my heart that you had tarried longer. Not because you had the answers, but you had a way of being in the world that made all the difference. Good bye, Edward W. Said.

Professor R. Radhakrishnan is a Visiting Fulbright Professor, English Department, Madras University and a Professor at the Department of English and Comparative Literature, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, United States.

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