Stirrings Still; Or, The Impossibility of Mourning the Deaths of Edward Said
“[T]hy worldly task hast done . . . / . . . [R]enowed be thy grave.” (Cymbeline, IV, ii, 282)
So much to write about, and I do not have the heart for it; so much to say about what has happened to us, with the death of Edward; so much to say about what happens after a death we all knew was coming. However prepared we might have been, we knew no act of mourning would console us or diminish the pain of our loss.1 Some griefs are curable, but not this one, which is likely to incline us to a long sadness. Since the death of Edward, and I owe it to him, as I owe it to the truth, to say this, assuming that I might at last be able to do so, since the death of Edward-and what a death-it has been impossible for me to speak as I knew I wanted to, impossible to speak to him, to him, as one does with a true friend without pretense. I thus had to try to relearn everything, and I am still at it. For in attempting to capture his memory, I found myself confining and solidifying it, and in this sense, celebrating its meaning and pride. In the process, the two things that seemed to stand out for me and possibly for others at the time of his death was that Edward stood for energy, mobility, discovery, and risk. He was also able, like no other cultural critic of his generation, “de se deprendre de lui-meme,” to borrow a term from Foucault.
Edward was unique in his laughter and in his art, which carry through in the great body of work he has left us. For him, art and laughter were readings of works of art, but these readings were also experiences, pleasures, journeys, and lessons in the magisterial sense of exemplary lecturing or teaching-Edward was a superb teacher, as so many personal affiliations throughout the world can testify. In fine, they [the readings] were lessons in performance, examples of what Edward said through what he did, giving himself, as one might say, with nothing held back, throwing himself into the storm headlong. Like a Conradian hero, he seemed always to be trying to rescue sense and sensibility from the dramas going on around him, as well as from his own strengths and weaknesses.
“We can have true friendship with only a few,” so writes Aristotle who goes on to explore the question of the number of friends it is good or possible to have (2002, 171). He thinks that friendship is a matter of kindly feeling, an amity of sort, not of whether it involves something called painful energy. According to this theory, friendship is essentially related to mourning when one friend dies, leaving the other (friend) behind. For all its formidable coherence, then, there is a fairly simple opposition at work in the Aristotelian theory of friendship, one more sinewy than the universal respect paid to Aristotle. A similar contrast can be found in the following set of questions: What happens when one friend must each time go before the other, when a singular relation with a friend ends abruptly? What comes about when the unique death of a friend such as Edward is taken up into all the codes and rituals of mourning? Can there be other words in which to mourn Edward? To answer this set of questions, one must restore openness to each moment of a long, rich life, which requires a mastery of many different planes of narrative, all unfolding simultaneously, for Edward truly had a multiple self which he did not necessarily seek to simplify.
Like Iqbal Ahmad before him, Edward died at the height of his powers: in mid-sentence and mid-style, so to speak. For us (ex-colonials), this is the crudest of deaths. His monumental work is the measure of our loss, but it is also our treasure, to savor and to hoard while he is out there, out there in Culture, in Politics, in Theory, in Literature, in Music, a Ray of the clear Fountain of Eternal Day. Most people with an interest in him and his work have already expressed their grief from New York to New Delhi, Paris to Pretoria, San’a to Sao Paolo. Most of the tributes have lived up to the expectations created by so fine a mind in that they are crammed with a life that comes from its subject’s capacity to be at home in the worlds of deep imaginings.2
There are, of course, many possible ways to mourn the death of a friend like Edward, none of them adequate but some more consolatory than others. One can begin on safe ground, surely, by letting Edward speak. Here are a few words, his words that say something difficult to understand. “I’m not going to die, because so many people want me dead” (Fisk 2003, 3). Citing Edward speaking of death, of his own death, allows the posthumous Edward a sort of survivance, a kind of living on, not only after his death, his actual death, but as if to enact the impossible speech act from Edgar Allan Poe: “I am dead” (Poe 1998, 34). By citing Edward in this manner, one hopes to negotiate the dialectic between being and nothingness, sound and silence, life and death. Thus,
out of zealous devotion or gratitude, out of approbation as well, to be content with just quoting, with just accompanying that which more or less directly comes back or returns to the other, to let him speak, to efface oneself in front of and to follow his speech, and to do so right in front of him. But this excess of fidelity would end up saying and exchanging nothing. It returns to death. It points to death, sending death back to death. On the other hand, by avoiding all quotation, all identification, all rapprochements even, so that what is addressed to or spoken of [Edward] … truly comes from the other, from the living friend, one risks making him disappear again, as if one could add more death to death and thus indecently pluralize it. We are left then with having to do and not do both at once, with having to correct one infidelity by the other. From one death, the other: is this the uneasiness that told me to begin with a plural? (Derrida, 1997, 45).
The gist of this passage lies in giving voice to Edward, to him alone, and yet not leaving him alone as he speaks. This is the only chance, for the punctum, to make its mark: the one who was and will no longer be. And although we recognize that death has made the friend that was Edward inaccessible to us except in us, that the other, whose name we still use, can no longer become a vocation, an address, or an apostrophe, our desire to speak again to him, to him uniquely, corresponds nevertheless to our disbelief that he is indeed dead.
The day Edward died in a New York hospital, the news was telephoned to me in Toronto. The message was short: “Edward is dead.” I felt heavy-hearted and did not speak, just flung my arms out in a gesture as if saying “Gone!” “Ego silebam et fletum frenebam” [I remained silent and restrained my tears] while trying to address my loss. The grief was all the more palpable for being wordless. It has been nearly a week since I received the news that engulfed the world and I very much doubt I have absorbed the loss of a un bel esprit. For every now and again in the pelting details of the day-by-day life, there is a pause during which one must respond at a determined time and place to an unrepeatable event-the death of the man who put the maintenance of poetic inspiration above every other personal consideration. To pay homage to the friend-teacher-author who gave a voice to Palestine is to point out the debt as well as pay it back. Even so, aware as I am of the sorrow at the loss of Edward, and in particular to his beloved family and immense close circle of friends, I simply cannot reconcile myself to a world where he is no longer part of the crowd, part of the melee, part of the storm. It is an unthinkable thought that has alas become all too thinkable now. But Edward was too individual, too fierce a writer to dissolve easily. Formal and outrageous, exquisite and coarse, precious and raunchy, amazingly human and vulnerable in his larger-than-life status to all the personal pain and doubts that beset ordinary mortals, and never too self-preoccupied to let you gain entry to his life, Edward had a kindness of heart beneath the roaring certitude. Through his stand against domination and his defense of Palestine, he had grown into the dissident figure we mourn today.
Also to be sorrowed for is that the name “Edward,” which began with his life and kept us in good company for nearly 67 years, is no more, except that is, when it speaks and bears his death each time it is uttered. In the throes of grief, anger, and helplessness that one feels after the death of a dear friend like Edward, how can one mourn for him? “The name alone makes possible the plurality of deaths,” Derrida perceptively notes; “the name races toward death even more quickly than we do, we who naively believe that we bear it. . . . It is in advance the name of a dead person” (1997, 46). That mourning begins with the name is true insofar as one bears witness, out of a kind of fidelity to Edward, to a unique, personal relationship with the deceased and pays tribute to his public life: what he stood for, how he spoke, what he did to alleviate the suffering of his people, sometimes even attempting to draw inspiration from the way he approached life and death in word and deed. Today, the name “Edward” says death, and so lends itself already to the work of mourning a man who contained multitudes in that he exhibited so many gifts of surefootedness and a selflessness of effort that deserves the tribute paid once upon a time by the poet Mahmoud Darwish to the achievement of the Palestinian Literary Movement as a whole: “It is a sort of deposit account to the credit of the country” (2003a, 11). Or, to put it another way, we have now an answer to the question posed by Plato’s ghost in the wonderful down-facing last stanza of W.B. Yeats’s poem “What Then?”
“The work is done,” grown old he
“According to my boyish plan;
Let the fools rage, I swerved in naught,
Something to perfection brought”;
But louder sang that ghost, “What
then?” (Yeats 2003, 34)
“What then” is a question time will answer. For now, we are anxious for Edward’s body, voice, visage, person. In mourning his death, we therefore recognize that he as a friend is now in us and already beyond us, in us but totally other, so that nothing we say of or to him can touch him in his infinite immutability. “Upon the death of the other we are given to memory,” Derrida adds, “and thus to interiorization, since the other, outside us, is now nothing” (1997, 34).Today, we remember, pay tribute, and recall not only what is public but what is personal as well. The laws of friendship demand we do it and do it we must.
Fidelity thus consists in mourning the man whose soul was too deep even for wounding, to adapt freely from Nietzsche, and whom a slight matter might destroy: for he gladly crossed the bridge and dominated his generation of cultural critics and has no successor. Those victims of their adolescent dreams who are canvassing to succeed him as the pre-eminent Third World intellectual fail to see that the historical and structural conditions which made him possible are disappearing. The pressures of globalism and professionalism, governmental bureaucracy and the glittering prizes of the media, the cultural goods market and consumerism are combining to reduce the autonomy of the figure of the intellectual as exiled intelligence. They are threatening what is perhaps the rarest and most precious element in the Saidian model, and the element most truly antithetical to traditional attitudes of mind-namely, the refusal of worldly power and privilege and the affirmation of the strictly intellectual daring of saying no to all its airs and graces, charms and witcheries. (I will come back to the trope of the impossibility of mourning the death of a friend such as Edward. For now, I want to concentrate on how he championed and articulated the Arab and/or Palestinian cause in an unreceptive West).
I hope it is not immodest to say that Edward was one of the late 20th century’s most influential thinkers about the relations between culture and politics as well as the best known lisss~n (spokesperson) for Palestine and its plight in the court of Western public opinion. His embattled politics gave added force and drama to his scholarly arguments, while his academic eminence won him a wider hearing for his political views. At a deeper level, both activities derived from a burning anger at the unwillingness of the Western establishment to give a serious hearing-or often any hearing at all-to the Palestinian grievance. Politically, Edward sought to break through this wall of condescension with a stream of essays and books, speeches and interviews, television appearances and films. Intellectually, he gradually broadened his analysis, presenting the Palestinian case as an extreme instance of Western ideological treatment, first of Arabs in general (The Arab Portrayed, 1968), then Muslims (Orientalism, 1978), and later of the periphery as a whole (Culture and Imperialism, 1993). Aesthetically, he turned to music, his great love. And in contrast to the acrimonious conjunction of literature and politics, music and politics came happily together when he and his close friend, Daniel Barenboim, a renowned Israeli conductor with no time for political grand-standing, established a youth orchestra made of Arabs and Jews. From the way they co-conducted The West-Eastern Divan, as it came to be known, which was in itself an aesthetic experience, enormously elegant and unique of its kind, one could see that they were setting an example of peaceful co-existence between Palestinians and Israelis. In doing so, they reminded us of Brechts dictum: “If one wanted an aesthetic, one could find one here.” Not a small task when one thinks about it. Or, is it!
It was Orientalism, a rock thrown through the windows of the West that has become the model for the struggle to rewrite colonial history and established Edward’s reputation by bringing together his two personae-professor of English literature at Columbia and member of the Palestine National Council. It caught the imagination of students all over the world with its thesis that Western academic learning about Islam and the Muslim peoples was not detached and scientific, as it liked to present itself, but one of the instruments the West used to impose its domination. Later books, The Question of Palestine (1979), Covering Islam (1981), After the Last Sky (1984), and Peace and Its Discontents (1996) produced a formidable array of opponents and created major controversy. In 1999 Edward was wrongly accused in the pro-Zionist and Right wing American press of having fabricated the story of his childhood in Jerusalem “so as to invent himself as an embodiment of the Palestinian cause.”3 By chance these perverse attacks coincided with the appearance of his memoir, Out of Place (1999), which he wrote during his long and painful struggle against leukemia. It put an end to what Freud aptly called “la denegation.”
Although born in Jerusalem in 1935 of Palestinian parents, Edward grew up mainly in Cairo where his father had a successful stationery business-and the tribulations of his childhood were more personal than political. His dad, an American citizen, had fought in the First World War before returning to his native Palestine. Wadie Said-or Bill as he liked to be called-sent his son to expatriate British schools where the teachers showed no interest in Arabic culture. Indeed, speaking the language was a punishable offence. Not surprisingly, Edward felt himself a misfit. The theme of his memoir is that he was always out of place and never at home anywhere in the world and as a result was driven throughout his life by a restless insecurity which he sensed was typical of the Palestinian condition. This gave him, he believed, an empathy with other “exiled writers out of place” including Joseph Conrad-the subject of his first book (1999, 34-35). Aged 15, Edward was removed from Victoria College, the “British Eton in Egypt,” and sent to a New England preparatory school followed by Princeton and Harvard. In this clubby atmosphere, he made common cause with fellow outsiders, many of whom were children of European Jewish immigrants. For a time, his specifically Arab or Palestinian identity was almost suppressed.
After toying with a musical career-he was a pianist of near professional standard-he eventually made his name as an English literature specialist. By his own account what began his transformation into a Palestinian nationalist was the Israeli victory of 1967 and the unquestioning triumphalism with which America greeted it. At times, Edward seemed to be asserting that the quest for knowledge about other cultures was in itself malign or hypocritical or both. Thus, his work could be taken as a condemnation of the entire canon of classical anthropology, or as an apology for cultural criticism-the notion that all beliefs are equally valid and that there is no such thing as objective truth. This brought him into conflict with such doyens of ignorance as Bernard Lewis and Ernest Gellner, for whom reason transcended culture and relativism was the ultimate trahison des clercs. Yet critiques of his work should be distinguished from the sustained vilification to which he was subjected by political opponents, both before and after he came out against the 1993 Oslo agreement between Israel and Palestine. His anti-Zionism, however vehement, was never tinged with anti-Semitism. So perhaps it was fitting that after 1993, despairing of a meaningful Palestinian state alongside Israel, he reverted to the earlier vision of a single state, democratic Palestine in which Jews and Arabs would be fellow citizens with equal rights. Accused by stubborn minds of political polemics, he was the most individual, independent, and idiosyncratic of writers; dismissed by many in his lifetime as a subversive, cult figure, an “exotic” commodity, he has become the contemporary writer most studied at the university world wide-a victory over the mainstream he (and we) enjoys immensely. And Edward had not finished: it is his combination of scholarly erudition and critical astuteness which is most remarkable, not least in an age when those who know all about books are rarely the sharpest analysts of them, and vice versa.
In all his oeuvre, Edward sought to detail a growing pain at having to see self and others after a life he characterized as having been lived entirely on merit. Understanding the work of transplanted writers as a means of contributing meaning and values that are necessary and useful to people (readers) is thus vital to comprehending his plight. It was not an easy thing, to be sure, even during the high noon of the bull market, to scoff at the dot corns, the hedge funds, the Silicon Valley millionaires, the day traders, and all the other ephemera of prosperity. But beneath all the prodigious bubbling, counsel to the wise, Edward stood as a human icon as solid and reliable as C.L.R. James or Franz Fanon before him insofar as he was also a complex being, not easily understood by the earthbound and the pessimistic. Edward, the public and private man, correctly and incorrectly understood, was a relationship, a thing of nuance and complexity, of irony and evasiveness. We were at once skeptical about him and are more than ever ravenous consumers of his works. Writers like him are interactive beings that earn our loyalty through endless repetition and constant adjustment. A particular sensibility, not a cumulative argument, links his oeuvre, a perspective which combines erudition, ardor, and heterodox opinion. Edward was after a different quarry from perspective, color, structure, tone. He was more a cerebral writer perhaps than a sensuous one. His sharp interrogative approach introduced an awkwardness into our relationship with Palestine. But that is a virtue; it is one of the ironies of postmodernism that his corpus, so daring and jolting to his contemporaries, should have taken on a fully rounded existence in the first decade of the third millennium as testimony to displacement. It (his body of works), with its sharp questions and peremptory demands, paints life in all its grand fun, unease, and pain.
The death of Edward, who departed at last after a long intrepid battle with an insidious and painful illness he bore with intrepidity, like his life, is crowded with incident and personality, with issues and crises of a great personal and national moment, yet in face of it all, he pursued his calling undeviatingly. He had an enormous, fastidiously accumulated and articulated knowledge of the history of Palestine, as well as a living memory of where everything and everyone came from, where they went, where they were now living, or when they had disappeared. He kept up with everyone’s life with the zeal of a medieval chronicler. In doing so, Edward exemplified the virtues of that Palestinian intelligence so often invoked by Darwish, whom he admired, an intelligence independent, vigorous, liberal and, on occasion, consciously provocative, something resembling the guerrilla supremo.
We prepare for the death of a friend; we anticipate it; we see ourselves as survivors, or as having already survived. To have a friend, to call him by name-say, Edward, and to be called by him, is to know that one of the two will go first, that one will be left to speak the name of the other in the other’s absence. This is not only the ineluctable law of human finitude, but the law of the name. The name is always related to death, to the structural possibility that the one who gives, receives, or bears the name of the other who will be absent from it. The operation severing the name from the body is already at work among the living insofar as the relationship between the corpse (of Edward) and the corpus becomes possible with the very giving of a name, a signature, a context. The name is separable from the body, the corpus from the corpse. This is the case when others refer now, use or speak the name “Edward.” Derrida comments on the signature which “speaks to us always of death,” of the “possible death of the one who bears the name” (1997, 136). The upshot is that in each death there is an end of the world, and yet the act of mourning allows us to speak of this end and multiply it, both to anticipate it and repeat it-with regard to Edward, one proper name. From now on, we will speak of the book-say, Orientalism, rather than the body, of the corpus rather than the corpse, and yet, in this tendency, one sees not a form of repression but also an affirmation of life in that Edward continues to live in us, part of an on-going narrative that seeks to substantiate, as distinct from announcing, a genuinely emergent way of writing back to the Core.
In this abundance of desperate impossibilities of mourning, laid out before us in various dimensions, there is a need for a breath of new life after the death of Edward: I have seen this hope of continued struggle to fight back captured in the outpouring of handsome tributes testifying to esteem, respect, and admiration for him. Among many competing narratives, one that strikes a chord is the reprinting of a section of one of his own columns, itself part of a tribute to two of his main intellectual, political, and personal mentors, Iqbal Ahmad and Ibrahim Abu-Lughd, whose deaths brought him sadness and resignation.
It was thanks to Ibrahim that in 1970 I first met Eqbal Ahmad, the other comradein-arms whose untimely death has left me so diminished. Like Ibrahim, Eqbal was (to use one of Ibrahim’s highest terms of praise) asil, an “authentic,” with the same gift of endlessly fertile, untiring eloquence. To sit up late at night with both of them was to be slowly cowed into silence, as they spun out lengthy disquisitions, learned and even arcane analyses, never entirely free from competitive zeal. Neither of my gurus was ever stingy with his time, and neither-perhaps for the same reason-cared much for the relative parsimony of print. Stylists of the uttered word, plurilingual, generous with ideas and stories, they sustained me during my illness in ways that embarrassment prevents me from recounting here. What dismays me is that they should have died before me-particularly now, when their voices would have been so telling and humanely informative. (Said 2001, 3)
One cannot help but feel overwhelmed by the sense of gratitude, devotion, and generosity that Edward had for his close friends. It was almost a necessity, not a constraint, but a gentle force that compelled him yesterday, and obligates us today not to bend or curve otherwise the space of thought in its respect for the other, understood as friend, but rather to yield to him. Henceforth, the relation to this other dictates an infinite separation and interruption of the radiance of the visage of Edward, who, speaking of sound versus silence, wrote: “Sleeplessness for me is a cherished state to be desired at almost any cost. There is nothing for me as invigorating as immediately shedding the shadowy half-consciousness of a night’s loss, that the early morning, reacquainting myself with or resuming what I might have lost completely a few hours earlier” (1999, 295). The good fortune of our debt to Edward is that we can “cast a cold eye /on . . . death,” but not on life, as Yeats thought and wrote, and affirm it without regret, in the joyous innocence of admiration. The regret, my regret, is that I did not say this to him enough, not having shown him this enough in the course of sixteen years of friendship, during which, in the modesty of silences, through brief or discreet conversations, we often had.
The untimely death of Edward affects us in other ways too: firstly, it has robbed Palestine of a resonant liss~n (an articulate voice) that was always hopeful, always on the offensive; secondly, it has silenced a counter narrative that strove to give its readers a revelatory alternative, not only the obligatory two sides to a given question but the often overlooked third dimension as well; thirdly, it has deprived the university (an almost-utopiari place where ides can still be discussed without fear or hindrance) of its love by affiliation; and finally, it has taken away a dear friend on whom I could always count. As a thinker, teacher, citizen, musician, and political activist, Edward towered over his time with extraordinary luminosity. He had a prodigious capacity for work and a seemingly boundless energy for struggle on behalf of the downtrodden. Power never fazed him and he took on its many contemporary forms with undaunted courage. His loss is as grievous as it is cruel, and were it not for his impressive oeuvre, we would indeed feel orphaned in a world that continues to shrink from itself day by day; a world of surfaces, random sensations, and schizoid human subjects; in fine, a world where reality itself is now a kind of fiction, a matter of image, virtual wealth, fabricated personalities, media-driven events, political spectaculars, and the spin-doctor as artist. If at times his wit was merciless and insights biting, at other times his compassion was limitless.The wisdom that stirred him in issue after issue, leap after leap, sortie after sortie, quip after quip, flight of wit after flight of wit, was commendable. Edward did not suffer stooges gladly: when the Oslo process dribbled wretchedly on, he kept up a barrage of pointed, hard-to-answer abuse. And he did it with style to boot. Struck down as he was in the prime of his life and brilliance, he nevertheless challenged every intellectual of his generation to step across the very line that he drew.
From the moment I sat in his class in 1986/87, the year he held the Northrop Frye Chair of Literature at the University of Toronto, I was moved by his unassuming manner and the cordiality of his regard toward me, the only student of Berber descent. To ask him for guidance as I often did was to be humbled by the sheer reach of his learning and erudition. Today, I can still hear his voice in my mind, discern his intention and method of reading by some other way (of reading). I knew and admired him both as a teacher and a humanist. I also hasten to add that a demanding genius like Edward never dies insofar as his moral energy will continue to guide us and set our energy free. A demi-god, Edward looked into the mad eye of history and did not blink. In the process, he proved himself to be a great writer: scathing in his critique, ferocious, bitterly and brilliantly articulate in his prose. Poised, polished, always serious but never solemn, and actually quite charming, he rarely resisted the chance to say something witty or funny or deflating. He always sought good restaurants and vintage wines, pleasant conversation, and a certain joie de vivre. Death genuinely pissed Edward off. The ivresse and zest that motored his life are best captured by Michael Wood in “On Edward Said.”
In England, on the way to a party, Edward and friends remember pranks from their schooldays in Egypt, laughing convulsively-a portrait of old happiness which does not contradict but certainly complements the sadness of the schooling in Out of Place. (Wood 2003, 3)
That is how Edward was. He never posed or assumed airs. Directness and sincerity of approach were the hallmarks of his intellectual presence. Even though he could be ironic, he was never condescending. To see him play the piano, an instrument that gave him immense pleasure and company when he became gravely ill, was to be delighted and enthralled. One felt in the presence of an accomplished pianist who had developed the brilliance and shimmering prism through which sounds, senses, and ideas were magically transfigured.
As Edward Said at the Limits prepares to make its debut in the world, Edward, who was my inspiration, will not be there to see it. My most painful regret is that he died during its final preparation. Over the years he was a tower of strength and support for me: always present, always kind and accommodating, always ready with some comment or another that somehow found its way into my narrative. I am sorrier than I can say that he did not live to read my labor of love and tell me what he thought of it. However, I am comforted to a certain degree by the belief that my book is supplementing his unique corpus, albeit in a minor way. It is my humble way of saying thank you, Edward, for showing me the way to the mountain top.
It is an irony and contradiction worth noting by way of a remembrance that Edward died the year Orientalism celebrated its silver jubilee. One is reminded of the question of author, authority, authorship, life, death. When T.S. Eliot made the distinction between the poet as poet, and the person who has a personality, suffers, and has a psychology, he did little to settle the point once and for all: he simply articulated it with arresting skill as a problem. Amid all the pallid post-colonial hybridity and the old and new postmodern anything-goes-ism, and unlike its begetter who died on September 25, 2003, Orientalism endures like Paleolithic mammals, resisting the inevitability of extinction. Edward articulates the point with force and foresight.
[It] is still a source of amazement to me that Orientalism continues to be discussed and translated all over the world, in thirty-six languages. Thanks to the efforts of my dear friend and colleague Professor Gaby Peterberg, now of UCLA, formerly of Ben-Gurion University in Israel, there is a Hebrew version of the book available, which has stimulated considerable discussion and debate among Israeli readers and students. In addition, a Vietnamese translation has appeared under Australian auspices; I hope it’s not immodest to say that an Indochinese intellectual space seems to have opened up for the propositions of this book. In any case, it gives me great pleasure to note as an author who has never dreamed of any such happy fate for his work that interest in what I tried to do in my book hasn’t completely died down, particularly in the many different lands of the Orient itself. (Said 2003, xvi; my emphasis)
Or, to put it differently, a quarter of a century after it first appeared, Orientalism still wakes us to the sight and sounds of the afflicted, the poor, and the dispossessed, and in so doing, stirs us still to face our vanity, our greed, and our mortality, returning us to our shared humanity. In the process, it makes the insistent dreamers among us mad and the newly awakened glad. Suffice it to add that in today’s cultural climate, Orientalism is, more than ever, poised to invent “un peuple qui manque, un peuple B venir encore enfoui sous . . . [les] trahisons et reniements”- just what it was surely constructed to achieve: what was once rejected has become the cornerstone, and centuries of insult and odious patronage are accordingly being made up for in the most obstinate of ways (Deleuze 1981, 22). Edward was right to that extent. His rich life and untimely death both reflect and clarify the turbulence and suffering that are at the core of the Palestinian experience: this is why his life withstands scrutiny. So much does it out the Palestinian situation in all its resolutions, hopes, and impediments.
One has to marvel at people who like Edward read literature, theory, culture, and music the way he did-contrapuntally and against the grain. But more than his art, it was his life-the only subject of his art-that served to inspire so many of us around the world. By now, it is easy to forget how many of us have been all but patented-or lived out most wholeheartedly-by Edward, who was so spendthrift with himself, and so loud in praise of folly, that he laid himself open to many charges. He opened himself to us at various times without reserve, and sometimes with flippancy, which was not always allowed.Yet to return to his oeuvre is to rediscover him as much more complex than either memory or mourning could ever allow.
Proust once said that every artist has a particular tune (chanson) that can be found in almost every sentence of his work: a special cadence, a theme, an obsession or characteristic key absolutely the artist’s own. Glenn Gould’s key may be the combination of rhythm and polyphony that informed all his playing. In Edward’s case, it is an immediately recognizable tension between simple melody and insistent, sometimes explosive and always variational developmental sequences. Edward set the form, as a dramatist sets a play on a stage, before the audience and for a discrete span of time. His work on music reflects his lifelong concern with art (in contrast to reason) as the only humanly available means of expressing wholeness, or more precisely, the longing for a transcendence whose realization represents not only a vain hope but also a potential source of good. In his thought, violence and myth, evil and death intrude into the world and must be countered against by critical means both literary and aesthetic. As Edward encouragingly put it:
I take criticism so seriously as to believe that, even in the midst of a battle in which one is unmistakenly on one side against another, there should be criticism, because there must be critical consciousness if there are to be issues, problems, values, even lives to be fought for. . . . Criticism must think of itself as life-enhancing and constitutively opposed to every form of tyranny, domination, and abuse; its social goals are noncoercive knowledge produced in the interests of human freedom. (Said 1983, 34)
Rather as Roland Barthes once speculated that one could write a history of textuality showing how the self-conscious play of the signifier threads its way through the history of writing, so Edward charts the surfacing and submerging of popular resistance from C.L.R. James to Malcolm X. Precisely because of this coming and going, there is no unbroken teleology at work here, but there is certainly a presumption that an art which smacks of the common people is ethically and aesthetically superior to one which does not.
For a region long dismissed as primitive, which has been largely interpreted in terms of its tyrannies, wars, and injustices, it is both a timely and fortunate corrective to see the first-rate literature and criticism which exists all over Palestine, that most contested of places. Every writer identifies with a special place (Baruh for Darwish, Al-Quds for Said), with its own writing (memory) and history (forgetfulness). If some Arab writers still lament the loss of the past (Darwish), their attempt to claim a lost paradise may paradoxically be, the attempt for others (Edward) to exorcize it from our collective memory. That at bottom is the extraordinary intellectual trajectory of Edward, one of the most influential people of our time. Michael Wood expresses its importance best: “Criticism is a chance to be taken and Edward continues to illustrate its allure and its re-wards” (1997, xv). In the upshot, the central theme of his life was his restless anxiety, a narcissistic pattern of self concern and self immersion that was fed and accentuated by the life of a musical performer’s playing and/or writing. In the process, the extremity of being alone, day after day, sooner or later catches up with one, especially if, as in the case of Edward, the will to control life and body was constantly challenged-not just by the rigors of a performing life, but by mortality. Speaking of the variations in his illness while writing Out of Place, he wrote:
As I grew weaker, the more the number of infections and bouts of side-effects increased, the more the memoir was my way of constructing something in prose while in my physical and emotional life I grappled with the anxieties and pains of degeneration. Both tasks resolved themselves into details: to write is to get from word to word, to suffer illness is to go through the infinitesimal steps that take you from one state to another. With other sorts of work that I did, essays, lectures, teaching, journalism, I was going across the illness, punctuating it almost forcibly with deadlines and cycles of beginning, middle and end: with this memoir I was borne along by the episodes of treatment, hospital stay, physical pain and mental anguish, letting those dictate how and when I could write, for how long and where. (Said 1999, 11)
Edward, dear friend, teacher, and guru, I bid you adieu across the infinite chasm. I do not even have to close my eyes to relish a savor of your aesthetics (of difference), spirit of unbounded generosity, sheer continuous presence, and above all, kindness of heart. His “affection enveloped you like a roar, like a cure-even when he became the one who was ill.You felt better every time you saw him. Or rather, you felt you could be better than you were, and you thought the world was a larger place than it had seemed before” (Wood, 2003: 6). Gone though you are, Edward, you will nevertheless continue to shine like a “BRIGHT star”: “Awake for ever in a sweet unrest, / . . . And so live ever” in the minds of those who love you from near or afar (Keats, 1992: 251). It is your magnificently critical spirit that we hold on to and try, unceasingly, to perpetuate. In the long unfolding saga of Palestine where all happiness is being snatched away by Sharon Murder Inc., were a Palestinian asked what indeed makes him or her proud to be Palestinian, he or she would hurry to tell the whole world: “Edward Said,” a son of Palestine who stood as a father of the New Palestine, hopeful, stubborn, and, more than ever, determined not to shut up, but to fight back with all the determination she can muster.
Just as the greeting of the B-dieu does not signal the end insofar as it is not a finality, the struggle for a liberated Palestine must and will also go on unabashed. Edward, the dream rising out of reality is that in the unfolding story of your death, we are emboldened like never before to carry the torch of learning that you handed to us. And if you can no longer speak in return, it is because you are responding in us, and before us, in us right before us-in calling us, in recalling to us: B-Dieu. By this time, though, we begin to have an idea of what you have meant to us. It is a private idea, and a curiously ennobling one. The idea of remembering your moral stature (a rare quality in these degraded days)-which gives us the strength to go on-has built up from all you have taught us: to recognize the fragmented aspects of our identity; to see how they enable us to become who we are; to understand what is necessary about a painful and awkward past and/or present, and to accept it as part of our being-this ceaseless process, the process, really, of carving a way in the world, is much of what will keep us going. In an age when much literature has turned inward, losing itself in halls of mirrors, your insistence on the moral function of writing will guide us through the maze. Your quest will carry the weight of lived experience, of your own profound meanings and goings of life, the goings-on. Most of all, however, it will carry the weight of your genius. Edward, we remember the genius, and the man. The rest is silence.
1 The writings of Maurice Blanchot, Pascale-Anne Brault, Michael Naas, and Jacques Derrida on death and mourning have in part influenced the construction of this essay. I am indebted to all of them as well as to Tommo of Qaf and Fran Devlin for reading the essay in its entirety
2 “The world” was one of Edward’s favorite words. He wrote that contemporary literary criticism was too often “worldless,” by which he meant inattentive to the circumstances that press upon texts, writers and readers alike. “My contention,” he said, “is that worldliness does not come and go, nor is it . . . a euphemism . . . for the impossibly vague notion that all things take place in time (1984).
3 See Weiner (1999, 23-31) and Marrouchi (2003, 209-17).
Aristotle. 2002. Nicomachean Ethics. New York: Pantheon.
Blanchot, Maurice. 1981. The Madness of the Day. Trans. Lydia Davis. Barrytown, New York: Station Hill Press.
Brecht, Albert. 1990. Aesthetics and Politics. New York: Barnes and Noble.
Darwish, Mahmoud. 2003a. “Our Conscience and Ambassador to Human Awareness,” AlHayat, 26 September, 11.
_____. 2003b. Unfortunately, It Was Paradise. Trans. Munir Akash et al. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Deleuze, Gilles. 1993. Critique et clinique. Paris: Minuit.
Derrida, Jacques. 2003. A la Vie A la Mort. Paris: Galilee.
_____. 2001. The Work of Mourning. Ed. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Chicago and London: Chicago University Press.
Fisk, Robert. 2003. “Palestinian, Intellectual, and Fighter, Edward Said rails against Arafat and Sharon to his Dying Breath,” The Independent, 26 September, 3.
Keats, John. 1992. The Poems. New York: Knopf.
Marrouchi, Mustapha. “Quite Right: In Defense of Edward Said.” In Edward Said at the Limits. New York: State University of New York Press.
Poe, Edgar Allan. 1994. Complete Poems and Tales. New York: Barnes and Noble.
Shakespeare, William. 1986. The Complete Works. Ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Said, Edward. 1984. The World, the Text, and the Critic. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
_____. 1999a. “Living by the Clock.” LRB, 29 April, 8-12.
_____. 1999b Out of Place. New York: Knopf.
_____.2001. “My Guru.” LRB, 13 December, 3-4.
_____. 2003. Orientalism. 1979. Reprint. New York: Vintage.
Yeats, W. B. 2003. W.B. Yeats., A Life: The Arch Poet, 1915-1939. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Weiner, Justus Reid. 1999. “‘My Beautiful Old House.'” Commentary, September, 23-31.
Wood, Michael. 2003. “On Edward Said.” LRB, 23 October, 3, 6.
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