| Nothing if not passionate
“Yet the books will be there on the shelves,
Derived from people, but also from
— Czeslaw Milosz
Edward Said, who died in New York on Thursday, September 25, was born in Jerusalem in 1935. He had been ill for a long time and he fought leukaemia with a rare courage, never stopping his work and never compromising on the fundamental values that he lived by.
He was born to affluence and spent his childhood in Cairo. Almost all his adult life was occupied in studying and teaching in some of the best Ivy League campuses — Princeton, Harvard and Columbia. He was one of the most prolific writers and commentators in the second half of the 20th century. He was the author of more than a score of books and innumerable essays and articles. Said’s obvious erudition was matched by a fine sensibility and an irreducible humanity. He was a marvellous public speaker and an accomplished pianist and no mean performer on the tennis court.
In his memoirs, appropriately called Out of Place (1999), Said wrote, “I occasionally experience myself as a cluster of flowing currents.” He preferred this to “the idea of a solid self”. Indeed, currents of history, contemporary politics, literature, Western classical music and critical theory came together in the work and ideas of Edward Said. Everything he wrote was informed by an acute sense of engagement. Said was nothing if not passionate. But this did not take away from the rigour of his exposition and the clarity of his thought.
These qualities were nowhere better manifest than in Orientalism (1978), the book that shot him into international prominence and transfigured him into a cult figure. The book was as provocative and polemical as it was original. Said looked at an entire corpus of writing on the Orient, emanating from the West — novelists, philosophers, historians, politicians, et al — and demonstrated that these had invested the Orient with certain attributes and attitudes which were never complimentary. The West, Said argued, had taken the Orient as an inert object which was incapable of representing itself.
The West had produced the Orient to suit and justify the West’s domination of the Orient. He labelled as Orientalism this body of knowledge that engendered an intellectual colonization, lasting well beyond the passing of colonialism. “Because of Orientalism,” Said wrote, “the Orient was not (and is not) a free subject of thought or action.” Said was careful not to descend into a crass determinism. He wrote, “This is not to say that Orientalism unilaterally determines what can be said about the Orient but that it is the whole network of interests inevitably brought to bear on (and therefore always involved in) any occasion when that peculiar entity ‘Orient’ is in question.” The Orient, he suggested, was Europe’s “underground self”.
Orientalism questioned some of the fundamental assumptions involved in the disciplines of social science and literary theory. Said called for greater “methodological self-consciousness”. The analysis of human experience, the core of the human sciences, could not be confined to a grid of stereotypes. “How does one represent other cultures' What is another culture' Is the notion of a distinct culture (or race, or religion, or civilization) a useful one, or does it always get involved either in self congratulation (when one discusses one’s own) or hostility and aggression when one discusses the ‘other’)'” These were some of the issues that Said queried and invited others to ask in their chosen fields. Above all, Said forced scholars to enquire how ideas come to acquire authority and even the status of natural truths. Said’s book marked the fall from innocence. The assumptions underpinning the human sciences could not be the same for anyone who had felt and assimilated the impact of Orientalism.
It was not as if the dominance of Orientalism had gone unchallenged. Said returned to the theme of resistance in Culture and Imperialism (1993). The Western invader never encountered an inert native. The process of setting up an empire always involved the suppression of resistance and negotiations with native knowledge. The historical experience of resistance to empire was the theme of this book. Said’s access to this experience was through narrative which was crucial to his argument. Said wrote, “My basic point [is] that stories are at the heart of what explorers and novelists say about strange regions of the world; they also become the method colonized people use to assert their own identity and the existence of their own history…The power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging, is very important to culture and imperialism, and constitutes one of the main connections between them.” The mobilization against imperialism was based on the grand narratives of emancipation and enlightenment.
The ramifications of arguments initially presented in Orientalism were presented in numerous other essays. But there are two other aspects of Said’s work that need to be touched upon. One is his lifelong involvement with Western classical music. He wrote extensively on the subject and engaged with it as a pianist. He reflected in his essays on the history of Western classical music, on musicology and on music as performance. Music for him was a “unique branch of aesthetic experience”. He touched on these themes in Musical Elaborations (1991) and also in his intellectually rich conversations with the conductor, Daniel Barenboim, which appeared as Parallels and Paradoxes (2002). On his fascination with music, Said wrote movingly, if a touch too cerebrally, “music’s extraordinary disciplinary rigour, its capacity for plurality of voice, for expressiveness, for a whole range of performative possibilities, for a fascinating though sometimes arcane capacity to internalize, refer to, and go beyond its own history, have compelled my attention and have sharpened as well as deepened my other, more superficially worldly concerns.”
The other aspect is Said’s commitment to the cause of the Palestinian people. He campaigned through public lectures and writings for the rights of the people of Palestine. He exposed relentlessly the oppression of the state of Israel and worked to ensure peace in the region. He did not ever separate this political side of his life and work from his intellectual concerns and commitments. Out of this emerged — almost as a leitmotif to all that he wrote, said and did — Said’s reflections on the perpetual state of dispossession and exile. He was nowhere at home. The sense of dissonance engendered by this estrangement gave him a unique perch from which to look at human experience as articulated in literature, history, music and politics. His quest was for alternative communities that have emerged from the heightened experience of exile.
Said, however, was not a part of that community or any other. As an intellectual who took his responsibilities very seriously (see The Representations of the Intellectual, 1994) he was invariably on his guard and always sceptical. He believed in the powers of the intellectual and of the independent individual: “as an intellectual you are the one who can choose between actively representing the truth to the best of your ability, and passively allowing a patron or an authority to direct you.” Edward Said was his own director.
It is significant, and ironic, that Said’s preoccupation in his last years was with late works. Late works, Said suggested, illustrating his point with reference to Beethoven’s last string quartets and piano sonatas, the Ninth Symphony and Missa Solennis, do not seek an easy resolution; late works avoid closure, are marked by intransigence and an “irascible transgressiveness”. Late works appealed to the exile’s restlessness which Said claimed as his own.
Said cherished sleeplessness. Sleep, or any diminishing of awareness, to him was like death. It is difficult to accept that he has been untimely claimed by the big sleep.