Edward Said–A Tribute

August 12, 2017

Edward Said–A Tribute

by A.C. Grayling

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Edward Said (pic above) was a much interviewed man, partly because he stood in a unique cross-cultural place at a painful historical juncture, and could speak about it with intelligence and eloquence,thus attracting the persistent attention of journalists and fellow intellectuals, and partly because he agreed so often to be interviewed , doubtless out of the intellectual’s need for expression, but almost  certainly also because there was more than a tincture of vanity in that handsome man who derived so much from so many places–Palestine, the Western literary tradition, the East, America, the British public school tradition,the Arab world, the East Coast Ivy League tradition, Cairo, Jerusalem,New York, well lit European television studios, the border with Israel at whose fence he could throw stones–because he claim to belong to none of them though benefiting massively from them all.

The many interviews he gave between them beautifully manifest these paradoxical  self-positionings and deep ambiguities, and in the process offer a portrait–all the more striking for being so unselfconsciously self-conscious–of a vitally interesting individual. A volume collecting his interviews was ready for publication shortly before his lamented death, and he therefore read it;  one wonders whether he saw how chameleon-like he was, taking on colours of the side from which his interviewers  came: an Arab for Arabs, a ‘colonial’ when talking to other ‘colonials’ (for example the Indian editor of the volume), and a culturally conservative four-square Western-educated intellectual for Western academic colleagues. He even went so far as to say to Israel’s Ha’aretz magazine, “I’m the last Jewish intellectual…I’m a Jewish-Palestinian.”

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He was, of course, nothing of the sort, and not much of the other thing either. Born a Protestant Christian in West Jerusalem of wealthy Christian Arab parents, he spent his early life in Cairo being educated at a famous English public school there along with later King Hussein of Jordan and the famous bridge player-actor Omar Sharif, and then went to university in America. After taking his PhD in English Literature he joined the faculty of Columbia University in the early 1960s, and New York remained his home until his death in 2003.

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Although his chosen milieu was American academia, the accident of his origins gave him a stake in the tragedy of the Middle East, and he became an indefatigable and powerful advocate of the Palestinian cause. Fame came with his book Orientalism , whose argument is that Europeans deal with the Orient through a process of colonisation premised on the Orient as ‘Other’ expressed in many ways, from literature and art to scholarship and thence colonial bureaucracy. He saw the Occident-Orient relationship as deriving  not in fact from alienation but from historical closeness, although at its fullest it takes the form of power, dominance, and varying degrees of hegemony in Gramsci’s of ‘cultural domination’. This important idea, and its extension into Said’s views about the relation of culture and imperialism generally, is discussed repeatedly and from a variety of angles in the interviews he gave, which between them therefore constitute a work in itself, and an excellent introduction to hie thought.

For all that Said was a campaigner for Palestine and enemy of Zionism in unequivocal terms (he disliked Martin Luther King Jr. and King was pro-Israel), he was otherwise a small conservative in cultural terms. Despite everything he said about Orientalism, his most abiding loyalty was to Western High Culture ( he loved serious music and opera, and wrote about it frequently) and the literature of the English tongue. Claiming that even Jane Austen embodies the imperialising thrust of English literature–Mansfield Park is paid for by a slave plantation in Antigua, a passingly mentioned item which for Said, as for the many engaged in the industry of ‘postcolonial literary studies’, is an endless resource–Said  was able to be a prophet among avant-garde lit.-crit. fraternity, and yet at the same time he came early to despise them.

“One thing that everyone can agree with Said about–and it is  a point he often  and eloquently made–is that academy should not be disengaged from the real world and especially the injustices it contains. His own life is a monument to that conviction, and deserves praise for it”.–A.C. Grayling

Refreshingly, he was sometimes dismissive of ‘literary theory’ and the jargon-laden ‘auto-tinkering’ of the academy,  in which literary criticism  is a cheap form of philosophy done by waving banners  with ‘Derrida’ and ‘Heidegger’ on them, resulting in salaried logorrhoea, a thick stream of indecipherable nonsense that has spewed, like outfall from a main sewer, into an intellectually polluted sea of futility.

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But interviews with him show  that he never quite escaped the grip of this intellectual disease. When speaking to fellow lit.-crit. academics he falls easily into the jargon: ‘As (Michel) Foucault said…As  (Jacques) Derrida said…’is the familiar refrain, and, like his colleagues he misquotes  and misrepresents (as when he shows unfamiliarity with what for example (Thomas) Hobbes and (Karl) Popper really meant, though airily invoking their names in that lit.-crt.way, which is like a verbal twic or twitch: ‘…as Popper said…’)

As just one of many  ambiguities that cluster around Said’s intellectual persona,though, his divided attitude  to his academic discipline is understandable enough. Often pressed in interviews on  the question of how he can regard (Jane) Austen and (Joseph) Conrad as great writers and their works as great literature while at the same time viewing them as imperialist producers of texts not merely expressing but embodying the very process of colonisation and therefore diminishment of the Other, Said had to navigate carefully between emphasising  now on one side of the dilemma and now the other, trying to show that a work can be great literature even if it is, because it is of its time and place, an instrument of a form of harm. To perceptions which catch less shiftingly grey nuances, this seems like having a cake and eating it; much of what Said tried to do in interviews was to show how that can be done.

One thing that everyone can agree with Said about–and it is  a point he often  and eloquently made–is that academy should not be disengaged from the real world and especially the injustices it contains. His own life is a monument to that conviction, and deserves praise for it.

Source: A.C. Grayling, The Heart of Things: Applying Philosophy to the 21st Century (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005), Edward Said, 1935-2003, pp 226-229

15 thoughts on “Edward Said–A Tribute

  1. Edward Said was indeed a towering figure. When I just started as a young(ish) PhD candidate at Columbia University in the late 80s, I was in awe of him. He was moderate and a true intellectual. I was fortunate to have some encounters with him in the corridors of Columbia, as well as at the squash coutr! Yrs! Not many people know of his hidden sports talent. He was an avid squash player. Unfortunately, we, as admiring students, had to see him deteriorate in health from leukaemia. Hail to the Chief!

    I am impressed but what are you doing in UKM? You should go abroad where your talents will be gainfully employed.

    Columbia was founded by King George II of England in 1754 by Royal Charter. It is a great institution. I was there in 2015 to meet the guys at The Earth Institute. I was supposed to have met Dr.Jeffery Sachs but he was on assignment. –Din Merican

  2. Tribute , definitely….my gut-feelings is that he is a mystic , in Islam ‘sufism ‘ , no not wise to go deeply into ‘mysticism ‘ , its like the Most Supreme playing the pantomine. ‘ a theatrical display of His manifested world ‘ ( in which we are all mute beings , dancing to it ) – BTW , in the position of Edward Said , no problem , one could be a Jewish mystic, or a Christian mystic , or even an Islamic mystic ( that whilst having the ‘knowledge ‘ of the ‘ Supreme Knower ‘ , mystics can NEVER explain what he knows to anybody…. ( its a secret between the knower and the Known ….) –

    Compare with the Sciences : ( the ultimate ) ” Energy has two lives , it appears and disappears in split seconds …. above the velocity of light . and Scientist say ‘ no one knows what exactly what ‘Energy ‘ is ….. ( the best a man can do is TO STAY MUTE , so people call him ‘crazy ‘ ! )

  3. Only Energy ( matter or waves ) has two lives , it appears & disappears in split seconds , here in the ephemeral reality, then disappears into the ineffable reality in spit seconds @ or above the speed of light at almost in split seconds , and no one knows how or why …..

  4. These days so much is still needed to extend Prof Said’s introduction of Orientalism to other cultures. For e.g. translate.google.com would translate ‘orientalism’ as the East in Chinese. No common Chinese word has yet to come about. Singapore intellectuals gave us kiasu, kiasi. But, no word has yet to be created for Chinese chauvinism. It is about time South East Asians come up with a catchy noun for various chauvinism in our respective culture. I wonder दृष्टिकोणों drshtikonon which Google gave me better represent Prof Said’s Orientalism. I guess it does. But, I guess thinking as such would be a form of Orientalism, as I learned from a Western intellectual, to measure my own culture. What is the word for Orientalism in Bahasa?

  5. “..resulting in salaried logorrhoea, a thick stream of indecipherable nonsense that has spewed, like outfall from a main sewer, into an intellectually polluted sea of futility.” A.C.G

    Haha. One of the best sentences, i’ve read in a long while. The problem nowadays among ‘intellectuals’ – academic or otherwise, is the sheer volume of verbosity that exceeds common sense, obscures clarity and defies logic.

    I think ‘Orientalism’ as an academic is much maligned, if misunderstood term nowadays. Perhaps the Supremacist Whites regard it more akin to ‘Camelism’ as opposed to their more favored Kemalism.

    Anyway i believe Edward Said was an agnostic more than an ‘Oriental’ Christian, much less a Protestant.

  6. Orientalism is only descriptive, not the substantive….
    I would commend you to check up the book ‘ Veils * Keys ‘ by John Herelihy ( Yahya Ahmed ) – it explains clearly , that crossing the chasm from the ephemeral reality into the ‘ Ineffable dimension ‘ ( usually by the mystics ) , one can get the idea that , the crossing of the chasm, is their ‘power ‘ over ” Energy ” – you wont believe it, it is amazing : It is ‘experiencing ‘ it, no words can describe the phenomena ….. – only to experience the ineffable , do not try it without a spiritual guide , but not all spiritual guides can ….. ( he..he…as if an expert talking to you , laughable….)

  7. Ah so, Abnizar..
    My friend, are you now in a superposition of probability in an entangled moiety, tunneling in an unobserved spatial dimension – tumbling due a problem in decoherence? Or similar gobbledygook..?

    Don’t confuse Quantum Mechanics with Mysticism, cuz there is no way any of us ‘truly’ understand the former which is counter-intuitive, while the latter is ‘truly’ experiential and subjective. The ‘normal’ Quantum computer between our ears cannot deal with causalities such as yours.

    Metaphysics was certainly beyond Edward Said.

  8. CLF, quantum mechanics is in the realm of Quantum physics which is still earth-bound , (ie. in the ephemeral reality) , AND, crossing the chasm into the ineffable dimension is what ‘few’ people experience – do not be alarmed , few have achieved that …..
    So yes, metaphysics is ‘above’ matter ( spiritual one might say ) , & Yahaya Ahmed talks of the ‘ ineffable ‘ experience ( crossing the chasm into the metaphysical ….) – ( ‘ -reality’ or splitting hairs ? , up to you ! )

  9. A metaphor in the book of John Herelihy ( Yahaya Ahmed ) : ‘ …..when I reached the shore (to watch the spectacle ) , I could describe the Waves…..but when I saw the Ocean I was dumbfounded…..” – true, one could be deaf or …..Dumb …! !

  10. Hmm.., Existential Crisis or Kundalini Syndrome?
    Never mind, my friend – just take some Panadol or Tylenol, okay?
    “Spooky action at a distance” is how Einstein described QM, and really there is no such thing as Quantum ‘Physics’ – only “Mechanics”.

    Now let’s go on to something called Reality – sans mysticism – cuz if you deny reality, then quantum gravity will hit you in the face and you end up entangled in the String Theory with up to 11 dimensions including space-time.. Forget your religious Yahya convictions or whatever, and get closer to the Truth. Watch this without running helter skelter, and try to understand it. Perhaps one day, we can talk about it in another dimension?:

  11. “….and get closer to Truth …..? which Truth , Who is the ‘ Ultimate Truth ‘ ? Is’nt Ultimate Truth in another ‘Reality ‘ ( Who is Unseen but ‘ knowable ‘ ? the Verses have taught me , its knowable, ) –

    Methinks , you are talking in two breaths…..

    What do you mean ‘only quantum mechanics , ( but ) no quantum Physics ‘ ? Please check up on ‘ the quantum field of Physics ‘ which is to do with the ‘Nucleus ‘ of matter ( so Scientists obtain Nuclear Energy …No ? ? ) –

    I have learnt ‘ not to speak in two breaths ‘ , so but , the art to ‘obfuscate ‘ arguements is not the way for me either…. ( only clever people indulge in Obfuscation ! ) …. ( ‘mechanics is mechanism, physics is ‘ matter ‘ , No ? ) – And yet , you are talking ‘let’s get to the Truth’ , that’s double-speak , ….how….? –

    Obfuscation is prevarication of ” Truth ” , its a double-speak …..( is’nt Ultimate Truth in the realm or domain of ‘ Spirituality ‘ ? …..No….. ?

    Splitting hairs is one thing , but Obfuscation is untruth, No ?

  12. The art of Obfuscation = is to Confuse or to stupefy others , so as to Obscure other than your thoughts…..ITS A VERY CLEVER ‘ Art ‘ – best of luck !

  13. I would still persuade one & all, to get the book ‘Veils & Keys ‘ by the most erudite, a brilliant, brilliant learned Scholar JOHN HERELIHY aka YAHAYA AHMED , which can open your hearts & mind , to an amazing new frontier that crosses from this world of reality ( matter ) into that INEFFABLE Reality : a wonderous Dimension , which is a ‘ glimpse ‘ of the Everlasting life , that we say ‘where the Angels dwell in The Eternal Presence……’

  14. ” …..Said was a Campaigner for Palestine and an enemy of Zionism in unequivocal terms ….. ” – A.C. Grayling .
    What a great man …..?

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