On Edward Said

Michael Wood

A friend asks me how old Edward Said was when he died. I pause, do the little sum, and say: ‘He was 67, a few months older than I was.’ Then I catch the weird tense. ‘Than I am.’ Both tenses are true, of course. I’m still 67, but a piece of me is past.

I don’t like to use the word ‘unbearable’ because I’m conscious that too many people are bearing what seem to be unbearable hardships every day. But when, on 25 September, Edward finally succumbed to the illness that had been harrying him for so many years, I couldn’t get the word out of my head. What I said, what we all said, was how hard it was to believe that this person so full of life was no longer with us, how much the world needed his courage and example, how hollow our lives would now feel, but what my mind was muttering, like a desperate recitation or an atheist’s prayer, was: ‘This is unbearable.’ Of course it was not unbearable, since I was bearing it, if badly. This is not the worst, if you can say it is the worst, as a famous Shakespearean line has it. But it can get pretty bad even if it’s not the worst.

But my feelings are small-time compared with the loss Edward represents to the world. The world. One of his favourite words, and I have already used it twice. 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.’ All things take place in a solid and freighted world, and Edward’s masterpiece, Orientalism, showed in detail how one such world was made and inhabited – who owned it, and whom it travestied and excluded. But Edward did not, as was often suspected, politicise everything, and although he didn’t suffer stooges gladly, he was as anxious to save cultural spaces from politics as he was to remind us that most people who say culture should be free of politics mean only that culture should be free of the politics they dislike. I was always moved by Edward’s repeated (and I think romanticised) claim that the American university is ‘the last remaining utopia’, and his books are full of tributes and references and acknowledgments to a vast assortment of scholars, a sort of textual community of inquiry. Perhaps arbitrarily, I associate this secure space of conversation and learning with Edward’s insistence on the treasured solitude of the experience of art. He said of Brahms that he found himself ‘coming to a sort of unstatable, or inexpressible, aspect of his music, the music of his music, which I think anyone who listens to, plays, or thinks about music carries within oneself’. This music and this utopia are not incompatible with worldliness; they are the reward for respecting the world, and they are the image of a world of respect.

Edward’s first book, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (1966), elaborated the idea that becoming a writer was a project rather than a career, that you poured yourself into a series of works which in turn defined who you were. His second book, Beginnings (1975), exploring masterpieces of Modernism and more recent works of theory, argued that a beginning is different from (and preferable to) an origin, because a beginning can be chosen and an origin can only be acknowledged. ‘A beginning,’ Edward wrote, ‘methodologically unites a practical need with a theory, an intention with a method.’ We note the element of work and practice in both cases, and in Orientalism (1978), his third book, he looked at the long haul of culture in a particular, dense instance: the ‘invention’ of the East by the West, a process which resembles many others in which ‘we’ define ‘them’ and get them to live up to our definition. For a long time I couldn’t understand why Edward didn’t say more about the actual people living in the so-called East, then I realised it was a matter of scruple, even austerity. He could point to the gap between these people’s lives and what Orientalists have often made of them; but he couldn’t step in and talk for the silenced without becoming an Orientalist himself.

The World, the Text and the Critic (1983) contains the much discussed essays ‘Travelling Theory’ and ‘Criticism between Culture and System’, and argues both that ‘there is obviously no substitute for reading well’ and that ‘criticism cannot assume its province is merely the text, not even the great literary text.’ Meanwhile Edward had begun to write more directly political and polemic books: The Question of Palestine (1979) and Covering Islam (1981) were the first. After the Last Sky (1986), with photographs by Jean Mohr, is a brilliant meditation on Palestinian identity, which contains the following haunting assertion of a national habit:

We are a people of messages and signals, of allusions and indirect expression. We seek each other out, but because our interior is always to some extent occupied and interrupted by others – Israelis and Arabs – we have developed a technique of speaking through the given, expressing things obliquely and, to my mind, so mysteriously as to puzzle even ourselves.

In 1991 Edward published Musical Elaborations, a sombre but loving account of developments in music since Beethoven, from which I have already quoted. Culture and Imperialism (1993) revisits and revises Orientalism, but also expands its scope, insists on the insidious persistence of empire, and, still careful not to speak for the silenced natives, studies the growing number of instances where the natives eloquently talk back. And after that the books still kept coming. A collection of political essays, Peace and Its Discontents (1995). A memoir, Out of Place (1999). A collection of mainly literary essays, Reflections on Exile (2000). A collection of 50 pieces, some of which appeared in the LRB, on the aftermath of the Oslo Accords, The End of the Peace Process (2000). A little book on Freud’s ‘unresolved sense of identity’, called Freud and the Non-European (2003). ‘Identity,’ we read there, ‘cannot be thought or worked through itself alone; it cannot constitute or even imagine itself without that radical originary break or flaw which will not be repressed.’ The context is Freud’s reminding us that Moses was an Egyptian.

Edward was not an irredeemable highbrow, and he insisted that one of the most significant moments of his life was getting to meet Cyd Charisse. He certainly loved movies, and knew a lot about them. Errol Flynn was a particular hero. But his tastes in culture were largely traditional and classical, and it was a source of intense amusement to many of us that he should have been so disgusted at the thought of his daughter Najla taking university courses in trendy popular culture. His son Wadie used to joke that Edward had no ‘blue-collar pleasures’, meaning he didn’t sit around in his vest drinking beer and watching American football on television. Actually Edward did drink beer and watch American football. It’s the sitting around in his vest that’s hard to imagine.

Memories. The children, ours and the Saids’, scampering up and down the hall when we lived in the same building in New York. The piano in the sitting-room, the sense of Brahms in the air, even when there was nothing to be heard. But this sounds a little too peaceful. Edward was a demon tennis player, and I sometimes thought he played the piano the way he played tennis: to win. Edward’s study, full of pipes and fountain-pens, apparently just the den of an old-fashioned man of letters. Well, he was an old-fashioned man of letters – it’s just that that wasn’t all he was. Beleaguered, passionate political days in that same building when it looked as if Cyrus Vance might do something for the Palestinians. Visiting intellectual celebrities, often French, royally entertained by Edward and Mariam. Actually you were (and are) always royally entertained at the Saids’. Even a snack in their apartment would count as a banquet anywhere else. 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.

In a pile of old papers I find an article that describes Edward as a professor of terror. This accusation was always grotesquely wrong, and now seems faded, given the extraordinary respect Edward finally found himself receiving, even from (many of) his enemies. And he had enemies on every side: at one point his books were banned by the Palestinian Authority because he had, as he put it, ‘dared to speak against our own Papa Doc’. But there are echoes of the old accusation lingering still, and it was littered all over the New York Times obituary, which was full of apologies for being there at all – as if merely to mention Edward’s name was to be a partisan.

Edward was very drawn to Adorno’s picture of the best modern art as a grand and necessary failure, ‘a surviving message of despair from the shipwrecked’, as Adorno encouragingly put it. But Edward suggested that ‘an exigent, resistant, intransigent art’ could be both the vehicle of that despair and a powerful witness to the inhumanity of much of the modern world. I think of Edward’s London lectures on lateness, dazzling meditations on Adorno, Richard Strauss and Visconti. ‘It is as if,’ he said of these figures, ‘having achieved age they want none of its supposed serenity or maturity, or any of its amiability and official ingratiation. Yet in none of them is mortality denied or evaded.’ In recent years Edward’s mortality was too constantly underlined for it to be denied or evaded, but he didn’t develop a late style. He was still working on a middle style, and he didn’t need to become old to become a dissident.

Long years as colleagues. Our shared admiration and affection for Fred Dupee, Columbia’s master of style and irony, and a sort of foil to Lionel Trilling, whom we also liked but felt a little more distant from. Fred was dry where Lionel was grand, and Fred wrecked many pretentious and ill-considered schemes in the department just by sighing at the right time in a meeting. Edward’s enthusiasms and impatiences. Once he had moved on from an idea or a fashion he couldn’t believe anyone else was wasting time on it. The extraordinary range and power of his mind. He wasn’t always subtle, and he was often indifferent to details, but he had always thought things through. I can’t count the number of arguments I had with him which involved my recognising, some time later, that I had just arrived at a point where Edward had been when we were talking. Edward’s advice to me, when I received a particularly miserable salary rise, scarcely a rise at all. He said I should go out and get an offer from another university, and then Columbia would pay attention. Taking what I thought was the high ground I said I was not going to play their game. Edward sighed, grinned and said: ‘Mike, you are playing their game. And losing.’

If you had asked me a month ago I would have said I didn’t believe in heroes. I realise now that there have been people in my life – Edward, the above-mentioned Fred Dupee, my Cambridge teacher and friend Peter Stern, and my father – who represented ideal forms of what a person could be. They were, variously, models of intelligence, persistence, courage, delicacy, honour, depth of argument, decency, kindness, much else. One can speak to such models mentally even though they are dead, and one can imagine their responses. One can write sentences, even books, for them, and benefit from the memory of the risk and rigour of their thought. But there is still something desolate about their absence from the world. For one thing, they won’t make new arguments or comments; for another, no one younger will get to know them, learn of the exemplary possibilities these people proposed.

Edward was a dapper dresser, and he liked people to pay attention to such things – for their own sake, and because he liked the idea of style. I think perhaps the first conversation we ever had – this would have been some time in the autumn of 1964, I had just arrived at Columbia and Edward had started there the year before – was about a smart jacket (or jackets) he had bought downtown, maybe at Barney’s but probably somewhere posher. He insisted I go and get one of these items because the price was so fantastic, and he asked me every day whether I’d been yet. I didn’t need (and couldn’t afford) a jacket, but I couldn’t withstand the force of Edward’s solicitude, and finally went and bought one. Black. Cashmere. Very nice. I wore it for ages.

Edward’s 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.

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. Edward liked to quote Gramsci’s aphorism, and with good reason. But he wasn’t a pessimist of any kind, either of the intellect or the will. He was the deepest, most devoted, most unalterable kind of optimist, the optimist who can look despair in the face and keep on hoping. I remember a long argument we had at the time of the signing of the Oslo Accords. The thing went on for about four hours, Edward pacing up and down in his apartment drinking glass after glass of orange juice. I was looking for hope but looking in the wrong place. In the end, I said: ‘But Edward, you’ve got to believe that some day, somehow, things are going to get better.’ He looked at me as if I was mad, and said: ‘Of course I believe that. If I didn’t believe that I wouldn’t be doing any of this.’

I’ve thought of this exchange often as the days have become even darker in Palestine and Israel, and I have come to understand what it means to be an optimist, and what an imperishable optimism looks like. I thought I was an optimist, but I’m just a utopian. Edward was an optimist. A few days before he died he called to talk a little – he had come back from the edge of death, and knew he had, but none of us knew how close the end was – and although rather hoarse and weak in voice, sounded very much like himself, making jokes, insatiably curious and full of spirit. I said: ‘Edward, you’re invincible.’ He said: ‘I’m not invincible, but I’m not giving up.’