Why Edward Said and his writing matter

Edward Said was a prolific writer. The key to reading him is following in his footsteps: construct a chronology, track trajectories of thought, torment yourself with text until you locate context.

Nandini Ramachandran November 02, 2011 15:48:09 IST
Why Edward Said and his writing matter

November offers caramels of granite.
Unpredictable!
Like world history
Laughing at the wrong place.

"November in the Former DDR": Tomas Tranströrmer

"November is a mournful month in the history of Palestine" begins Edward Said's obituary for the venerable Isaiah Berlin. November, he continues, frames the Palestinian tragedy. The Balfour Declaration, which initiated the British policy of "demographic transformation" within mandate Palestine was passed on November 2, 1917. The UN partitioned Palestine in November 1947; the Yom Kippur war ruined Palestine forever by November 1973. n less than sixty years, four million people became refugees, both at home and in exile. Edward Said, one emblem of this diaspora, was born in Jerusalem eighteen years after Balfour began eroding his country (on November 1, 1935).

Said's obituary acknowledges Berlin’s impressive legacy. As a philosopher, he consolidated 20th century thought, introducing "pluralism" into popular discourse. Despite his disdain for conformity, Berlin remained peculiarly blinkered about Palestine, ignoring its history of cruel loss. Jews shouldn't publicly criticise Israel, he once told Noam Chomsky, whether or not it might be warranted. Berlin's blindness was symptomatic of liberal apathy in the decades after World War II. As Israel blossomed into an apartheid state, the Western left merely cringed, even as they derided similar practices elsewhere. It was in reproach to this extraordinary, hypocritical silence that Said located his own writing, which proved to be as influential as Berlin's. If Berlin urged the reading public to practice "pluralism", Said uncovered the "Other" in his books Orientalism and Culture & Imperialism. 

Why Edward Said and his writing matter

Edward Said. Getty Images.

Another of Said's many contributions to thought is 'secular interpretation'. This is an idea that writers like Judith Butler and Talal Asad have since evolved. Said's version (it grows more complex in later iterations) intends to construct an intersecting culture; a civilisation which chooses from all the world's thinking whilst discarding those elements that can be divisive or demeaning. Said's understanding of nationalism is an excellent example of this ethos.

"The dense fabric of secular life", he notes in one interview, "can't be herded under the rubric of national identity or can't be made entirely to respond to this phoney idea of a paranoid frontier separating 'us' from 'them'… The politics of secular interpretation proposes a way of dealing with that problem, a way of avoiding pitfalls, by discriminating between the different "Easts" and "Wests', how differently they are made, maintained, and so on".

Edward Said was a prolific writer. The key to reading him is following in his footsteps: construct a chronology, track trajectories of thought, torment yourself with text until you locate context. He wrote across the globe, publishing literary treatises, political commentary, and lively historiography with equal élan. In these books, Said is a consummate professor, detached and authoritative. The conceptual analysis is incisive, his normative thrust provocative and precise. The arguments are eloquent, the sentences elegant, the conclusions evident. In his books about Palestine, especially in the early essays of The Politics of Dispossession, he is more liable to prickly defensiveness, qualifying each insight and eternally in transition between the personal and political. Another book echoes Said’s poet-compatriot Mahmoud Darwish in its demand: where should birds fly after the last sky? By his final Palestine book —2004's From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map— Said is splendidly suave again, if bitterly (and justly) angry.

In 1997, the year he wrote Berlin's obituary, Said gave a lecture about Eqbal Ahmad at Hampshire College entitled Cherish the Man's Courage. Ahmad and Said were lifelong friends, having first met in a conference about Palestine in 1968. Ahmad was already a respected veteran of the Algerian struggle for independence as well as an anti-Vietnam war activist, while Said's political education was only beginning. Said dedicated his book Culture & Imperialism to the famous Pakistani journalist in 1993, and he heaps praise in this speech:

Anyone who knew Eqbal in conditions of struggle knew subliminally that his loyalty and solidarity were unquestionable. He was a genius at sympathy… shrewd and illusionless enough to realise that overturning societies for the sake of revolutions only, without sufficient attention to the fact that human beings also love and create and celebrate and commemorate, is a callous, merely destructive practice that may be radical but is profoundly wrong

Two years later, he would write a moving eulogy for Ahmad in The Guardian calling him "that rare thing, an intellectual unintimidated by power or authority". It was, one can only say, just as true of his own life. The world today sorely lacks an intellectual as compassionate as Professor Said, who transcended divisions by rising above them. His decision to wield his voice like a weapon is the bravest choice anyone in the business of ideas can make.

If he was the epitome of the "rootless cosmopolitan" as the historian Tony Judt styled him, it was not for lack of love for his homeland. It was fate, not destiny, that made him the spokesperson for a neglected nation.

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