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Remembering Edward Said

A dispeller of cobwebs, Edward Said’s work shone a searing light on almost all that came before him. His work on dispossession and the East renewed our understanding of the world, writes Nandini Ramachandran

Nandini Ramachandran  6th Nov 2011

dward Said's life was devoted to dispelling cobwebs. Born in Jerusalem, he was destined to be a stranger in many strange lands. Said grew up a Christian in Cairo and died an Arab in America, and this eclectic heritage fashioned a thinker willing to probe every truth. Skepticism was the cornerstone of his advice to all intellectuals. Be alert, he warns descendants, to the threat of seizure. Never allow your conscience to be subsumed in service to illusions.  He elaborates upon this duty in Representations of the Intellectual: "That this involves a steady realism, an almost athletic rational energy, and a complicated struggle to balance the problems of one's own selfhood against the demands of publishing and speaking out in the public sphere is what makes it an everlasting effort, constitutively unfinished and necessarily imperfect." We are a wound, Said is saying, a wound that fights.

Said was the voice of Palestine's vast diaspora. All along his sprawl, he contemplates exile. "Exile is life led outside habitual order, he observes, "no sooner does one get accustomed to it than its unsettling force erupts anew." To be uprooted, for Said, is to be trapped in a contrapuntal calendar that is forever oscillating against history. His writing is a process of negotiation with this fate, and the notion of distance - between a critic and his text, a writer and his world, a maestro and his music - is central to his thinking.

Said investigates the cleavages language inflicts upon reality; the perpetual battle over meaning in a postmodern cosmos. He explores, across the body of his work, the intricate layers in which ideology infects language and language affects knowledge.

Individual books develop this basic impulse into distinctive trajectories.  The iconic Orientalism (1978) introduced the "Other" into our cultural lexicon and made him a legend in ivory towers everywhere. He builds upon this theme in Culture & Imperialism (1993). Within these books, Said terraforms comparative literature by highlighting the exclusion embedded within European perceptions about the rest of the globe. It's not as much about denunciation, he argues, as about dismissal. Colonial writing doesn't disagree with native experience,  it undermines and ignores it. His first Palestine trilogy, beginning with The Question of Palestine (1979), grounds the abstract reasoning of this criticism in concrete experience and historical fact. Said calls this escape from epistemologies that debase their subjects a 'politics of abduction'. All such departure, he claims, demands a bold imagination eager to extrapolate without filters; it is only when you notice everyone that you can include them in the future.

Said was the voice of Palestine’s vast diaspora. All along his sprawl, he contemplates exile. “Exile is life led outside habitual order, he observes, “no sooner does one get accustomed to it than its unsettling force erupts anew.”

Covering Islam (1981) is the bridge between Said's early books and Culture & Imperialism. The slim book was written during the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution and published one year before the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon's Sabra and Shatila camps. It combines an analysis of news coverage about contemporary Islam with the insights of Orientalism and the historical sensibility of The Question of Palestine.  With all these pundits bemoaning barbaric Muslims again, Said wonders, does the onslaught of liberal sanctimony signify renewed imperial interest in the region? The years would prove his nightmare true, and by the first Gulf war he was critiquing American foreign policy and Arafat equally. Israel consistently infringed upon human rights, Said insisted, while the PLO collapsed morally and politically. The Politics of the Dispossession (1994) collects his political essays written between "Black September" (the expulsion of the PLO from Jordan in 1970) and the Oslo Peace Accords. Together, the two books exemplify Said's mature writing, his 'exfoliation from a beginning'.

Covering Islam and Dispossession were directed at the West and written from the perspective of an ambassador from countries lost to modernity. Despite his unflagging effort on behalf of the Palestinian cause, Said was neither effusive nor romantic about his nation's prospects. There isn't a harsher critic to be found of the post-Oslo Palestinian Authority.  He was staunchly opposed to the fantasy of reclaiming Palestine with violence, and was amongst the earliest proponents of a dialogue with Israel to restore the 1967 borders.  His pragmatism, while wise, rendered him unpopular, and he remained marginal within the liberation movement. The early Palestine books hadn't even been translated into Arabic when Dispossession was published.

After Dispossession,  Said's focus shifts radically. Witness to the deepening shadow of neoliberal America over the Arab world, he cultivates the nearly impossible contortions of an exiled exile. He revisits Palestine to write a childhood memoir (Out of Place, 2000) and starts writing for Arab newspapers. He borrows faith from Faiz, believing that cages will dissolve when imprisoned men open their eyes. His work in this period is more reportage than commentary, stacking maps upon fact upon death tolls in an excruciating tapestry of suffering. Yet, he manages to find hope amidst the wreckage: the courageous activists on both sides of the evanescent border, the Al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000, the ingenuity of a nation inured to deprivation. These columns culminated in his second Palestine trilogy: Peace & Its Discontents (1995),  The End of the Peace Process (2000), From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map (2004).

"In the history of art late works are catastrophes" Edward Said notes in his virtuoso finale On Late Style. This book contains his finest snippets of literary performance, linking poetry to drama to music to an abiding love for the philosopher Adorno. "Late style is what happens" he explains "if art doesn't abdicate its rights in favour of is the predicament of ending without illusory hope or manufactured resignation. For Adorno, lateness includes the idea of surviving beyond what is acceptable and normal...Fully conscious, full of memory, and also very (even preternaturally) aware of the present...[lateness is life as] an ageing, disobliging, and even embarrassingly frank former colleague who, even though he has left one's circle, persists in making things hard for everyone."

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