< < <
Date Index
> > >
London Guardian's Obituary of Said
by Agustin Lao-Montes
26 September 2003 16:05 UTC
< < <
Thread Index
> > >
 Edward Said
Controversial literary critic and bold advocate of the Palestinian cause in

Malise Ruthven
Friday September 26, 2003
The Guardian

Edward Said, who has died aged 67, was one of the leading literary critics
the last quarter of the 20th century. As professor of English and
literature at Columbia University, New York, he was widely regarded as the
outstanding representative of the post-structuralist left in America. Above
all, he was the most articulate and visible advocate of the Palestinian
in the United States, where it earned him many enemies.

The broadness of Said's approach to literature and his other great love,
classical music, eludes easy categorisation. His most influential book,
Orientalism (1978), is credited with helping to change the direction of
disciplines by exposing an unholy alliance between the enlightenment and
colonialism. As a humanist with a thoroughly secular outlook, his critique
the great tradition of the western enlightenment seemed to many to be self-
contradictory, deploying a humanistic discourse to attack the high cultural
traditions of humanism, giving comfort to fundamentalists who regarded any
criticism of their tradition or texts as off-limits, while calling into
question the integrity of critical research into culturally sensitive areas
such as Islam.

Whatever its flaws, however, Orientalism appeared at an opportune time,
enabling upwardly mobile academics from non-western countries (many of whom
came from families who had benefited from colonialism) to take advantage of
mood of political correctness it helped to engender by associating
with "narratives of oppression", creating successful careers out of
transmitting, interpreting and debating representations of the non-
western "other".

Said's influence, however, was far from being confined to the worlds of
academic and scholarly discourse. An intellectual superstar in America, he
distinguished himself as an opera critic, pianist, television celebrity,
politician, media expert, popular essayist and public lecturer.

Latterly, he was one of the most trenchant critics of the Oslo peace process
and the Palestinian leadership of Yasser Arafat. He was dubbed "professor of
terror" by the rightwing American magazine Commentary; in 1999, when he was
struggling against leukaemia, the same magazine accused him of falsifying
status as a Palestinian refugee to enhance his advocacy of the Palestinian
cause, and of falsely claiming to have been at school in Jerusalem before
completing his education in the United States.

The hostility Said encountered from pro-Israeli circles in New York was
predictable, given his trenchant attacks on Israeli violations of the human
rights of Palestinians and his outspoken condemnations of US policies in the
Middle East. From the other side of the conflict, however, he encountered
opposition from Palestinians who accused him of sacrificing Palestinian
by making unwarranted concessions to Zionism.

As early as 1977, when few Palestinians were prepared to concede that Jews
historic claims to Palestine, he said: "I don't deny their claims, but their
claim always entails Palestinian dispossession." More than any other
Palestinian writer, he qualified his anti-colonial critique of Israel,
explaining its complex entanglements and the problematic character of its
origins in the persecution of European Jews, and the overwhelming impact of
Zionist idea on the European conscience.

Said recognised that Israel's exemption from the normal criteria by which
nations are measured owed everything to the Holocaust. But while recognising
its unique significance, he did not see why its legacy of trauma and horror
should be exploited to deprive the Palestinians, a people who were
dissociable from what has been an entirely European complicity", of their

"The question to be asked," he wrote in the Politics Of Dispossession
(1994), "is how long can the history of anti-semitism and the Holocaust be
as a fence to exempt Israel from arguments and sanctions against it for its
behaviour towards the Palestinians, arguments and sanctions that were used
against other repressive governments, such as South Africa? How long are we
going to deny that the cries of the people of Gaza... are directly connected
the policies of the Israeli government and not to the cries of the victims

He insisted that the task of Israel's critics was not to reproduce for
Palestine a mirror-image of a Zionist ideology of diaspora and return, but
rather to elaborate a secular vision of democracy as applicable to both
and Jews. Elected to the Palestine national council (PNC) in 1977, as an
independent intellectual Said avoided taking part in the factional
while using his authority to make strategic interventions. Rejecting the
of armed struggle as impermissible - because of the legacy of the Holocaust
the special conditions of the Jewish people - he was an early advocate of
two-state solution, implicitly recognising Israel's right to exist. The
was adopted at the PNC meeting in Algiers in 1988.

In adapting the English version of the Arabic draft text, Said used his
influence to rephrase the Arabic; although his modifications were
to satisfy the Reagan administration, which ended by dictating the crucial
words that appeared in Arafat's speech to a special session of the UN
assembly (convened in Geneva because the US state department refused to
Arafat a visa to attend the UN in New York), there can be little doubt that
Said's tireless representations in the American media, explaining that the
declaration amounted to a "historic compromise" on the part of the
towards the Jewish state, opened the way for the US-PLO dialogue that would
lead to the Madrid conference and the Oslo peace process.

As the peace process gained momentum, however, Said adopted an increasingly
critical stance and, in 1991, resigned from the PNC. The Oslo declaration,
argued, was weighted unfairly towards Israel; the scenario, previsioning an
Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho in advance of the other territories
and agreement on the final status of Jerusalem, amounted to "an instrument
Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles".

To the end, he remained a thorn in the side of the Palestinian authority.
best-known and most distinguished Palestinian exile became the subject of
censorship by the representatives of his own people, one of the standard-
bearers of the liberal conscience in the increasingly illiberal climate of
intolerance and corruption surrounding President Arafat and his regime.

Said was born in Jerusalem into a prosperous Palestinian family. His father
Wadie, a Christian, had emigrated to the US before the first world war. He
volunteered for service in France and returned to the Middle East as a
respectable Protestant businessman - with American citizenship - before
an arranged marriage to the daughter of a Baptist minister from Nazareth.

In Out Of Place (1999), the memoir of his childhood and youth, Said
his father, who called himself William to emphasise his adopted American
identity, as overbearing and uncommunicative. His Victorian strictness
instilled in Said "a deep sense of generalised fear", which he spent most of
his life trying to overcome. To his father, Said owed the drivenness that
brought him his remarkable achievements. "I have no concept of leisure or
relaxation and, more particularly, no sense of cumulative achievement," he
wrote. "Every day for me is like the beginning of a new term at school, with
vast and empty summer behind it, and an uncertain tomorrow before it."

Wadie Said revealed little about himself or the source of his money, but
certainly Edward and his sisters never wanted for anything, travelling with
battalions of servants, summering (after 1947) in the cultivated comfort of
Dhour el Shweir in Lebanon, enjoying sumptuous dinners on transatlantic
Said described his mother, whom he evidently adored, as brilliant and man-
ipulative, neurotically difficult to please, giving always the impression
that "she had judged you and found you wanting" - yet instilling in him a
of literature and music.

Said's first name, improbably inspired by the Prince of Wales, was the
of his parents, whom he would come to see as "self-creations" out of an
eclectic blend of elements and aspirations: American lore culled from
and his father's memories, missionary influence, incomplete and hence
schooling, British colonial attitudes. Arabic was forbidden at home, except
when speaking to servants; even the waiters at Groppis, the fashionable
cafe, were addressed in bad French.

According to Said, his un-Arab Christian name induced a split in his
sense of identity, between "Edward", his outer self, and the "loose,
irresponsible, fantasy-ridden metamorphoses of my private inner life".
but rebellious, he described himself as having been a leading troublemaker
Cairo's Victoria College, the British-style public school whose snooty
Michael Shalhoub would later achieve celebrity as Omar Sharif.

Sent at his father's insistence to Mount Hermon, a private school in
Massachusetts, he blossomed academically, but lacked the right attitude to
acknowledged as an outstanding student. He responded positively to the
approach to essay-writing, which he found more imaginative and stimulating
the buttoned-up British approach in Cairo.

The contrast between his burgeoning academic distinction and the absence of
formal recognition clearly marked him deeply. He would claim that it was
experience, as much as the work of his more widely acknowledged intellectual
mentors, including RP Blackmur, Antonio Gramsci, Theodor Adorno, Raymond
Williams and Michel Foucault, that influenced his anti- authoritarian

Said's engagement with Palestine drew on deep emo tional roots, particularly
his affection for his Jerusalem aunt Nabiha, his father's sister, who, after
1948, devoted her life to working with Palestinian refugees in Cairo,
she never discussed the political aspects of the dispute in Said's presence.
Until his 30s, Edward was too preoccupied with his studies, progressing
smoothly through Princeton and Harvard graduate school, developing his
methodologies and indulging his passion for music, especially the piano, at
which he achieved an almost professional level of competence, to take much
interest in the politics of his homeland.

It was the trauma of the Arab defeat in 1967, which unleashed a second wave
refugees (many of them already refugees from the 1948 exodus), that shocked
out of what he would come to see as his earlier complacency, reconnecting
with his former self.

Said's writings on English literature, such as Culture And Imperialism
and western classical music drew heavily on his sense of being an outsider.
Like Joseph Conrad, the subject of his PhD thesis and first published book,
retained an "extraordinarily persistent residual sense of his own exilic
marginality", which enabled him to deploy a kind of double- vision in his
readings of the English novel, discerning the invisible colonial plantations
that guarantee the domestic tranquillity of Mansfield Park, or finding in
Conrad's self-consciously circular narrative forms the sense of the
potentiality of the challenges to western hegemony that would erupt during
post-colonial era.

Where African writers such as Chinhua Achebe dismissed Conrad as a racist,
suggesting that, whatever his gifts as a writer, his political attitudes
make him despicable to any African, Said saw such reasoning as amounting to
spiritual, intellectual and aesthetic amputation. Contrary to the assumption
sometimes made about him, he did not consider that the hidden political
and attitudes of cultural supremacy that he regarded as informing the canons
western culture from Dante to Flaubert necessarily diminished their artistic
integrity or cultural power.

His achievement may have been to enhance artistic comprehension by drawing
attention to unstated political dimensions in the knowledge that art must
always escape enlistment for partisan ends. In a brilliant essay on Die
Meistersinger that grapples with Wagner's anti-semitism, he quoted, with
approval, Pierre Boulez's remark that "Wagner's music, by its very
refuses to bear the ideological message that it is intended to convey."

A similar statement could be made about Said's work as a critic. The anti-
colonial perspective that animates his work does not issue in ideological
consistency. Rather, it challenges conventional assumptions about art, music
and literature, opening up new avenues of inquiry and questioning the
by which knowledge is organised and husbanded. Like his hero, Theodor
Said was "the quintessential intellectual, hating all systems, whether on
side or theirs, with equal distaste".

Versatile and subtle, he was better at elucidating distinctions than
formulating systems. A Christian humanist with a healthy respect for Islam,
was a member of the academic elite; yet he inveighed against academic
professionalism, venturing into territories well outside his area of
speciality, insisting always that the true intellectual's role must be that
the amateur, because it is only the amateur who is moved neither by the
nor the requirements of a career, and who is therefore capable of a
disinterested engagement with ideas and values.

The unusual complexity of his background - privileged yet marginal, wealthy
powerless - allowed him to empathise with dispossessed people, especially
victims of Zionism and its western supporters, while enjoying in the fullest
measure the cultural riches of New York, a city that rang louder than any
with Jewish achievement and success.

In his final years, Said's health grew ever more fragile, and, though
passionately concerned with the unfolding Palestinian disaster in the wake
9/11 and the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, he took a conscious decision
withdraw from political controversy and channel his energies into music. The
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra he founded with the Israeli citizen Daniel
Barenboim in 1999 grew out of the friendship he forged with the musician who
shares his belief that art - and, in particular, the music of Wagner -
transcends political ideology. With Said's assistance, Barenboim gave master
classes for Palestinian students in the occupied West Bank, infuriating the
Israeli right.

The orchestra received a tumultuous reception at the BBC Proms last month.
may prove a fitting legacy for an intellectual whose work illuminated our
crisis-ridden world by embracing its contradictions and celebrating its

In 1970, he married Mariam Cortas, by whom he had a son and a daughter.

 Edward Wadie Said, writer and academic, born November 1 1935; died
25 2003

Guardian Unlimited  Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003

< < <
Date Index
> > >
World Systems Network List Archives
at CSF
Subscribe to World Systems Network < < <
Thread Index
> > >