On September 25 last year, I was sitting at the kitchen table trying to write an essay on Camuss La Peste
. In order to analyse a pattern of words in it, I opened Edward Saids Culture and Imperialism
, which has an incisive chapter on Camus. Id read it several times -most recently at Columbia University where Id taught during the previous year in the same English faculty as Said, and discussed Camus and many other authors with him. Said criticises Camuss plain style, his extraordinarily belated, in some ways incapacitated colonial sensibility, and his declaration that an Algerian nation never existed.
I wanted to link this to the way Camus plays on the French word but (target, goal), when the phone rang - it was a friend from Columbia telling me that Edward Said had died that morning. It was very distressing and also uncanny - I could see his words on the page in front of me, hear his voice in their cadences alongside the voice of my friend telling me how Edward had slipped into a coma the previous night and died in the early hours. Ten minutes later I was on the phone to a friend of Edwards and mine in Israel - the three of us had last met one long summers evening in a country garden outside Stratford-on-Avon three months before - and we reflected on how grief is compulsive in its need to share memories and stories. Then, some time later, I went back to Saids writings to remember him and write about the epic intellectual endeavour that was at the centre of his life.
In 1988 he came to London for the launch in the National Theatre of his pamphlet, Yeats and Decolonisation, which had been commissioned by the Derry-based Field Day Theatre Company, of which I was a member. I met him there and we immediately became friends - our conversation, I recall, was mostly about Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poetry fascinated us both. Three years later, he was diagnosed with the debilitating form of leukaemia he fought for the last 12 years of his life, enduring every month the most terribly painful treatment. He never gave in, and I remember trying to persuade him not to travel to Spain in August last year, because his health was so bad. I want to go, he said, Im going to make a film with Daniel [Barenboim]. So he flew to Spain and took part in the film with Barenboim and the young Arab and Israeli musicians of the East-West Divan Orchestra, which was shown on the South Bank Show last winter.
Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935, and educated at Victoria College, Cairo (Omar Sharif and Ralph Nader were fellow pupils). During his rebellious adolescence, his father, a successful businessman, sent him to a boarding school in Massachusetts. He survived the displacement and culture shock to become a brilliant student at Princeton and Harvard. He became a professor at Columbia in 1963, and succeeded to Lionel Trillings chair there. His major work, Orientalism, was published in 1978, and made him world famous. It was translated into 36 languages, and continues to prompt debate and inform argument against certain ideological and racist attitudes that still shape ideology in the United States and Britain.
For many people, academic works exist outside politics and history but, as Said shows, generations of scholars have shaped and lent credence to imperialist expansion. In a new introduction to Orientalism, written a few months before he died, Said states that among the major influences on George W Bushs Pentagon and national security council were experts on the Arab and Islamic world such as Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami who helped the American hawks to think about such preposterous phenomena as the Arab mind and centuries-old Islamic decline that only American power could reverse. For Said, the role of the intellectual was to say truth to power, and it was this Promethean truth-telling that drove him tirelessly, ceaselessly until his death. He was attacked in print, received death-threats, had his office at Columbia vandalised, was libelled and dubbed the professor of terror - he was also attacked for wearing stylish clothes and living in Manhattan - but he refused to stop telling the truth or to stop arguing for peaceful progress towards institutions in Israel and Palestine that were not ethnically based. The solidarity he proclaimed was multi-racial, and he rejoiced in an enormous circle of friends that stretched across the world.
Although his many enemies attacked him as an ideologically driven writer, the foundation of all his work is the concept of disinterested aesthetic pleasure. Like Hazlitt, whom he greatly admired, he refused to allow his political principles to distort his admiration for particular works of art. When Culture and Imperialism was published in 1993, the chapter on Jane Austens Mansfield Park aroused anger among some critics, because of his discussion of the dead silence (Austens phrase) that occurs when its heroine, Fanny Price, asks her uncle about the slave trade. The family owns a sugar plantation on Antigua, and Fanny is troubled by this, though to no real narrative purpose (the film in which Harold Pinter plays Fannys uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, draws on Saids discussion to make the point more sharply).
Discussing the novel, Said argues that it is silly to expect Jane Austen to treat slavery with anything like the passion of an abolitionist or a newly liberated slave. Said refused to engage in what he termed the rhetoric of blame, and attack Austen retrospectively for being white, insensitive, complicit. Rather, he criticised card-carrying postcolonial critics for such attacks, and insisted that Austens novel is a rich work whose aesthetic intellectual complexity requires a longer and slower analysis. Austen belonged to a slave-owning society, but we should not therefore jettison her novels as aesthetic frumpery. This affirmation of aesthetic pleasure, which is the central energy of all his writing, is made again in Culture and Imperialism, where he says that Kipling should not be dismissed as an imperialist minstrel. Kim is a work of great aesthetic merit, and cannot be dismissed as the racist imaginings of one disturbed and ultra-reactionary imperialist. Almost uniquely, Said combines an unrelenting appreciation of a literary text or a piece of music with the pizzazz and ethical witness of what that great Puritan writer Samuel Richardson called writing to the moment.
Said didnt begin his academic career as a politicised writer, and anyone reading his first book, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography, would be hard put to detect a political subtext. Only a short passage on the tragedy of Polish history and on doubleness glances at a political theme. The Conrad book was published in 1966, but the Arab-Israeli war the following year affected Said deeply, and he began to combine political writing with literary criticism and scholarly research. It was this ability to move from discussing a sonnet by Mallarmé to indicting the Israeli authorities and their supporters in Europe and the US that was to make Said into what one scholar has called probably the best-known intellectual in the world. Like Mallarmé, he had read all the books, and it is one of the daunting pleasures of his work to be given reading lists - Auerbach, Adorno, Blackmur, Derrida, Foucault, Lukacs, Vico, whom he had read in depth, as well as a host of other critics, scholars, historians, musicologists. A brilliant linguist who was also a gifted pianist, and in his last years a devoted friend and collaborator with Barenboim, he wrote and lectured and broadcast with the rapt inspiring delight and joy of a great performer.
One of his heroes was that supreme Tory anarchist, Jonathan Swift, whom he praises in an essay, Humanisms Sphere, written in the last months of his life. He saw Swift, as Yeats did, as the most demonic and tigerish writer as has ever lived. Swift did not settle into untroubled patterns of tranquillity and unchanging order - instead he remained unsatisfied, unappeased, unreconciled.
Saids death, in his 68th year, was untimely, and it is the theme of untimeliness which he confronts in another, posthumously published essay, Thoughts on Late Style, where he challenges the received idea that old age confers a spirit of reconciliation and serenity on late works, and argues that in late Beethoven and Ibsen there is instead intransigence, difficulty and contradiction. The word intransigence is a favourite with him (sometimes he gives the Arabic sumud), and it informs his writing without ever making it seem rigid, narrow or obsessive. Like his friend, Noam Chomsky, he takes issue with the separation of politics from art and scholarship, and he also draws on Barthes and Foucault, on whose work he was an expert, to argue against the platonic view of an author or, say, a novel as set apart from history and circumstance.
This rejection of the separation of history from culture can be seen in The Question of Palestine, which was published in 1979, a year after Orientalism. After discussing the demolition of more than 16,000 Arab houses during the early years of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, which began in 1967, he turns to the moment some 50 years before, when the British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, issued a declaration in which the British government undertook to view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.
In this powerful, always gracefully written polemic, we see several important themes emerging. One is the failure of western intellectuals to recognise how the Palestinian people were made invisible: Check the disgraceful record and you will find only a small handful - among them Noam Chomsky, Israel Shahak, IF Stone, Elmer Berger, Judah Magnes - who have tried to see what Zionism did to the Palestinians not just once in 1948, but over the years. It is one of the most frightening cultural episodes of the 20th century, this almost total silence about Zionisms doctrines for and treatment of the native Palestinians.
Said celebrates the work of certain contemporary intellectuals, who were often dear personal friends, like Chomsky and Shahak. His work brings the life of the mind and high culture to the struggle for justice and recognition. This struggle is pitched against powerful forces - vested interests, embedded ideologies, racism, and those so-called intellectuals whom, quoting Gramsci, he characterised as experts in legitimisation - the paid scribes of power who are silent about its excesses.
We dont tend to see critical writing as performance - at least not those of us who were brought up on the lumpy writings of FR Leavis. But Saids prose, unlike Leaviss, always sings, and has epic, bravura moments, like this immense sentence from the opening chapter of Orientalism:
To restore a region from its present barbarism to its former classical greatness; to instruct (for its own benefit) the Orient in the ways of the modern West; to subordinate or underplay military power in order to aggrandise the project of glorious knowledge acquired in the process of political domination of the Orient; to formulate the Orient, to give it shape, identity, definition with full recognition of its place in memory, its importance to imperial strategy, and its natural role as an appendage to Europe; to dignify all the knowledge collected during colonial occupation with the title contribution to modern learning, when the natives had neither been consulted not treated as anything except as pretexts for a text whose usefulness was not to the natives; to feel oneself as a European in command, almost at will, of Oriental history, time, and geography; to institute new areas of specialisation; to establish new disciplines; to divide, deploy, schematise, tabulate, index, and record everything in sight (and out of sight); to make out of every observable detail a generalisation and out of every generalisation an immutable law about the Oriental nature, temperament, mentality, custom, or type; and, above all, to transmute living reality into the stuff of texts, to possess (or think one possesses) actuality mainly because nothing in the Orient seems to resist ones powers: these are the features of Orientalist projection entirely realised in the Description de lÉgypte, itself enabled and reinforced by Napoleons wholly Orientalist engulfment of Egypt by the instruments of Western knowledge and power.
Again, this is like one of those magnificent moments in Hazlitt, where he will suddenly unleash vast sentences which assume an unchallengeable authority and take written prose into the living flow of intense oratory (as everyone who attended his lectures knows, Said was a wonderfully inspired and inspiring speaker).
Its unusual for critical prose to be submitted to any kind of formal analysis; indeed, if we survey literary criticism well find few discussions of the prose style of novelists, let alone critics, but it is one of the joys of reading Said that we are prompted to examine his formal strategies. He dislikes what, discussing the distinguished Orientalist Hamilton Gibb, he called quietly heedless but profoundly sequential prose. Said breaks with such prose by using parentheses in the long sentence Ive just quoted, introducing a pause and change in vocal rhythm which acts as a counterpoint. He had a strong interest in the contrapuntal, noting it in the music he admired, and characterising it as essential to the practice of criticism. This effect is extended by the three stressed nouns shape, identity, definition, and by those six, again strongly stressed verbs, divide, deploy, schematise, tabulate, index, read. Saids prose gives character to the arguments of the Orientalist scholars, travellers, members of government think tanks, whom he then confronts and challenges.
His ambition is to prevent sentences from becoming routine, tranquil, unchanging, and his use of dashes and parentheses helps to shape the vocal inflections and pauses of his prose, and to assist a quick passionate intelligence, which knows that often abstract vocabulary, which critical discourse necessarily demands, could dull the prose.
Conrad, like Swift, is a conservative anarchist and a major influence on Said, and it is this openness to a point of view that is other than progressive which gives Saids thinking and his style its complexity. In a passage from Heart of Darkness, Conrad offers this seminal image of western imperialism:
Near the buildings I met a white man, in such an unexpected elegance of get-up that in the first moment I took him for a sort of vision. I saw a high starched collar, white cuffs, a light alpaca jacket, snowy trousers, a clean necktie, and varnished boots. No hat. Hair parted, brushed, oiled, under a green-lined parasol held in a big white hand. He was amazing, and had a pen-holder behind his ear ... His appearance was certainly that of a hairdressers dummy; but in the great demoralisation of the land he kept up his appearance. Thats backbone.
This passage and Conrads whole novella, which also influenced TS Eliot, particularly in The Waste Land, is near the centre of Saids imagination, and helps shape his writing.
Part of the effectiveness of Saids analysis stems from his attention to Orientalist prose style. Gibb speaks of the characteristic difference in the Oriental. But what is the meaning of difference, Said asks, when the preposition from has dropped from sight altogether? Said argues that Camuss plain style and unadorned reporting conceal complex contradictions. In Reflections on Exile, he says that a plain reportorial style can coerce history and knowledge into mere events being observed. Out of this has grown the eye-witness, seemingly opinion-less politics of contemporary western journalism.
The cadences of Saids prose resist the consistency of plain style, as when he argues that the intellectual must choose the method, the style, the texture best suited for the purpose of saying the truth to power. The texture of his prose challenges that blurred, evasive, timid judiciousness which lies at the heart of much academic writing. His prose is pitched against what he calls the academic flaccidity of English Studies, the determination of its practitioners to show themselves to be silent, perhaps incompetent about the social and historical world.
Here, we return to the subject of silence, and in Orientalism he explores how a liberal, progressive confidence in civilisation sought to denigrate the achievements of other civilisations. This confidence is enshrined in a famous minute on Indian education, written by Macaulay for the East India Company in 1832, which Said discusses early in Orientalism.
Macaulay admitted he had no knowledge of either Sanskrit or Arabic, but went on to assert: The intrinsic superiority of the western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the oriental plan of education ... It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the paltry abridgements used at preparatory schools in England.
As Said remarks, this is no mere expression of an opinion, because Macaulay has an ethnocentric opinion with ascertainable results: speaking from a position of power he was able to make an entire subcontinent submit to studying in a language not its own. It was reading Said on Macaulay and then reading the complete minute that made me realise that the beautiful standard English RK Narayan employs in his subtle novels is pitched at such a perfect level - a level with no vernacular resonance - that it reads, with a deliberate irony, as though it is translated from Narayans native Tamil. Narayan, I remember, was attacked by VS Naipaul, and from time to time Said criticises Naipaul as a writer who tells western power what it wants to hear about its former colonies. He is a sensibility on tour. For Said, the yeast of culture, as Louis MacNeice phrased it, is debate and argument - his address as a lecturer was never shrill or monologic, and the same is true of his written prose.
Looking at the legacy of critical theory, which had challenged traditional critical assumptions, his conclusion in the early 1980s was that oppositional Left criticism contributed very little to debate in the culture. Though he lectured to packed audiences throughout the world, and though he had many followers and admirers, I think he always felt that too many people were evasive, too concerned with making careers and with not giving offence. Many liberals had made common cause with the ANC and criticised the apartheid state of South Africa, but they turned their backs on the Palestinians. Its here that we can begin to see the grief and anguish that informs his writing, as he details the vulgarities of the White House ceremony where Arafat and Rabin made a hopeless doomed peace in 1993. He discusses this humiliating ceremony in Peace and its Discontents (1996), where he speaks of the shabby, undemocratic Palestinian Protectorate over which Arafat still presides.
Saids frustration with Arafat is discussed in the introduction to The Politics of Dispossession (1995), where he discusses the shaping influence he very nearly had on the Camp David agreements of 1978. He felt the Palestinian position was extraordinarily rigid, and along with others who had contacts in the Carter administration, made an effort to make it more flexible. Through his old friend and college classmate, Hodding Carter, who was then assistant secretary of state in Jimmy Carters administration, he met the secretary of state, Cyrus Vance. That year Said had become a member of the Palestinian National Council (he was never a member of the PLO). Without mentioning his predecessor, Henry Kissinger, Vance made it clear he was trying to shake off the hobbles that had been placed on the process. The way was now open to a direct dialogue between the PLO and the United States. A message was sent to Arafat, he received it, but nothing happened.
The Carter administration gave Said a document agreeing the text of the statement the PLO would issue to get US recognition. Said flew with it to Beirut. He met Arafat around midnight the same day, but the discussion was inconclusive and confused; they met the following midnight and Arafat and his advisers rejected the American offer. Deeply disappointed, Said returned to New York and conveyed the refusal to Vance. The PLO went on to make many more mistakes, which Said details, and the result eventually was the hopeless Oslo agreement, and its sequel Oslo Two. The PLO became more and more bureaucratic, as wealthy Arab governments and states stopped funding it, and still Arafat blustered we are on the threshold of a state.
The story of Saids attempt to influence the PLO and shape a settlement is a haunting missed opportunity, and it stayed with him for the rest of his life. In The End of the Peace Process (2000), Said concluded that Oslo Two gave the Palestinian Authority the trappings and appurtenances of rule without the reality. Like a defeated figure in one of Baudelaires Spleen poems, Arafat and his people rule over a kingdom of illusions, with Israel firmly in command. The genius of Saids prose, his passionate communicativeness, the warmth and love and marvellous wit of his conversation - captured in print and on film - survive his untimely death. Reading him, talking to him, listening to him lecture, watching him take questions after a lecture or in a seminar, I was inescapably reminded of how Milton characterises Abdiel and the Archangel Michael in Paradise Lost as immortal forces who have the courage to dissent and try to build what Milton calls the great place now of light.