Friday, November 14, 2003

Edward Said: Obit

The Mystery of Edward Said:
Edward Said 1935-2003
Originally appeared in the Jerusalem Report
Date approximate

When I look back on an interview I did with Edward Said in 1999 (for the Atlantic Unbound), I am struck anew both by what I thought was extraordinary about the scholar and activist, and by what disturbed me about the man. At the time, Said was in remission from leukemia, the disease that finally killed him this past September 25, at the age of 67, but he knew the remission was temporary, and the illness was "insidiously creeping back." The long battle with leukemia, in fact, had prompted him to write his memoir, "Out Of Place," the publication of which was the occasion for my interview.

What I admire about his account of the disease in our interchange is the way it had broadened his intellectual universe. There are those, on the Jewish right, especially, who think of Said's culture as only skin deep, serving, in the end, merely to camouflage the driving force of his hatred of Israel. I cannot subscribe to the theory of Edward Said as thug. I think high culture went enormously deep with him, toe-to-toe, almost, with the cancer that killed him

Apropos the prospect of terminal illness, Said told me of a "fantastic fragment, five or six pages long," by Theodore Adorno that he had just discovered, and that caused him to rethink the music of Beethoven. Adorno he said, showed how Beethoven's late piano sonatas and string quartets "are radical departures from the kind of triumphalist, heroic mode of his second period." The late works were "all about confronting the end, as it were, with a new kind of stubbornness and artistic intransigence."

I am a sucker for the kind of man who confronts his mortality with late Beethoven in mind. What Said told me moved me.

We couldn't stay with the issue of late versus early styles, however, much as it engrossed him. My job as interviewer obliged me to discuss the contretemps surrounding his memoir itself. A writer for Commentary Magazine had charged that Said's recollections of a Jerusalem boyhood were trumped up: Said was raised in Cairo, according to this writer, and was, therefore, an Egyptian more than a Palestinian, much as it suited Said's anti-Israeli purposes to pretend otherwise.

I thought, as most who looked into it did, that this charge was little more than character assassination. My attitude as a liberal, to be blunt, was what could you expect from the neocon Commentary? Said, though, didn't have it in him to back off from flame war. He countered both rhetorically and in exquisite factual detail, in our talk and elsewhere. I wish he hadn't. I think controversies of this type -- faux controversies, as I see them -- both consumed him and spared him from more engaging more telling arguments.

By the time of our interview, Said had already used some of America's leading organs of opinion -- the New York Times Magazine, for example -- to denounce the Oslo Accords. This was before the Al-Aqsa Intifada had invalidated the Rabin/Arafat handshake. There was still room for hope. But not for Said. He opposed Oslo because, in his view, Arafat was too corrupt and incompetent to lead a Palestinian state, and because Israelis and Palestinians were too intertwined to be separated.

He proposed, instead, the one-state solution, the solution that calls for the withering away of Israel and the formation of a single, binational, Jewish/Palestinian state. I told him that state would consist of Edward Said and Noam Chomsky, period -- until they, too, fell out. I suggested, in short, that we simply disagreed, and was startled to hear him say that was impossible: If I thought we disagreed it could only be because I had not understood him properly.

But we really did disagree. Not about Adorno on Beethoven, not about late styles v. early styles, and not about the responsibility of the intellectual, which, as he so concisely put it, consisted of never putting "solidarity before criticism." In some ways, he lived up to that ideal. He opposed the Arafat gang, and fell out with them. His goal, really, was to shift the locus of Palestinian leadership from the Middle East, itself, where the likes of Arafat prevailed, to the Palestinian diaspora where the likes of Edward Said, secular intellectuals, had some authority.

I think it was a vain hope, dreamily utopian, at best. But what I truly fail to understand about Edward Said is how this hope squares with the total about-face in his views he announced in the English edition of the Cairo paper Al-Ahram just over a year before he died (June 13-19, 2002), and, oddly, failed to recapitulate in the Western media. At the height of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, he wrote for Al-Ahram that it was now, "up to us [Palestinians] to project the idea of co-existence in two states that have natural relations with each other on the basis of sovereignty and equality."

A two-state solution? An Oslo-like accord? Why, Prof. Said, I badly wanted to ask him, did you oppose it when it was possible? Why espouse it only when it seemed inconceivable? And why, above all, did you never publicly defend this change of heart? Why were you never called to account for it?

Let me continue my interview with Edward Said, now an interview with the dead, this way: You were the leading Palestinian intellectual of your time. You were a secular man, anti-fundamentalist, anti-terrorist. You were capable of great subtlety as a thinker. You appreciated the irony of the fact that "Orientalism," the book for which you will be remembered, the critique of Western neo-colonial stereotypes of the Arab world, was better appreciated -- more "profoundly read" as you put it -- in the West than in the "Orient." You made a point of telling Arab students with whom you had contact that Jews didn't make it up; there really was a Holocaust.

So tell me, why, when you had a chance, did you not use your influence and prestige to build up the kind of secular leadership that could have headed up an independent, non-terrorist Palestinian state? Why did you squander that opportunity? Isn't it obvious that your rejectionist politics, and your quixotic style of leadership provide no real alternative to terrorism? You can't answer, of course. But to my mind these weaknesses are no small part of your legacy.

Harvey Blume writes frequently about literature and politics for The Report.

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