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Speech by Andrew Rubin

Edward W. Said (1935 - 2003)
by Andrew N. Rubin

Edward W. Said died quietly in his sleep in the early hours of the morning of September 25, 2003. He died of complications from chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a deadly disease that he had struggled with ever since 1991. Said’s death attracted widespread attention from all over the world. The Secretary-General of the United Nations issued a statement on the occasion, as did the crown of the Hashemite monarchy as well as other ministers of culture in Lebanon and elsewhere. That Said was the object of this collective expression of mourning explains the enormous and even universal loss represented by Said’s death, as it also says something about the sustained force and widespread influence of his thought and writings.

In the literature seminar I took with him at Columbia University, I recall the sense of urgency, immediacy, and the flawless fluidity with which he would discuss the writings of Joseph Conrad, the music of Beethoven, or the way he would recount his personal impressions of C. L. R. James in the twilight of his life. No one less perspicacious than Edward Said could make such a convincing and eloquent argument for the theoretical connections between postcolonial historiography, classical music, and anti-imperialist politics that speaks not simply to his exceptional gifts as a comparative critic and an intellectual, as it does to the development and reinvention of the scope of this new humanism, which late in his life he aimed to explicitly define.

What I came to learn about Edward, as his student, his research assistant, and friend, was that both his life and his work were part of a willful human and humane endeavor. “Everyday seems like the first day of school,” he would say. Indeed, his unrelenting commitment to the world and to knowledge can be best understood in the terms of an embattled contradiction between his own particular human exertions—his repeated and physical defiance of his prognosis, his challenges to authority and the ideas which help to sustain it—and the processes by which universal principles such as freedom, justice, and truth were placed in the service of their antithesis. His writings and even his presence always seemed to express and even embody a kind of will. It was not simply that Said was extraordinarily talented at exposing the hypocrisies that are an inherent part of the prevailing way of which the world is mostly understood. Through his writing and lectures Said had the ability to make the most complex worldly and historical processes so simple and graspable, without ever reducing their sophistication or producing new orthodoxies that could somehow explain and comprehend everything. What was most inspiring about him is that he made us all feel like intellectuals, rooted in the hard and material world of literature, politics and culture.

His demystifying and explanatory powers were gifted, at times entrancing, and inspiring. His style of writing, argumentation, and even insult (of which he was also a master) was to draw a series of tightly and increasingly critical circles around his object; yet insofar as his strategy was one of elaboration, it persistently denied objectifying itself as a method that could be repeated and rehearsed, like some sort of chorus, over and over again. Yet history and experience were not beyond comparison for Said, and throughout his life he was a great friend of the South African anti-apartheid movement.

Though he saw significant differences between the Palestinian movement for national self-determination and the struggle against anti-apartheid, he viewed the latter as an exemplary one. For Edward, the international moral outrage against the white supremacist government--founded on a policy of demographic separation, emergency decrees, white supremacist death squads, and the daily degradation of South African blacks--held a deep relevance for him. Most of all, the anti-apartheid movement’s great achievement was the fact that it made its cause an international one. He viewed the struggle as an enormous human effort that had effectively undermined apartheid’s international support by forcing nearly everyone to acknowledge our common humanity.

Yet for Edward, there were distinct differences between the experience of black South Africans and Palestinians. Unlike the white settlers of South Africa, a great many of the Jewish settlers were the survivors and relatives of one the most horrific crimes of the twentieth century. Their sheer presence shrouded the circumstances in a Palestine with a complexity that Edward would once ingeniously and ironically summarize by declaring that the Palestinian people were “the victims of the victims.”

The power of his message could be measured by the level of outrage of his critics. His Columbia University office was ransacked and he was subject to a seemingly endless litany of lies about his character. I often found it one of the cheapest reversals of history that I, an American Jew, a student of his, born nearly thirty years after al-nakba, had a perversely sanctioned legal right to immigrate to a land into which he was both born, lived as a boy, and yet was barred from owning even a grain of soil.

Yet Edward always saw reconciliation in the form of its antithesis or opposite. Humanity was capable of remarkable achievements, among the most significant the fact that despite Israel’s ongoing policy of mass arrests, torture, political assassinations, endless curfews, detentions, housing demolitions; despite its contravention of countless U.N resolutions, as well as the charter of the Geneva Convention, in spite of what amounts to the collective punishment of an entire people and their way of life— Palestinians have, over and over, again proven their ability to survive amid the gloomiest and most terrible of odds.

For Edward post-apartheid South Africa loosely provided a model of coexistence, interdependence, and reconciliation. What was crucial for him was that Israel accept its responsibility for the effects of 1948; that the Israelis’ War of Independence was also Palestinians’ War of Dispossession. How to critically account for the process that precluded the reconciliation between two seemingly irreconcilable histories, in other words, how to put an end to this parallel and paradox, was, in my opinion, the overriding theme throughout Edward’s work some twenty three books.

Works like Orientalism, The Question of Palestine, and Covering Islam focused on the politics of cultural representation. They provided a critical account of not only how the West portrays and supposedly attempts to understand the Other, but also in so doing, controls, manipulates and even produces the Other, which is, as a result, diminished, dangerous, and denigrated. Thus, in conventional discourse, are Palestinians terrorists and only terrorists, thus are Arabs, in the modern American mainstream's imagination, merely the objects of discourse and can scarcely, as human subjects, speak for themselves.
Indeed, with Edward’s death one of the greatest things I miss is not only a beloved friend and mentor, but also one of the most eloquent and strident voices of our time who allowed us how to imagine that someday, we shall be free from the coercive and dominative forms of knowledge and power that have been exercised at an extraordinary cost to the experience and lived realities of human beings.

Life seems a bit like a Beckett play without him; yet he was so full of life and humanity that it is inconceivable, almost inhumane to grasp the very sad fact that Edward Said is dead. My friend says he feels like Edward is on vacation. But we know that Edward is not returning; and Edward would want us to know that, and to begin thinking what we’re going to do and think without him. “Never give up, one must press on,” as he used to say.