He spoke the truth to power

October 10, 2003

Edward Said, who died recently, lived as a true intellectual, says John Higgins. He applied critical rigour not just to writing but also to the world, denouncing corruption, defending the weak and standing up for truth and justice.

Edward Said's public persona was very much that of the utterly confident New Yorker: " bien dans sa peau ", as the French say. A supremely sophisticated and social person, he seemed to know anyone who was anyone in the cultural and intellectual world, but at the same time was willing to share his energies with innumerable younger students and colleagues. No one meeting Edward for the first time would have been likely to suspect that the dominant feelings of his childhood and youth had been - as he put in his 1999 memoir, Out of Place - "an overwhelming sensationI of always being out of place".

Yet the underlying unease he recorded was undoubtedly the main source of his critical and independent turn of mind. It both characterised his work and became its central theme and preoccupation. Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935 into a Christian Palestinian family. His father was a successful businessman, able to send his son to the best schools in Cairo (where the family lived for most of the time) and, later, to study in the US. After two relatively miserable and homesick years, Said won a scholarship to Princeton University, moving on to Harvard University for graduate studies, and taking his PhD there in 1964. Snapped up by Columbia University as an assistant professor in 1963, his first book - Joseph Conrad and the Fictions of Autobiography - was published in 1966.

All seemed set for the young Said - tweed-jacketed and with a fine collection of pipes and a baby grand piano - to settle down to the privilege of tenure and a comfortable life in the plushest of ivory towers.

It was not to be quite so simple. Instead, an infinitely richer and more complex figure emerged, one who made it his defining commitment to combine the usually antithetical roles of political activist and academic innovator. As activist, Said was the author of several major and necessarily controversial studies dealing largely with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most notably The Question of Palestine (1980), Covering Islam (1982), After the Last Sky (1986), The Politics of Dispossession (1994) and The End of the Peace Process (2000). He described his "most specific task" as simply that of making the case for a Palestinian presence in a world that tended to deny it. The task was to insist, again and again, "that there was a Palestinian people, and that, like all others, it had a history, a society, and, most important, a right of self-determination". He was an independent member of the Palestinian National Council from 1977 to 1991.

Yet what was special and so appealing about Said was the fact that his committed stance by no means prevented him from being critical of the Palestinian leadership. What marked out the special academic and intellectual force of his political writing is that it addresses the underlying issues of ethical knowledge and understanding that are necessary ingredients for any political solution to the US-Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Only a Said could write convincingly against trends in both Israeli and Palestinian political life that "ignorance is not an adequate political strategy for a people". "Each in his own way must understand and know the forbidden 'other'," he insisted; "Reason, understanding and intellectual analysis, and not the organisation of collective passions such as those that seek to impel fundamentalists, are the way to be a citizen."

This ethic was manifest in the concert of Israeli and Palestinian musicians he, with Israeli musician Daniel Barenboim, organised to celebrate Goethe's birth in Weimar in 1999.

In losing Said, the Palestinian people have lost their most formidable spokesperson, while the West has lost a troubling voice of conscience.

Academically, Said was the author of several groundbreaking and influential studies, and the virtual founder of a new sub-discipline in literary studies. Beginnings: Intention and Method (1975) was one of the first works to articulate a response to the new intellectual forces of French structuralism. It established Said as one of the bright young stars of the US academy. His argument was enriched and developed in The World, the Text and the Crit ic (1983), in which he emphasised the role of critical consciousness against the received structures or systems of ideas and behaviours, a theme he took to its logical conclusion in the 1993 Reith Lectures, published the following year as Representations of the Intellectual . With its famous phrase describing intellectuals as those who "speak the truth to power", Said laid out a powerful case for regarding intellectuals as "those who are never more themselves than when, moved by metaphysical passions and disinterested principles of justice and truth, they denounce corruption, defend the weak (and) defy imperfect or oppressive authority". It could have been a self-description.

While Representations clearly articulates the importance of the critical thinking that links his political to his cultural writing, his most academically influential work is the 1978 study Orientalism . If this were the only book Said had ever written, it would still have assured him a place in the history of 20th-century scholarship. Deploying Michel Foucault's theories of the relations between power and knowledge, it argued, with all the combined force of historical scholarship and textual analysis, that western constructions of the Oriental other always worked to serve western imperial interests and to occlude the reality of the East. It was followed up in 1990 by the equally compendious C ulture and Imperialism , which focused on the rereading of the western canon in similar critical terms. Together, the two books (and the associated study Freud and the Non-European , published this year) helped to launch the sub-discipline first known as "colonial discourse" and later (with equal imprecision) as "postcolonial studies". For all the correctness of manner and style, in both personal demeanour and scholarly performance, Said was an academic iconoclast, revered by some and never forgiven by others. He broke two of the main taboos of institutionalised academic study. The first of these was the unspoken rule that forbade the making of direct connections between the ideals of culture and the reality of past and present political life. In this, he took to heart Walter Benjamin's motto that "every document of civilisation is at the same time a testimony to barbarism", and took pleasure in demonstrating this in the most unlikely cases, such as the fictions of Jane Austen. The second was the refusal of disciplinarity and specialisation, which he believed tended to weaken and depoliticise the intellectual strengths of academic writing.

Needless to say, in these deliberate challenges to scholarly orthodoxy, he provoked the ire of scholarly specialists while others saw him as opening the field of literary study to a refreshingly wider range of texts, contexts and ethical concerns. In many ways, Salman Rushdie's observation in 1986 might best serve as epitaph for this extraordinary body of work and the man behind it: "He read the world as closely as he read books." For the essence of Said's work was that in it, the ordinary skills of literary and rhetorical analysis were turned outward, away from the writing safely confined between the covers of a book, and on to the world, or rather on to that uneasy junction between action in and representation of the world that is generally known as the ideological. Both the most uncomfortable place to be, yet, for someone with Edward's sense of justice, the only place to be.

His death leaves a visible and painful gap in public and intellectual life across the world. I know many people across the world will join his family - his wife, Mariam, his son, Wadie, and his daughter Nalja - in mourning his sadly early death.

John Higgins is a fellow of the University of Cape Town and author of Raymond Williams: Literature, Marxism and Cultural Materialism .

'HIS INTELLECTUAL AND MORAL LEGACY WILL BE AN INSPIRATION'

Noam Chomsky , professor of linguistics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Edward Said's passing is a terrible loss far beyond the circles of those who were privileged to know him personally. He is justly renowned for his remarkable contributions to scholarship, which changed how we look at the modern world and its origins. He was untiring in his struggle for freedom and human rights, not only for the Palestinian people, for whom he was an eloquent spokesperson, but for other oppressed and suffering people worldwide. His courage and integrity were daunting, indescribable. The intellectual and moral legacy he leaves will be an inspiration and a guide for many years to come.

Charles Tripp , department of political studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, London University
For a graduate student in the late 1970s working on Middle Eastern politics, Said's Orientalism was a splendid counterblast to the received wisdom. It was a timely warning about the limits of erudition. It was also a call to look sceptically at the histories constructed by the powerful to exclude the narratives of the powerless. This spirit, reflected in Said's work on Palestine, continues to give his voice an edge and helps to make sense of events in the Middle East and beyond.

Avi Shlaim , professor of international relations, Oxford University
Said's intellectual horizons were extraordinarily wide. Although he was not a historian, he immediately grasped the importance of the work of revisionist Israeli historians, saying Palestinians could read their work as an honest account of the catastrophe of 1948, in contrast to traditional Zionist history, which is little more than the propaganda of the victors. He suggested the series of lectures at Oxford that I later co-edited as The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948 . He contributed an afterword, a deeply moving account of a lifetime meandering round the Palestine question by a very dear friend.

Fred Inglis , director of the MA in creative writing for film and television, University of Sheffield
Said was an immensely powerful presence, and his absence will be felt just as powerfully. When you read what he had to say, you felt, whether in agreement or not, the uprightness and might of his judgements, awful, severe, glad or thrilling. In his company, you were filled with a sense of his zest for life and his charm. With his death, it is that much more difficult to keep up a serious language capable of redressing the depredations of political lying and academic gibberish.

Anoush Ehteshami , professor of international relations, University of Durham
I got my copy of Orientalism in 1979, just before I started university and in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution. I soon learnt the value of his work when his critical analysis served as a powerful tool for picking at everything that I read during those three years, and every single one since. For all the radical philosophers we studied, Said's work was the most "subversive", for in his words young minds found the intellectual ground for challenging western conventions about the "Orient".

We welcome your remembrances of Edward Said in The THES Common room.

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