The death of Edward Said, after a long and valiant battle with leukemia, is a loss for the entire world community. An intellectual in the grandest sense of the term, professor of literature, music critic, activist, and great friend to many worldwide, he was an inspiration to many of us; he helped shape over and over again the meaning and the exigency of our “common project,” political, intellectual, and artistic. His legacy will challenge us to continue to seek the rigor of his intellection and the daring of his determination to help speak for the oppressed people of the world.
I knew Edward Said both through his many books (which helped to form my understanding of the issues at stake in the current intellectual climate of modernity) and through our shared loved of swimming. Said began to swim regularly when he was first diagnosed with leukemia; for years we talked on numerous topics in between laps in the Columbia University swimming pool. His warmth, his sense of humor, and his stamina were remarkable.
In Said’s last article in The Nation, in August of 2003, he spoke of place of the artist, and the intellectual, within the culture at large. The piece, a review of several books on Beethoven, concerned the idea of “late” as exemplified in the late quartets of Beethoven. Professor Said reminded us that Beethoven was not a part of his time, rather the very form and articulation of his work refused the historical moment in which he lived. Although Said, recalling the Neitzschian notion of “untimely,” focused his comments on the idea of the un-timeliness of the composer, his comments ultimately addressed a larger question which was at the root of much of his writing and his activism: the question of conflicting discourses within the human community and the importance of voices of refusal. He relentlessly envisioned a battleground between voices of oppression and voices of resistance.
Professor Said helped many of us, in and outside academia, comprehend the very complex notion of other; a notion he understood not merely as a literary trope or a theoretical basis for debate, but as site of challenge, a presence, a radical exilic voice necessarily in conflict with our own. Said’s own voice was less one of dissent than one which crossed over, imagining the plight of the other. Said’s indefatigable work for peace in the Middle East was inspired by his empathic understanding of the other, of the oppression of others. Here, too, his impassioned critiques were imperatives to refuse languages of oppression by offering counter discourses. Perhaps Said was aware of his own untimely voice, of the difficult and dangerous speech he needed to combat the tyranny of languages whose power, and prevalence, are always present, and always timely.
We remember Said for his tremendous compassion and the scope of his interests and output. His concerns for peace in the world, his love of literature, his deep and sustained critique of culture, his involvement with classical music, these were all of a piece. We may remember him for being a figure who took us, intellectually, politically, and theoretically, further than we dared to go, with voices that must be untimely.
– Alice Attie
Observing Edward Said
At the dawn of the twenty-first century the writer has taken on more and more of the intellectual’s adversarial attributes in such activities as speaking the truth to power, being a witness to persecution and suffering, and supplying a dissenting voice in conflicts with authority.
Columbia University has changed for me, overnight, with the death of Edward Said. There are few scholars whose vision encompasses literature and history and the politics of the dispossessed; fewer still whose work, in combining these disciplines, opens up whole new fields of knowledge. Indeed, Edward Said managed to do the impossible: to combine a life of political activism with a distinguished professorship at a major research university. Perhaps this was because he was careful to separate his political activism from teaching: the politics he taught in the classroom came straight from the text at hand. Yet no one was better than he at teasing out the political dimension of an aesthetic object, whether opera or novel or film, while leaving its aesthetic value intact.
What did it mean to be, as he used to say, a “public intellectual”? It meant that one had not only to have convictions, but also to voice them at the most difficult of times, irrespective of consequences. And even when he scarcely had the strength to stand, his energy would return as he spoke. A gleam in his eye, an emphatic gesture, a wry smile that would underlie an ironic statement, all signified the willingness to challenge an accepted position, especially his own. He defines a role for himself in the introduction to The Politics of Dispossession (1994): “My ambition is … to press the case for reconciliation and equality in such a way as to reengage people again, to raise questions and provide answers, to keep principles and values in a very prominent place before us.”
Often the consequences were severe, and unwelcome, and they hurt. Why, for example, should a picture of a professor throwing a stone become an object of attention, when far more dangerous objects are thrown daily, on both sides of the border between Israel and Lebanon? And why should an obituary allude to the work of a reporter who tried to prove that Edward Said had falsified his past, when the facts of Said’s life were there for anyone to see in his own autobiography? Not only did Said not fit any of the categories he was assigned, but his presence redefined them.
For me, Edward Said was an extraordinary mentor and teacher. Not simply because of his many books, any one of which deserves all the attention of these paragraphs, but because he was a man of great personal courage. He brought this courage to his long struggle with leukemia; to the intellectual distinctions he made in his work and in his teaching; and, on a daily basis, to his struggle on behalf of humanity and justice, especially for the Palestinian people.
– Linn Cary Mehta
ALICE ATTIE is a visual artist and poet who teaches at Barnard College. Harlem on the Verge, her first book of photographs, has just been published by Quantluck Lane/W.W. Norton.