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On Edward Said:
Remarks on September 25, 2003
Drew University, Conference on The American Empire?



Richard Falk

Visiting Distinguished Professor, Global Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara and Milbank Professor of International Law Emeritus, Princeton University

TFF associate

November 7, 2003

We are gathered this evening at a moment of great sadness, especially for those of us blessed by friendship with Edward Said. This sense of loss is both wide and deep. Edward touched many, many lives, including all those people throughout the world who knew him through words, written and spoken. His warmth and interest in the life of every person with whom he came into contact with was legendary. Edward never gave anyone the sense that they were "ordinary." He conveyed to everyone he encountered, however routinely, of their importance to him.

These last years of Edward's life were both a tragic ordeal for him and those close to him, and a glorious chapter in an extraordinary life. It was glorious, despite the pain and suffering, because Edward's courage and perseverance were so inspirational for his family, friends, colleagues, and activist collaborators. During this period Edward never lost his robust commitment to life, especially to those he loved, but also his engagement with friendship, fine food, high culture, humor. In this period, Edward was angry, but never bitter.

Edward became an academic celebrity on the basis of his literary criticism and cultural studies long before he became famous as the most powerful voice of advocacy on behalf of the Palestinian people. Edward was multi-talented, performing as a piano soloist in public concerts, writing influential music criticism, especially on opera. He even excelled in sports, as I discovered to my chagrin in the course of tennis and squash battles.

Edward's struggle with leukemia cannot be separated from his experience of the afflictions in these years of the Palestinian people. Edward never abandoned either struggle&emdash;that for his own health and life, and that for the survival of the Palestinian people. No way of honoring Edward's life would be more in keeping with his sensibility than to support this struggle for Palestinian rights.

Let me comment ever so briefly on Edward's scholarly work. There will be countless conferences and symposium issues of scholarly journals devoted to Edward's memory and achievement. Edward achieved widespread recognition early in his career as a literary critic of breadth and originality, his study of the Anglo-Polish writer, Joseph Conrad, being particularly admired and discussed. Conrad, who had a profound feeling for the racist and nihilistic implications of the European colonial project, and yet spoke with a Western accent, remained a crucial figure in Edward's later work. This interest, culminating in the publication of Orientalism, which became one of the most influential books written in the prior century, and established Edward as a public intellectual throughout the world. This book, more effectively than any other, instructed a whole generation as to the deep structures of inter-civilizational bias, and about how this bias is linked to the mis-representations associated with narrating the history and culture of "the other," as well as with colonialist rationales for subjugating and exploiting an alien civilization, in this instance the Islamic world of the Middle East. In particular, Edward shows how the leading Western scholarly specialists constructed a self-serving account of this "Oriental" other that greatly reinforced the colonialist mentality.

These same Orientalists, more shameless and dangerous than ever, have gained great prominence and pernicious influence in the aftermath of 9/11. Such individuals as Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami have been repeatedly consulted by the Bush White House, and give repeated prime-time exposure on mainstream TV. And what is worse, dissident voices have been excluded. These new expressions of Orientalism have added a self-satisfied aura of justification to American foreign policy, providing encouragement for recourse to aggressive warmaking around the world, but especially in relation to the Islamic world and the Palestinian struggle. The main policy argument put forward by the Lewis/Ajami assessment is that the Arab world in particular, but the Islamic world in general, respond only to the language of force.

There are, of course, many other dimensions of Edward's work as "public" and "critical" intellectual that could be mentioned, but I will not attempt to do so now. As is widely known, Edward became very disillusioned by the postmodernist turn of literary and cultural studies, especially carrying the literary methods of deconstruction to the point of making any given meaning a matter of arbitrary assertion. Edward always believed in the humanist context of cultural inquiry, and that the identity of the critic had to be associated with an engagement in the historical struggles of his era. Therefore, he found the obscurity and apolitical stance of most postmodernists as a sterile and unacceptable retreat from engagement. Edward's spirit can be epitomized by a line from the Palestinian national poet, Mahmoud Darwish's line: "What use is thought if not for the sake of humanity."

The publication of Culture and Imperialism in 1993 was another milestone in Edward's remarkable career. This books explores in fascinating detail how culture and geopolitics are organically connected for better and worse. Just as Orientalism shows how the imperialist uses culture and knowledge as a weapon of oppression, Culture and Imprerialism demonstrates how the cultural output of the imperialist becomes part of the reality of those who are situated in the colonized world and act in anti-imperialist modes. Edward's contributions here are both to recognize what might be called "the politics of knowledge," and to contend convincingly that great writers are inevitable universal, not merely national, figures. Shakespeare belongs to the South just as much as to Britain, and the English-speaking world. Edward himself epitomized both the cosmopolitanism and the sense of exile associated with this complex hybridity, involving both rootedness in the specifics of experience and displacement and the mobility of ideas.

Edward believed deeply in cultural experience as transformative in ways that transcended diplomacy. He often mentioned how important to him was his collaboration with the fine Israeli pianist, Daniel Barenboim. They published a book of conversations not long ago, which discloses the potentiality in humanist discourse for a transcendence of the most bloody and relentless confrontation of two peoples at this time. Edward worked with Barenboim also to establish summer workshops for gifted young musicians from Israel and Palestine, allowing the language of music to challenge the hegemony of the language of violence. In 2002 they shared the Asturias Concord Prize in recognition of this collaborative work that combined art and politics symbolically and substantively.

There are several notable features of Edward's central preoccupation with the Palestine/Israel conflict. From the first unfurling of the Oslo Peace Process in 1993, Edward was skeptical, if not dismissive. He stood apart from many Palestinian and progressive friends by this insistence that this "peace process" was either a road to nowhere or a clever diplomatic strategy to formalize Israeli domination. He also stood apart from the "responsible" consensus by rejecting the two-state option, and insisting that genuine peace for the two peoples could only arise within the framework of a bi-national state. More and more of those involved in searching for a solution are reluctantly reaching the conclusion that a two-state solution is no longer viable, given the cumulative effects of Israeli establishment of "facts on the ground." If such issues as the Israeli settlements and bypass roads, Palestinian refugees, the city of Jerusalem, and the sharing of water are taken into account, then only a bi-national state offers hope of a peaceful and just solution. Of course, this outcome must still be classified as "utopian," although the alternatives are worse as "dysutopian."

Poetry is often more meaningful than words of remembrance. I would like to read two poems that somehow for me express the essential quality of this sad day. The first poem is by the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, and is about the death of his father. It seemed appropriate as Edward often said during these final years of illness and political disappointment that "it was my anger that keeps me going."

Do not go gentle into that good night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good me, the last wave by, crying how
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see the blinding sight
Blind eye could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears. I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


The second poem is by W. H. Auden on the death of William Butler Yeats, entitled "In memory of W. B. Yeats." As with Edward's relationship to the Palestinian struggle, Yeats had a complicated relationship with Irish national politics, lamenting the excesses of the Irish Revolution, yet remaining passionately involved in the Irish experience. I include here only the first of the two-part poem, although the whole poem is relevant.

In memory of W.B. Yeats

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted.
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sand in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was last afternoon as himself,
As afternoon or nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty.
Silence invaded the suburbs.
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they're fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom.
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.


© TFF & the author 2003  


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