Friday, March 10, 2006

Edward Said remembered

Just came across the speech given by Professor Akeel Bilgrami (Professor of Philosophy at Columbia) at Edward Said's memorial service on September 29th, 2003. It is a nice tribute to one of the great intellects of our time. Said was a public intellectual in the European sense, of which there is no real American equivalent; a publicly celebrated figure in the mold of a Berlin, Foucault or Derrida. If it was not for his courageous and consistent demand for justice for the Palestinians, he would almost certainly have received the acclaim he so richly deserved in his adopted country.

Some excerpts from Bilgrami's memorial speech:

There are a very few intellectuals --–Bertrand Russell, E.P. Thompson, and Noam Chomsky come to mind in the English-speaking world--- whose writings and whose lives provide a kind of pole that thousands of people look toward so as to feel that they are not wholly lost or marginal for possessing instincts for justice and humanity, and for thinking that some small steps might be taken towards their achievement. Edward Said was, without a doubt, such a man. The daze and despair so many of us here at Columbia feel, now that we have taken in that he has gone, is only a very local sign of what is a global loss without measure. And to think of what it must be like for his own brutalized people to lose him, is unbearable.

Edward’s influence on the young came from his refusal to allow literature to offer merely self-standing pleasures. The connections he made in even our most canonical
works, between the narrations of novels and the tellings of national histories,between the assertions of an author and the assertion of power by states, between the unconscious attitudes of a seemingly high-minded writer and some subtle illiberal tendency of social or national prejudice, drew to the study of literature numberless students who, out of a quest for worldly engagement, or more simply out of a cosmopolitan curiosity, demanded just such an integrity of words with morals.

S. Asad Raza's tribute to Said on the second anniversary of his death is a touching and more personal portrait. Here Said is the beloved and brilliant teacher with great power to inspire but also to induce dread. This is the portrait of the teacher as a heroic figure that I have always found so deeply attractive. From Mr. Chips to Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society to members of my own family this noble role has had a persistent hold on my imagination.

Some excerpts:

In 2003, as a graduate student in English at NYU, I rode the subway up to Columbia each week for a seminar with Said, which turned out to be the last one he taught. Wan and bearded, Said would walk in late with a bottle of San Pellegrino in hand and proceed to hold forth, off the cuff, about an oceanic array of subjects relating to the European novel (Don Quixote, Gulliver's Travels, Sentimental Education, Great Expectations, Lord Jim, etc.), alternately edifying and terrifying his audience. He had an exasperation about him that demanded one to know more, to speak more clearly, to learn more deeply in order to please him. Some found the constant harangues too traumatic for their delicate sensibilities; I loved to have found a teacher who simply did not accept less than excellence. It was a supremely motivating, frightening, vitalizing experience. In a class on Robinson Crusoe, a fellow student became confused about the various strands of eighteenth-century non-conformist Protestantism, prompting Said to irritatedly draw a complex chart of the relations between Dissenters, Puritans, Anglicans, etc. Similar demonstrations of the sheer reserves of his knowledge occurred on the subjects of the revolutions of 1848, the history of Spanish, and the tortuous philosophical subtleties of Georg Lukacs' Theory of the Novel, among other things. Said had a whole theory of the place of nephews in literature (not the real son, but the true inheritant), and he made himself his students' challenging, agresssive, truth-telling, loving uncle.

One day, Said yelled at me publicly for misprounoucing my own name. I had Americanized its proununciation for the benefit of a visiting professor, John Richetti, who I was questioning. "Your name is Us-udth!" Said cried, "It means lion in Arabic! Never mispronounce it for their benefit!" (Richetti was an old friend of Said's and found being characterized as one of "them" highly amusing; I ran into him a year ago and we laughed about it.) Afterwards, Said walked over and put a hand on my shoulder. "Sorry about that. We can't change ourselves for anyone. Opposition," he intoned, quoting Blake, "is true friendship." That encounter marked a turn for me. I began to visit Said in his office, waiting while he took phone calls from friends like Joan Didion, and telling him about my work. He had the special ability to make one feel that one could achieve anything - maybe it helped that he set the bar so high himself. Despite his heavy criticism of my use of certain theoretical vocabularies he had moved past ("the merest decoration," he called them), the last word of his handwritten comments on my paper inspired me and continues to inspire me: "Bravo." As a favorite aphorism of his from Gramsci goes, pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. Yet, during this period, he would intimate to me that things were not optimistic with his health at all. One day he declined my request that he read a chapter I had written, saying only, "I don't have time. You know, Asad, I'm not well." The unsentimental, factual tone of resignation told me everything I didn't want to know.

In his last decade, as the situation in Palestine and Israel worsened and beloved friends such as Eqbal Ahmed and Ibrahim Abu-Lughod died, I know Edward felt more alone in the world. With his passing, though we try to forget it, the world has equally became an emptier, lonelier place. Without the superbly contradictory, fearfully charismatic, bravely heartfelt Edward Said, it is also a far less cosmopolitan place.

No comments: