From edition

Edward Said — Rob Nixon

The beauty of the teaching life is this: you can transform a life with nothing more complex than the right reverberation struck at the right time. Edward Said had that kind of impact on me when, in the mid-eighties, I first studied with him as a graduate student at Columbia. I was a South African exile adrift at the time, an unsettled greenhorn in America. Among the small bag of certainties I carried with me were these: a passion for books (not discourse) and worldly politics (not academic politicking). But I had no idea how to reconcile these passions, far less find a voice adequate to them. Patched-tweed Ivy League belle-lettrism seemed a morbid option. So, too, did the deconstructionist lemming run that was setting off at speed all around me.

Edward offered a third way. From his example I (like so many angular people before and after me) learned that the dissonances of living out of place could become a source of strength. I felt emboldened by his determined search for a style—or, rather, a whole repertoire of styles—equal to his far-flung commitments. Edward thrived on intellectual complexity while aspiring to clarity; he taught and wrote as if he yearned to be widely understood. As an ambition, that may sound unremarkable for a literature professor. Yet his approach appeared luminous when measured against the alternatives: close readings sealed against the world or airless post-structuralist seminars in which the stakes were as obscure as the language.

Ironically, Edward’s profound ambivalence toward theory helped him become one of the supreme literary and cultural theorists of our age. His commitment to voice amplified his intellectual reach: across disciplines, across continents, across all forms of the media. He scorned the cult of difficulty, the notion that leaden writing signals weighty intelligence. He understood—and communicated intensely to us–that it is far harder to theorize with the cunning of lightness than it is to fob off some seething mess of day-old neulogisms as an `intervention’.

I think of Edward as the mortal enemy of the twenty-five-preposition sentence. The mortal enemy, too, of involuted `fame,’ the kind of self-regarding celebrity that swaggers and molders behind academic walls in the company of like-minded molderers. Edward was never content to submit to the kind of success that is, at heart, a species of defeat.

He refused to take his audiences for granted, realizing that to stir people afresh, writing has to move in both senses of the phrase. His detailed devotion to style became integral to his idealism and inseparable from his belief in an outward voice.

There’s an Adorno aphorism that Edward loved to quote: “In the circle of their own company the few become many.” Adorno’s words enjoy a double force. They can serve to exhort the marginalized but equally to warn against the self-deluding self-importance of the intellectual cabal.

Edward’s intellectual and political passion flowed from a complicated mix of personal privilege and historical abandonment. Though vast, his spread of commitments had its limits. In the 1980s and early nineties, he scoffed at the notion that feminism had anything to contribute to the study of empire. One often sensed him weighing the intellectual contributions of men and women unequally. The reasons for this prejudice may be partly generational and partly familial (see the portrait of his implacable father in his memoir, Out of Place). Either way, as scholar and public intellectual, Edward was a harder model for female than male students to draw inspiration from.

And yet he differed from so many academic stars, both men and women, in that he never sought to cultivate acolytes. He was indifferent to anointing followers or creating the next generation of Saidians to bear his flame.
Because he never let academe corral him, he had no need for the stunting rituals of discipleship. He wasn’t one of those mentors who recruit you to fight their intellectual battles or widen their small circle of fame, blackmailing you into public expressions of debt and admiration in exchange for recommendations or career-advancing contacts. By instinct a contrarian, Edward always seemed more comfortable in the presence of impassioned disagreement than of deference.

Like so many who love and mourn him, I feel that Edward helped me clear a space in which better to discover the force of my own passions, not least, through the force of my own mistakes. Here was someone who believed intently that the intellectual life obliges you to stay in touch with what you love and what you hate, with what moves, intrigues, offends you.

Even his detractors had to acknowledge the improbable range and sheer ardor of his intelligence. Whether facing another massacre by the Israeli military or the onward march of his own metastasizing cells, he lived intrepidly. No matter what the odds, Edward possessed an inimitable gift for finding within brokenness an eloquent energy.

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