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Said and Me — H. Aram Veeser

All his life, which was blessed with publicity, Edward Said was often photographed. He had a knack for organizing the image, in which he typically appeared as a richly upholstered six-footer, his bold stripes and patterns from a Savile Row tailor, topped by a wavy stand of hair like black whipped cream. The best-known image is very different. In it, the distinguished professor is throwing a stone at an Israeli guardhouse. He rears back to hurl a jagged rock. Behind him, a young man has just thrown his own stone, and the two figures superimposed recall those early multiple-exposure prints of horses running or dancers dancing, images made to show the power of film. This photo evokes the urchins of the Intifada no less than Hector smiting the Myrmidons, because a fortunate accident or the photographer’s wit has posed Said in the heroic diagonal–dear to ancient Greek sculptors. But picture is hardly art for art’s sake. Agence Frances scored an immediate hit, with the photo instantly published around the world, instigating calls for Said’s dismissal from Columbia, with the corresponding passionate rush to his defense, including a long public letter from the University provost. No other photo captures so economically Said’s ability to make you look and think again: a prominent, self-declared Western humanist violently attacks his own civilization at its weakest point.

To put it like that announces, of course, a deep self-division that cleaves his whole enterprise. He dwelt at length on riven and tormented figures such as Lawrence of Arabia, whose self-description as “a standing civil war” fascinated Said because it named his own condition. His interest in bisected eccentrics, the Genets and Vicos and Conrads, lay in his quest to avoid what he saw in Lawrence: a fateful stalemating of his many contradictory gifts, a civil war fought to a standstill. Said’s intractable contradictions produced a kind of restless energy—and from his more cautious colleagues, no end of dismayed academic tut-tutting—but nothing held him back. For me, his inconsistencies made him an intellectual rake, a fundamentally unpredictable character whose ultimate professional and cultural centrality never extinguished his charming eccentricity. What did bother me was the astounding transformation of the early Said, author of a few brilliantly iconoclastic and improvisatory theoretical works, into a figure entirely consumed by a moral quest. Platitudes about historical rupture and epistemological breaks do not begin to describe this spiritual conversion. The drunken MacBride in Yeats’s poem, transfigured to sainthood by the terrible beauty of revolutionary commitment, is no more odd a transfiguration than Edward Said’s. To compare him with Georg Lukacs is not in the end impertinent, for Said was the only North American critic to live and write in the belief that literary essay—even the lightweight sketches on Tarzan and Glenn Gould that he occasionally tossed off—was a moral act, that it could distill one’s knowledge of the world and, by expressing it, make the self iconic.

But the Columbia campus of 1968 was no place for Cato the Elder, and when I met him there he was still an Englishman. It took the Reagan years fully to bring out the Jeremiah in him. The phrase “Tory anarchy” appealed to him, and for good reason: he embodied a style of high conservatism prey to fits of wild improvisation. He was beyond ambivalent; he was at war. Three events will convey the idea pretty clearly. First, my introduction to him went like this.

“Professor Said?”

“Yes, what is it?” Smile.”You see I’m on my way out.”

“Hi. My name is Harold Veeser and, uh, I, you are, I guess, my advisor.”

“Then you must have some little card for me to sign. Ah, yes, there it is, just give it over here. Oh, look [now delighted] your middle name is Aram. Why don’t you use it? Do you speak Armenian?” At this juncture Said put his arm around my shoulders. I was stunned.

“Well, no, a couple of words.”

“That was a piece of negligence, Aram. Why didn’t you learn it?”

“Well, my father, he’s German, so, I guess, they didn’t—you know, there wasn’t a lot of Armenian spoken.” I noticed that his chummy grasp was moving me toward the door.

“A way can always be found, my dear boy. You haven’t progressed very far with this card, have you. Your courses, you see, need to be written in here.”

“I wanted to ask you about courses, uh, because—well, I am an English major.”

“Of course. But, look, it can’t be today, I’m late for an appointment. This is just not the time. Why don’t you come round later this week.”

“Well, but I have to register now . . . .”

“Look, uh, Harold, I would love to discuss all this with you, and I will when you come in for a longer chat.” Big smile. I realize that his warm embrace has been steering me to the door. He opens it. “You sign up for Professor M******* R********’s course. The Bloomsbury Circle. He’s fantastic, a brilliant intellect. Look, I’ll sign the form.” He flourished a gold pen the size of a frankfurter and autographed my program card. “And it was really an immense pleasure to meet you. You must come in and see me. Good-bye.”

I found myself standing in the hall, having just experienced for the first time the odd pattern of embrace-plus-expulsion that distinguished so many of Said’s involvements. With literary theory, with the PLO, in fact everywhere except for his personal relationships which never wavered, there is the gift for extraordinary intimacy and the power of bitter, dismissive rejection—simultaneously. The meltingly warm embrace lay over a cold and steady gaze, like two transparencies on an overhead projector.

Said felt he had to transform every situation he entered. Any less would be passivity, and he was phobic about letting things happen to him: it smacked of victimage. It was customary at this epoch for radical students to liberate college classes. The professor of a liberated class was expected to stand aside and accept the verdict of History. I don’t think anyone tried this on Said, who had once used his umbrella to brush aside two friends of mine, who were kissing on the Hamilton Hall stairwell. On one occasion I recall, he addressed the Columbia chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, who were very big on liberating classrooms and even whole buildings. Students, visiting radicals, Harlem residents, and street people had pressed into Hewitt Lounge, in the student center. Imagine a group who had the political moderation of Robespierre and the sartorial verve of the Hell’s Angels, and you’ll have a pretty fair grasp of the scene.
Several of my fellow “Freshman Cabalists” affirmed that Said was indeed expected to speak, and pretty soon he arrived.

What followed was a series of tiny collisions and Gestalt readjustments. He was, for instance, punctilious in his dress: a black cashmere blazer over a bespoke, wide-striped English tailored shirt. French cuffs were a rarity in our group, and he had them. As he entered Hewitt Lounge, a ripple went through the assembled company, and the person speaking—who happened to be the society heiress and declared radical action freak, Josie Biddle Duke—interrupted herself and announced that Said had arrived.

He declined to mount the Victorian coffee table that had been serving as the speakers’ dais, but he was visible nonetheless. His preamble was subdued, the shoulders hunched, the eyes lowered, the voice quiet. He promised to make four points, the final one about the Palestinians. As he made them, his animation grew, his hand came into play, and he straightened up. His diction became richer, even a bit fanciful. His fourth and final point resonated through the large room: “And have you in SDS ever said so much as a word on the Palestinians’ behalf?” He searched the assembly, daring someone to answer. “No, you haven’t!” The dandy-like and introspective professor had morphed into a swingeing Palestinian Billy Sunday. He piled fact upon fact, and a fifth and a sixth and a seventh point heaped up on his promised four.

“And my final point is this”—here, a quick smile answering our laughter—“is that you call for ‘many Vietnams.’ Well, Palestine today IS another Vietnam!” It was a tour de force, one that I would see again. The buttoned-down precision of his prologue would suddenly take off like a Jimi Hendrix solo—not the weed-like proliferation of a Dickens novel nor the schizoid meanderings of a Beckett monologue nor the predictable going-one-better of a John Leguizamo, but rather the genius of a great improviser. The introverted, hunched figure clutching his four-point outline would suddenly foam into an impassioned, original mind, one generously laid open before us so that we could watch it work. When he taught continental theory, the improvisatory flights would produce astounding blackboard notations, as un-thought-of structures took shape in white chalk. And when he took on a traditional British lit survey, he was prone to load it with ironies and contradictions until its familiar outlines evaporated.

His graduate seminars were pure inventions of the theoretical imagination. One was called “Egotism,” and another, which I attended, was entitled simply “Repetition.” He ranged through philosophy, psychoanalysis, and history. A nineteenth-century Danish existentialist, an eighteenth-century rhetorician from Naples, a long essay by Karl Marx, and a French realist novel (which played—to the surprise of many English graduate students—a distinctly minor role in the course): the required books formed an olla podrida that no one had ever before thought to bring together. He did so by inventing a single project in which these bizarrely disparate texts were involved, and he invented a new lexicon in order to lay out the project. But today, every scholar can define “filiation” and “affiliation” in precisely Edward’s sense: his fancies have permanently entered the language.

He could condense voluminous feeling in a phrase and an intricate thesis in a single word. He did so, chiefly, in retrospect, as when he coined the term “worldliness” to describe what he’d done in Orientalism and its sequels. The publication of that book in 1978 marked a new stage in his teaching. The texts were the primary documents of European imperialism, and treatises on the political and ethical responsibility of intellectuals. This was, I now think, ominous, heralding the turn to an all-too-familiar American puritanical style. He would eventually come to think that only some topics and methods were morally defensible, and others were not. He told my younger brother not to write nice things about V. S. Naipaul. At the same time, however, one forgives the tiny flaw of moralizing beside the gigantic political task he took on.

Said’s ambitions were, after all, Wagnerian. He thought in terms of trilogies and didactic cycles, and Orientalism was just the opening act, to be followed quickly by The Question of Palestine and Covering Islam. Palestine was as vital to this project as Valhalla was to Wagner’s Ring. His celebrated renunciation of literary theory was inevitable, given the warmth with which Orientalism had embraced it. Getting too close, being too receptive, smacked of passivity and victimage, and these above all were to be shunned. His essays on “Renan’s Philological Laboratory,” the meditations on the West’s staging of the Orient, on the novel and travel writing as instruments for rendering knowledge useful—these are indebted to a thirty-year French theoretical Renaissance, and they mark the high tide of Said’s intellectual contribution. But his reluctance to succumb to someone else’s system—of appearing to be passive in relationship to a Foucault or a Canguilhem—demanded a noisy break from all the scientists of detail.

But he moved out of theory on a theoretical bridge, one he partly constructed and that he named “disciplines of detail.” Said’s later work faithfully completes his generation’s theoretical journey to the promised land of Local Knowledge. In this respect, his many studies of Palestinian politics (The Question of Palestine, After the Last Sky, Blaming the Victims, The End of the Peace Process, The Politics of Dispossession, Peace and Its Discontents) differ insubstantially from Clifford Geertz’s thick descriptions of Negara or Louis Montrose’s essays on Elizabethan country house royal entertainments. He like these others was invited to satisfy an aching hunger for reality, history, and things of flesh and blood.

That he does end in local knowledges is evident. He was certainly familiar with literary approaches using interpretive anthropology, including those that became literary New Historicism, one of the upstart tendencies designed to appease the desire for the real. In 1978 he read Stephen Greenblatt’s seminal New Historicist essay, “Improvisation and Power,” and introduced it to the English Institute. Said simply followed the blueprint mapped out by his intellectual generation, moving away from the subject (call it consciousness or the author), focusing instead on those impersonal apparatuses of perception (the statistical table, the philological laboratory, the stagecraft of culture), and finally turning away from global theorizing in preference for local knowledge. What set him apart from others of that generation was that he followed the map right to the end. Once he landed in local knowledge, he never turned back. In The Question of Palestine, the book after Orientalism, we have 238 pages of local knowledge, only five of which are devoted to anything even vaguely theoretical. His intellectual production from then on gets thicker in its descriptions of the Palestinian situation; a series of books are in essence studies of a single, local problem in media and culture (Covering Islam, After the Last Sky, Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question, The Politics of Dispossession, The End of the Peace Process, etc.). These books started coming faster and faster, because they required little thought. They required considerable research and energy, but they were empirical studies, and the research was happening anyway as collateral to Said’s journalistic activism. The books like the journalism described a situation. The logic of Said’s formation led him to local knowledge and thick description, but unfortunately that destination, so fully arrived at, sapped all the theoretical interest of his work. The period of brilliant innovation was abandoned. Said was no longer reaching into the unknown so as to grasp the thitherto unperceived mechanisms of cultural perception—apparatuses that he had managed to find, and describe with unmatched clarity, in the earlier books. There were a few late sparks, when he described apparatuses like the Cairo opera house production of Aida or the uses of geography in Kipling’s Kim. But for the most part, local knowledge overwhelmed theoretical knowledge, and Said dropped out of the forefront of literary theory. He did so, reasonably enough, by following strictly the paradigms that literary theory itself created. The odd thing is, that his initial postmodernism which was so rich in unexpected turns, debunkings of white mythology and myths of humanism, which attacked the comforting premise that history was the realized blueprint of fulfilled conscious intentions, which joined forces with thinkers from Vico to Nietzsche to Canguilhem, who decentered, fragmented, and dispersed the sources of human achievement, and in the process made a definitive break away from the humanist thinkers of Enlightenment and Victorian culture, who so decisively confirmed the death of the author–this same postmodern roadmap led him inexorably to his final reincarnation as a charismatic subject, author, personality, and celebrity, the very image of a white mythology that his initial work had cooperated in killing off.

This descent into the gritty chaos of materiality helped to reroute intellectual energies from diddling contemplations into would-be worldly actions. The ‘sixties trajectory that the Saids have followed took them out of the sterilities of academe. Their need to embrace local knowledge might have been academic in origin, a necessary consequence of a purely intellectual premise, but it plunged the Saids of our time into an entirely different realm of action and politics. Naturally, the move met resistance. It was opposed as a violation of objectivity, a breach of neutrality, a corruption of professionalism, and God knows what else—even a communist plot! (Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind initiated, in 1987, the culture wars against the ascent of the Edward Saids.) But in 2003, the Saids have won the war against aesthetes, formalists, and literary technicians. About that, one can be pleased. Yet the pleasure quickly shrivels when one gauges the political effect of their work. The situation parallels the one that Said noted in Conrad’s novels: “to occupy the present with a singleminded attention to immediate duty is the achievement of a man for whom thought—and broader awareness—is impossible.” It could not have escaped Said that he was, tragically, sacrificing a huge part of his talent.

His final books, unfinished, On Humanism and on The Late Style, reopen the old battle. His particular brand of crusading humanism would rally the troops, even as that triumphal optimism was to be checked, in the other text’s profounder meditation on failure, alienation, and death. His last “political” initiative—an Arab-Israeli orchestra to promote human triumphs over atavism and hate—was equally a refuge and a withdrawal. Philosophically, it unraveled Said’s earlier solution to the subject-object antinomy and reestablished, in good Kantian fashion, an aesthetic realm divorced and protected from the sphere of ethics and politics. Nothing is settled at all.

The unlaid ghost of Jonathan Swift looms over this story. Swift fused politics and imagination with the aim of agitating perfectly contented classes of people. Swift recognized that an idea and a conquest usually arrive together. Swift is allied to a nascent political force, the Irish community, which he played a part in creating. Swift walked the line between criticism and communal solidarity. Swift had no interest in philosophical consistency. Swift was compelled by shame and disgust. He was accused of poisoning the wells of high cultural enjoyment. His philosophical inconsistencies were noted. With all these tendencies, Edward Said is in total sympathy. Of his own much-taxed self-contradictoriness, he would say of himself as he said of Swift, pay less attention to the ideas and more “to the deployment and disposition of his energies, his local performances.” Said is one of the hinges of literary-political writing. There was local knowledge before him, and local knowledge after him, and they were not the same.

Said himself defies easy metaphorization. Salman Rushdie proposed the image of Chinese boxes, the tiny sect of Palestinian Episcopalians enclosed by Orthodox Christians enclosed by Egyptian Levantines enclosed by Arab Muslims. A recent work about him says he embodies “the paradox of identity,” as if he were a schizoid Jekyll-and-Hyde, or a perfect New-Critical poem. Even Said’s own memorable characterization of Palestinian experience as a cubist assortment of jutting planes is too old-fashioned. Consider him rather as Frank Gehry’s postmodern 1920s gambrel-roof clapboard house. This very dated core is surrounded partly by corrugated metal, partly by glass and steel meshing. The old house shows clearly through its industrial-quality casing, brutally marked by modernity. With Said it was the old-fashioned, humanist moral doctrines you saw on the outside. But the anarchic, unpredictable core showed clearly visible within. He remained unruly and inventive to the end.

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