The life of our colleague Edward Said, who died on September 25, brings to mind the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: “It is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived.” Born in Jerusalem to a well-off Palestinian family, educated at the best schools in Cairo and the United States, Said could have been content with his distinguished career as a professor of literature at Columbia. But as author of seminal books that factored colonialism into the Western literary canon–including Orientalism, one of the most influential works of intellectual history of the past three decades, and Culture and Imperialism–he had a larger vision of his place in the world and his responsibilities as an Arab in the West. So he created another life, as a critic of Western imperialism and a champion of Palestinian liberation.
His association with The Nation emblemized both his lives. He wrote articles on the Middle East and also served as music critic. He turned his lucid, elegantly erudite prose to interpreting the Palestinian-Israeli struggle. A prolific contributor to publications abroad, he said here in the United States he felt most at home in The Nation. That did not mean, however, he agreed with everything the magazine published; when he disapproved of an article or writer on the Middle East, he let the editors know.
He was as passionate about his music criticism–a post serendipitously assigned him by the literary editor, who knew him as a concert-level pianist. His last essay, “Untimely Meditations,” on Beethoven (September 1/8), held a deep meaning for him because of the pain, so like his own, the composer lived through in his last years. He regarded art as a creative dialogue with society, hence his efforts with the Israeli conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim to establish an ensemble of young Israeli and Palestinian musicians. He believed art could serve as a bridge between the two communities.
Said considered the true role of the artist and the intellectual in our times to be “speaking the truth to power, being a witness to persecution and suffering, and supplying a dissenting voice in conflicts with authority.” In a 1980 Nation article, “Islam Through Western Eyes,” he trained the analytical lens of Orientalism on present-day imperialism in the West. In a 1981 piece he deplored “the almost total absence of democratic freedoms in the Arab world” and held the Palestinian movement to higher standards of moral and ethical accountability (hence his eventual falling out with Yasir Arafat over his leadership failures and his negotiating of the 1993 Oslo Accord, which Said presciently saw as a Palestinian Versailles). An editor commented that he might best be understood as an exile, an outsider–a free-spirited expatriate first and only secondarily a Palestinian nationalist, which is partly why he ultimately favored a one-state solution.
Despite his radical image, he was courtly, charming, elegantly attired. Being a polemicist did not come easily, and the lashes from political foes hurt and angered him. But he did not let them diminish his prodigious energy for various causes and professional activities–teaching, writing articles and books, lecturing, interviews. If you visited him at his book-lined Riverside Drive apartment with its sweeping view of the Hudson, the phone would ring every few minutes, with Edward answering in Arabic or English. Even when the leukemia he resisted for so long sapped his strength, he maintained a punishing schedule of speeches and travel. A friend talked to him a few nights before he died. “It was heartbreaking,” she said. “He was so weak he could hardly speak. But he insisted I read his Beethoven piece and was planning to get up early the next morning to work on the proofs of his latest book and write something new.”
A great and distinctive voice is stilled, too soon.