When Edward Said died in September 2003, after a decade-long battle against leukemia, he was probably the best-known intellectual in the world. Orientalism, his controversial account of the appropriation of the East in modern European thought and literature, has spawned an academic subdiscipline in its own right: A quarter of a century after its first publication, it continues to generate irritation, veneration and imitation. Even if its author had done nothing else, confining himself to teaching at Columbia University in New York–where he was employed from 1963 until his death–he would still have been one of the most influential scholars of the late twentieth century.
But he did not confine himself. From 1967, and with mounting urgency and passion as the years passed, Edward Said was also an eloquent, ubiquitous commentator on the crisis in the Middle East and an advocate for the cause of the Palestinians. This moral and political engagement was not really a displacement of Said’s intellectual attention–his critique of the West’s failure to understand Palestinian humiliation closely echoes, after all, his reading of nineteenth-century scholarship and fiction in Orientalism and subsequent books (notably Culture and Imperialism, published in 1993). But it transformed the professor of comparative literature at Columbia into a very public intellectual, adored or execrated with equal intensity by many millions of readers.
This was an ironic fate for a man who fitted almost none of the molds to which his admirers and enemies so confidently assigned him. Edward Said lived all his life at a tangent to the various causes with which he was associated. The involuntary “spokesman” for the overwhelmingly Muslim Arabs of Palestine was an Episcopalian Christian, born in 1935 to a Baptist from Nazareth. The uncompromising critic of imperial condescension was educated in some of the last of the colonial schools that had trained the indigenous elite of the European empires; for many years he was more at ease in English and French than in Arabic and an outstanding exemplar of a Western education with which he could never fully identify.
Edward Said was the idolized hero of a generation of cultural relativists in universities from Berkeley to Bombay, for whom “Orientalism” underwrote everything from career-building exercises in “postcolonial” obscurantism (“writing the other”) to denunciations of “Western Culture” in the academic curriculum. But Said himself had no time for such nonsense. Radical anti-foundationalism, the notion that everything is just a linguistic effect, struck him as shallow and “facile”: human rights, as he observed on more than one occasion, are not “cultural or grammatical things, and when they are violated…they are as real as anything we can encounter.”
As for the popular account of his thought that has Edward Said reading Western writers as mere byproducts of colonial privilege, he was quite explicit: “I do not believe that authors are mechanistically determined by ideology, class or economic history.” Indeed, when it came to the business of reading and writing, Said was an unabashedly traditional humanist, “despite the scornful dismissal of the term by sophisticated post-modern critics.” If there was anything that depressed him about younger literary scholars it was their overfamiliarity with “theory” at the expense of the art of close textual reading. Moreover, he enjoyed intellectual disagreement, seeing the toleration of dissent and even discord within the scholarly community as the necessary condition for the latter’s survival–my own expressed doubts about the core thesis of Orientalism were no impediment to our friendship. This was a stance that many of his admirers from afar, for whom academic freedom is at best a contingent value, were at a loss to comprehend.