Edward Said had what Dante would have called greatness of soul. His death this past week leaves the many of us who loved and admired him feeling desolated.
I have what may be a unique relationship to Edward. He was my dissertation advisor at Columbia, where I did my graduate work from 1978-1985. My first encounter with him came when I visited Columbia in the spring of 1978 to suss out which grad school offer I should accept. I had asked Bill Chace, one of my favorite profs at Stanford where I was then an undergrad (and who later went on to become president of Wesleyan University), if there were any people at Columbia I should try to meet, and he recommended a fellow named Said. Chace passed this on in a note, and it wasn't until I asked in the English department at Columbia for "Professor Sed" that I learned how Edward's name was pronounced, and gleaned from that that he was from the Middle East. I had dutifully gone to the Stanford library before my trip, and read Edward's book on Conrad. This was a beautiful short discussion of a writer who would remain crucial for Edward throughout his career, not surprising given their shared commitment to both high-modernist complexity and ethical concern. Beginnings was out on permanent recall, so I did not have any sense of Edward's emergence as a major literary theorist. He was then on the verge of releasing Orientalism, a book in which the politics of knowledge that Edward himself had been theorizing (along with Derrida, Foucault, and Chomsky) was applied, in a way analogous to the way Foucault had done to the penal system and discourses of sexuality. Edward's topic of choice was far more contentious and intractable than those topics, of course, and far more a matter of straightforwardly oppressive power, of guns, bullets, bombs, and armies. It would require great courage to wade into such an arena: the death threats, letters filled with excrement, and the like would be part of Edward's everyday life for the rest of his life.
Of all this I was completely ignorant. I knocked on his door and, in what I later came to realize was an incredibly lucky break, was let into the outer office by his secretary. I was astonished to hear through the door to Said's office the voice of Bill Chace talking to Edward. Chace noticed me standing there stunned and, equally surprised, he asked me what I was doing there. I reminded him that he had told me to be sure to try to meet with Prof. Said. By that time Edward had come to the door and, shaking my hand warmly, he told me to come in. Said's office, as I remember it, was dominated by a large, elegant, old wood desk and leather chair, with a blotter, an inbox filled with articles and papers, and a pencil holder crammed with dozens of perfectly sharpened pencils. (Edward refused to use a typewriter, not to mention a word processor, and defended his preference eloquently in an essay some years later.) Along one wall ran an imposing set of shoulder-high file cabinets where articles were meticulously sorted and stored.
I do not know that Edward would have been as genteel if Chace had not been there to grease the skids, but he was enormously charming at that first meeting, and from thereon in always supportive, at least to me. I remember being struck by how tall, elegant, and intense was his presence at that first meeting. The quickness of speech, the slight nervousness and gentle probing in his questions, were very flattering for a college senior, and by the time I left the office I had made up my mind that Columbia was the place for me.
Edward was a great teacher, not so much because of the questions he asked us about our own work but more because of the model he provided of the responsibility of being an intellectual. For many of his students, being like Edward meant putting one's intellectual being in the service of a cause, and unsurprisingly this meant that leftist cant was not uncommon in discussions that went on in his class. But this was kept under control by Edward himself, who was capable of withering responses to stupid presentations or comments: I remember one class in which, as a student droned on, Edward slowly lowered his forehead until it was resting on the seminar table, remaining in that position until the presentation ended. Ideological readings were also kept under control by the intense competitiveness in the students who vied to impress Edward by how much we knew (mirroring his own awesome erudition, evident in his footnotes, which showed a tentacular grasp of the issue in question). Columbia in that era was filled with really smart students (perhaps the fact that they admitted 110 people to my MA class and kept only 20 had something to do with that): among those whom I remember in Edward's class were Sanford Kwinter (who went on to edit Zone Books), Rob Nixon, Ann McClintock, Siri Hustvedt (who became a fine novelist), and Tim Brennan. Edward's favorite (or at least it seemed to us at the time) was Ric Burns, a brilliant talker who disappointed Edward by dropping out of grad school to go make a documentary film with his brother Ken (The Civil War). If you opened your mouth, you wanted to be sure you had read, thought about, and critically contextualized the book under consideration.
It was Edward's performance in his lecture courses that was the most influential on us, for it was in these classes that we could watch him thinking out loud. He would use these classes (at the grad level, at least) to work through issues that would emerge within a couple of months after the end of the course in an essay in Critical Inquiry. The texts he was grappling with at that period, Gramsci's Prison Notebooks, Lukacs' History and Class Consciousness, Benda's Trahison des clercs, were thorny, demanding, and difficult, and it was thrilling to watch Edward bring them into conversation with each other and with him. My most embarrassing class experience came on a cold midwinter day when, with many of us working feverishly to get term papers in on time, Edward, suspecting we had not mastered Lukacs' concept of reification, broke off from his lecture to ask if anyone could define the term. We all faltered and failed, and the hurt look of reprobation on Edward's face I will never forget.
So far as I can recall, among those whom Edward agreed to serve as dissertation director and mentor, I was the only one whose project did not fall under the rubric of postcolonial studies that he established for literary studies during the time I was at Columbia. I was more interested in seeing if the authority of other kinds of knowledge besides Orientalism could also be studied in a way that brought in literature centrally. While it was becoming more and more clear in the early 1980s that postcolonial studies were emerging as a major subfield, and many of Edward's students from that period went on to fill the first positions offered, Edward remained unfailingly supportive to me as I slogged on in relative isolation. Though he became increasingly difficult to schedule an appointment with, and his responses to dissertation chapters was excruciatingly slow, he would sometimes emerge from his office, corral me and drag me and Ric Burns along at a near trot to the nearest restaurant, talking briskly along the way (sometimes quoting a line and asking me who had written it-- usually T.S. Eliot). I remember talking with Edward and Max Rudin (another Columbia grad student, now publisher of Library of America) at one of these lunches about music, and learning that perhaps the only cultural area Edward had not mastered was rock and jazz -- he confessed that he had never learned to improvise on the piano, of which he was a virtuoso who performed once at Carnegie Hall).
The last time I saw Edward was during a visit he made to the University of Chicago in the late 1990s. He was then on one of the many downswings in the battle against leukemia that ultimately claimed him, and asked me to let him lean on me as we walked around at a party and before his lecture. I feared he would not be able to last long at the party, but he brightened and dove into conversations at the party, though he still gripped me shoulder. The same bright, intense gaze, quickness of response, and magnanimity was still there.
I will miss, above all, the possibility of being able to listen to Edward talk.
Edward Said, in memoriam
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