To very smart people who study a lot, Edward Said is the “father of postcolonial studies” or, as he told me once when he insisted I was wasting my college education by taking a course on postmodernism and I told him he didn’t even know what it was:
“Know what it is, Najla? I invented it!!!”
I still don’t know if he was joking or serious.
Most likely Said was only half serious, but it’s impossible to overstate the impact of his 1978 book Orientalism on the generations of students and activists that followed. As Najla writes, it’s “the book that everyone reads at some point in college, whether in history, politics, Buddhism, or literature class.” Said’s "postmodernism," unlike that of Francois Lyotard or many others, avoided the pejorative baggage that came to attach to the term, largely because while he called into doubt certain ossified and pernicious categorical distinctions, he never stopped believing in the positive intellectual enterprise that gave him the tools and the position to make his critiques. He stubbornly called himself a humanist, "despite," as he writes in the preface to the 2003 edition of his most famous book, "the scornful dismissal of the term by sophisticated post-modern critics":
It isn't at all a matter of being optimistic, but rather of continuing to have faith in the ongoing and literally unending process of emancipation and enlightenment that, in my opinion, frames and gives direction to the intellectual vocation.
In that same preface Said also writes of his aging, of the recent death of two mentors, and of “the necessary diminutions in expectations and pedagogic zeal which usually frame the road to seniority.” He does not write about the leukemia that would take his life that same year at the age of 67, ten years ago this month.
For the interview above, however, Said’s last, he speaks candidly about his illness. Fittingly, the video opens with a quote from Roland Barthes: “The only sort of interview that one could, if forced to, defend would be where the author is asked to articulate what he cannot write.” Said tells interviewer Charles Glass that his main preoccupation in the past few months had been his illness, something he thought he had “mastered” but which had forced him to confront the incontrovertible fact of his mortality and sapped him of his will to work.
Said, as always, is articulate and engaging, and the conversation soon turns to his other preoccupations: the situation of the Palestinian people and the politics and personal toll of living “between worlds.” He also expresses his disappointment in friends who had become “mouthpieces of the status quo,” banging the drums for war and Western Imperialism in this, the first year of the war in Iraq. One suspects that he refers to Christopher Hitchens, among others, though he is too discreet to name names. Said has a tremendous amount to say on not only the current events of the time but on his entire career as a writer and thinker. Though he’s given dozens of impassioned interviews over the decades, this may be the most honest and unguarded, as he unburdens himself during his final days of those things, perhaps, he could not bring himself to write.
Thanks to Stephanos for sending this video our way.