Edward Said Speaks Candidly about Politics, His Illness, and His Legacy in His Final Interview (2003)

In an excerpt from her mem­oir pub­lished in Salon last month, Najla Said—daughter of lit­er­ary crit­ic and Pales­tin­ian-Amer­i­can polit­i­cal activist Edward Said—recalls her father’s lega­cy:

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stephen Fry & Friends Pay Trib­ute to Christo­pher Hitchens

Christo­pher Hitchens: No Deathbed Con­ver­sion for Me, Thanks, But it was Good of You to Ask

Noam Chom­sky Calls Post­mod­ern Cri­tiques of Sci­ence Over-Inflat­ed “Poly­syl­lab­ic Tru­isms”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Hanoch says:

    Said is not a cred­i­ble his­to­ri­an. In the New York Review of Books (http://tinyurl.com/ar4nlyt), one of the great­est schol­ars of the Mid­dle East, Bernard Lewis of Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, thor­ough­ly debunked Ori­en­tal­ism and not­ed that the book received a “pre­dom­i­nant­ly unfa­vor­able response among review­ers in learned jour­nals”. If it is true that Ori­en­tal­ism is a book that “every­one reads at some point in col­lege”, it is yet anoth­er sad exam­ple of the indoc­tri­na­tion, rather than edu­ca­tion, occur­ring in the Uni­ver­si­ty human­i­ties depart­ments today.

    • Laura Maria Kju00e6r says:

      I think it is impor­tant to remem­ber that Edward Said was NOT a his­to­ri­an. So judg­ing him as one seems a bit unfair.

  • lillemus says:

    Said was an anti-colo­nial­ist genius who ate intel­lec­tu­al­ly dubi­ous blowhards like Bernard Lewis for lunch. This is nice­ly demon­strat­ed here http://www.counterpunch.org/2003/06/27/bernard-lewis/

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