New Statesman, 29 March 2004

The last Jewish intellectual

By Terry Eagleton

Power, Politics and Culture: interviews with Edward W Said. Edited and with an introduction by Gauri Viswanathan Bloomsbury.

Reading these 29 interviews with the late Edward Said, it is hard to believe that he needed an emergency button in his New York apartment which was connected to the local police station, or that his office at Columbia University was once burned down. For the judicious, eminently reasonable figure who emerges from these absorbing dialogues is the exact opposite of the bogeyman branded a "professor of terror" by some of his less level-headed Zionist opponents.

Said certainly detested Zionism, but he hated terrorism, too, and says so loud and clear in this collection. He was the finest intellectual champion that the Palestinians are ever likely to have, yet ended up feeling little but icy contempt for Yasser Arafat and his brutal, corrupt regime. (The regime returned the compliment, grotesquely claiming that this scourge of US foreign policy was a CIA agent.) He could be acerbically critical of Arab regimes, a note rarely struck by Bernard Lewis or Conor Cruise O'Brien in their apologias for Israel. At one point in the book, he dubs Hamas and Islamic Jihad "violent and primitive". Saddam Hussein (and this from a man who vigorously opposed the first Gulf war) is a "murderer and a pig and a tyrant and a fascist". Said even supported UN sanctions against Iraq, while rejecting the faux-left line that if the fight is between fascism and imperialism, you must reluctantly opt for the latter.

He admits that Israel's actions in Gaza and the West Bank drive him to "tremendous anger", yet he also describes himself, a mite tongue-in-cheek, as "the last Jewish intellectual", meaning a thinker who, in Judaic style, is wandering, homeless, dispossessed. He disagrees with the equation of Zionism with racism, which strikes him as too simple-minded. He has, he remarks, felt a lifelong affinity with Jews, and there is nothing in this lucid, passionate volume to suggest that this is a mealy-mouthed gesture. The abrupt, abrasive Said, who is quite capable of rounding suddenly on his interrogators in this book when he feels they are being pious or coy, did not do mealy-mouthed.

Neither did he do Theory. The man who helped to change the face of literary studies despised what he calls here "jaw-shattering jargonistic postmodernism", and gave up reading cultural theory years earlier. His concern is justice, not identity. He is more interested in emancipating the dispossessed than in bending genders or floating signifiers. One of the major architects of modern cultural thought comes across in this book as profoundly out of sympathy with its cerebral convolutions, which — as he shrewdly sees — are largely a symptom of political displacement and despair. Popular culture, he remarks provocatively, "means absolutely nothing to me", a comment that would not have won him many invitations to beach parties had he been an assistant professor of English in California.

In fact, Said was all along a humanist of the old school, and declares this unfashionable allegiance without the slightest sense of embarrassment. If he fought for the extension of the literary canon to peoples and nations that it shunned, it was not, in his view, a canon to be derided callowly. He did not see the need to choose between Jane Austen and Chinua Achebe. If ethnic or cultural identities can be politically energising, they can also be spiritually narrowing. "I am not just interested in Palestinians in American literature," he observes, unlike those vulgar Marxists who used to be interested only in novels with coal mines. He could tell you without effort which poets were up and coming in the Philippines, or how autobiography was faring in South Korea, but he also saw his own inquiries as extending the work of the great European humanists, drawing upon their scrupulousness, rigour and erudition. He did not save himself a lot of tedious spadework by dismissing these luminaries as dead white males. Nor did he accept the patronising line that any novel written in the post-colonial world is automatically to be praised. And he was as distinguished a classical musician as he was a literary critic.

The same maverick quality characterised his politics which, in their nervousness of orthodoxies, were in some ways more liberal than socialist. He sometimes speaks of the left as though he were not part of it, which might have come as a surprise to those who set fire to his office. Marxism he handled warily, and the word "capitalism" rarely crossed his lips. He was almost physically pained by rigid doctrinal systems, and mildly revolted by the idea of discipleship. His imagination was quickened by the diverse, unstable and unpredictable, and turned off by the homogeneous. It is hardly a surprising predilection for a Christian Arab brought up in Jerusalem and Cairo and educated in the United States.

What interested him is what he called "travelling theory"; and this sense of being errant, provisional, intellectually on the hoof, was one of several ways in which he remained true to the exiled people to whom he lent his voice. He describes himself in this volume as "a traveller, who is not interested in holding territory, who has no realm to protect". It is natural that he should use a geopolitical metaphor for the life of the mind. Yet he also sees that being caught between two or more cultures can be a cause of misery as well as a source of creativity. He is not given to the sacred postmodern ritual of romanticising the Other, and with typical even-handedness castigates the fashionable cult of exile. Not every post-colonial who steps off the plane to take up a well-paid job at Oxford or Yale is an exile or refugee. Said himself, whose mercantile family was remarkably cultivated and well-heeled, rightly refused the term as a self-description.

Intellectuals are not only different from academics, but almost the opposite of them. Academics usually plough a narrow disciplinary patch, whereas intellectuals of Said's kind roam ambitiously from one discipline to another. Academics are interested in ideas, whereas intellectuals seek to bring ideas to an entire culture. The word "intellectual" is not a euphemism for "frightfully clever", but a kind of job description, like "waiter" or "chartered accountant". Anger and academia do not usually go together, except perhaps when it comes to low pay, whereas anger and intellectuals do.

Above all, academics are conscious of the difficult, untidy, nuanced nature of things, while intellectuals take sides. One reason why Raymond Williams seems to have been easily Edward Said's favourite British intellectual is that the work of both men combines these qualities with astonishing ease. Williams and Said are both angry and analytic while aware that, in all the most pressing political conflicts which confront us, someone is going to have to win and someone to lose. It is this, not a duff ear for nuance and subtlety, which marks them out from the liberal.

Like most post-colonial thinkers, Said is suspicious of Enlightenment rationalism, having witnessed at first hand some of the shadows that this light can cast over the world. Yet the forthright honesty and steely lucidity of his voice in these interviews, his impatience with cant and pious waffle, also bear witness to the virtues of that rationality. Perhaps if those who reviled and insulted Said could have read this book, they might have desisted. Or perhaps not. For, like any authentic intellectual, Edward Said was aware that ideas, for all their impor- tance, weigh very little when it comes to material interests.

Terry Eagleton's most recent book is After Theory (Allen Lane, the Penguin Press) This article first appeared in the New Statesman. For the latest in current and cultural affairs subscribe to the New Statesman print edition.


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