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Edward Said and the work of the criticspeaking truth to power
Duke University PressCopyright © 2000 Duke University Press
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Chapter OneJACQUELINE ROSE
Edward Said talks to Jacqueline Rose
JR I wanted to start this evening by way of introduction with Edward Said's own words from two of my favorite books of his. The first from After the Last Sky, his extraordinary and eloquent tribute to the Palestinian people:
Homecoming is out of the question.... A part of something is for the foreseeable future going to be better than all of it. Fragments over wholes. Restless nomadic activity over the settlements of held territory. Criticism over resignation. The Palestinian as self-consciousness in a barren plain of investments and consumer appetites. The heroism of anger over the begging-bowl, limited independence over the status of clients. Attention, alertness, focus. To do as others do, but somehow to stand apart. To tell your story in pieces, as it is.
The second I take from Musical Elaborations, which is his wonderful excursus into modern music which he brings to an end with a celebration of a type of music:
whose pleasures and discoveries are premised upon letting go, upon not asserting a central authorizing identity ... an art not primarily ... about authorial power and social authority, but a modefor thinking through or thinking with the integral variety of human cultural practices, generously, non-coercively, in a utopian cast, if by utopian we mean worldly, possible, attainable, knowable.
I chose these two quotes not just because I like them or because they immediately give you a sense of the extraordinary range of Edward Said's work, but also because I think they give such a strong impression of the affirmative aspect of his work.
In his 1993 Representations of the Intellectual, Edward Said described the intellectual as somebody who strikes us with "the unremitting force of his questioning and deeply confrontational intellect" and slightly less flatteringly-he wasn't talking about himself, I should say-of the intellectual whose point was to be "embarrassing, contrary, and even unpleasant." Now, some of these epithets have been thrown his way in his time, so I started with these two quotes so as to convey the spirit-in which I hope this interview and discussion can be conducted-of his positive, inspirational commitment to a future that would be non-coercive, generous, integrally various.
I'm also hoping that we can use this evening as an opportunity to give Edward Said a chance to reply to some of the criticisms, not to say misrepresentations, that on occasion he rather dramatically seems to provoke. I have a personal interest in this. I'm here this evening as a Jewish woman and a feminist with a long-standing commitment to psychoanalytic thinking, and, let's face it, on the surface of it, none of these epithets could be said to apply to you. I'm therefore also hoping this evening that we will have a chance to demonstrate the possibility of undreamt of forms of dialogue across what have often seemed to be insurmountable barriers of historical difference.
My first question is about writing. You've talked about writing all throughout your work, and, at one point, you say: "for man who no longer has a homeland writing becomes a place to live." You also say: "the main hope of the intellectual"-this is a bit surprising-"the main hope of the intellectual is not that he will have an effect on the world, but that someday, somewhere, someone will recall what he wrote exactly as he wrote it." In Beginnings, you say the first question-which is why it's my first question-the first question is "Why writing?-a choice is made over the desire to speak, to gesture, to dance." In fact, you do speak and you do gesture. I don't know about dancing.
EWS (inaudible) I don't dance....
JR So, my question is not what it is you write about and why you've chosen to write about those things, but what does writing do for you? Why do you think you do it?
EWS Well, in many cases, at a very simple level, it's because I get pleasure from it. There is something direct about it that gives me a sense that I'm entering the world. I'm one of the few people who doesn't use a computer. I use a pen. I've resisted all of these technological advances, simply because the irreducible pleasure of putting pen to paper with black ink is a way of trying out thought, of expressing ideas, of trying to reach people that I otherwise couldn't reach. In a certain way, it's a refusal of the silence that most of us experience as ordinary citizens who are unable to effect change in a political and economic society that is obviously moved by larger forces than individuals.
But, also, I think there's a certain expression in the writing, of not exactly resignation. Your quote, about the hope of the intellectual that somebody would read their words, I borrowed from Adorno at a time when I felt that things were going very wrong for the Palestinians, and that being left out of the progress of history is a fate which I didn't want to settle for. What I felt that I could at least do was to testify, to be a witness to a certain kind of history and to get it right. I think in the end that is probably the most fundamental challenge of all, to try to get it right, to find words that will fit a situation and that will not change as the situation changes, but which will at least register a reaction to a particular moment that would otherwise go by. I was writing at the time of the Oslo accord when there was universal celebration and people on television were talking about this earth-shaking event, and I was feeling exactly the opposite. I thought this was a very bad moment. From then on, I felt it was important somehow not to let things escape. I've had a lifelong suspicion-well, not lifelong, but for as long as it's been around-of deconstruction: people who say, well, it all depends on how you look. I believe in facts and very often the facts get abused, or left out, or embroidered or hidden or forgotten. So, at that very low level of what could perhaps be called resignation, for me that is what that kind of writing is.
The last thing to say is that, for me, writing is a very varied thing. It depends on the occasion, on what I'm writing and who I'm writing for. There are certain types of writing immediately tied to an occasion and anchored to a deadline; and other kinds of writing that are more reflective and take longer, so the pace of writing is also very important to gauge. My great fear is repeating myself, because in the end, all of us perforce have a repertory of ideas, phrases. For the last few years, I've been writing a column twice a month for various newspapers, not in America, but in the Arab world and Europe. There, the great challenge is to find the right tone for each occasion-it's very very hard-to try, for your reader, to be different, to surprise, above all to raise questions and inspire skepticism. Not to let people feel that there's nothing that can be done. At least, both as a teacher and a writer, you want to try and stimulate or at least involve the reader in a process which you can help along with your own writing.
JR One of my strongest images of you was, indeed after Oslo, when you were speaking at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, and you stood in the room-this was the occasion where you gestured-and just drew in the air the roads that were being built through the so-called, about-to-be-liberated, newly independent territories. In a stroke, you demonstrated to me-and it has stayed with me ever since-the economic non-viability of what was happening for the Palestinians. That would be consistent with the life of a spokesperson whose task is, as you have also put it, "the fusing of the moral will with the grasping of evidence," or "speaking truth to power." So, facts, as you've just said. One way I see that aspect of your work is as a sort of enlightenment project, whose aim is to bring critical reason to the court of politics. On the other hand, in much of your writing, especially on literature and music, your passion is for modernism which, by your own account, is skeptical of certain concepts of truth, certainty, and so on. This does not, as I see it, correspond to a division between your writing on culture, say, versus politics, because, even in your political writings, you have talked about the need for us to be-and this is one of my favorite expressions of yours-"receptacles," open so we "could take in as much as the sea" (an image replete with what for many would be seen as the fluidity of modernist writing). So, can you say something about how you square, or how you see the connection between, the enlightenment and modernist components of what you do?
EWS In many ways they're really quite different as you suggest. If you're writing about modernism with all of its skepticism and, above all, irony, then you're really talking about something quite different from what a particular political actor has done, what a political settlement or a political process might be all about. But, what I think connects them-and I've tried to do that-is a certain sense of exploration and provisionality. It's not as if I'm trying, in my writing on politics, to say that it's always fixed in stone. What I say is the result of an effort for me which I'm presenting with every possibility that I'll be proved wrong. There is something about reality which is resistant to that kind of settled analysis, as there is in certain works of literature. For example, I've spent a long part of my intellectual and academic life thinking and writing about Conrad and I've come to the conclusion that I don't really fully understand Conrad and probably never will. Admitting this and going on trying just the same is how I would connect the two parts of my writing. Of course, the tone is different, because the audience is different and because, in a certain sense, the goal is different. In the case of political writing, you have to be more, shall I say, assertive, you have to name names and tell the facts as you see them, which has its own difficulties because there's no situation, whether in my part of the world or in the United States, where you can say what you want. There are always obstacles. Plus the fact that I always have the sense that I'm not really writing in my own language. In fact, I don't really know what my own language is. I use English, but I was brought up speaking Arabic. This kind of uncertainty as to where you finally stand-and I think that a lot of the effort of writing is not to settle too quickly into a position-is unsettling. I feel it as I'm writing although perhaps my readers don't.
I've therefore always been very suspicious of a number of things which I see as ultimately related. Officials. I think officials always lie. I. F. Stone, the great American journalist who died a few years ago and who I knew reasonably well towards the end of his life, used to publish a little magazine out of his home that became very influential in Washington, beginning I think in the Eisenhower years, but especially during the Kennedy and Johnson years, and especially around Vietnam. He was a remarkable reporter, extremely irreverent, and he said that the working rule for the journalist is to assume that every government report is lying. It's certainly true of most journalists-it's the laziness of the twentieth-century journalist-that they repeat the government report. You should always assume that officials representing a position, administrators, people who have authority and power over others, etc., are all involved in keeping their places and their authority intact, and that it is therefore the role of the intellectual, at least as I see it, to keep challenging them, to name names and cite facts.
JR This is sounding less and less like modernism though? This is sounding more and more like fusing of the moral will with the grasping of evidence.
EWS Right. Yes.
JR About fifteen years ago, someone wrote an article about the Middle East in which they envisaged a Palestinian future in which you yourself would be unfurling the Palestinian flag as the president of the new state. Did you ever read that?
EWS That's the last thing I would want to do....
JR But should that happen, and of course it's not going to, it would involve you taking on a form of executive and administrative authority. One could at least say that, if you're talking in the realm of politics and saying that everyone else is lying, then you must have the truth? You have to therefore take on a position which you seem very suspicious of....
EWS No, I'm not saying that I have the truth. I'm simply saying that they don't. I have listened for most of my life to tons, reams of, basically, political untruth of one kind or another, most of it doing abuse to language, which I care about very much. So, it's not that I have the answers which they claim that they have; it's that they are hiding the facts, which is a very different thing, and making promises that they can't keep, effacing bits of history that are embarrassing and complicated. I think it's important to say just that. In the interest of something larger than yourself to which you feel connected-a people, a cause, the silent, the helpless, the oppressed. Those things have moved me a great deal.
Writing about modernism is a totally different thing, because first of all it's much more private. It's a mode of reflection and meditation and perhaps much more uncertain. It's also different, I think, because I think of myself as writing even about modernism or music as a historian, where what you're trying to do is to put the work of art in a larger perspective and connect it to things that normally are not connected to it. In the case, let's say, of opera, it's very interesting to see a kind of politics of the moment, because operas were written for particular occasions in the past whereas most people think of them as classical works-you go to the opera and you wear your tuxedo and all that kind of thing. But, in fact, they were combative in many ways with specific objectives as well as having other aims. And the same is sometimes true of works of literature, which may mean connecting them not just to a cultural and political situation, but also to the privacy of the writer's life.
JR In Musical Elaborations, you describe Bach's "Canonic Variations" as "so far in excess of any occasion or need that it dangles pretty much as pure musicality in a social space off the edge." You also use expressions like "self-enclosed," "private," "reflexive." And yet, as I see it, most of your work involves pulling works of literature and cultural art back to their historical and political accountability. So where's "private" in that?
EWS There's been a change. For the last six or seven years, perhaps after I became ill, I got very interested in what has been referred to as "late style." In other words, in the careers of many writers, composers, painters, there's a transformation which has to do with age, which has to do with a new vision that occurs at the end of their careers. The most famous example of this is Beethoven in the last, say, ten years of his life. He was of course deaf, but the deafness can't explain what in fact happened. It is as if Beethoven, who had spent certainly the middle years of the second decade between 1810 and 1816 being a very public composer (for example, his only opera was produced in its third version for the Congress of Vienna, by which time he was the most famous composer of Europe and a celebrated figure in Vienna), suddenly turns away from all that. And what you have is the late work, which is extremely private, very concerned with the medium, really about the technique of music. Most important, they're works that are not unified, the way the earlier works had been, by the force of his personality, by development of the kind that one associates with sonata form. What you have, as you do in the last plays of Ibsen, is a sense of the artist turning inward and examining not only the medium of his art, but also his own work, and turning them inside out. This is true also of Bach's last works, where he's no longer writing for an audience, for patrons, for a court, for the church. He's writing just within the sphere of a fantastic, fantastically mastered sphere of counterpoint, like the "Canonic Variations." That interests me tremendously.
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