Dispatches: Optimism of the Will

The first time I saw Edward Said, in 1993, I was an undergraduate studying literature at Johns Hopkins, where he had come to give a lecture.  An extremely pretentious young person, I arrived in the large hall (much larger than the halls in which other visiting literature professors spoke) with a mixture of awe and, I’m afraid to say, condescension.  This was born of the immature idea that the author of Orientalism had ceased to occupy the leading edge of the field, postcolonial studies, which his work had called into being.  At that time, the deconstructionist Homi Bhabha and the Marxist Aijaz Ahmad were publishing revisions of (and, in the case of Ahmad, ad hominem attacks on) Said’s work, and Said himself seemed to be retreating from “theory” back to some vaguely unfashionable (so it seemed to me) version of humanism. 

There are interludes in which a thinker’s work, no matter how enabling or revolutionizing, are liable to attack, to labels such as “dated” or “conservative,” from more insecure minds.  In this case, the actual presence of Said destroyed those illusions utterly.  Seated on a dais at a baby-grand piano, he delivered an early version of his reading of “lateness,” on the late work of master figures such as Beethoven and Adorno.  In a typical stroke, Said’s use of Beethoven’s late work as one example, and then Adorno’s late work on Beethoven as a second example, highlighted the mutual relationship between artist and critic, each dialectically enabling the other’s practice.  The further implication, of course, that Said himself was a master critic entering such a late period (he had recently been diagnosed with cancer) was as palpably obvious as the idea that Said would say such a thing aloud was preposterous.  And on top of it all, he played the extracts from Beethoven he discussed for us, with the grace of a concert pianist (which he was).  I left the auditorium enthralled.

Within the next year, I was lucky enough to be invited to dinner with Said by my aunt Azra, who was one of the doctors treating him for leukemia.  Seated next to him, I challenged him on several subjects, with the insufferable intellectual arrogance of youth.  His responses were sometimes pithy and generous, sometimes irritated and indignant.  On Aijaz Ahmad, who had been attacking him mercilessly and unfairly, he simply muttered, “What an asshole.”  How refreshing!  When I asked him why we continued to read nineteenth-century English novels, if they repressed the great human suffering that underwrote European colonial wealth, he gave the eminently sensible answer, “Because they’re great books.”  At another dinner, at a Manhattan temple of haute cuisine where he addressed the waiters in French, I complained that the restaurant’s aspirations to a kind of gastronomic modernism were at odds with their old-fashioned, country club-ish “jacket required” policy.  He raised an eyebrow at me and dryly remarked, “I hadn’t even noticed the internal contradiction.”  Score one for the kid.

In 2003, as a graduate student in English at NYU, I rode the subway up to Columbia each week for a seminar with Said, which turned out to be the last one he taught.  Wan and bearded, Said would walk in late with a bottle of San Pellegrino in hand and proceed to hold forth, off the cuff, about an oceanic array of subjects relating to the European novel (Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels, Sentimental Education, Great Expectations, Lord Jim, etc.), alternately edifying and terrifying his audience.  He had an exasperation about him that demanded one to know more, to speak more clearly, to learn more deeply in order to please him.  Some found the constant harangues too traumatic for their delicate sensibilities; I loved to have found a teacher who simply did not accept less than excellence.  It was a supremely motivating, frightening, vitalizing experience.  In a class on Robinson Crusoe, a fellow student became confused about the various strands of eighteenth-century non-conformist Protestantism, prompting Said to irritatedly draw a complex chart of the relations between Dissenters, Puritans, Anglicans, etc.  Similar demonstrations of the sheer reserves of his knowledge occurred on the subjects of the revolutions of 1848, the history of Spanish, and the tortuous philosophical subtleties of Georg Lukacs’ Theory of the Novel, among other things.  Said had a whole theory of the place of nephews in literature (not the real son, but the true inheritant), and he made himself his students’ challenging, agresssive, truth-telling, loving uncle.

What was most impressive, perhaps, was that in a discipline in which rewarding fawning acolytes is the norm, Said never once allowed a student to make facile, moralizing remarks about ‘imperialism’ or ‘Orientalism.’  His belief was that in order to mount any kind of critique of these works, one had to master them first in their own context, on their own terms.  He wasn’t interested in hearing denunciations of colonialism; rather, he was obsessed with getting across the sheer formal complexity, the deep symmetries and ironic gaps, of great artworks.  He demanded that we memorize information of all kinds, from the relevant facts about historical events to the birth and death dates of authors.  He screamed at a student for not knowing what a nosegay was, the key to a climactic scene in Flaubert.  His passion, a powerful negative vaccine, to paraphrase his comments on Adorno, infected those of us who weren’t frightened into disengagement.  I began to realize that here was a unique resource, an irreplaceable historical repository of culture and information, personified in the form of this dapper, indignant man.  Said represented not only a set of unmatched comparatist knowledges, but a collection of rigorous reading practices and an unequaled example of thorny, courageous commitment to difficulty.  And around this time, I found myself realizing that irreplaceable or not, he wouldn’t be around much longer.

One day, Said yelled at me publicly for misprounoucing my own name.  I had Americanized its proununciation for the benefit of a visiting professor, John Richetti, who I was questioning.  “Your name is Us-udth!” Said cried, “It means lion in Arabic!  Never mispronounce it for their benefit!”  (Richetti was an old friend of Said’s and found being characterized as one of “them” highly amusing; I ran into him a year ago and we laughed about it.)  Afterwards, Said walked over and put a hand on my shoulder.  “Sorry about that. We can’t change ourselves for anyone.  Opposition,” he intoned, quoting Blake, “is true friendship.”  That encounter marked a turn for me. I began to visit Said in his office, waiting while he took phone calls from friends like Joan Didion, and telling him about my work.  He had the special ability to make one feel that one could achieve anything – maybe it helped that he set the bar so high himself.  Despite his heavy criticism of my use of certain theoretical vocabularies he had moved past (“the merest decoration,” he called them), the last word of his handwritten comments on my paper inspired me and continues to inspire me: “Bravo.”  As a favorite aphorism of his from Gramsci goes, pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.  Yet, during this period, he would intimate to me that things were not optimistic with his health at all.  One day he declined my request that he read a chapter I had written, saying only, “I don’t have time.  You know, Asad, I’m not well.”  The unsentimental, factual tone of resignation told me everything I didn’t want to know.

I remember September 25, 2003 vividly, the phone call I received from my aunt Azra with the inevitable news, the sick feeling with which I arrived at the class I was teaching, and then this: a strange, powerful feeling of indignation came over me, and I found myself needling my students, finding myself irritated when they didn’t know something, and applauding zealously when they did made a breakthrough.  I was, I realized, channeling or imitating the ornery yet loving spirit of the old lion.  And since that time, I’ve suffered more losses, of people I love to illness and absence, and I have thought of him, bravely refusing to stop expecting more.  In his last decade, as the situation in Palestine and Israel worsened and beloved friends such as Eqbal Ahmed and Ibrahim Abu-Lughod died, I know Edward felt more alone in the world.  With his passing, though we try to forget it, the world has equally became an emptier, lonelier place.  Without the superbly contradictory, fearfully charismatic, bravely heartfelt Edward Said, it is also a far less cosmopolitan place.  And in the last two years, despite events that have made my world much emptier, much lonelier, I have remembered how to transform irritation with this fallen world into action, how to keep, in the face of all, indignantly hoping for better.

Two years ago yesterday, Edward W. Said died at the age of 67, having achieved eminence in criticism, literature, music, and politics, having served as an exemplar of the one doctrine that perhaps he in his uncompromising way would have accepted uncompromisingly, humanism.  Bravo, Edward.


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