Akeel Bilgrami remembers Edward W. Said

Today is the sixth anniversary of Edward W. Said's death. As the date approached, I had begun thinking of him increasingly frequently over the last week or so, and so I am taking the liberty of reposting Akeel Bilgrami's moving remembrance of Edward:


There are a very few intellectuals ––Bertrand Russell, E.P. Thompson, and Noam Chomsky come to mind in the English-speaking world— whose writings and whose lives provide a kind of pole that thousands of people look toward so as to feel that they are not wholly lost or marginal for possessing instincts for justice and humanity, and for thinking that some small steps might be taken towards their achievement. Edward Said was, without a doubt, such a man. The daze and despair so many of us here at Columbia feel, now that we have taken in that he has gone, is only a very local sign of what is a global loss without measure. And to think of what it must be like for his own brutalized people to lose him, is unbearable.

Edward was, as they say, ‘many things to many people’, and though he was too vast to be contained by a mere university, even one as uncloistered as Columbia, he was a teacher and took great pride in being one. So let me say something about that first.

To put it seemingly frivolously, he was deeply ‘cool’. I say ‘deeply’ and mean it. One day, the best undergraduate I have ever taught and my very favourite student, said to me “Prof. Said is really cool”. Now I, who have been trying to be cool for decades, was mildly annoyed by this, and said, “Look, I can understand that you think he is a great scholar and intellectual and a peerless public figure, but why ‘cool’? He doesn’t wear black, he despises popular music, he hangs out with well-heeled professors and other rich and famous people, and he is preposterously handsome –how uncool can you get!” She looked at me dismissively and said, “All that’s really not a big deal. It’s –like– really on the surface.”

Edward’s influence on the young came from his refusal to allow literature to offer merely self-standing pleasures. The connections he made in even our most canonical works, between the narrations of novels and the tellings of national histories, between the assertions of an author and the assertion of power by states, between the unconscious attitudes of a seemingly high-minded writer and some subtle illiberal tendency of social or national prejudice, drew to the study of literature numberless students who, out of a quest for worldly engagement, or more simply out of a cosmopolitan curiosity, demanded just such an integrity of words with morals.

More here. Also see 1st anniversary coverage of Said's death at 3QD, with many links, here. And here is my nephew Asad's tribute to Said as a teacher.