Who was Edward Said? Biographically interpreted and existentially recollected (book review)


Edward Said PHOTO/The Sydney Morning Herald

[Prefatory Note: This is an edited text of Remarks on 30 June 2021 at the opening on the Book Launch of Timothy Brennan’s PLACES OF MIND: A LIFE OF EDWARD SAID (2021), an event under the auspices of the Cambridge Centre of Palestinian Studies, moderated by its director, Dr. Makram Khoury-Machool. Also participating in the discussion of Professor Brennan’s book Prof. As’ad Abu Khali and Dr. Kamal Khalef Al-Tawll.]

I am honored to take part in this event celebrating the publication of Timothy Brennan’s extraordinary biography of Edward Said. This gathering also provides an occasion for considering once more Edward’s powerful legacy as a creative and progressive icon, someone with a global reach, possessed of as passionate and challenging an ethical, cultural, and political conscience as I have ever had the good fortune to experience. I understand from Makram that my role tonight is to set the stage for the featured performer, somewhat similar to the warmup given to the audience at a rock concert by an obscure local pop group before the acclaimed international star makes his or her dramatic appearance. As I mentioned to Makram, I have two qualifications to be a speaker tonight: I once played tennis with Edward on Cambridge’s exquisite grass courts several decades ago, and more to the point, we were both often embattled due to supporting the struggle of the Palestinian people for a just and sustainable peace.

Edward more than anyone else on the American scene exemplified what we understand to be a ‘public intellectual’ in the late 20th and early 21st century, that is after this presence had been epitomized by the life of Jean-Paul Sartre. Such a role presupposes a degree of democratic governance within sovereign space that tolerates, even if only barely and reluctantly, ideas and critiques that challenge the most fundamental behavioral tropes of the state, captured in spirit by the slogan ‘talking truth to power,’ which is somewhat less activist than Mario Savio’s slogan that embodied the spirit of the 1960s: ‘put your body up against the machine.’

Edward was continually reenergized by his curiosity about all aspect of life and about the world.

One of the many achievements of Brennan’s book is to grapple with the complexity and contradictory character of Said, who as a friend and colleague was at once engaging, paradoxical, theatrical, seductive, critical, provocative, who could be on occasion defensive and even enraged. Such qualities were distinctively expressed by this most gifted individual possessed of a dazzling intelligence, a sparkling sense of humor, and of course, stunning erudition. Edward was continually reenergized by his curiosity about all aspect of life and about the world. More than the few notable academics of my acquaintance with whom he might be compared, in my reckoning Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, and on the right, Samuel Huntington, Said alone was both a hero to constituencies of outsiders and a welcome guest among most insiders, and with his paradoxical style on display he was often a commanding presence in both atmospheres. Perhaps, the secret of his personal magnetism and intellectual preeminence was that he was simultaneously a profound thinker and a consummate performer, a combination rarely found to inhabit the same person.

Eacpe for more

Comments are closed.