One compensation for the loss of an intellectual hero is the detail about their personal lives that emerges from the obituaries and tributes. I don’t know why, but I’m somehow glad to know from Christopher Hitchens that Edward Said was always “faultlessly dressed” and that “I never met a woman who did not admire him, and I never knew him to be anything but gallant.” That’s always how I had pictured him.
For all his faults (and Hitchens and others have not been slow to point them out) Said seems to me an intellectual giant, with a vast fund of learning and a clear and polemical writing style. His notions of “the other” and “Orientalism” have become rather hackneyed, but that is not his fault – they have made an enormous contribution to the way we see the world, particularly in the way he exposed the relationship between colonialism and more benign European intellectual movements such as the enlightenment.
Some years ago I received “Reflections on exile”, a collection of essays, as a gift. Although there is much in it to disagree with, it has been a good friend; almost every page sparks an idea. One of Said’s great strengths as a writer was the way he organized his thoughts – although at least some of these essays were probably written in haste to meet some deadline or other they are almost all coherent and clear.
Said’s life and work was rooted in humanism. His opposition to Marxist attempts to reduce art to an expression of ideology was a consistent feature, not only of his criticism, but also of his attempt to use classical music to heal the wounds in the Middle East. The Guardian obituary notes that:
The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra he founded with the Israeli citizen Daniel Barenboim in 1999 grew out of the friendship he forged with the musician who shares his belief that art - and, in particular, the music of Wagner - transcends political ideology. With Said's assistance, Barenboim gave master classes for Palestinian students in the occupied West Bank, infuriating the Israeli right.
Said’s support for this project sprung from his own aptitude for music: “To see and hear him play the piano was to be filled with envy as well as joy: one was witnessing a rather angst-prone person who had developed the perfect recreation to an extraordinary pitch.”