I found out about the death of Edward Said, the Columbia University professor and advocate of the Palestinian cause, from friends in synagogue only on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. I had been too preoccupied with preparations for the holiday to see the news of his passing the day before.
That night I dreamt of Said. I had been a graduate student of his in the English department at Columbia during the early 1970s. I served as his teaching assistant; he had been my examiner on literary theory at my oral examinations and the second reader for my dissertation. He appeared in my dreams that night as he had been in life: expansive, provocative and even paternal. When the holiday was over I found out that the funeral was to take place the next day at Riverside Church, just up the block from my office at the Jewish Theological Seminary. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to go, but I was profoundly conflicted.
I first came to know Said in the years after the Six-Day War when he was discovering his Palestinian identity. I felt an instinctive affinity with him. As a politically active and observant Jew, I felt acutely how alien were some of my deepest concerns from the culture of English studies. Said was just then beginning to use the tools of French literary theory to mount a fundamental critique of European literature for its exclusion of “oriental” peoples from the grand narrative of culture.
Believing that the same disservice had been done to Jewish civilization, I identified with this nascent project. Moreover, these were the heady years of Israeli triumphalism over lightning victories and conquered territories, and it was easy to see the Palestinians as hapless pawns of cynical Arab states.
Besides, there was Said the man. His brilliance as a theorist and his elegance as a writer were matched by an easy and affectionate generosity toward younger people and a non-jealous readiness to acknowledge their originality. I was amazed by him but also fond of him, and I don’t think the sentiment was entirely one sided.
After the Yom Kippur War in 1973, we went our separate ways. I left English literature for Jewish studies, and Said seized his Palestinian identity with increasing passion and political outspokenness. His 1978 book “Orientalism” brought together his literary acumen with his ideological engagement in a powerful way.
The literature of the West, Said argued, had served the enterprise of colonialism by defining the East as effeminate, corrupt, deceitful, lazy, primitive and non-rational — that is, as being everything that European culture imagined it was not. Following Michel Foucault, Said argued that all cultural definitions are essentially only constructions that reinforce the “hegemony” of the forces in power.
“Orientalism,” I soon realized, was a brilliant book that harbored in its bosom an act of deceit. Said’s thesis about the West’s exclusion of the oriental other was illuminating and persuasive. Yet it was evident that Said sought to preserve the status of the excluded and the maligned for Arabs and Islam alone.
Reading through his work, I came to the startling realization that nearly every negative trait that was, in his view, assigned by the West to the Arab/Oriental could similarly be said to have been projected onto the image of the Jew — whether it was the Jews of the traditional communities of the Mediterranean or Eastern Europe or, mutatis mutandi, in the guise of modern antisemitism, the Jews of modern Western Europe. Yet nowhere in this great intellectual enterprise did Said mention Jews having suffered this twinned fate.
I felt this omission as a betrayal. Said had had the opportunity to use the power of mind to tell a great — and inclusive — truth, but he had settled for power instead. He was enacting his own description of how culture works by using ideas to do the work of politics.
The impact of “Orientalism” was so great that it spurred the founding of the new academic field of postcolonial studies, which examines persistent effects of colonial power on formerly colonized peoples. Although this growing field has contributed some insights to the humanities, it has largely turned out to be a pseudo-academic effort to delegitimize Israel and isolate it in the international community. The high gloss of advanced literary theory may buy academic respectability, but the darker motives are unmistakable. For an American Jew committed to the survival of Israel, this has been a disturbing process to watch.
Knowing that Said was ill, I went to visit him last year. He was astonishingly unbowed by his long struggle with leukemia. At home in his apartment high above Riverside Drive and dressed as elegantly as ever, he spoke with familiar bravado and amusing derision about the culture wars in the English department at Columbia and the aggressive course of chemotherapy he was pursuing. Daniel Barenboim happened to call to chat about music projects they were collaborating on. The buzz of culture, ideas and gossip was in the air. An affection that recalled the old graduate student days stirred within me on that visit, as it did last week when I got word of Said’s death.
But despite the fascination and the fondness, in the end I could not separate the man from the work. This was a funeral I could not attend.
Alan Mintz is Chana Kekst professor of Hebrew literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.