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Edward Said (1935-2003)

by Anat Biletzki

Edward Said was born in 1935 and died an untimely and early death on September 25th 2003, at the age of 67, having battled leukemia for over ten years. His public persona rivalled the scholarly one, so it is no surprise that the facts of his rich biography and several items in his remarkable oeuvre are so well known. The highlights constantly received extended coverage: he was born in Palestine, spent his life in the U.S., graduated from Princeton and Harvard, taught at Columbia, and was a champion – perhaps the champion – of the Palestinian struggle for freedom. The keynotes of his publishing career are no less singular: most influential was Orientalism (1975), which changed the way Western intellectuals and scholars addressed their own perception of the East. Then came, among others, The World, the Text and the Critic (1983), Blaming the Victims (1987), Culture and Imperialism (1992), The Politics of Dispossession (1995) and, perhaps most recently controversial, Out of Place: A Memoir (1999). Said’s social and political involvements included his leading moral and intellectual role at the Algiers conference in 1988, where the PLO adopted the ‘mutual recognition’ position. No less significant and renowned was his long friendship and collaboration with Daniel Barenboim. This friendship culminated in the establishment of the West-Eastern Divan, a framework “of artistic cooperation in the face of divisive politics”, where young Israeli and Arab musicians could make music together.

Professionally, politically, temperamentally, artistically, socially and ‘humanistically’, Edward Said stood for all that is good in enlightenment hope.

He was an intellectual of outstanding stature providing clear and unequivocal conceptual analysis of complex issues – be they in literature, in theory, or in politics. Perusing the many obituaries already published, not to mention the innumerable articles about him before his death, one encounters literature, culture, theory, music, politics, colonialism, imperialism, humanism, language – yet rarely philosophy. But in these days of rampant interdisciplinary interests we need only look, for example, at the list of subjects he addressed in his 2000 collection of essays – Reflections on Exile and Other Essays – to discover how interesting and relevant his thought was for philosophers of so many stripes. Thus, he traveled from ‘Between Chance and Determinism: Lukacs's Aesthetik’ to ‘Conrad and Nietzsche’, from ‘Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies and Community’ to ‘Foucault and the Imagination of Power’, or from ‘The Politics of Knowledge’ to ‘From Silence to Sound and Back Again: Music, Literature and History’. In other words, his work spanned metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, critical theory, political philosophy and more.

Writers of obituaries are usually presumed to have known the deceased. I did not know Edward Said personally. But for many of us in Israel – philosophers, political scientists, literary scholars, political activists, human rights workers – Edward Said was a personal icon. He was ‘the conscience of Palestine’, teaching us – and the whole world – that the Palestinians were ‘victims of the victims’, but that the creation of such victimhood, for that reason, was no less evil, no more justified. Daniel Barenboim wrote, of late, that “the Palestinians have lost a formidable defender, the Israelis a no less formidable adversary.” I would like to dissent. I would like to say that all Israelis who desire a just peace, all who seek true humanism, have lost a rare defender. Said’s intellectual journeys among culture, politics and philosophy knew no disciplinary borders. May his legacy be just that: no borders.


Anat Biletzki is Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Tel Aviv University.

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