Said expressed the true tragedy of the postcolonial intellectualby David Herman / November 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2003 issue of Prospect Magazine
In death, as in life, Edward Said polarised opinion. Indeed, it is hard to think of any other major intellectual of the last 30 years who has so divided people. At least Noam Chomsky’s critics acknowledge the importance of his work in linguistics. With Said, there is little about his life or work that people agree on.
The recent obituaries tell the tale. To his admirers, mostly from the third world or the academic left, he was “a great scholar, a brilliant mind, … an uncompromising fighter on behalf of human dignity” (Hanan Ashrawi). The Independent called him “one of the greatest intellectuals and public activists of our time.” “No critic,” wrote Jacqueline Rose in the Observer, “has had such a profound influence on how we think and teach today.” Moustafa Bayoumi, writing in the Village Voice, called Said “possibly the greatest intellectual of the last 50 years.”
His critics, especially on the right, disagreed. The Wall Street Journal accused him of having “practically invented the intellectual argument for Muslim rage.” The Daily Telegraph called Said’s account of his early life “selective and highly misleading.” Even his longtime friend Christopher Hitchens followed an outspoken attack on Said’s best-known work Orientalism in September’s Atlantic Monthly with a tribute in the Guardian which questioned Said’s political judgement and wrote of his “tendency to self-pity.”
Of course, left and right often divide over a politically partisan scholar. But Said’s obituaries are more deeply split – the admiring pieces are the worst hagiography, while the negative ones are reluctant to find any achievements in his work. Only Hitchens, who broke with Said over the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, mixes criticism and praise.
What was it about Said that made him such a controversial figure? There are two sets of reasons. The first are to do with what Said symbolised, the second with the work itself.