Thursday, September 25, 2003

After the last sky
Edward Said is dead, and for those of us who were often highly critical of him, particularly in his later years, it's surely not a pleasant moment. Dying doesn't make a wrong right, but it does obligate one to look back a bit more closely and see if all the criticism was justified.

Below is the last piece I wrote on Said. He reportedly once asked what I had against him. Nothing at all. I was disappointed to see that the man who should have embodied the highest correlation of the best of East and West (to borrow poorly from Christopher Hitchens) somehow ended up having so little to offer when it came to helping direct the Arab world out of its pervading autocracy and narrow-mindedness.

I believe Said had one thing absolutely right, though: he understood that the only real solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was a binational democratic state. Nothing to date suggests he was wrong; only that he got the timing wrong.

Here is the piece:

In praise of surrender?

They were issuing honorary doctorates last Saturday at the American University of Beirut, and you could have pretty much guessed the list of honorees before attending the ceremony, had you been invited.

I wasn’t, and read with trepidation in this newspaper that “hope for the future was a central element in all the recipients’ speeches.” The bane of university award ceremonies is that speakers are under contract to crank out hope, even if there is little to rustle up. The events are too costly to send the public home looking for cyanide or a razor.

However, a comparison of the writings of two of the accomplished literary honorees tells a different story. When university ends, real life begins and what Edward Said and Amin Maalouf represent outside the compulsory optimism demanded by the academy is well worth examining. In different ways, the two men illustrate the difficulties, at times self-inflicted, of the intellectual in a world where doctorates, honorary or real, often mean very little.

Was there ever a doubt that AUB would choose Said, who is on everybody’s short list for some kind of award? With him you’re playing it safe while also putting up a front of daring subversiveness. That’s because Said has convinced everybody he’s dirt in the eye of mainstream America, when in fact he is merely its avatar--both a foil of the American system, and someone who could have achieved pop status nowhere outside of it.

Said will forever be remembered for his book Orientalism, but few people look closely enough at his output as a columnist. Several books have been collated from Said’s commentaries, most often written in English for Arabic newspapers. That the articles preach to the converted is hardly their worst failing, though it is easy telling an Arab readership that the US is overbearing and that Israel abuses Palestinian human rights. Said wastes much time breaking down open doors.

What makes Said’s articles disappointing is that they offer no cures for the maladies he diagnoses. The French sociologist Raymond Aron, himself a columnist, wrote in his memoirs that he realized it was easy in his articles to publicly criticize the behavior of politicians; far more challenging was putting himself in their shoes and proposing realistic alternatives. With Said one gets variations on a single harangue. This intermittent promoter of hopefulness has become that most tiresome of stock figures: a Middle Eastern Cassandra incapable of proposing a way out of the region’s tribulations.

Sitting next to Said was writer Amin Maalouf, far more hazardous an honoree for preferring to speak in French. The message Maalouf brought was different than Said’s, being expressed most prominently in his 1993 novel The Rock of Tanios. One can indefinitely debate the novel’s autobiographical attributes, but even a cursory reading will show the book is very much an expression of the hopelessness of Maalouf’s generation.

When it was published, The Rock of Tanios attracted attention for the wrong reasons. The novel won France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt, provoking the usual shrieking from the literati divided over whether the book was worthy of their attention. Though the story was set during the Lebanese conflict of 1840, Maalouf was really thinking about 1975. And like his character Tanios, who, despairing of his own society, literally disappears at the end of the novel, Maalouf and his generation figuratively did so by going into exile once Lebanon’s civil war began.

In different ways, Said and Maalouf speak to the surrender of the intellectual. Where Said sees the intellectual as a vanguard for change and innovation, he uncannily personifies the contrary in his most popular writings. Where Maalouf won a prize celebrating the vitality of writers, he did so on the basis of a book acknowledging the failure of humanism and the futility of the intellectual in his own society.

A thought comes to mind: Are Said and Maalouf, who have fallen under Western eyes since leaving their countries of origin, also lingering victims of the Middle East? Is that part of them that remains attached to the region destined to point out the limitations of the intellectual? Was that high mass at AUB really as hopeful an event as the organizers would have liked to pretend.

No comments: