Edward Said discovered he had leukaemia in August 1991. He had gone for a routine check-up, worried about his cholesterol - 'as everybody is in this crazy country' - only to discover that his days were numbered and the number was too small. 'I was totally wiped out for about eight months . . . it had a very powerful effect on me. I am tremendously attached to my wife and children. And then there was my book, I'd been working on it for such a long time.'
He completed the book, Culture and Imperialism, under the shadow of the diagnosis, and he admits this may account for the emotional tone of the conclusion. 'Regard experiences then,' he wrote, 'as if they were about to disappear: what is it about them that anchors or roots them in reality? What would you save of them, what would you give up, what would you recover?'
They are the questions of a man considering oblivion and attempting to put his intellectual affairs in order. His forthcoming set of Reith Lectures will continue the process. Entitled The Representation of the Intellectual, they are a meditation on what an intellectual is, and what he does.
No man is better placed to confront these issues. Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, Said is the embodiment of the modern intellectual - cosmopolitan, awkwardly adversarial, endlessly speculating and connecting. His background seems to have been designed to plug him into the global zeitgeist. He was born to a Palestinian Christian family, originally Orthodox but Anglican by conversion on the father's side. So the young Said grew up in a climate of BBC radio and Robinson Crusoe, the first novel he read. 'I always went to English schools until I was 16. But the funny thing is that I have never lived in England. It's an England of the imagination - of books and the radio.'
He migrated to America and became a lonely left-wing voice, and an even lonelier voice for the Palestinian cause - for 17 years he was a member of the Palestinian National Council.
This exotic mix of clashing influences provides a justification for his own ideal of the intellectual life - isolated yet socially engaged, in opposition to established power, free to move across disciplines and cultures, and beyond trite labels. It is a tightrope walk, and everybody wants to see you fall. Why, for example, if he places himself outside all labels, is he so clearly pro-Palestinian?
'I have found it very invigorating and interesting to be part of a movement, a movement of ideas and a movement of human beings, and interesting to be trying to affect the body politic in one way or another - that's the main thing, to try and make a difference . . . to make sure that injustice is at least recorded . . .'
His problem has been that, in the United States in particular, it is not intellectuals who are required but experts, professionals, advocates of clear, simple positions. Said believes in the amateur, the free-thinker interested in things for their own sake rather than for the pursuit of a career.
He regards with dismay the relentless professionalisation of American academic life. 'I mean those people who principally operate within the academy - those who are technicians above all. In American academic discussion of the last 10 years professionalism had become a very powerful motif. I oppose that very strongly. It's a form of quietism and has promoted a kind of jargon which is incomprehensible to the lay reader.'
As a lonely Palestinian sympathiser, he has found himself relentlessly enlisted in media debates simply to be pro-Palestinian and nothing else, locked in the box of just one element of his concerns.
'Palestinian is the one surviving label from the Cold War. A lot of what I do is to try and surprise people into having to confront the fact that I am not simply a Palestinian. I gave a piano recital recently - that sort of thing, and why not? I pretty much avoid television now. You just go on to fulfil their expectations and spend the programme reinforcing that initial impression.'
Said is equally uninterested in the redefinition of an intellectual in a managerial sense, as an expert. 'There has been a tremendous increase in the function in society of the so-called knowledge industry - it represents something like 60 to 70 per cent of GNP. People in computers, medicine, managerial types who represent the triumph of one kind of new intellectual. That's not what I'm interested in.'
Of course, the intellectual courts an opposite peril - that of being so intellectually free, so rootless that he becomes nothing more than a meandering dilettante. Typically, Said recognises the possibility in literary terms. The heroes of Flaubert's Sentimental Education are two intellectuals capable of nothing but drift, of shifting interminably from art to journalism to poetry.
'For Flaubert, the intellectual became a kind of tourist through life, recirculating cliches. It's a very false portrait. It's compelling and it's an obvious danger, but it's not the only alternative. You need a discipline, a sense of personal vocation, some sense of affiliation outside yourself and your career. It's about social justice - there is no sophisticated way of putting that. It has to do with morality in the end. If you lose touch with that, you become just a careerist. I have no time for those intellectuals who just think their job is to sustain their positions. There is an intellectual vocation and it involves risk.'
This vocation he regards as 'benign and connective'. The intellectual exists to remind us of essential virtues, such as justice, and to join rather than divide people. He speaks of heroes such as Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre and, latterly, Noam Chomsky, all of whom tried to combine their high academic role with a vocation to act in the world. People who 'aspire to a kind of universalism and who are an antidote to the blandness and consumerism and the packaging that takes place'.
He is a big, genuinely friendly man, vain certainly and widely known as something of a dandy - if he were working in Britain he would be called a 'champagne socialist'. Yet his interest in what others have to say is real and generous. He is true to his own ideal of intellectual openness and will always take in an argument rather than oppose it. He speaks of the terrible provincialism of America with dismay and has little respect for its politics - he loathed Bush, voted for Clinton, and is now appalled by the result. But, equally, he describes with ecstatic gratitude students in Montana or Texas with their touching thirst for knowledge of the big world of which they know so little.
His close friend Robert Hughes, art critic and recent flayer of the whole Politically Correct culture, despairs of the way Said is misunderstood, too easily categorised as merely 'left' or 'Palestinian'. In reality, as Hughes points out, his entire project is to destroy such easy, inhumane judgements. Perhaps some of the problem is of his own making - even his most craven fans admit his prose is acutely in need of organisation and editing. But, then, this too is one kind of symptom of his commitment to freedom of thought, to follow the idea wherever it takes you.
Perhaps the real point is that, confronted with a pitiless diagnosis, Said is mulling over the condition of the intellectual in order to define and justify what he has done, what he has been and what he is in the world. It is an exercise in oblique autobiography, anticipating - God and chemotherapy willing - the memoir and the novels he plans to write. But self-
justification and self-definition are difficult tasks, particularly for one so resolutely opposed to easy categories or to any facile return to 'roots'.
'To answer such questions,' he writes in Culture and Imperialism, 'you must have the independence and detachment of someone whose homeland is 'sweet', but whose actual condition makes it impossible to recapture that sweetness, and even less possible to derive satisfaction from substitutes furnished by illusion or dogma . . .'. More succinctly, he told me: 'I never felt at home in any culture, and I gave up trying.'
Maybe they will not provide a homeland; but, in truth, a home of sorts is exactly what he will be seeking in these Reith Lectures, which should, most accurately, be entitled The Representation of Edward Said.
The 1993 Reith Lectures begin on Radio 4 tonight, 8.45-9.15 (R3 Friday, 9.15- 9.45pm).
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