In his poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” W. H. Auden memorably observes the moment of Yeats’ death: “The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.” It’s an ambiguous line, but it captures the ways that the death of a writer separates them from their work, which—one hopes—continues its life without them.
Edward Said admired Yeats, making a case for him as a poet of decolonization. That’s a contentious view. Said’s friend, the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton, straight up calls Yeats a fascist, a view held by other leftist critics too. But there’s nothing more Saidian than this sort of reading against the grain, both of the text at hand and of conventional wisdom.
As a reader—and, I’m told, as a teacher—Said was unsparing, ruthless even. Even when reading writers whose work he genuinely admired, he rooted out the ways they were implicated in the project of Orientalism and, by extension, of imperialism. He was unafraid of embracing the role that his friend and colleague Bruce Robbins has described as “the critic as criticizer.”
But for Said, such criticizing was never simply for its own sake. His incisive (in all senses) readings of figures like Joseph Conrad and Gustave Flaubert indicted them for their role in creating colonial imaginaries but also opened up important new vistas into their work. His unearthing of the colonial underpinnings of the world portrayed in Jane Austen’s novels—a world still romanticized by readers and viewers today—fundamentally transforms the experience of reading her work. And his sharp but fond reading of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim—which could be Exhibit A in any case against Orientalist literature—is so brilliant that Penguin now includes it as the introduction to its edition of the novel.
The critic as criticizer is only part of the story. For the Saidian critic, there is also, always, the question of criticism and solidarity. Criticism and solidarity—and the uneasy but necessary fit between them—are the keys to Said’s critical legacy. As he wrote in his essay “Secular Criticism”: “The history of thought, to say nothing of political movements, is extravagantly illustrative of how the dictum ‘solidarity before criticism’ means the end of criticism. I take criticism so seriously as to believe that, even in the very midst of battle in which one is unmistakably on one side against another, there should be criticism, because there must be critical consciousness if there are to be issues, problems, values, even lives to be fought for.”
The Saidian critic is never simply arguing against something, but also for—or, better, towards—something. The critical commitment is not simply to the need to tear down what needs to go, but the need to clear space for the better things that must replace them.
That commitment is evident in Said’s magisterial, globe-spanning masterpiece Culture and Imperialism, which resounds with the vision unleashed by the poet Aimé Césaire: “And no race possesses the monopoly on beauty, / of intelligence, of force, and there / is a place for all at the rendezvous / of victory.” It’s evident in Said’s final books, in the moving essays of On Late Style and the resounding call for a more humanistic humanities in Humanism and Democratic Criticism. And it’s evident, perhaps most of all, in his writings about and for Palestine, for which he received scorn and hatred that hounded him to the grave and beyond.
For Said is gone—twenty years gone this month. “The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living” declares Auden, with elegiac, clinical accuracy. Said’s work is now ours, in all senses. As a lifelong reader of his work, I sometimes worry that he has become more often admired than read, more often gestured towards than engaged with, more often dismissed than wrestled with. Bernard Lewis’ disciples continue to revile him as a “professor of terror,” and troglodyte pseudo-leftists continue to label him an effete culturalist and a “postmodernist,” whatever that might mean.
For those of us who admire Edward Said, the task at hand is to pick up his work where death, cruelly, forced him to put it down. Twenty years ago, I attended many memorial events for Said, but the most memorable was an impromptu gathering on the evening of his death, put together by a few of us who were students in New York. We pulled it together with haste and put it out to whoever we could—to be honest, it was more like organizing a protest against his death than a memorial service. But when we began at sunset, dozens of people joined the candle-lit vigil, from prominent artists and writers to curious passersby. The lot of us moved inside to a room where a few people, including several of Said’s former students, made moving, spontaneous remarks.
What I remember most was the simple statement made by a young Iranian-American scholar, about reading Said as an undergraduate. “When everyone and everything in the world was telling me that I was worthless,” she said, through tears, “his work told me I wasn’t.”
In offering this bouquet of articles, we hope to do our small part in ensuring that Said’s legacy of liberation lives on far beyond his physical departure. Special thanks go to Mouin Rabbani and Kylie Broderick for their work on this bouquet.
Below are resources from Jadaliyya that engage substantively with Said, Orientalism, or other elements of Said's theoretical legacy.
Essential Readings: Said’s Orientalism, Its Interlocutors, and Its Influence (by Anthony Alessandrini)
إدوارد سعيد: الإنسانويّة، السورُ الأخير في وجه البربرية
قدّروا شجاعة الرجل
Missing Edward Said
Algeria's Impact on French Philosophy: Between Poststructuralist Theory and Colonial Practice
Humanism and Its Others
Conditions on Aid and the Politics of Development
Exile, Part One
إدوارد سعيد: الثقافة وطن ومقاومة
Egyptian Women: Between Revolution, Counter-Revolution, Orientalism, and "Authenticity"
Keywords: Revolution/Coup d’état
Introduction: Teaching the Middle East after the Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions . . . Beyond Orientalism, Islamophobia, and Neoliberalism
Orientalising the Egyptian Uprising
Beating the Drums of Orientalism
Representation and the Egyptian Black Bloc: The Siren Song of Orientalism?
 Edward Said, Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature: Yeats and Decolonization (Dublin: Field Day Pamphlets, 1988) and Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage, 1994).
 Bruce Robbins, Criticism and Politics: A Polemical Introduction (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2022).
 Edward Said, “Secular Criticism,” in The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984).