[Tariq Ali. Conversations with Edward Said. New York: Seagull Books, 2006.]
Most of the books I review on this site, in fact most of the books that I read these days, are about plunging forward -- in my work, in how I think about the world, in how I act in the world. This one, for a change, is a step back from intensity, a chance to breath, a comma in life. It is fuel for an advance, perhaps, but of a different kind.
Edward Said was a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He was also the most significant Palestinian intellectual, perhaps the most significant Arab intellectual, to have worked in English, and an important figure of the international left. Tariq Ali, who conducted this interview, is also a prominent life-long leftist as well as a prolific writer of novels, plays, and political nonfiction. I have read some from both of them, and was delighted to receive as a gift this short snapshot of the two great writers in conversation.
I never had the pleasure to hear Said speak. I also have not read Said's principle books of politically relevant theory: Orientalism, Culture and Imperialism, and Freud and the Non-European, though they are all on the football field long to-read list in my head. I have read some of his writings on Palestinian politics. But this book struck me most because it took me back to the experience of reading a collection of his essays. Both that book and this one acted as powerful reminders for me that political commitment is not and should not be inconsistent with the experience and appreciation of the richness of life.
Let me explain. When middle-class white men in North America somehow make our way to the diverse, mutually contradictory, and fascinating spaces that can be imperfectly summarized by a very broad use of the term "left," and when we deliberately incorporate into our lives discrete politically-oriented struggle that we get to call "activism" (as opposed to just "living") because of our privilege, we bring with us our masculinity and the puritanism of the culture that spawned us. These two things in combination can have a number of outcomes. From the former, you can get the masculine tendency to hide any hint of vulnerability, to hide all the sides of self that might reveal vulnerability, to hide the inherent complexities that make any actual human being inevitably deviate from the masculine ideal in its "purest" (most ridiculous?) hegemonic form and in cocktail with whatever optional lefty add-ons we might mix it. From the latter can come a tendency to venerate a certain singlemindedness, a certain inflexible approach to commitment, a certain tendency to equate politics with virtue and then make a competition of it. Together, these can lead to the stagnation of those sides of ourselves that are not most directly about the politics we cultivate, or it can lead us to perform their absence, to deny our wholeness, in any vaguely political spaces.
In this transcribed conversation they talk about Said's health, Ali pokes fun at Said's propensity for dapper dressing, and family reminiscences are an important piece. But as in Said's collected essays it is the willingness to focus on literature and music that really strikes me: Two staunch leftists whose credentials as such (by whatever ridiculous standard you might conjure to judge such things) are impeccable, talk and publish their talk about obscure (to me) points of classical music, the politically troubling brilliance of Rudyard Kipling's Kim, and how everything Herman Melville wrote except Moby Dick was crap, as well as musings on politics, presidents, and Palestine. Yes, I'm sure there are feminist women who would point out that talking about this is still talking about the external, the professional, instead of having self fully and truly present in the conversation. As well, in the grand scheme of the world it is really nothing unusual, and I'm sure there are lots of people out there who are puzzled by my choice to note it in this way. But I still value the feeling of affirmation it provides for the importance of roses and not just bread, the reminder that part of the very reason why we are active is that beauty and pleasure deserve generous space in every life, and we do no one any favours by allowing them to wither or denying their existence in our own.
And part of my appreciation for this particular form of the reminder from this particular source is quite related to my own goals and desires. I am not so presumptuous as to aspire to acclaim or enduring significance on anything like the scale that these two have achieved -- I'll be happy just for the opportunity to keep doing what I want to be doing -- but the shape of their public lives attracts me very much as a goal for myself: political involvement and lots of writing of lots of different kinds.
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