My old mentor Edward Said died late last night, apparently from pancreatic cancer, though he had suffered from a rare form of leukemia for more than a decade. I worked with Said during my graduate school days at Columbia's English department in the early nineties. By some strange coincidence, I intersected with him on a few crucial early days of his illness: he taught a seminar on Great Expectations the day he was originally diagnosed, and he started his initial chemotherapy treatment a few hours before my Orals. Whenever I heard word about his health -- I probably haven't spoken with him for five years at least -- I'd think of those two days, and his amazing willingness to show up on the job on what must have been a miserable day.
Like many people, I'm sure, I was deeply influenced by Said's work -- Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, of course, but also some of the earlier less political works, like Beginnings. He was largely responsible -- some might say to blame -- for importing French cultural theory into the American intellectual scene, particularly Foucault, who obviously had a huge influence on Orientalism. But he always resisted the inane wordplay and self-absorption that characterized so much of American theory in the eighties and early nineties. He absolutely despised "radical theorists" like Judith Butler, for instance. I remember him bristling anytime someone used the word "discourse" in one of our seminars -- and I remember thinking at the time that I had first starting using the word myself after reading Orientalism during my freshman year.
I'm sure there will be a flood of eulogies with more insightful surveys of his work (and no doubt some critics, given his political stances.) But I think it's worth saying something here that I've said about Said for more than ten years now: on his best days, he was the most charismatic man I've ever met in my life -- handsome, stylish, impossibly articulate, and surprisingly willing to take a joke at his own expense. (I used to tease him about his being indirectly responsible for unleashing Butler on the world.) I remember vividly one early spring afternoon, sitting through a seminar he was teaching on public intellectuals, in a room overlooking the Columbia campus and the sun setting over Riverside Park, and thinking to myself: there's literally nowhere else I'd rather be right now. I'm sure there are thousands of his students out there sifting through similar memories today.