Universalism Vs reality

The Friday Times; Nov 21-27. 2003; Vol XV; No. 39

Ejaz Haider

In his long essay on rebellion, Albert Camus, moving through various manifestations of rebellion finds solace in art: “Art is an activity which exalts and denies simultaneously. ‘No artist tolerates reality,’ says Nietzsche. That is true, but no artist can ignore reality. Artistic creation is a demand for unity and a rejection of the world. But it rejects the world on account of what it lacks and in the name of what it sometimes is. Rebellion can be observed here in its pure state and its original complexities. Thus, art should give us the final perspective on the content of rebellion [emphasis added].”

I picked up ‘The Rebel’ a few days ago while putting together my thoughts for a talk on Edward Said’s bitter criticism of the Oslo Agreement. My point related to Said’s universalism in the face of the myriad distortions that inform the reality on the ground. I found Said’s political opinion – from Oslo onwards – removed from that reality. Not because he did not know what the reality was, but because despite that knowledge, he refused to be sucked into its immediacy, its provincialism, its myriad distortions, and its diurnal impurities.

Said’s universalism, his humanism, his rebellion against reality, belonged in the world of art. His greatness as an intellectual lay in his refusal to treat reality on any basis other than universal values. What gave him his strength as an intellectual was precisely what impacted his political judgement.

He did not see the two spheres as distinct, requiring different tactics, but believed in what Fred Halliday calls ‘expressive totality’. As an aside, it is interesting to note that Halliday used the expression in his critique of Said’s concept of Orientalism. So we see the same pattern at work in Orientalism also, a “pervasive single error at the core of a range of literature”. Mahmoud Darwish made much the same point when he asserted that “Edward Said was an indivisible whole”. I think one gets a fairly good idea of why Said would settle for nothing less than the grand design regardless of its political feasibility.

This is not to say that Said did not experience contradictions and irreconcilabilities – he said to Harvey Blume in an interview for Atlantic Unbound, “The memoir was my answer to trying to maintain the integrity of the inner self, by laying open all the contradictions and irreconcilabilities” – but that he never let go of a universalism for which there were, and are, no takers in the world of hard-nosed strategy, realpolitik and state-craft.

But what was Said’s problem with the Oslo Agreement. On a more concrete level he decried it as uneven. He pointed out that those who signed the Agreement on the Palestinian side did not even speak English; there were no lawyers with them to understand the legal implications of the Agreement. They didn’t even have a map of the area. That Arafat took the decision because he was foolish enough to have supported Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War and entered the secret talks to save himself. He lied to his people when he called it a historic agreement even though nothing was said about the settlements, there was nothing in the agreement on the right of return of the refugees, nothing on Jerusalem. It was all a big lie.

Was Said wrong in his criticism? No. The Oslo Agreement was uneven, no doubt. Seen from this perspective any criticism of the Agreement would have been right. But the question is: What was the alternative for PLO? And this is an important question given the peculiarities and eccentricities of the situation in which Arafat and the PLO were placed at the time. Said’s answer: it is better to be defeated and concede defeat than declare a victory where none existed. I differ. There could not have been an even agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Total harmony and total tension only exist in the world of art; they do not in politics and statecraft. In the real world, one has to take the leap, not stay on the dizzying crest as Camus describes it in ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’. One can’t have that luxury in the real world.

With that uneven agreement, Yasser Arafat legitimised himself and the PLO. Overnight, from a terrorist organisation the PLO became a legitimate partner in peace; overnight, Yasser Arafat morphed from persona non grata to a world leader. Palestine has seen much bloodshed since then. The settlements remain and have increased in number. The status of the refugees is undetermined. But the distance the Palestinian cause has travelled is also great. Not even Ariel Sharon can either cast doubt on the legitimacy of that cause or dare reject the idea of a Palestinian state. For this achievement alone, one can live with Oslo and all its shortcomings.

An interesting aspect of Said’s position in later years was the idea of a binational state. This position also gives a perspective on how far removed Said’s universalism was from the reality. Let me give an example of how Israel looks at the idea of a binational state. An editorial in Ha’aretz on Nov 17, discussing the Beilin-Abed Rabbo accord had this to say:

“Behind this flurry of new and welcome thinking stands the threatening demographic reality, which can no longer be ignored. It’s not only that time is not working to our benefit; time is running out. In a few years, the Palestinian population between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea will grow to equal that of the Jewish population. Without some movement toward an accord, there will be increasing support among Palestinians and within the international community for establishing a binational state, whose character will be determined by the Palestinian majority [emphasis added].”

The secular Zionists created a Jewish state precisely because only the Jewish character of the state can keep it distinct for the Jews. Demography will always work against the Jews. This is why, much before Said converted to the idea of a binational state, it was propounded by the Islamists. Sure, there is a solution, I remember one saying to me. The Jews always lived well under the Muslim rule. At this point it is important to note the subtle difference between Said and the Islamists. Said was talking about a secular, plural democracy. The Islamists speak of the fact of demography within or without a democratic dispensation. But the irony is that democracy – especially in illiberal societies – is always more prone to majoritarian consensus than pluralism. Indeed, I would go a step further: majoritarianism has closer natural affiliation with democracy than pluralism.

But Said’s approach to Oslo or his political ideas merely evince the fact that a great intellectual like him will always, as Ibsen said, stand alone on the outpost way above and beyond the multitude. It reflects, to rephrase Blume’s question in an interview with Said, how difficult it is for something as subtle as an inner self cohering around literature and music to try to maintain itself when translated into the language of politics.

As a writer of immense breadth and vision, and in trying to reconcile that facility to his role as a political activist, I find Edward Said a tragic figure. In his essay “Yeats and Decolonization,” Said refers to R P Blackmur’s borrowing of Jung’s phrase, “the terrible ambiguity of immediate experience” to describe Yeats. I think the Jungian description also fits Said remarkably. Said wrote about living in exile, in two worlds, the contrapuntal. Indeed, he called Culture and Imperialism “an exile’s book”. But the “other”, the “contrapuntal” did not just relate to Said’s belonging “to [two] worlds [an Arab with a Western education living in exile in New York] without being completely of either one or the other”.

The contrapuntal was also true of the incongruity he encountered between his universalism and the provincialism of Palestinian politics, between his idea of unity – in thought and action – and the Palestinian disunity, what he wanted to have and what could be had. Said’s conflict with Arafat and the PLO was not merely about the Oslo Agreement; in many ways, it was about the difference between art and life: the “glory of changeless metal” which “scorns aloud,” “common bird or petal/And all complexities of mire and blood”. And yet, the two worlds in Said’s life, the two roles, the point-counterpoint had a symbiotic relationship. Hence the tension.

The problem for Said would have been solved if he could simply devote himself “to the loftier pursuits of music and literature”. But that was not to be because, in the final analysis, Said was also deeply political and polemical.

The writer is Consulting Editor The Friday Times; this article is adapted from a talk given at the Punjab University

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