Look on This Picture, and on This
There is an interesting exercise in compare and contrast in reading two of the obituary essays on Edward Said: one by Christopher Hitchens and the other by Alexander Cockburn. Hitchens’ is profoundly admiring, affectionate, grieved, as well as carefully honest about Said’s faults. Cockburn’s is unequivocally admiring and affectionate, but he is oddly enthusiastic about Said’s thin skin. Both Hitchens and Cockburn mention the subject, but only Hitchens expresses reservations as well as admiration:
Edward had a slight tendency to self-pity, and the same chord was struck even in the best of his literary work, which often expressed a too-highly developed sense of injury and victimhood…Yet he was famously thin-skinned and irascible, as I have good reason to remember, if any criticism became directed at himself…And he was capable of stooping to mere abuse when attacking other dissidents—particularly other Arab dissidents, and most particularly Iraqi and Kurdish ones—with whom he did not agree. I simply had to stop talking to him about Iraq over the past two years. He could only imagine the lowest motives for those in favor of regime change in Baghdad, and he had a vivid tendency to take any demurral as a personal affront.
And then he adds a beautiful grace note…
But it can be admirable in a way to go through life with one skin too few, to be easily agonized and upset and offended. Too many people survive, or imagine that they do, by coarsening themselves and by protectively dulling their sensitivity to the point of acceptance. This would never be Edward’s way.
Cockburn, by contrast, simply cheers the rage and resentment.
How many times, after a week, a month or more, I have reached him on the phone and within a second been lofted in my spirits, as we pressed through our updates: his trips, his triumphs, the insults sustained; the enemies rebuked and put to flight. Even in his pettiness he was magnificent, and as I would laugh at his fury at some squalid gibe hurled at him by an eighth-rate scrivener, he would clamber from the pedestal of martyrdom and laugh at himself…He never became blase in the face of friendship and admiration, or indeed honorary degrees, just as he never grew a thick skin. Each insult was as fresh and as wounding as the first he ever received.
An understandable, all-too-human flaw. surely, but too closely related to an overvaluation of self to be simply celebrated, I would have thought.
It’s also interesting to note that Hitchens reports Said had the same experience with acolytes that Terry Eagleton did.
…a too-highly developed sense of injury and victimhood. (I am thinking of certain passages in his Orientalism and some of the essays in Culture and Imperialism as well.) He was sometimes openly alarmed at the use made of his scholarship by younger academic poseurs who seemed to despise the classical canon of literature that he so much revered.
Oh those dreaded acolytes.