I am quite sure I am not alone in thinking more often lately about the intellectual legacy of Edward Said. I was a student in the last class he ever taught, and I fell into an abiding intellectual love for him. In the two decades since Said’s death, I have learnt so much consulting his work and remembering his voice. I often wished he was still here to speak for Palestine. But not now—this past fall has been the first time I am grateful he is at peace.

I feel this way for a number of reasons. I now work at Columbia, where he taught for some 40 years in the Department of English and Comparative Literature. This year, it has become normal to present identification and pass through a phalanx of cops to access campus, with helicopters and drones buzzing overhead. I did not know him well, but I can assure you with absolute confidence that Edward Said, arguably the most elegant man I’ve ever met, would have been disquieted, to say the least, by having to pass through a police checkpoint to get to his office.

To imagine Said on campus today has been a painful but necessary exercise; his words have come to my mind repeatedly over the months since the war in Gaza began, none with more frequent alacrity than these: “corrosive irony.” The formulation appears across his literary and political criticism over decades. Said consistently observed how irony had pervaded the Western cultures which claimed the mantle of civilization while despoiling the colonies. His sense of this irony was capacious, and incorporated rhetorical, dramatic, and situational definitions, across a public discussion and aesthetic culture. He found it especially pronounced in recent U.S. public life, as the rank propaganda of the Cold War and the War on Terror came to disguise a deteriorating national project.

Said derived this notion from a rich tradition of thinking about irony. He was a reader of the eighteenth-century Neapolitan rhetorician Giambattista Vico, who argued that poetic figures could define not only human speech or human drama, but also ways of life and the fate of nations. A theorist of history as cyclical, Vico saw civilizations in the late phases of their development as particularly ironic: “Irony certainly could not have begun until the period of reflection, because it is fashioned of falsehood by dint of a reflection which wears the mask of truth.” As I contemplate the militarization of one the most “elite” institutions of higher education in the U.S., with its myriad promises of public engagement, I suspect the corrosive irony of the so-called Pax Americana has reached what Vico would call a “barbaric” phase.

Examples of what I mean abound in the recent controversy over antisemitism on college campuses. Those with a taste for low-brow comedy might take note of hedge-fund billionaire and paragon of enlightened civility Leon Cooperman, who went on Fox Business channel to tell an interviewer he had suspended his giving to my university in response to recent protests: “These Columbia students have shit for brains,” he spat. It may not sound like Vico, but it’s ironic. In nineteenth-century Germany, the politician August Bebel characterized antisemitism as “the socialism of fools,” to describe its function of distracting the working class from organizing against the forces of capital. As outrageously wealthy American elites (Jewish and otherwise) deploy accusations of antisemitism to protect Israel from critique, that neat formulation has acquired yet more irony.

The weaponization of “antisemitism” against (often Jewish) critics of Israeli policy has gone on for some time. Many of the ironies efflorescent in the present crisis are not new. Critics have long credibly accused Israel of acting with “genocidal” intentions toward Palestinians, based on the words and deeds of military commanders and political leaders. The whiplash contradictions and appropriations of the slogan, “from the river to the sea,” have been whirling since the 1970s. In an essay entitled “Permission to Narrate” (1984), Said posed the question straightforwardly: “How is it that the premises on which Western support for Israel is based are still maintained even though the reality, the facts, cannot possibly bear these premises out?” That this question remains vital 40 years on suggests the corrosive irony he identified continues its work.

The contradictions which Said lived and articulated were fractal in their complexity—to invoke his memory now, in the ambience of enforced, simplistic misrepresentations, means to recall the ethical and political challenges of thinking about, and then speaking truth to power. Said had already been sick for some time when I became his student. I remember one day class had to be rescheduled to accommodate a medical appointment. Upon his arrival, Said told us a story about getting pulled over on the way to the doctor’s office on Long Island. He delighted in recounting how he had talked his way out of a ticket, and his disdainful condescension for the cops was palpable. But we knew then that Said had also seen the need for security: as a result of the positions he had taken on Palestine over the years, his office was firebombed, and he received inordinate death threats.

Over these past months, trying to get a grip, I have found myself trying to follow Said’s rigorous example, at least as a student, by supplementing the atrocities in the news with broader historical perspective. For a stretch of the fall, I read more seriously into the history of antisemitism than I had before, hoping to fix a concept which threatened to lose all meaning. I found myself revisiting the Jewish Enlightenment, and the role of the Jewish Question in the development of tolerance as an aspect of liberal political theory—Mirabeau reading Mendelssohn on the eve of the Revolution. I was struck how, in light of that history, the rightlessness of the Palestinian people looks more vividly ironic.
From there I turned to Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), with its story of wealthy European Jews assimilated in the late eighteenth century as bankers for emergent European nation-states, later targeted for extermination when the imperial projects of the late nineteenth century failed to bear sufficient reward. That book, cited approvingly by Said in both Orientalism (1978) and The Question of Palestine (1979), suggests a mind attuned to history’s orchestral irony. Arendt’s focus on the role of the Jews and anti-Semitism in the European catastrophe reads now yet more uncannily, as Israel’s retributive campaign to vanquish Hamas ignites a broader conflict.

Here is where the perception of irony can make for a painful burden, but also useful clarity—”reflection,” in Vico’s language. The seminar I took with Said was called “The Theory of the Novel.” He never spoke during class about Palestine, and infrequently though dazzlingly about Orientalism and colonialism. This was the spring of 2003, during which the U.S. invaded Iraq, in the middle of the Second, or Al-Aqsa, Intifada in Palestine. There was then, as there is now, an enraging irony in exalted liberal societies’ administering brutal territorial conflict. In his public writing from the period, Said pointed to the accumulating hypocrisies of the “War on Terror.” In our class, however, he was relentless in his demand that we know the books on the syllabus inside and out: Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, Great Expectations, L’Education sentimentale (he always gave the title in French), and Lord Jim.

Said’s pedagogy was the most combative form of Socratic dialogue I’ve ever seen; it would be impossible to teach that way now. One of his most devastating questions, which often left us dumbfounded and him in angry disappointment, was also the simplest: after examining a student’s understanding of an episode in one of the novels, he would ask, “and what happens next?” The silences and fulminations that followed were excruciating. But the implication was clear: we ought not lose the plot, and we do so at our peril.

We began that semester by reading the Hungarian Marxist critic Gyorgy Lukács’ Theory of the Novel (1920) three times in a row. After each session, Said, irascible, insisted that we had not understood its meaning, and that we needed to go home and read it again. I remember looking at the stack of books to come and wondering how we would get through it all. I also remember feeling crazy, like we might argue about that short, dense, beautiful book forever. Lukács claims that, unlike the enclosed and organized world of the ancient Greeks, the novel had become “the epic of a world abandoned by God.” In lieu of a fixed, meaning-making cosmology, the novel drew its logic from the “demon” of irony, who rendered its characters unable to comprehend their circumstances, and thus suffused its plots with a “negative mysticism.” Some hope animated Lukács’ point-of-view, however: the irony found in great works of art or thought might offer the opportunity to reflect constructively on the ironies of history.
As the semester wore on, my classmates and I sought to reconcile the illustrious public intellectual with the incandescently demanding teacher. In the moments when he seemed disappointed with us, the implication floated just below the surface that our inability to read had led our country to this tragically stupid turn in its history. In turn, we came to understand that the class was designed to permit Said to work through preoccupations he sustained throughout his career. He was long obsessed, for instance, with the Irish satirist Jonathan Swift. Twenty years earlier, in The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983), Said had included two essays on Swift, the apparent remnants of a long-planned and never-completed book. There he focuses on the unnerving fourth journey of Gulliver’s Travels, in which Gulliver lands among the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos, where Swift memorably inverts the claims to civility that defined the European project.

Although the Houyhnhnms look like horses, they live in remarkable refinement, while the Yahoos, who look like humans, serve them reluctantly and ineffectively as “brutes in human form.” Said reads Swift’s extreme “disenchantment” and “disillusionment” with the English colonization of Ireland into this episode; he cites, in a phrase apt to the Hamas attack of October 7th, “what Orwell calls, ‘the irresponsible violence of the powerless.’” In the face of Swift’s devastating vision, Said finds reason for hope in irony, which permits Gulliver to keep “recording his recognitions and discoveries, still making sense, still—even in Houyhnhnmland—finding out where occasions might exist for him to do something.”

There, I am afraid, I find myself, under the hooves of well-heeled horses, hoping to find some perspective on, and something to do about, the negative mysticism of this moment. The irony of my own devotion to Said, as an extravagantly alienated Jew to the great Palestinian writer, I would like to think, has been constructive. So much of my sense of intellectual life, the possibilities and requirements of scholarship, argument, and writing come from him. Though I would not want Said to have suffered through this moment in his later eighties, I know he would have gotten it right.

For one thing, Said would never have fallen prey to the absurd traps of contemporary public discourse—the absurd premise, for instance, that critique of Israel’s conduct in war constitutes “support for Hamas” would not have stood his scrutiny. He would have noticed so much we cannot see clearly—I recall a public lecture just after the invasion of Iraq in which Said drew attention to the looting of the Baghdad Museum, a story which felt at the time like an aside, but which has unfolded in terribly modern epic form since then. I feel sure, and this is most important, that he would have been with the kids on campus. My certainty on this last question comes in part from the posthumously published book On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain, about artists and intellectuals who returned to first principles with renewed intensity as the end of life approached. It helped explain his attitude in our class, but it also reads like a series of notes-to-self: do not go soft at the end.

And so I stand with them too, the students, through many a recent chilly afternoon and evening on campus, as they are doxed, gassed, arrested, and targeted with disciplinary procedures. Columbia’s much vaunted urban diversity has yielded a multi-ethnic coalition of student activists, as strong and organized as I have seen in twenty years, in support of a cease-fire in Gaza, B.D.S. at the university, and more. In response, the new administration has militarized the campus in unprecedented ways, and in this there is yet more irony. The architecture of Columbia has always looked a bit like a fortress from the street, sort of Vatican-like, but inside the green copper mansard roofs and sporting little garden quads convey a cozier cosmopolitanism. Now as we swipe in, surveilled from above, the campus’s capacity to transport to scenes abroad has a more ominous effect. The educational cost of all this security, and all this corrosive irony, is incalculable. The Alma Mater statue is surrounded by police gates, but Columbia is not, in fact, Israel, or Palestine.

Said’s capacity to acknowledge historical and cultural complexity, while nonetheless cutting through hypocrisy and prevarication, on the question of Palestine and so much else, was unparalleled. Timothy Brennan’s recent biography, Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said (2021) provides one delicious bit of evidence on this point: a quote from an AIPAC training seminar about disrupting pro-Palestinian speakers reads, “Edward Said was fantastic—challenging him will only make you look bad.” Nobody in contemporary American intellectual life could muster that kind of power today. This is not simply a matter of Said’s extraordinary learning, genius, charisma, or force of conviction: it is a widely noted social fact that far fewer of academics have the protections of tenure now; I certainly do not. Recent handwringing deliberations about “academic freedom” tend not to acknowledge this basic structuring fact. Near the end of his life in an interview with Haaretz, Said joked, with barbed irony, that he was “the last Jewish intellectual.” The painful, honest truth is that the milieu he inhabited, its publications and institutions, is in decline.

At the same time and not coincidentally, however, the popular support for Palestinian liberation in the U.S. at present is unprecedented and inspiring. As with other recent popular movements on the left, the students have taken more care than their ancestors to protect against the risks of heroic individualism in solidaristic activism. Said would have taken bitter solace in the knowledge that the most significant student revolt at Columbia since 1968 has been in solidarity with Palestine. A colleague of mine, as we stood in the crowd of a protest on campus not too long ago, said to me quietly: “They’re never going to get this genie back in the bottle.” It is a figure Said would have appreciated, for its rich philological resonance, and for its hopeful truth, in the face of a moment too brutal for mourning.