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Desperate youth.

For a month or so after Edward Said's death the only documentary images I happened to see were fairly recent and very familiar photographs. They didn't add to the pictures already in my mind. Edward stood at his desk, he looked over his glasses, he looked thoughtful, he looked stem, he looked amused. He had a beard, he was gaunt and hollow-eyed, like a wild and fasting sage. He was beardless, he looked healthier, only rather tired. In most of the images he was wearing a jacket and a tie, the intellectual dressed for continual encounters with the public world. Even the pictures of the child in Out of Place, solemn, solitary, already a little haunted, seemed familiar to me, so what I am talking about is not strictly the passage of time.

Then one day I saw a film clip which showed Edward and Salman Rushdie and others on a panel, at Columbia I think. The footage wasn't that old, from the mid-eighties, I assume. But Edward looked so desperately young that I was completely bowled over. It was as if he had died again.

What had happened, and why do I say desperately young? I believe several rather different elements were in play. One was that although I thought of Edward a lot in those months, and thought back a lot over the time I'd known him--since 1964, almost 40 years--he was more a voice and a personality to me, a source of energy and friendship and ideas, than a visual image. I felt him and heard him rather than saw him. Or I saw him, but I saw only the soft-edged, invisibly aging self we lend to people we have known for a long spell.

Another element was the medium. Films and photographs are both forms of memory, but they don't have the kindness or the continuity of the purely mental mode. They remorselessly remember the marks of the moment, styles of dress, gestures, postures, and what Luis Bunuel once called the physical geography of faces. They chronicle detail as if they were time's own recording agents. They say not just "that has been," as Roland Barthes says of photographs, and not just "this person was here," but "this person at this instant was this very person and no other." But then perhaps we need to distinguish further, and look at the difference between still and moving pictures.

A photograph is a memento mori, as Barthes also says, its message is that this person, caught in time, will never return to this moment and will one day die. A film image offers the same message, but with a different pathos. "Motion is the essence of life," Jules-Etienne Marey proclaimed, even though he was at the time busy freezing movement in order to see how it worked. Because film images move, they seem to certify active life as well as sheer existence, and they just go on living, weirdly and animatedly indifferent to the later avatars (and death) of their subject. It is as if film itself were a hollow immortality, a procession of former selves unable to die.

But none of this takes us beyond the fact of film, so to speak. This was part of my shock, but there is more. What I saw in that film clip of the Rushdie panel, what I could have seen in many other images of the various stages of Edward's life, what I did see later as new and old film compilations were screened on recurring memorial occasions, was not simply the past, examples of Edward's changing life, reminders of time. I hadn't forgotten time and change except in their details. What I saw were figures in an encounter that was full of invisible, but easily intuited, historical density: everything that brought Edward and Salman Rushdie together from Egypt and India and America and England; a lot of things that separated them, too. The past ran right up to the present and was folded into it. But the film image was also full of what had not happened yet, or perhaps it was separated from me by the weight of what I knew was to happen. It's not that what happened later was all terrible--some of it was, both politically and personally for Edward--only that history had kept accumulating since the picture was taken, piling up the debris that Walter Benjamin's angel so helplessly watches.

I think this is what I meant when I said to myself that Edward looked desperately young. He wasn't desperate, and in the mid-eighties he wasn't as young as all that, but he was living in another world, a world that had once been his and ours. This was a world where the store of future possibilities, not endless but not clearly registered as finite either, made life itself seem like a form of youth; and make it seem in retrospect, now that those possibilities are all fulfilled or cancelled, even more like a form of youth. What is desperate, or will be desperate if we can't shake ourselves out of this mood, is the loss of these possibilities, or the belief that they were not, and are not, followed by others.

This is where we need to put our shock and sorrow to work rather than merely enduring them. Edward liked to quote Adorno on the subject of modern music as "the surviving message of despair from the shipwrecked." Edward had seen shipwrecks, especially political ones, and he acknowledged the authority of Adorno's own despair. But he acknowledged it only to move on, and his work and life invite us to think chiefly not of lost youth or vanished possibilities, but of the persistence of hope in dark times. We shall become really desperate, and really old, not when we lose hope--we all do that on occasion--but when we lose the idea of hope, and so forfeit all chance of its return.
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Title Annotation:documentary images of Edward W. Said
Author:Wood, Michael
Publication:Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
Words:989
Previous Article:"Of the Place".
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