2017 Edward Said Memorial Lecture: “Literature, Empathy, and Rights”

Video & Transcript
with Dr. David Palumbo-Liu
Transcript No. 485 (October 20, 2017)

Mohamed K. Mohamed:
Thank you all for joining us today for our annual Edward Said Memorial Lecture. My name is Mohamed Mohamed and I am the Executive Director here at the Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center. On behalf of our Board of Directors and staff, we would like to welcome you here today. Also, welcome to our online audience. It is a great honor to introduce and welcome our distinguished speaker, Dr. David Palumbo-Liu. He will be delivering this year’s Edward Said Memorial Lecture, which is titled: “Literature, Empathy and Rights”.

Edward Said was among many other things, a scholar of comparative literature. Professor Palumbo-Liu’s talk today will focus on three key concerns that Edward Said addressed via his study of literature. First and foremost, was the issue of being in the world, literature was a social as well as an aesthetic phenomenon. Second, literature could draw people together in a cosmopolitan spirit, drawing on the human capacity for empathy. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, any idealization of that cosmopolitan spirit had to grapple with the realities of injustice and prejudice, which divert and stifle empathy. In terms of literature, the blocking, distortion and erasure of stories was tantamount to the erasure of lives. Professor Palumbo-Liu’s talk will discuss how our commitments to empathy and ethics can only be met if we acknowledge the ways the realities of Palestine have been obscured and distorted. He will end by putting forth a vision of literature that he hopes might conjoin with the model of literary studies that Edward Said embodied. At the core of this lecture is the issue of rights.

A little bit about Dr. David Palumbo-Liu. He is the Louise Hewlett-Nixon Professor at Stanford University, where is also a professor of Comparative Literature and English. Professor Palumbo-Liu’s fields of interest include social and cultural criticism, literary theory and criticism and human rights. He has published numerous book chapters and scholarly articles. Many of these have been translated into Chinese, German, French and Portuguese. His most recent book, The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age, addresses the role of contemporary literature with regard to transnational ethical thinking. He has written articles that have appeared in magazines such as: Salon, Truth Out, The Nation, Guardian, AlterNet and Al-Jazeera. He also founded and directs the Teaching Human Rights Collaboratory, an international website for human rights teachers, activists and students.

Dr. Palumbo-Liu:
Well thank you for that wonderful introduction. I know at the beginning of lectures like these you are supposed to say that you are very honored to be here, etc. I sincerely mean this, this is the greatest honor of my life and I cannot say more than that.

One of Edward Said’s book is titled The Text, the World and the Critic, and for you to appreciate why that was important, you have to know that for so many years, literary studies in the United States was very much focused on what they called “the literary object”. There was a period of time in which we wanted to scientize this and what was the science of the text. All these ways of approaching literature demanded that the text be extracted from the world, almost like it was put in petri dish by itself and looked at under a microscope to see what made it tick. Edward Said decidedly did not subscribe to that vision of literature; for him it was embedded in the world. Importantly, the critic was as well. Critics were no longer supposed to be objective scientists that would look at the text as if it could exist in itself. They were also historical human beings and were also impacted upon history. Very importantly, they too had a social responsibility to make their knowledge important to the world, so I want to talk a lot about that.

One of the first times that I spoke at an Edward Said memorial was shortly after his passing. I was speaking with the novelist Ghada Karmi, who is the author of In Search of Fatima. After I gave my talk, Dr. Karmi said “You primarily claim Edward Said for the world of literature. I claim him as a spokesperson for the Palestinians.” She went on and gave a remarkable talk. During the question and answer period, she was asked, “What gives you hope or what gives you despair?” She said, “What gives me hope is more lucid. What gives me despair, I can tell you, is that the Zionists have captured the narrative.” We spent some time talking about that. What would that mean? Narratives can be a powerful political tool with long-lasting consequences.

Once Edward was asked, rather antagonistically, if he denied the Jewish narrative. He said, “I don’t deny that there is a Jewish narrative. What I deny is that there is only one narrative.”  Sadly, in the United States as most of us know, that has been the case for many, many, many years. There has been one dominant narrative that tends to be the image we have when we think not of Palestine, but Israel. What’s hopeful today is that it has been challenged in many ways. That is what I am going to be gravitating towards.

Any kind of narrative with regard to Palestine, is strictly tied to territory. Any narrative that talks about territory, is a justification for the possession of territory. Edward once said, “I see my own history and the history of my people, as a function of that struggle over territory. It was always about that territory.”  But then he goes on and he says, “The interesting thing is that it was never territory taken for the sake of territory. What always happened was a conflict over these justifications with, you might say, the bodies, the realities of the people there. Therefore, it was a struggle over geography, but also over justification, philosophy, epistemology, and whose land it is.”  So think of that cluster of concerns – geography, philosophy, epistemology –  what is the truth content and whose land it is, but also the justification, which is a narrative, afterall. It incorporates people into the land and gives that relationship a kind of density. When it is a justification for dispossession, that dispossession becomes all that much more strong.

So literature can indeed represent land, geography and territory, but each claim for territory comes from a human voice and a collective reality. Said was deeply concerned when that voice and that reality was “repressed, suppressed, silenced”. This silencing, which in the Palestinian case, is closely related to the deprivation of a state. It is fundamentally attached to the loss of what Hannah Arendt called “the loss of the possibility of fighting for freedom”. I am just going to quote two passages from Arendt: “Whoever leaves his police or is banished from it, loses not just his home town or his fatherland, he also loses the only space in which he can be free and loses the society of his equals”. She then goes to say that this act of physical and political displacement now creates “a certain category of people, excluded even from the possibility of fighting for freedom”. In other words, without a state, you don’t have the international political mechanisms with which to argue.

When asked about this idea of rights by an interviewer who said, “You wrote some place that the Palestinian experience is so fragmented that classical concepts don’t apply. What about the concept of rights?”, Said replied, “We are in a unique position of being a people whose enemies say we don’t exist. So for us, the concept of rights means the right to exist as a people, as a collective whole body, rather than a collection of refugees, stateless peoples, citizens of other countries”. I wanted to pause over what might seem an insignificant set of words. When he says “So for us”, I think we really need to focus on that. It is a declaration that there is a particular positionality that the Palestinian people occupy. Said is trying to get the interviewer to understand the particularity of that position, rather than simply say that this classical idea of human rights is universally applicable. He insists on the perspective of the Palestinian experience. I want to tie this into the possibility of articulating rights through literature. [Mahmoud] Darwish has an interesting statement in which he said that “poetry cannot found a state, but it can metaphorically create in the imagination the possibility of a state.” He then said, “I would like to think that my poems have built a couple of houses on that homeland.” Which, of course, they did. In the same spirit as Said insists on looking at the specific history of Palestinians, it is important to not believe that language is a neutral instrument that is universally transparent to every individual on the face of the earth. Language alone cannot do the trick. We need to recall the ways that even supposedly neutral language comes with a history and relationship to power, the kind of power that Said implies in the term “justification”.

One of the few times that I met Edward Said is when he come to Stanford to give what is known as the Ian Watt lecture. Ian Watt was a very famous British literary critic who then moved to the United States. He introduced Edward Said in one of the most unself-conscious ways that I can imagine. This is during the 80s and theory was a big deal in literary scholarship. Everyone was reading deconstruction and coming up with these cryptic sentences. Ian Watt’s way of praising Edward Said, besides saying all the wonderful things he did, was to say, “The thing I appreciate the most about Edward is that his command of the English language was so perfect.” You begin to wonder what Edward Said was going to say. Edward gets up, his usual gracious self, and he says “Thank you very much for that great introduction but some of us learned English in a very different way than you did. Some of us were caned if we didn’t speak it properly.”

The idea of language as having a history, coming from a place and being learned through different forces, comes out very powerfully in a remarkable essay by Anton Shammas called Torture into Affidavit. I am just going to read a few paragraphs from it. As you all know, Anton Shammas is a novelist, he’s also a great translator and he looks at the difficulty of translating Palestinian pain into a human rights document. In the second half of his essay, he makes a parallel to that of translating Arabic poetry into Hebrew. He writes, “The act of translating torture into affidavit assumes that objective pain, when inflicted onto the human body can be articulated and then translated and then formulated into a legal document. And as if this convoluted assumption weren’t enough, we have to bear in mind that in this case, the act of torturing the Palestinian body by itself is a nonverbal translation of an unwritten military order formulated in Israeli Hebrew. Either verbally or non-verbally, the pain suffered by the victim could be articulated, if at all, then translated into Hebrew and then edited into a chased English version in the form of an affidavit. The only form of narrative accepted in court and for the sake of readers who are willing to listen [is] a faint three-time removed narrative of pain”.

Shammas then specifies why these particulars are unable to represent the particular human object in question, again, the variable human that we have to entertain when we talk about human rights. He says, “Palestinian pain does not simply resist language as such, it also resists into a specific language, Hebrew. The language of the occupier, whose implicit objective over some 120 years of Zionism has always been to suppress, delegitimize, outlaw and annihilate the Palestinian Arabic. Hebrew for Palestinians has always been the violent language of occupation, dispossession; the violent language of destruction used as a weapon for the unmaking of the body and soul of Palestinian subjects. So when a Palestinian testimony of torture is translated into Hebrew, no matter how empathetic the translator may be, it will stand the grave risk of being deemed unreliable, of being articulated in a suspect dialect, attempting subversively at acquiring at the status of language, to be on par with Hebrew. And when that testimony is translated into English, into the legal genre of the affidavit, it will always be read through all these destabilizing filters.” So how can we work through this very difficult problematic of expression and representation, most especially for affect? [Shammas] goes onto say, in much the same spirit as the Darwish quote, in his attempt to translate Palestinian poetry into Hebrew, that he is creating what he calls a “virtual return”. He is trying to create in poetry that imaginary homeland. Without the capacity to imagine in certain ways, no political project can be successful. You need the ability to imagine the world other than it is.

I am now going to talk about empathy. I gave a talk a while ago called “Empathy at a Cost” and my notion of empathy is what I call “authentic empathy”. It is empathy that costs you something, it is not cheap, it requires that you give up something. I want to talk about comparative literature, interestingly, in that way. Comparative literature, when I went to graduate school, you had to take x number of languages. I went to Berkeley and one of the requirements was that you had to take a “distant” language. We students always said “What’s distant?”, and they kept moving the goal post as things went along. The idea was to get away from your usual Eurocentric habits and go someplace further, which is laudable. That is why I went into comparative literature rather than English, because I appreciated the notion that you were going to be forced out of your ordinary spaces.  But comparative literature has remained very Eurocentric and very much rooted in notions about what a narrative is, what a poem is, and what a novel is. There is a wonderful book by Mary Layoun called Travels of a Genre, looking at how a novel can move through all these different spaces and change because of the impact of all these different cultures. There is a real reluctance to move outside of what might be called one’s natural language, but that is the whole project of comparative literature. Politically speaking, it is crucial to use our imaginations to be able to conceptualize non-obvious connections.

I want to talk about material history here. There is a very wonderful interview that Edward Said did with the British historian Raymond Williams. He is writing the late 80s and Raymond Williams says, “The analysis of history is not a subject separate from history, but the representations of history are always a part of history.” In other words, as I said, language is embedded in history, there is no neutral medium. [Williams says:] “They contribute to history and are active elements in the way history continues. They take part in the way forces are distributed and the way people perceive situations, both from inside their own pressing realities and from outside them. If we are saying this is a real method, then the empirical test that is being put-to here is that comparable methods of analysis are being applied to situations that are very apart in space [in other words distance]. They have many differences of texture and have very different consequences in the contemporary world. [Then he says] “There is an obvious distance from what is happening in the English countryside or in the English inner cities to the chaos in Lebanon. Yet nonetheless, I think it is true that the underlying method found a congruity.”  So a congruity, not a perfect replica, but the capacity to imagine that things are alike in some fundamental way, whatever way that is. Here you have someone whose key work has been on the city and the country in English history, talking to Said and looking at Lebanon. He is saying that there is no way you can look at them and say they are completely alike, but in some ways the forces and issues are congruent. That is the positive, but what about empathy, what about comparative literature, and what about our imaginings about what is far and what is too far?

For that, I have a personal anecdote, which has always stuck with me. I was involved with, if you know that the American Studies Association endorsed BDS [Boycott, Divest, Sanction], and I was a part of that. Fortunately or unfortunately, The New York Times put a quote of me somehow in their story, so I came home to my wife and I said let’s go to a movie. So we are standing in line and who’s in front of me? A friend of mine who is Jewish, and he said, “We have to talk about this.”  This kept happening to me. I was having lunch by myself one day and a friend of mine, who is a Jewish historian, came up to me and placed his hand on my shoulder in a rather ominous way. He said, “David, I know why I am obsessed about Jews, but why are you?” It took me a while to think of what I was going to say and I said the most natural thing, “I am not obsessed with Jews, I care about Palestinians.”  But look at the language that is used, especially considering I am Chinese-American. People always say, “Why aren’t you protesting Tibet?” Well I do protest Tibet but you can do more than one thing at a time. I said why [did he use] obsession? It was simply because I took a political stance that was seen as extreme. That was very discouraging to me, the fact that a gesture of solidarity was seen as almost insanity. [It was seen] as a pathology that I would be taken out of my proper sphere of empathy and care, and be transported for some God unknown reason, to be obsessed with Jews. It was his way of understanding the situation, which was very discouraging, but he is not the only one. I get lots of hate mail that says basically the same thing, “You know nothing about Israel-Palestine, go back to China.” This is the exactly the opposite vision of the world that Edward Said represented. He was horrified because he was approached with very much the same kinds of statements. That is not the world of comparative literature, nor should it be the world, period.

Let me go into part three, “Empathy and Solidarity of Literature”. I want to leave you with good news: it is always the young people. I grew up in the post-war era. I am teaching a course called “Making Palestine Visible”. I just showed a clip from “Exodus”. I grew up with that narrative, with that hit song, with a novel and Paul Newman. It was the narrative of the Holocaust, which was profoundly upsetting. But it was the only narrative. Finally now, through the hard work of so many people like yourselves, another story is getting out. One of the things that is most encouraging about college campuses now, it used to be that students did not want to hear it, now students feel that it is their responsibility to know about [Palestine]. No matter what side you are on, they want to know because something is exerting so much pressure. Some say it is thanks to the internet, and some of it is because of all the images and photographs that are circulating outside of the mainstream news. I think that it matters. You all know the tragic story of Rachel Corrie and Edward Said said in 2003, “What Rachel Corrie’s work in Gaza recognized, was precisely the gravity and the density of the living history of the Palestinian people as a national community, and not merely a collection of deprived refugees. That is what she was in solidarity with, and we need to remember that that kind of solidarity is no longer confined to a small number of intrepid souls here and there.” That was in 2003 and it has only gotten better since then.

In the past six months, I have lectured in four continents to many different people. What brings them together is Palestine and the struggle for Palestinian people,which is now a byword for emancipation and enlightenment. Regardless of all the vilification heaped on them by all their enemies. As Martin Luther King said, “It is a long arc for justice, but we are making that turn”, I think. It demands that we are open to these kinds of called for solidarity because it is a very lonely process.

I don’t know if you know the fabulous novella by [Ghassan] Kanafani, Men in the Sun, but I taught it recently. It is a very wrenching novella, yet there is one moment in it that is strangely peaceful and positive. I was trying to make sense of it. There were three men trying to go to Kuwait to work in the oil fields from an Iraqi refugee camp, the middle person, Marwan, has the moment of peace in the middle of this horribly stressful and despair-filled moment. Kanafani writes, “Crowds of people walked past without paying him any attention, perhaps it was the first time in his life that he found himself alone and a stranger in a throng of people like this. He wanted to know the reason for that remote sensation that gave him contentment and rest. A sensation like the one he used to have when he finished watching a movie. It felt like life was grand and vast, and that in the future, he would one of those men that spent every hour and day of their lives in exciting fulfillment and variety. But what was the reason for him having such a feeling now, when he had not seen a movie for a very long time and only a few minutes before, threads of hope that had woven fine dreams in his heart, had broken? In fact, it surprised him that the letter he had written his mother could give him that marvelous feeling, which made his disappointment appear less important than it really was. It was a silly letter, one which he had written under the influence of a feeling of loneliness and hope, on the roof of a miserable hotel, in the end of the world.” When I talk to my class about that, what is giving him this feeling of peace and contentment? His dream have been shattered. Kanafani says that [Marwan’s] mother knows the story, so it is irrelevant information. The only way I can make sense of this is that it is the role of the writer to write and imagine a connection with somebody else. The act of writing, no matter what the result is, is important.

I am going to take a slight detour as I come to the conclusion of my talk. The marvelous quote, that helps globalize the vision that I am trying to bring about today in my talk. It is from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novella acceptance speech from 1982, because I want us to not think of things as distant and irrelevant, but to see them as Raymond Williams says, “congruous and together”. I want you to listen carefully to these next few paragraphs because it is a beautiful speech. [Gabriel Garcia Marquez says:] “One million people have fled Chile, a country with a tradition of hospitality. That is about 10% of its population. Uruguay, a tiny nation of 2.5 million inhabitants, which considered itself the continent’s most civilized country, has lost to exile one out of every five citizens. Since 1979, the civil war in El Salvador has produced one refugee every 20 minutes. The country that could be formed of all the exiles and forced immigrants of Latin America, would have a population that is larger than that of Norway. I dare to think that it is this outsized reality, not just this literary expression, that has deserved the attention of the Swedish Academy of Letters. A reality not of paper but one that lives within us and determines each instance of our countless daily deaths. And that nourishes a source of insatiable creativity full of sorrow and beautiful, of which this roving and nostalgic Colombian is just one cipher more, singled out by fortune. Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality. We have had to ask little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude.”  As we might suspect, the opposite of solitude is solidarity.

I want to close with Edward Said, that both reflect the Palestinian case, but also reflect back on the passage I just read by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as well as my remarks about comparative literature. This is my last quote from Edward Said: “The point I am trying to make is that we have to see the Arab world more generally, and Palestine in particular, in more comparative and critical ways than superficial and dismissive books like Lewis’s What Went Wrong and Paul Wolfowitz’s ignorant statements about bringing democracy to the Arab and Islamic world. Whatever else is true about the Arabs, there is an active dynamic at work because a real people live in a real society, with all sorts of currents and crosscurrents in it that can’t be easily caricatured as just one seething math of violent fanaticism. The Palestinian struggle for justice is especially something with which one expresses solidarity, rather than endless criticism and exasperated frustrated discouragement, and crippling divisiveness. Remember the solidarity here and everywhere, in Latin America, Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia. And remember also that there is a cause to which many people have committed themselves, difficulties and terrible obstacles notwithstanding. Why? Because it is a just cause, a noble ideal, a moral quest for equality and human rights”. I can think of no better way to end my talk than by using Edward Said’s words, to once again, help us set the course for the continuation of the struggle for Palestinian rights and recognition.