Bridge Across the Abyss
by Edward Said
Anyone who has had the experience of serious illness will tell you that one of the most terrifying prospects you face at such an extremity is not just the sadness of physical disablement, but the loss of your power to think clearly. Ernest Jones, the biographer of Sigmund Freud, says about Freud that when he became severely ill and in great pain because of cancer in the jaw, he refused to take even an aspirin for fear that it might dull the critical edge of his mind, take away some of the sharpness of his thought. What is it that makes Stephen Dedalus, the hero of James Joyces's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, so compelling if it is not his motto, non serviam -- I will not serve? "I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland or my church." What does it really mean not to believe? It means no longer being able to think the way others do, no longer being able just to go along with things as they are.
The fundamental paradox of education is that you must serve and submit to authority -- the authority of tradition, of learning itself, of the scholars and scientists who went before you and in a sense made you possible -- and, at the same time, you must somehow remain critical, even defiant. And what makes you defiant, what makes it possible for you to build a bridge across the abyss that so many people are defeated by, is hope and a belief in a great idea, the ideal of justice, the idea of emancipation, the idea of enlightenment, which of course is where the bridge leads you. There are great risks here, risks of unpopularity, of being isolated, of being reviled. Pamina, in Mozart's opera The Magic Flute, at the moment of greatest danger, sings "I must say the truth, the truth, even if it were a crime."
But in the final analysis, I think, there is nothing more noble than to risk all those things in order to be able to build that bridge. It is the genius of the school and university that they provide a place and a few years in which to try, and try, and try. Of course one may not fully succeed, but one realises also that it is the everlasting effort to find a way, build a bridge, imaginatively and critically, that keeps us alive intellectually and democratically.
-Edward Said, "Bridge Across the Abyss", Al-Ahram Weekly.
Leave a Reply.