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Edward Said's Battle for Humanism

by Lennard J. Davis | ns 68
It is one of the puzzles that Edward Said left us, in sphinx-like manner, upon his death: How can it be that a man associated with a radical critique of Western civilization, an unceasing questioning of the values on which Western scholarship was based, could also uphold, in the name of humanism, the very kind of study of literature that his ideas should have come to abhor? What was the attraction of the clear light of humanism that evokes a world of thought so utterly different from the Krazy-Kat, subaltern-driven world of postmodernism that came to surround his project? The first problem in understanding Said's humanism comes from the term itself. We speak of humanism as if the term is self-evident. Emily Apter writes intelligently of Said's humanism but she never defines what she might mean by humanism. Said didn't help matters either. His account of humanism varied over time, including a notion of what humans (as opposed to nature or science) make, as well as their reflection on and critique of those cultural artifacts. The Oxford English Dictionary only confuses us further. Humanism—is it the notion, according to Coleridge, that Jesus is actually human rather than divine? Is it, somewhat obviously, the character or quality of being human? Or is it a devotion to those studies that promote human culture, especially the study of Greek and Latin? No? Then is it in the philosophy of Schiller and William James which proposes that "it is impossible to strip the human element out from even our most abstract theorizing?" None of these seems to fit the bill. We might get a better sense of Said's humanism by paying attention to the way that he thought about writing and criticism. In his introduction to a reissue of Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, Said remarks in Arnoldian and even Leavisian cadence that there are "thus only a small number of books [that] seem perennially present and, by comparison with the vast majority of their counterparts, to have an amazing staying power" (11). Those works are part of a world literature, Weltliteratur in Goethe's sense, that gathers into its inner sanctum a core group of books. They are not necessarily part of a canon—in the sense of regularly read works—but rather a privileged horde of wisdom available to those with the ability to read and and critique it. Said alternated between thinking of that canon as a capacious and democratic thing subject to the messy browsing and consumption of a global multitude and thinking of it as a restricted guide to the best and brightest readers. Initially those brightest few were comprised of names like Erich Auerbach, Leo Spitzer, Ernst Robert Curtius, Wilhelm Dilthey, Theodor Adorno—thinkers who recur througout Said's opus and are characterized by their wide knowledge, a product of the German educational system, particularly the Gymnasium. This philological enterprise isn't for the faint-hearted, as it requires knowledge of many languages and detailed interpretations in the original, quasi-sacred texts from Homer to Dante, Augustine to Aquinas, Balzac to Mann.

But there was a pugilistic element to Said's club. He might fight them. as we winnow down what Said might mean by humanism. The study of such great men requires and causes a merger with them. were the core group. and the critic. living the author's reality. I took courses with Said both as an undergraduate and graduate student. who. a required but doomed activity that yields the impression of understanding these works. The other feature involved in this process. Wilhelm Dilthey. as well as the author behind the text. So. This is when I first read the work of Erich Auerbach. He was loyal to them as he was loyal to his friends. Blackmur. As Said put it. P. Humanism for Said is inseparable from the men—and they were almost always men— who created these great works that represented the human endeavor. since the paradox of self-knowledge is that it always breaks down into the problematics of the self and the contradictions of knowledge. Giambattista Vico. as Said put it in the title of a book. though not impossibility. They were members of a pantheon Said routinely included in his thinking." is the complex difficulty. and so forth. although he would make new friends and enroll new members. or the world from the text. a merger which can only be achieved by a massive frontloading of knowledge. and as a process of unending disclosure. Alongside this individual-centered humanism was the messier notion of humanism as a democratic contention over the canon and its meaning: "to understand humanism at all. speak their language. Anyone who knew Said knows that he had a group of scholars with whom he always touched base. It is equally usual for . R. the text. as it were. "But this perhaps tragic shortcoming of human knowledge and history is one of the unresolved contradictions pertaining to humanism itself. yet denies us certain knowledge of them. is to understand it as democratic. self-criticism. With them he attempted to read widely in world literature. with their collective wisdom. of knowing the critic. a father figure. one aspect may be a scholarly endeavor of close reading whose aim is to find the person or people—the humans—imbricated in the text. there is always a tragic dimension to this endeavor. these men. the confluence of the world.Said suggested in "Eric Auerbach. as Said noted. and this group of men became over the years his own version of the Metaphysical Club—a group of thinkers he could return to. When I was a student at Columbia University. Michel Foucault. Theodor W. enter their world. learn what they learned. To find. Yet. and Antonio Gramsci. It's worth noting that few if any major intellectuals have ever assembled such a posse of thinkers. and merge. Roland Barthes. Adorno. but more likely he'd fight others using them. Leo Spitzer. in which the role of thought in reconstructing the past can neither be excluded nor squared with what is 'real'" (16). and their times. all by that combination of erudition and sympathy that is the hallmark of philological hermeneutics" (15-16). It is much more usual for an intellectual to choose a specific forbear. Critic of the Earthly World" that "to understand a humanistic text… one must try to do so as if one is the author of that text. discovery. the author. open to all classes and backgrounds. detailed brilliantly by Schleiermacher in what has been come to be called the "hermeneutic circle. and liberation" ( Humanism 22). Said could here could match his considerable intellectual abilities against theirs. for us as citizens of this particular republic. which was in effect his Fight Club. undergoing the kind of life experiences intrinsic to his or her life.

although the use Said . Hartman.. Said explicitly framed his intellectual project as an embattled one. J. Said by temperament opposed any notion that there was no "there" there in a literary text. It was with Gramsci that Said found his model for intellectual intervention—the notion of wars of position and movement. I was surrounded by combatants of one sort or another.. there's no end to it. But what Said did was indeed unusual. "One doesn't just write: one writes against.intellectuals to define themselves against a single or a host of predecessors. He was a young upstart in the US world of literary theory dominated by the so-called Yale School—Harold Bloom.. Geoffrey H. exile.. but a battle on more than one front. and self-imposed marginality of the intellectual" (402. he chose a group that would provide him company and cover. and the older ones focused on philology and history.. They were not in his club. Hillis Miller. many years…as really being in the thick of a tremendous battle. But there is something more to be said about the combative element.This sense of being in an endless struggle was sort of everywhere. He didn't find a stream of authors from the past from which he wished to diverge in significant ways. Said published his first major work. Derrida was definitely not. As Jeffrey Williams points out. and cunning" as the hallmark phrase of the intellectual. this vow to silence and exile seems at odds with Said's more publicly stated commitment to speaking out and engaging in politics. and he situated himself between the critics oriented toward first structural and then deconstructive theory. I couldn't get away from it.. Thus Auerbach and Spitzer were in the club. Rather." ( Power 15). Despite Said's sense of being "out of place. Said adopts Stephen Dedalus' vow to commit himself to "silence. exile. alienated Romantic artist/Modernist intellectual" and "the lonely independence. I don't mean just a literary or historical battle.. Adorno was always in. and others. And his humanisitic project included a commitment to duking it out with the hegemonic opposition: I felt myself for many. noting. Very early in his career he cites Harold Bloom approvingly. 400). analyzable systems. Williams notes that Said's reference to Dedalus "taps into the strand of the forlorn. Said's Fight Club makes possible the coexistence of his position of isolation and his political impulse to speak out. This imagined pugilistic community of scholars and critics provided a kind of shoulder-to-shoulder fraternity and cultural locus from which to speak. it's an endless war. or in opposition to. When I was in graduate school in the early 1970s. Paul de Man. if you're going to go on fighting the battle of truth in a polemical and purely intellectual way. (203) It's no wonder then that Said needed to garner all the help he could get—most academics just write. For the most part they questioned the notion that literary texts were complete. In his book Representations of the Intellectual. Beginnings: Intention and Method (1975). In other words. He wasn't a Marxist or a Freudian—each of which would imply a single progenitor." he was not without a sense of place and community with this intellectual group.. It was relentless. Said battled.

gay. sexist —he was too smart to be any of those. Even in 1976. bisexual. but also strangely R. however. He was. Bachelard. "If you read a critic like Harry Levin on Shakespeare or on the novel you are getting a learned and sharp intelligence that can use much of what needs to be used (including Lukács. He admired both Bloom and Miller. Although Said was "out of place" in not aligning himself with one particular school or discipline. His canon expanded by including global writers rather than specifically women. Auerbach.made of him was selective at best." And while many radical intellectuals of this period began to attack the canon. He later described himself as "someone whose intellectual life has been dedicated largely to the understanding and teaching of great works of literary and musical art" ( Humanism 62). he formulated an essentially traditional notion of historical change in literature: "A great deal of what matters in cultural history is not what you might call revolutionary change but conservative. who could be "used" in thinking through the works of the more avantgarde critics. Levin. While many other scholars embraced the notion that literature was a deconstructive blur spinning out from an unknowable center. and always a humanist. transgender. Freud. people of color. but by great anonymous movements whose function it is to keep things going" ( Power 11). ambiguous national identifications. the more sedate and historical (and Jewish) critic about whom Said notes. Perhaps we can call that anonymous movement "humanism. homophobic. but to bring into the canon significant works of emerging nations while holding fast to writers such as Jane Austen or Rudyard Kipling. lesbian. culture is not made exclusively or even principally by heroes or radicals all the time. This conviction that humanism is bound up with the close reading of great works would later be taken up in Culture and Imperialism (1993). an engaged distance. But his club had limited membership. Blackmur. Although Said's early writings were not political in the sense that his work later became. although he might not oppose other clubs. he managed to maintain a sense of equanimity by herding together with his own intellectual types. and Harry Levin. Said maintained what might be called a "great books" approach. Said's engagement was always from a nuanced. paradoxically. learned. he had a distinct affiliation with historical cultural study as opposed to the more ahistorical approach of the postmodernists. here was the retinue of those with learned and sharp intelligence. For Said. An unlikely array of members. or indigenous writers. This stance put him in opposition to certain identity groups seeking to . He used words like "truth" and "justice" as refutations to the propositions of antifoundationalist and postmodernist discussions of the impossibility of using such terms. This isn't to say that Said was racist. etc. It was in this sense that he was first. Said tenaciously held to the ideas that literature had meaning and that anyone trained in the extensive knowledge of world literature and philosophy could decipher it. disabled. which he recognizes leaves out many peoples. Barthes.) because it serves a serious critical aim" (Power 8). continuously critical of the kind of identity politics that shut down boundaries and borders. the point is not to get rid of the canon. and somewhat Olympian perspective. and the others offered a cosmopolitan viewpoint that gave Said. P. foremost. whom he called "the greatest genius American criticism has produced" (Power 8). and contrarian or somewhat classical views of literature.

each replete with a colorful and engaging personality. the year that I completed my dissertation under his supervision. but a pantheon of great human minds. Sheik Omar and Osama bin Laden. critic. For example. His interviews reveal that the world in which he grew up and lived was profoundly religious.. against Chinua Achebe's charges that the work was racist and imperialist. whose then recently published The Anxiety of Influence detailed a convoluted Freudian theory behind artistic careers.. Said's insistence on a secular. nonreligious way of thinking became much clearer after September 11. For example. not God. His model of knowledge was not the Deleuzian notion of impersonalized rhizomatic knowledge. "Until fairly recently. all this exists in a totally different box. Tellingly. As Said put it.purge the canon of its dead. along with George Bush and Pat Robertson. It is breathtaking to remember that much of what we call postcolonial criticism would be either absent or different had Said just gotten up the next morning and decided that he could not really find "links" between the literary world and the political world.. claiming that writers are locked in Oedipal struggle with the masters who precede them. Vico became a constant reference for Said and defined his humanism—a deep belief in the power of the individual to think new things and make intellectual history. more characteristically.. What appealed to him was its argument that history is secular—made by humans. . and teacher. " (Power 14). But the Said of 1976 had not yet formed himself.. he is swept off his feet by a thinker and then welcomes him into the intellectual gathering. and I've done a fair amount of work which has always been plugged into the established channels.. Said had just begun to bring his political life into dynamic relationship with his literary career. I led two quite separate lives . mostly white-male biases. One sees in Said's early period a fascination with forerunner male critics and scholars against whom one must measure oneself and rebel. He points out with what seems in retrospect an amazing matter-of-factness: "There are links between the two worlds which I for one am beginning to exploit in my own work" (15). "the relationship between reader-critic and the text is transformed from a one-way interrogation of the historical text by an altogether alien mind at a much . the one critic he mentions most during this period is Harold Bloom. it should be read in conjunction with other works and seen as one kind of critique of the white man's burden. on the one hand I'm a literary scholar. should have become a touchstone for Said. do believe that God works actively in history. which most literary people say nothing about.. Said read Vico's The New Science as a graduate student. and one whose point seems so irrelevant to contemporary history. that bizarre novel about a white man's journey into Africa. Yet I lead another life. Said maintained throughout Culture and Imperialism that rather than jettison Heart of Darkness. I lead a pretty uncontroversial life in a big university.. One may question why a so arcane a philosopher as Vico.. In 1976. nor so much Foucault's anonymous discursity. But Said himself did not have the best insight into how to combine those worlds. My whole background in the Middle East . As he noted then.. yet Said was never attacked as conservative. he repeatedly defended Conrad for writing Heart of Darkness. It is not so much that Said evolves a theoretical position but..

the glitterati. Humanism is a long conversation between reader and author about the fate of the world. Death threats were made against Said's life. and Culture as "Symbols Versus Substance. and the politicorati. I remember walking with my children past these armed agents with a strange mixture of fear and admiration. Said initially described the Palestinian leader in his book After the Last Sky2 (1986) as a "genius at mediation" who took the dispersed and unrecoverable history of the Palestinians and "represented" it. until his death. Yet. The Question of Palestine. At that moment Said was himself deeply embroiled in the Palestinian struggle. Said found Foucault's "quietism" in the face of power ultimately disempowering.. He goes on to call for Arafat's resignation and suggests that Arab intellectuals engage in "noncooperation" with the PLO and the Palestinian Authority in a new form of intifada. Arafat at first impressed Said. among all the poststructuralists. In an interview originally published in 1995 and reprinted in Power. Arafat was the only person who could perform this act of representation to the world. There were two anomalies in Said's Fight Club—Michel Foucault and Yasir Arafat.. Daniel Barenboim. or ideals" ( Power 40). both Said and I lived. and by writing books like After the Last Sky.later time.1 as he did so many others. he eventually found himself disaffected with Arafat. even as Said represented the Palestinians in the corridors of power. at that time.. like Noam Chomsky. Orientalism. into a sympathetic dialogue of two spirits across ages and cultures who are able to communicate with each other as friendly. Discourses seldom represent accurately what they purport to describe. working closely with Arafat as a member of the Palestinian National Council and as an informal negotiator with the White House.. Yet. but reflect the biases of the blurry and abstract forces that have created the discourse. and a younger generation of scholars including Bruce Robbins. and ultimately came to feel that Foucault was masochistically drawn to power—a "scribe of domination" (Power 138). Rob Nixon. was heavily influenced by Foucault's theory of discourse and its power over people. Few literary figures have ever experienced this level of public attention. respectful spirits trying to understand each other" (16). What might these two have in common? Said's most influential book. in the media. and Said was devoted to the page rather than the street. making "it impossible to see the Middle East . ideas. that the leadership [of the PLO] is obdurate and unreformable" (395). It is true that the Foucault of the major works isn't exactly the same Foucault of the interviews and the lectures at the Collège de France. Said moved radically away from Foucault's work. For Said. Said . "I have taken the position . In a similar way. Politics. whom he did not know personally. He ignores the Foucault who demonstrated in the streets of Paris. Sean and Amy Wilentz. and who. after this insight. Gore Vidal. Said is not entirely fair to Foucault. Paul Bové—the literati. and Covering Islam. Bill Ayers. without seeing the Palestinian" (121). He denounced the Oslo Accords in the pages of the Nation as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause and a treaty of surrender. Ric Burns. could be relied on. Said took this insight and detailed how the study of the East constructed the Middle East for Europeans and Americans." Said says that after trying democratic reforms within Arafat's government. Both were welcomed and then forcibly evicted. to be present at some " manifestation" or other. "Foucault backed away and essentially admitted that he believed in no positive truths. and FBI agents stood guard at the apartment building in which.

or have disciples. lover of classical music. Said was engaged in just such a war of position." In his various works. whether it was Arafat's virtual one or Foucault's theoretical one. He echoed Adorno's formulation that "the whole is a lie" when he said: . in a voice now eerily prescient. his constant metaphor was music. Although he was the author of a battalion of books and articles and the eminence grise of orientalism. a deconstructionist. Foucault and Arafat might seem. linking them in the counterpoint of a cosmopolitan worldliness. But to Said. and for us and our history. of historical blocs and given relationships as a whole. when he needed to be. together" (Power 202). Said notes this moment when he says. he was involved in realpolitik through the media. or any kind of "–ist. A consistent theme throughout Said's career is a suspicion of power and monolithic authority in politics and in culture. schools. strange bedfellows in their eviction from the Fight Club. and rhetoric in general to fight this battle. he played different themes. As Said threw Foucault out of the camp. powerful. and even authoritarian. Antonio Gramsci moved in. Said always referred to his method as "contrapuntal. forceful. and the negation of agency.describes Arafat as the "enforcer of occupation" as well as a corrupt and self-aggrandizing Tammany Hall-style politician. Said makes no grand. In its place. What appealed to Said was not Gramsci's Marxism so much as his explanation of power and its institution in hegemony. in the educational institutions. start a school. at first sight. Italians in civil society could use the press. Unlike almost any other academic. and music critic for the Nation. constructed in accordance with the perspective of a politically active individual for whom the description of fascinating power mechanisms never becomes a substitute for the effort made to transform power relationships in society" ( The World 222)." Like the Palestinians. Only toward the end of his life did Said move toward the idea of reconciliation. the glorification of control. and in the Palestinian National Council. "what one feels is lacking in Foucault is something resembling Gramsci's analysis of hegemony. He made it clear that he was not a Marxist. Rather. Civil society was more like a war of position than a monolithic force wielded on docile bodies. Gramsci showed that people could unmake it through a long "war of position. totalizing claims. This meant that people had as much power to undo oppression as they had to live with it. "It might be possible to end the conflict with the Israelis not by defeating them but by trying to provide a model of reconciliation for them and their history. not so much on the field as in people's hearts and minds. An avid pianist. In 1993 he observed." This aspect of Said's humanism might be seen as an opposition to a will-to-power. they both represented the abuse of power. Said repeatedly spoke about not wanting to make a meta-theoretical system. Hegemonic power was more like Rousseau's social contract—agreed to by both sides rather than imposed by a dominant force on a servile population. yet Said himself was. Said did not attempt to seize a kind of literary and cultural authority by enforcing a theoretical system as did some of the Yale School. As Vico showed that people make history. Orientalism aside.

" Said imagines a Palestine that is both broken and fixed. patient scrutiny of and a lifelong attentiveness to the words and rhetorics by which language is used by human beings who exist in history" (61). but the release from that chain to the open sea afforded by the best and brightest who wrote the classics of world literature. as I see." Rather. Said never wanted to be the Arab or the Christian from the Middle East. He wanted to be the Princeton-Harvard graduate who read the best books and talked with the best thinkers. He denigrates the kind of popular reading of texts in which a reader moves "immediately . when Kim suddenly begins to lose his identity in the confusion of a quasi-out-of-body experience. And what is Kim?" I think those two moments seized Said for several reasons. a detailed. the need to reconcile them. The first was when the young street urchin. When I was a student in Said's class. I guess. (Power 99) Said's anti-identitarian stand is ultimately linked to his somewhat backward-looking humanism. whose name is not his name but rather a kind of location. delivered in a series of lectures at Columbia University and collected in Humanism and Democratic Criticism (2004). more than one awareness. he wishes to see a practice which "I have been calling philological. patient. the most—I wouldn't say repellent. in shards and whole. suggest that it is through philology that the humanities can find themselves again. and so multiple identity. the polyphony of many voices playing off against each other. Kipling writes. the answer was not in the culture. but I would say antagonistic—for me is identity. that is. I am Kim. not the long-chain of identity sunk with an anchor into a particular cultural port. a Fagin-type who makes Kim smash a pot and then hypnotically causes him to see the pot appear to reassemble itself. of course.. of Anglo birth but totally socialized to the streets of Lahore. superficial reading into general or even concrete statements about vast structures of power or into vaguely therapeutic structures of salutary redemption. The first. but it is still whole in a moment as. The pot is broken. More than one culture. The second is the idea that through imagination and its incarnation in literature disparate parts can be reconciled. just to hold them together. he repeats. is what my work is all about. and whose fate is to help imagine a different kind of Orient and nation. without.I think the one thing that I find. The notion of a single identity. is held under the sway of Lurgan Sahib. "the shadow-outline of the jar cleared like a mist after rubbing his eyes. For him. "I am Kim. both in its negative and its positive modes. the boy who is of the Orient but not. Only through asserting a self. he liked to refer to two moments in Rudyard Kipling's novel Kim. close reading of great books by those who have a lifelong attentiveness to language is the clearest articulation of the Fight Club's mentality against the legions of careless ideologues and upbeat do-gooders who would massacre humanistic culture. It's hard to reconcile the democratic criticism Said sometimes invokes with the inner-sanctum high seriousness of this humanism. is the identification with Kim. from a quick. whose destiny is to be both in and out of place. It is obvious that such a devotion to the detailed. In order to pull himself together. Said ended as he began—with philology. The second moment occurs at the end of the book. a self that . His final and definitive words on humanism..

Foucault never mentioned Said in his work. it was largely a men's club) could duke it out in the cause of the greatest ideas and struggles of the time. the broken jar (that is not broken) is culture the way Said wanted it—difficult to imagine.but that's another story. And the hallucination happens under the creative and watchful gaze of the older man and sage Lurgan Sahib. where one could actually imagine a discourse—call it backward-looking. When I was a graduate student studying in France in 1973. one of the limited interactions between the two. In detailing my very ancilliary and Boswellian role in all this. In effect. is no longer accessible except in Said's writings. That self is not a self brought into being by an identity tied to a place. I recall happening to be in Geneva. where the boys (yes. and probably wouldn't want to. We were devastated because the world seemed less bright and brilliant without Said's particular charisma and charm. [Return] 2. can one affect the world and change it. As far as I know. must still cause a shiver of recognition—for a humanism that is no longer possible. Said created an intellectual locus where Vico could take up arms with Adorno and Gramsci. the effect on many of us. a factor in my not getting tenure at Brandeis University." boundary2 31:2 (2004): 35-53... Edward W. aided by world culture of the highest Arnoldian sort. live in that realm—its historical and cultural specificity. "Saidian Humanism. New York: Pantheon. paradoxically. radical. progressive. 1985. We couldn't." But the dream of the Club. also that I wrote a review of the book for The Journal of Palestinian Studies. That was. and the grandeur of a personality to bring all those impossible things into one single place. radically disjointed and out of place but still and finally a self. [Return] Works Cited Apter. Said asked me to deliver some written materials to Foucault. is too "of this time and that place. was one of devastation. Emily. I should mention. dizzyingly complex and even beautiful. the complexities of assertion. dialectically caught between Adornian moments. and transmuted to an intellectual lingua franca spoken around the world by those who see themselves as worthy to engage in the endeavor.. a secondary club of former students. But I would venture that the loss was greater because it was a loss of a place. Now that place. hallucinatorily whole. like Brigadoon and Neverland. in their collaboration on After the Last Sky. and again couriering material between Said and Jean Mohr. . When Said died. a position that allows for the greatness of texts. After the Last Sky: Palestine Lives. but one created by the mind. after a very long illness that slowly debilitated him in an endless war of position. linked finally to the identity of the man. Notes 1. the historical importance of metanarratives. I believe. the new member of Kim's Fight Club.

Politics.---. ---. and Culture: Interviews with Edward Said. Jeffrey J. 1983. The World. ---. ---. 2001. Gauri Viswanathan. Mass. "Erich Auerbach. Humanism and Democratic Criticism. 2004. Critic of the Earthly World. Pedagogy and Cultural Studies 17:4 (1995): 397-410. New York: Columbia UP. "Edward Said's Romance of the Amateur Intellectual. Power. Cambridge.: Harvard UP. . and the Critic. New York: Pantheon." The Review of Education. The Text. Ed." boundary2 31:2 (2004):11-34. Williams.