Published Spring 2007
Edward Said's Battle for Humanism
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.
Said suggested in "Eric Auerbach, 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, living the author's reality, undergoing the kind of life experiences intrinsic to his or her life, and so forth, all by that combination of erudition and sympathy that is the hallmark of philological hermeneutics" (15-16). So, as we winnow down what Said might mean by humanism, 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. To find, as Said put it in the title of a book, the confluence of the world, the text, and the critic, as well as the author behind the text. The other feature involved in this process, detailed brilliantly by Schleiermacher in what has been come to be called the "hermeneutic circle," is the complex difficulty, though not impossibility, of knowing the critic, the author, or the world from the text. As Said put it, "But this perhaps tragic shortcoming of human knowledge and history is one of the unresolved contradictions pertaining to humanism itself, in which the role of thought in reconstructing the past can neither be excluded nor squared with what is 'real'" (16). Humanism for Said is inseparable from the men—and they were almost always men—who created these great works that represented the human endeavor. The study of such great men requires and causes a merger with them, a merger which can only be achieved by a massive front-loading of knowledge, a required but doomed activity that yields the impression of understanding these works, these men, and their times, yet denies us certain knowledge of them.
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, for us as citizens of this particular republic, is to understand it as democratic, open to all classes and backgrounds, and as a process of unending disclosure, discovery, self-criticism, and liberation" (Humanism 22). Yet, as Said noted, there is always a tragic dimension to this endeavor, since the paradox of self-knowledge is that it always breaks down into the problematics of the self and the contradictions of knowledge.
Anyone who knew Said knows that he had a group of scholars with whom he always touched base. When I was a student at Columbia University, I took courses with Said both as an undergraduate and graduate student. This is when I first read the work of Erich Auerbach, Roland Barthes, Leo Spitzer, Wilhelm Dilthey, R. P. Blackmur, Michel Foucault, Theodor W. Adorno, Giambattista Vico, and Antonio Gramsci. They were members of a pantheon Said routinely included in his thinking. He was loyal to them as he was loyal to his friends, and this group of men became over the years his own version of the Metaphysical Club—a group of thinkers he could return to, who, although he would make new friends and enroll new members, were the core group. But there was a pugilistic element to Said's club, which was in effect his Fight Club. Said could here could match his considerable intellectual abilities against theirs. He might fight them, but more likely he'd fight others using them. With them he attempted to read widely in world literature, learn what they learned, speak their language, enter their world, and merge, as it were, with their collective wisdom.
It's worth noting that few if any major intellectuals have ever assembled such a posse of thinkers. It is much more usual for an intellectual to choose a specific forbear, a father figure. It is equally usual for intellectuals to define themselves against a single or a host of predecessors. But what Said did was indeed unusual. He wasn't a Marxist or a Freudian—each of which would imply a single progenitor. He didn't find a stream of authors from the past from which he wished to diverge in significant ways. Rather, he chose a group that would provide him company and cover.
Despite Said's sense of being "out of place," he was not without a sense of place and community with this intellectual group. This imagined pugilistic community of scholars and critics provided a kind of shoulder-to-shoulder fraternity and cultural locus from which to speak. In his book Representations of the Intellectual, Said adopts Stephen Dedalus' vow to commit himself to "silence, exile, and cunning" as the hallmark phrase of the intellectual. As Jeffrey Williams points out, this vow to silence and exile seems at odds with Said's more publicly stated commitment to speaking out and engaging in politics. Williams notes that Said's reference to Dedalus "taps into the strand of the forlorn, alienated Romantic artist/Modernist intellectual" and "the lonely independence, exile, and self-imposed marginality of the intellectual" (402, 400). Said's Fight Club makes possible the coexistence of his position of isolation and his political impulse to speak out.
But there is something more to be said about the combative element. Said explicitly framed his intellectual project as an embattled one. Very early in his career he cites Harold Bloom approvingly, noting, "One doesn't just write: one writes against, or in opposition to..." (Power 15). It was with Gramsci that Said found his model for intellectual intervention—the notion of wars of position and movement. And his humanisitic project included a commitment to duking it out with the hegemonic opposition:
I felt myself for many, many years…as really being in the thick of a tremendous battle. I don't mean just a literary or historical battle, but a battle on more than one front; I was surrounded by combatants of one sort or another....This sense of being in an endless struggle was sort of everywhere. I couldn't get away from it. It was relentless.... there's no end to it. In other words, if you're going to go on fighting the battle of truth in a polemical and purely intellectual way, it's an endless war. (203)
It's no wonder then that Said needed to garner all the help he could get—most academics just write, Said battled.
When I was in graduate school in the early 1970s, Said published his first major work, Beginnings: Intention and Method (1975). He was a young upstart in the US world of literary theory dominated by the so-called Yale School—Harold Bloom, Geoffrey H. Hartman, J. Hillis Miller, Paul de Man, and others. They were not in his club. For the most part they questioned the notion that literary texts were complete, analyzable systems. Said by temperament opposed any notion that there was no "there" there in a literary text, and he situated himself between the critics oriented toward first structural and then deconstructive theory, and the older ones focused on philology and history. Thus Auerbach and Spitzer were in the club; Derrida was definitely not. Adorno was always in, although the use Said made of him was selective at best. Although Said was "out of place" in not aligning himself with one particular school or discipline, he managed to maintain a sense of equanimity by herding together with his own intellectual types. He admired both Bloom and Miller, but also strangely R. P. Blackmur, whom he called "the greatest genius American criticism has produced" (Power 8), and Harry Levin, the more sedate and historical (and Jewish) critic about whom Said notes, "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, Bachelard, Barthes, Freud, etc.) because it serves a serious critical aim" (Power 8). An unlikely array of members, here was the retinue of those with learned and sharp intelligence, ambiguous national identifications, and contrarian or somewhat classical views of literature, who could be "used" in thinking through the works of the more avant-garde critics.
Levin, Auerbach, and the others offered a cosmopolitan viewpoint that gave Said, paradoxically, an engaged distance. Said's engagement was always from a nuanced, learned, and somewhat Olympian perspective. While many other scholars embraced the notion that literature was a deconstructive blur spinning out from an unknowable center, 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. He used words like "truth" and "justice" as refutations to the propositions of anti-foundationalist and postmodernist discussions of the impossibility of using such terms. It was in this sense that he was first, foremost, and always a humanist.
Although Said's early writings were not political in the sense that his work later became, he had a distinct affiliation with historical cultural study as opposed to the more ahistorical approach of the postmodernists. Even in 1976, 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; culture is not made exclusively or even principally by heroes or radicals all the time, but by great anonymous movements whose function it is to keep things going" (Power 11). Perhaps we can call that anonymous movement "humanism." And while many radical intellectuals of this period began to attack the canon, Said maintained what might be called a "great books" approach. 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). This conviction that humanism is bound up with the close reading of great works would later be taken up in Culture and Imperialism (1993). For Said, the point is not to get rid of the canon, which he recognizes leaves out many peoples, but to bring into the canon significant works of emerging nations while holding fast to writers such as Jane Austen or Rudyard Kipling. His canon expanded by including global writers rather than specifically women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, disabled, or indigenous writers. This isn't to say that Said was racist, homophobic, sexist—he was too smart to be any of those. But his club had limited membership, although he might not oppose other clubs. He was, however, continuously critical of the kind of identity politics that shut down boundaries and borders. This stance put him in opposition to certain identity groups seeking to purge the canon of its dead, mostly white-male biases, yet Said was never attacked as conservative. For example, he repeatedly defended Conrad for writing Heart of Darkness, that bizarre novel about a white man's journey into Africa, against Chinua Achebe's charges that the work was racist and imperialist. Said maintained throughout Culture and Imperialism that rather than jettison Heart of Darkness, it should be read in conjunction with other works and seen as one kind of critique of the white man's burden.
In 1976, the year that I completed my dissertation under his supervision, Said had just begun to bring his political life into dynamic relationship with his literary career. But Said himself did not have the best insight into how to combine those worlds. As he noted then, "Until fairly recently, I led two quite separate lives ... on the one hand I'm a literary scholar, critic, and teacher, I lead a pretty uncontroversial life in a big university, and I've done a fair amount of work which has always been plugged into the established channels... . Yet I lead another life, which most literary people say nothing about.... My whole background in the Middle East ... all this exists in a totally different box... " (Power 14). 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). 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.
But the Said of 1976 had not yet formed himself. Tellingly, the one critic he mentions most during this period is Harold Bloom, whose then recently published The Anxiety of Influence detailed a convoluted Freudian theory behind artistic careers, claiming that writers are locked in Oedipal struggle with the masters who precede them. One sees in Said's early period a fascination with forerunner male critics and scholars against whom one must measure oneself and rebel. It is not so much that Said evolves a theoretical position but, more characteristically, he is swept off his feet by a thinker and then welcomes him into the intellectual gathering. For example, Said read Vico's The New Science as a graduate student. What appealed to him was its argument that history is secular—made by humans, not God. One may question why a so arcane a philosopher as Vico, and one whose point seems so irrelevant to contemporary history, should have become a touchstone for Said.
Said's insistence on a secular, nonreligious way of thinking became much clearer after September 11. His interviews reveal that the world in which he grew up and lived was profoundly religious. Sheik Omar and Osama bin Laden, along with George Bush and Pat Robertson, do believe that God works actively in history. 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. His model of knowledge was not the Deleuzian notion of impersonalized rhizomatic knowledge, nor so much Foucault's anonymous discursity, but a pantheon of great human minds, each replete with a colorful and engaging personality. As Said put it, "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 later time, into a sympathetic dialogue of two spirits across ages and cultures who are able to communicate with each other as friendly, respectful spirits trying to understand each other" (16). Humanism is a long conversation between reader and author about the fate of the world.
There were two anomalies in Said's Fight Club—Michel Foucault and Yasir Arafat. Both were welcomed and then forcibly evicted. What might these two have in common? Said's most influential book, Orientalism, was heavily influenced by Foucault's theory of discourse and its power over people. Discourses seldom represent accurately what they purport to describe, but reflect the biases of the blurry and abstract forces that have created the discourse. Said took this insight and detailed how the study of the East constructed the Middle East for Europeans and Americans. Yet, after this insight, Said moved radically away from Foucault's work, and ultimately came to feel that Foucault was masochistically drawn to power—a "scribe of domination" (Power 138). Said found Foucault's "quietism" in the face of power ultimately disempowering. "Foucault backed away and essentially admitted that he believed in no positive truths, ideas, or ideals" (Power 40). Said is not entirely fair to Foucault, whom he did not know personally,1 as he did so many others, like Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, Daniel Barenboim, and a younger generation of scholars including Bruce Robbins, Rob Nixon, Ric Burns, Sean and Amy Wilentz, Bill Ayers, Paul Bové—the literati, the glitterati, and the politicorati. He ignores the Foucault who demonstrated in the streets of Paris, and who, among all the poststructuralists, could be relied on, until his death, to be present at some "manifestation" or other. 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, and Said was devoted to the page rather than the street.
In a similar way, Arafat at first impressed Said. 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, making "it impossible to see the Middle East ... without seeing the Palestinian" (121). For Said, Arafat was the only person who could perform this act of representation to the world. At that moment Said was himself deeply embroiled in the Palestinian struggle, working closely with Arafat as a member of the Palestinian National Council and as an informal negotiator with the White House. Death threats were made against Said's life, and FBI agents stood guard at the apartment building in which, at that time, both Said and I lived. I remember walking with my children past these armed agents with a strange mixture of fear and admiration. Few literary figures have ever experienced this level of public attention. Yet, even as Said represented the Palestinians in the corridors of power, in the media, and by writing books like After the Last Sky, The Question of Palestine, and Covering Islam, he eventually found himself disaffected with Arafat. He denounced the Oslo Accords in the pages of the Nation as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause and a treaty of surrender. In an interview originally published in 1995 and reprinted in Power, Politics, and Culture as "Symbols Versus Substance," Said says that after trying democratic reforms within Arafat's government, "I have taken the position ... that the leadership [of the PLO] is obdurate and unreformable" (395). 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. Said describes Arafat as the "enforcer of occupation" as well as a corrupt and self-aggrandizing Tammany Hall-style politician.
Foucault and Arafat might seem, at first sight, strange bedfellows in their eviction from the Fight Club. But to Said, they both represented the abuse of power, the glorification of control, and the negation of agency. A consistent theme throughout Said's career is a suspicion of power and monolithic authority in politics and in culture. Said repeatedly spoke about not wanting to make a meta-theoretical system, start a school, or have disciples. He made it clear that he was not a Marxist, a deconstructionist, or any kind of "–ist." This aspect of Said's humanism might be seen as an opposition to a will-to-power, whether it was Arafat's virtual one or Foucault's theoretical one, yet Said himself was, when he needed to be, forceful, powerful, and even authoritarian.
As Said threw Foucault out of the camp, Antonio Gramsci moved in. Said notes this moment when he says, "what one feels is lacking in Foucault is something resembling Gramsci's analysis of hegemony, of historical blocs and given relationships as a whole, 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). What appealed to Said was not Gramsci's Marxism so much as his explanation of power and its institution in hegemony. 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. Civil society was more like a war of position than a monolithic force wielded on docile bodies. This meant that people had as much power to undo oppression as they had to live with it. As Vico showed that people make history, Gramsci showed that people could unmake it through a long "war of position." Like the Palestinians, Italians in civil society could use the press, schools, and rhetoric in general to fight this battle, not so much on the field as in people's hearts and minds.
Said was engaged in just such a war of position. Unlike almost any other academic, he was involved in realpolitik through the media, in the educational institutions, and in the Palestinian National Council. Only toward the end of his life did Said move toward the idea of reconciliation. In 1993 he observed, in a voice now eerily prescient, "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, and for us and our history, together" (Power 202).
Although he was the author of a battalion of books and articles and the eminence grise of orientalism, 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. In its place, his constant metaphor was music. An avid pianist, lover of classical music, and music critic for the Nation, Said always referred to his method as "contrapuntal." In his various works, Orientalism aside, Said makes no grand, totalizing claims. Rather, he played different themes, linking them in the counterpoint of a cosmopolitan worldliness. He echoed Adorno's formulation that "the whole is a lie" when he said:
I think the one thing that I find, I guess, the most—I wouldn't say repellent, but I would say antagonistic—for me is identity. The notion of a single identity, and so multiple identity, the polyphony of many voices playing off against each other, without, as I see, the need to reconcile them, just to hold them together, is what my work is all about. More than one culture, more than one awareness, both in its negative and its positive modes. (Power 99)
Said's anti-identitarian stand is ultimately linked to his somewhat backward-looking humanism. For him, the answer was not in the culture, not the long-chain of identity sunk with an anchor into a particular cultural port, but the release from that chain to the open sea afforded by the best and brightest who wrote the classics of world literature. 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.
Said ended as he began—with philology. His final and definitive words on humanism, delivered in a series of lectures at Columbia University and collected in Humanism and Democratic Criticism (2004), suggest that it is through philology that the humanities can find themselves again. He denigrates the kind of popular reading of texts in which a reader moves "immediately ... from a quick, superficial reading into general or even concrete statements about vast structures of power or into vaguely therapeutic structures of salutary redemption." Rather, he wishes to see a practice which "I have been calling philological, that is, a detailed, 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). It is obvious that such a devotion to the detailed, patient, 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.
When I was a student in Said's class, he liked to refer to two moments in Rudyard Kipling's novel Kim. The first was when the young street urchin, of Anglo birth but totally socialized to the streets of Lahore, is held under the sway of Lurgan Sahib, a Fagin-type who makes Kim smash a pot and then hypnotically causes him to see the pot appear to reassemble itself. The second moment occurs at the end of the book, when Kim suddenly begins to lose his identity in the confusion of a quasi-out-of-body experience. In order to pull himself together, he repeats, "I am Kim. I am Kim. And what is Kim?" I think those two moments seized Said for several reasons. The first, of course, is the identification with Kim, the boy who is of the Orient but not, whose name is not his name but rather a kind of location, whose destiny is to be both in and out of place, and whose fate is to help imagine a different kind of Orient and nation. The second is the idea that through imagination and its incarnation in literature disparate parts can be reconciled. The pot is broken, but it is still whole in a moment as, Kipling writes, "the shadow-outline of the jar cleared like a mist after rubbing his eyes." Said imagines a Palestine that is both broken and fixed, in shards and whole. Only through asserting a self, a self that is radically disjointed and out of place but still and finally a self, can one affect the world and change it. That self is not a self brought into being by an identity tied to a place, but one created by the mind, aided by world culture of the highest Arnoldian sort, and transmuted to an intellectual lingua franca spoken around the world by those who see themselves as worthy to engage in the endeavor. In effect, the broken jar (that is not broken) is culture the way Said wanted it—difficult to imagine, hallucinatorily whole, dizzyingly complex and even beautiful, dialectically caught between Adornian moments. And the hallucination happens under the creative and watchful gaze of the older man and sage Lurgan Sahib, the new member of Kim's Fight Club.
When Said died, after a very long illness that slowly debilitated him in an endless war of position, the effect on many of us, a secondary club of former students, was one of devastation. We were devastated because the world seemed less bright and brilliant without Said's particular charisma and charm. But I would venture that the loss was greater because it was a loss of a place. Said created an intellectual locus where Vico could take up arms with Adorno and Gramsci, where the boys (yes, it was largely a men's club) could duke it out in the cause of the greatest ideas and struggles of the time, where one could actually imagine a discourse—call it backward-looking, progressive, radical. Now that place, like Brigadoon and Neverland, is no longer accessible except in Said's writings. We couldn't, and probably wouldn't want to, live in that realm—its historical and cultural specificity, paradoxically, is too "of this time and that place." But the dream of the Club, linked finally to the identity of the man, must still cause a shiver of recognition—for a humanism that is no longer possible, a position that allows for the greatness of texts, the historical importance of metanarratives, the complexities of assertion, and the grandeur of a personality to bring all those impossible things into one single place.
1. When I was a graduate student studying in France in 1973, Said asked me to deliver some written materials to Foucault. That was, I believe, one of the limited interactions between the two. As far as I know, Foucault never mentioned Said in his work.
2. In detailing my very ancilliary and Boswellian role in all this, I recall happening to be in Geneva, and again couriering material between Said and Jean Mohr, in their collaboration on After the Last Sky. I should mention, also that I wrote a review of the book for The Journal of Palestinian Studies, a factor in my not getting tenure at Brandeis University....but that's another story.
Apter, Emily. "Saidian Humanism." boundary2 31:2 (2004): 35-53.
Said, Edward W. After the Last Sky: Palestine Lives. New York: Pantheon, 1985.
---. "Erich Auerbach, Critic of the Earthly World." boundary2 31:2 (2004):11-34.
---. Humanism and Democratic Criticism. New York: Columbia UP, 2004.
---. Power, Politics, and Culture: Interviews with Edward Said. Ed. Gauri Viswanathan. New York: Pantheon, 2001.
---. The World, The Text, and the Critic. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1983.
Williams, Jeffrey J. "Edward Said's Romance of the Amateur Intellectual." The Review of Education, Pedagogy and Cultural Studies 17:4 (1995): 397-410.