Human, All Too Human
Extracting a "good" humanism from a "bad" one is not perhaps quite as simple an operation as Said makes it seem. George Steiner pointed long ago to the curious, rather chilling paradox by which, in the great humanist tradition, the most generous-spirited of values have been interwoven with the most haughtily authoritarian ones. (Some might see Steiner's own work as a case in point.) There is something about a heady affirmation of the human that tends to be blind to human frailty and ordinariness. In idealizing humanity, it can only rub its nose in how dismally far short of the ideal it falls. It can resonate with what Said aptly terms "a tone of mean-spirited rejection."
This book is not among the most eminent of Said's products. It is less intellectually high-powered than usual, no doubt in part because he was ill when he produced it. Yet it is also more typical of his extraordinary blend of radicalism and judiciousness than Orientalism, his most celebrated work. He detests Western imperialism but sees no need to apologize for teaching Conrad or Flaubert. He listens with vigilant attentiveness to emerging voices, yet rightly rejects the pious dogma that only members of a sidelined group can be permitted to speak on its behalf. He is a paid-up cosmopolitan but is irritated by "a lazy or laissez-faire feel-good multiculturalism." He reminds right-wing Eurocentric humanists in the mold of the late Allan Bloom that Italian Renaissance humanism had its roots in the Muslim colleges of the Mediterranean, while maintaining an unswerving commitment to what he calls a "collective human history."
It is perhaps a limitation of this little book that in comparison with, say, Said's writings on Palestine, there is not much in it with which good-hearted, middle-of-the-road liberals might disagree. This is always an error to be avoided as stringently as possible. If Said can sometimes sound like a liberal humanist, he can at times sound rather more discomfortingly like a radical humanist; but he never sounds much like a socialist humanist, in the style of Raymond Williams or E.P. Thompson. Like both these thinkers, however, he never really takes issue with the suspiciously sanguine aspects of humanism. Is there something in a generous faith in human capacities that is also callow and repressive? Does humanism thrive on a certain well-groomed blindness to our apparently inexhaustible ability to be morally obscene? Can any radicalism that has not gazed upon this dreadful Gorgon be anything other than skin-deep? These lectures do not hold the answer to such questions, but they are a poignant reminder that reasonableness and partisanship are not always the enemies that some leftists seem to think they are.
Whatever the occasional thinness of this book, there is no doubt that Said was an old-fashioned humanist in all the finest senses of the phrase. If he fought for the extension of the literary canon to groups and peoples it had shunned, it was not, in his view, a canon to be callowly derided. He did not see the need to choose between Jane Austen and Chinua Achebe. "I am not just interested in Palestinian themes in American literature," he remarks in a recent volume of interviews, Power, Politics, and Culture--something that set him apart from those Marxists who are interested only in novels about coal miners. He saw his own postcolonial inquiries as extending the work of great European humanists like Erich Auerbach, drawing upon their scrupulousness and erudition for new political ends. Nor did he accept the patronizing line that any novel produced in the postcolonial world is bound to be a masterpiece.
As Power, Politics, and Culture makes clear, Said's concern was justice, not identity. He was more interested in emancipating the dispossessed than in celebrating the body or floating the signifier. As a major architect of modern cultural theory, he was profoundly out of sympathy with most of its cerebral convolutions, which he correctly saw as for the most part a symptom of political displacement and despair. He was distinctly nervous of orthodoxies and almost physically pained by rigid doctrinal systems. He was allergic to mealy-mouthed pieties of both right and left. The idea of obedience to a discipline struck him as mildly revolting. If he detested Zionism, he also called Saddam Hussein a pig, a fascist and a murderer. Now that American academia has become even more blandly emulsive and conflict-free in the self-censoring aftermath of 9/11, his admirable candor and abrasiveness are already beginning to sound like the remote echo of another world.