Human, All Too Human

Human, All Too Human

Humanism, like democracy, is a word that labors under an excess of meaning. It can mean acknowledging the value of human beings, or denying the existence of God.


Humanism, like democracy, is a word that labors under an excess of meaning. It can mean acknowledging the value of human beings, or denying the existence of God. In Ireland, “humanist” is still sometimes used as a euphemism for “atheist,” in a hangover from the days when Irish atheists were as scandalous and exotic a species as Beverly Hills poststructuralists. Yet there are Christian humanists as well, for whom human beings are valuable precisely because they are an image of God. So not all humanism is secular.

Nor do all those who deny the existence of God install humanity in His place. Nietzsche thought this was just to replace one idol with another. For him, the death of God also spelled the death of Man. Hitler believed in neither God nor humanity, and the same was probably true of Frank Sinatra. Some humanists believe there is a yawning chasm between humanity and the rest of Nature, without necessarily claiming that humanity should reign sovereign over the world around it. Harder-nosed humanists, by contrast, believe that badgers and centipedes were provided for our use and enjoyment, rather like fluffy dressing gowns in posh hotels, and that the phrase “animal rights” is a logical absurdity. Humanism here means something like “human supremacism.” But not all humanists are supremacists, just as not all animal lovers prefer animals to human beings, except for the English.

Humanism can mean a belief in an essential human nature, or the view that this nature is essentially positive. But you can sign on for the first without endorsing the second. Not all humanists are starry-eyed about humanity, as these essays by Edward Said make clear. For some, humanism means primarily a cultural movement associated with the European Renaissance, while for others it suggests a method of sociological analysis that allots priority to structures rather than individuals. Sociological antihumanists, however, are not always gratuitously nasty to defenseless little old men whom they chance upon in the street. Spinoza, who was renowned as a saint among philosophers for his gentleness and compassion, was also a full-blooded determinist for whom human beings were mere functions of natural laws. So he was an ethical humanist but a theoretical antihumanist. Some uses of “humanism” are too fuzzy, and some are too technical.

One should not look to Edward Said’s posthumously collected lectures in Humanism and Democratic Criticism to sort out this semantic mess. As a card-carrying humanist, Said is remarkably casual in these pages about just what humanism amounts to. At one point he describes it as “the achievement of form by human will and agency,” hardly the most lucid of definitions. What he is after in these illuminating lectures is what one might call a reconstructed or self-critical humanism–one that retains its belief in human value and in the great artistic works that embody it, but which has shed the elitism and exclusivism with which literary humanism is currently bound up. We would still read Dante and Proust, but we would also extend the very meaning of humanism in order to “excavate the silences, the world of memory, of itinerant, barely surviving groups, the places of exclusion and invisibility.” In this way, Said the cultivated middle-class academic converges with Said the courageous champion of the oppressed.

It is, in fact, so sensible a suggestion that it is almost bound to fall on deaf ears. It would, for example, spell the end of the conflict within English departments between the wrinkled Old Fogeys who perversely insist on reaping quiet pleasure from Jane Austen, and the Bright Young Things down the corridor who write only on masturbation and body piercing. Since this would take the thrill out of literary studies, Said’s even-handed proposal is bound to be ignored. It would also spell the end of a fair amount of English comic fiction, which thrives on American academic absurdity. Said mentions a new thought-crime known as “readism,” which apparently means reading too closely. I myself have always regarded reading literary works as a positive obstacle to understanding them, and find I can produce my most convincing critical essays on books I have never even opened.

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.

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