Humanism and Democratic Criticism
Edward W. Said. Columbia University Press, $24.95 (154pp) ISBN 978-0-231-12264-1
Devoted equally to the causes of Palestinian freedom and literary criticism, Said's life was a testament to how conflicted the relationship between scholarly pursuits and immediate reality can be. This book, prepared just before his death, collects five lectures that consider, first, the place of humanism in the larger world, and second, its particular decline in American academia. Said (Orientalism; Out of Place; etc.) represents authentic humanistic activity as a difficult but necessary way of participating in contemporary political history, and argues against the tendency to dress up obscure (and largely meaningless) academic specializations in the fashionable garb of political justification. In the wake of 9/11, Said reiterates with new urgency the need for""resistance to the great reductive and vulgarizing us-versus-them thought patterns of our time."" Genuine humanist commitment to coexistence, he warns, cannot be advanced by""lazy or laissez-faire feel-good multiculturalism""; to read""in a worldly and integrative ... mode"" requires hard and rigorous work. The extraordinary breadth of Said's own learning is palpable behind all these lectures, and authorizes his otherwise rather nostalgic call for""The Return to Philology."" And in his homage to Eric Auerbach (whose great Mimesis was written in exile during a war waged both against and in the name of his own people) lurks a moving reflection of Said's own predicament. It reminds us that to keep serious thinking involved with life takes not just effort and courage but also generosity.
Reviewed on: 05/01/2004