Anyone who has gotten a degree in the humanities, like I did, or even worse, is working or trying to work in the field, is most certainly familiar with “the look” and reaction some people have when they get the answer to the question “so what exactly have you studied?”. It’s a pretty universal reaction mingling disappointment, with pity and a symbolic step back away from you, kind of like an instantaneous distance that is being created between you and the “non-humanist” professional. Not long ago, I’ve eavesdropped on a conversation between two students; the computer specialist type asked the pretty girl that accompanied him what she was studying. The girl answered that she was studying history. I then immediately noticed the distance materializing itself between them when the guy asked what job would that qualify her for upon graduation. The girl answered self mockingly, as most of us humanists do in such situations, that she’ll probably become a qualified unemployed person.
It has always been clear to me that reading is a very important part of my life, that reading fiction informs my way of seeing the world. Sometimes I perceive the act of reading as a sort of religious practice that binds me to my fellow men. Entering someone else’s fictional world is both a way of self knowledge and of connecting with the Other in a way that everyday experience does not allow one to. Actual being in the world does not allow one to reflect on the act of being, life is meaningless as it is being experienced. Literature compresses experience and emotion, it distills them and allows one to make sense of them, to assign them meaning. And it is particularly this ability to assign meaning that makes the act of writing fiction and that of reading it so important.
Edward Said’s book Humanism and Democratic Criticism has reminded me of the importance of reading and literature, why an apparently useless bunch of people that call themselves humanists should continue to exist and what their role actually is. Being part of the generation that has been “indoctrinated” with postmodernism and multiculturalism as a student, I’ve naturally grown a bit disenchanted with the academic mambo-jumbo that it involves, a convoluted and essentially pointless language play that in the end has very little to do with the actual work of fiction.
Making a case for the return to close reading and doing away with useless obscurantist jargon, Said says that the reader and the critic should try to put themselves in the shoes of the writer and to try to recreate the social and historical, but also the frame of mind that produced the work of fiction. Although he is aware that this is a utopian endeavor, which can never be fully achieved, the act of trying to do so is much more important, it is the only way through which some kind of a connection between the two agents can be appear. He also stresses how a telling detail in the construction of a work of fiction can function as the key to understanding and decoding the whole, which is something I have often thought myself.
One chapter is dedicated to Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, a book that I would very much like to reread in light of Said’s perspective on it. I was unaware that Auerbach was Jewish and exiled in Istanbul during the Second World War when he wrote his major work and also that this situation influenced some of the ideas in his book. Said does what he preaches and tries to recreate the context in which Auerbach wrote Mimesis, revealing aspects that would have remained unseen in a purely academic reading.
But probably the most impressive effort in Said’s life long work is that of trying to bring together the multicultural revolution in the humanities with the old classical canon. The two camps have been shooting poisoned arrows at each other over the last 40 years and the fight continues to this day. Said defends the classics, but criticizes elitist defenders of the established canon like T.S. Eliot or Allan Bloom, while he is at the same time one of the main theorists of the multicultural age and continues to argue that literature is one of the discourses that perpetrate power structures that need to be debunked, considered and reconsidered.
A staunch defender of humanism he points out that humanism today can only survive if our understanding of the term and particularly of the practice is reconsidered and understood anew. Humanism is challenged nowadays by the confrontation between different ways of seeing the world, particularly after 9/11, when, for many, the limits of humanism became equal to those of the Western world. Almost prophetically, before the revolutions in the Middle East, Said, himself a Palestinian, showed that, despite the cultural and religious differences, there are values that characterize humanity in general. Rebelling against tyranny is one of them. True humanism can only survive if the encounter with the Other is a productive one that leads to some amount of self-criticism and is not limited to creating or propagating a Manichean view of the world.
The role of the people in the humanities and of intellectuals in particular is to complicate things in a way that people can understand and not in an obscure way, rejecting the simplified dichotomies of the mainstream media, to put things in perspective and not take them out of it for propagandistic reasons. My understanding of Said’s view on humanism is that it lies in the act of telling stories and doing it in good faith, completing the view of the present with a detailed view of the past that produced it and paying attention to the telling detail that can be the key to seeing the larger picture in a new light.