Millennial reflections Heroism and humanism
DATE :6 January 2000
SOURCE : Al-Ahram
by edward said
The new and unfamiliar landscape that stretches out before us offers humanity new opportunities to exercise its intellectual energies with heroism and personal engagement. Edward Said looks to the future
I happened to be in Vienna for a lecture recently and, by happy coincidence, visited the Freud exhibition put on jointly by the Sigmund Freud House and the Library of Congress. No one of my generation has been unmarked by the experience of reading and in all sorts of ways living with Freud's mighty oeuvre, so the array of manuscripts, objects, photographs and films gathered in the Josephsplatz exhibition hall was for me an admirable reminder of the range and persistence of his efforts on behalf of what, at the time he had them, were solitary insights into the human psyche. I was gripped, however, by two things in particular. One was an English recording for the BBC that Freud had made late in his life about his work, its achievements and travails. After saying in a heavily accented and rigorously determined tone that he had been fortunate in his friends and disciples, Freud concludes grimly "but the struggle is not over yet."
The second thing was the large number of handwritten manuscripts on display, each of them bearing the signs of his laborious, not to say prodigious expenditure of manual labor in actually producing such seminal texts as The Interpretation of Dreams, Moses and Monotheism, and The Future of an Illusion. The curator pointed out to me that, far from bursting forth in excellent transcriptions, all of Freud's manuscripts were overlain by numerous re-writings, corrections, and crossed-out, reformulated phrases. Most poignantly, just to one side of the large glass structure that contained the sofa where his patients reclined during their sessions and which had doubled as Freud's day-bed when the pain in his cancerous jaw required a short respite in a prone position, there sat a lone black American fountain pen, dating, I was able to inform the amused curator, from the late '30s. I grew up among such pens, I told her, since my family's stationery and office equipment business featured exactly that sort of writing instrument, as my father used to call it. A trivial object, you may say, but one saturated for me with all kinds of significance. It was not only the main implement of Freud's labour as a scientist but, along with the carefully aligned paper, it was the solid material expression of his intellectual will.
I don't want to wax unduly sentimental, but pen, ink and paper virtually embodied Freud's scientific and, yes, his humanistic purpose which, as he once told his admired friend Ludwig Binswanger, was to excavate the basement of human life, not the upper stories of the edifice. There was correspondingly a palpable physical coefficient to Freud's work symbolised in the idea of labour, the sheer unremitting scriptural effort and its physical realisation, the total absence of any sort of electronic (or even electrical) assistance that was expressed in the humbly recumbent pen that had authored the ink-filled pages with their craggy, unevenly regimented appearance.
For not only was the pen shown as a kind of relic, so too did the manuscripts themselves also date the whole era whose end Freud's papers and pen seemed so elegiacally to represent, that of the manually, and heroically, produced text, one of whose last exponents on such a grand scale was the founder of psychoanalysis himself. Now I'd like to recall here that many pages, an abundant number of articles and books, have recently lamented the decline of literacy, the death of literature, and the need to return to the canon of classical culture. Our profession today is riven by the chasm that separates proponents of whatever is considered new and progressive from those who feel that the literary text, our greatest authors, the canon, the traditional modes of study have been abandoned to jargon and barbarism. But one theme that hasn't been focused on as we enter the 21st century has been the replacement of an older, slower model for writing as given expression in what Roger Chartier has called the order of books, by the newer, far more rapid modes of communication common to nearly everyone today -- that is, the electronic order which has made writing so much easier, efficient and available, as well as disposable.
The word processor has eliminated the bother of writing out drafts by hand, then re-copying or typing and correcting them until a final version is attained. This is dramatically manifest in its effect on student writing: whereas 10 years ago one had to plead with students to produce eight to 10 pages for a term paper, now one has to be absolutely despotic about not reading anything over 15 pages. Student, as well as faculty writing, with its rapid editing, transcribing, patching and pasting potential, has developed a noticeable structural relaxation, and very often an unattractive distention. You can write on a keyboard with only the effort required to press keys and editorial buttons; you can save, modify, adapt and incorporate huge numbers of words seemingly without labour or sweat. Journalism has gone in the same direction, along with a standardisation of tone that has more or less done away with the quirkiness and carefully nurtured gestation of written writing that one associates symbolically as well as actually not only with Freud's practice as a writer but with great literary figures contemporary with him such as Proust, Mann, Virginia Woolf, Pound, Joyce, Taha Hussein, Naguib Mahfouz, and most of the modernist giants. What written writing managed to communicate was a vivid sense of almost physically overcoming not only the resistance of silence but also the blankness of the page, and the very material obstacles provided by paper, ink and pen. One shouldn't exaggerate these resistances, of course, but they share something in common with the sculptor's need to hew out of wood or stone the figures of art, or the painter's reliance on material such as paints, canvas, and brushes, each of them furnishing a texture, surface and character that, like the writer's paper and ink, paradoxically hindered but also enabled the production of a text, a painting, a statue.
This year is the 250th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach's death, a titan among musicians as much for the incredibly fecund example he set through his extraordinary skill in being able to deploy with more hard work and persistence than anyone the mysteries of counterpoint, which reached its apogee in him, as also because of his reverence for earlier masters. The story is told that, not being allowed access to organ scores by an older brother, he spent many nocturnal hours secretly copying out by hand the music of Pachelbel and Frohberger: this was both an act of reverence and also a heroic gesture of scriptural affirmation that has no place today, when musical texts, photographs, and complicated diagrams can be scanned, copied and transmitted by the mere touch of a button. Or there is the contemporary Indonesian writer Ananta Toer Pramoedya, kept under house arrest for years by a tyrannical regime supported by the United States, and still able by hand to write his great novel Man's Earth.
It is no coincidence at all that so far as written writing is concerned it was the discipline of philology that came to be associated with the reading and interpretation of the books and texts that survived the passage from earlier to modern times. And philology at its noblest as a heroic, audacious discipline was grounded in the order of books, as well as a particular form of intellectual labour that expressed in it what in the European and the non-European traditions has been called humanism. Parenthetically, I should like to note here that much of the arrogant posturing I have found so repellent in the poorly informed encomia to the Western humanistic tradition from Jacob Burkhardt, to Paul Kristeller, to Allan Bloom and his followers has been based on a reprehensibly stubborn and deep ignorance about other traditions in which many of the attitudes and practices associated with figures such as Ficino, Montaigne and Erasmus were prefigured long before the Europeans came upon them. This is especially true of the Islamic schools, in addition to Indian and Chinese humanists who were doing what we think of rather quaintly as "Western" things well before the West was capable either of knowing about or doing them itself. Important work by my Columbia colleague George Saliba has shown through very convincing evidence that in the hard sciences (astronomy, mathematics, physics, etc.) even so redoubtably revolutionary a figure as Copernicus was dependent on earlier non-European scientists for his major work. The point I am trying to make is that the labour-intensive practice of writing which seems to culminate in the modern European and American humanistic authors I have referred to, has a long geographically and culturally diverse history and, to judge from the absence of mechanical or electronic means available to the scholars, authors and important thinkers before our electronic era, imposed a heroic regimen of discipleship and work the likes of which has all but disappeared. And this regimen of work was, like Freud's, part of a collective enterprise in which the humanistically inclined individual was part of a world-wide community of like-minded (because committed to the same goals of humanistic labour, production and interpretation) individuals.
Back of this community, however, was what I should like to return to now, namely a heroic ideal that gave a sense of purpose to what was done. Is it too much to opine that the disarray in which we find ourselves as scholars and teachers of literature with vast disagreements separating us from each other, with hyphenated and ill-formed new fields of activity many of which are neither linguistics, nor psychoanalysis, nor anthropology, nor history, nor sociology, nor philosophy but bits of all of them, flooding and overcoming the (perhaps false) serenity of former times, with numerous new jargons eliciting from traditionally-minded critics excoriation and misperception -- that all this may in fact be traceable to the loss of an enabling image of an individual human being pressing on with her/his work, pen in hand, manuscript or book on the table, rescuing some sense for the page from out of the confusion and disorganisation that surround us in ordinary life?
For all the figures whose ideas I have appropriated here, humanism is in effect a mode of rational investigation and concrete, almost bodily inspired interpretation carried out with a vital sense of determined effort and risk, for which the image of Freud with his pen, ink and paper served me originally. I do not want to be understood as urging a Luddite rejection of the electronic means we now have at our disposal (even though I must confess to you that I am still a pen man and still write everything by hand), nor do I want to romanticise earlier periods as more fully deserving of our approbation. What I do want to suggest is something else: namely, that as understood by the scholars and thinkers I have discussed here, the practice of humanistic service in the fields of human history, culture, art, and psychology always entails a heroic unwillingness to rest in the consolidation of previously existing attitudes. Each of the laboriously produced texts that I have characterised as antedating our age of electronic reproduction, and even encompassing certain aspects of that age too, symbolises, I believe, a heroic ideal that is rationally willing to venture beyond, to unsettle and rediscover what lies hidden or forgotten beneath what Freud called the upper floors of the house of human existence. Humanism is disclosure, it is agency, it is immersing oneself in the element of history, it is recovering rationality from the turbulent actualities of human life, and then submitting them painstakingly to the rational processes of judgement and criticism.
As such, then, there is considerable merit now, as we stand bidding farewell to the 20th century, to restoring the idea or image of a heroic, unusually dignified effort to the humanistic enterprise from which in recent years the very suggestion of this effort has slipped almost unnoticed. Discussions of what literary education, research and discourse ought to be about essentially skip the stage of commitment and human agency which for me was symbolised in Freud's pen and his carefully, intensely written papers. Moreover, the heroic ideal in humanism is principally neither an act of conformism, of expressing and consolidating what was already known, nor an act of amiable respect for the powers that be. Nor, certainly, does it have anything to do with self-esteem or feeling good. For what is crucial to humanistic thought, even in the very act of sympathetically trying to understand the past, is that it is a gesture of resistance and critique -- Freud's stubborn belief that the struggle is not yet, is never, over.
Adorno says that "the uncompromisingly critical thinker who neither signs over his consciousness nor lets himself be terrorised into action, is in truth the one who does not give in. Thinking is not the intellectual reproduction of what already exists anyway. As long as it doesn't break off, thinking has a secure hold on possibility. Its insatiable aspect, its aversion to being quickly and easily satisfied, refuses the foolish wisdom of resignation. The utopian [and, I think one can add, the heroic] moment in thinking is stronger the less it -- this too is a form of relapse -- objectifies itself into a utopia and hence sabotages its realisation. Open thinking points beyond itself" (Critical Models, p. 293). To this observation, one ought to add the great philosopher Leo Spitzer's comment that "the Humanist believes in the power bestowed on the human mind of investigating the human mind." (Linguistics, p. 24).
The late Isaac Deutscher was right, I believe, to ascribe such sentiments of defiance and intellectual daring to a tradition that links not only Freud, but also Spinoza, Marx and Heine to each other and to himself, the tradition of being a non-Jewish Jew or, for us to expand it beyond Judaism, a secular intellectual tradition that sees in unafraid and unapologetic critique the path to human freedom. Perhaps we can go so far as to imagine paradoxically a non-humanistic humanist, someone given neither to piety nor to tiresome and inconsequential word-spinning.
I think we can expand Deutscher's designation still more so as to include what is a real choice for the modern humanist at the threshold of the 21st century facing a major seismic shift in the conditions for humanistic practices, and for whom the ideas of tradition, sect, ethnicity and religion are neither adequate as guides nor useful as modes of making sense of human history. And what a complex new situation we face. Those of us who grew up intellectually in the United States framed by the Cold War are now citizens of the last remaining superpower, with a global reach often put at the service of awful destruction and inhumane practices such as the genocidal sanctions policy against the people of Iraq. We face a world no longer under the unopposed thrall of Eurocentrism, and in which a whole panoply of literatures and civilisations that have emerged from the blight of colonialism can be seen to furnish challenges to ours. Regressively, we can speak of the clash of civilisations or it might be possible and, in my opinion, certainly better to expand our understanding of human history to include all those Others constructed as dehumanised, demonised opponents by imperial knowledges and a will to rule. Civilisations have never occurred or survived for long simply by fighting off all the others: beneath a superficial level of defensive propaganda every great civilisation is made up of endless traffic with others.
Today, globalisation has introduced and imposed the concept of a single market economy, which has in turn produced new disparities in wealth, entitlement, and the distribution of goods that bedevil the very idea of human development and provoke complex struggles of resistance against injustice. Intellectually, however, a search for new alternatives -- one thinks of Amartya Sen's pioneering work -- is mercifully under way. C P Snow's 40-year-old theory of the two cultures has been given a new lease on life, for which recourse to religious fundamentalism, ethnic assertion and profligate militarism (not least in the Middle East) produces all kinds of rabid convictions on the one hand, and dialectically, major occasions for vitalising the humanities on the other hand, making them, in the deepest sense of what they should mean, a re-engagement with knowledge, critique and freedom... In short, a new and in many ways unfamiliar landscape stretches out before us, offering no end of an opportunity to exercise our intellectual energies with the heroism and personal stake that has distinguished the best work in the humanities for so many years. Would that our critical models for the years ahead can combine the richness of the past with the sceptical excitement of the new. One must not only hope, but also do.