Edward Said, humanism, and anti-conservative conservatism

Interesting Mathew Price review of Edward Said’s posthumous work Humanism and Democratic Criticism in in the most recent Bookforum. Price discusses Said’s views on humanism, the cannon, and the role of criticism. Here is an interesting passage:

A perceptive critic once remarked of Said that he had “a very conservative mind, essentially Tory in its structure.” Indeed, Said’s passions were unabashedly traditional— he was a devotee of the opera, a noted critic of classical music, and a talented pianist. He did not much care for popular culture. Yet this formulation only gets it half right. Said was a cultural conservative who detested cultural conservatism. This is a crucial tension running through much of his critical work, and it explains why he found himself simultaneously denounced as an anti-Western heretic (by those to the right) and too rooted in a Eurocentric tradition (by those on the left).
[. . . ] In Said’s view, the genuine humanist is someone who heeds tradition while at the same time subjecting it to merciless scrutiny. This is not a recipe for contentment— it is a prescription for agony. It is sometimes hard to tell if Said took any joy from his passions; he could be a humorless writer and had an irritating weakness for bien pensant gestures. Always on the lookout for unpleasant collusions and squalid complicities, Said labored under a heavy burden, namely, how one should reconcile pleasure with political obligation. Thus his version of humanism is burdened with an enormous responsibility. Said shuns “lazy or laissez-faire feel-good multiculturalism” but calls on humanism to do nothing less than “excavate the silences, the world of memory, of itinerant, barely surviving groups, the places of exclusion and invisibility.”

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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