Coincidences, I have come to suspect, point us in useful directions. Superstition? Maybe, but listen to this.
In the mail pile, all wrapped up in antiseptic plastic, was the new Daedalus, edited by the formidable Denis Donoghue, who has marshaled the big names of the humanities to tell us “What Humanists Do.” The answer came clear very quickly: humanists read and write about literary and theoretical texts in English (and occasionally French or German), written after 1840 or so. They may tip their hat to Vergil (Michael Putnam writes well about “Dido’s Long Dying”) and look for a while at Brancusi, Giacometti and de Kooning, but they don’t waste much time on art, archaeology, music, moral or political philosophy, or stuff outside the Euro-American world. Humanists, by implication, are literary scholars who write discursively within those chronological and cultural boundaries, and to judge from these essays by the all-star cast Donoghue has put together, they do it very well.
But next to the new Daedalus was that morning’s Times, with a front page story by Ron Nordland on something quite different, the re-opening of the Kabul Museum. The Taliban had smashed everything they could get their grimy hands upon and looters and war lords had done the rest. But thanks to the bravery of the museum staff, customs officials, and others some of the collection has survived. In the museum’s basement, moreover, scholars from Chicago’s Oriental Institute, are compiling a data base of the 11,000 objects that are still under the museum’s protective wing. Once their catalogue is done, it will be a lot harder to raid the museum and smuggle the objects onto the world art market. Stone age, Bronze age, Bactrian silver and gold, a head of the Buddha.
So let’s ask, “What do these cataloguers do?” They preserve the past, try to get the historical record right, make it accessible, help the rest of us understand something outside our own time and place. Does that count, too? Or is it just the already accessible near- present that is worthy of the name? After all, we humanists have expropriated that name from the scholars of what was once called the Renaissance, who did something very similar –they preserved a past that might otherwise have been lost or left in the great obscure. If someone calls me a humanist, I think of those humanists, and feel humbled by what they were up against and what they achieved. I would gladly share that name with those Chicago cataloguers who walk each day through the streets of Kabul to get on with the work of preserving a vulnerable past.