The essays collected in Humanism and Democratic Criticism, Edward Said's posthumously published book, have an autumnal quality to them, a feeling of summing up and retrospect. Completed when he was suffering from the final effects of leukemia, this slim, noble volume shows Said taking stock of the ideals and principles that sustained him as professor, activist, and critic. Unlike many of the thinkers associated with the poststructuralist innovations of the '70s and '80s, a trend decidedly hostile to anything that smacked of humanism, Said never abandoned a core of humanist belief; it remained a durable, if battered, pivot around which he organized his concerns.

"Humanism" is a notoriously elasticˇ if not vagueˇ creed, in part because it is more an impulse than a rigorous doctrine. It lends itself to vacuous generalizations and sentimental uplift. Though Said tells us that he does not intend to tackle "humanism tout court," he ranges widely. He is not always consistent with his terms; his sense of humanism is at once capacious and restrictive. Said invokes Leo Spitzer's succinct definitionˇ "the Humanist believes in the power of the human mind of investigating the human mind"ˇ and describes humanism as the "achievement of form by human will and agency," an elegant, if imprecise, characterization.

Above all, Said ponders the fate of literary humanism and the role of the humanities in a postmodern world. He was well equipped for this undertaking. A teacher at Columbia University from 1963 until his death last year, Said was but one in a long line of the school's prestigious fraternity of literary humanists, a group that includes Mark Van Doren, Jacques Barzun, F.W. Dupee (one of Said's heroes), and Lionel Trilling. Said affectionatelyˇ though not uncriticallyˇ pays his respects to these figures and the university's famed core curriculum, which requires every student to spend a year immersed in Homer, Virgil, Euripides, Plato, Cervantes, and other canonical writers of the Western tradition.

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 traditionalˇ 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).

Though Humanism and Democratic Criticism is in part an homage to the Western literary tradition that shaped Said, cultural conservatives will not like the book. Said is at pains to distance himself from list-making scolds like Blooms Allan and Harold; T.S. Eliot and the Agrarians come in for obligatory knocks, as does Saul Bellow. (Said's habit of fighting old battles can be tiresome, yet he is right that "many of the figures in today's canon were yesterday's insurgents.") But he is also deeply skeptical about the implications of postmodern thought, which he resisted. His devotion to the ideals of human freedom, a component of humanism in its broadest sense, inoculated him against "a certain facile type of radical antifoundationalism." Contra Derrida and Foucault, he declares that the "actuality of reading is, fundamentally, an act of perhaps modest human emancipation and enlightenment that changes and enhances one's knowledge for purposes other than reductiveness, cynicism, or fruitless standing aside."

For Said, humanism is never a fixed or totalizing system of belief; nor is it an adjunct to sterile tradition. "When," he asks, "will we stop allowing ourselves to think of humanism as a form of smugness and not as an unsettling adventure in difference, in alternative traditions, in texts that need a new deciphering within a much wider context than has hitherto been given them?" He notes that humanism is hardly a pure product of the West, referring us to the Islamic textual practices of medieval Muslim universities, which were handmaidens of the European Renaissance lorded over by the two Blooms.

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 contentmentˇ 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."

Said's most daring proposal, one that exemplifies his anticonservative conservatism, is his call for the renovation of philology. He concedes philology is "the least with-it, least sexy, and most unmodern of any of the branches of learning associated with humanism." This is an understatement; say the word "philology" and you think of wizened scholars poring over dust-covered folios. A mere parody, counters Said. He reminds us of the discipline's bona fides, pointing out that "the most radical and intellectually audacious of all Western thinkers during the past 150 years"ˇ Friedrich Nietzscheˇ was a philologist. One can see why Said finds philological techniques alluring, for they involve "getting inside the process of language already going on in words and making it disclose what may be hidden or incomplete or masked or distorted in any text we may have before us." Not least, he argues, philology can protect us from clichÚ and political propaganda.

It is in his guise as a steward of this older European critical traditionˇ that of Spitzer, Erich Auerbach, and E.R. Curtiusˇ that Said is at his most interesting, if not altogether convincing. His chapter on Auerbach's Mimesis (originally published as an introduction to the recent Princeton edition), which Said calls "the greatest and most influential literary humanistic work of the past half century," is exhilarating, a moving study in themes that animated the Palestinian-American scholar: exile, the use of traditions, the necessity for comparative perspectives.

Auerbach exerted a powerful hold on Said, as did Mimesis. The circumstances of its completion are especially poignant. A German Jew who fled the Nazis in 1936, he took refuge in Istanbul. Despite having few primary or secondary materials at hand, Auerbach, in one of the most remarkable feats in the annals of literary scholarship, managed to recapitulate the entire Western tradition, from Homer through Dante up to modernism, entirely from memory. His exile, his distance from his homeland, paradoxically endowed him with something close to disinterest (Said does not use this word; he may be conservative, but he's no Arnoldian) and allowed him to take the full measure of his subject. For Auerbach, the canon was a living, breathing thing housed in his brain, animating his every thought, not a collection of lifeless monuments.

About the canonical humanities, Said writes that they "will always remain open to changing combinations of sense and signification; every reading and interpretation of a canonical work reanimates it in the present, furnishes an occasion for rereading." He wants great works to be active presences in our lives, not merely required reading. Said's position about the canon might be described as "mend it, don't end it," or "Proust plus." He is right to note the provisional nature of literary canons; though the gates of the canon often seem closed, literary history tells us otherwise. After all, a writer named Herman Melville languished in obscurity until the 1920s, when Lewis Mumford and other critics rediscovered Moby-Dick and argued for the author's centrality to the American literary tradition.

Like Said, Frank Kermode's sensibility was profoundly shaped by canonical literature. In The Classic and Forms of Attention, he quietly put forth a theory of what makes a work canonical. Certain works of art, Kermode felt, achieved special status by being "patient of interpretation." In Pleasure and Change: The Aesthetics of Canon, Kermode revisits some of these themes, though these latest reflections are rather disappointing, if not tepid. Kermode is famous for his modesty and supersubtle diffidence, a quality that has been at once a virtue and a flaw in his writing, especially in this latest work.

The line of Kermode's argument is not always clear. He proposes that pleasure and change are at the heart of the canon, but also present is a good deal of chance, "aided by individual formation and the vagaries of personal interest." Kermode firmly believes in the idea of critic as caretaker. With his hallmark modesty, he asserts that "we make lists, canons, of what we decide is valuable, and these, in the interests of that humanity, we may press on other people, our successors. Some of the reasons we give for doing so may be false or self-serving, or at any rate fallible. But the cause is a good one."

Of course, the very idea of the canon has been up for grabs for some time nowˇ a situation of every man (or woman) his (or her) own canon now more or less prevailsˇ and the statements of Kermode's respondents in the book only endorse this. Geoffrey Hartman, the eminent Yale critic, rightly describes Kermode's idea of the canon as "empowering rather than imposing" (a statement that could describe Said's position as well) but accuses him of skirting the "political impasse that presently makes literary criticism, not only literature, a troubled mirror of our culture." John Guillory, author of Cultural Capital, simply disavows the notion of literary greatness and laments the "philosophical overburdening of art." Guillory sees all pleasures as more or less equal, a position that arouses Kermode's pique. "I genuinely regret," Kermode shoots back, "that people who seem perfectly qualified to agree prefer to sayˇ are, it seems, unable to say otherwiseˇ that they have wholly comparable experiences from a television soap and Dante."

The most useful, nuanced contribution in the volume, from Carey Perloff, reminds us that canon formation is not simply a function of critics. Artistic director of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, Perloff notes how she "wrestles with questions of the canon on a daily basis as I decide how to program the work that we do." She also stresses the role of artists in the making of the canon, brilliantly citing Eliot's use of Petronius's Satyricon in The Waste Land. Everything classical philologists deplored about this workˇ its fractured narrative, its use of high and low stylesˇ perfectly matched Eliot's aesthetic and helped make Petronius relevant to a modern audience. Or consider the case of A.E. Housman, whose newfound popularity has been prompted by Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love. Perloff's skilled understanding of the nexus formed by general readers, artists, and cultural bureaucrats like herself is a tour de force, a refreshing departure from the nasty academic jousting that often passes for a debate about the canon.

It is too soon to tell what the effects of the sea change that has transformed the humanities in the last decade will be. The canon, as traditionally understood, has not disappeared from the university, though you might think otherwise if you pick up an issue of the New Criterion. Indeed, Columbia's core curriculum, Said writes, emerged "largely unscathed" from the academic culture wars. If the traditions that have differently inspired Kermode and Said are somewhat diminished today, their reasoned advocacy is a reminder why literature and criticism are equipment for living.

Matthew Price is a Brooklyn-based writer and frequent contributor to Bookforum.