Monday, December 12, 2011

A Novel Solution: The intellectual necessity of fiction

Picture the scene: you’re in the company of a new acquaintance whose intelligence and humour have been made evident to you, but whom you do not yet know well. Navigating the climbs and declensions of conversation in the hope of expanding on established common ground, you hazard to bring up the subject of novels. Nothing pretentious – no need here for page-length recitations of Proust or Pride and Prejudice – but perhaps “Did you happen to catch Martin Amis’ latest?” or whatever it might be. And then that sinking sensation as your mystified companion shakes their head and politely asks who that is, explaining that they “only really read non-fiction”. If he’s a man, this statement might even be made with a hint of pride, as though to imply that reading anything less would be a frivolous, infantile and basically effeminate waste of time. I hope at least some of you will know what I’m talking about.

The belief that non-fiction is the terrain of the serious thinker, whilst fiction is little but fairytales for adults is an all-too-common one, I fear, and one which is long overdue repudiation. This is not just because of its essential philistinism, or for any sentimental notion of the ‘transcendence’ of art. On the contrary, the assiduous study of literature offers a practical and tangible education to even the most hard-headed utilitarian. In no sphere is this truer than in politics. 

As an example, I have just finished Palace Walk, the first instalment in the famous ‘Cairo Trilogy’ by the brilliant Egyptian novelist, Naguib Mahfouz. I couldn’t have known when I started the book that its author would make a posthumous appearance in the three-way contest between secularists, Islamists and the military that is defining the quagmire of post-Mubarak politics, but I’m very glad that he has, for it’s given me the chance to build on a loathing for religious extremism that I never thought could get any greater. For those who missed the news from last week’s parliamentary elections in Alexandria, the candidate representing the Salafi coalition – that is, the ultra-orthodox Islamists who denounce even the Muslim Brotherhood as infidels, and yearn to replicate the system of government of 7th century Medina – decried the works of the Nobel Laureate as “inciting promiscuity, prostitution and atheism”. (Well yes, one wants to reply, but what of the books’ faults?) Happily, the sexless fanatic was defeated – albeit by a Brotherhood man...

Palace Walk itself is an irreverent yet humane satire on piety from start to finish. When Mahfouz writes of Amina, the luckless mother of the tyrannically patriarchal al-Jawad household, that “[s]he knew far more about the world of the jinn than that of mankind”, he manages in fourteen words to summarise the entirety of the pity of Islamic fundamentalism. And when the father, al-Sayyid Ahmad, is confronted by a cleric on his notorious extra-marital indulgences, his reply is an unimprovable indictment of religious double standards: “Don’t forget, Shaykh Mutawalli, that the professional women entertainers of today are the slave girls of yesterday, whose purchase and sale God made legal. More than anything else, God is forgiving and merciful.”

It was for these and other moral victories over the faithful that Mahfouz was eventually stabbed in the neck at the age of eighty-two; left debilitated but not dead by a knife belonging to just the sort of person who might vote for a Salafi today. Thus to the ignorant question – ‘why read fiction?’ – one of many possible answers is that fiction and politics are inseparable, and an understanding of one without the other is impossible1. For who could fully grasp the danger and derangement of the Salafis without first understanding Mahfouz’s novels? Equally, who, without having read The Satanic Verses, could know how insane it was for Ayatollah Khomeini to demand the murder of its author? Incidentally, those who saw the 1989 fatwa as the first shot fired by a newly militant Islamism are overlooking the banning in 1959 of Mahfouz’s Children of Gebelawi, which, like the Verses, included the Prophet Muhammad and his contemporaries amongst its dramatis personae. (It was no coincidence that Mahfouz joined dozens of distinguished Middle Eastern men of letters such as the poets Adonis and Mahmoud Darwish and the intellectuals Edward Said and Amin Maalouf in expressing unconditional solidarity with Salman Rushdie in a dedicated collection of essays published in 1994, in which Mahfouz wrote, “The veritable terrorism of which he is a target is unjustifiable, indefensible [...] One idea can only be opposed by other ideas. Even if the punishment is carried out, the idea as well as the book will remain.” Contrast this with the condemnation Rushdie faced in the Anglophone world from people like Jimmy Carter, Roald Dahl and John le Carré, and you arrive at one of the bleaker ironies of the term ‘Western civilisation’.)

Speaking of Edward Said – that Columbia Professor of English and Comparative Literature, who, like Palace Walk’s Kamal, also grew up in inter-war Cairo in the shadow of a disciplinarian father – did he not make his name in 1978 by saying that it was the fiction of ‘Occidental’ writers, from Homer through Shakespeare and Dante and Goethe and Flaubert to Conrad and Kipling, that reinforced the notion of an untamed ‘Orient’, and thus paved the path for European imperialism? That book, along with its 1993 sequel, Culture and Imperialism, would be a locked door to the strict non-fictioner. 

There are more additional examples than I would care to list or you would care to hear about, but I will mention just three if I may. One probably doesn’t have to have read Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four to understand dictatorship and totalitarianism, but his concepts of ‘Big Brother’, ‘doublethink’, ‘thoughtcrime’ and ‘Newspeak’ have acquired so universal and versatile a currency that it would save one a lot of time and effort to do so (responding to le Carré’s philistine reduction of the Verses to an “insult” of a “great religion”, the expression Rushdie chose in his letter to the Guardian was that he had been “accused of thought crimes”). Orwell’s almost preternatural instinct for the relationship between language and politics (cf. his 1946 essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’) enabled him, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, to conclude that the 1938 Moscow trials were fraudulent “on internal literary evidence”2 alone, at a time when many more intellectuals than it is polite to remember were celebrating the justice served on the enemies of the Party. And even – if not especially – to those for whom English was not a first language, Orwell’s novels commanded respect among the dissident and endangered: here is the Polish anti-Stalinist Czesław Miłosz in his 1953 classic, The Captive Mind:

A few [of us] have become acquainted with Orwell’s 1984; because it is both difficult to obtain and dangerous to possess, it is known only to certain members of the Inner Party. Orwell fascinates them through his insight into details they know well, and through his use of Swiftian satire. Such a form of writing is forbidden by the New Faith because allegory, by nature manifold in meaning, would trespass beyond the prescriptions of socialist realism and the demands of the censor. Even those who know Orwell only by hearsay are amazed that a writer who never lived in Russia should have so keen a perception into its life.3

All that remains to be said here is that if oppositionists living under the Stalin regime thought it worth their while to read the fiction of Orwell (and Swift), then very few of us indeed have valid reason not to.

Moving closer to the present, the conflict in Israel and Occupied Palestine has tended to produce more poetry than prose, though there are a few fine novels to be found. The Palestinian Ghassan Kanafani had already published his masterpiece, Men in the Sun, by the time he was assassinated in 1972, while his contemporary Emile Habibi was even to win an Israeli literary prize in 1992. David Grossman’s has probably been the most powerful Jewish Israeli voice, while Philip Roth’s 1987 tour de force, The Counterlife, captured in just five words the terrifying absolutism of the West Bank settlers: “The Bible is their bible.” Perhaps the most striking scene I’ve yet read, however, appears in the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun. The book centres around Yunis, an aged former Palestinian fida’i, as he lies comatose in an improvised hospital in Shatila, the refugee camp south of Beirut, while the equally improvised ‘Doctor’ Khaleel regales him with an epic repertory of stories of the villages, valleys and violence that make up the collective Palestinian memory (Khoury was himself a member of Fatah in Jordan in the 1960s, before siding with them against the Israelis – and most of his Christian co-religionists – in the Lebanese civil war. He’s been involved with the refugees one way or another ever since). 

To the scene, then: we know in advance to expect something eventful, because Umm Hassan, a Shatila refugee, has managed to get herself back to El Kweikat, the Galilean village of her youth, where after 1948 the Jews “demolished every single house [...] and built the settlement of Beyt ha-Emek – all except for what had been new houses on the hill”, of which Umm Hassan’s had been one. Finally summoning the courage to knock on the door, a Jewish woman answers in surprisingly fluent Arabic, and ushers Umm Hassan and her brother inside. They follow her in and have a seat as the woman fetches them a drink.

The Israeli woman left her in front of the water jug and returned with a pot of Turkish coffee. She poured three cups and sat calmly watching these strangers whose hands shook as they held their coffees. Before Umm Hassan could open her mouth, the Israeli woman asked, “It’s your house, isn’t it?”

“How did you know?” asked Umm Hassan.
“I’ve been waiting for you for a long time. Welcome.”

Umm Hassan took a sip from her cup, the aroma of the coffee overwhelmed her, and she burst into tears.
The women talk about a jug of Umm Hassan’s that’s still on the kitchen counter, decades later. They walk into the garden and discuss the orange orchards, or ‘groves’, as the Jewish woman calls them. Umm Hassan eventually explores the entire house. And then she’s telling her about her life today; how she now lives in a camp on the outskirts of Beirut:

When the Jewish woman heard the word Beirut, she jumped up and changed completely.

“You’re from Beirut?” she cried, the words tumbling out of her mouth and her eyes filling with tears.

“Listen, sister,” the Jewish woman said. “I’m from Beirut too, from Wadi Abu Jmeel. You know Wadi Abu Jmeel, the Jewish district in the centre? They brought me from there when I was twelve years old. I left Beirut and came to this dreary, bleak land. Do you know the Ecole de l’Alliance Israélite? To the right of the school there’s a three-storey building that used to be owned by a Polish Jew called Elie Baron. I’m from there.”

“You’re from Beirut?” Umm Hassan asked in amazement.

“Yes, from Beirut.”

“How did that happen?”

“What do you mean, how did that happen? I’ve no idea. You’re living in Beirut and you’ve come here to cry? I’m the one who should be crying. Get up and go. Get up, sister, and go. Send me to Beirut and take this wretched land back."

Now, a history book can tell you that there were once as many as 20,000 Lebanese Jews, all but a couple of hundred of whom are now in Israel. It can also tell you that perhaps 100,000 Palestinians took refuge in Lebanon after the nakba of ’48. But no historian can tell you what would happen if two such exiles were actually to meet: that task is left to the novelist alone.

Of course, this symbiosis between letters and politics ceases to work the moment one trespasses on the other’s domain. A review of Azar Nafisi’s 2003 memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Hamid Dabashi provides a cautionary tale. The book tells the story of how Nafisi – a Professor at the University of Tehran until her expulsion for refusing to veil herself, after which she moved to America – would invite her brightest female students to her home in Tehran once a week for informal discussions on four staples of the modern Anglophone canon: Lolita, naturally enough, along with The Great Gatsby, Daisy Miller and Pride and Prejudice. These symposia, which were intended as relief from the alternating tedium and terror of life under Khomeini as much as anything else, eventually cultivated rich and entirely original interpretations of the works, with whose heroines the girls identified far more personally than Nafisi had imagined they could have. 

For this modest but perhaps symbolic achievement, Nafisi receives a tirade of venomous, hysterical abuse from Dabashi, who calls her a “native informer”, a “colonial agent”, a “comprador intellectual” (his most irritating phrase, used twelve times in the review), a “servant of a white-identified, imperial design” and even an “ideologue in George W Bush’s empire-building project”. Her thoughtcrime – sorry, crime, it appears, was to have Betrayed The Cause by disseminating works of doctrinal impropriety:

[The book] promotes the cause of “Western Classics” at a time when decades of struggle by postcolonial, black and Third World feminists, scholars and activists has [sic] finally succeeded to introduce a modicum of attention to world literatures [...]

Decades into a sustained struggle against the domination of Eurocentric curriculum [sic] in the US academy, fighting to restore democratic dignity to the world literary scene, Nafisi once again pushes the clock back for about half a century by a singular and exclusive praise for the Eurocentricity of the literary imagination.

This sheer Stalinism – appraising books solely on the basis of their ideological purity – seems to form the core of Dabashi’s critical approach. The primary achievement of Nafisi’s book, he says, is to have:

[S]ystematically and unfailingly denigrat[ed] an entire culture of revolutionary resistance to a history of savage colonialism

Apparently, then, literature is not about things like art or beauty or language: it’s actually about revolutionary resistance. Oh sure, Nabokov might have written good novels, but what the hell did he ever do for the struggle

In fact, Dabashi’s spittle-flecked and bloated review gets a great deal worse, to the point of telling outright lies4 (that the man is a Professor of Literature at Columbia is surely a disgrace to the institution). But his most laughably philistine moment is this:

[O]ne reads this book in vain in search of even a single conversation with any relevant literary theory amassed for generations about and around the works of the [four] authors

Of course – because one may not simply enjoy literature: one has to anaesthetise and sterilise and dissect and analyse it, in “conversation” with “relevant literary theory”! Never mind what the readers think - what do the literary theorists have to say? I shall leave the last word on this sorry subject to Kingsley Amis, who once reproached some comparable mediocrity for his suggestion that a certain novel of somebody else’s was not “important” enough to have merited inclusion in some now-forgotten literary shortlist:

Important! Fearful contemporary word, smacking of the textbook, the lecture-hall, the ‘balanced appraisal’. So-and-so may be readable, interesting, entertaining, but is he important? Ezra Pound may be pretentious and dull, but you’ve got to admit he’s ever so important. What? You haven’t read Primo Levi (in translation, of course)? But he’s important. As the philosopher J. L. Austin remarked in another context, importance isn’t important. Good writing is.5

And there it is. Literature is not to be conscripted into the service of academia, or any other ‘sphere’ or ‘discourse’, least of all politics. While it might make contributions in each of these respects, to read it solely as a means to these ends would be like gulping down a glass of wine just for the cardiovascular benefit: it can be done, but it would rather miss the point... Instead, both fiction and wine ought to be enjoyed for their own sake, and to forgo the former is every bit as joyless and puritanical as abstaining from the latter. Ultimately we should all be with that Persian genius, Omar Khayyam, who warned us a thousand years ago that:

Since neither truth nor certainty is granted
You cannot sit in doubtful hope all your life;
Let us be careful not to set the wine-cup aside,
Since a man is in ignorance, drunk or sober.6

1 The same answer can be given, of course, to the no-less-ignorant question, ‘why read politics?’ 
2 See Hitchens, C., Why Orwell Matters (2002), pp. 59-62 
3 As quoted in Ibid., pp. 54-55 
4 “No one will ever know, reading Reading Lolita in Tehran, that Iranians, like all other nations, have a literature of their own”, writes Dabashi. I cite the following quotes from the 2008 Harper Perennial paperback edition (this list is by no means exhaustive): “We read Persian classical literature, such as the tales of our own lady of fiction, Scheherazade, from A Thousand and One Nights” (p. 4); “Like a group of conspirators, we would gather around the dining room table and ready poetry and prose from Rumi, Hafez, Sa’adi, Khayyam, Nezami, Ferdowsi, Attar, Beyhaghi” (p. 172); “Our great epic poet Ferdowsi had rewritten the confiscated myths of Persian kings and heroes in a pure and sacred language. My father, who all through my childhood would read me Ferdowsi and Rumi, sometimes used to say to me that our true home, our true history, was in our poetry” (p. 172). 
5 Amis, K., Memoirs (1991), p. 297
6 Avery, P. & Heath-Stubbs, J., The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam (1979), p. 89

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