Can’t Have A Community If You Don’t Show Up

Alienation? Detachment? Loneliness? Sound familiar? This, and more, is what I so often hear from Muslims when I run into them (everywhere else but the center). But why are so many of us feeling like we’ve lost our sense of community? Part of the problem, in my opinion, is the way in which we often diagnose the issue to begin with.

This afternoon I happened to run into a sister at a local coffee shop with whom I’m fairly well acqainted. Upon seeing me, she lamented about feeling detached from Islam, from Allah, from community. We spoke on the importance of having a community as it relates to the well-being of one’s Deen or religious/spiritual practice. She related that so many of the masajid that she attends either (a) are unwelcoming, (b) speak in a language (this case, the khutbah being all in Arabic) she doesn’t understand or (c) in a vernacular she finds irrelevant. While I sympathized at how all of those could be frustrating I also comically pointed out that (a) I was that Imam who quit his job over some of these very issues (racism, irrelevancy, etc.) but had also, along with a group of like-minded and forward-thinking Muslims, built a place that seeks to provide the very things she claimed to long for: a welcoming environment that offered religious tutelage in an environment that (we hope!) is welcoming and relevant. My point being, we’re never going to overcome these challenges if we don’t even show up. And what’s amazing is that if we just begin with showing up, many of those maladies (loneliness, alienation, etc.) seem to slowly go away; maybe not overnight, but they do abate. Fundamentally, we must switch from an entitlement world-view (or community-view) in which we feel everything ought to be all set up and ready to go before we walk in the door. We have to show up first, and work cooperatively to make things how we (and others) would like them to be. So when I asked her why she didn’t show up she just smiled and said, “I’ll have to change that.” It all begins by just showing up.

That’s what we’re working to bring to you at Middle Ground. May Allah give us Islam, guidance, and mercy. Amin.

Moving One’s Life Back Towards The Center – A Khutbah

The following khutbah was delivered at Middle Ground Muslim Center on January 1st, 2016.

“The ‘aqidah (theology) of modernity has changed to make the ‘abd (the slave/worshipper) the Rabb (Lord) and the Rabb the ‘abd.”


[Direct download]

Full notes here.

Mundus Totus Domus Est – All the World is a Home

“The only universally accepted dogma in the modern world is the rejection of tradition”—William Chittick.

Robert T. Tally Jr.’s article, “Mundus Totus Exilium Est.”, brings to the forefront a highly problematic issue facing the modern world: the dilemma of the false universal.  His essay attempts to convince the reader that the exile is not simply a vantage point amongst a great many vantage points, but is instead a “perfect” point of departure by which the exile can offer up privileged criticisms—literary, social, cultural, etc.—which “at home” observers simply cannot due.  Tally’s findings are couched not in empirical findings but are instead founded on the primacy of, borrowing from Edward Said, “originality of vision” (Tally).  It is this great assumption of Tally’s, backed by the likes of Said as well as other notable scholars of the literary tradition (Auerbach, Adorno, and Lukács to name three) that I wish to shed further light on regarding the problematic of defining exiles as superior to non-exiles, and how such false universalisms detract from the merits of their works.

To proceed, it will be necessary to draw out Tally’s arguments in order to reveal many of the unpacked suppositions his essay espouses.  This will allow me to illuminate on many of the articles points I find highly questionable.  That being said, it is not my goal to simply argue or refute Tally’s assertions for the sake of argumentation, but to show that by unpacking Tally’s arguments (as well as his sources)—many of them are hidden in the cultural assumptions of Western thought—we can make better use of his intellectual findings.

The major theme that underpins Tally’s work is the concept of exile as critic.  Tally asserts that the exile is best equipped to map out and comprehend social spaces—a process Tally refers to as cartography—due to the exile’s alienation.  According to Tally, familiarization is a process that disadvantages the local from insights into his reality due to a lack of originality, something which the exile is claimed to possess.  This alienation, also referred to as “transcendent homelessness” (4), a term borrowed from Lukács, serves as a lynch pin for Tally’s arguments for the exile as that “perfect individual” who “is better equipped to make sense of the world” (2).

Much of what I found erroneous about Tally’s hypothesis regarding “making sense of the world” has not been due to his methodological approach per se as it is with his scope.  Like so many Western writers, Tally projects his theories not as a set of particulars grounded in history, but as universals.  In Tally’s evoking of the great philologist, Eric Auerbach, he asserts commonly accepted Eurocentric rhetoric:

“The phrase [mundus totus exilim est] is quoted to make the point that the modern critic of literature and language must not be tied to any national ground, but must accept that that his or her ‘philological home is the earth; the nation it can no longer be’.” (1)

Tally’s quotation of Auerbach is representational of the kind of unpacked hubris many European thinkers have exhibited over the last two centuries (if not longer).  First amongst my objections here is the unwillingness for Tally (and perhaps even Auerbach) to examine the scope of his claims.  While Tally does make some small acknowledgement of World War II in its capacity to inform European decision-making, it is for the most part reduced to a backdrop.  Tally undervalues the contribution World War II (and by proxy, history) made to the anti-national sentiments we find in Auerbach (as well as Adorno and Lukács).  In doing so, the relationship between Tally’s theory of the exile as a collective motif remains shrouded in false universals.

Second is the issue of defining the very possibilities of modern criticism.  According to Auerbach, in order to be considered a modern critic, one must abandon all national ties in favor of a global (if not pseudo-transcendent) identity.  This act of laying claim to the earth itself further justifies my claims of a false universalist mentality so common amongst the rhetoric we find in European intellectuals, who often see themselves as “just human”, while other groups who fall outside this classification are doomed to their respective ethnic enclaves.

In contrast, upon examining Milan Kundera’s Ignorance, we find not a false universalist approach, but one that is grounded in a specific memory, a specific nostalgia and a particular experience (from the perspective of the implied author) as a Czech exile living in France.  In this light, Kundera is able to provide for the reader a realistic window into the life of an exile without having to abandon the very specificities of what it means to be Czech, both as exile in France as well as an exile “at home”.

When the character Josef returns to his native Czech Republic, he find that he is not simply an exile who has been living in Denmark, but that in fact, he is an exile in his own native Prague. Despite his best efforts to reconnect with those where left behind, Josef fails to do so.  When he visits his friend “N”, their conversation “never managed to get going” (Kundera 153).  Kundera is able to facilitate an alienation that is based on concrete realities, not on amorphous abstractions.  Josef migrated to Denmark where he established a new life.  At the novel’s end, he is more at home in Denmark than he is in Prague.  Kundera’s use of specifics makes the melancholy and alienation that Josef experiences all the more permeable by not drifting off into abstract universals.

Another area in which Kundera departs from Tally’s suggestion is the way in which Kundera resolves Ignorance.  By the novel’s end, neither Josef nor the implied author move towards a post-nation identity.  Being that Tally’s argument was poised on the position that the exile, for which “the nation it can no longer be” (1), must jettison his national identity in favor of a self-imposed defamiliarization, simply does not bear fruit.  In fact, Josef returns to Denmark, his home for some decades.  From this perspective, it would seem the Kundera is arguing for a different form of expatriation: instead of exilium est, Kundera proposes domus.  All the world is a potential home.

Another aspect of Tally’s argument is the theory of transcendent homelessness.  In essence, Tally suggests, by invoking Edward Said as well as Georg Lukács, that the experience of the exile is one in which the exile lives in a world abandoned by God.  How curious it is that Tally would invoke the name of Said, a Palestinian, whose people to this very day have neither abandoned the pursuit for statehood (a national identity) nor their very solid belief in God.  In fact, many Palestinians see it as a God-given duty to fight and oppose their own oppression in a manner that evokes the God-centered, holy protest of the Civil Rights era (Jackson, Islam and the Blackamerican 3).  Again, Tally’s Eurocentirc thinking reveals his inability to fathom, let alone understand, how a people living in modern times could still very much be attached to a religious as well as national identity.  And while Said claims that the exile “makes possible originality of vision” (2), I am left to wonder, originality or otherwise, just how out of step Said was (and his intellectual legacy is today) with the struggles for the average Palestinian.

To revisit the quote at the beginning of this essay, I find William Chittick’s observation quite salient.  Jurgen Habermas rightly stated that “Postmodernity (of whom I would label Tally an adherent) definitely presents itself as Antimodernity” (Habermas and Ben-Habib 3); antimodernity in the sense that postmodernity is vehemntly oppossed to any system which proposes “to know anything.”  As per Chittick’s observation, I find postmodernity to be oppossed to tradition, be they beliefs, customs, or any form of information that results in a meaningful practice.  In Ignornace, Irena returns to Prague hoping to reunite with some of her old acquaintences.  She commits “an act of poor taste” (36) by offering her friends French wine instead of beer.  Having been away for so long, Irena has come to see herself as French and thus, has come to possess French proclivities:

“Her long absence from the country, her foreigner’s ways, her wealth … that was exactly her gamble: that they’d accept her as the person she is now, coming back.” (Kundera 36-37, emphasis mine)

Irena left to France as a young Czech girl, but she has returned something much more akin to a French woman.  She has not only adopted French tastes but she sees herself as having adopted French traditions (wine instead of beer) by asking herself the question, “can she live here, feel at home, have friends” (36).

Turning to Tally’s conception of the exile, I would like to focus for a moment on the privilege Tally foists upon the exile.  In summary, Tally claims the exile is best prepared to offer criticism through his originality of vision as well as his alienation.  No doubt that the exile offers a unique and original vision on social or cultural scenarios, however I also believe that local opinions can be just as germane to the topic of critical analysis.  Again, I am reminded of the Civil Rights era struggles in which African-Americans fought and struggled to have their side of the story heard.  One could label African-Americans exiles at home, yet their struggles were to grounded in a very local struggle to be accepted as bone fide American citizens, not an embracing of the earth as their home.  As James Baldwin once wrote, “Negores … do not exist anywhere else but America” (Baldwin 40).

To return to the subject of philology, it is here that the false universal manifests itself greatest.  Tally continues to evoke Auerbach, who has an unwillingness to reconcile transcendent lofty goals with the reality that all such goals are carried out in real time and real space.  Quoting Auerbach, “to the extent that one’s mind does remain fettered to its native land, the critic cannot ‘become truly effective’ as nationality may blunt one’s critical acumen” (3).  Circular reasoning aside, I find Auerbach’s assumptions unfounded when read through Ignorance.  In fact, it is just the opposite, for neither Josef nor Irena have given up their native tongues. It is through them that the implied author is able to effectively demonstrate just how alien they are in their own homelands (195).  In relation to this point, I must also cite an underemphasized component of the Civil Rights struggle: it was not simply American blacks who railed against a system of tyranny and oppression, but it was also American whites who engaged in deeply profound soul searching and soul changing.  In this manner, it was the local voices of American whites (essentially “natives”) who had a devastating effect on bringing down the legacy of Jim Crow and anti-black racism, not the transcendent homeless.

I also found, in reading Tally’s article, a tendency towards reductionism, particularly in relation to the cause of war.  Tally far too easily lays the blame for war at the doorstep of national identity.  No doubt that national identity played some role in how war was carried out, but it is simply too insufficient to explain in totality, why Europe went to war with itself.  Likewise, Kundera, while implicitly indicting Communism, is careful not to simply exonerate the Czech people (or the Germans or Russians for that matter) in why they adopted communism.  I am again left to wonder about the Palestinians (or other ethnic groups who struggle in this century for citizenship), if they would consider themselves to be “tender beginners” (3) or if they would be willing to consider “every soil” is their native soil.  Current political struggles on the ground would indicate otherwise.

Tally’s reductionist viewpoints also take the form of myopia.  Quoting Tally, “The critic must work through personal and cultural attachments to the native soil, detaching him-or herself from local prejudices and comforts” (4). Tally fails to convince me of a methodology which is insistent on an ambiguous reality.  Tally’s transcendent homelessness has no form, quality or characteristic for one to grasp.  It is a formless concept, devoid of substance and having no platform to work on.  In Ignorance, it would not have served the implied author to tell the story through impersonal or acultural characters.  Their qualities as Czech, as Dannish or French were not incidental but quintessential to the story’s weight.  One could not simply swap out Czech for Bolivian or Dannish for Senegalese and retain the same effect.  In contrast, despite Tally’s claims of myopic distortions by “undue familiarity” (4), there is nothing more myopic than to reduce the particulars of culture and personality to a one-dimensional playing field.  If all the world is “strange”, as Tally proposes, then how can we come to know texture, scope or scale?  Without these, the world loses its three-dimensionality on a local and global level, where such qualities as tension and polarity, near or far, become flattened and lost.

Tally also reduces the complexities of pre-modern thought to simple short forms.  Citing Lukács, Tally suggests that because pre-modern epistemologies saw value innately in the world, then any adherents to such epistemologies were also irrevocably “grounded in fate and utterly changeless” (5).  Again, Tally’s argument is pregnant with postmodern philosophical presumptions.  Simply because one affirms value in the world in no way chains one to a fatalistic worldview.  In contradistinction, many pre-modern theological schools of thought were able to separate what God creates from what God wants (Jackson, Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering 210).

What Tally and company fail to do is unpack the methodologies which inform their concept of public reason.  Their unmitigated aversion to any system of thought which would value tradition and thus gave value and meaning to the world is looked at with heavy skepticism.  Sherman Jackson sums this stance up adequately,

“The modern mindset is deeply informed by two regimes of ‘public reason’ (science and philosophy) that have little regard for the role of authority and tradition in conveying, discovering, or preserving truth” (Jackson, Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering 7).

It is this notion, of conveying, discovering or preserving truth, that seems to unnerve Tally and his constituents.  And while I do not wish to label Kundera a Romantic, it is clear from his account in Ignorance that he wished to convey and preserve the truth regarding the devastating effects of communism, on himself (through his implied author) and on Czech society as a whole.

In conclusion, Tally’s arguments fall short of the mark of a secular transcendence.  His tendency towards reductionism and circular argumentation detract from the merits of this theory: that exiles have something valuable to offer.  However, unless Tally’s zeal for postmodern philosophy and dedication to a rampant individualism which sees itself as representing all of humanity, he will continue to overshoot his mark by projecting a scope that is untenable.  Perhaps by rooting his theories in local and historical realities, Tally can better convince us the role the exile cum poet can play in helping us make sense and discern meaning in the world.

References

  • Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. New York: Dell, 1963.
  • Chittick, William. Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul: The Pertinence of Islamic Cosmology in the Modern World. Oxford: Oneworld, 2007.
  • Habermas, Jürgen Habermas and Seyla Ben-Habib. “Modernity versus Postmodernity.” New German Critique (1981): 3-14.
  • Jackson, Sherman. Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking Toward the Third Resurrection. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • —. Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • —. September 11 In History: A Watershed Moment? Ed. Mary L. Dudziak. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.
  • Kundera, Milan. Ignorance. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2000.
  • Tally, Robert T. “Mundus Totus Exilium Est.” 2011. Transnational Literature. 12 November 2011 .
  • Wagner-Martin, Linda. A Historical Guide to Ernest Hemingway. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Ziolkowski, Jan. “”What Is Philology”: Introduction.” Comparative Literature Studies (1990): 1-12.

Alienation, Memory, and Childhood: The Quest For Meaning In Adult Life. A Reading of Tintern Abbey

Melancholy, much more than any other emotion, permeates so much of the poetry of the eighteenth century. And while William Wordsworth remains indebted to this mood, he takes his own turn at the loss of innocence through the transition from childhood to adulthood. Unlike some of his contemporaries—Thomas Grey comes chiefly to mind—in which his Elegy Written In A Country Church-Yard, considered to be “the most popular poem of melancholy in the eighteenth century” (Quinney 132), Wordsworth inherits this poetic legacy while steering it in a new direction. Where Thomas’ focus was on the invisibility and anonymity of the narrator, living a condemned life in which the future has been “emptied out” (Quinney 132), Wordsworth relates to us a journey, one from childhood to adult, where the melancholy and loss of childhood is compensated by an heightened awareness and cognizance of maturity. The end of childhood is not the death of the self for Wordsworth, but rather the terminus of a stage, all bliss and felicity withstanding. It is in the fullness of intellect and its illumination of spirit that Wordsworth, as a grown man says, “And so I dare to hope, though changed, do doubt, from what I was when first I came among these hills” (lines 65-67). In spite of the alienation he experiences in the transition from boy to man, Wordsworth sees the fully mature human being as the only one capable to synthesize the disparate images of nature, which he sees before him, and through “abundant recompense” (line 88) re-sacralize the world into a “sobre pleasure” (line 139).

In order to have a better grasp on both the transition to adulthood and the compensation had therein, it is necessary to take a moment and examine Wordsworth’s conception of childhood. For Wordsworth, childhood is a quasi-animal state, in which one (at least according to his experience) not only wonders at nature, but sees oneself as a part or extension of it. When Wordsworth visited Tintern Abbey as a young boy, he did so “like a roe”, where he, “bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams” (lines 67-69). These mosaics of natural phenomena are not simply landscape artifacts but interconnected entities that he visits in his time there. These “glad animal movements” (line 74) cement the boy of Wordsworth’s youth as an equally natural expression amongst the natural landscape.

The childhood that Wordsworth also describes is an un-nuanced and unarticulated existence. His boyish encounters in Tintern Abbey constitute more to do with raw emotion than intellectualized endeavors. When, as a boy, he thought of the mountains and woods, their appearance manifested to him as “an appetite” or “a feeling and a love” (line 80). Their forms appeared to him without the need of external influences. Having “no need of a remoter charm” (line 81), nature appears to Wordsworth solely based on his youthful sensorium, an ecstatic exchange, in which all of nature seems holy and sacred to Wordsworth.

It is necessary to expound on the nature of youth as Wordsworth interprets it in order to gauge and comprehend the alienation and loss he experiences in adulthood. And it is in adulthood that alienation, loss, and melancholy, are negotiated. Wordsworth’s urban experiences allude to this fact, where in “lonely rooms” and “mid the din of towns and cities, I have owed them ” and “passing even into my purer mind” (lines 25-28) his sense of sorrow and alienation come to fruition. Here, the negotiation of child and man is rooted in memory and its ability to provide Wordsworth the basis by which he can measure and treat his loss. In summary, Wordsworth reckons childhood and adulthood as two disparate stages in which the defining characteristics of the first stage cannot be carried over into the second (Grob 35). This is clearly demonstrated in the poem’s narration of loss: the “glad animal movements”, “coarser pleasures”, “dizzy raptures” and the like. This loss, or alienation, is forever gone as Wordsworth writes, in the present tense, “I cannot paint what then I was” (lines 75-76). The passage from child to adult is permanent. The only recompense for this loss is the illumination that Wordsworth receives upon maturation, as I shall discuss shortly.

Despite the entranced nature of his childhood, Wordsworth satiates this absence in moving from what I will term the experiential-self (the child) to the knowing-self (the adult). It is the primacy of knowledge over enraptured enthusiasm that ingratiates his soul in its newfound context. While recognizing the “nameless, unremembered, acts of kindness and of love” (lines 34-35) Wordsworth makes his case for knowledge as that which brings man happiness: “of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood, in which the burthen of the mystery of all this unintelligible world, is lightened” (lines 37-41). This “serene and blessed mood” gives Wordsworth the peace of mind that will abide in him until his death (“until, the breath of this corporeal frame” line 43).

Wordsworth’s knowing-self is also the means by which he is able to acknowledge and act upon the “other”. In specific, the “other” in Tintern Abbey is his sister and “dearest Friend” (line 116). When Wordsworth first visited the Abbey as a child, there was no mention of her as he “bounded o’er the mountains”. His time then was purely individual and self-experiential. In the bloom of adulthood, Wordsworth is able to articulate strong feelings for his sister; feelings previously reserved for his natural landscape. Amidst the myriad of emotions that Wordsworth conveys to us, compassion is one of the strongest amongst them. From here, Tintern Abbey takes on the role of didactic prescription, where Wordsworth attempts to administer the cure he found in his experience at the Abbey to his sister: “Into a sober pleasure; when thy mind shall be a mansion for all lovely forms oh! then, if solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief, should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts of tender joy wilt thou remember me” (lines 141-145). Wordsworth is leaving his poem as an inheritance to his sister, where if she should find herself suffering from similar alienation or despair, she need only call on these “healing thoughts”. This is without a doubt one of the poem’s more strident empirical moments, where Wordsworth’s experiential-self and knowing-self, as subject and findings, are packaged and prepared for treatment on another individual, with expected success.

As I stated initially in this paper, Wordsworth shared the fixation on sorrow and disappointment with several other eighteenth century Sensibility poets. Some literary critics, such as Laura Quinney, have claimed it to be his favorite subject (Quinney 131). I do not seek to depart ways with the likes of Quinney in observation but in scope, for Tintern Abbey most certainly deviates from both Wordsworth’s past writings, as well as that of the Sensibility poets, favoring optimism over pessimism. In Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth is able to reconcile the experiential-self with the knowing-self. To articulate this plainly, I see Wordsworth’s take on the nature of both states, the experiential and the knowing, as an affirmation of life: it is neither devoid or flushed of meaning. This is accomplished by the experiential-self being assimilated by the knowing-self. The ingenuity of Wordsworth’s technique is accomplished by using the same source material as his predecessors: nostalgia, anxiety and regret (Quinney 131), and by synthesizing them into a new articulation out of that body of work; or as Mary Jacobus puts it: an “indiscriminate melancholy” (Jacobus 107).

Wordsworth’s approach to the self, by distancing and re-imagining himself from the Sensibility poets, allowed him to spark a new conversation on the nature of the self and how it might be approached. Where the poetry of his contemporaries frequently focused on the “inner erosion and failing” (Quinney 132) of the human spirit, Wordsworth’s perspective looks towards the future. He sees life, in the present tense, as “a moment”, where there is “life and food for future years” (line 64). This bricolage of old and new material left and leaves much to be inspired by. No doubt, such motifs have been applied by other great writers; Marcel Proust comes foremost to mind, in his use of memory as the vehicle through which he explored all of his major works. I see Wordsworth’s evolution from boy to man, as conceived with and by the act of memory, a presage to Proust’s petites madeleines, in which they ignited the memory of the author’s protagonist, carrying the tea to Marcel’s lips (Proust 45). So too did Wordsworth employ memory as a vehicle, the Abbey here a stand-in for Proust’s madeleine. The indebtedness that modern fiction owes to writers, such as William Wordsworth, cannot be emphasized enough. Perhaps, through re-engaging with texts from a bygone era, we can benefit from the lyrical wisdom they house, versus common day philosophies that revel in their forward-looking stances, claiming that novelty, change, and innovation alone are capable of ascribing meaning to our context. Such systems of thought have a habit of “placing little or no value on the preservation of views or perspectives from the past” (Jackson 170). Wordsworth clearly demonstrates the value and contribution his works made and the potential to continue to speak to us more than two centuries later.

Citations

  • Jacobus, Mary. Tradition and Experiment in Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (1798). London: Oxford University Press, 1976, 107.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 2. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007. 259-262.
  • Grob, Alan. “Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode and the Search for Identity” ELH 32.1 (1965): 32-61.
  • Jackson, Sherman. “Taqlid, Legal Scaffolding and the Scope of Legal Injunctions in Post-Formative Theory Mutlaq and Amm” in the Jurisprudence of Shihab al-Din al-Qarafi Islamic Law and Society Vol. 3, No. 2 (1996): 165-192.
  • Lau, Beth. “Wordsworth and Current Memory Research” Studies in English Literature 42.4 (2002): 675-692.
  • Proust, Marcel, trans. Lydia Davis. Swann’s Way. New York: Penguin Group, 2002. 45.
  • Quinney, Laura. “Tintern Abbey,” Sensibility, and the Self-Disenchanted Self.” ELH 64.1 (1997): 131-156.