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.

Storytelling

To say that Muslims have been just as equally affected by modernity, the modernity that many Muslims claim to abhor, would be a feat in understatement.  In fact, the sooner that Muslims come to grips with this reality the better chance Muslims will have at confronting modernity. Muslims could proactively (vs. reactively) decide on what aspects of modernity they can negotiate, and what aspects are indeed a real threat to their Muslim identity.  One such aspect of modernity is the individual.  There are a number of new theories floating around in the minds of Muslims regarding the individual and individualism.  Many Muslims decry religious authority and seek to be “free agents”, navigating their Islam and modernity with the tools of reason and intuition.  The Qur’an and Sunnah are seen as a threat to individuality; both are interpreted via a nouveau ijtihad.  Before delving into a possible critique of this choice, we should perhaps look at the formation of individualism and its effects on Muslims today in their relationship with Islam’s sacred sources.

To be concise, I thought I might provide a reading of the situation through examining Walter Benjamin’s article, The Story Teller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov.  Benjamin provides some insightful criticism of the modern age: “The art of story-telling is dying out.  With it also dies the human capacity that is the essence of story-telling: trading experiences.  The explanation for this is that experience itself is falling away”.  Indeed, storytelling (as well as art, though that is another subject entirely) is dying out and with it goes the traditional method by which Muslims and most pre-modern cultures related wisdom, not just solely information.  In tradition-based cultures, experience functioned as the repository of wisdom.  With the advent of the information age, experience, as Benjamin says, “has fallen in value” (Benjamin 1).  A critical difference between information [خبر] and wisdom [حكمة] in the Muslim tradition is the component of transience, the movement of wisdom from the teacher to the student.  Even on a communal level this translated as the wisdom of the Prophet [s] and his understanding—what elicited God’s pleasure and displeasure—on such subjects such as God’s nature and edicts.  This, in many ways, is what the spirit of the following hadith is getting at: “Surely, my Ummah will not agree upon an error” [إن أمتي لا تجتمع على ضلاة] – related by Anas Bin Malik.

A major challenge facing Muslims today is the challenge of distance.  By distance here I mean the distance that is felt between them and the sacred sources of the religion.  Most attempts to close or bridge this gap have resulted in pan-nationalism in the historical Muslim world or as an identity crisis in American Muslims.  For many Blackamerican Muslims, for example, great efforts have been spent to try and adopt the dress and mores of immigrant Muslims as a means of closing the gap of authenticity.  For the most part, neither group has been very successful in making the Muslim tradition and its sacred sources speak to them with meaning and agency in the American context.  Some of this has to do with the pressures that have been exerted on Muslims from the dominant culture.  Secular America, often as hegemonic as so-called fundamentalism, looks upon religion as something archaic and outdated.  For a religion whose tradition is linked with storytelling, this is especially problematic:

“More and more often there is embarrassment all around when the wish to hear a story is expressed. It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences” (Benjamin 1).

“Embarrassment” here sums up to a great degree how many Muslims are feeling about their religious sensibilities.  Scientism (an extension of secularism) has fought to secure its place as the only means and method moderns can come to “know anything”.  Traditions of knowledge which do not solely rely upon empiricism are deemed retrograde and backwards.  Despite the fact that science has not come to be the panacea it claims to be — the world’s problems seem to only mount in the face of the salvation science is supposedly capable of bringing — many Muslims still feel a tremendous pressure to capitulate to its dictum.

To summarize, the Muslim tradition places great importance on experience.  This is reflected in the ijazah system of certification.  In essence, one gets one’s ijazah from one’s teacher, who presumably has not only the requisite knowledge but also experience, so that one will go on to teach others that same topic; one will continue the tradition of storytelling.  Such teachers know the story and the narrative which such knowledge both comes from and speaks to.  Benjamin’s insight here speaks to the modern predicament, where Muslims feel as if they have arrived at this quandary out of the blue:

“Every glance at a newspaper demonstrates that it has reached a new low, that our picture, not only of the external world but of the moral world as well, overnight has undergone changes which were never thought possible.” (Benjamin 1).

Benjamin’s remarks speak to the disconnection and loss that many Muslims feel as the world has become less and less moral.  It certainly has left us with the feeling we have arrived at this crossroads “overnight”, though in fact, it has been the slow erosion of values and morals over many years and decades.  Indeed, I have heard many Muslims comment in dismay over the lows “never thought possible”, both inside and outside the Muslim community.

What I am trying to get at here is more than simply deconstructing Benjamin’s essay for deconstruction sake.  The purpose is to look at the current state of Muslims in America and ask some hard questions.  What does our Islam mean to us and are the means and methods of making Islam real, relevant, and meaningful to us, successful.  Prophetic tradition, starting as an oral one, has placed a high value on person to person exchanges of story, knowledge, and experience.  This is similar to what Benjamin has to say here:

“Experience which is passed on from mouth to mouth is the source from which all storytellers have drawn” (Benjamin 1).

It would seem to be this type of mouth to mouth exchange that many Muslims are beleaguering nowadays.  This helps explain the rise of “traditional knowledge” or “traditional Islamic knowledge” as a buzzword.  However, most of these institutions still rely upon a method of teaching that does not quite bridge that gap.

To return to the theme of reading, it is my theory that modern Muslims have turned to reading the Qur’an in the manner and method in which they read novels.  I use the word novel here, not as a stand-in for “book”, but literally, as “novel”.  Benjamin purports,

“The novelist has isolated himself” (Benjamin 3).

The novel is also, as Benjamin says, “devoid of council”, something many Muslims are sorely in need of today.  “The novelist isolates himself and does not come from oral tradition nor goes to it”.  Some may see Benjamin’s commentary as a Romantic rant, longing for “simpler times”.  I do not see it as thus; for me, “oral tradition” is synonymous with “lived-in” and “pro-human”, and thus, I see it as an alternative method of articulating what the Sunnah of the Prophet was about: council:

أكان للناس عجبا أن أوحينا إلى رجل منهم أن أنذر الناس وبشر الذين ءامنوا أنلهم قدم صدق عند ربهم قال الكافرون إن هذا لسحر مبين

“Is it astonishing to men that We sent Our inspiration to a man from amongst them?  That he would warn mankind as well as give glad tidings to the believers that they are considered by their Lord truthful, sincere?  Those who reject faith say, ‘This is clear sorcery’.” [Qur’an 10: 2].

The tandem of Prophet and Revelation provides that direct, oral relation, the transference of knowledge and wisdom to, not a readership, but a living community.  In this light, the Qur’an, a book whose name can also be said to be “The Recitation”, indicates that it is not simply any book, and most certainly not a novel.  One of the primary characteristics of the Qur’an is that it is a revelation that came down to a human community amidst their history, not in isolation.  My goal in saying this is not to provide the definitive way of reading and interpreting the Qur’an, but to introduce and remind that in order to come to know the Qur’an (and the Prophet, and God), one must not be tempted to read it as a novel amongst other novels.

There are a couple of characteristics of the novel that are worth mentioning here that Benjamin draws our attention to.  First, is the notion that the novel is almost always about, “a particular character, event, or situation”.  This helps to affirm the notion of the novel as isolated.  The Qur’an reveals itself not as a singular event, not about a singular character, and its situation varies from chapter to chapter (sometimes even within it).  This has led many to criticize the Qur’an for being inconsistent; some Muslims even find it difficult to follow.  I believe this is partly in due to the influence of modern literary standards which are largely based off of reading and interpreting novels. Second, is the sense of closure.  Benjamin says, “The novel terminates itself from our memory through the complete closure of the book”.  Not to be confused with “making our minds up for us (something modern and post-modern literature abhor from doing), there is still a closure when the last words are read.  The Qur’an has been and is, continuously rehearsed and recited.  It lives where Muslims live (or ought to, I would argue).  It challenges and compels its adherents to “reflect” and “ponder” its “ayāt”, or signs.  Muslims, if they hope to extract meaningful and relevant interpretations from the Qur’an, they may need to reconsider just how it is they are approaching Islam’s sacred sources.

Experience is king, someone once wrote.  It certainly seems to be for Benjamin as well.  This finds easy correlation in reading the life of the Prophet.  As was mentioned above, the Prophet and the stories of the Prophets and other stories in the Qur’an are in fact translated into experience for us.  This is best understood through the famous narration: “His character was the Qur’an” [كان خلقه القرآن].  By this, Muslims are “counseled” (also known as “nasīhah”/نصيحة) by the Prophet’s life, his understanding and relating of God’s Message.  In the absence of this, historically detached Muslims devolve into lonely individuals who are no longer capable of “speaking exemplarily”, as Benjamin says, to their most important concerns, chief amongst them a dignified existence that will allow them to negotiate what modernity needs and what God wants.  The lonely individual’s existence gives them no counsel, leaving them anxious as well as impotent.

It is obvious from Benjamin’s article that he is not only lamenting the loss of stories, he is also subtlety calling for the return or rebirth of storytellers.  In the Muslim context this is the shaykh, the ālim, the imām, the griot.  It is through the tradition of the Muslim storyteller that the characteristics of the religion are retained.  Without Muslim storytellers, those who have dedicated their lives to the continuity of these stories, how else will Muslims preserve that critical aspect of their identity?  The tendency has been in modern times to prop up a few rock star imāms who draw crowds of individuals who often return home feeling just as isolated and lost before attending said event.  I believe if Muslims are truly invested in their futures here, it will necessitate them developing scholars, leaders, storytellers—“master craftsmen” in Benjamin’s words—who will live in and amongst their communities, keeping the story alive and meaningful to Muslim communities.

The hope for developing Muslim storytellers is to help restore the connectivity amongst Muslims.  It will also allow the healing and holistic aspects of the message of Islam to be delivered to Muslims with greater efficacy.  As Benjamin states,

“Quite apart from the fact that a man is receptive to counsel only to the extent that he allows his situation to speak” (Benjamin 3).

For me, Benjamin touches on one of the great challenges facing Muslims in America: The disconnect between generations.  It is not authenticity that challenges generational understanding but rather the ability for the older, “more knowledgeable” generation, to be receptive to the realities facing young American Muslims today.  There is a dire need for a Muslim leadership—religious or otherwise—to be emotionally connected and concerned with younger Muslims today.  Benjamin says, about counsel,

“[it] is less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding” (Benjamin 3).

I see this as another means of “Surely, my Ummah will not agree upon an error”.  Benjamin is also astute in pointing out one of the natures of counsel:

“Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom”,

as well as,

“To seek this counsel one would first have to be able to tell the story” (Benjamin 3).

Against the allegations that religious knowledge equates religious tyranny in the Muslim world, this system allows those who have dedicated their lives to the story, the Message of Islam, to walk hand in hand with those who profess Islam as their religion, facing the trials and tribulations of life as one community, as one Ummah.  After all, when the Prophet [s] was questioned as to what religion (“deen”) was, he replied, “sound advice, sound advice, sound advice” [إن الدين نصيحة, إن الدين نصيحة, إن الدين نصيحة].

Reading

Extra Viewing

  • Thanks to the link from brother Omar. See his comments below. It fits well into the discussion.