Crise de vers: Adonis’s Dīwān and the Institution of Modernism
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Crise de vers:
Adonis’s Dīwān and the Institution of Modernism

Modernism and Memory Crisis

Speaking at a conference in Rome in 1961, the Syrian modernist poet Adonis launched a famous and famously intemperate attack on traditionalism in Arabic poetry and poetry criticism. His talk, entitled “al-Shi‘r al-‘arabī wa mushkilat al-tajdīd” [Arabic Poetry and the Problem of Renewal], began by reviewing the classical tradition of literary criticism. Critics of the ‘Abbasid era (c.750–1250), Adonis argued, had only ever sought to inhibit poetic creativity, setting themselves up as guardians of tradition and obstacles to renewal: “The critics defended inherited values [qiyam mawrūtha] and clung to the ancient, exalting it because it was ancient, even when it was ridiculous.”1 Adonis went on to assert that the traditionalism espoused by these critics had not diminished with the passage of centuries, but rather had become stronger: “The understanding of poetry that dominated our past with all the force of tradition [al-taqlīd] continues into our present with the same force. Indeed, it has grown in acuteness and complexity.”2 For modern poets to free themselves from this powerful and creeping sclerosis, they would have to undertake radical measures. It was in this spirit that Adonis announced a “revolt against the traditionalist mentality.”

Renewal cannot be accomplished by reverting to tradition or by adapting to its poetic conventions, for such a reversion would mean a separation from the present, a shackling of sensibility, a betrayal of reality.3 [End Page 877]

Poetry, he declared at the end of his talk, reaching for the rhetorical heights, was “an act of salvation and liberation” [khalāṣ wa taḥarrur].4

Stephen Spender, one of the respondents to Adonis’s paper, must have heard echoes of his youth in all this (translated echoes, so to speak). But he wondered if Adonis hadn’t overstated the case. T. S. Eliot, Spender reminded the audience, had been both a modernist and a traditionalist. Perhaps the Syrian poet, with all his talk of “revolt,” had been reading too much Rimbaud? Spender ended his brief remarks—according to the Arabic transcription, which is the only one that survives—by reproaching Adonis for his “complete disregard of the ancient heritage [turāth] of Arabic poetry,” and calling his paper “extremist in its demolition of poetic traditions [mutaṭarrifa fī taḥṭīm al-taqālīd al-shi‘rīya].”5

The exchange between Adonis and Spender evokes several of modernism’s familiar and apparently insoluble contradictions: heritage versus modernity, rupture versus continuity, the revolutionary Jetzseit versus the long durée of tradition. While Adonis argues that a reversion to the classical heritage would entail “a separation from the present,” Spender counters that a dismissal of this heritage leads to a separation from one’s own cultural past. Backwardness or inauthenticity, here are the two equally intolerable options that confront so many modernisms of underdevelopment, which experience these contradictions with especial sharpness.6 It is perhaps because their choice is an impossible one—a choice between two kinds of alienation, we might say—that these modernisms so often employ a rhetoric of crisis, a mode of self-articulation that is frequently extravagant and even melodramatic.7 It is this excessiveness or “extremism” that Spender objects to explicitly. But while Spender accuses Adonis of chasing after the new and foreign at the expense of the inherited past, other readers have accused him of doing precisely the opposite, claiming that his version of modernism is only a kind of covert pastism, a classicizing movement that calls itself revolutionary. So the Moroccan critic, Abdullah Laroui, in his seminal essay, The Crisis of the Arab Intellectual (1974), lumps Arab modernists together with their European confreres—he mentions Eliot, Pound, and St. John Perse—“all of whom are exponents of tradition and order, and who take as models and foundations of the ‘poetic’ the attitudes and works of the classicizing periods.” Laroui argues that the modernity of these poets merely “consists in their recombining of transmitted culture according to a conscious and unvarying code (poetic technique).” “Now,” he asks rhetorically, “have all the...