- Arabic Literature in the "Across"
The study of Arabic literature in the United States is an academic pursuit placed in the corner of "areas studies." Often, scholars and students of literature interested in Arabic have to navigate a maze of extra-literary concerns before they arrive at the literature itself. More than that, a literary approach to Arabic texts, as is the case for other similarly marginal literary traditions in the world today, needs to justify itself and its "usefulness" by attaching itself to a social or political or historical issue that helps readers learn more about the Arab world or the Middle East. This is perhaps why the framework of colonial or postcolonial studies remains the most prominent arena within which "uses" of the Arabic literary tradition are most evident. This framework offers the motivated scholar evidence or manifestation of the socio-political issues he or she are out to find. The imposition of an extra-literary agenda happens in the study of classical as well as modern Arabic literature. In fact, the very division of classical and modern is the result of a historicist approach which perpetuates a narrative of cultural development, triggered by the contact with the colonizer. This narrative is upheld in literary studies and is consequential in the often problematic cultural assumptions that it allows.
Literary scholars are often concerned with Arabic novels as historical and cultural records regardless of their merits as novels. The [End Page 820] situation in the study of poetry is even graver.1 Translations of Arabic poetry are often motivated by an interest in the issues of politics, gender, or religion. And thus, Arabic poems are accepted as symptoms of a culture or as cultural artifacts and rarely interrogated as poems. Seldom is poetry, the art form, a subject of study. We resign ourselves to the loss of Arabic poetry as poetry in translation and we cling to all that is besides poetry that we imagine left in translation.
With all these concerns in mind, I began reading Ranjan Ghosh and J. Hillis Millers' book Thinking Literature Across Continents (2006). The very structure of the book offered a welcome relief. In their conversation across continents, Ghosh and Miller provide a space where views of literature do not have to meld into a homogenous statement, a space in which the exhausted narratives about the East/West relationship are refreshingly reimagined. The book presents a dialogic approach to some of the most pressing issues that haunt us as readers and students of the different literatures of the world. However, the underlying question the two authors invite us to keep considering and reconsidering is that of world literature. Not only do they take us on a rewarding journey, exploring what literature is and all the things it can be, they impose upon us the need to keep questioning what our world is and what it can be. Far beyond the tensions of the local and the global, the specific and the common, the "here" and the "there," this book succeeds in placing us as readers in a "perpetual state of across." Ghosh announces that the "crossing, going across and staying perpetually across" is what motivates his "doing of literature" (2016, 3). And "across" here is not simply crossing, it is a commitment to that great potential that lurks in gaps waiting, not to be closed, but bridged.
Following Miller's recurrent positioning of himself in the book and his careful qualifications of the statements he makes, I too would like to ground my take on the book in my "doing" of Arabic literature, as Ghosh puts it. Eavesdropping on Ghosh and Miller's conversation, I kept thinking about the many ways in which the questions raised bear on the study of Arabic literature and especially Arabic poetry in the world today. And naturally, the book only tangentially addresses Arabic poetry, however, many of the challenges poetry in India faces in its conversation with Western poetic traditions, particularly English, are shared with Arabic. Moreover, many of the convergences Ghosh and Miller arrive at from their respective sides of the globe can apply to Arabic poetry. I left the book inspired by...