Friday, 25 November 2005

Teaching Melville in Madrasas [Given the understandable reluctance of Weblog readers to comment on this post, I reprint it here, since I'm interested in how people feel about this question. Plus, I think it's one of the most provocative (in a good way) things I've written of late, and don't want it buried so quickly. Plus I'm the chef and today's Thanksgiving, so I've been busy all day injecting butter into turkey and fixing fixins for the feast.] The current issue of The New York Review of Books contains two jarringly complementary articles. The first is Frederick Crews' review [subscribers only] of Andrew Delbanco's critical biography of Melville. Delbanco treats Melville as "one of those writers whom Lionel Trilling described as 'repositories of the dialectics of their times' in the sense that they contain 'both the yes and no of their culture.'" Thus: Respect for the past, in Delbanco's case, includes eschewing the revisionists' "gotcha!" approach to a dead author's limitations and instead trying to recreate the dilemmas that he faced. On the pivotal issue of abolitionism, for example, Delbanco doesn't buy the crude idea that Melville's reluctance to become an activist was motivated by a wish to avoid offending his benefactor and kin, Judge Shaw. No one in Melville's day could envision how the slaves might be emancipated without causing secession. Although the novelist made it plain that he detested slavery, he joined the great majority of his Northern compatriots in hoping to avoid the gruesome war that would soon cost over 600,000 American lives. To condemn him with the hindsight of 150 years, Delbanco would doubtless say, is simply to reveal one's own failure of historical imagination. This is not historicism for historicism's sake, according to Delbanco, but historicism in the service of moral and political complexity. Read in his original context, Melville should not be censured for his failure to condemn slavery because the experience of living in a tumultuous time includes "both the yes and no of [a] culture." Normally I find this quasi-æstheticist pose painfully insufficient—a flaccid defense of New Critical orthodoxy—but another article in the current NYRB suggests the insufficiency of my own pose. William Dalrymple's "Inside the Madrasa" [free content] opens with the following anecdote: Here, straddling the noisy, truck-thundering Islamabad highway, stands the Haqqania, one of the most radical of the religious schools called madrasas. Many of the Taliban leaders, including Mullah Omar, were trained at this institution. If its teachings have been blamed for inspiring the brutal, ultra-conservative incarnation of Islamic law that that regime presided over, there is no sign that the Haqqania is ashamed of its former pupils: instead, the madrasa's director, Maulana Sami ul-Haq, still proudly boasts that whenever the Taliban put out a call for fighters, he would simply close down the madrasa and send his students off to fight. In many ways, then, Akora Khattack represents everything that US policymakers most fear and dislike in this region, a bastion of religious, intellectual, and sometimes—in the form of the Taliban—military resistance...
An Imperial Message At North Farm; or, Kafka, Ashbery and The Fear of Emoting Everyone who knows me knows how I feel about poetry. I rarely read it and when I do I become frustrated by the ambiguity others rejoice. So it may sound strange when I say that the only book of poetry I find compelling is John Ashbery's The Wave. According to Robert Mazzocco, his ability to go on and on has always struck me as the signal characteristic of the work of John Ashbery. Many of Ashbery's poems are really improvisations on the theme of flux. That sounds terrible. And as I learned today as I skimmed his collected works, the experience of reading improvisations on the theme of flux is akin to the experience of grading undergraduate composition essays. You never can tell what they mean or why they're saying what they're saying but you get the distinct impression that they desperately desire you suss it out. Then I hit selections from The Waves again and I remembered why I bought the book in the first place: it feels like Kafka to me. Another way to say that is I spent the summer after I graduated reading nothing but Kafka. In The Waves, Ashbery taps the same vein of alienation. For example, here's Kafka's parable "An Imperial Message": The Emperor—so they say—has sent a message, directly from his death bed, to you alone, his pathetic subject, a tiny shadow which has taken refuge at the furthest distance from the imperial sun. He ordered the herald to kneel down beside his bed and whispered the message in his ear. He thought it was so important that he had the herald speak it back to him. He confirmed the accuracy of verbal message by nodding his head. And in front of the entire crowd of those witnessing his death—all the obstructing walls have been broken down, and all the great ones of his empire are standing in a circle on the broad and high soaring flights of stairs—in front of all of them he dispatched his herald. The messenger started off at once, a powerful, tireless man. Sticking one arm out and then another, he makes his way through the crowd. If he runs into resistence, he points to his breast where there is a sign of the sun. So he moves forwards easily, unlike anyone else. But the crowd is so huge; its dwelling places are infinite. If there were an open field, how he would fly along, and soon you would hear the marvellous pounding of his fist on your door. But instead of that, how futile are all his efforts. He is still forcing his way through the private rooms of the innermost palace. Never will he win his way through. And if he did manage that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to fight his way down the steps, and, if he managed to do that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to stride through the courtyards, and after the courtyards through the second...

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