Wednesday, 23 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...

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