A Quote for Today

"Never would I let my own fate sink into such dejection, never would I squander my existence in the service of powers that seem grand as all the world, but afterwards prove futile, as if they never were. Now I knew the example in all its terror-striking depth. In throes of exaltation, he had taken the flourishing and convulsions of a tawdry little empire for earth-shattering phenomena, and glorified them in poems freighted with sound as foolhardily futile as all that clangor of arms and booming of canons. Afterward he perpetrated an act of cowardice in returning home late in life, in the hope that fame might cherish him. And with scarce any spine or resistance, he let himself starve to death, grateful for the charity of an inadequate stipend, and crumbs dropped from the table of the wealthy few."
- Jan Slauerhoff "The Final Appearance of Camões", tr. A.Z. Foreman

"Nooit zou ik mijn lot zó in mismoedigheid laten verlopen, nooit mijn bestaan verkwisten in het dienen van machten die wereldgroot lijken, maar daarna nietig zijn alsof zij nooit waren geweest. Ik kende nu het voorbeeld in al zijn afschrikwekkendheid. Geëxalteerd had hij de bloei en de stuiptrekkingen van een klein en pover rijk gezien als wereldschokkend en verheerlijkt in gedichten, zwaar van klank, maar even dwaas vergeefs als al het wapengekletter en kanongebulder. Daarna had hij nog de lafheid begaan op latere leeftijd terug te keren, hopend op de koestering van de roem. En willoos, zonder verzet, had hij zich laten doodhongeren, nog dankbaar met de aalmoes van een onvoldoend jaargeld en de resten van de tafel van de schaarse rijken."
- Jan Slauerhoff "Laaste Verschijning Van Camoës"

Living Language vs. Language of Living

I have noticed a curious characteristic of Renaissance Latin verse: the social world of its authors often found more direct, and far more intimate expression than vernacular verse of the same place and time, even the vernacular verse of the same poet.

We need only put, say, Du Bellay's French "Regrets" beside his Latin "Amores", both composed in the same period and place, to see the difference. In the French work, Du Bellay can only hint through an impersonal sonneteer's mask at what was actually going on in his life. In the Latin work, Du Bellay reveals to the reader that he fell in love with a young woman who was in an unhappy marriage to an old man, that he won her with the assistance of her mother, and that her husband put a stop to it by abducting her and locking her away.

I'm not sure why this is, though I suspect it has to do with the general trend I have noticed that when writing for an elite one is usually freer to be indecorous. I can't even imagine the respectable Thomas More writing De Puella Quae Raptum Finxit in English in the 15th century. 

Mourning in America

Mourning in America

Some hurtling like a meteor
Find flameouts hot and sweet,
But I'm to rise out of this filthy
Rubble upon my feet.

Some see no more in a silver-spoon
Than proper silverware.
I taste in it the battle moon
That bloodies the evening air.

Some can be dreamers, learn to lead
A rich unconscious life,
But I, face down on a gory street,
Came conscious of the knife.

For I was born of a dying dream.
Bad time for the ideal
Is all that I can hope to think,
And the horror of the real,

Horror that woke me out of life
Put death before my eyes,
Bid me get up, and laughed as I writhed.
I lacked the legs to rise.



Andaloosely Speaking

The obsession over who borrowed what from whom, when it comes to the relationship between the Arab world and the West, is extraordinarily tiresome and long ago ceased to be remotely interesting.

The extent to which Western high culture is indebted on numerous accounts to learning produced under Islam is by now so exhaustively demonstrated that reading an article which treats this fact as somehow news feels like something of an insult to my intelligence. Anyone who actually needs to be informed of so staggering a point of banality wouldn't be reading this kind of thing anyway. (Of course, not all the borrowing was salutary. The Castillian religious militarism and caste culture which the Spanish brought to the New World owed almost as much to the models of Arab-ruled Andalus as the study of Aristotle did. Yet somehow Islamic contributions of this sort never come up.)

All in all Arab culture borrowed as much (if not more) from Christian Syria, Byzantium and post-Sassanid Persia, as Western European culture later borrowed from it. But that's not the real issue. The real issue is: who's keeping score, and why don't they have anything better to do with their time?

Can we get past this whole thing now? Please? Or does an entire discipline have to continue to act like it's always talking to a drunk version of somebody's obtusely racist uncle?

Clement Weather in Hindustan

Clement Weather in Hindustan
By A.Z. Foreman

Good riddance to the skies of ruthless blue,
The sun lashing the Dalit workers' backs
Amid the lie of nothing much ado,
The heat coercing me to just relax.

Let me go out and walk in this monsoon.
There is a special beauty to the air
That marauds, blows and floods an afternoon.
Sing in the rain when no one else is there.

Aatish Taseer Is Full of Shit

God I hate the ideology of multicultural representation, this ersatz diversity peddled as more than it is.

Indian literature and languages aren't something I've devoted myself to for a great amount of time as is the case with e.g. the Near East, and the Indian literature I've occupied myself with has been mostly its Persian component.

Still, having seen Aatish Taseer's article "How English Ruined Indian Literature" reshared yet again as making heed-worthy points, I feel the need to make a few points of my own.

Let me start with Sanskrit. That's a good place to start. People always love to seek beginnings in Sanskrit.

DID YOU KNOW:

There is modern Sanskrit poetry. A lot of it. Sanskrit still has people who speak, write and versify in it. Actually a couple thousand Indians are native Sanskritophones, and not all Sanskrit literary figures are Hindu either. The Kristubhāgavatam is a Christian epic about the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ by P.C. Devassia.

BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE:

Cause if you think that's weird, you will really be weirded out by the fact that it is actually not that weird. India has a history of epic verse in local languages about Christian figures. Mostly by Indians like P.C. Devassia, but a small few by non-Indians like the Jesuit missionary Constanzo Beschi, whose masterpiece was a Tamil-language epic about St. Joseph.

Even there, there's more where that came from.

There have been quite a few Europeans throughout history who composed literature in Indian languages, mostly in Urdu and Persian, but also a handful in Tamil, Sanskrit, Telugu and others. A fraction of them actually became accomplished artists in their adopted linguistic medium, and a couple were instrumental in the literature's development.

Roberto de Nobili, another Jesuit missionary of the same era as Beschi, mastered Tamil, Sanskrit and Telugu and composed over 40 volumes of poetry and prose, including theological and philosophical discourses, in these languages. History judged him inferior as a poet to Beschi (whose Tembavani greatly impressed native Tamilians and, I am told, still does. Tho sadly it remains untranslated), but De Nobili's influential stylistic achievements in prose earned him the title of "the father of Tamil prose" from Devanesan Rajarigam in his "History of Tamil Christian Literature." And D. Rajarigam isn't the only one to hold that opinion.

Beschi and De Nobili are as far as I can determine well-known and well-studied. They are also singular in that their apparently foundational roles in the development of a modern literature ensure that they do get acknowledged, at least by specialists and scholars who aren't grinding an axe. But as I'll get to later they seem not to come up in discussions where you'd think they ought to. And most others were never widely circulated at all, and so easily forgotten as they were never much remembered to begin with.

The true extent of literary activity by Europeans in Indian languages in the past few centuries appears to be impossible to assess. This is most true of lyric poems like ghazals which often circulated privately among a limited audience of acquaintances, and not always in written form. The famous E.H. Palmer's output of poetry in Urdu and Persian was not only much more artistically accomplished than his English verse (I can vouch for the Persian at least) but also was clearly far more extensive than what survives now. Moreover a lot of the work produced by more obscure Europeans, many of whom went completely native and settled in India with local spouses, probably remains in manuscripts that never left the possession of individual families, who over time may have lost them or, in some cases at least, intentionally destroyed them as an embarrassment. Some also probably lies buried somewhere in India, in the lethean library of archives from the colonial period.

Of the material of this kind that has been uncovered, less still has been published and made easily available as far as I can tell. Ram Babu Saksena, in his extremely valuable anthology "European and Indo-European Poets of Urdu and Persian" mentions the enormous amount of material some poets had produced, from which he selected the best work to include. And though a few such books exist (not all in English, I understand, though I do not know Urdu well enough to read such books in it) they are rare and hard to obtain. Rare too, as far as I know, have been the scholars with both the means and the motive to explore this forgotten field. These ill-known and ill-preserved writers - chiefly but not exclusively poets - seem doomed to be forgotten.

In a way, they are part of the collateral damage wreaked as much by the circumstances of time and place, as by developments of the late colonial and subsequent postcolonial eras, such as retrograde nationalism, reactionary religious fundamentalism, and the brainless fetishism of authenticity. Not to mention the guilt-ridden epistemological masturbation passed off as solidarity by irresponsible theorists and their epigones, which was easily redeployed in repurposed form by the precursors to today's tightassed Vedas-thumping Modi-toadies.

It is ironic that Aatish Taseer's pitiable article in the New York Times "How English Ruined Indian Literature" is both so at pains to give mention and attention to non-English Indian writers past and present, and yet is apparently unaware that Indian literature in Indian languages has not entirely been the preserve of Indians. Granted that only a couple would appear to have played truly pivotal roles. But then, why does he also write as if he were unaware not only of Beschi and De Nobili, but of the entirety of Tamil literature? This is more seriously unforgivable.

The fellow apparently shares the common north Indian prejudice against all things south Indian. He writes about Indian-language literature as if it consisted exclusively of literature in Indo-Aryan and northern languages like Bengali, Hindi, Sanskrit and Urdu. One would think that someone who so bloviates about the relationship between power and language-choice might take a moment to note the irony of treating Tamil literature as irrelevant. Just listen to this bit of unintentional self-incrimination

India, if it is to speak to itself, will always need a lingua franca. But English, which re-enacts the colonial relationship, placing certain Indians in a position the British once occupied, does more than that. It has created a linguistic line as unbreachable as the color line once was in the United States.
By "a lingua franca" Aatish Taseer implicitly means Hindi. This is an old idea. The reason why India still has English as its lingua franca is because they already tried Hindi. Repeatedly. It didn't work. Actually, people died as a result. South Indians - Tamils especially - reacted with protests and riots to any policy that made Hindi mandatory, seeing in it a means by which northerners were imposing their will on the south. Indeed it was actually under the British that the first mandatory Hindi policies were attempted in the south only to be withdrawn in the face of fierce and violent popular upset. The prejudice against Hindi as a lingua franca, and concomitant preference for English, continues among Tamils to this day. So Aatish here is not only full of shit but, in talking about a lingua franca that creates and reinforces disparities of this kind without any sense of irony, he has produced a specimen of brain-gouging sincerity that, out of context, would be indistinguishable from a masterpiece of parody. Yeah, Aatish, keep talking. I need more comedy gold like you in my life. O sing to me, sweet teapot, about how ugly that black kettle is!

Then again, maybe it's all for the best that the fellow does not care to acknowledge the languages, literatures, or even sheer existence, of southern India even in an article which makes such great noise over the ill-serviced and underrepresented. If poor Aatish started to read around a bit and learned that two of the foundational contributors to modern Tamil literature were Christian missionaries from Europe, this manipulative dunce who so simplistically raves about authenticity and decolonization just might have an aneurism and die, thereby depriving me of the unintentional gems of hilarity he would have otherwise produced. Let him live in ignorance if only for the sake of laughter. But so help me if I see one more well-intentioned soul on my feed point to this obscene article as something we should all pay heed to, as if it were righteous advocacy for voices unheard, rather than the shallow horseshit it smells like.

Why has this rant meandered so? Partly, I'm just in a mood. Partly I felt the need to illustrate how easily and how profoundly we all (yes, me too) are prone in various ways to forget how fucking big the world is. But also, the layered cake of irony traced above is the kind of thing that makes it impossible at this point to have any respect for the politics of representation in literary discussion anymore than elsewhere.

Yes, many are slighted and forgotten unjustly because the scales of circumstance were tilted unfavorably. The European writers and poets discussed above are one example among many. Chinese women's literature from the Ming and Qing dynasties. Persian-language poetry produced by Hindus in the Mughal courts. Arabic poetry by Subsaharan African Muslims. Modern literature written in Latin. Modern poetry written in Classical Chinese. And of course I am all for reading more widely and more diversely in such a way as to include the slighted and the less accessible, so as to miss out on less.

But that isn't what "representation of other voices" has come to mean. It has come to mean not honestly diversifying one's exposure and thereby broadening one's frame of reference, but rather treating the commonplace of Dead White Men as if it meant more than it really does, and the rest of the world as smaller than it really is. In this case it also leads to the ineluctable snafu of all representational multiculturalism in which claims are given more or less weight depending on the ethnic or demographic category of the person making them.

When you take self-serving, self-appointed manipulators at their word simply because they belong to the same ascriptive category as those they claim to speak for, you are liable to let someone else not merely make recommendations but actually do your thinking for you. Most Americans don't grasp that India was never a unified political entity until British rule, let alone the importance of the millennia of deep cleavage between North and South India. They will not be savvy about the exploitation of misconceptions they don't know they have, and cannot notice the absence of something whose existence they are unaware of. Ignorance of these points is what allows Aatish Taseer to sound like he's making sense. Moreover, because he frames his argument, and is himself well-positioned, to manipulate the ascriptive categories which Americans are keyed to look for, he can get away with uncomputably high levels of nonsense which I don't even feel like fully delving into. I truly doubt that this hooplah would ever have been taken this seriously (or even seen the light of day in the New York fucking Times) had it been written by a non-Indian.

Not only does the ethic of representational multiculturalism often fail even to offer a vague approximation of the representative product advertised, but it also runs interference for commission of the very sin it chastises, silencing and effacing a great deal of humanity - artistic, cultural and historical - under ever deeper embedded layers of bias. The surviving remainder need only be processed into a convenient commodity, like a chicken into a McNugget, for the many who are ready and willing to swallow diversity in ironically homogenized form.

Meanwhile anything that isn't the least bit generic even on the surface, anything truly defying facile categorization, anything that refuses to behave at all as expected, remains liable to be neglected as it ever was. By this I do not just mean European Christian Missionaries who composed still-untranslated epic poetry in a South Indian language. I also mean Palestinians who choose to write fiction and poetry in Hebrew rather than their native Arabic - almost all of whom wrote at the margins of their own literary culture and whose achievements are too underappreciated for much translation to even be hoped for. Then there is Esperanto literature, which remains untranslated almost in its entirety, and whose existence itself is often met with confusion or incredulity. And many others, including all the stuff that I myself just don't know about and don't have the means to discover.

RIP Patricia Crone

I have just been informed that Patricia Crone, a pathbreaking scholar of early and medieval Islam and of the Qur'an, has passed away due to cancer.

She did not necessarily always find the right answers, but she was second to none in asking the right questions, and her recent work on the Qur'an's construction of the mušrikūn was watershed in its nature.

In an age of political correctness, Patricia was one of the precious few who weren't afraid to face the hard questions. In initiating the modern debunking of the traditional Islamic narratives of history, she proved one of the most important historians of Islam in the last 50 years.

Farewell, Patricia. We will all be diminished by your absence.