16 - 22 March 2000
Issue No. 473
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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History and the text
By Youssef Rakha
Adonis (Ali Ahmed Said) is the classic modernist. Once the paradoxical dimension of his accomplishment is registered, any apparent discontinuity between the two epithets is dissolved. For regardless of what one thinks of his poetry -- and there is little to undermine it apart from a lack of popular appeal -- Adonis is not only one of the pillars of modern poetry, but the literary theorist whose writings, inspired as they are by the Arabic literary canon, gave rise to the widespread use of the word hadatha, modernism, in contemporary critical discourse.
The aging Syrian's presence in the 1999 Cairo International Book Fair (debates concerning whether or not Adonis had pioneered the modern poetry movement) afforded his many enthusiasts little opportunity to delve deeply into the dos and don'ts, the wiles and guiles of his particular brand of neophiliac poetic erudition. The American University in Cairo's decision to invite Adonis to give two lectures (on 5 and 12 March) in the Oriental Hall, less than two months after the millennial round of the book fair, was therefore particularly welcome. A music and poetry evening with Iraqi musician Nasseer Shamma, held on 13 March in the Small Hall of the Opera House under the auspices of the Supreme Council for Culture was later incorporated into the programme.
Judging by the number of attendees, at least, the events managed to achieve exactly what they set out to do: allow the founder of a tentative literary tradition to expound his doctrines at some length, and perhaps, implicitly and in recompense, pay tribute to a literary figure whose ground-breaking contribution was unduly questioned in the course of the 1999 book fair.
photo: Sherif Sonbol
In his poetry reading in Cairo Adonis said he was delighted to be accompanied by Iraqi musician Nasseer Shamma
photo: Mohamed El-Sehieti
The two "hypotheses" with which Adonis began the first lecture, an individual's view of "modernism in Arabic poetry," are sufficient to set the cat among the pigeons: "Imagine that what is today called 'Arab culture' is completely purged of Western influence, something that we pelt daily with various accusations; what would that culture have left?"; and "Imagine that the peoples charged with determining the direction of human civilisation in the 21st century form a round table to discuss what they have already achieved and how they hope to develop that, would the Arabs be among them? And if they were, what achievements of their own would they contribute? By the Arabs," the poet specified clearly, "I mean the formal institutions, not the Arab individuals who live and work elsewhere."
A dissident hint at the failure of Arab scientific and political establishments or an honest assessment of the weight of the Arab world in an increasingly globalised context? And Adonis did not simply leave it at that: through a variety of examples from history and personal experience, the poet delineated what he called "the crisis of verbal culture in Arab society," stressing the idea that the vast majority of Arabs function within a self-referential framework that does not allow them to raise questions but instead compels them to repeat what they already "know." The religious majority, for example, instead of pointing to alternative solutions, simply forbids the non-believing minority from pursuing its own. And the resulting absence of constructive pluralism undermines the one remaining source of power: culture.
What does modernism mean in an intellectual context that for centuries has been governed by the Word? And to what extent can the freedom to pursue an original hermeneutics at the present historical moment unleash much needed cultural-social-political creativity?
"In a spirit of intellectual frankness, not one of personal prejudice," Adonis asserted, "modern Arab thought has not posed a single radical question to Arab culture except for one person, Mohamed Arkoun, in the sense that Arkoun's hypothesis is how to read the one text that is outside history [the Quran]. How do we bring ourselves to finally undertake a historical reading of this single, ahistorical text?"
In the second lecture, entitled Al-Shi'r wal Shar' (Poetry and Law), Adonis expanded further on these questions, suggesting that poetry is ultimately the convergence of the text, any text, with history; poetry is the text that, like everything else, cannot escape history but nonetheless transcends it; it is a text whose value and relevance persists over time. Nowhere else has the recipe for classic modernism been expounded more forcefully: the very word hadatha, for one thing, dates all the way back to the critical annals of the Abbassids; invoking it now simply means drawing on a relevant aspect of Arab cultural history. Unlike its restrictive double salafiya (a word that means relying on one's cultural predecessors), hadatha is relevant in the modern context, but if it is to be operative at all it must ipso facto retain the specificity of the culture in which it emerged. Which culture is or at least can be a source of power.
Human beings exist within culture, so to say that one "returns to one's heritage" is a fallacy: one is constantly inside that heritage; and the question to be asked is how one deals with it, to what extent one allows it to turn into an intellectual straightjacket or, by contrast, injects creative vitality into its veins, illuminating it from within. The text is omnipresent and inescapable; what counts is how we interpret the text. Language, in this sense, is an indispensable anchor; it forms an essential part of what constitutes ones intellectual being. Poetry, as an example of language that renews and questions itself, Adonis suggested, could be a model for the desired hermeneutical process: to write poetry, which ultimately amounts to a rereading of poetry, is to create heritage anew, to break out of the straightjacket of salafiya. And it is thus that shi'r could inform shar' by liberating it from the vicious circle of simply speaking to itself.
Both lectures included intermittent recitations of Adonis's poetry, which with their implicit declamations and concretely austere imagery formed a pleasant counterpoint to the rhetorical questions and complex reiterations of the poet's unmediated thought, described by him simply as "sometimes disorganised, mostly disorganised musings." It was not until Monday evening, however, that it became unequivocally apparent that these new poems dealt with the same topics as the lectures, but in a more aesthetic and less explicitly contentious way. Alternating with Shamma's distinctive improvisations on the oud, Adonis's lines -- speaking of knowledge, and defeat, of homelessness and treason -- reaffirmed the poet's place of eminence in Egyptian poetic circles, but more crucially they demonstrated his life's work, exemplifying what he had been promoting throughout the last two weeks: a turn-of-the-millennium modernism that places the text in history, questioning and ultimately transcending both.