Monday,11 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)
Monday,11 December, 2017
Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

How Naguib Mahfouz felt about Darwin

Michael Allan, In the Shadow of World Literature: Sites of Reading in Colonial Egypt, USA: Princeton University Press, pp.200 - Reviewed by Nahed Nasr

How Naguib Mahfouz felt about Darwin

Does a text mean the same thing to everyone? What factors shape the perception of a given text and give it value? Could a text be a means to understanding the other or do we judge others through our understanding of their text? 

In this book, University of Oregon comparative literature scholar Michael Allan provides a range of perspectives on these and many more questions. His objective seems to be not to add to linguistic or literary research as such but to reread world literature and reexamine its value — what it is, for whom it is written and how. For example, does the old copy of The Arabian Nights in Allan’s grandfather’s library mean the same thing to Allan the grandson? 


How Naguib Mahfouz felt about Darwin

“This was a book that meant something quite different to my grandfather as a child in Montreal than it did to me years later in Northern Virginia. In the Shadow of World Literature explores the relationship between readers and texts across traditions, but it relies as much on the terms in which books come to matter as on the primacy of writing.”

In the second chapter, “Translation”, Allan tells the story of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone — one of the most important texts bridging cultures, civilisations and languages. Did the discovery of the object-text in 1799 have the same value for everyone at that time? 

According to Allan, as part of the story of the colonial era, the Rosetta Stone’s ownership is the object of a British-French fight. That question summarises the era. But at the same time, the inscription in hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek made the object a key to an otherwise “lost language”. Allan says the stone breaks through boundaries of history, literature, archaeology, semiotics and aesthetics. But it is the process of how it comes to matter, to whom and with what purpose it speaks that interests the author.


How Naguib Mahfouz felt about Darwin

In July 1799, he recounts, when the letter announcing the discovery at the Institut d’Égypte in Cairo was read aloud to the scientists and scholars making up Bonaparte’e expedition, “Not all in the room on that day were equally impressed but the Rosetta Stone would soon take on a life of its own when reproduced in scholarly journals disseminated across the world; and yet a few of those in the audience that afternoon saw the object differently.” 

The great historian Al-Jabarti, for example, is known to have responded with outright indifference; likewise the Muslim scholar who was the guest of honour at that session, Sheikh Mahdi. 

Also discussed is how the French scholar Jean-Joseph Marcel confidently alluded to the value and interest of the Rosetta Stone but had to preface his translation of an Arabic poem (by Niqula Al-Turq Ibn Yusuf Istanbuli) with a long justification citing the importance of poetry in daily life and tradition; likewise with his translation of Surat Al-Fatiha: “The Quran is regarded by Muslims as a masterpiece of eloquence: the Arabs claim that no work exists in their language better written.” 

Allan wants to emphasise, “rather than take as a given the stability of the terms within which texts are worldly, we as scholars ought to think across the interpretative worlds the texts make available. My interest in linking together the Rosetta Stone with the translations of poetry and the Quran has been to model a means of thinking more robustly about mediation across interpretative worlds. As scholars dealing with texts from a number of traditions, we must ultimately come to terms not only with places depicted but, more crucially still, with the acute ways in which interpretative traditions impact our sensibilities as readers.” 


How Naguib Mahfouz felt about Darwin

In the fifth chapter, “Critique: Debating Darwin”, the writer uses Palace of Desire, the second part of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s Trilogy, to discuss in more depth how a controversial text by a scientist like Darwin might be received by different members of the same family. It is not geographical distinctions that play the main role in judging Darwin all over the world, though related factors include lack of science, religion and illiteracy. In Palace of Desire Mahfouz devotes a chapter to discussing how Darwin led to a tension among members of the same family. 

According to Allan, Mahfouz’s writing is not an attempt to analyse Darwin but a way to discuss how best to understand the tension in the family, which “derives, in large part, from the son’s ambitions to become a teacher where he not only sees himself as distinct from his family’s underlying ignorance and their uninformed opinions, but also is in the position to excuse their error as ultimately mistaken”. To this end Mahfouz’s text is used to investigate how a literary sensibility is defined, what it means to be modern, literate and knowledgeable. Allan calls this a gesture towards literature’s limits.  


How Naguib Mahfouz felt about Darwin

In the sixth chapter, “Intellectuals: The Provincialism of a Literary World”, the author introduces theological debates that took literary form by two writers from across literary traditions, André Gide and Taha Hussein. He introduces two sets of letters between Gide and Hussein during the 1930s on literary issues. Taking into account that they belong to different traditions, what does it mean for them to find value in one another? This, the author asks “in the context of world literature largely to address the place of Arabic literature in a world literary system”.  

In the first set of letters between the two literary figures a sense of mutual understanding emerges, based on literature as a common ground for encounter. It “is striking that much of their discussion focuses a lot less on the categories of national and linguistic difference, so sacred to how comparative literature has come to think of literary systems, than on religion”. 


How Naguib Mahfouz felt about Darwin

However, a few years later when another set of letters is exchanged over the desire of Hussein to publish Gide’s novel La porte étroite in Arabic translation, a different level of debate emerges as much of Gide’s letter in response considers his book’s reception: “And far from being concerned with Arabic readers, Gide focuses almost exclusively on religious difference, supposing what his text may have to say to Muslim readers.” Gide’s letters provoked Hussein to respond defensively and try to correct Gide’s ideas about Arab and Muslim readers and their context. According to Allan, the letters invite us to consider the limits of a literary world that brackets theology in the service of global literacy. 

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