Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1389, (12 - 18 April 2018)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1389, (12 - 18 April 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Studies in ontology

Doris Enright-Clark Shoukri’s Studies in Ontology in Twentieth-Century Literature is a record of a condition as well as the testimony of a remarkable life, writes Leslie Croxford

Studies in ontology
Al-Ahram Weekly


oris Enright-Clark Shoukri’s recent book Studies in Ontology in Twentieth-Century Literature needs to be evaluated not only in terms of what it says, but also of the conditions that produced it. 

As she says in her introduction, “it might be well to indicate briefly the circumstances which dictated that I undertake these studies in Cairo, so distant in place and mood to where the works discussed were written.” Indeed, it emerges that much of what the book says, and the incisiveness of its insights, is a consequence of how it came to be written. For different as was the world and personal situation that brought her to Egypt from those that took the émigré German scholar Erich Auerbach to Istanbul in the 1940s, both authors found themselves writing permanently far from home.

Shoukri was pursuing the vagaries of the heart. She left New York to marry in Egypt. She was born on the 16th floor of a Manhattan apartment building. But she lived on the 10th, 12th, and 16th through all her youth. She pushed an elevator button to ascend or descend, meaning she never met those on the levels in-between except as occasional spectres in the lobby. And the world from her high windows consisted of occasional jets of steam that her infant mind never connected with the subway. They seemed to come from hell. There was no basis of earth continuous with green fields, the countryside and the rest of the United States. 

How different from Egypt with its constant neighbours; people who, whether rich or poor, led lives founded on the instinctive certainties, the same ones, derived from thousands of years of shared history.

Such were the very different realities confronting this young American woman in her 20s, appearing in Cairo with a doctorate from the University of Bryn Mawr in mediaeval Latin. Her thesis was on the 15th-century Oxford playwright Thomas Chaundler. But she had done her research among the illuminated manuscripts in the magnificent library of Trinity College, Cambridge, designed by Sir Christopher Wren. No library in Cairo, or even Egypt, except in classical times, could compare. Scholarly research was therefore out of the question. Yet, must that mean all academic work was impossible? How might Shoukri proceed intellectually?

She necessarily focused instead on the literature to which she could have access. These were the plays and novels being written at that time, predominantly in France. Discussions of the new texts followed with generations of students who remain in her debt to this day. Then articles of arresting brilliance started appearing. For Shoukri profited from the creation of ALIF, a journal founded by members of the American University in Cairo’s Department of English and Contemporary Literature that was destined to become internationally recognised as a leading literary review. 

In some cases the articles carried the endorsement of the new authors themselves, and they are collected in the present book. But in addition to reprinting studies of Virginia Woolf, Marguerite Duras, Milan Kundera and others, this collection publishes for the first time essays on Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett and Julia Kristeva. Although Shoukri began work on this entire subject in the 1950s, she wrote her most recent chapter, on Camus, only late last year when she was in her 90s. This means that the writing of this book, and her concern with its theme of being or ontology, has spanned virtually her entire adult life.


As was the case with Auerbach, however, both the existence and many of the strengths of Shoukri’s book are a consequence of the singular circumstances in which it was written. It relied on no scholarly library. This is not a work of conventional literary criticism either. Both scholar and critic elsewhere, Shoukri is above all a reader in this instance: a highly sophisticated, intellectually powerful reader relying on her incisive insights alone. For this was blissfully long before the torrent of scholarly commentaries on these French and other writers began. And while critics have, in time, also gone on to discuss ontology in these texts, Shoukri is remarkable in having been among the first to do so.

Even so, the book, and the very subject of literary explorations of ontology, which might never have been written if its author had remained in New York with its great libraries, did not spring Athena-like from Shoukri’s head. Far from fully-formed, it drew on her general reading. For she had been an avid reader of novels from an early age. But her previous academic training was also decisive. It makes her alert to fundamental aspects of mid-20th- century European literature which someone whom circumstances had not required to enter this particular field of study from another, specifically the Middle Ages, might miss altogether.

Two quotations will show this. Shoukri writes that “one result... of this concern with ontology has been the appearance of generic man or Everyman again in the forefront.” And again she writes: “as in the morality plays, so much a part of my literary studies... the modern novel concerned itself with man’s meaning in his relation to the universal rather than with his place in the cultural world.”


ONTOLOGY OF THE HUMAN: There is a further consequence of interpreting modern literature in relation to the Middle Ages. It is to be aware that what the American critic Harold Bloom terms “the invention of the human” in Shakespeare had run its course by the mid-20th century. 

Bloom writes that “personality, in our sense, is a Shakespearean invention, and is not only Shakespeare’s greatest originality but also the authentic cause of his perpetual pervasiveness.” One may or may not wish to accept such a grandiose claim for Shakespeare, or even to find any single source for post-mediaeval humanism. Yet, what becomes clear, as Shoukri points out in the texts she studies in her book, is that the focus of interest has shifted from a sense of self in a psychological or cultural sense.


As she says of the US writer Gertrude Stein’s character Melanchtha, “... she wished to describe her ‘being-in-this-world’, not her psychology, nor the sociological conditions that had influenced her. Indeed, she studiously avoided reference to the effect upon her of being a black girl in a white society... She was [one critic says] ‘determined to express the essential being, the final mode of existence in people as a thing in itself.’” 

This insistence on training the focus on being, the ontological, is summarised alternatively, as Shoukri shows, by the French author André Gide, for whom “being is occupation enough.” 

Once more it is possible to perceive that Shoukri would be highly attuned to this prime emphasis on being from her familiarity with the Middle Ages. Mediaeval philosophy interacts with classical texts by Plato and Aristotle, as well as the writings of the early Christian fathers, like Augustine and Boethius. It results in philosophical theology such as Saint Anselm produced. And being is the very category he identifies in his famous proof of the existence of God, to give only the most celebrated instance of mediaeval ontology. 


Aware of this, Shoukri does not, however, represent 20th-century European novelists and playwrights as essentially mediaeval. Hardly theologians, they live, rather, in a secular world. But then they are not even philosophers like their contemporary the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Shoukri studies them on their own terms, which are less abstract and conceptual and more experiential. It leads her, then, to distinguish from Jean-Paul Sartre, the theorist of phenomenology, from Camus: Albert Camus with his attachment to long summers on the beaches of Algiers and to the coarse wine and human solidity of his barely educated pied noir relations.

Shoukri’s perceptiveness is, then, not only that of a mediaevalist whom force of circumstance makes a reader of 20th-century literature. It derives from other sources too. Here we reflect that while she was not forced into exile in the way that Auerbach was, she has nonetheless been a virtually life-long expatriate. As such she has perhaps displayed a capacity for insight similar to that which the late Palestinian-American critic Edward Said attributed to others separated from their homeland. 

Hence, it might well appear to her that what is most essentially human, most oneself, is less a matter of context, depending on one’s original surroundings, or even of personality, developed through the vicissitudes of context. It is, rather, one’s very being. Besides, if one has nothing but one’s being to declare, one can travel very light.

Richness of insight can well accrue from long sojourn on foreign shores. Exile is, of course, a two-edged sword. “You are to know the bitter taste / of others’ bread, how salt it is,” Dante famously says. But then Auerbach also quotes the 12th-century theologian Hugh of St Victor, whom Shoukri well knows, to the effect that “the man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.”

To which one might add that a foreign land can, in a single exceptional being, sometimes encompass an entire world. Here in Egypt Shoukri has reached from her adopted homeland with its Pyramids to the 20th-century’s European avant-garde and the glass pyramids of the Louvre in Paris. They are shown on the cover of her book, which is published by Cambridge Scholars in Cambridge in one of whose great libraries its author’s wide-ranging intellectual progress began.


Doris Enright-Clark Shoukri, Studies in Ontology in Twentieth-Century Literature, Cambridge Scholars Press: Cambridge (UK), 2017, pp.275.

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