“She has turned her face, more than once, to the Outer Radiance and simply seen nothing there. And so each time has taken a little more of the Zero into herself.” – Gravity’s Rainbow
Gravity’s Rainbow is a novel about nothing. More specifically, it chronicles the emergence and proliferation of disembodied systems of mechanized thought and control which have no ultimate ground, and no ultimate purpose.
And this indeed is how the book is written – continually positing and then undermining its own plots, moods, and meanings, until the reader, like many of the book’s characters, are ineluctably thrown back into paranoid uncertainty regarding the meaning of the book, and of life itself.
The novel takes place in the final days of World War II, primarily in the European theater. Pynchon persuasively locates the roots of postmodernity in the strategic, bureaucratic, mechanized fragmentation of information and communication as it was collectively expressed on unprecedented scale by the confounded pedants, zealots, and office workers who prosecuted the war in the midst of the shattered European heritage.
In one reading, the novel is a grotesque celebration of the totality of the collective psyche insofar as it had advanced at that time. Conflicts, patterns, and mysteries arise, only to be meticulously deconstructed in a frenzy of verbose rhapsodizing, and the action moves on without any sense of progress or closure to the next theater of action. The story unfolds with a mechanical logic while signs and meanings arise, multiply, and vanish, much like the war itself:
The War needs electricity. It’s a lively game, Electric Monopoly, among the power companies, the Central Electricity Board, and other War agencies, to keep Grid Time synchronized with Greenwich Mean Time. In the night, the deepest concrete wells of night, dynamos whose locations are classified spin faster, and so, responding, the clock-hands next to all the old, sleepless eyes – gathering in their minutes whining, pitching higher toward the vertigo of a siren. It is the Night’s Mad Carnival.
Pynchon suggests the rocket as the sign of a new kind of worship for a new kind of God, and its handiwork is a cathedral to nothing. The bombed-out architecture of the London Blitz is described more than once as openwork, likening the networks of cracks and fissures to the tracery of Gothic cathedrals. How this is to be read – as atheism, nihilism, solipsism, or an apophatic theology which denies the knowability of God – is held in permanent suspension, signifying a crisis of meaning that still holds the Western tradition in its grip.
“In hoc signo vignes,” Constantine saw in his prophetic dream of the Cross on the advent of Christianity’s ascension in Rome: “By this sign, conquer.” Thus, Pynchon:
Outside, through the dirty periscope, gnarled fog unloosens from the bright zone of frost that belly-bands the reared and shadowy rocket, where the liquid-oxygen tank’s being topped off. Trees press close: overhead you see barely enough sky for the rocket’s ascent. The Bodenplatte—concrete plate laid over strips of steel—is set inside a space defined by three trees, blazed so as to triangulate the exact bearing, 260°, to London. The symbol used is a rude mandala, a red circle with a thick black cross inside, recognizable as the ancient sun-wheel from which tradition says the swastika was broken by the early Christians, to disguise their outlaw symbol. Two nails are driven into the tree at the center of the cross. Next to one of the painted blaze-marks, the most westerly, someone has scratched in the bark with the point of a bayonet the words in HOC SIGNO VINGES. No one in the battery will admit to this act.
Note that again we see life’s primary action proceeding from the root of the world tree – it turns up again and again, wholly unlooked for.
Gravity’s Rainbow is famously about the V-2 rocket, but it is no less about the concept of zero, which serves as the point of origin and return.
In one arresting image, the zero is imagined as the ouroboros, or serpent devouring its own tail. It forms a zero with its very body, in an age-old symbol of the self-subsisting character of life itself.
In a well-known legend, the German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé is said to have discovered the chemical structure of benzene after a night of fitful sleep while he was feverishly working on the problem. He had a vivid dream about the ouroboros, and awoke with the realization that the benzene molecule forms a ring. Pynchon uses this striking image:
Kekulé dreams the Great Serpent holding its own tail in its mouth, the dreaming Serpent which surrounds the World. But the meanness, the cynicism with which this dream is to be used. The Serpent that announces, “The World is a closed thing, cyclical, resonant, eternally-returning,” is to be delivered into a system whose only aim is to violate the Cycle. Taking and not giving back, demanding that “productivity” and “earnings” keep on increasing with time, the System removing from the rest of the World these vast quantities of energy to keep its own tiny desperate fraction showing a profit: and not only most of humanity — most of the World, animal, vegetable, and mineral, is laid waste in the process. The System may or may not understand that it’s only buying time. And that time is an artificial resource to being with, of no value to anyone or anything but the System, which must sooner or later crash to its death, when its addiction to energy has become more than the rest of the World can supply, dragging with it innocent souls all along the chain of life.
This is one of many overpowering images that seem to encompass the totality of the book in a single sign. These images frequently appear to the book’s enormous cast of characters, who are often paranoid, drugged, stupid, or mentally unstable, and who expend enormous energy gratuitously interpreting and theorizing about their meaning.
The central puzzle involves a mysterious link between the sexual conquests of Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrup and the sites of V-2 bombings in London during the Blitz. The sexualized/phallic character of the rocket plays like a book-length parody of the German Romantic motif of the Liebestod, or love-death, which goes back at least as far Gottfried von Strassburg’s 13th-century masterpiece Tristan, but is better known today as the core motif of Wagner’s great opera. In this symbol, love and death are combined in a single image, uniting temporal existence in a dual expression of generation and extinction.
Obvious musicological parallels between Wagner’s method in Tristan und Isolde and this book may be drawn, particularly regarding the opera’s famous overture based on the “Tristan chord.” It progresses but never resolves, leaving the listener in a constant state of suspension, waiting closure like Vladimir and Estragon.
For Wagner, this endless chromatic progression implies the insatiable character of romantic love, but Pynchon elaborates it into an image of metaphysical estrangement. I believe the fact that the word Liebestod never appears in this book is a minor joke.
Music and its meaning is obviously of interest to Pynchon. One of my favorites of several ongoing philosophical arguments in the book is the debate between Gustav Kerl and Säure on music. Kerl argues that the new “atonal” style of Schoenberg and his disciples is the future of music, while Säure unapologetically argues for the sentimental music of the 19th century. In this scene, they wrangle over the Row, which is the basic compositional unit for Schoenberg’s 12-tone composition:
“You’re caught in tonality,” screams Gustav. “Trapped. Tonality is a game. All of them are. You’re too old. You’ll never move beyond the game, to the Row. The Row is enlightenment.”
“The Row is a game too.” Säure sits grinning with an ivory spoon, shoveling incredible piles of cocaine into his nose[..].. “Sound is a game, if you’re capable of moving that far, you adenoidal closet-visionary. That’s why I listen to Spohr, Rossini, Spontini, I’m choosing my game, one full of light and kindness. You’re stuck with that stratosphere stuff and rationalize its dullness away by calling it ‘enlightenment.’ You don’t know what enlightenment is, Kerl, you’re blinder than I am.”
This struggle between the human and the abstract may tell us something about a divide within the author. This book is, after all, extremely abstruse, and the very names of its characters often calculated to keep us at a distance in high Brechtian mode. Characters often evidence little interiority or personality and strike me as little more than pieces on a great board, or ciphers for theories or ideas.
Yet the interiority that Pynchon denies to his characters is evident in the voice of the novel itself, and may be sensed in how it focuses its attention. Gravity’s Rainbow often betrays its author’s deep concern with the real human cost of bad ideas, evidenced by numerous lacerating jibes at war, such as “Don’t forget the real business of War is buying and selling. The murdering and the violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted to non-professionals.”
One can only read real human feeling in such bitterness – a sentiment that the author clearly goes to considerable lengths bury in his book, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me.
Although Gravity’s Rainbow is obviously a work of genius, in many important respects it is not a book that I enjoyed reading or would lightly recommend. It pointedly and continually poses deep aesthetic and interpretive challenges to the reader, and not always in a manner I found rewarding or enjoyable.
Indeed, it is often unpleasant. Like a bad acid trip, the book inventories the repressed contents of the European collective unconscious at punishing length, with numerous hateful scenes of debauchery and vulgarity that to me were exceedingly tedious – but not as tedious as the witless lyrics that fill this book in inexplicable songs that crop up repeatedly, caricatures of something that I think never existed. Here is one of the first:
Colder than he nipples on a witch’s tit!
Colder than a bucket of penguin shit!
Colder than the hairs of a polar bear’s ass!
Colder than the frost on a champagne glass!
The point of these hateful songs is beyond quite me.
Pynchon revels in obscenity, and the book is crowded with long, repugnant descriptions of scatological fantasies and S&M orgies that left me equally revolted and mystified.
Perhaps these scenes serve the artist’s need to deal with the totality of humanity’s physical and psychic life in the same way that the novel Ulysses unflinchingly accompanying Leopold Bloom into the outhouse. But Joyce was concerned with people in their totality, while Pynchon’s use of the Freudian Id feels arbitrary to me – neither illuminating or amusing. To be sure, if I never see the word “cunt” in print again, it will be too soon.
Many of us are unlucky in the year of our birth, and it can be a diverting meditation to ruminate on which time one would have preferred. Perhaps one would have been happier living in Elizabethan London, rubbing elbows with bawdy playwrights and playing high-stakes political chess. Or one might have lived in Baghdad during its Golden Age, gathering in the great mosques alongside Neoplatonist philosophers and Central Asian spice merchants bound for the Tarim Basin.
When I play this idle game, I would like to have come of age in the 1920s, which saw the appearance of Ulysses, “The Waste Land,” Being and Time, To the Lighthouse, The Magic Mountain, The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, and “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” Bliss it would have been in that dawn to be alive, but to be young would have been very heaven!
Alas, I’m a castaway on the rocky shores of the late 20th century, having formed my worldview within the horizon of postmodernism, and I can only look back with wistful longing at the golden age that lies almost within reach. And in some sense, we are still in the wake of the great creative age of modernism, for the questions and concerns that haunt postmodernity were all well known to the modernist. It is only that the center of gravity has shifted – where the modernist was creative, the postmodernist is critical – and that is the tragedy.
I sometimes think this must have been what it was like to grow up in the time of Mannerism, so close to the Italian Renaissance, and to see the profound epiphany of Da Vinci and the theophany of Michelangelo debased into Mannerism in works like Parmigianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck.
But postmodernism is where we live, and if I doubted it before, I could doubt it no longer, having made my way through Thomas Pynchon’s novel, for it is just like the present, only more so.
I have three primary complaints about postmodernism. The first is that its fixation on a critical posture makes it reactive and alienates it from a truly generative creative impulse. It elaborates and responds, but never affirms, never becomes what Nietzsche refers to in Zarathustra as “a wheel rolling out of its own center.”
My second problem is with postmodernism’s critical engagement with epistemology and metaphysics. The central theoretical preoccupation of postmodernity is how to deal with structure and meaning in a world devoid of any transcendental basis or framework for understanding either. In my view, structure and value are not arbitrary, but emergent. That is, they arise from the interaction of elements of complex dynamic systems, and cannot be reduced to the individual elements.
The absence of a reductive or transcendental ground poses a crisis of meaning to the postmodernist, who sees values as arbitrary, historicized creations of human culture. In my view, they are not arbitrary, they follow the logic of systems. This problem was already largely solved in postmodernism’s heyday: Bertalanffy wrote General System Theory in 1968, and Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action appeared in 1982.
My third problem with postmodernism is that it’s often boring. I have never encountered a postmodern work that did not wear out its welcome, because once the rules of the game have been established, it can only continue to play, embracing its arbitrary quality as an aesthetic virtue. The reader absorbs the point, and then they’re just along for the ride while the artist pontificates like a Free Jazz soloist.
Gravity’s Rainbow would have benefited enormously from aggressive editing – I believe it would have worked far better at 400 pages than 750, and it was often tedious, repetitive, and dull.
I could imagine no more fitting testimony to Gravity’s Rainbow timeliness and success than the fact that it was literally awarded no Pulitzer Prize.
That is, the Pulitzer Prize jury on fiction unanimously voted for Gravity’s Rainbow to receive the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but their selection was vetoed by the board, and no prize was awarded that year. If you view the Pulitzer website, look for the Fiction award for 1974, and you will find nothing there.
Pablo Picasso’s Le Printemps hangs in the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
A woman sleeps on the ground while a male goat rears up to eat the proffered leaf. Her expression conveys ease and rest. Is that her hair in a dark cloud around the root of the tree, or the tree itself?
She appears as the passive principle, life-nourishing and supporting the activity of the goat by her being, not by her activity.
One thinks, of course, of the artist, so inspired by feminine beauty, and driven in his later years to numerous sexual liaisons with much younger women. This gendered dialectic may reasonably pose a problem for the contemporary observer and is open to critique, though it’s perhaps worth noting that the female figure, at least, remains human.
It’s interesting to compare this week’s piece with the Celtic statue of Artio we looked at previously, where many of the same elements combine in a similar way to convey a different meaning. In this case it is the woman directly linked to the tree’s root, not the animal.
The stylized presentation of the forms reminds me of the late Gothic style, where figures are arrayed to amplify their allegorical function. I feel echoes, for example, of works like van der Weyden’s Deposition, where even realistic figures are presented in stylized poses to convey the real truths that were of primary concern to the artist. Or one thinks of the allegorical paintings of William Blake.
Clearly we’ve moved through the enhanced subjectivity that inspired the Impressionists and on into something quite different.
And, naturally, one thinks of Stravinsky. If you have a moment, you might want to spend a little time with Pina Bausch’s almost overpowering interpretation of his Sacre du Printemps.
Although the gratuitous destruction of antiquities by IS has garnered almost all public attention, there’s plenty of blame to go around, and a lot of the destruction that’s being largely ignored would be far easier to prevent. According to Hugh Eakin’s compelling article Ancient Syrian Sites; A Different Story of Destruction in the New York Review of Books:
As long ago as December 2014, well before ISIS captured Palmyra, the United Nations released a report showing that nearly three hundred historic sites in Syria had been damaged since the beginning of the war, most of them by groups other than ISIS. Of these, twenty-four had been “totally destroyed” by different militias or by the Assad regime itself, including twenty-two in Aleppo alone. As of this year, all of the six sites in Syria that were supposedly protected by UNESCO World Heritage status have been damaged, including, along with Palmyra, the Krak des Chevaliers, Syria’s most important crusader castle, the remains of the Hellenistic city of Dura-Europos, on the Euphrates, and the Roman city of Bosra. A number of the destroyed monuments, like the Temple of Bel frieze at Palmyra or the majestic, eleventh-century minaret in Aleppo, toppled amid fierce fighting in early 2013, were unique works with no known parallels.
For many Syrians, the international response has been baffling. While speaking constantly of ISIS, whose destructive acts they can do little about, Western leaders and cultural officials have mostly overlooked the grave damage that is occurring in many other parts of Syria—often in areas where preventive steps can be taken.
This reminds me of little-noticed destruction of key sites in Iraq, such as when the US army used the ruins of Babylon as a military base in the invasion of Iraq, or when unexcavated ground at the same site was unceremoniously dug up and used for an oil pipeline.
Eakin also highlights the importance of supporting vital local efforts to preserve artifacts in war zones, and calls for these efforts to be directly supported. For example:
During the civil war in Beirut (1975–1990), when the National Museum of Beirut was on the front lines of the conflict, it was the museum’s own curator, Emir Maurice Chehab, who saved much of the collection, including Phoenician sarcophagi and monumental statuary, by encasing them in concrete in the basement. In Afghanistan, the Bamiyan Buddhas were lost, despite huge international outcry; but the National Museum’s Bactrian Hoard—more than 20,000 extraordinary gold, silver, and ivory objects from a Bronze Age burial site—was quietly saved, thanks to the courage and ingenuity of a group of Afghan curators who kept them hidden for years in a vault under the Central Bank in Kabul. And in Timbuktu, when jihadists overran the city in 2012, intent on wiping out the city’s extraordinary medieval Islamic heritage, it was local librarians who spirited away to safety thousands of rare manuscripts—by truck and canoe.
The whole article is quite thought-provoking – I highly recommend it.
This week’s artifact is a small clay mask of the Sumerian mythological figure Humbaba, which comes to us from the ancient Mesopotamian city of Uruk. It dates to around the second millennium BCE, and is housed at the British Museum.
Humbaba is primarily remembered as an antagonist in the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the most engaging and imaginative pieces of literature from the ancient world. If any reader hasn’t had the pleasure of making its acquaintance, I enthusiastically recommend Stephen Mitchell’s fine rendering in his Gilgamesh: A New English Version. Mitchell does the casual reader the favor of smoothing out the ragged text, which is pocked by lacunae, presenting it as a graceful running narrative.
The heart of the epic is the fast friendship between the Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, and the wild man Enkidu. When our story opens, the people of Uruk lament that the king has no respect for the social order and runs amok among the people, taking what he will and generally acting in a dreadful manner. The gods hear their prayers, deciding that someone of his verve requires a foil, a companion against whom he can wrangle, and with whom he can adventure.
After various machinations, Gilgamesh meets, fights, and eventually befriends Enkidu, a true child of nature who has never been tamed or subdued by the arts of civilization.
After declaring their mighty friendship, the two warriors resolve to set out to the cedar forest sacred to the great god Enlil, and there to face and slay the forest guardian Humbaba. So they travel beyond the fields they know, and after many adventures and a series of oracular dreams, they come to the forbidding forest, to meet and challenge their foe.
Humbaba has long been regarded in the scholarship as a figure of ambiguity. He is accused by our heroes of being a diabolical force that they are tasked to destroy, and he does seem to have a horrible, ogre-like appearance. But he also appears as the guardian of the forest and sacred to the gods. His slaying cannot but impress the reader as wanton, and is if to amplify the point, once the heroes have slain him, they lay waste to the precious cedar forests with their axes.
I often wonder if Humbaba was the inspiration for the Forest God in Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful film Princess Mononoke. Both figures embody an ambivalent status as lord of life and death.
In 2011, an important new clay tablet came to the attention of scholars. It contains a previously-unknown portion of the Gilgamesh epic, and sheds new light on the character of Humbaba and his forest. A full translation and discussion may be found in the fascinating short paper Back to the Cedar Forest by F. N. H. Al-Rawi and A. R. George.
The passage describes the entrance of Gilgamesh and Enkidu into the forest in one of the “very few episodes in Babylonian narrative poetry when attention is paid to landscape.” Here is a short excerpt; the remainder may be read in the paper cited above:
They stood there marveling at(?) the forest,
observing the height of the cedars,
observing the way into the forest.
Where Ḫumbaba came and went there was a track,
the paths were in good order and the way was well trodden.
They were gazing at the Cedar Mountain,
dwelling of gods, throne-dais of goddesses:
[on the] face of the land the cedar was proffering its abundance,
sweet was its shade, full of delight.
[All] tangled was the thorny undergrowth, the forest a thick canopy,
cedars (and) ballukku-trees were [so entangled,] it had no ways in.
For one league on all sides cedars [sent forth] saplings,
cypresses […] for two-thirds of a league.
The cedar was scabbed with lumps (of resin) [for] sixty (cubits’) height,
resin [oozed] forth, drizzling down like rain,
[flowing freely(?)] for ravines to bear away.
[Through] all the forest a bird began to sing:
[…] were answering one another, a constant din was the noise,
[A solitary(?)] tree-cricket set off a noisy chorus,
[…] were singing a song, making the … pipe loud.
A wood pigeon was moaning, a turtle dove calling in answer.
[At the call of] the stork, the forest exults,
[at the cry of] the francolin, the forest exults in plenty.
[Monkey mothers] sing aloud, a youngster monkey shrieks:
[like a band(?)] of musicians and drummers(?),
daily they bash out a rhythm in the presence of Ḫumbaba.
This particular mask is inscribed on the back with a cuneiform inscription pertaining to rites of divination. Its features are traced from one long, continuous coil, suggesting viscera that were probably used in the associated rites. You can see the inscription on the British Museum research website here.
This week I’m going to start a new weekly series looking at striking pieces of art that I’ve come across in my travels, presented in no particular order.
I’m going to kick this series off with a stunning pediment-mounted bronze statue group from Muri, adjacent to the modern city of Bern, Switzerland, which depicts the Celtic bear goddess Artio, dating to the second century CE.
The Celts were notoriously aniconic for most of their long history, preferring to celebrate the numinous powers of nature through the veneration of sacred trees and groves and the like. It was only in the waning latter days of the Celts, under the influence of their Roman conquerors, that they belatedly took up the practice of depicting divinities in human form.
In my experience, most Celtic bronze devotional statues are small, crude works with little expressive or aesthetic power. This Artio statue group is a rare and stunning exception to the rule, expressing the energies of life and death with unmistakable force.
The statue group is dominated by an enormous bear projecting forward toward the seated goddess from the root of a loping tree, as if springing directly from the base of the axel tree or axis mundi, from the wellspring of life itself.
Its head is subtly enlarged to give ample room for its expressive features to dominate the work. It is positioned just off-center of the pediment, and directly controls the feeling of this piece:
Each viewer will have their own response to the feeling-tone conveyed by the bear. For myself, I see the blank but rapt expression of life and awareness without personality, reminding me of the cool, emotionless gaze of classical Greek divinities who seem to peer forth from a realm far removed from the ordinary domain of human concern. It is both arresting and chilling.
The goddess herself is pitched backward in a semi-recumbent posture suggesting a dialectically complementary attitude of reception of the dynamic, active powers of life expressed by the bear.
There can be no doubt that this image in aggregate encompasses a totality of opposing energies, which work with and against each other to constitute the total dynamic embodied by the image of the goddess. It forms a kind of pictoral merism, or a coincidentia oppositorum. That is, a total image is conveyed by the elements set in stable conflict by this piece, reminding us that the transcendent powers of life are, in themselves, beyond the pairs of opposites in which they play out in the field of time.
Religious art around the world is centrally concerned with this very problem – the expression of the energies of eternity in the field of time by way of antithetically-posed pairs of opposites. I don’t have an itinerary in mind for my art series here, but I anticipate this is a theme we will encounter again and again.
This theme of dialectical complementarity is also suggested by the association of the predatory and life-destroying character of the bear juxtaposed with symbols of fecundity – not only the tree, but the implements borne by the goddess. In her left hand she holds flowers and fruit; in her right, she holds an empty bowl.
Other than this wonderful statue group, nothing is known for certain about Artio. Jan de Vries tells us in his Keltische Religion that the contradictions encompassed by the statue group have led scholars to speculate in conflicting terms, with some viewing her as a goddess of war, and others seeing her as a goddess of fertility. Of course, we know from the example of long-lived cult of Ishtar that a goddess may be both.
The fact that a bear goddess statue of great antiquity was unearthed in a city that is today called Bern (meaning “bear”) has aroused considerable interest, but again, nothing is known for sure. Various linkages to pagan England have likewise been posited, hypothetically linking Artio to the warrior goddess Andraste, who was invoked by the British warrior queen Boudica in her struggle against Rome, for example.
I came upon this work quite unlooked for in the Bernisches Historischen Museum on vacation a few years ago, and was completely transported. Sometimes you just get lucky.
One of my favorite pieces of twentieth-century music is the Concord Symphony, Henry Brant’s orchestral arrangement of Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata. Brant spent over twenty years bringing the work for solo piano to the orchestra, and it is so persuasive – so fully articulate and rich – it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t initially conceived on such a large scale. But that’s Ives for you – he expresses a symphony’s worth of ideas on a piano.
Listening to it today, I fell into the awareness that the development of musical ideas has such an evident developmental logic, it feels like a mirror of the way my thoughts arrange themselves as I’m ruminating on an interesting diversion or daydream. It’s a fascinating thing to encounter something like the form of abstraction expressed musically, with all the emotional echoes and resonances of an interior monolog, but with no explicit content.
I especially like the periodic appearance of the first four notes of Beethoven’s fifth, and the elaboration and development of that theme, like a ghost haunting the history of music. It reminds me of the parody masses of the Renaissance which build enormous polyphonic works as elaborations on a single melody, often derived from popular songs.
All credit to Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony for promoting this wonderful piece.
Last week, I attended a talk by Ingrid Mattson, a distinguished scholar of Islamic Studies, and I heard a story that made quite an impression on me. She had been counseling a young man recently, and felt concerned that he was over-sharing on social media – the kinds of stories or pictures from parties that a person in college might not think twice about posting. She suggested that eventually he’d be looking for a job, and he might regret some of the things that were out there on the Internet. As an experiment, she suggested that he try Googling himself, and see what he found.
Now, this fellow has a common Arabic name, and she did not anticipate that the first several entire pages of search results would be news stories about violent extremists who shared part or all of his name. This, he realized, is what a prospective employer would see if they ran a quick check.
The light of his individual identity would be reflected by the distorted mirror of the media and refracted through the prism of our times, and he would be marked by association with acts of violence.
The French Algerian theorist Mohammed Arkoun speaks of how societies construct ideas of Islam in terms of imaginaires, or “imaginaries.” These imaginaires are shared systems of ideas and belief shaped by ideology, media, the exchange of social capital, and the intervention of the unconscious.
In Arkoun’s view, discourse about Islam is largely governed by two complementary imaginaires, one coming from Muslim countries, and another constituted in Europe and the US. The common Muslim imaginaire is a reductive description of Islamic society and history that is premised on the belief that its current historical forms of expression are based logically and inevitably on a well-ordered and ahistorical set of principles derived unambiguously from the Quran, Hadith, and Islamic law. That is, what we observe in current Muslim states is believed to follow a precise and unchanging template based on classical sources, and this is how it has always been.
There are few beliefs as widespread or as dangerous as the belief that ideas do not have a history. This imaginaire that Arkoun describes is recent, and it forms the basis of so many of the tired cliches about Islam – that it is fundamentally anti-rational; that Islamic states are eo ipso theocratic; that Islamic states perceive all other types of social organization as adversaries to be one day conquered; et cetera. It is proposed and defended by autocratic governments which use it to bolster their own legitimacy. Critical voices are marginalized or suppressed within these governments and their institutions of learning, and consequently the standard tools of social criticism that would generally look to the role of ideology or the irrational in shaping self-concepts of history are silenced.
For a variety of bad reasons, this distorted self-construction is reflected back by scholars in Europe and the United States, who should know better. In Arkoun’s view, they accede to this narrative either out of a naive wish to let the putatively indigenous self-construction and valuation of Islamic identity speak for itself and on its own terms, or out of a cynical desire to capitalize on simplified reductions of history for their own aims, e.g., to characterize Islam in the language of alterity. All too often these scholars ignore the degree to which critical or alternative voices within the Islamic world itself are silenced, and European and American scholars accept social constructions at face value that would never be tolerated from a European source without careful criticism.
So, to pull one of countless examples, in his recent book World Order, Henry Kissinger soberly recapitulates the cliche that the first several centuries of Muslim expansion were guided by a fundamental ideological distinction between the House of Islam, or conquered Muslim lands, and the House of War, or everywhere else, and treats this as though it were an unproblematic given of historiography. And of course, Kissinger does not pause to ask where this interpretation of early Muslim history came from, or what interests it may serve.
Ironically, by acting in this way, Kissinger precisely echoes the reductive and distorted version of history advocated by Sayyid Qutb, the strident anti-American polemicist whose belligerent interpretation of jihad has been taken up by terrorists such as Anwar al-Awlaki of Al Qaeda in Yemen. As the French proverb has it, les extrêmes se touchent.
Reality is far more complicated than dramatic simplifications will allow. To speak to Kissinger’s positoin, countless forms of cross-cultural exchange and interaction took place during the Umayyad and ‘Abbasid Caliphates, involving commerce, knowledge transfer, migration, missionary activity, travel, and dialog. The world is a complex place, and from its earliest days, Islam has been a plurality.
Yet, when you look to today’s newspaper headlines, and draw from so much of our social discourse, you would hardly know that there was any diversity in Muslim views or beliefs at all. We live in an age in which a Republican presidential candidate can openly praise the arbitrary degradation and murder of Muslims in South Carolina, for no other reason than that they are Muslims, and then win the primary in the same week.
How is it that we form ideas about who we are as individuals? Who are the people we encounter, and what do we really know about them? What do we know about groups – about Christians or Jews, Buddhists or Muslims? What are the mirrors into which we all peer to make out a sense of identity, and to give shape to the complexities of our world, so we can understand and act? How do we see the truth?
The Quran gives us 99 names for Allah, and one of them is “the Truth.” In the Surah Luqman, we read:
Hast thou not considered that God makes the night pass into the day and makes the day pass into the night, and that He made the sun and the moon subservient, each running for a term appointed, and that God is Aware of whatsoever you do? That is because God, He is the Truth, and whatsoever they call upon other than Him is false, and God is the Exalted, the Great. (31:29-30)
I love this beautiful conjunction of the movement of light and dark arrayed in orderly progression, bound to the notion of Truth.
This particular Name is of special interest to the Sufis, who stride so brilliantly through the history of Islam, leaping effortlessly over so many fences. For the Sufi masters, the Truth is indeed bound to a play of light and dark, as we read in the Niche of Lights by Al-Ghazali, or the works of Ibn al-’Arabi, who speaks of the veils of the Real, by which God is revealed within the world, but which simultaneously conceal His essence.
Thus Truth and the Real in the ultimate sense, according to this tradition, are a play of light and darkness; shapes that give sense and meaning, also cloud and hide. And this is where we live, in the play of light and shadow. So how do we find our way?
This is what I take as my starting point: because of the current state of technology and social change, all of humanity must increasingly share this one world together, and learning to recognize one another as brothers and sisters is the spiritual task of our age. My own orientation to religion, history, and culture is comparative, and it is increasingly clear to me that within my own society – that of Europe and the United States – we must have a better understanding of Islam. For this world to survive, we cannot simply take up the concepts that are ready-to-hand within our social discourse, because they are awash with profound distortions.
Anyone who would encounter Islam and come to terms with it, as we must, should wander some of its many ways, for great riches lie within its corridors and chambers. It has long been and remains a powerful spiritual force that sustains and guides the lives of more than a billion people, each with their own individual lives and destinies, and I increasingly believe that it is the duty of non-Muslims to meet it, as a Thou in Martin Buber’s sense, and to encounter its people, before the maddening and distorted din of echoed rumor deafens our ears, and the bright glare of the endlessly-refracted light blinds our eyes, and we can see and hear no more.
Update: Just days after writing that the old story of the stark distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim communities during the period of expansion is a gross over-simplification, I came across this fascinating article describing the excavation of the earliest-known Muslim graves in Europe. These graves belonged to three Berbers who were probably part of the Umayyad expansion, and the evidence indicates that they lived peacefully in Nimes with Christians, as they were buried alongside Christians with no sign of partition. In the words of the authors, “[t]hese results clearly highlight the complexity of the relationship between communities during this period, far from the cliché depiction still found in some history books.”