On Impious Poetry and Poetic Faith

Navid Kermani puts his finger on what’s divisive in poetry and culture.

As I write this, in the wake of Germany’s 2017 elections and the admission of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) to the Bundestag with 94 seats, that country seems to be belatedly but enthusiastically following much of the rest of Europe into the welcoming arms of the far right. The new European identity politics — like those of the revivified white supremacism here at home — are as ignorant as they are xenophobic, and the ignorance is part of the appeal: In this sense, the American “Know Nothing” party of the 1850s really is one of the great forerunners of present-day reaction.

The point is not just to know nothing of those one wants to exclude; one no longer needs to know oneself. This identity politics means substituting a false sense of self for one that is rooted in the real conflicts and contradictions of history — substituting a fake purity for one’s mongrel reality. As Marilynne Robinson put it in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, referring most immediately but not exclusively to our own case in the United States, “these lovers of country, these patriots, are wildly unhappy with the country they claim to love, and are bent on remaking it to suit their own preferences” — as perhaps we should all be, albeit the preferences should not be justified by lies.

But another Germany, more self-aware and searching, still exists, though it may not know how to manifest itself electorally. I was vividly reminded of this by Navid Kermani’s Between Quran and Kafka: West-Eastern Affinities — the best new book of literary criticism I’ve read this year. If its title sounds puzzling—is there really a connection between the holy book of Islam and the author of The Trial? — it might be better to come to the book by way of its subtitle, which echoes that of a great book whose bicentenary is almost upon us: Goethe’s West–östlicher Divan or West-Eastern Divan, 1819.

Joseph Karl Stieler, “Johann Wolfgang von Goethe” (1828), oil on canvas, 30.7 × 25.1 inches (image via Wikimedia Commons)

In this collection, a response to his discovery of the poems of Hafiz, Goethe illustrated his idea of a coming era of “World literature,” a literature that, as he later put it in his conversations with Eckermann (1836), would “look beyond the narrow circle which surrounds us. I therefore like to look about me in foreign nations, and advise everyone to do the same. National literature is now rather an unmeaning term; the epoch of World literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach.” Goethe’s idea has taken its knocks of late, for instance from Emily Apter, in whose book Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability (2013) one can find the somewhat cynical view of Weltliteratur as having been “strategically invented by Goethe to overcome Germany’s lack of official status as a national polity and absence of a national literature competitive with that of England and France.”

Born in Germany of Iranian descent, Kermani’s prolific writings include fiction and reportage as well as works of scholarship and contributions to the popular German press; his other recently translated book is Upheaval: The Refugee Trek through Europe (2017), an account of migrants’ experiences on their arrival to the unwelcoming European shores they’ve sacrificed so much to reach. As Between Quran and Kafka shows, Kermani sees poetry as much more than a play for position in a sociologically defined field of aesthetic power. For one thing, he follows Goethe (and Hafiz) in understanding that poetry is also in dialogue — and fierce contention — with religion as well as with national identity, not to mention other poetry. Kermani wants to recall a German lineage that, he says, goes back to “[Gotthold Ephraim] Lessing at least, who despised patriotism and was the first German to use the word ‘cosmopolitan,’” and while German literature has been a vehicle for national consciousness, it’s also true that “German culture has often stood in diametrical opposition to the nation. Goethe and Schiller, Kant and Schopenhauer, Hölderlin and Büchner, Heine and Nietzsche, Hesse and the Mann brothers – all of them struggled with Germany.”

And not only with Germany. Most of them struggled with their religious heritage — perhaps Goethe most of all. As Kermani points out in one of his most virtuosic essays, the poet’s “religious development took many turns and led him to make many statements about Christianity — and, indeed, about almost all religions that could be studied in his day — that either seem to be or actually are contradictory.” In a concise manner Kermani traces some of the nuances of those apparent contradictions. Yet what remained constant in Goethe’s thought was a religion of experience, even a religion of the senses, one that permitted him, as he wrote in his Maxims and Reflections (1851), “to feel in lightning, thunder and storm the closeness of a more than mighty power, in the scene of blossoms and the gentle stirring of a warm breeze a being that comes lovingly close to us.”

Qu’ran folio, prayers in gold thuluth within illuminated panels; Iran, Shiraz (1550-1575); ink, colors, and gold on paper; 19 1/4 x 12 inches; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Bequest of Edwin Binney, 3rd; Turkish Collection (image via Wikimedia Commons)

As Kermani sees it, this was essentially a religion of breathing, of inhalation and exhalation, tension and release, a systole and diastole that is “the universal formula of life,” according to the Theory of Colors (1810). And Goethe found confirmation of his religious bent in his study of Islam, and especially in the mystical variety of it practiced by the Sufis, which to his mind had something in common with Protestantism in any case. And so he even, from time to time, appears to profess Islam, but always, as Kermani points out, “in the literal sense of submission to God” and “not as an identification with the particular religion that was founded by the Prophet Muhammad.” And yet, Kermani declares, “I know of no other poem, Western or Eastern, that seizes the essence of Islam as easily and at the same time with such rich ambiguity as Goethe’s succinct, poetically elegant ‘Talismans’” (from the West-Eastern Divan).

Would there even be a Germany, in any sense we’d recognize, had it not been for Goethe? And what would those Germans who fear above all a supposed “Islamization” of their country think if they understood that their great and representative culture hero taught the beauty of Islam and its congruity with their own religion? Yet Kermani is not simply an ecumenicist, a preacher of reconciliation. Just as Goethe and the rest struggled with Germany, with nationalism, and with the limits of their religion, the cultures of Islam grew out of conflict, and through the alternation of spiritual contraction and expansiveness that is in a sense the breathing of the mind.

In his book’s first essay, “Don’t Follow the Poets! The Quran and Poetry,” Kermani sets out the situation in the Arab world in Muhammad’s lifetime — and it sounds not a little like the Germany of Goethe’s age: “The Arabs of the Jahiliyyah, the pre-Islamic period, were not united by any alliance or common political platform”; only their language — and more specifically their poetic language, “with its ceremonial language, its sophisticated techniques and its very strict norms and standards” — united them, gave them a sense that they were, despite everything, a people. Kermani draws out the distinction — similarity, difference, and rivalry — between the recitations of the Quran and the refined poetry of the time. For all that the Prophet’s words inspired his listeners by the beauty of his language, Kermani writes that it “strangely violated the norms of ancient Arabic poetry” to such an extent that it amounted to “a revolutionary change.” And yet, Kermani continues, “the application of the verses almost always conformed to the rules” so that, “in spite of the differences in form and content between his recitation and poetry, many Meccans initially took Muhammad for a poet.”

For this reason — in order to forestall its identification or misidentification (as you please) with poetry — “the Quran was compelled to repudiate poetry.” But it could do this only by way of its own beauty. This had far-ranging effects on subsequent Arabic poetry, stimulating many innovations, among which was a focus on secular matters, so as to avoid competition with the Quran, that is to say, to avoid poetry’s innate tendency toward the sacrilegious.

Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Esber), photo © Mariusz Kubik (image via Wikimedia Commons)

This remains true today. Kermani reads the work of the contemporary Syrian poet Adonis as “an impassioned struggle, sometimes violent, sometimes bordering on tender, with his own intellectual and aesthetic tradition. The religious streak that permeates his writing makes it impious.” By contrast, Kermani regrets the tendency among younger Arab poets ignore the classical poetic language in favor of a more colloquial idiom, losing the magic and danger of the self-conscious evocation and violation of the old norms as in the work of an elder like Adonis. Still worse, however, he explains, is the preaching of today’s fundamentalists, who don’t know that “the appeal of the quranic language lies in its violation of norms” — for instance Osama bin Laden, who “rejected the facts of Muslim history to return to the supposed origins of Islam, but at the same time […] turned his back on tradition” by voiding it of its poetry and turning it into a mere treatise.

In the end, “Don’t Follow the Poets!” contradicts its title: By all means, the poets are the ones to follow if you want to understand the religion with which they are in conflict — but only if the ones you follow are the great dissenters like Adonis. Kermani’s brilliance lies in his ability to use his wide-ranging erudition to point up such oppositions within cultures and between them. For his pains, he garnered just about every prize the German cultural apparatus can throw at him; some of the essays in Between Quran and Kafka originated as acceptance speeches.

I don’t mind telling you that made him an object of distrust in my eyes. Like Kermani, I prefer the impious, or as I call them, the heretics — and they are supposed to be harder to assimilate than Kermani has been. In his Preface, he quotes a friend who called on him to be a “spokesman” for a cosmopolitanism of a kind embodied by certain German Jewish intellectuals of the 19th century, thinkers who “advanced the Enlightenment by their very resistance to assimilation” in a contrarian “act of loyalty towards the Enlightenment itself.” Understandably flattered by the hope his friend has placed in him, he asks the reader to judge whether he can be a spokesman in this sense. As for me, I’m happy to say it’s impossible. To be a spokesman means consistently conveying a unified and unifying message, whereas what’s best in Kermani’s thinking is his ability to put his finger on what’s inwardly divisive in poetry and culture.

That taste for the conflictual explains is what laid to rest my initial suspicion of Kermani as too prize-worthy — that is, as too assuaging. Sure, maybe his fellow Germans like having his assurances that their culture is more multivalent than the tribunes of the right would allow. I’m all for that, as long as his accent on conflict reminds them that the mental fight remains unfinished. It’s not hard to imagine specialists quibbling over some of Kermani’s interpretations, but would any of them be capable of evoking so many unexpected connections across borders? I’ve learned more about literature in German, Persian, and Arabic from this book than from any dozen others I can think of — about Attar and Sadeq Hedayat, Kleist and Lessing, and even about Shakespeare, for that matter, who inspires in Kermani the idea of a play as “a symphony of different, contradictory and self-contradicting voices,” as good a description of Weltliteratur as you could ask for.

Between Quran and Kafka: West-Eastern Affinities by Navid Kermani, translated by Tony Crawford (2017), and published by Polity Press is available from Amazon and brick-and-mortar bookstores.

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