Friday, October 29, 2004

my Guardian ire has cooled

Thebit[1] offers a much better defense of the Guardian article wherein Shakespeare is professed to have Sufic influences:

As for Lings' theory, balderdash though it is, what he is suggesting is this: Muslim religious tenants and beliefs were not unknown, if distorted and misunderstood, to Elizabethan England. It is not so far into the realms of fantasy to suggest that Sufi pietism or Sufi asceticism *might* have been inspirational (very strong speculation, unfounded imho). Afterall, it is only about 50 years after Shakespeare's death that Edward Pococke, professor of Arabic at Oxford, walks into a bookshop in Aleppo and picks up _Hayy ibn Yaqzan_, which he translates into English. Lings, being a Sufi, suggests parallels in how Shakespeare expressed himself in his plays and poems and certain Sufistic ideals.

That there are parallels between some Sufi ideas and some philosophic expressions by Shakespearean characters is a valid observation indeed, and Thebit's point about Muslim beliefs having potentially had some exposure to Elizabethan society is well-taken - let us not forget that Othello was a Moor. With Al Andalus on the doorstep of Europe, how could it be otherwise.

Where Ling goes astray is to take such parallel ideas as proof - or at least suggestive of - a direct influence upon Wm himself. And I can't help but notice that the supposed ideals of Sufism that are expressed as the proof of the link are so vague as to be almost generic. You might well argue that Shakespeare was influenced by the way of the Samurai (the daimyo Date Masamune sent a trade expedition to Europe in 1613), based upon a reading of the exact same excerpts.

My main gripe is this. If Ling is arguing "Wm Shakespeare was directly influenced by Sufism" then the obvious fallacy of the assertion (which Thebit does not dispute either) should have been received more critically by the Guardian's literature critic. Thebit tries to defend the Guardian on this score, arguing "it is not the job of the Guardian journalist to play the role of Shakespeare-scholar." But such a specialist's knowledge is hardly neccessary to recognize Ling's argument as fabrication of wishful-thinking. It is common sense.

However, if Ling is actually arguing "I have observed that there are parallels between Wm Shakespeare and Sufism, here are examples" then the Guardian has misrepresented his position.

Either way, the Guardian is guilty of failing to do due diligence. Still, Thebit makes a convincing case for leniency (though his analogy to the grapes/virgins issue still fails my persuasion threshold).

On the other issue, Thebit's analogy of the letter-writing campaign to Putin's endorsement likewise still does not really acknowledge the basic differences between an endorsement and an intervention, as I laid out in my earlier post. Therefore I still maintain it was an irritating and condescending interference. As TheBit noted, it is unlikely that we will agree on this issue, however, and that is perfectly acceptable. I don't expect Europe to ever understand that America's elections are first and foremost about America, even if there are about half of us who then will indeed seek to promote policies that will make John Le Carr� love us again[2].

Since John Kerry is poised to destroy George Bush decisively on Tuesday, I'm inclined to be magnanimous anyway.

Also, since the Guardian has taken down the assassination-insinuation piece and replaced it with an apology, the outrage of which I was most incensed and which Thebit wisely did not even attempt to defend, the main rationale for my irritation has cooled considerably. I am inclined to accept apologies with the benefit of the doubt regarding good faith.

If you haven't been to Thebit's blog, Muslims Under Progress, I urge a visit. His essay on secular fundamentalism in particular has been genuinely useful in articulating and clarifying a point that I've often tried to make for some time, but much more lucidly (and thus more persuasively).

[1] Thebit also informed me that his pseudonym is derived from the Arabic word thabet, and not "The Bit" which I had assumed was a reference to a computer background.

[2] James Maclean notes that he wasn't as offended by Carre's letter, except for the concluding paragraph. Frankly, that was exactly eth part that crossed my annoyance threshold.

1 comment:

  1. Two thoughts.

    The Clark County thing was a horrible idea. Horrible as in "This is such a bad idea that if it weren't the Guardian I'd think this was a Republican device." Having a lot of left-wing Brits writing in and telling midwesterners how they should vote is only going to make people want to vote for GW out of spite if nothing else.

    The main question I want to address, though, is the one on whether or not there could be Sufi influence on Shakes. The problem with understanding Islamic influence in Europe in the medieval through early-modern periods is that we know that there was influence, but that influence was often indirect and might have travelled all across Europe to the point that whoever was using an idea had no idea of its point of origin.

    For example, the Middle English poem _Piers Plowman_ is an allegory about man, the Church, and a person's living in the world. If you look at the way that the allegorical Ymaginatif helps Wil to interpret what is going on in the visions, you quickly realize that Ymaginatif is playing the role that the Imaginative Force does in Ibn Sina's psychology when it comes to allegorization of the prophetic dream. As such, you have Ibn Sina's psychology mediated first through the Latin Translation, then through William Langland.

    Other examples show even more of a remove. Chaucer's _Parliament of Fowles_ has a great many elements that can be traced back to Arabic stories. The thing is, those stories have travelled first via Al Andalus or other parts of the Med, but then move around Europe a bit first before finally settling down in print. Lots of troubador poetry also has this same kind of geneaology.

    The problem, though, comes when you start trying to claim something like "Shakespeare was in direct contact with Sufi ideas." Such claims become a lot less substantial.

    A have a slight nitpick on what Thebit says, though, about how Islamic ideas were understood by Europeans. At least when it came to philosophy, they were usually understood fairly well. The basic understanding was "The philosophy's right, the theology's wrong." It was rather similar to the manner in which the Muslims worked with translated Greek philosophy.

    Okay, done.