This morning, while driving Noah to school, I caught an interview on NPR with Reza Aslan
, author of No god but God
and editor of the new anthology Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East
. Aslan's collection, put together under the aegis of Words without Borders
, represents an attempt to frame (or reframe) our understanding of the Middle East through the filter of its literature. Talk about empathy — this is exactly what Jane Smiley means in 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel
about how literature enlarges us, leading us to internalize a variety of perspectives, which, in turn, encourage understanding as opposed to calumny.
On the radio, Aslan read from the book's opening selection, an excerpt from "The Future of Arabic Literature" by Khalil Gibran. This was new to me; like most of us, I suspect, I know Gibran entirely through The Prophet, which I read through, somewhat dreamily, in high school and no longer remember much at all. Here, however, we see a revolutionary Gibran, determined to make the connection between language and sovereignty, between literature, poetry, and identity.
"The poet is both the father and the mother of language," he writes,
language travels the same roads he travels and stops to rest where he stops to rest; and if the poet dies, language sits on his grave crying over the loss, wailing until another poet passes by and extends his hands to it. And if the poet is both the father and the mother of language, the imitator is the weaver of the shroud and the digger of its grave.
The passage reminded me of something I'd read recently, in Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids. There, Smith recounts a conversation with Gregory Corso, who, during a visit to the loft she shared with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, noticed a crucifix embellished with the phrase memento mori. As Smith remembers: "It means 'Remember we are mortal,' said Gregory, 'but poetry is not.'"
For Gibran, as well as for Aslan, this is the point precisely, that language not only moves through us but also engages us with a more expansive cause. It may be metaphysical, as Corso suggests, or it may be political, but the implications are not dissimilar: that this is the connective fiber, a way to reach across the distance that divides us, between our frail and fragile selves.
That, of course, leads to certain challenges, as Aslan suggested on NPR. Many of the writers, after all, who espoused Arab nationalism in the early years of the 20th century became the targets of the very leaders for whom they'd agitated, seen as dangerous for their free expression, for their language and ideas.
There's a lesson in this, both for politicians and for authors, which is that true writing belongs to no one — or better yet, that it belongs to all of us. It begins deep down, in that well of solitary perception and expression, in, as Gibran so evocatively puts it, "the power of innovation that lies hidden in [the] soul."