15.03.20, Akbari and Mallette, eds., A Sea of Languages

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Jesus Rodriguez-Velasco

The Medieval Review 15.03.20

Akbari, Suzanne C., and Karla Mallette. A Sea of Languages: Rethinking the Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013. Pp. x, 310. ISBN: 9780802098689 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Jesus Rodriguez-Velasco
Columbia University

Disciplines in the Humanities claim the right to experiment. The traditional fields of inquiry are in constant reshaping and interconnection. One could entirely change the metaphor of the field of study and replace it with another more fluid one--that of the wave. Even in the "new Thalassology" of Horden and Purcell, the wave and the dune may replace the field, in order to consider a non-national and always-in-flux zone of exchange, represented by the sea-–a sea of languages, for instance. In Homer the sea is "sterile" or even dead (παρὰ θῖν' ἁλὸς ἀτρυγέτοιο)-–as is the dune in the desert. That new questions, methods, and ideas may grow in spaces traditionally barren-–it is a challenge. In fact, the semantic field of fertilization--and in particular cross-fertilization--plays a distinct role in the production of this collection of essays.

The book edited by Akbari and Mallette partakes of this challenge. It is an extremely vivid provocation to traditional philology and to fields of inquiry that are based on the close relationship between Romance Philology and nation. More particularly, it intends to be a very specific challenge to traditional positions in Hispanic Studies, even to Iberian Studies. This sort of challenge is precisely the central position adopted by the editors of the book, and followed suit by the other thirteen collaborators-–who include the much missed María Rosa Menocal.

A Sea of Languages sports the subtitle "Rethinking the Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History." Perhaps I would begin by pointing out the moderate inaccuracy of this subtitle. Whereas the role of Arabic is clearly everywhere in the contributions, the fact of the matter is that the collection of essays provides the reader with a much broader perspective about the whole field of Mediterranean studies, including a new perspective on the discipline of philology (including Akbari's introduction, and the whole first part of the collection), Romance cultures (Kinoshita, Gaunt, Lemos Horta), Jewish language and literature (Wacks, Saleh), politics and philosophy, with a spot-on criticism of what Alain de Libera and others called islamophobie érudite (Tolan), the genealogy of cultural categories, including convivencia (Szpiech, and in a way also Brann), art (Robinson), music (Reynolds), geopolitics and poetry (Granara), and, of course, the very challenge of studying al-Andalus from the perspective of a twenty-first-century interest in medieval and Mediterranean studies (Menocal). Each section in the collection of essays is concluded by a very ingenious couple of texts proposed by Karla Mallette, one of them calling us to read backwards, the other one challenging us to read back and forth in a cyclical way-–a boustrophedonic perspective on the discipline and the field of studies itself. This is why I say that "Arabic Role" and "Medieval Literary History" are not accurate, as the book goes far beyond the limits of these two herculean pillars. Instead, the subtitle is a much deserved homage to María Rosa Menocal and one of her foundational works, The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History: A Forgotten Heritage (1987).

Despite the fact that there are actually sixteen contributions to the book, it is an extremely coherent discussion around quite central questions. The first one is the very nature of what we now call Mediterranean Studies, and how it differs from other theories and practices regarding the study of the Mediterranean basin. The second one is the very nature of the discipline of philology, and how this new version of Mediterranean Studies challenges our received concepts about philologies, nations, and languages, while, at the same time, it incites and provokes thinking about how to reinvent the discipline and how to practice it. One of the main theses is an important big picture, as it requires us to take action about key elements in undergraduate and graduate education, including how to avoid the extremes of convivencia and clash of civilizations, as they prevent us from understanding the complexity of economic, cultural, linguistic, and political exchanges-–including war and peace--taking place in the Mediterranean basin and its broad area of influence-–where the sea waves reach before returning to the wine-like waters. Philology all but disappeared years ago from the map of disciplines of American universities, but it has never stopped being practiced in many European universities, in particular in Spain or Germany. In Spain, we were required to study Latin, Greek, and Arabic, along with the Romance languages, but, indeed, we did it from the perspective of the preeminence of the nation. Akbari and Mallette have made sure that their contributors also problematize this other version of philological education.

The relevance of the collection, in this sense, does not only come down to the individual articles, but also to the kind of academic and public discussion they intend to found, even within the limits of the "case studies" proposed in the second part of the collection, which is more clearly related to al-Andalus.

The collection is, as well, a greenhouse of ideas that are worth pursuing, and of theses that are worth putting forth for discussion. By highlighting some of these theses and ideas, I am not trying to simplify the complexities of these articles-–as I only want to underscore the ones that have caught my attention and made me rethink how to conceive my own work and even my classroom discussions. Kinoshita's "Beyond Philology" (25-42) posits the thesis that even our critical vocabularies are poorly developed to understand the complex interactions of cultural objects from disparate origin and inspiration that are in material dialogue in medieval arts and belles lettres. Gaunt's "Linguistic Difference, Philology of Romance, Romance of Philology" (543-61) listens to the jay in Frayre de Joy, in order to understand how this winged, multilingual inhabitant of culture can trigger a reflection on the very concept of mobilities-–not mouvance--and difference in medieval Mediterranean studies. John Tolan ("Forging New Paradigms", 62-70) highlights the necessity to posit an Islamo-Christian civilization as a challenge to the more simplifying concepts (convivencia, clash of civilizations) that hamper, rather than foster, the study of our cultures in history. Saleh's "Reflections on Muslim Hebraism" (71-81) introduces us into the study of the Bible in Islam as an "unavoidable and insurmountable presence" (71) Paulo Lemos Horta ("Mixing the East with the West", 82-99) interconnects East with West by means of how Richard Burton studied Camões' Os Lusiadas, as he was also studying other global cultures in other languages, including Arabic and Indian languages; it is this global interest what shaped his philological study, his attention to some of the concepts he grew interested in.

The second part deals with theses related to al-Andalus. We frequently talk about medieval specificity, or Iberian exceptionalism; Ross Brann addresses the question of "Andalusi 'Exceptionalism'" (119-134), considering al-Andalus and Sefarad as "tropes of culture" (121), that he examines in his essay. Ryan Szpiech's extremely enlightened essay "The Convivencia Wars" (135-161) is, in my opinion, the central piece of scholarship in this collection, as he addresses how one single concept was at the center of opposing historiographic and philological theories and practices that shaped the very writing of Iberian history and philology outside and inside the Iberian Peninsula. Robinson's "'In One of My Body's Gardens'" (162-181) addresses the central questions of the book by focusing of islamicate cultural elements in the figures of Christ's Passion. Reynolds' reassessment of the "Arab Musical Influence in Medieval Europe" (182-198) is, I would say, a critique of the very concept of influence, and how it cannot convey the kind of musical conversation that takes place in the Mediterranean. This critique can be similarly found in the way in which William Granara studies the "Sicilian Poets in Seville" (199-216), in which he introduces the discussion about Said's concept of worldliness into the milieu of the exiled poets in Seville. David Wacks' announces in his essay on "Vidal Benvenist's Efer ve-Dinah Between Hebrew and Romance" (217-231) some of the positions raised in his more recent book on "double diaspora," as well as some of his previous work on the maqamat: how important it is to consider the dialogues that take place in the literature of authors who were Jews in Spain, but Spaniards in the larger world and in the larger Jewish culture. Leila Rouhi analyzes one of the main subjects of late Cervantine scholarship-–his relationship with what she calls "The Shadow of Islam," focusing on the trope of the visible and invisible represented by the Licenciado Vidriera (232-241). Stemming from an expression by Edward Said, María Rosa Menocal decided to contribute about "'The Finest Flowering'" (242-253), in order to address the study of Medieval Spain in the twenty-first century, at a time in which this kind of study has become a center for the discussion of geopolitical problems, cultural distribution, immigration, racism, and many other vibrant questions of our own time. Menocal, in her typically elegant and provocative way, provides a discussion of how al-Andalus has become in its turn a central cultural trope to think the "earth" as a "philological home."

As I said before, this is not only a book of high scholarship-–which it certainly is. It is also a book that provokes yet other questions, and perhaps the main one is about how scholarship in the Humanities, and in medieval history and culture can be relevant to public life and to the sort of education we produce at all levels. While collections of essays normally lack this sort of challenge, this one is indeed exceptional in this sense.

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Author Biography

Jesus Rodriguez-Velasco

Columbia University