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23.01.01 Mallette, Lives of the Great Languages

23.01.01 Mallette, Lives of the Great Languages

At a certain point in their career, many scholars feel the urge to write for a wider group of people than a handful of academics in their field. This trend has increased in recent years and brought us some successful crossover medievalist books. Karla Mallette states her desire for her third monograph to appeal to the audience of “nonspecialists” and “general readers” who might already be familiar with some of its protagonists and primary texts such as the “Tre Corone” (Three Crowns) of early Italian literature (Boccaccio, Dante, Petrarch) and the Thousand and One Nights (17-18). The polemical drive of Lives of the Great Languages is easily understood from the very beginning: the rise of nation-states in the modern period has led to the valuing of the vernacular languages and deterioration of what Mallette calls “cosmopolitan” or “Alexandrian languages”--in this case, Latin and Classical Arabic on the different shores of the Mediterranean Sea--which, nevertheless, had been able to allow their users, dedicated “language workers” (3 and passim) a significant freedom and connection to a larger community of writers and thinkers across time and space. The book is structured non-linearly into four parts with short chapters or “vignettes” (9) that present unexpected groupings of figures characterized as cosmopolitan language workers, such as Dante and the Arabic grammarian Sībawayhi in chapters 5 and 6; Ibn Rushd and Petrarch in chapter 9; or the criminally inept Venetian printer Alessandro Paganini who tried to print the Holy Qur’an (which led to his representative almost being executed and having his right hand cut off by the Ottomans in Constantinople [171]), Hannah Arendt, and the American translator of al-Harīrī, Michael Cooperson, in chapter 13.

Mallette’s writing is lively, informative, and witty. It often takes on a poetic, even mystical note: in chapter 6 that presents the cosmopolitan language as a “tribal rug”--that is, a portable textured artifact of beauty and utility--she rhapsodizes: “Language articulates the transformation of ‘location’ (or ‘time’) into ‘place.’ Thecosmopolitan language allows this to happen on a magnificent scale: the nomad writer pauses, transforms abstract space into place, then sends his text out on the tracks of human transience, creating a network of linked places that may span and connect continents” (83). Her references, detailed and thorough, are relegated to the endnotes so as not to break the flow of the narrative. In general, Mallette carefully engages with her sources, alert to the ways that scholars, herself included, tell stories. She invigorates the scholarly language with slangy expressions like “hooks up”(135) and “the school of hard knocks” (164), and allusions to popular culture ranging from the original Star Wars (71) to the rock band Death Cab for Cutie (155).

Much of general interest can be gleaned from her account: Cosmopolitan in the casual American idiom possesses “a flirtatious quality” as in the eponymous cocktail and magazine (11); Dante coined the terms langue d’oc and langue oïl to refer to the Romance varieties in the South and North of France (60); St. Cyril, whose name during most of his life was Constantine, invented not the Cyrillic script but the Glagolitic (98); both Aristotle and Ibn Rushd were “hired philosophical gun[s]” of a major ruler, Alexander the Great and Abū Ya‘qūb Yūsuf respectively (114); Hannah Arendt “published an op-ed in Yiddish in a New York newspaper” in 1942 (180). I can envision assigning Mallette’s smart and succinct treatment of the original Mediterranean lingua franca in chapter 12 to an undergraduate course on socio- or historical linguistics (157-167). With its verve and stylishness, commitment to illuminating the Arabic contribution to Europe, continuous interest in exiled intellectuals, and references to popular music, Mallette’s Lives of the Great Languages has reminded me greatly of the scholarship of the late María Rosa Menocal. Mallette is more than aware of Menocal, having reviewed her work and co-edited a volume of essays posthumously dedicated to her. [1] It would have been beneficial to have articulated and explored that connection in this book.

A large part of the challenge and delight of this book comes from the author’s chosen genre of writing. She derives it from medieval Arabic literary history where ḥikāya shifted meanings from “mimicry” to “a constellation of linguistic performances that conspire to produce a tale.” Hikaya, Mallette says, using “the (barely) anglicized” form of the Arabic word (121-122), interacts with more profound layers of linguistic and textual past rather than merely refering to the present. She translates it on the other side of the Mediterranean with the Petrarchan term favola, and reaches for a cinematographic image, a glass-encased “office building” shown in Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967), to illustrate her usage further. Like those architectural structures that sometimes give glimpses of the inside and sometimes of the outside, hikaya/favola sometimes works to expose the original behind the translation and other times to uncover the larger historical interchange involving the text or its brand-new context (122-123). Petrarch, according to the conclusion of chapter 9, embodies--becomes--favola, an intermittently reflecting and revealing backdrop of his languages. Mallette seems to be doing something similar.

Let me speak about one instance where the hikaya form of Lives of the Great Languages both encourages and hinders readerly engagement. Mallette repeatedly presents the relationship between a language worker and his cosmopolitan language as that between a courtier and his exacting “mistress.” I will cite just two examples from page 178: “But like a haughty mistress, it [the cosmopolitan language] slaps the courtier’s hand when he gets too frisky” and “Latin...was his [Petrarch’s] mistress for most of his life,” but others can be found throughout (for instance on pp. 18, 55, 56, 72, 92, 139, 169, 173, 184). This dynamic, reminiscent of the so-called courtly love of the later Middle Ages, can have rather troubling connotations entangled with the general history of misogyny and heterosexism--a problem that someone “interested in curating metaphors” (81) cannot miss. Mallette defends her decision to include only men among her language workers in Latin and Arabic with the observation that not many women had extensive access to these cosmopolitan languages (146). Exceptions did exist, she admits. A single instance of a female language worker other than, implicitly, Mallette herself (see below) would have made Lives of the Great Languages richer and more nuanced.

One of the strengths of this book is introducing the wider audiences to intriguing and unconventional texts, some of them newly available in accessible English translations. The multivolume linguistic extravaganza Leg over Leg by Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq (1855, trans. Humphrey Davies) in chapter 10 is one example. Delighting in long lists of Arabic words and phrases, the nineteenth-century author structures his work around the erudite, witty dialogue of his alter-ego Fāriyāq with his female beloved and counterpart Fāriyāqiyyah. Mallette states that “In the protagonist and his consort, then, we have a composite character who is both female and male, both self and other” before giving another interpretation, one that will seem familiar to us by now, “Or quite possibly, the Fāriyāqiyyah represents women, and an extension of the masculine protagonist, and the language that the Fāriyāq courts like a suitor throughout the book--which, as the Fāriyāqiyyah points out, ‘is a woman.’” (138, her italics). This account largely neglects to explore the feminist and queer potential of al-Shidyāq’s compendium. If Fāriyāqiyyah is the Arabic language, her admiration of European men’s bodies in the revealing Western clothing brings up questions of the female gaze, of the “Orient” staring back. [2] While she and her male version seem invested in the hegemonic notions of the gender binary and heterosexuality, Fāriyāq cannot help but bring up the khawals whom he calls “a tribe of craving catamites,” feminine in speech and dress (2:109, also 3:164).The list of terms for sexual organs in Leg over Leg includes words for the anus, a point of commonality among all the genders, presented between those for the vulva and for the penis (1:45-47).

Mallette does approach the queer transformations of her central language worker/cosmopolitan language metaphor towards the end of Lives of the Great Languages. There, she imagines, following Cooperson, the Arabic language as a man in the figure of the trickster Abū Zayd whom the “language worker” al-Harīrī shapes and plays with in his Impostures (Maqāmāt) (183). In the final two sentences of the book, Mallette might even place herself as a language worker vis-à-vis the mistress of her cosmopolitan language: “Courtesy and daring, appropriately balanced, please the mistress tongue. May she shower on Cooperson her rewards, and may this courtier’s impostures bring solace and cheer to the quick and the dead!” (184). “This courtier” might well be Mallette, rather than or in addition to Cooperson. Thus she would take leave of her readers in a trickster story-teller vein. Drag, after all, does occur in Lives of the Great Languages both dealing with individuals and their language use. Mallette writes that the lingua franca enabled Mediterranean travelers, traders, and pirates to do away with the dragoman or interpreter and to take on “the identity of the man who performed in linguistic drag” (166).Imposture might refer to someone who wears “a mask, a person (or a word) in drag” (181). As the language worker might be in drag, so might his/her/their mistress.

Dancing on the edge between cringe and camp, Mallette’s deployment of “mistress tongue” can inspire a meditation on how we use sexual and family relations to think about linguistic expression. On the other hand, a seemingly off-hand reference in chapter 7 has challenged my critical generosity as it unexpectedly brought back to me the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. The author ends her discussion of an apocryphal episode from the life of St. Cyril with a brief discussion of the canonized language worker’s appearance in Milorad Pavić’s novel The Dictionary of the Khazars (1984). She concludes: “Pavić’s account of Cyril captures the competition between languages and the violence--implicit or explicit, physical or psychological--of alphabet wars (Pavić himself was born in Serbia, which has two official alphabets: Serbian Latin and Serbian Cyrillic)” (99-100). I understand that Mallette must have first encountered the writer in David Damrosch’s scholarship (as cited in endnote 36, p. 201), and also that we cannot banish every person with troubling views or actions from our bibliographies if we wish to have any bibliographies to speak of. At the same time, she should have contextualized Pavić better if she felt the need to end chapter 7 with him. Here is some context. Pavić sent a telegram of support to Slobodan Milošević after the Eighth Plenary Session of the League of Communists of Serbia in 1987, when the latter took over power. The writer later called the politician “the Saint Sava of our times,” alluding to the foundational medieval Serbian saint. Pavić stated in an interview in 1991 that in addition to Milošević he considers many figures, including Radovan Karadžić and Vojislav Šešelj, as the epitomes of Serbian leadership. All three, Milošević, Karadžić, and Šešelj are war criminals. Pavić turned against Milošević only when the politician was sent away to the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague. [3] It is safe to assume that a Serbian nationalist would be rather opposed to the cultural spheres of both Latin and Arabic, represented in former Yugoslavia by Croats, Albanians, and Bosniaks, many of whom were victims of the genocidal project of Milošević and others.

To conclude, Lives of the Great Languages is a breath-taking adventure, a devil-may-care statement by a well-established scholar. One can learn a great deal from it, but the readers must beware. The audience, especially if it is of the general kind, should consciously decide when to join in the author’s passionate lyrical manifesto, which is comparable at times to the way Mallette describes Edward William Lane’s Arabic-English dictionary, “a fever dream...[that gets] ever more louche” (132). In keeping with medieval and later learning practices, the readers must question the text, resist it, keep passing through it to reach important definitions, qualifications, and retractions, and sometimes they must put it aside.



1. María Rosa Menocal, Shards of Love: Exile and the Origins of the Lyric (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994). Karla Mallette, Review of María Rosa Menocal, The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History: A Forgotten Heritage. Bulletin of the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies 6 (2004): 180‐183. Karla Mallette and Suzanne Conklin Akbari, ed. A Sea of Languages: Rethinking the Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013).

2. Fāriyāqiyyah observers: “they wear their drawers so tight that their private parts are on display at the back (...) such a costume is more pleasing to the eye than that worn by the Arabs. It shows off the thighs, the calves, the stomach, and the buttocks. However, going too far in such tightness is an offense to decency for those who are not accustomed to it, albeit at the same time handsomer and more captivating” (3:164). Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq, Leg over Leg, or The Turtle in the Tree: Concerning The Fāriyāq, What Manner of Creature Might He Be, 4 vols., trans. Humphrey Davies (New York: New York University Press, 2013). I cite the volume and page numbers parenthetically.

3. Mirko Kovač, Elita gora od rulje: Polemike [When the Elite is Worse than the Mob: Polemics] (Zaprešić, Croatia: Fraktura, 2009), 220. In English, seeAndrew Wachtel, “Postmodernism as Nightmare: Milorad Pavić’s Literary Demolition of Yugoslavia.” The Slavic and East European Journal 41 (1997): 627-644. Wachtel sees the novel as playing a role in the destruction of the multiethnic, multireligious federation that was Yugoslavia: “Ultimately then, there is no doubt that Pavić’s dictionary could have been and in some cases was read by Yugoslavs both as a specific warning against Serbian assimilation into Yugoslavia, and as an attack on the very bases on which the country was constructed. And there is a great deal of theoretical and practical research indicating that the behavior of elite groups is crucial to the crystallization of nationalist thinking in a population at large” (639).