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Book Review: The World of Persian Literary Humanism

The World of Persian Literary Humanism

by Hamid Dabashi

Harvard University Press, 2012

Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University, is a formidably intelligent and well-read man, an eloquent lecturer of the type who can speak extemporaneously at length – “in paragraphs,” as a Victorian wag once quipped about another great and learned professor. The enthusiasm with which he cares about literature has inspired his students for years, and his new book, The World of Persian Literary Humanism, should be the perfect fit with that enthusiasm – in the book’s nearly 400 pages, Dabashi gets to range over 1400 years of a complicated and fantastically rich literary tradition about which his Western audience knows virtually nothing. It’s a recipe for an oft-quoted and oft-reprinted classic, and when Dabashi writes “To be at home now with this humanism is to descend gently into a vast, generous, warm, comforting, forgiving sea,” the reader beginning his book very much wants to go along for the journey.

All the more frustrating, then, that the bulk of The World of Persian Literary Humanism is so clogged with the worst excesses of academic-speak that it’s all but impenetrable. Dabashi’s effortless, capacious erudition is obvious all throughout. Even his offhand comments about Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh or Muhammad Iqbal’s Asrar-e Khodi (and dozens of other canonical Persian works) are uniformly brilliant; when he explains that the signature Persian adab “is always a literary decoy, a trap for the monarchs, a ruse, a counterdiscourse that opposed, ipso facto, all other discourses of power and subjection, including or perhaps particularly the political, subverting while serving it. It thrived on its own playful frivolity, uncertainty, iconoclastic literariness,” we at once believe him and want to hear much more along the same lines.

But such passages, full of vim and insight, invariably get hobbled by lines like “Persian literary humanism sustained itself as the variegated site of the autotransformative semblance of subject formation.” The reader can puzzle over it all he wants, but in the end, “the variegated site of the autotransformative semblance of subject formation” is gibberish. In fact, since gibberish is helplessly incomprehensible, it’s worse than gibberish – it wants to be opaque. How a scholar of Dabashi’s perception could make such a rhetorical decision is unfathomable, but the decision is made again and again in this book, with whole pages given over to blocks of prose so overburdened with turgid, twinning academic conference-jargon that they end up saying nothing at all:

As Persian became peripherally vernacular and the language of cultural resistance to Arabic imperialism next to an imperial Arabic in the western Islamic world, so non-Persian languages and dialects became equally (if not more) peripheralized and silenced next to the imperial Persian in the eastern Islamic world. That historical fact gave Persian language and literature their innately paradoxical and split subject positions, which in addition to the centrality of the lyrical subject in its narrative makeup have posited Persian literary humanism as a mimetically transient act predicated on both politically unstable and aesthetically contingent modes of subjection.

Nobody can possibly know what a “mimetically transient act” is, or a “contingent mode of subjection,” although even a casual reader will know that something can’t be given an innate quality, and that if two things are split they can no longer share a “centrality.” Words are uselessly varied-in-pairs so frequently (“diverse and diversifying,” “significant and signifying,” “less and lessening” etc.) that the device degenerates into a kind of literary white noise, a shockingly lazy patois for such a disciplined thinker.

Time and again, the storyteller, the natural teacher, seems to be warring with the preeningly clever seminarian – sometimes in the same paragraph, as when he writes about the work of Mughal-period poet Azim-abadi Bidel:

By transcending transcendence he turns his poetry into an intuition of transcendence in and of itself. But above all, the melodious vocalization of words that he turns into poems read and sound as if they were deliberately composed as musical compositions and for vocal accompaniment to musical performances. He is as much a musician as a poet – and he knows and flaunts it.

In one section of the book, he can write, “I offer Persian literary humanism as a poetics of alterity that has historically posited itself as a decentered and decentering form of resistance against a recalcitrant accoutrement of (imperial) power” – while in other sections, notably his explication of the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911 and the colonial installation of the Pahlavis a decade later, he shifts to straightforward and engaging English:

The poetry of the Constitutional Revolution is star-studded with an astonishing cast of characters -  as if the hidden and repressed soul of Persian humanism had finally erupted with volcanic verve and power.

But the author who can tell us, with easy, readable authority, of the Seljuquid warlords of 1038-1194 that “territorial conquest seems to have been as natural to them as breathing” is the same author who can’t seem to abandon the profitless word-torturing of academia:

Before long, and against all odds, as successive dynasties and empires in eastern Muslim lands began adopting Persian as their courtly language, Persian literary humanism emerged as the vanguard and the vista of a rising cosmopolitan worldliness in the farthest reaches of Islamic civilization as the creative imaging of a new world, crafted by poetry and politics alike, to make life habitable for a whole new familiarity with it. This was the prose of a renewed historicality, and the poetry of defiance, and thus was the traumatic birth of a literary humanism in which was embedded (always already) a deferred and differed defiance.

“Persian literary humanism is a gift – to humanity at large,” Dabashi movingly writes at one point, “For sixty years, and then for a year, I have been blessed to be possessed by it. You do not write Persian literary humanism. It writes you – it authors your humanity.” Such sentiments are wonderful and, in today’s rising tide of xenophobia, refreshingly ecumenical. They don’t offset a deferred and differed defiance, but maybe The World of Persian Literary Humanism is some kind of test-balloon monograph for a truly warm and forgiving sea of a non-catchword masterpiece to come, the kind of merry and brilliant exploration that Persia’s great literary tradition merits from a teacher of Dabashi’s prodigious talents. That would a gift indeed.

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