"To flee from all languages": the gap between language and experience in the works of modern Arab poets.

AuthorHuri, Yair

So here I am, in the middle of the way having had twenty years--Twenty years largely wasted ... Trying to use words, and every attempt Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure.... ... And so each venture Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate With shabby equipment always deteriorating. (T.S. Eliot, East Coker, "The Four Quartets") IN HIS ESSAY "THE RETREAT FROM THE WORD" which discusses, among other issues, various aspects of the multifarious interactions between language and reality in Western modernist literature and poetry, George Steiner sagaciously points out that: (1)

The crisis of poetic means, as we know it, began in the later nineteenth century. It arose from awareness of the gap between the new sense of physiological reality and the old models of rhetorical and poetic statement. Steiner maintains that in order to articulate the wealth of consciousness opened to which modern sensibility is exposed, true modernist Western poets sought to break out of the traditional confines of syntax and definition. They strove to restore to language its fluid, provisional character; and they hoped to give back to the word its power of incantation--of conjuring up the unprecedented--which it possessed when it is still a form of magic. Modernist poets recognized that traditional syntax organizes our perceptions into linear and monistic patterns, which distort or stifle the play of subconscious energies, the multitudinous inner life of mind. Language, according to modernist writings is therefore inadequate to capture, represent, and do justice to the quality and intensity of the inner life. (2)

Most romantic poets flaunted an unyielding confidence in their poetry's power of clairvoyance, which enables it to bridge the unbearable gap between language and the poet's "self." (3) This is how Elizabeth Wilkinson summarizes the Romantic notion regarding language and "sell" as she discusses German Romanticism and particularly the works of both Goethe and Schiller: (4)

Art, for Goethe and Schiller, is expressive of the life that goes on within us all the time but which we are never able to communicate as it is lived. This inner life, in the form we experience it, is not accessible to language. When we reduce it to concepts and propositions, it has already changed its character. In vain do we struggle ... to convey the rhythms and contours, the feel of this inner life, not only the feel of our emotions, of our joy or our grief, but the feel of our thinking too, its involutions and convolutions, its ramifications and tensions ... It eludes all language save the language of art. Modernist poets, however, are acutely aware that their quest for transcendence, or 'ultimate meaning', is almost always impeded by the arbitrariness of language, by the unstable relationship between signifier and signified. Throughout the twentieth century, Western modernist poets consistently strove to explore a variety of techniques to surmount this poetic barrier. There was, for instance, the imagist venture which sought to discover an innovative poetic idiom that would better suit the modern situation, particularly in view of the gap between language and experience, that had been widening ever since the wane of high romanticism. Ezra Pound's definition of the "image" as "that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time" reflects the need to regain this lost equilibrium between word and reality, not by way of abstraction and discursive statements (which only leads one back to the same old impasse), but by finding adequate metaphors, concrete word pictures for the newly realized reality. (5)

In this article, I contend that one of the aims of modernist Arab poets is to demonstrate how their poetic works unremittingly endeavor to eradicate or conceal the gap between language and the reality it purports to embody. To use T.S. Eliot's words, it is the importunate attempt to "make the modern world possible for art." (6) Nonetheless, these poets also painfully admit that they often face "unnarratable moments" which highlight the inherent inadequacy of representational language to put their sensory experience into words. Thus, they acknowledge that even though language and "reality" are inextricably intertwined, the former possesses a certain constraint, which they cannot surmount despite their poetic endowment. Here I pay special attention to representations of this gap in the works of the preeminent modernist poet, Adunis (the pen name of the Syrian 'Ali Ahmad Sa'id, b. 1930). In his book of essays, al-Nass al-Qur'ani wa Afaq al-Kitaba ("The Quranic Text and the Horizons of Writing," 1993), Adunis seeks to delineate his conception of the poetic quandary which confronts every modernist poet or author. Commenting on Steiner's discernment of language and reality, Adunis incisively maintains that: (7)

The vitality of both the individual and his language is measured by his ability to find the intimate balance between his inner world and the outer world, and by his ability to eradicate the boundaries between expression itself and things he wishes to express [ ... ] In our present time, the relation between language and "things" has become more and more perplexing. The infinity of "the place" (as far as matter and space are concerned), the relativity of time, the atomic structure of matter, the wave/particle of energy ... all these cannot be expressed by words. Therefore, there is a growing rupture between language and the world. It is as if the words we use are lost: they are the past that has been surpassed by the outbursts of the present. The modernist awareness that language is afflicted with an innate inability to genuinely portray "the things" (al-Ashya)--the objects of reality in Adunis's poetic diction--pervades the works of many prominent modernist Arab poets. We will return to Adunis's poetic works later in the article; to start let us rather consider a short poem by the renowned Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998), in which he attempts to express his view regarding the relationship between words and his intimate experience. The poem, entitled Lugha ("Language"), appears in his volume of poetry ashhadu An la Imra'a Illa Anti ("I Bear Witness that there is no Woman but You", 1979), (8)

Every time a man falls in love Must he use the same words? Every time a woman wishes to embrace her lover Must she sleep with grammarians and philologists? Because of all of this I have said nothing to the one I love I packed the things of love in a suitcase And fled from all languages. Qabbani, who was commonly referred to as Sha'ir al-Mar'a ("The Poet of Woman"), employs the theme of love between a man and woman--a theme so prevalent in his work--to grapple with a deeper question: can a woman or a man use words to express the feelings of affection they have for each other? The title of the poem already implies that Qabbani intends to address the question of language and experience, and to find a "solution" to his poetic predicament. For Qabbani, it is this haunting and distinctively modernist predicament that he attempts to explore in this outwardly simple poem. In his eyes, there is only one solution: he chooses silence, hoping that it will best express the intensity of his feelings.

I would like to argue that in the case of the modernist Arab poet, the notion of silence as a powerful tool which best articulates the intensity of the personal emotions derives from two different sources. The first is Sufi poetry that promulgates the notion of Samt ("Silence") as the ultimate expression of one's most inner feelings. (9) In the above poem, we can detect that Qabbani's notion of silence derives from the poetic works of the renowned Sufi poets who tackled this issue, most notably the pre-eminent Persian mystic and poet Jalal al-Din al-Rumi (1207-1273), whose writings had a profound impact on Qabbani's love poetry. (10)

In Masnawi, his most celebrated volume, al-Rumi often appeals...

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