Why al-Jahiz needs Slonimsky's Earbox.

Author:Montgomery, James E.
Position:Nicholas Slonimsky - Critical essay

Monographs in European languages on Ab[u.bar] 'Uthman 'Amr ibn Bahr al-J[a.bar]hiz (d. 255/868-9) are as rare as hen's teeth. (1) They are to be welcomed with a fanfare. Monographs in European languages on al-J[a.bar]hiz's magnum opus, Kitab al-Bay[a.bar]n wa-l-taby[i.bar]n, are rarer than hen's teeth. In fact, to the best of my knowledge this stimulating monograph by Lale Behzadi is the first. It is therefore to be welcomed with a royal fanfare.

It is hardly surprising perhaps that few have fostered the ambition to write a monograph on the Bay[a.bar]n. Although it is available in a good edition by 'Abd al-Sal[a.bar]m Muhammad H[a.bar]r[u.bar]n, a negligible amount of it has been translated into European languages and there have been few article-length studies of its riches. In this regard, the Polish scholar Krystyna Skarzynska-Bochenska was a trailblazer, the more so since she realized that al-J[a.bar]hiz's writings and this text in particular had much of interest to offer what we now refer to as semiotics, meta-textuality, and other modern approaches to writing. (2) But this situation seems to be changing. Several doctoral students (I can think of five offhand) are currently investigating aspects of al-J[a.bar]hiz's oeuvre, from his works on the Imamate to the Hayaw[a.bar]n, and established scholars have followed the trajectories of the concept of bay[a.bar]n from al-Sh[a.bar]fic'[i.bar] and through the mature legal tradition, including its role in the study of Arab rationality by Muhammad '[A.bar]bid al-J[a.bar]bir[i.bar]. (3) In 2005 an international conference on al-J[a.bar]hiz was convened by the American University of Beirut and the Orient-Institut of Beirut at which many distinguished scholars participated. (4)

This activity betokens a recuperation of al-J[a.bar]biz. It also suggests that the scholarly establishment has started to take him seriously and read him seriously. That this general avoidance of al-J[a.bar]hiz is a phenomenon characteristic of Anglo-American and European scholarship is obvious when one notes the number of scholarly studies and books devoted to al-J[a.bar]biz written in Arabic, although even here he is perhaps not as central to the Arabic intellectual heritage as he might warrant. (5)

I do not mean to be unfair to the staggering contribution that Charles Pellat made to our current appreciation of al-J[a.bar]hiz. Much of what is now envisioned would not be possible without the editions and translations he produced of so many key texts. And I would be prepared to admit to a certain foolhardiness in wanting to imply that we should aspire to studies of a writer before we are in possession of sound, scientifically edited editions of the writings of that writer. Editing, translating, and reading are, of course, cognate rather than distinct processes. But Pellat's work on al-J[a.bar]hiz forces on me the following paradox: his editions are magisterial, his translations of an exceptionally high standard, but his studies of al-J[a.bar]hiz's texts suggest that he often did not quite know how to read al-J[a.bar]hiz. Pellat reads al-J[a.bar]hiz in a phenomenological manner that I find evocative of the "Geneva School" as practiced by Georges Poulet and Jean Starobinski in the 1950s and 1960s. The "Geneva School" conceived of literature as an expression of consciousness and saw the task of the critic as an endeavor to enter the consciousness of an author through his writings. In the process the consciousness of the author becomes somehow (re)duplicated in the mind of the reader/critic. Simultaneously a contrary process occurs in which the reduplicated consciousness.demands a reconstruction of context and so seeks the eradication of itself. (6)

Far be it from me to suggest in all hubris that we know how to read al-J[a.bar]biz (there is probably not one correct way, of that at least I am confident), but I do feel a fundamental unease with many of the assumptions and presumptions that Pellat brought to al-J[a.bar]hiz and which informed his critical responses to his writings. Not least of these is a tendency, almost universally discernible in the European persona of al-J[a.bar]hiz, to seek refuge in humor, irony, and parody (all synonyms in the fabrication of this persona) when al-J[a.bar]hiz in his writings refuses to conform to the very persona we have fashioned for him. And this is a most comforting and facilitating hermeneutic circle in J[a.bar]hizian studies: al-J[a.bar]hiz is not a serious writer and therefore when he appears to be serious he must not be serious because he is not a serious writer.

It is not that al-J[a.bar]hiz is not playful or that he does not voice his characters uttering jokes and witticisms--sometimes he also voices his own various auctorial personae as uttering these witticisms. He does this often and repeatedly. And then we have his notoriously celebrated (and famously misconstrued) iterations and alternations of gravity (jidd) and levity (hazl), the merits and demerits of which he intones, theorizes, and problematizes in many works, characteristics that have been forced upon the writer and not upon the writer's attempts to fashion out of his audience an ideal audience. There then looms the forbidding obstacle: the item of faith upholding and upheld by this persona, that al-J[a.bar]hiz is not a serious writer.

Behzadi 's book is all the more remarkable therefore in that she takes al-J[a.bar]hiz seriously. This is not a monograph in which you will find al-J[a.bar]hiz the "plaisantin sans interet." Quite the opposite. Behzadi presents al-J[a.bar]hiz as a serious writer with important things to say about the human communicative process meaningful things that comparativists who do not know Arabic ought to be better informed about.

The book has five chapters. In the introduction (pp. 9-19) Behzadi situates her work in terms of previous approaches to al-J[a.bar]hiz and signals her intention to consider the Bay[a.bar]n in terms of the emergence and development of the Arabic linguistic sciences, especially literary criticism (naqd) and adab. She identifies as typical of the third century hijr[i.bar] a phenomenon that she describes as a linguistic turn which became profoundly determinative of the development of the disciplines. For her this is the point at which Arabic changed from being the natural medium of intellectual discourse to become an object of analysis in its own right, one central to the production of meaning. She thus stresses the need to consider aspects of naqd such as bal[a.bar]gha as more than just aesthetically driven obsessions with elegance and decoration, placing them instead at the very boiler-room of the fully fledged tradition. (7)

These approaches are fleshed out in chapter two (pp. 20-56), which has three foci: "Zeitgeschichte," on the question of the status of the maw[a.bar]l[i.bar], engagements with the Shu'[u.bar]biyya, and the appropriation of theological discourse by caliphal power (pp. 20-27); "Die arabische Sprache als gegenstand der Wissenschaft," on the late Umayyad and early 'Abb[a.bar]sid codification of poetry and poetical criteria typified by al-Asma'[i.bar] and Ibn Sall[a.bar]m al-Jumah[i.bar], the development of evaluative criteria and the systematic presentation of information on poetry and poets in entextualized form, and the grammatical and exegetical traditions (pp. 27-47); (8) and "Kit[a.bar]b al-bay[a.bar]n wat-taby[a.bar]n," on the formal structure, organization of materials, and stylistic features of the text (pp. 47-56). Behzadi is a careful and scrupulous scholar. She adheres to the multum in parvo principle, packing much material in a short compass, and she seeks to discover what is unique (in terms of the activities of his contemporaries) in al-J[a.bar]hiz's approach. She draws out how al-J[a.bar]hiz is not content merely to describe how language works but also offers an account of why it works as it does. To her analysis should be added the seminal study of Ramzi Baalbaki, "The Place of al-J[a.bar]hiz in the Arabic Philological Tradition." (9)

Chapter three, the longest in the book (pp. 57-130), is the heart and soul of the monograph. Behzadi identifies both the nuts and bolts and the intellectual ambit and reach of al-J[a.bar]hiz's theory of human communication predicated upon the two complementarities of understanding (fahm) and making others understand (ifh[a.bar]m). These are distinct processes that describe the actions of locutor and recipient but are at their optimum when they can be encapsulated in the one utterance.

This chapter comprises seven main sections: (1) an introductory overview of the notion of bay[a.bar]n (pp. 57-58); (2) on meanings (i.e., al-ma'ani, pp. 58-62); (3) on the ways and means for communicating these ideas (pp. 62-77), a discussion structured along the quin-quepartite scheme for practicing bayan outlined by al-J[a.bar]hiz in the bab al-bay[a.bar]n of the work; (4) qualities and aspects of discourse, divided into khit[a.bar]ba, bal[a.bar]gha, fas[a.bar]ha, [i.bar]j[a.bar]z, and samt (pp. 77-96); (5) speech defects ('iyy) and defective speech (lahn), central facets to al-J[a.bar]hiz's analysis of communication (pp. 96-107); (6) the signifier (lafz) and the signified (ma'n[a.bar]) (pp. 107-13); and (7) the unique nature of the Arabic language, including a section on the role of the desert Arabs (pp. 113-25); and ends with a summary (pp. 125-31).

In the summation Behzadi elucidates how al-J[a.bar]hiz positions his concept of bay[a.bar]n as central to, if not indispensable for, God's creation. In correct communication lies the essence of takl[i.bar]f, man's moral obligatedness (though this is not a term that she uses); without it, the purpose of God's creation as a system of signs of His majesty and omnipotence is lost and God's organization of the mutual dependency of humans in society, congealed through the bay[a.bar]n, is impeded and impaired.

It is thus a biparous...

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