Saturday, March 30, 2013

Close Reading

A Few Thoughts on Close Reading

There are still some literary critics who have New Critical notions of close reading, imagining that we are somehow isolating the “words on the page” as an autonomous verbal structure and identifying strategies of irony, ambiguity, and paradox etc. However, literary theory has long moved beyond this model – or the corresponding French model of explication de texte. Many theories – Marxist, feminist, reader-response, post-colonial – have taught us that the act of close reading consists not in isolating a passage but reading it in relation to broader ideological issues and intellectual traditions. In other words, there is no “neutral” reading of Blake’s “The Tyger” which is somehow extricated from all historical and ideological contexts, from the movements and political contexts of Romanticism or from notions of  sense-experience, reason and Imagination. By the same token, one cannot situate a literary text within any broader current without close reading.

Also, it is a myth – exploded by Translation Studies and studies in World Literature – that we cannot read closely a text in translation. Most of the texts we teach in World Masterpieces I and II are in translation. And of course we do read these closely: we must pay attention to the details of Plato’s arguments in the Symposium or to the certain passages in the Odyssey or Antigone. Of course, the exercise here is not exactly the same as reading a text in its original language – but it can still be a valuable exercise in close reading. I often teach translated texts – such as Urdu poetry – and the reading can be even closer, given that we might look at, say, three different translations of the same poem. There are certain stylistic features that one cannot talk about but there are many that one can talk about. A few of us have read Homer in Greek and Vergil and Horace in Latin; I admit that my knowledge of these languages is now very rusty but we don’t  have to be experts to talk about basic features such as the use of  narrative voice, formulae, repetition, parallelism, and epithets in oral epic poetry. The old cliché from Frost that poetry is what gets lost in translation is only partly true, and based on an outmoded model of the text as something pristine and autonomous that somehow precedes the act of reading; many theorists have argued that much is gained in translation. Think of the reviews of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf which praised it largely because it succeeded as a poem in its own right.

I think it would be a drastic mistake – from both a pedagogical and curricular point of view -- to somehow ghettoize close reading as a learning objective within the precincts of Critical Methods and then to re-awaken its ghost in the Capstone. This makes no pedagogical sense. Given our agreed emphasis on the Literatures in English courses as reading courses, and the emphasis we need to invest in reading in our entire curriculum, we should reinforce this skill in every course we teach. But clearly, we must work out among ourselves what counts as close reading (and I think it would be pointless and arbitrary to attempt to distinguish this from critical reading – there is no standard or accepted distinction between the two terms and they are usually used interchangeably in High School and university curricula, where close reading is often integrated into a program of so-called Critical Thinking). All of this discussion provides yet another reason why we need to start thinking about the process and teaching of reading.

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Poem for the Children of Sandy Hook Elementary School

A Poem for the Children of Sandy Hook Elementary School

Next time you shave
or put on lipstick, look beneath
that deepening mirror:

the wailing
of mothers half a world away
beneath the cries of this mother, bereaved,
the anguish of ragged children

beneath the smiling face
of  Emilie
who lies dead, slumped
over friends
in this little town, where the world
would live.

She was
to be
an artist, drawing

Artists. Teachers. Future worlds,

And all that remains is words,

Pictures of the dead.
Drawn by children.

Their cries do not reach
the throne of God but are stuck in their throats.

Next time you trim your eyebrows
or apply your eye shadow, look deep into
your mirrors to find
not “evil” or God but selves into whom we've slid
--  undisciplined (screwed-up) kid,
Gun-loving (screwed-up) mum --

Who let this happen every single day
both here and half a world away;
Who pretend this disease is freedom.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Women of the Eastern Diaspora: Poetry Reading and Discussion of Exhibition

Ornament and Narrative: A Poetry Reading and Discussion of Art by Women of the Eastern Diaspora

M.A.R. Habib

Rutgers University, Stedman Art Gallery
December 6, 2012

             I’d like to begin by thanking my colleagues Martin Rosenberg and Cyril Reade in the Department of Fine Art for inviting me to read my poetry in the context of this splendid exhibition of art by “Women of the Eastern Diaspora” which includes female artists from Iran, Morocco, Egypt, Israel, and India. I would also like to thank the many students here for their interest. I will focus on two of the artists and read some poetry which I think might intersect with their concerns. Before doing that, I’d like to offer some initial observations on the exhibition as a whole.

            It seems to me that all these artists, often concerned with the boundaries imposed upon women, are also challenging the boundaries of representation. They seem to coerce the visual medium toward the conceptual, for example, by portraying writing as an image, by divesting it of its signifying power and reinvesting it with meanings absorbed from its new visual surroundings. One of Najla Arafa’s images uses repeated inscriptions of the Arabic word for “Arab,” whose initial legibility and ontical status as pure ideality, as pure sign, blends by degrees into the materiality, the very substance, of a hijab:
Roya Akhavan also appears to use pattern and repetition to evoke differences in meaning of the “same’ image, differences resting on spatial relation and metaphorically on relationality itself:
Naomi Safran-Hon’s images of deserted homes evoke the beauty and tragedy of a centuries’ old existence which has been exiled into the desert. Again, the images gesture beyond themselves, their visual nature betraying itself as it calls to philosophy and ethics for self-completion: the images invoke a dialectic of presence in absence, of time in space, of exile in the very cement of habitation (she actually uses a mixture of lace and cement):

I’d like to talk a little about the Moroccan feminist Muslim artist Lalla Essaydi, who once made the following statement: “In my art, I wish to present myself through multiple lenses -- as artist, as Moroccan, as Saudi, as traditionalist, as Liberal, as Muslim. In short, I invite the viewer to resist stereotypes.”
Essaydi makes a poignant statement about her use of space: “The traditions of Islam exist within spatial boundaries. The presence of men defines public space, the streets, the meeting places. Women are confined to private spaces, the architecture of the homes. In these photographs, I am constraining women within space, confining them to their "proper" place, a place bounded by walls and controlled by men. Their confinement is a decorative one. The women, then, become literal with this visual confinement, I recall literal confinements.”

Essaydi then goes on to say how she subverts this confinement. Firstly, she subverts its silence; secondly, the use of calligraphic writing, a sacred art form strictly confined to men, is an act of rebellion; finally, to write with henna, traditionally a decorative form for women, heightens the subversive situation. She states that, while she carries that house of her childhood within her, she also carries an interior space of “converging territories, informed by the space she inhabits in the West, a space of independence and mobility. Yet she uses this very independence to undermine Western Orientalist perspectives. Significantly, the writing in her images is autobiographical.

What I see in this art is a female appropriation of writing, much like Christine de Pisan’s appropriation of the concept of reason for women. Traditionally, in Islamic theology, it is God who writes, God who inscribes the books of destiny. The religion of Islam was born with the word “Read” or Iqra’ and the very first verse of the Qur’an commands Muhammad to read or recite the verses from God who taught humankind “by the pen what it knew not.”  
Read, in the name
Of your Lord, Who created—
Created humankind, from
A clot of blood:
Read! And your Lord
Is Most Bountiful,
Who taught by the pen—
Taught humankind what
It knew not.

Writing then becomes the province of the male, both literally, as in the calligraphic tradition, and metaphorically, as in the inscription of laws and the various narratives that create the content of gender.

But in these photographs, the women are both writing and written upon; they bear the marks of a history of oppressive writing; and they are actively writing in their very confinement, actively redefining the very space imposed upon them; by inhabiting that space with letters and words, by bringing language within the space they are giving voice to the very habitation of silence, they are reconstituting the concept of silence from within its own unexplored depth in an inaugural inversion of inside and outside, female and male, imprisonment and freedom. This is silence calling from within itself, defying its own essence, whispering through the veils of an imposed absolute. This is silence walking in complicity with its shadowed self, pretending to be itself, emitting no voice yet flowing over into its constituting medium, that of writing.

We witness in these photographs by Lalla Essaydi a language being born, a new language, in the very medium of suppression. The language is new because it does not merely represent or embody what had gone before, whether external or psychological. It explores, it is still (always) being written but refuses to be read in any linear or conventional fashion. To read the words would require a bodily manipulation impossible to the viewer, an unraveling of sheets forever rendered impossible by their containment within art, a deciphering that would dirempt the words we see from their indelibly marked contexts; for example, certain words appear on hands or face and cannot be lifted into the requisite degree of ideality to facilitate intelligibility. Language itself is the statement, torn from meaning, reinscribed so as to be legible only in the most secret places. Where, on the bodies of these women, does the writing ever stop? No-one can know, except the women themselves, in the privacy of  what Nietzsche might call their Socratism. Hegel says that painting frees art from the spatiality of material things by restricting visibility to the dimensions of a plane surface. So we might add that the painting of writing re-embodies the word within the dimensions of spatiality, within, and upon, and flowing from, the body, which is a woman, now the supreme embodiment of writing. Here are three brief poems, the first about the mysterious authority of Qur’anic writing, the second relating to woman as writing, and the third to woman as harem:

                                               Veiled Letters

Alif. Lam. Ra. These are the
Letters that will not yield. They
Stand like before and after,
The unremitting, unreturning

Face of time. Inscribed in
Uncomprehending hearts,
Unyielding faces, they are
The traces of eternity, returning

To language, overshadowing
Viewpoint and perspective
With higher harmony, notes
From sacred spheres, intoning

Veiled letters, trailing an
Invisible journey, trace
Of Otherness, whose sign
We read but cannot know.


This writing will go on forever, from
Mother through daughter and son,
It will always be begun again in
New minds, new tribes, always
Circling outward and inward,
Spiralling through eternities
Of beginnings and ends, etched
On papyrus, paper, marble, stone,
On memory and imagination,
In the very dimensions of sense,
Its letters never dead, always
Risen, always written
While being read.

It is no windswept
Cloak on a
Saint=s shoulder.
It was not built
Around you. You
Were born into it,
It grew from your
Bones, from inside
Your blood. And
Now you wear it,
Walk with it, stare
Through it. And
None can know how
To break it, for you
Too would  rend. None
Can show where
It begins. And
Where you end.

When I look at the work of the Iranian/American artist Soody Sharifi, one of the first words that strikes me is hybridity, and, as she tells us, she explores the seeming paradoxes of living between two cultures, especially for Muslim youth. She highlights the contrast between public and private spaces.

She of course welcomed the democratic movement in Iran because she always wanted to show the West what was really going on beneath the media stereotypes. Interesting, she credits the repressive measures of the Iranian government with generating much more art than usual. She states: “actually, when there’s a repressed government, there’s always much more art coming out. It’s like when I was studying Spain and Franco – how culturally and artistically they so flourished at that time. And you know, Iran’s art and film has been much more developed after the revolution, just because they were repressed. There’s something going on when you have to read between the lines and work against the government and show and express yourself. That is just amazing, and that’s what the artists are doing.”

A salient feature of Sharifi’s miniatures is the uniform or blank background, as in this image of women playing basketball:
But so imposing is this background and, like the Persian miniatures it is based on, so without depth or perspective, that it also offers itself as a foreground. The human figures appear to be abstracted from all context; but this abstraction, like the abstraction at the first stage of the Hegelian dialectic, draws overwhelming attention to itself as artificial and indeed unreal; indeed not real but ideal. And so this background, this abstract context, is fraught with the possibility contained in nothingness. The scene could be a park in America; but it could also be a park in the new Iran. We notice that the girl on the very left  is depicted by a photograph, whereas the other two figures are drawn upon traditional miniature paintings. Let us call the girl on the left Xena. Xena is wearing a hijab over conventional American clothes; she is laughing and enjoying herself; though she is not athletic in her appearance she is about to throw a definitively American ball. The two Persian women, traditionally dressed, are trying to stop her. Xena is naively real, inasmuch as photography can claim a naïve realism, and the basketball hoop, also captured in a photograph, has the same degree of reality. The two Persian girls are imported from a past tradition. What is the symbolism here?

Blankness embodies the abstraction of an entity from all context; yet one blankness is not the same as another; the choice of different colours by this artist indicates that the so-called starting point or beginning is itself retrospective, dependent on its own engendering of perspectives, its harbouring of the germ of reflection. Another painting adapts the story of the tragic love of Farhad for Shirin (told by the Persian poet Firdausi in his tenth-century poem Shah-Nameh); here, the potential lovers are dressed in modern attire, casually talking. And the background is light green, warmer and more convivial than the intense maroon landscape on which the basketball players move. I have travelled to many Muslim countries and it is noticeable that while young women wear the hijab in many distinctive ways, they always find ways to express their beauty, as this poem attempts to convey:

It is all hidden, I know.
But it is not what you
Show to the world that
Shows you. It is the way
You show, the way you
Don’t quite hide beneath
Your scarf, your veil, a hair
Askew, hanging loose, as if
By accident or some hurried
Task or movement. And what
About those painted nails,
Both hands and feet, sometimes
Red and once dark green. And bangles
Too, and small gold anklets, as if
You were some fairy princess
About to dance, in some glass
Realm, where your nimble form
Could roam free. I won’t even
Talk of your lips, darkly rouged,
Perfectly poised, as if expecting
To open for some mythic visitor.

            Finally, here is a poem which depicts a traditional male in the act of worship, embodying a conventional relation to words and  the Word. I believe that this scenario embodies much of what the women of the Eastern diaspora are reacting against:


Piety clothes him as he rests his forehead
On the rug, in the deepest phase of prayer.
Since he was small, he was bowed in worship,
Not knowing what his words meant, or who was there.

And after all, they are not his words, passed
Down from ancient lines, family commands.
The moment of union, the focused love,
Drilled by submission, into vacant form.

There is a vacancy in his grey soul,
Greyer than the beard which marks his faith.
What one says no longer matters, mere rites
Through which we lose a right to speak.

It no longer matters, to him, if words
Which house ancient souls, ancient schools of law,
The thought of endless scholars and preachers,
Glide over his life, his deeds, like mist, like breeze.

Untouched, no word ever comes from his soul,
No thought to add to the old body of thought;
Just silence, as he breathes in, breathes out,
In rhyme, words that lived in another time.

And who will judge him if in his silence
He should mock the very Word he should love;
If, bound in the endless words of others,
His tongue cannot strive for the Word above.

The vacancy he has grown to live with,
Will die with: and the deeper emptiness,
The deadened fear that there is nothing, here or there,
Beneath words, rite, silence: night.