- Madness: A Very Short Introduction. Andrew Scull. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.
- The Development of the Arabic Script: From the Nabatean Era to the First Islamic Century According to Dated Texts. Beatrice Gruendler. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1993. Print.
- Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World. John Freely. New York: Vintage Books, 2009. Print.
- The Life and Times of Abu Tammam. Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Yahya L-Suli. Trans. Beatrice Gruendler. New York: New York University Press, 2015. Print.
- Herzog. Saul Bellow. 1st published in 1964. New York: Penguin Books, 2015. Print.
- Reading William Blake. Saree Makdisi. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Print.
- The Colossus. Sylvia Plath. 1st published in 1960. London: Faber and Faber, 2008. Print.
A very small but informative book. It briefly mentions the link between Nazi eugenics, its gas chambers and Jewish massacres, and the American understanding of madness on which Nazi psychiatrists based their own research and their contempt for human disabilities. So often today one reads about Americans acquiring Nazi studies after WWII; very rarely is it mentioned that the Nazis based their research and philosophy on American ideology and practice. In calling for the sterilization of families with deformities, for example, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes claimed, unforgettably, to a “nearly unanimous United States Supreme Court” in 1927: “Three generations of idiots are enough.” Thus, “Hitler’s minions copied the compulsory sterilization laws the United States had pioneered. Around 300,000 to 400,000 German patients were sterilized between 1934 and 1939.” When Donald Trump spoke about expelling Muslim immigrants from America, he was essentially echoing an organic, or historically consistent, American sentiment, contrary to the majority of his critics who called his bigotry un-American. One hopes that in combating Trump-like racism critics do not maintain an idealized, mythical identity. Instead, one hopes that critics confront these organic American sentiments rooted in Social Darwinism and Manifest Destiny, to address them first and then to tackle them head on with humility. Scull writes, “Best-selling books such as Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race, largely devoted to rants against immigrants of inferior racial stock, spoke contemptuously of old shibboleths like ‘the sanctity of human life’, and insisted that ‘The laws of nature require the obliteration of the unfit.’” Two other points that interested me personally were the following. First, I learned that Europeans borrowed the hospital from their Arab counterparts in the Middle Ages. I knew that Europeans had adopted science from the Muslims, and that they built on Arab research in the field of medicine, but I had not known that Europeans had also borrowed the hospital as an institution itself from the Muslims. Second, that in 2002, “the profits of the largest pharmaceutical houses exceeded the total combined profits of the remaining 490 corporations making up the Fortune 500 list.” That blew my mind. Final thought: Read this book. It’s so short but packed full of information.
The Development of the Arabic Script
I bought this book out of curiosity. I followed a hunch that the development of the Arabic script itself — the transformation of the shape, meaning, and sound of each letter overtime — contains clues to help interpret the muqatta’at in the Koran (the disjointed letters at the start of certain verses, which scholars cannot explain to this day). I learned from this book a few shocking details. One, that “Namara” contains the oldest Arabic inscription, dated around 328 CE. The inscription, “which formerly covered the entrance to the mausoleum of Imru’uqais,” used Nabatean characters. This meant that Arabic, historically speaking, did not emerge with its own letters. This is dangerous territory because Muslims believe that the Koran is the unaltered word of God, and some even believe that Arabic is the language of the afterlife. Moreover, Prophet Muhammad received the Revelation at the age of 40 in 610 CE and he died at the age of 61-62 in 632 CE, while the Koran was compiled in the reign of Uthman, the third caliph (reign 644 to 656 CE), meaning that it was compiled — not in the order it was revealed to the Prophet — almost ten to twenty years later. Muslims believe that the temporal distance between the Revelation and its compilation is short enough to render the material flawless. Thus a widespread faith emerged in the integrity of the Uthamic version, which was accompanied by a physical campaign to destroy all other texts it contradicted. By the end of the Uthmanic reign, his version of the Koran became standardized. This pertains to the second shocking discovery. The Development indicates that the “Mosaic Band” is an inscription band of the Dome of the Rock, a shrine on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock was completed in 691 CE, thirty-five years after Uthman’s reign. The Dome of the Rock is the location where Prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended into heaven. Al Aqsa, the second holiest mosque in Islam, is a few hundred yards away from the Dome of the Rock. In other words, the Dome of the Rock is not an obscure, insignificant place of worship. Thus imagine my surprise when I read in The Development:
“The writing of the original text shows numerous diacritical strokes on certain words, almost all of them in the interior inscription. Apart from the portion of the inscription that describes the construction, the text is composed of Qur’anic [Koranic] verses. [ . . . ] There are orthographic differences from the Uthmanic edition of the Qur’anic text, such as the lack of alif-alwiqaya, and some of the changes of the grammatical person to fit the context.”
The quoted paragraph might seem trivial at a first glance, but the book offers an example in the footnote: “yauma wulida wa-yawma yamutu wa-yawma yub‘athu for Qur’anic wulidtu,’amutu and ub‘athu (Qur’an 19:33)”. In other words, it is not merely a change in accent. It is a semantic alteration. The text on the Dome read: “the day he was born and the day he will die and the day he is raised alive.” While the one in the Uthmanic edition of the Koran read: “the day I was born and the day I will die and the day I am raised alive.”
The Development of the Arabic Script shows both visually and semantically the ways in which every Arabic letter developed its material form overtime using dated archaeological evidence, from alif to ya including: samek (sukoon) and lam-alif. Final thought: Not for light reading. This is an academic book that is predominantly comprised of visual illustrations of the evolution of Arabic letters from their Nabatean origins as has been found on rocks and parchments.
I have to say that I really enjoyed this book. It’s a brief encyclopedia of scientists who built on or modified one another’s work from Greeks, to Muslims, to Christians. At times it feels dry, especially when Freely moves stoically from one thinker to the next. But every once in a while, Freely adds more narrative about the scholars he cites, and some of that material is just so delicious. I found myself relishing the extra information more than the chronological listing of scientific influence. Consider this gem:
“During the Hellenistic period the pseudoscience of alchemy and astrology developed strong connection with magic, a mystical influence that would be passed on to Islam and medieval Europe. Much of the resulting lore is found in the Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of writing on alchemy, astrology, and magic that takes its name from the legendary Hermes Trismegestus (Thrice Greatest), a syncretization of the Greek god Hermes, and the Egyptian divinity Thoth. Most of these writings, once thought to be of ancient Egyptian origin, are now dated to be about the second century A.D.”
Back to Aladdin’s Lamp. My personal favorite extra information was this delectable quote:
“[Francis] Bacon writes that ‘it has been proved by certain experiments’ that life can be greatly extended by ‘secret experiences.’ One of this recommendations of achieving an exceptionally long life involves eating the specially prepared flesh of flying dragons, which he says also ‘inspires the intellect,’ or so he was told, without deceit or doubt from men of proved trustworthiness.’”
I guess this quote resonated particularly because The Development of the Arabic Script was still fresh on my mind. The Koran was compiled by “men of proved trustworthiness.” But then, the discrepancy on the Dome. Hence. Hence.
Another point I liked pertains to the illusion of linearity. The book narrates the development of the sciences, the ways in which they passed from one generation, one civilization, one ideological stronghold, to the next. It tells this story chronologically. One ends up feeling that the world is thus structured, that there is no chance in the world, that every little unexpected alteration is merely another step in the forward progression of history. But time itself is the illusion. Cosmic time is the measurement of objects in space (the earth around the sun, the earth around itself, the moon around the earth, etc.).
This book is valuable for anyone interested in East/West inspiration, influence or translation of scientific thought, because it lists substantial encounters, and frequently specifies how a certain idea developed, from which translation it was adopted, and how the scientist improved or modified the information after encountering it. Aladdin’s Lamp serves as a collection of chronological facts that can aid in further research. It gathers materials in place to allow more branches of comparative studies to emerge in the future. For example, if you’re like me, you might be interested in the Muslim scientists who dabbled in magic, alchemy, and astrology. Aladdin’s Lamp does such an excellent job in compiling them in one place, specifying their roles in the development of actual science, and providing additional information that will assist further inquiry. Final thought: This is an invaluable reference book for anyone interested in the development of modern science.
The Life and Times of Abu Tammam
I decided to buy this book after reading an interview with Beatrice Gruendler on arablit.org. In fact, it is after searching for The Life and Times of Abu Tammam that I came across her other seminal work The Development of the Arabic Script. Personally, I can’t stress the importance of this book. I had a disappointing encounter once at a local university where a few professors and literary experts were complaining about slam poetry. They said it wasn’t genuine, because it was divisive, it sponsored hatred, it dealt with materiality and superficial standards of excellence due to the staged competitions, and most importantly, they berated me for importing a Western art instead of delving into “my own” culture for inspiration. I have been researching the nature of performance poetry ever since focusing on the Arab world’s role in particular. The Life and Times of Abu Tammam contains a satisfactory rebuttal to their unfounded accusations. I don’t want to spoil my research, but I want to share a few points. Al-Suli’s main contention with people’s disagreements regarding Abu Tammam’s “innovative” and “modern” poetry is that they have created standards of art by analyzing old styles. “They mastered an extensive corpus of the poems of the Ancients in many recensions and identified authorities who had gone through the ancient poems and harnessed their motifs.” These “pretentious” scholars use their knowledge of the Ancients to evaluate the poetry of the “moderns,” instead of analyzing the poetry of the moderns by utilizing the same methodology they’ve used upon the old texts. “They did not identify authorities or transmitters for the poetry of the Moderns from the age of Bashar as well qualified as those they identified for the poetry of the Ancients.” In other words, rather than studying the new style of poetry and determining which is good and which isn’t according to modern standards, they judge modern poetry by the criteria they developed while analyzing old texts, rendering inconsequential all poetry that deviates from previous ideals. According to al-Suli, these pretentious experts denounce modern poetry because they don’t understand it, not because they have invested themselves in its study and based their opinions on objective research. I absolutely love the part where he says, they “wear culture as an ornament.” For them art is a manner of prestige, not genuine creative expressions. You can pinpoint them right away because a member of this camp “thinks he will not be called a proper scholar or be thought of as a leader in his field without attacking other scholars, belittling the dead, and denigrating the living. He becomes so accustomed to voicing these attacks that they become the most important tasks he can perform, and they dominate his gatherings. He is not satisfied with the little bits of knowledge he has acquired but lays claim to it in its entirety. He keeps at bay anyone who can engage him in debate and expose his limited knowledge by besting him in an argument.” Music to my ears. Published in the 10th century, and as valid as ever.
Herzog was great in the beginning. I was totally engaged. I savored the flow of language. I was curious about the characters and I was attentive to deeper meaning. For example, the relationship between Romanticism and Christianity, or the myriad myths of the self, after all, the book explores the agitated psyche of Moses Herzog, a smart professor oblivious to real life nuances. There are profound kernels of wisdom in this book, mostly in the letters Herzog writes but never sends out to people. For instance, “In every community there is a class of people profoundly dangerous to the rest. I don’t mean the criminals. For them we have punitive sanctions. I mean the leaders. Invariably, the most dangerous people seek power.” But they also exist outside the letters, in mental stirrings. “Do I love mankind? Enough to spare it, if I should be in a position to blow it to hell?” But by page 224 I’d gotten bored with the rambling. I was reminded of A.M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven, but way more subdued. Specifically, what felt familiar was the incessant rambling with the occasional insight or quotable note. But maybe this is a defect on my part. Somewhere along the way, it seems as though I’d lost my patience with fiction. I can read a nonfiction book in a day or two. Fiction? I read 20-30 pages before I get distracted. Fiction requires immersion. Honesty. Even vulnerability. Maybe I’m resisting surrendering myself to an author, to plunge completely into a new world. It took me around 10 days to finish the book. But once done with it, I breathed a sigh of relief. I put it on the list. Patted myself on the back. And now, it’s time to rebuild my fiction appreciation muscle.
Reading William Blake
If you teach Blake in high school or university you need this book. It is at times gallingly repetitive. The same sentence is reiterated in all of its infinite possibilities. But hang in there! Because the concept espoused in this book is worth it. It literally saves Blake from the simplistic assumption that he is a “nature” poet, who despises civilization. It posits him as a poststructuralist who is the living embodiment of “repetition with difference.” Man, this book brought back so many memories of reading his poetry in college. I am now determined to seek out a collection of his complete work, but also, to try and locate some of the original sheets.
Plath’s poem “The Colossus” had left a very significant mark when I had encountered it in college. So when I came across the collection, I bought it to see the ways in which the single poem interacted with the rest. There is something strange and magical that takes place when one reads a poetry collection. Both parts of your brain operate at the same time. The first tries to interpret the poem as an independent work of art. The second tries to discover links and patterns among the selected poems. I’m also currently going through a Yeats’ collection at the same time, and I’m dipping in and out of Pound.