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New Texts Out Now: Jeffrey Sacks, Iterations of Loss: Mutilation and Aesthetic Form, al-Shidyaq to Darwish

[Cover of Jeffrey Sacks, [Cover of Jeffrey Sacks, "Iterations of Loss: Mutilation and Aesthetic Form, al-Shidyaq to Darwish"]

Jeffrey Sacks, Iterations of Loss: Mutilation and Aesthetic Form, al-Shidyaq to Darwish. New York: Fordham University Press, 2015.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Jeffrey Sacks (JS): It’s difficult to talk about beginnings, and so I’m glad you’ve asked about an imperative: What made me write this book? There’s a sentence in one of Mahmoud Darwish’s books, In the Presence of Absence (2006), which reads: “With one massacre, or with two, the name of the country, our country, became another.” The passage is a stunning one for many reasons, and I would only want to underline that it suggests that the question of Palestine—the loss and destruction of a homeland, the expulsion of Palestine’s indigenous inhabitants and the refusal to allow them to return, and the construction of a new, modern state, the Israeli state, in its place—may be read as a problem of translation. Learning from Darwish, I ask in this book how one might read the question of Palestine in relation to language and languages, in relation to translation and literary institutions, and in relation to poetic form and the forms of reading called upon to compel language to become legible in particular terms.

The questions I ask emerge in part out of the context for reading Arabic literature in America, and this context has been shaped by America’s wars and its counterinsurgency practices, at home and abroad. (I would add that there’s a brilliant book about American and Israeli counterinsurgency, Laleh Khalili’s Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgency, and that it should, in my view, be required reading in literature studies, for students of Arabic and other West Asian literatures, and for students of comparative literature). It’s important to underline this context because the desire, in the Euro-American university, is to produce legible objects. So part of the reason I wrote this book is that the practices of counterinsurgency—the targeting of populations, the use of SMART bombs, the US drone wars—were mirrored in the reading practices to which language, and literature, are solicited. To be targeted, after all, something has to become legible—it has to become identifiable, recognizable, and, in a word, translatable. But what happens when we cease compelling ourselves to engage with the world as if it were a readable text? What other possibilities open? What forms of relation become available? What ways of thinking and being—both with others and with language, and languages—emerge? 

This book also relates to a volume of poetry by Darwish I translated a number of years ago, entitled Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? (2006). I wanted to be able to write, in Iterations of Loss, about the ways in which translation—and reading—become sites for the suppression of particular forms of sociality, and political and poetic investment. At the same time, this was the year of Israel’s 2006 war against Lebanon, and Israel had, in recent memory, at the time, devastated the Palestinian city of Jenin (in 2002), and was to attack and devastate Gaza (in 2008-2009, 2012, and 2014). All of this overlaps with the time of the writing of this book, and it shaped the book in ways I have begun to suggest, and in other ways as well.

This book is called Iterations of Loss, and part of the reason it has this title is that I wanted to respond to a very broad and pernicious claim that is often made in American journalistic and scholarly outlets: the claim that Palestinians, or Arabs, or Muslims—the terms shift quickly and are often, in the American media context, interchangeable—are on the side of death. They are “terrorists,” either actual or potential, and they impart—and are said to belong to nothing less than—a culture of death and dying. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. To put this differently: if there is something that in fact kills and imparts devastation on a massive scale, and in terms of the texts and contexts I consider (Mahmoud Darwish, Elias Khoury, Shimon Ballas, Edmond Amran El Maleh, and, differently, Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq and Taha Husayn), it would be, precisely, the logic and practice of the Israeli state and its ideology, Zionism, and not those Palestinians who Israel uprooted, expelled, and dispossessed, and who it continues to dispossess. Or, again, in another way: before Carl Schmitt on the “state of exception,” before Giorgio Agamben on “homo sacer,” and before Achille Mbembe on “necropolitics,” there was Zionism and what the militant and political prisoner Abraham Serfaty called, in Ecrits de prison sur la Palestine, its “logic of death.” This logic is not only a logic that kills—as the Israeli state seems to be unable to stop making clear to all of us—but it is also one that manages and domesticates death, and loss, in particular ways. But might death be thought differently? If in the logic of the colonial state loss is to be left behind—if the past is to become, finally, a past, and if it is to do nothing less than die—I ask how language, in literary and poetic writing, relates itself to the past. Rather than mourning the past, and safely leaving it behind, language iterates the words of others. To be itself, language cites—and it recites—and there is no possibility that it not do so. Language, in the texts I read, is not the fabulation of a sovereign, autonomous subject—a subject whose life is said to extend from its birth until its death—but a gift given in acts and events of poetic writing.

There is a third moment that I might mention. In the 1990s I was studying Arabic in Cairo, and I happened upon a copy of Taha Husayn’s 1926 book Fi al-shi‘r al-jahili (On Jahili Poetry), which had been out of print since its original publication. At the same time, I was becoming aware of the Egyptian, and Arabic, literary critical scenes, and work that was being done on the Arabic literary institution and the formation of an Arabic literary object. Scholars in literature studies—Sayyed al-Bahrawi, Faysal Darraj, Muhammad Barrada, Yumna al-‘Id, and, at that time, Jaber ‘Asfur—were addressing these questions, and they were thinking about the relationship between colonial forms, practices of writing, and literary institutions, and the ways in which Arabic literature studies was constituted, in Arabic, as a discipline. This work fascinated me, and the questions it poses form the occasion for several of the ones I ask in Iterations of Loss.

Yet while I was interested in the formation of literary institutions, I was also interested in language, and languages. Why did literary institutions in West Asia have to become, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, monolingual ones? What kinds of violence does this proliferate and pluralize? How is literary monolingualism related to what is still the decisive practice for writing on West Asian languages and literatures: literary history? To address these questions, Iterations of Loss offers a reading of the formation of the Arabic literary institution, and the institution of an Arabic literary object. I stage this reading in relation to two moments: Taha Husayn and Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, who I study in chapter two, and post-1948 poetic and literary writing in Arabic (Mahmoud Darwish and Elias Khoury), Hebrew (Shimon Ballas), and French (Edmond Amran El Maleh), which I read in chapters one, three, and four, and in the Excursus. And yet my interest was not to gather these post-1948 texts to form a new frame, but to interrogate the terms through which the separation of these texts from each other, and their recognition as belonging to distinct literary traditions, has been carried out. My intention was to explore the ways in which language, in each textual instance, goes away and departs, the ways in which it becomes languages—in the plural—and the ways in which language marks its relations to particular losses, personal and collective, and declines to be, simply, itself.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

JS: Each chapter of this book is organized around the reading of a single text. And yet my intention was not to privilege the absolute singularity of texts, or to privilege the notion of the literary work (a German, Romantic notion, and the notion to which we, inheritors of Romanticism, compulsively return), but to read the ways in which language bears itself out toward others, and the ways in which its self-identity becomes problematical. “We always ask to be forgiven when we write or recite,” Jacques Derrida writes in Parages, and this asking for forgiveness, where language points to a relation to another, and where it becomes a kind of recitation, gestures to an interruption of identity in language with which this book is engaged throughout. This becomes an important way of framing this book because, if Zionism is a project about the imposition of distinctions and separations—it separates Jews from Arabs, Hebrew from Arabic, life from death, the present from the past, and language from loss—I wanted to relate the texts I was interested in, each to the other, without presuming a ground of understanding, or comparison, that will have been given in advance or have found a secure place to stand outside of the difficulty of reading.

This way of phrasing my intention is deeply indebted to the work of scholars who have written on Arabic and Hebrew, Jews and Arabs, and Zionism and the colonization of Palestine—each in relation to the other, and each in relation to Orientalism and Europe’s colonizing force and practice (military, linguistic, juridical, cultural, and political). The work of Edward W. Said, Ammiel Alcalay, Ella Shohat, Joseph Massad, Aamir Mufti, Gil Anidjar, Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, Ariella Azoulay, and Gil Hochberg are a sites of this indebtedness, not only because this writing has been extremely influential for me, in different ways, but also because it has opened a language for speaking about the question of Palestine that creates a rupture with sanctioned cultural and political terms. So what I wanted to do, learning from this work, was to situate the texts I was studying not in relation to what they shared but in relation to how they shared themselves out. I was interested in the ways in which language is drawn out toward others, to become something other than what it is, and I wanted to ask how it disrupts the categories for reading privileged in monolingual literary institutions.

The first chapter of the book is about Mahmoud Darwish. Through a reading of his late lyric poetry, I argue that in his text language becomes an event of citation, and that in doing so it mimes older dimensions of the Arabic poetic tradition. Relating itself to language in a way that will never have been simply free, Darwish’s poetic writing, I argue, stages a relation to language that becomes an argument about temporality and poetic form. “The problem,” Darwish explains in an interview, “is that the poet thinks that he controls language. This is not true. Language has a greater command over the poet, because it has its memory, place, order, history, and heritage.” Unlike the Zionist project, which is deeply invested in origins, and in legitimizing itself and creating a space of legitimacy for itself through an appeal to ancient history, Darwish tells the story of a different understanding of time, place, language, and event.

I consider Darwish, in this chapter, in relation to several other moments—selected writings of the poet and critic Adunis on language and the Qur’an, of Friedrich Schlegel on philology, and of G. W. F. Hegel on bones, religion, and death—in order to bring out the question of reading and its relation to institutions, which I pursue throughout. I do so because, in Iterations of Loss, the question of reading becomes an aesthetic question, which is to say, it becomes a question about the terms for the institution of coercive forms of reading and sociality, where the social and political are to be modeled on a particular understanding of language. The terms for this thread of the argument I offer—which is reflected in the book’s subtitle, “Mutilation and Aesthetic Form”—are set in motion to point to, and offer a critique of, the ways in which language becomes appropriated, through reading, into the state form and its institutions. So the argument I offer is that language, in Darwish (and, differently, in the other texts I read), interrupts its appropriation into the state, declining the form of a coherent and temporally, linguistically, or historically legible object.

To write of language in Darwish meant to write of the Arabic nineteenth century. Darwish tends to be read in relation to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, for good reasons, so this turn to the nineteenth century may seem counterintuitive. I wanted to ask how Darwish relates to older legacies, and how his poetry invites, or even compels, a reflection on language. How, I asked, was language impacted, through acts of colonial and juridical violence, in the nineteenth century? How might one read the reformulation of language practices—and the transformations in the word adab, which has come to be translated as “literature”—during this period, even as the reflection on the nineteenth century as a “period” remains problematical? The chapter is framed around a reading of Taha Husayn’s On Jahili Poetry, which was published in 1926, because this is the first Arabic text where what Husayn calls “the knowledge of the ancients in its entirety” is conscripted to become “an object of research.”

So the stakes are particularly high, because, with the transformations in language that took place during this period, literature studies arrives in order to control and domesticate language, to absorb it and manage its interruptive force. More than anything, Husayn’s book is about recognizing temporal and historical distinctions. The ancient jahili poetry, Husayn argues, came after and not before the Qur’an. The argument, of course, has been hotly disputed and largely dismissed. But the terms Husayn privileges, and the presupposition that guides his interpretation, have not. They have been generalized in the field of Arabic literature studies: adab—now “literature”—is to become a legible, temporally locatable, and linguistically particular object. And literature, from Husayn until today, is to be understood historically. Yet Ibn Khaldun, in his Muqadima, tells us that adab is not an object: “Knowledge of adab,” he writes, “this is a kind of knowledge [the Arabic word is ‘ilm—JS] that does not have an object, which one would study in order to affirm or deny its attributes.” So I wanted to ask what kind of violence is imparted through Husayn’s gesture—a violence which translates the Arabic word “adab” as “literature,” and a violence which, in doing so, institutes a field of study. It is not that literature—“adab”—ought to be able to become an object of study or not, because the violence I trace in this book has taken place, and there’s no going back. There has been damage and destruction, a linguistic violence, a colonization of language, and there is no pose or stance, no transcendental certitude, that would provide shelter from it. But, I want to ask, might one be able to trace this violence and the forms it takes, to read its proliferation, distribution, and repetition, to consider the ways in which it acts in relation to the social and the political, to outline the forms of appropriation and domestication it carries out, to speak of the claims it makes upon language, and, finally, to critique those claims and the way in which they are made?

I approach such a critique, also in chapter two, through a reading of Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq and his al-Saq ‘ala al-saq (One Leg Over Another), which was published in 1855. Al-Saq is a book about language, and I argue that it interrupts the figures of aesthetic wholeness and totality it also promises, and which it gives us to read. On the one hand, this book promises the figure of a reader who comprehends and understands language, and who can become both a subject of reading and literary writing. Yet the principle character in the book, al-Fariyaq, splits and divides: between the narrator and himself, between himself and his wife, al-Fariyaqiyya, and between himself and al-Shidyaq, whose names—“Faris” and “al-Shidyaq”—divide and join to become his own: al-Fariyaq. Mournfully related to the death of his brother, As‘ad, al-Saq undoes the desire to read language as a discursively legible object. This desire is intimately linked to the project of the nineteenth and twentieth-century nahda, and yet scholarly writing on this period has, until recently, adopted the terms for understanding language that were actively being privileged by the writers who formed the nahda and made it legible as a lexical-political event.

Over the past ten to fifteen years, there’s been a growing corpus of writing on the Arabic nineteenth century that has offered, in different ways, a critique of the nahda and the scholarship that reads it, and I try to contribute to this critique in this book. A stunning contribution to this reconceptualization has been offered by Marwa Elshakry, whose Reading Darwin in Arabic (2014) is about the ways in which the word “‘ilm,” which has come to mean science, but which, in a much vaster sense, means knowledge, was transformed during this period. Learning from this and other work, I argue that language, rather than what Ibn Khaldun called an “act of tongue,” fi‘l lisani, was conscripted to be understood and practiced in new ways, in relation to the figure of a subject of language whose body is understood as a whole whose limbs form its parts, and in relation to a stark privileging of legibility. Reading al-Saq, I argue that al-Shidyaq’s text both privileges and stalls the domestication of language in aesthetic and formally coherent terms, to become an event of temporal—and social—excess. Al-Shidyaq was never finished with the mourning of his brother, who was tortured and killed by the Maronite church, and who commanded Faris, according to Butrus al-Bustani, to read. The unfinished quality of this loss ruins the time of al-Saq, disrupting the desire to cause this text to become a legible, historical, aesthetic object—an object for literary reading.

The next three sections of the book (chapters three and four and the Excursus) make several kinds of arguments at once. I consider texts written in several languages, and I argue, in each case in a different way, that language—in Arabic, Hebrew, and French—points to the forms of violence imparted to the Arabic language in the nineteenth century. Yet this shared relation to colonial and linguistic violence does not give place to an identity or a coherent history, because it occasions, in discrete textual instances, language’s parting from itself, its “being-not-one,” to borrow a phrase from Alexander García Düttmann. Put somewhat differently, I wanted to ask—as I suggest in the final part of the title of this book, “al-Shidyaq to Darwish”—what was being sent from al-Shidyaq to Darwish, and to El Maleh, Khoury, and Ballas.

So I ask how language, in El Maleh, Khoury, and Ballas, points to others, and to the Arabic language. In El Maleh, I study the relation of his writing, and his novel Mille ans, un jour (1986), to the death of the painter Ahmed Cherkaoui, about whom El Maleh has written, and whose work appears on the cover of this book. In Khoury I ask, through a reading of his novel Bab al-shams (Gate of the Sun) (1998) in relation to his literary critical writing and essays, how this writing relates to, and repeats, older practices of narrative in the Arabic language, and, at the same time, how it mimes instances of literary writing in Palestinian literature (Mahmoud Darwish, Ghassan Kanafani, Emile Habiby, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, and, differently, Edward W. Said). And in Ballas I offer a reading of his Hebrew-language novel Iya (1992) in relation to his citation of, and relation to, the Arabic language, Taha Husayn, and the Qur’an. Reading Ballas with Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd’s Mafhum al-nass (The Concept of the Text), a book about the Qur’an and its interpretation, I argue that Ballas gives to us an understanding of language that breaks with the desire to secure language as a temporally coherent linguistic event.

Language, in the texts I consider, invites us to read the relation between linguistic or poetic utterance and time, where language is “new” only insofar as it repeats, and recalls us to, something old or ancient, something said to be no more and to have died. It is not that the “old” or “ancient” is old and ancient, but that its interruption into the “present” is something that we might think differently, to decline the forms of temporal policing that language, already, disrupts.    

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

JS: I hope that the book will be read by people interested in West Asian or Middle Eastern literatures, and by people interested in Arabic poetry and poetics, the question of Palestine, and the Arabic nineteenth century. Iterations of Loss is also a book about form in relation to reading, and the ways in which reading can become a domesticating practice, and so I hope that people who are interested in literary institutions, colonial violence, and problems of translation will also find the book to be something they might like to open up. I approach these latter questions in several ways, in relation to the aesthetic, but also in relation to philology. The second chapter of the book is called “Philologies,” and it traces the ways in which European, philological categories mediate the translation, relocation, restaging, and reframing of particular Arabic terms in the nineteenth century. This reading is opened in the book’s Introduction, where I read Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment in relation to the aesthetic and philological terms it puts into play. My reading follows Edward W. Said’s discussion of philology in Orientalism and the reading of philology pursued by Paul de Man in his essay “The Return to Philology.” Following both of these texts, I’ve tried to think about philology as a practice of translation in the colonies, which reorganizes terms and categories, and which forces an understanding of the past in historical, and historicist, terms.

But I also argue, again following Said and de Man, that philology is an interruptive practice of reading, where language is dislodged from the temporal terms to which it is also conscripted. In attending to philology in this way, I’ve tried to contribute to the study of what might be called “philology in the colonies,” and in doing so I’ve tried to learn from the work of Stathis Gourgouris, Marc Nichanian, Werner Hamacher, John T. Hamilton, Daniel Heller-Roazen, Tomoko Masuzawa, Maurice Olender, and others. I ask how philology works and fails to work—how it functions and misfunctions—as an event of translation, and this question becomes a way for me to approach loss, aesthetic form, and language. Philology, after all, presumes a whole, intact language or an originary text, which keeps eluding the philologist. In this perspective, I hope that this book might appeal to readers interested in literature studies and comparative literature more broadly, in relation to whatever language or languages, and that it might have an appeal beyond its “area.”         

J: What other projects are you working on now?

JS: I’m working on two book projects at the moment. The first is called “Simplicities: A Colonial Archive,” and it offers a critique of the theological-political idea of the simple. I argue that if simplicity is said to have been done away with, it haunts modern literary, cultural, and political institutions. From the proliferation of yoga classes and the sampling of meditations on Buddhify to CNN’s announcement last year, as it tried to understand what happened to AirAsia flight 8501, that “the simplest thing is the simplest thing”—simplicity returns. Never having simply departed, anxiety about the simple drives diverse fields of scholarly research, fuels the colonial and neo-colonial imaginaries, sets in motion regimes of incarceration, targeted assassination, and torture, and calls for our compulsively Bildungs-centric practices of education, language, and reading. Simplicity, I argue, divides populations, mobilizes juridical categories, asymmetrically distributes violence in the interest of the state, and leverages it all against the gravitas of the divine. The colonized, after all, had to be colonized, because they were simple—uneducated, illiterate, and on the side of religion, backwardness, and incivility. I read Aristotle on the state, Maimonides and al-Farabi on the body, Abu al-‘Ala’ al-Ma‘arri on language, Walter Benjamin on the law, and Nietzsche on philology, among others, to argue that simplicity becomes a theological and political figure for reading, and one which compels sustained attention. “The ‘simplest’ things are very complicated—and this is something at which we can never cease to be astonished,” Nietzsche wrote. This book traces a history of simplicity—a history, if you will, of a never-ceasing astonishment. The texts I address are diverse, and, as you can imagine, there’s a lot of reading to do, particularly in relation to medieval Arabic philosophy, which I engage in several sections of the book. The secondary scholarship in this area is massive, as is, for example, the scholarship on Aristotle and Benjamin, two figures who play key roles in the argument I offer. But the violence happens in the reading, and so scholarship and the terms it privileges—for example, early twentieth-century Arabic writings on medieval Arabic literature and philosophy, or later twentieth century European language writings on these same texts—will be crucial sites of investigation. At the moment I’m reading a lot, and there’s a lot to do. Luckily it’s summer, and so, hopefully, I’ll find the time.   

The second book is called “For Decolonization: The Lyric Poem and the Question of Palestine,” and in it I read the question of Palestine in relation to juridical violence and poetic writing. This book builds on two articles I’ve published—“For Decolonization,” which was published in the Arab Studies Journal (2009), and “Palestine and Sovereign Violence,” which was published in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East (2014)—and it draws out the relations among poetry, juridical violence, sovereignty, and the racialization of cultural, linguistic, and religious terms. I study poetic, literary, and theoretical texts in relation to the question of Palestine—Mahmoud Darwish, Edward W. Said, Etel Adnan, Abdelatif Laabi, Sami Shalom Chetrit, Ghassan Kanafani, Hannah Arendt, and others—to argue that, in the form of the poem, the juridical violence of the colonial state is interrupted. I frame these readings in relation older colonial legacies, on the one hand, and in relation to the imperative given in Walter Benjamin’s essay “Critique of Violence”: “attacking the legal system root and branch.” In relation to this book project, too, I’m reading a great deal: on the question of Palestine, lyric poetry, settler colonial violence in this and other contexts, and the law. Colin Dayan’s The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons (2011) brilliantly describes the ways in which the categories privileged in the law impart forms of violence and destruction, where the law exercises a power to “redefine persons” through an articulation, distribution, and withholding of rights in relation to property and the institution of civil and social death, and I approach the question of Palestine in relation to the terms that she, and others, teach us to newly read. My hope is that this book might contribute to the reflection on the decolonization of Palestine and Israel, and, at the same time, that it might contribute to an understanding of racialized violence in the United States.     

J: How does a particular focus on loss help you to do the comparative work that you set out to do in this book?

JS: Thanks so much for asking. This book is about the ways that reading is related to loss, and the ways that reading can become a way of domesticating and managing loss. But in reading, I argue, one is already in loss, because language already goes away, it departs, and it declines the terms for interpretive closure. Language, then, already calls out for comparison—because it asks to be related to other languages and texts, and because it asks us to read that relation—and, in calling out in this way, language ruins its presumed identity or coherency, and its belonging to a given language or tradition. I might share that, rather than a book about literary history, and more than a book about literary comparison, this is a book about producing interruptions, or about producing gestures, in particular cultural, social, and political fields. There is a beautiful sentence in Walter Benjamin’s essay on epic theater, which reads: “For the more frequently we interrupt someone in the act of acting, the more gestures result.” Iterations of Loss attempts to produce gestures in this sense—in a sense that refuses the appropriation of literary or poetic texts into the cultural, political, and linguistic project of the state form, and in a sense that refuses the stabilization of language, which the state form compels. This stabilization is on the side of the management of the social and the political, and its undoing has been everywhere placed before our eyes in the revolutions and acts of popular protest and struggle of recent years.

In reading the texts that I do, and in the languages in which they were written, one might say that I am attempting to rupture the hold of the monolingual state on the terms for the production of language, and the terms for its reading. There’s a well-known aphorism in Benjamin, where he speaks of revolution as an act where one pulls an emergency break: revolution becomes a kind of stoppage or interruption of various forms of consolidation and control, including interpretive control. In writing this book, I wanted to allow language to become revolutionary in this way. Put differently, I wanted to let language, and its interruptive, disruptive force, go. Perhaps this book is nothing but an attempt to do that.      

Excerpts from Iterations of Loss: Mutilation and Aesthetic Form, al-Shidyaq to Darwish

Introduction: Loss

I think
And there is neither fault in my doing so
Nor delusion
That I shall
Cut through the steel with a silk thread
Build distant tents with a woolen one
And flee from them, from her
And from me
Because I . . .
As if I

- Mahmoud Darwish, Athar al-farasha

This is a book about loss. But to speak of loss is already to do so in relation to “the long familiar idea of time as that which passes away” and the destruction this idea and its proliferation impart. Loss, and with the dividing expansion of capital and the asymmetrical force of colonial, juridical violence, is to be left behind, the archaic debris of a time said to be no longer. Iterations of Loss turns to nineteenth through twenty-first-century Arabic and Arab Jewish writing to read the time of loss, between and within languages, and to read the aporetical dimension of language, which loss gives. Already bereaved, loss disrupts the privileging of figures of sovereignty and autonomy in language, to gesture to a temporal excess, where language, in order to be itself, becomes something other than what it is. And language, like loss, stalls its mournful appropriation into the state and the figures it privileges. It forms the occasion for an ethical or political disruption of sense, to give place to ways of being and of being with others that occur as interrupted, interruptive events of form.


This book reads the relation of language, and languages, to the devastating events of loss that took place in the destruction of Palestine in 1948, and in relation to colonizing acts of violence that preceded, occasioned, and followed it. The loss of Palestine imparts a destruction of world and a violent rupture with ways of being and living, and yet this rupture will never simply have ended, having been located, finally, within a historical past. Remaining with unfinished ruptures and the iterated incursion of loss into the time of life, this book considers texts said to be separated by period, language, literary institution, and genre—Mahmoud Darwish’s late lyric poetry and his Limadha tarakta al-hisana wahidan? (Beirut, 1995), Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s al-Saq ‘ala al-saq (Paris, 1855), Taha Husayn’s Fi al-shi‘r al-jahili (Cairo, 1926), Edmond Amran El Maleh’s Mille ans, un jour (Paris, 1986), Elias Khoury’s Bab al-shams (Beirut, 1998), and Shimon Ballas’s Iya (Tel Aviv, 1992). In what follows I read the shared and divided legacies of events of loss and destruction imparted to language and poetic statement, to consider those legacies in relation to reading and form. Rather than privilege sharp temporal distinctions (between the modern and premodern, colonial and precolonial, Ottoman and post-Ottoman), I remain with the bereaved time of language, where language is already in loss. Attention to this quality of language, where language parts from itself, teaches a placing in question of the asymmetrical destruction and degradation of life and lives, and the institutional separation of Jews from Arabs, Hebrew from Arabic, life from death, the past from the present, and language from loss, pointed to in the date, 1948, I have underlined. The texts under consideration here give these distinctions to be read—the texts I consider teach us to read, and they teach us to do so differently—even as these distinctions remain sites to which acts of reading return, and it is for this reason that I attend closely to language and form in this book.

Iterations of Loss remains with the unreadability of language, where the desire to mournfully gather language into recognizable, monadic bits of sense is interrupted, where the readability of language will already have been lost. I point in the subtitle of this book to a temporal coherency or literary history (“al-Shidyaq to Darwish”), but this coherency and history are interrupted in relation to loss, tradition, and death. I retain this sequence because the languages of criticism will never have mourned the comprehending force of literary history or the institutions and languages that give place to it. And I do so to recall that this sequence also asks us to read and understand history differently, because language takes place as an event that will already have been sent, from al-Shidyaq to Darwish, a gift which teaches us that language already points elsewhere and to another, to other languages and sites, to other words and events, recalling us to a responsibility in reading. In drawing attention to older, nineteenth-century and other legacies in relation to post-1948 literary and poetic writing, I ask how literature studies may linger with colonial and older and other forms of violence, where this violence forms a condition for language. This condition points to a bereaved quality of language, where language is already in loss, and where, in the words of the poet Adunis (b. 1930), “languages break upon languages/ and speech/ leans toward the remains of speech [tankasir al-lughat ‘ala al-lughat/ wa yanhani/ qawlun ‘ala talal al-maqul].” Language, one is given to read in this passage, is already languages, it is already more than one, and I read this excess to argue that literature, Arabic and others, is already a comparative literature. Literature, I argue, implies a comparability—a capacity for comparison, an event of language solicited where language is at once more and less than itself—where comparison does not privilege a renewed giving of sense but gives place to a new sense of relation.

The Form of Loss

When there is a general change of conditions it is as if the ground of creation has changed and the entire world been altered. It is as if there were a new creation and a new life, a world brought into being anew.

- IBN KHALDUN, al-Muqaddima

Acts or events of language are said to be grounded in a subject, but the one who speaks is already in loss, touched upon by death and tradition, in mutilation. To open a reading of this anteriority I turn here to a poem by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1942-2008), which I have placed as the epigraph to this introduction. The poem appears in a volume titled Athar al-farasha (Beirut, 2008), and in it Darwish writes of a subject—“I”—that speaks to offer a poetic word. This subject already takes place in relation to the events of violence the poem metonymically gestures. From the moment at which there is “I,” and at which there is thought or supposition (“I think/ And there is neither fault in my doing so/ Nor delusion [azunnu/ wa la ithma li fi mithla dhalika/ wa la wahma]”), there is a relation to a destruction of world and a devastation in language. The word of the poet is already given in, while still never reducible to, loss. The steel to which Darwish gestures points to the barbed wire fencing surrounding the refugee camps of the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, and elsewhere, and the dispossession of the Palestinian people from their lands and homes in 1948, if also earlier and later. These events are not represented in the poem but are repeated there, as they are displaced onto a future. “That I shall cut through the steel with a silk thread [anni/ bi khayti haririn aqussu al-hadid]/ And/ build distant tents/with a woolen one.” These tents point to ones that served as makeshift homes in the fallout of 1948, yet they will never have retained a place solely in the past. They will never simply have belonged to another time, because in Darwish distance, bu‘d (“wa anni/ bi khatin min al-suf/ abni khiyam al-ba‘id”), is complicated and retained. In the understanding of time one is given to read in the poem, the future, a building of tents that does not leave the past behind, will never have occasioned the mourning of the losses, including the loss of Palestine, finally, and once and for all, in what Sigmund Freud has called “the mourning work [die Trauerarbeit].”

The poetic subject, in Darwish, is a figure of excess, and this excess compels a reflection on the way in which language becomes an event that is also an occasion for thought. “I”—the subject of language in the poem—is already given in relation to more than one event of destruction and loss, said now to belong to a past. The poem does not gesture to a subject of ontological consistency or self-mastery but one that occurs as the partially opaque relation to language that is remarked, at once given and repeated, in the poem: the poetic subject is already in flight. “And flee from them, from her/ And from me/ Because I/ As if I [wa ahribu minha/ wa minni/ li’anni/ ka’anni].” The pronoun ha (it, she, they) is discreetly imprecise: it refers to the woolen tents the poet will have built, to “her,” perhaps an unnamed woman, to language, al-lugha (fem. sing.), languages (al-lughat, pl.), or to the Arabic language. The referential dimensions of language are indeterminate. This indeterminacy anticipates the final words of the poem, which offer an interruptive moment of the suspension of sense, an anacoluthon of sorts. Those final words are given through a category of the sentence, jumlat inna wa akhawatiha, that solicits closure: ism inna wa khabar inna. Ending the poem in this way—“as if I [ka’anni]”—the Darwishian sentence iterates the mournful dimension of words as it points to a placing in question of the privileging of closure with the giving of sense in language. To speak of a poetic subject in Darwish is, then, to speak of the Arabic language and of a violent, repeated reorganization of the terms for the giving of sense, which takes place in the Arabic nineteenth century, where an older practice of language is displaced in relation to a colonial, European conception and practice of form. Poetic statement, in Darwish, points to and confounds this displacement. The poem shares in an event of destruction it also repeats, if never simply or solely, and which one is given to read through this belated repetition.

Attention to the imperatives of language and form, which the reading of Darwish compels, requires considerable elaboration. I pursue this elaboration in chapter one through a consideration of Adunis’s theoretical work, al-Thabit wa al-mutahawwil (Beirut, 1974-78), and his discussion of the death of the prophet Muhammad (d. 632), and through other writing in and on Arabic letters, which I read and learn from in different ways (Muhammad ‘Abid al-Jabri, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, Faysal Darraj, Abdallah Laroui, Abdelkabir Khatibi, Abdelfattah Kilito, Sayyed al-Bahrawi, Radwa ‘Ashour, Jurj Tarabishi, and Muhsin Jasim al-Musawi). I offer these readings to articulate a set of proximate, if distinct questions, which the word “I” in Darwish also compels. If in Darwish reading occurs as something that may not be taken for granted, and if this points to and places in question form as a figure of coherency, in “the aesthetic unity of manner and substance,” then his text compels a reading of literary institutions, those institutions that desire to read literature in order to form it into bits of consumable, interiorizable, temporally coherent linguistic sense. To reflect on reading in this way is to read the institution of a literary object in the Arabic language and to consider its relation to the formation of states, and it is to reflect on the problems of literary comparison and the legacies that give place to it. I pursue the first of these in chapter two through a reading of Taha Husayn’s Fi al-shi‘r al-jahili (Cairo, 1926), which I read in relation to older, nineteenth-century texts. And I pursue the second through a consideration of loss and literary comparison, which is approached, in detailed readings, in each chapter of this book. To study the relations between loss and reading is not to mute the historicity of language but to recall it, because the historical, rather than an event that belongs in time, already points to a relation to loss, as if the time of history were that of a stalled, catachrestic event of language.

[Excerpted from Jeffrey Sacks, Iterations of Loss: Mutilation and Aesthetic Form, al-Shidyaq to Darwish, by permission of the author. © 2015 Fordham University Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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