Preliminary Stumbles


I’m using my journal to help organise myself into a student and writer. Read books and write journal in morning, work on novel in afternoon: That’s the plan. But what with my laptop still not fully set up and workman on their last day fitting my kitchen, not to mention my wandering thoughts, and I’ve yet again ran into the early afternoon, and without picking up Defoe’s Moll Flanders, which I started reading last week.

This morning, I finished the Knight’s Tale. When it came to the knights getting an early night before their contest, I laughed out loud! I love Chaucer! What makes this tale delicious is that, in one sense, it’s a well-told story, but it also one that discloses a great deal about the storyteller’s foibles. As soon as the knight tells you that he’s done with a subject, for example, he carries on – his insight veiled by his enthusiasm for all things knightly. Surely, there were some aspects of being a knight that were laudable. The less savoury aspects of knightliness, of course, are played down: in this tale, the Duke commands that no one in the contest be killed, and not even the bloke who gets an axe in the chest expires. Even poor Arcite only succumbs when his horse stumbles. In short, romances tell us much about how knights saw themselves and how they liked to be seen by others. Chaucer’s satire debunks this representation of knights as inflated hokum.

Of course, I might be completely misreading Chaucer. But I’m not searching for the ‘correct’ interpretation anymore. I’m trusting my own instincts and leaving myself open to making mistakes and learning from them. What I hope will be my corrective is a greater familiarity with literature’s primary texts along with its theoretical precepts.

Chapter 3 of Bennett & Royle’s An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory (Routledge, 2016) is about ‘the author’. Again, I’ve made separate notes on this. A great deal is covered in just a few pages so I won’t bother trying to summarise it here (if I were Chaucer’s knight, you’d get 1000 words on what I promised not to condense). Worth mentioning, though, is the fact I supplemented my previous reading of this chapter with Barthes’ The Death of the Author (1968) and Foucault’s What is an Author? (1969).

At morning’s end, I finished Chapter 2 of Lila Abu-Lughod’s Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (Harvard University Press, 2015), which explores the finger-pointing feminism of Kristof and WuDunn, Appiah, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I particularly liked Abu-Lughod’s term ‘IslamLand’ as a shorthand for the monolithic representations of Islam facilitated by this kind of ‘feminism’, some of which is genuinely well-meaning, and some of which is more sinister, aligned as it is with the neoconservative right. In respect of the latter, I prefer to see Ayaan Hirsi Ali as a native informant as defined by Hamid Dabashi, and as part of the Islamophobia industry (Lean, 2012). Nevertheless, given the huge sales of her books and her media presence, Abu-Lughod is right to include Ayaan Hirsi Ali in her analysis.

Does Abu-Lughod go far enough? She’s right to condemn the simplistic and sanctimonious explanations for human suffering proffered by people who ought to know better, but how is it that these explanations find such traction within Western societies? I’m reminded of the closing pages of Kingsley Amis’ Russian Hide-and-Seek (1980), where the gullible revolutionary is condemned for his want of curiosity. I grew up keen to discover how light bulbs worked and why dogs were unable to look up. It seems to me that our education system is like the Just So creatures who spanked the elephant child for his “’satiable curiosity”. But then what kind of schools would we have if they taught our children to question the assumption that inequality isn’t just the natural order of things?

About Julian Yaqub

I am a Muslim Anarchist: earth-universe is my home; humankind my family; the libraries of the world are my mind; a mother's tears my heart; the qur'an my soul; non-violence my creed; peace and justice my purpose; dialogue, education and critical reflection my toolbox.
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