Entering the Theater of History

You are perhaps more familiar with the movie: Gérard Depardieu, lumbering, blond, and sporting the most unfortunate bowl cut, is the (or, as it ultimately turns out, one of the) eponymous sixteenth century peasant, returning home after a long ten-year absence to his small French village amidst the cheers of his neighbors and the loving acceptance of his belle wife, played by Nathalie Baye. All goes well for a while, the couple living in wedded bliss, but as time passes suspicions increasingly mount and a shocking secret is finally revealed, tearing the two apart. It is a romantic story, and a tragic one, but most of all it is it is an unlikely one, fantastical enough to be taken as more of a legend or a myth than as a real, it-truly-did-happen historical event.

But that is exactly what le retour de Martin Guerre is: an extraordinary fact of history, a remarkable but true happenstance. The details are simple enough, if hard to believe: In 1548, a young peasant by the name of Martin Guerre stole a small quantity of grain from his father, and for his crime had to flee his hometown of Artigat, leaving behind his newborn son and his young wife Bertrande de Rols. He was gone for ten years, journeying to Spain and fighting his homeland in its armies. In the meantime, another peasant from a nearby village, Arnaud du Tilh, learned of his resemblance to Martin, and decided to impersonate the former and take his identity, property, and wife. Martin Guerre alias Arnaud du Tilh was initially warmly welcomed by everyone in Artigat, even fathering a daughter with Bertrande, but a quarrel with his “uncle” over issues of the estate led to mounting suspicions over his true identity. One murder plot, one burned building, and one false testimony later, Martin Guerre alias Arnaud du Tilh was hauled up before the court at first Rieux, then Toulouse. Quick of tongue, a born trickster, Arnaud du Tilh almost succeeded in convincing them of his ruse when the real Martin Guerre, minus one leg from war, returned to reclaim his life. He was tearfully received by Bertrande and the rest of his family, and Arnaud du Tilh was hanged, admitting his wrongs and asking God for mercy on his way to the gibbet.

The case was, of course, a sensation, and in the years afterwards innumerable accounts were published recounting or at least referencing its events, among them Arrest Memorable by Jean de Coras, the bestselling record of the presiding jurist of the court at Toulouse; an essay by Montaigne; and a chapter in a book by Leibniz. Martin Guerre’s tale has been told and retold so many times over the years, traded around endlessly around the Basque region in which he had lived so many centuries ago, that it has long since passed from the annals of history into the realm of imagination and creativity. It was while working as a consultant and co-writer on the set of yet another adaptation of this famous tale, the aforementioned Depardieu vehicle, that historian Natalie Zemon Davis grew concerned about how far the story had strayed from the historical record, and thus set out to return it to its factual roots, reconstruct the events as they “actually happened” (Davis, viii). “I would give this arresting tale its first full-scale historical treatment, using every scrap of paper left me by the past” (Davis, ix). This is her stated intent, but the results of her forays into the past, another work entitled The Return of Martin Guerre, is as far from a concrete, definitive, cut-and-dry historical tract as any I have ever encountered—it is history, but it reads like a novel, like a movie. She begins by delving into the past, trying to uncover its “true face,” but she ends instead by showing that the pure facts of life are unattainable, always obscured as they are by layers of language, literary language, operating on both sides of the discourse: the one of those who tell the story, and the one of those whose stories are being told (Davis, 125). Left in Davis’s hands, history approaches literature, and deliberately so—the impression she ultimately leaves us with is not of history as true, unitary and objective, but rather of history as elusive and changeable, a story to be crafted that transforms every time it is told.[1]

From the very moment she embarks on her pursuit of the past, Davis reveals her acute awareness of the tension that exists between literary representation and the writing of history. In the introduction to his book Metahistory, the “linguistic turn” historian (according to my professor, a historian who has basically defected over to the side of literature) Hayden White writes that “the difference between ‘history’ and ‘fiction’ resides in the fact that the historian ‘finds’ his stories, whereas the fiction writer ‘invents’ his” (6). For Davis, however, her first encounter with the story of Martin Guerre is evidently a mix of the two: “When she first read the judge’s account,” Davis writes, her immediate thought is that rarely “does a historian find so perfect a narrative structure in the events of the past or one with such dramatic popular appeal” (vii). On the one hand, she maintains that she found the story of Martin Guerre sifting through the chronicles; on the other hand, her observation of the perfection of the story’s “narrative structure” for historical and popular means demonstrates a heightened consciousness of the ways in which these stories are told that is quite in keeping with White’s theories about the “fictions of factual representation.”[2] And the deeper Davis goes into the case, the more the friction between literature and history, fiction and fact, bears on her work: She is troubled by the departure of the film from the “historical record,” but at the same time she is inspired to come up with “new ways” of thinking about and understanding the past in general and about Martin Guerre in specific (Davis, viii). She feels she is in a “historical laboratory” of her own, “generating not proofs, but historical possibilities,” an image that at once connotes the scientific nature of her work (history as a “social science”) and the imaginative, inventive nature of it.

To resolve this “problem of invention” posed to her as a historian, Davis initially finds recourse in the archives (Davis, viii). She returns to her “original métier,” and “even from location in the Pyrenees I was running off to the archives in Foix, Toulouse, and Auch” to gather all sorts of sources, everything from Coras’s and Montaigne’s texts on the case to registers of Parliamentary sentences to notarial contracts of all the surrounding villages (Davis, ix). She gathers every piece of evidence, and in doing so she attempts not only to finally catch ahold of Bertrande and Arnaud, but also to “discover the world they would have seen” (Davis, 5). If she has to fall back on invention in her writing, it is only “in part,” “held tightly in check by the voices of the past” (Davis, 5). Perhaps some construction of the literary sort is unavoidable in writing history, but the final result will still be objectively true in the sense that it is borne out by the facts of the past.

But what to do when even those “voices” are literary constructions, other texts already encrusted with rhetorical devices and linguistic turns? Archival documents, it must be remembered, are not pure, unvarnished facts, but rather recordings or accountings of the facts. Channeling Nietzsche, they are not the object, not the truth, but a specific representation of the object, the truth, in the form of words. Language, then, is the barrier that stands between the historian and his subject, the “instrument of medication between the consciousness and the world that consciousness inhabits” that moreover is inherently contaminated with a whole host of ideological, political, ethical, and so on and so forth meanings—according to White, the idea that a “value-neutral description of the facts, prior to their interpretation or analysis” is possible is nothing more than an “illusion” (White, 126-134). Language is never neutral, and because language is never neutral all archival documents—the most personal of letters, the driest of legal, the most sensational of news articles—are not neutral either, and so a historian searching for the realities of the past starts from a position of having already, unknowingly, lost touch with that past. All archives are simply another sort of fiction, another type of literary or linguistic mode.

The problem of the archives as a truth-teller is exacerbated when studying sixteenth century peasants who could not write at all, and so have “left us few documents of self-revelation” (Davis, 2). To gain access to the lives of these individuals, the historian is forced to take a round-about route via secondary accounts written by others far removed from the actual peasantry. Literature is one option, but it exists, it is so often conventional, following “the classical rules that make villagers a subject of comedy” (Davis, 2). The literary corpus abounds with stories of “happy, pleasant, and agreeable” peasants and their “happy, pleasant, and agreeable” adventures, but to take that for reality is to run together fiction and fact. As Davis herself admits, a learned poet might describe Arnaud’s country with extravagant literary terms like “rich in grains, rich in wines” and “abounds in men, as brave fighters as could be,” but it would be hard to say if Arnaud would have said it similarly (Davis, 35). The other option Davis puts forth is records of court proceedings, but these too are not exempt from literary sleight-of-hand. For example, an excerpt of a document recording the testimony of a young Lyonnais villager seeking a pardon for the murder of his wife (who did not live long enough to tell her side of the story, which just serves to highlight the erasure of voices in the archives and the problem of recovering them) is sprinkled with “phrases urged upon him by his attorney” that are designed to paint a vivid “portrait of an unhappy marriage”: The wife, “without rhyme or reason, took it into her head to kill him, and in fact beat him and threw stones at him…The suppliant accepted this peaceably” (Davis, 3). Criminal cases like Martin Guerre are especially rich in drama and narrative, and also “limited as a means for faithfully recounting history,” the judges always having “the power to shape the official version of the truth” (Bienen, 496) White says that “the facts do not speak for themselves, but that the historian speaks for them” (125). We see here, however, that the relationship is a step further removed—the historian doesn’t speak for the facts, but for texts that purport to speak for the facts.

Davis is not unaware of this linguistic and archival dilemma, which she proves by treating her sources like poets, subjecting their texts to an analysis of a basically literary kind. The primary source Davis uses in writing The Return of Martin Guerre is the aforementioned Arrest Memorable by Jean de Coras, whom she presents to us as “The Storyteller.” As depicted by Davis, Coras was a brilliant jurist who could pour forth “spellbinding oratory before two thousand people” and whose legal publications were beloved by his students for their literary merits as much as their informational ones: “’Corasissima’ one of them wrote in the margin next to an especially apt phrase on the subject of inheritance by minors” (Davis, 97). These talents were applied to Coras’s account of Martin Guerre’s trial, and the result, in Davis’s eyes, is a new style of law and crime writing that has never been seen before, an “innovative book of contradictory images and mixed genres” (Davis, 104). She then proceeds to examine how this “mixture in tone and mixture in form” determines the story that Coras is telling (Davis, 108). On the one hand, Coras exaggerated and omitted aspects of this story to create a “moral tale” in which the “diabolic art” of the impostor is “built up by comparison with biblical, classical” figures, thus exonerating Bertrande of any guilt and emphasizing Coras’s “exemplary” execution of this satanic figure (Davis, 109). On the other hand, however, the lack of a proper hero, a requirement of a moral tale, in this version of the events—the real Martin Guerre, Davis stresses, is portrayed as irresponsible, “unforgiving and unrepentant”—allows Coras’s account to be recast as a “tragedy,” a word he himself uses in a later edition (Davis 110, 111). And still another way to read Coras’s text is as a “tragicomedy,” a story with a diverting beginning, a doubtful middle, and a sad ending in which Arnaud is cast as a kind of hero crucially helped by Bertrande who, “not at all deceived, decides to fashion a marriage with him” (Davis, 112). Davis went into the archives a historian, but came out an English professor, well versed with the literary process, trying to find meaning not only in the sentences themselves but in the spaces between them, in their forms and structures, in the way this texts shifts between genres and “is told in two ways at the same time” (Davis, 108). The text that she ends up with as a result is not objective, not bare, unvarnished fact, but rather a complex and at times contradictory medley of voices and meaning.

Davis herself advocates for the “comitragic” version of the story of Martin Guerre, presenting to us in The Return of Martin Guerre a reading of Arnaud as a hero, Bertrande as his willing and loving accomplice, and Martin Guerre as the cad who comes back and ruins everything at the last minute. This interpretation she arrives at not by grounding her arguments in the exact words of Coras’s text, but by playing around and speculating into the ambiguities and contradictions that arise from the surface of his text once she subjects it to the kind of literary analysis mentioned above. Davis treats Arnaud, Bertrande, and the other historical figures in her book like they are characters in a Dostoyevsky play, wondering and hypothesizing on their emotions and psychology. For example, much of her assertion of Bertrande’s complicity in Arnaud’s deception (really the heart of her book) rests on what she imagines are Bertrande’s feelings as a young and beautiful woman abandoned by her real husband: but surely, Davis says, “Bertrande dreamed of a husband and lover who would come back and be different” (Davis, 34). She invents scenarios in her head as “thought experiments,” and places Arnaud and others in them, putting words into their heads—if Arnaud du Tilh and Martin Guerre had ever met beforehand, she says, it surely must have been “unsettling and fascinating,” but once the shock wore off regarding their resemblance they likely would “exchange confidences” (Davis, 39). The real Martin expresses ambivalence about his wife, suggests to Arnaud that he “take her,” and Arnaud would think, “Why not?” (Davis, 39).

Davis tries to justify her speculation by asserting that a historian has recourse to “the uncertainties, the ‘perhapses,’ the ‘may-have-beens’” when the “evidence is inadequate or perplexing,” but her retelling of Martin Guerre goes far beyond that and approaches fiction (Davis, viii). The historian Robert Finlay, for example, criticizes Davis for bypassing completely the historical records “in the service of an inventive blend of intuition and assertion,” particularly in her characterization of Bertrande, whom she transforms in a stroke of the pen from the dupe of the traditional tale to an active and engaged accomplice in hers (Finlay, 569). This type of inversion of traditional women’s history is very common in micro-history studies like The Return of Martin Guerre, and, according to historian Marsha R. Robinson, has its roots in the idea that “history is constructed, historical narratives are rarely objective” (Robinson, 1). Although Davis vehemently denies Finlay’s claims that she ignored the historical record, certain elements of her book indicate her implicit recognition of the hold of fiction in history. First, she frames the entire book in terms of theatrical language—Bertrande and Arnaud are consummate “rural actors,” their ruse is compared to the donning of “the mask of the carnival player,” the trial is a performance which Arnaud has to go into “rehearsals” for and which is attended by spectating crowds (Davis 5, 41, 57). This obviously serves to call attention to the literary aspects of her writing, making transparent the ways in which she uses language and narrative structure to intensify the drama (Look! Arnaud takes “center stage”) and embellish her history (Davis, 69) And second, Davis leaves her book deliberately open-ended, ending: “I think I have uncovered the true face of the past—or has Pansette done it one again?” (Davis, 125). Although Davis had set out to write the true history of Martin Guerre, in the end she can only she can claim that it is a face, not the true face, of Pansette, Arnaud’s nickname/stage name. She has not deciphered the story; it lives on, changing with every re-telling, whether it is another historian who takes a crack at it, or a grandmother in present-day Artigat who tells the it to a young mother complaining over her baby carriage that nothing ever happens in this sleepy town. “Perhaps not now, but in the sixteenth century…” (Davis, 125).

In many people’s minds, there is a firm difference between historical writing and fiction writing—one is true, and the other is not; one deals in facts, the other inventions; one is a science, interested in discovering and quantifying, the other an act of creativity, interested in creating and imagining. But as Davis shows in her search for the true, the right, way of telling the history of a legend like Martin Guerre, the boundary between fiction and history is much, much more fluid than most imagine. Language, literary schemes and modes, infiltrates every step of a historian’s work, from the starting point of the archives to the end point of actually setting words down onto the page. It is impossible to get the truth of the past, because such a thing doesn’t exist, and if it did, it is lost to us anyway. Truth is not objective, or unitary, or singular, but rather ever-shifting and ever-changing, a story to be crafted and told and re-told, every version, every interpretation, different, repeating ad infinitum. Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre is but one of these stories—there will be, and already are, many more.

[1] The idea for this essay grew out of two sources. First, a prompt my Literary Theory professor gave me for our second assignment that goes: “Historians take themselves to be reconstructing the truth about past events, but they are actually writing a kind of fiction. They bring to their understanding of earlier periods narrative schemes of a basically literary kind—storytelling forms that help them organize bare historical facts into a satisfying shape, none of which can be said to be more right than any other. The choice of what kind of story you are going to tell cannot be made on empirical grounds.” Second, a book (Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre) that I read for my Theory of History class, and on which I led a discussion section.

[2] Title of one of Hayden White’s essays: “The Fictions of Factual Representation,” compiled in Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Johns Hopkins UP, 1978).

Works Cited

Bienen, Leigh Buchanan. “Review: The Law as Storyteller.” Harvard Law Review, Vol. 98, No. 2, 1984, pg. 494-502.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. The Return of Martin Guerre. Harvard UP, 1983.

Finlay, Robert Finlay. “The Refashioning of Martin Guerre.” The American Hsitorical Review, Vol. 9, No. 3, 1988, pg. 553-571.

Robinson, Marsha. Inverting History with Microhistory: Women Who Belong: Claiming a Female’s Right-Filled Space. Cambridge Scholar’s Publishing, 2013.

White, Hayden. “The Fictions of Factual Representation.” Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Johns Hopkins UP, 1978.

White, Hayden. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe. Johns Hopkins UP, 1973.


Love and the Writing of Love

Last semester, on a whim, I took a class on Classical Arabic poetry. Over the course of several months, I covered ground from the deserts of pre-Islamic Arabia to the tumultuous cities of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire, reading everything from the boastful qasidas of tribal warriors to the mystical ghazals of Sufi masters to the musical muwashshahats of the noblemen of al-Andalus. I went in knowing nothing, but each passing week increasingly impressed on me the sense that not only do Arabs revere poetry in a manner unmatched by most, they especially love poetry about love, in all its forms. Then I got to the modern day, and encountered Nizar Qabbani.

A Syrian diplomat who left his post to compose in self-exile in London, Qabbani’s greatest inspiration for writing was women. He is hailed the Arab world over for his ability to portray male-female relationships, to capture love, as never before, and is thus often considered the love poet for modern women. Many of his poems have even been turned into popular songs—on the day of our seminar on Qabbani, I walked in to a video of a soulful crooner murmuring Qabbani’s verses to a packed audience of women, each new stanza sending them into paroxysms of joy.

Meanwhile, I was just confused. I didn’t get Qabbani, not the way those several thousand women did. His verses were plenty lovely, but I couldn’t understand why the man celebrated as the greatest poet of love of the last century was a man who seemingly didn’t care for love, or the writing of love, at all. One poem in his collection ends with the poet-persona declaring that he has discovered he is “incapable of loving the minutest creature” (26). Another poem proclaims that “Love, as we knew it, has ended” (138). And the last poem is sprinkled with outbursts about his desire to completely change the history of love, a wish that ends on a rather grim note: “I haven’t demolished the hurdles / of ugliness the way I imagined. / In fact, I’ve been exploding / in my own fire” (66). I had spent the whole semester with discovering Arabic’s extremely rich tradition of love poetry, and now I was puzzled over how to fit Qabbani, anti-love and anti-love poetry, within this storied heritage.

It is only when I read Nietzsche that I was able to resolve this tension in Qabbani’s work between his role as a poet of love and his disavowal of that love. In “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” Nietzsche articulates a theory of the relation of a word to the “truth,” the object it is meant to encompass, that boils down to: there is no connection; language is independent of the object it purports to name, and a change in the latter does not constitute a change in the former. In applying this formulation to my knowledge of Arabic love poetry, however, it seems not that there is no link, but rather that it is flipped around—it is not the object that governs language, but language that governs the object.  It is not love, the reality and experience of it, that shapes the expression, the poetry of love; rather, it is the poetic tradition that shapes the reality and experience. And in many cases, this language, so long and refined in its literary history, highly codified and specific in its forms, is rather restrictive, shackling love by forcing it into set schemata for how it can emerge. A rich poetic tradition here is not a boon, but a fault. This is counterintuitive, I know, but it explains much of Qabbani’s glaring ambivalence towards love, the emotion and object, and love, the poetry and language. His poems are a record of his struggle as a lover and a poet to give voice to his own love, his uniquely personal love affair and beloved, within the context of a canon full to the brim already with love affairs and beloveds. Qabbani wishes to free love from the chains of past traditions, and to do so he must destroy it whole so that he can create it anew.

Let us look, for example, at “Give Me Love, Turn Me Green,” the poem in which Qabbani reveals the most heightened awareness of his position as a love poet in a long line of love poets. The poem is composed like a love letter, opening with an entreaty to the beloved to “Listen carefully. / Listen carefully,” and continuing with an ode to their love:

This love ordeal I’m going through

happens only once in a lifetime.

An ordeal that is poetic, aquatic,

mystical and sensual,

glorious in its sadness (60)

The following stanzas proceed along the same vein, Qabbani striving to elucidate, in as vivid and minute detail as possible, the intensity of his feelings for his beloved. Holding her makes him feel weightless, “as if my veins had dissolved / and my bones vaporized” (Qabbani, 60). Every small moment spent with her, every little thing she does—“The taste of the first kiss before breakfast. / Your white feet diving into the thick carpet, / the brush massaging your hair, / and the eye shadow in the corner of your eyes”—is cause for joy, “reason enough / for the entire universe / to transform itself into music and poetry” (Qabbani, 70). His love even approaches the transcendent—every time they meet, he says, “the colour of time in our watches / turns green, / the yearning in our eyes / turns green, / and the moon that rises from your cleavage / turns green,” green like the color of Paradise as described in the Quran (68). As described by Qabbani, his is special, so great that it touches the divine.

Strangely enough, however, Qabbani is unable to stop himself from repeating this refrain that their love is one of a kind over and over again. “So give me another chance to write history, / for history, my lady, does not recur,” he says to her, and repeats a few stanzas later, this time staccato, more emphatic: “All of this, my lady, are pages of history / that will never recur. / That will / never / recur” (70). But his very forcefulness casts doubt on this assertion, hinting at it does to an underlying tension in his words, a hidden anxiety he is trying to assuage. If he were as sure in his love as he pretends to be, we are led to ask, why would he feel the need to keep assuring us, and his lover, it is so?

Our suspicions are correct: an examination of the language Qabbani uses to depict his love affair reveals that it is suffused with the oft-used conventions of Classical Arabic literature. Early on, he asks of his beloved, “Wash your hair in the river of my madness. / But then, isn’t the madness of love inexplicable?” a line that to any Arab reader would immediately evoke that most famous pair of literary lovers: Layla and her Majnun, who loved her so fiercely that he was known by all as “Layla’s Madman” (60). He traces her arrival into his life back to “the spas of Granada / and the sorrows of the mandolin,” an allusion to the myth of the Golden Age of Andalusia, a halcyon period in the minds of many said to have witnessed the flowering of Arabic literature, and in particular the poetry of love (64). His compares their love to the intoxication of wine—“All the ports have closed, / and the marina’s wine runs red” when she is near—a metaphor that traces its roots in the canon back centuries, all the way to wine songs of the exalted mu’allaqas of the ancient tribes (64). Far from not having a “guidebook for love,” their love is clearly very much grounded in the canon of Classical Arabic poetry, a fact that even Qabbani implicitly admits in the end, when he says: “Whenever a new love tale / is added to the annals of love / in my town” (64, 66). His is this new love tale, added to the already great annals of Arabic love poetry.

But it is not only Qabbani’s ability to express love that is circumscribed by Arabic poetic tradition; love’s very course and reality is as well. Qabbani relates the text of love to the action of love when, early on in “Give Me Love, Turn Me Green,” he calls on his lover to

Read me intensely.

I am always searching for an avid reader,

one who wears poems about her wrists

like bracelets

and sees the whole world

in the portrait of a poet (62).

Qabbani’s very self is contained in literary terms, and it is his qualities as a poet that he credits for forging his connection with his beloved in the first place: “How wonderful for a woman to lose her head, / to become intoxicated before the face of poetry” (Qabbani, 62). The entirety of their love, their lives together, proceeds along the same lines, revolving around the reading and writing of poetry:

What really amazes me

is the feeling every morning

that whatever I touch or lay eyes on

turns into poetry.

My things and yours—no matter how trivial—

turn into poetry (68).

 The vast poetic tradition that is both Qabbani’s heritage and profession informs every aspect of his relationship with his beloved, such that it almost seems alive, a thing that looms over his life: “What’s happening to our histories, my lady? / Whenever I squander kisses on your hair, it grows before my eyes” (Qabbani, 72). Not that the plural “histories” makes this reference not to their personal story, their by-definition singular history, but rather to the broader “history of my time” and “history of females” (Qabbani, 64). Love the object, the emotion, the felt and sensate experience, converges with love the language, contrary to Nietzsche’s claim that there is no connection between the two. Poetry emerges here as the only framework in which love can be conducted, manifested.

But this dominance of language over love is a curse for Qabbani, imprisoning him and his lover within rigid archetypes that constrain their freedom to love as they will. About halfway into “Give Me Love, Turn Me Green” Qabbani exclaims: “In fifty years I haven’t met / a hind that fled her captor, / nor a woman who desired freedom” (66). The word “hind” is the stock metaphor in Classical Arabic poetry for women, and its use here conjures up an entire literary history in which women are portrayed as passive, helpless, captive. This vision of women is much than a simple figure of speech, as it has acquired the power to affect reality, influence Qabbani’s actual love life to the extent that all of the women he’s met so far are “hinds” and the men “her captor.” This theme of bondage by language resounds all over Qabbani’s oeuvre, and to an even greater degree than in “Give Me Love, Turn Me Green.” “Painting With Words,” for example, begins with Qabbani declaring that the “record of my life” is so long a story it is as if “I have lived through all the ages. / It’s as if I have existed thousands of years” (24). His descriptions of his love affairs with numerous women are couched in imagery that recalls the lengthy history of Arabic love poetry:

I try to use my traditional way of evasion—

through women.

Where are my concubines?

Where are the harems?

And where is the smell of incense

wafting through my chambers? (26)

Qabbani’s personal loves have been entirely subsumed within the preset patterns of Arabic love poetry, such that he and his any of his beloveds are unable to break away from these traditions and forge a love that is unique to them. “All kinds of love appear the same, / as indistinguishable as leaves in the forest” (Qabbani, 26). Qabbani joins the other poetic heroes, and his lover melds into the ranks of the women, becoming indistinguishable despite his protests to the contrary. “For I know exactly which among my women / and my poems I desire,” he says in his poem “The Last Declaration of King Schariar,” only to refute this idea in the very next line: “and I know that nothing is new in the realm of women” (134). Notice too how problematic, how sexist these all-consuming literary models are—love is depicted always as “conquests,” the man strong and daring, the woman pure and receptive (Qabbani, 24). In this way love becomes trite, Qabbani discovering that he is incapable of truly “loving the minutest creature” (Qabbani, 28). The language of love is all-encompassing and oppressive, absorbing every individual love and compelling it conform to rigid, dominant, and problematic archetypes passed down from literary history.

The only way to save love from the despotism of language is, ironically enough, to destroy all love as it is conceived in the present day. Even more ironically, the tool of destruction is more language, more poetry. “For what’s the value of poetry / if it doesn’t have the power of change? / And what’s a poet if he can’t command change?” Qabbani asks, indicating his great faith in the power of language to transform the meaning of other language even as it ossifies, becomes rigid and confining (64). But the roots of the poetic language are dug too deep in Arabic society and culture, and simply speaking and shouting ad infinitum to others will produce no results:

 For fifty years I’ve been jumping

from one landmine to another,

preaching to my people

so that they might change.

I haven’t demolished the hurdles

of ugliness the way I imagined.

In fact, I’ve been exploding

In my own fire (66).

No, the sole path out is to dismantle the very meaning of love as it is understood in the present day, a love that is based in the inherited language of Arabic literature. Thus Qabbani proclaims:

The era of Nizar has ended.

Love, as we knew it, has ended.

Lovers’ memory has shriveled,

and the Mythical Lover no longer remembers

the name of his sweetheart (138).

We must abandon love, and learn to “worship” ourselves instead, find our answers not in a “sweet mouth” but in our “notebooks,” our own ability to paint with words (Qabbani, 28). Only when we have rid ourselves of all love as it is manifest today, completely replaced the traditions of the past with our new metaphors and language and formulations, can we finally free ourselves to practice again the “religion of love” and this time reach its true “essence,” finally become “the work of heavens” he had characterized it as at the start (Qabbani, 138).

I had always assumed that love poetry is necessarily preceded by love, the purpose of language to capture as closely as possible the real emotions. How strange it is for me to see the way this relation is switched in Qabbani’s poetry, the language of love actually decreeing, limiting, the ways in which love can be materialized. The richer a literary tradition is, the more it bears on our lives—and in the case of Arabic poetry, with such a long and illustrious history, this means that all love is essentially chained by its poetic forms and types. To free love, as Qabbani discovers, recover its true essence, we must combat language with language, dismantle the calcified remains of the poetic past and replace it with new words of our own choosing.


Works Cited

Kabbani, Nizar. “Republic of Love: Selected Poems in English and Arabic.” Translated by Nayef al-Kalali. Edited by Lisa Kavchak, Kegan Paul, 2003.