I am often susceptible to feelings of belatedness. “Is literary greatness still possible?” Susan Sontag asked around the turn of the millennium, and twenty years on, I’m not sure we have had an answer. Is it finally, as Cyril Connolly put it, “closing time in the gardens of the West”? I have always preferred the gardens of the East, but they may not be faring any better.
I am fully aware that this sentiment has been known to reactionaries for thousands of years, and quite often they’ve been wildly wrong. With me it is not by any means a political stance, and probably just a hyperbolic way of appreciating works of art and literature from a time before my own. The feeling is usually prompted by an encounter with a marvellous line composed in some distant time by an ancient poet or sage.
And occasionally one confronts a delicious irony. What happens when the artefact of the “glorious” past that galvanises this inclination to glorify the past actually appeared in its own time as an argument against glorifying the past?
This happened to me today, as I was reading some lines from the great poet al-Ma’arri, who alongside Abu Nuwas and al-Mutanabbi was part of that constellation of freethinking genius that formed in Abbasid-era Baghdad. Their achievements, I am inclined to think, will never be equaled, and probably not in the Iraq of today, whose chaotic state only underscores the sense of civilisational decline. Al-Ma’arri viewed religion as a “fable invented by the ancients” which would probably get him killed there nowadays, even though he was begrudgingly respected by the ulema in his own time (his texts, remember, have only survived thanks to the ulema). In al-Ma’arri’s absence (he died in 1057 CE), jihadists have resorted to beheading statues of him.
His line on religion, with its scorn for the “ancients”, already establishes the tension I am talking about: because, after all, al-Ma’arri is practically an ancient himself, now, as well as a fabulist of some repute.
The main exhibit, however, is this wonderful verse:
وإنّي وإن كنت الأخير زمانُه
لآتٍ بما لم تستطعِه الأوائل
Here’s the RA Nicolson translation I was making use of (Nicolson himself, with his habit of translating Arabic and Persian into perfect Latin metres, also seems to intimate long-vanished levels of refinement):
And I, albeit I, come in Time’s late hour,
Achieve what lay not in the ancient’s power.
How fine those lines are! They have a rhetorical eloquence and a formal elegance that, I was given to feel, no modern would today be capable of. And yet the lines themselves are an argument in favour of modernity; they explicitly deride the very sentiment they roused in me!
Al-Ma’arri was ridiculing the view of his contemporaries that the Arabs could no longer write great poetry, having gone soft by settling down into cities and losing their noble tent-dwelling, martial habits. How cleverly he scoffs at these doomsters: wa inniy wa in, “And I, albeit I”, a mournful, elegiac opening to lead you down the path of nostalgia, of the sense of “time’s late hour”, in the very style of the pre-Islamic odes he is mocking, the best known of which, by Imru’l-Qays, famously begins at a ruined campsite with the words: qifa nabki… “Stop and weep”. But then al-Ma’arri turns it round, with a proud boast about the superiority of the new, about technical progress.
We now know of course that al-Ma’arri was in the right and his reactionary detractors in the wrong. We know they were wrong because the Arabs did go on to produce great poetry (without even living in tents!), not least those lines, not least that constellation of freethinkers in al-Ma’arri, al-Mutanabbi and Abu Nuwas, not least in the whole Golden Age of Arabic poetry and thought that far surpassed the Mu’allaqat, the Seven Hanging Odes. While we may today lament the passing of that age one thousand years ago, it is well to be reminded of how such genius as theirs, like all genius, had to be born, had to be young, had at least once upon a time to be new. All past genius once was new. Thus always favouring the old is no less stupid than always favouring the new.
This is not the first time I have felt this bracing, soothing tension. I had it while reading Francis Bacon in Italy last year. Bacon, and Italy, had me revelling in the glories of the Renaissance. But the glory seemed now to be vanquished, the stones of Florence slowly perishing, its great minds long dead. Until I remembered that the clue’s in the word, in naissance; stop dwelling on death, and remember birth! Something, somewhere, is always being born.
As Bacon wrote, encapsulating the entire spirit of the Renaissance (its lapidary style and its progressive impetus) in just four words:
Juventus mundi antiquitas saeculi
The old times were the youth of the world!