"To Flee from All Languages": The Gap between Language and Experience in the Works of Modern Arab Poets

Article excerpt

   So here I am, in the middle of the way having had twenty
   years--Twenty
   years largely wasted ...
   Trying to use words, and every attempt
   Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure....
     ... And so each venture
   Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
   With shabby equipment always deteriorating.
     (T.S. Eliot, East Coker, "The Four Quartets")

IN HIS ESSAY "THE RETREAT FROM THE WORD" which discusses, among other issues, various aspects of the multifarious interactions between language and reality in Western modernist literature and poetry, George Steiner sagaciously points out that: (1)

   The crisis of poetic means, as we know it, began in the later
   nineteenth century. It arose from awareness of the gap
   between the new sense of physiological reality and the old
   models of rhetorical and poetic statement.

Steiner maintains that in order to articulate the wealth of consciousness opened to which modern sensibility is exposed, true modernist Western poets sought to break out of the traditional confines of syntax and definition. They strove to restore to language its fluid, provisional character; and they hoped to give back to the word its power of incantation--of conjuring up the unprecedented--which it possessed when it is still a form of magic. Modernist poets recognized that traditional syntax organizes our perceptions into linear and monistic patterns, which distort or stifle the play of subconscious energies, the multitudinous inner life of mind. Language, according to modernist writings is therefore inadequate to capture, represent, and do justice to the quality and intensity of the inner life. (2)

Most romantic poets flaunted an unyielding confidence in their poetry's power of clairvoyance, which enables it to bridge the unbearable gap between language and the poet's "self." (3) This is how Elizabeth Wilkinson summarizes the Romantic notion regarding language and "sell" as she discusses German Romanticism and particularly the works of both Goethe and Schiller: (4)

   Art, for Goethe and Schiller, is expressive of the life that goes
   on within us all the time but which we are never able to
   communicate as it is lived. This inner life, in the form we
   experience it, is not accessible to language. When we reduce it
   to concepts and propositions, it has already changed its
   character. In vain do we struggle ... to convey the rhythms and
   contours, the feel of this inner life, not only the feel of our
   emotions, of our joy or our grief, but the feel of our thinking
   too, its involutions and convolutions, its ramifications and
   tensions ... It eludes all language save the language of art.

Modernist poets, however, are acutely aware that their quest for transcendence, or 'ultimate meaning', is almost always impeded by the arbitrariness of language, by the unstable relationship between signifier and signified. Throughout the twentieth century, Western modernist poets consistently strove to explore a variety of techniques to surmount this poetic barrier. There was, for instance, the imagist venture which sought to discover an innovative poetic idiom that would better suit the modern situation, particularly in view of the gap between language and experience, that had been widening ever since the wane of high romanticism. Ezra Pound's definition of the "image" as "that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time" reflects the need to regain this lost equilibrium between word and reality, not by way of abstraction and discursive statements (which only leads one back to the same old impasse), but by finding adequate metaphors, concrete word pictures for the newly realized reality. (5)

In this article, I contend that one of the aims of modernist Arab poets is to demonstrate how their poetic works unremittingly endeavor to eradicate or conceal the gap between language and the reality it purports to embody. …