Academic journal article Studies in the Humanities

Arabic Literature, Sans Joy: Introduction: Mohammed Barrada and Psychic Mobility

Academic journal article Studies in the Humanities

Arabic Literature, Sans Joy: Introduction: Mohammed Barrada and Psychic Mobility

Article excerpt

Mohammed Barrada's 1979 short story, "Life by Installments" (1979), follows a class of disaffected cultured men who have become "conscious of the same feeling of disintegration in our bones, also an even gloomier melancholy (ka'aba)" (133). The story' s portrayal of modern alienation draws heavily on Western depth psychology. Through the narrator's gloomy walk through a much-Westernized Moroccan city, the collective "we" (an unusual first-person plural point of view) notices the West everywhere, in the mixing of the sexes, in provocative advertising, in bottles of beer, cars, buses, and cinemas that have changed the public face of Morocco. The antidote appears to be a return to traditional Islamic values, such as found in a book mentioned by title, Mohammed ibn Mohammed ibn Abdullah al-Mu'aqqat's The Sword Unsheathed against Him Who Renounces the Prophet's Sunna. In trying to be a writer who is not a writer in "the European way," Barrada spoke for his generation. After the dreams died, he, like his narrator, felt the disillusionment that comes from the recognition that the West had penetrated far more deeply into the consciousness of the Moroccan than had been suspected. Tellingly, Barrada employs in his storytelling the very conventions of Western fiction that enable him to explore the depths of his joyless characters. The "doctor"--Sigmund Freud, whose "Mourning and Melancholy" is the modern classic on the subject--even makes an appearance in the psychic life of the narrator, as he does elsewhere in Barrada's fiction. Not surprisingly, the Western-educated author, professor, and sometime president of the Moroccan Writers Union, Barrada, is well aware of the subtle interconnections between Western depth psychology and the many alienated Muslims who try to connect with an earlier tradition. (48)

The melancholia so pervasive in Barrada's story is more than a literary theme and it is a concern in Western literature much earlier than Freud's "Mourning and Melancholia." It is a cultural script that signaled an immense turn in Western thought from religious to psychological categories. The turn, evident already in Early Modern English literature, moved the West toward what sociologist Daniel Lerner called the "psychic mobility" of the Modern world and its expression in a distinctively modern form of fiction. This essay, prompted by the sudden appearance on American television of "suicide bombers," explores the transfer of this cultural script to a small sample of Arabic literature. The sample involves mainly North African, especially Moroccan literature seen against a background illustrated by ah obscure allegorical figure, a certain "Saracen knight" Edmund Spenser named "Sansjoy." The essay moves then toward a comment on the shaheed batal or "devout witnesses" so prominent in news from the Arab-Muslim world today.

Sansjoy or melancholy was the first and most pervasive of psychological conditions that by the 1580s had linked medical, moral, artistic and literary analyses of what has been called the "Elizabethan Malady." That most melancholic of fictional creations of the period, Shakespeare's Hamlet, demonstrates again and again why the "mobile sensibility" Stephen Greenblatt considers the key to what he calls "Renaissance self-fashioning," a tendency to and an ability to use "empathy" to know the other. The results may be an intensification of self-knowledge and brilliant invention, but it may also lead to the oppression of the other, especially the "natives" encountered in European voyages of exploration and conquest. Greenblatt was heavily influenced by Daniel Lerner, who is well-known to students of the Middle East for the influential--and controversial--1958 study, The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East. Recall that Lerner, who largely thought that the transition from a "traditional" to a "modern" society was a good thing, made a stunning observation about modern Western storytelling. …

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