On Art, Literature and History
by Naguib Mahfouz
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Price: Rs 449
"The difference between the true philosopher and the false,” the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, “is that the perplexity of the one arises from a contemplation of life, of the other from a comparison of books.” It is debatable whether true and false are judicious epithets here, but the distinction is enlightening. It can also be plainly re-written as the difference between those who have been driven towards philosophy due to moral interests and those who have not for the same purpose.
If we look into the past, the greatest names in the realm of philosophy would figure under the first category. For, most have been led into philosophy by circumstance — they tackled the traditional problems of their day pertaining to ethics and life in general.
All philosophers have been and are being interrogated for accuracy and clarity ever since the Greeks gave impetus to this discipline. The English philosopher G.E. Moore writes somewhere, “I do not think that the world or sciences would ever have suggested to me any philosophical problems. What has suggested philosophical problems to me are things which other philosophers have said about the world and sciences.” It could easily have been said by the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz as the same thought runs through his expository essays in the book On Art, Literature and History where he is analysing various philosophical schools while touching upon a multitude of topics including modernity, democracy, literature, music, society and plenty others. The recurring theme in the book is the influence of Western thought and ideologies on Mahfouz, which is conspicuous in all these essays. He has also voiced his concern for gender equality and the role he felt Egyptian women can play in the country’s prosperity.
Mahfouz is the only Arab writer to have been conferred with the Nobel Prize, which he won in 1988 and remains one of the most important contemporary writers of Arabic literature. Internationally known and renowned for his fiction alone, Mahfouz’s pieces presented in this book endeavour to fill this gap through his non-fiction writing. These are some of the early essays which were written mostly in the 1930s and show the development of the intellect and sensibilities of young Mahfouz; the ideas and the philosophical influences that preoccupied him during the early phase of his career as a writer and thinker.
Most of the pieces in this collection were published in Al-Majalla al-Jadida (where in 1939 his first novel The Mockery of Fate or Khufu’s Wisdom was also published) while some appreared in now long-defunct magazines. The essays are brief (apart from the ones in which he delves deeper into philosophy) and have been structured with great adroitness. Their content which provides insights into the mind of young Mahfouz, justify their reappearance in the form of a collection of essays. It is worth noting that Mahfouz himself spurned some of these essays as juvenilia and was reluctant to publish them at first. According to the introduction written by his biographer Raheed El- Enany, the very first essay in this collection was written when Mahfouz was still an undergraduate student studying philosophy at Cairo University. During those days, he took upon himself to educate his readers in philosophy. These essays were written many years before he would begin writing fiction and many more years prior to the time when his influence among litterateurs would become monumental, and much before the time when he would become the giant of the genre in Arabic who would write novels like The Cairo Trilogy, Thief and the Dog, Miramar and The Children of the Alley. Mahfouz was attacked by a religious fanatic after the appearance of his controversial novel The Children of the Alley where he subtly employed disguised allegory to show prophets of Judaism, Christianity and Islam as mere social reformers and called for belief in science, as opposed to religion. The attack (he was stabbed in the neck) shortened his writing career and left him paralysed for a considerable period of time.
The title of the essay which opens the collection is “The Demise of Old Beliefs and the Emergence of New Ones” — here 19-year-old Mahfouz rejects virtuousness and purity of old beliefs and welcomes the commotion that comes along with the new ideas, all of which he sees as the gateway to progress and modernity. Also evident in this essay is his strong belief and hope in socialism. He writes “...because it [socialism] seeks to remedy the tangible gap which has arisen due to scientific progress, and the emergence of new inventions and machines, and because it presents a middle way between two systems about which the religion complains: communism and individualism.” Before arriving at this conclusion, Mahfouz makes a very important observation pertaining to obsolete beliefs and the role writers have played in bringing about their demise. “When old beliefs began to perish,” he writes, “and when the light of the rational mind began to assert power over them, it laid bare their flaws and revealed their disgraces which had lived and taken root within people’s minds over the generations as though they were self-evident truths that were beyond dispute. When doubts came to replace faith, the writers were influenced by the change. Writers have been the greatest supporters and propagators of the new. They compose books which attack that which is outdated and try to bring about its demise, freeing us from enthrallment and enslavement to it.”
Mahfouz’s approach to most of his philosophical essays is instructive; he is simply educating the reader about important philosophers like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, Ivan Pavlov, Henri Bergson, William James and others. Elsewhere, the reader will find Mahfouz neutral and less preachy; he lets the reader think and decide for himself.
In the essay “Art and Culture”, Mahfouz is at his best with the ideas he expounds and the questions he throws at you — he asks, “Should art remain pure for the sake of art, free from anything except emotion and instinct?” He elucidates the function of art and calls him the artist who “...creates a connection between his soul, and science and philosophy”. He ends the essay with a memorable sentence: “The artist is he whose task in life is to spread illumination and joy.”
The reader might find it strange that Mahfouz never touches upon Islamic philosophy — no Muslim philosopher finds a place in this volume which is a testimony to the fact that Mahfouz was deeply immersed in Western thought and cared little for anyone other than the advocates of modernity. It is thus, he never touches topics and thinkers who to him were old-fashioned and irrelevant.
The last piece is an open letter written to Sayyid Qutb after the publication of his book Artistic Imagery in the Quran. Here the voice of the writer is sublime as he solemnly addresses Qutb and praises his work.“The Quran gave me,” Mahfouz writes in the essay, “and continues to give me faith in my heart and enchantment in my soul. Yet, although we feel that mysterious and inscrutable enchantment through our senses, and through our consciences are deeply touched by it, nevertheless, our minds cannot comprehend it nor can perception reach it. It is like the melody of a singer, of which, those who listens to it know neither how nor why it fills them with delight.”
Mahfouz’s essay collection as a whole serves its purpose but as a reader one is left a bit disappointed on finding so few essays on literature. Despite the title On Art, Literature and History, the book is dominated mostly by philosophy; there are brief sketches of writers whom Mahfouz considers representatives of Egypt’s literary Nahda [the awakening] — Abbas el Akkad, Taha Hussein and Salama Moussa. And there’s an essay on the Russian writer Anton Chekhov whose work Mahfouz seems to admire very much.
All in all, it’s a difficult book where time and again the reader will find Mahfouz’s vision and ideas dominating the content. One has to falter here and there for a moment or two to grasp the intention of the writer. There are points where the reader will find some arguments to be a bit stretched, but the author’s eloquence and his luminous ideas will keep the reader going.
It only remains to be said — considering the complex nature of Arabic language and its grammar — that Aran Bryne’s impeccable translation reads more like the original rather than a more corrective one. He has made it clear in the wary preface he has written for the book, where he claims fidelity to the original essays. But there always remains a certain veil between the writer and the reader when we read a translated text, as the true essence of a work is somewhat lost in translation.