Hamid Dabashi: Ecstasy, Subversion, and the Persian Language

NEW YORK, November 29, 2012 — "We write the books we wish we had to read," according to Hamid Dabashi, Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, by way of introducing his new book, The World of Persian Literary Humanism, which he also characterized as "a book (he has) always wanted to write" and one that "all Persians have within us by virtue of our mother tongue."

Dabashi discussed the new book at Asia Society with Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, the Robert I. Williams Term Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania and a former student of his. The two delved into its analyses, theories, implications, and the process behind its creation.

The talk provided a detailed account of common conceptions of Persian as a language. It is viewed as a "maternal" language, one of resistance and cultural enlightenment, and of imprecise poetic constructs with peripheral and subversive aspects.

Dabashi also argued that Persian is a language of constantly changing tropes. In his view, correct poetry analysis considers context because the evolution of language is a direct function of environment. Persian is a language that began (in his phrasing) as one of ethnos, became one of ethos, and exists today as one of "chaos." Until Persia encountered European imperialism, at a time considered the beginning of modernism, the Persian proverbial remained within the imperial court. Poetry was a profession, written for connoisseurs. When the country became subject to European imperialism, the Persian proverbial moved out of the court and into another court.

In the aftermath of the European encounter, however, Persian had "nowhere to go." It was simply in the open space, which later became the public space — the Persian poet's "homeland." Thus began the period of "chaos," a time characterized by simplification of the Persian language to garner public understanding. During this period, poets wrote for no one in particular, for neither the court nor the scholastic system.

Kashani-Sabet concluded by asking Dabashi what his favorite part of writing the book was. Dabashi recalled the times in which he achieved perfect communion with the poetry in question, times that he characterized as "absolute existential ecstasy." He mentioned passages from the book about home, which are quite personal for him. "Books become like our children," Dabashi said. To him, The World of Persian Literary Humanism is young, arrogant and female, much like the language on which it centers. Dabashi's mother, wife, and daughters inform it, provoking Dabashi's own "female" literary voice — a significant voice that offers a whole new chapter to the scholarship on Islamic humanism.

Reported by Renny Grinshpan

Video: Highlights from the program (6 min., 18 sec.)


Related Links:
Watch the complete program
Asia Blog interview with Hamid Dabashi
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