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Volume 15, Number 5September/October 1964

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Currents In The River

Slowly, clearly, the accepted patterns of Arabic literature are giving way to new trends ...

Written by 'Abbas Mahmoud Al-'Akkad

Like a great river flowing between its banks, Arabic literature, like all literature, has been subject to concurrent, yet sometimes conflicting, movements. One has been the evolution of form and content, a progressive development and improvement—like the current in a river, flowing quietly but steadily toward the sea. The other movement has been the temporary fashion or fad, not always in harmony with the first, like waves rippling across the surface, sometimes surging wildly, but usually breaking on the far shore without changing the course of the river or deepening its channel.

Most of such fads or fashions, which are frequently but erroneously called "schools" or "doctrines," arose from a misunderstanding of modern scientific and social doctrines or out of a misapplication of their findings. The most striking example of that today is found in the misunderstandings or exaggerations of the theories of Freud and his fellow pioneers regarding psychoanalysis, particularly those theories concerning the subconscious mind.

With the general acceptance by society of those theories, there developed the belief that the senses of sight, sound and touch were henceforth to be disregarded as valid criteria for artistic selection. According to this argument, only the subconscious imaginings and reactions of the artist were to be considered.

In presenting this argument, those who adopted it seem to have forgotten or brushed aside the fact that the subconscious always has played an important role in the artistic vision, whether the artists openly recognized it or not, being in fact the very intuitive quality that guided them toward the truth of feeling, likeness and color. They seem to have forgotten too that even if the subconscious is a valid criterion for artistic judgment, its presentation must, nonetheless, hold to recognizable standards of quality and execution and that distinctions must still be drawn between care and negligence in execution. It is not strange, therefore, that all efforts guided by such an approach have resulted in confusion and will end in defeat.

Similarly, the currents of literature have been affected by the misunderstanding of social doctrines no less than the misunderstanding of psychological studies. Socialism, for example, aimed at the outset to eliminate unfair ownership of misappropriated wealth, monopoly and exploitation, but mass understanding of those aims became something else again. To the ordinary mind it came to mean the suppression, not only of social privileges, but also of even those natural endowments of intelligence, talent and judgment. In this distorted view no talent ought to have exceeded the levels of the ordinary individual, a view that eventually must come to mean that there is no need for the rules of drawing and coloring in painting, no need for grammar in languages and no need for rhythms in poetry. The misunderstandings of the original preachings of such doctrine led to another effect too, the conviction that literature which dealt with any theme but that of wages, costs of living and consumption, or which tended toward subjects above the understanding of the ordinary individual, regardless of the level of his intelligence or the degree of his literacy, was a departure from the principles of the creed and was contrary to the interests of the people.

Despite the influence of such fashions, however, they have not, like the waves on the surface of the river, affected the progressive course of Arab literature, nor can they be termed more than a casual interruption in what, for 70 years, has been uninterrupted evolution and development.

Where, then, is that river flowing? What are the developments in Arabic literature in the past seven decades?

To put it briefly, the course of Arabic literature is toward independence; independence from tradition and from imitation. One indication is that original composition is on the increase, exceeding translations in all fields but science and certain cultural subjects. It is particularly noticeable in poetry, where the deeply-felt, very personal approach of an individual is at last squirming out of the strait jacket of expression to which, for so long, the poet had, understandably, submitted.

The general pattern that obtained for so long was poetry that spoke in accepted and rigidly prescribed phrasing—"the poetry of samples"—that poured into one central mold the varied thoughts and responses of the individuals. Thus, if a hundred poets sang the praises of their beloved, each girl and woman would emerge alike, identical in every aspect—eye, nose, mouth, and waist; each would possess in equal measure the virtues and faults of coquetry and pride; each would suffer at separation, sigh at reconciliation. Should a poem on the achievements of -a great leader be written, that leader would emerge not as a particular person with individual characteristics and identifiable qualities, but as a composite of other great leaders, as a replica of other men.

Through the years this has slowly, almost undetec-tibly, changed; some 70 years ago a new age dawned, the age of the "person," during which the poet and his subject emerged in fresh terms and new colors. The beloved became real, shaped not by convention but by her own gifts of beauty, voice, stride and those small yet distinctive mannerisms and habits that set her apart from another. And thus the poet emerged too, responding as an individual in an individual way to the stimuli of sight and sound and sense, and particularly to social change.

Last fall in Alexandria there was held a poetry festival at which this movement toward independence could be seen beneath the subject matter chosen by the poets as the material for their works. More than 10 poems were presented, each by poets already famous. Seven of the poems clearly took cognizance of the social and psychological needs of the people and therein mingled incident and relationship, social trends and psychology and added moreover another dimension, that of the individual response to incidents and relationship. There was, in those poems, a tone of personal search for meaning echoing beneath the description and emotion of the surface narrative.

This shift from the general patterns of the past to the individual expression of the later decades emerges in other ways too. Change is occurring in that most traditional region of classical, or literary, poetry with its patterns of repetition in word and rhythm. In song, both popular and traditional, and in poetry composed in the colloquial tongue and idiom, there is change in content, a move toward the specific, be it an incident or relationship. In the theater, dramas restore life and personality to the stereotypes of history.

In prose, the trend is the same, but social awareness is even more strongly reflected. At the festival it appeared that the fiction of today—which in output now overshadows all other forms of writing—has indeed turned away from the patterns of the past toward the "objective" story, the story that has as its primary point national, social and moral goals. From the romantic and historical themes of the past, prose today turns for its content to life in the streets of the city and town and village. It is rare to find today books devoted to emotional pleasures, or works requiring the luxury of leisurely contemplation.

There are, certainly, writers who still delve deeply into the human personality, who penetrate the surface and produce, in consequence, symbolism and even mysticism. And there are others, notably playwrights, who adopt the conventions of leisure literature, but even here the social and intellectual goal is discernible. The theater, in fact, has widely adopted the "objective" approach and has turned to producing plays in the colloquial idiom.

The movement of our current can be seen too in essays, in literary criticism and in literary history, all of which are developing in importance and volume by comparison with similar offerings of 15 years ago. Such writing demonstrates the current most clearly; it is an effort to blend the trends of Occident and Orient, to adopt newer principles to older forms, yet reserving the right to differ and to preserve those elements of Arabic composition which rest on a meter fixed by the rules of derivation. Translation of foreign works is freer and broader in an attempt to achieve this synthesis.

The trends in modern literature also include the contributions of women as well as men, although no distinction can really be made in literature on the basis of sex; valid judgments on literature can only be applied according to standards of achievement irrespective of sex, age or temperament. Some 10 women participated at the poetry festival and if their offerings, some in poetry, some in criticism, differed in any way it was in their tendency to abide more closely by older standards with regard to rhyme and meter. Yet even here, in the very participation of women in the festival, there is a mark of independence, a clear indication of a trend which, like our river, gains strength with each passing day.

'Abbas Mahmoud al-'Akkad, eminent Egyptian man of letters, died in Cairo, March 12, 1964, at the age of 75, and is mourned throughout the Arab literary world. Nicknamed "The Giant," he was the author of more than 70 books on poetry, philosophy, religion and literary criticism. He was also a contributor to newspapers and magazines, a member of the Arab Language Academy and a man whose life was dedicated to literature and education. This article, written expressly for Aramco World and completed a few weeks before his death, is at once a summation of the changes in Arabic literature and a fine illustration of the rich metaphorical approach of the literature to which he contributed so much.ED.

This article appeared on pages 26-27 of the September/October 1964 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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