"Our Place in Al-Andalus"

Declinations of Context in Arab-Jewish Letters

Gil Anidjar

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Dissertation Abstract

1492 is only the last in a series of "ends" that inform the representation of medieval Spain in modern Jewish historical and literary discourses. These ends simultaneously mirror the traumas of history and shed light on the discursive process by which hermetic boundaries are set between periods, communities, and texts. My dissertation, "‘Our Place in al-Andalus’: Declinations of Context in Arab-Jewish Letters," analyzes the modern project to represent the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as the "end" of al-Andalus (Islamic Spain). Here, the end works to locate and separate Muslim from Christian Spain, Jews from Arabs, philosophy from Kabbalah, Kabbalah from literature, and texts from contexts.

Yet, in order to accept or maintain these divisions, the scholarly discourse has to ignore a major dimension of al-Andalus as an historical event: language. By reading mystical, philosophical, and literary texts closely, I show that al-Andalus is a rhetorical event, an event of language negotiating and disrupting the localizations and divisions established by the "end." This event is what I call, after Maimonides, "our place in al-Andalus." Maimonides’ words, written in Egypt and not in the Iberian peninsula, exemplify the un-settling dimension of language at "our place." As al-Andalus, then, midrash occurs as poetry, Kabbalah as maqama, philosophy as literary criticism. And language goes out of context. Al-Andalus is an event of language that occurs in the medieval texts I read and in the modern historiographical considerations of their context.

I take issue with the modern disciplinary division that governs the study and teaching of Jewish medieval texts. My critique builds upon the following questions: Why is the Zohar, the major text of Kabbalah, not studied as part of the rise of vernacular literature in Medieval Europe? Why is it not even studied as part of medieval Hebrew literature? Is a cultural analysis of the central texts of medieval Jewish letters possible? What conceptions of language and culture are at work in constructing these textual and cultural divisions? Why do "mourning and melancholia" govern the reading practices that underlie the current study of medieval Spain?

Because al-Andalus is not simply a "medieval" object, but a powerful modern representation, I attend to the theories of language that either sustain or interrogate the representation of al-Andalus as a context that has "ended" (chapters one and two). I engage the theory of language that, in my view, dominates the study of al-Andalus (as well as the study of the related field of "Jewish mysticism"). This theory considers language to be derivative of its true place, of the context which, having ended, is often silent and lost, and is the occasion of language’s occurrence. Gershom Scholem’s work (most particularly his writings on Walter Benjamin) offers a striking articulation of this theory. The intense sadness that Scholem deploys in these texts is only one of many aspects that, providing elements for critique and suggesting alternatives, also illuminate in surprising ways the modern representation of al-Andalus, the melancholic affects associated with it, and the reductive conceptions of language that sustain it.

Next, I turn to close readings of philosophical, mystical, and literary texts from the Andalusi, Jewish and Arabic, cultural spheres, all of which are central texts of medieval Iberian culture: Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, the rhymed prose narratives (maqamat) of Ibn al-Ashtarkuwi¸, and the Zohar (chapters three and four). I argue that these texts are written in a language that disrupts the possibility of locating it in a pre-existing cultural situation or in a recognizable literary tradition, and of containing it in a particular genre. At "our place," language unsettles its localization and repeatedly produces the disappearance of its context.

This language allows for a rethinking of al-Andalus as a rhetorical event that is thus not reducible to its contexts, whether literary, historical, or cultural. Here, language indicates that it is itself its own place, one incommensurable because uncontainable, the event of its taking place. The unsettling dimension of this language occurs in translation, which Walter Benjamin calls the "somewhat provisional way of coming to terms with the foreignness of all languages." Translation is a dimension of a specific language in its occurrence, a provisional visit that relies on the hospitality of "our place." Language itself, then, becomes both unsettling and hospitable -- an irreducible event that, in turn, enables comparison.

My study leads me to a reconsideration of what is meant today by al-Andalus as a literary and cultural event, and to a reconceptualization of its limits and divisions. Al-Andalus, and, similarly, worlds that scholars consider as having ended, as having become lost or vanished abysses that divide between cultural and literary realms, must be thought otherwise, namely as occurrences that still take place in language. This rethinking must do justice to the gravity and complexity of cultural events, but without reducing the linguistic and rhetorical significance of these events.