Tuesday, May 1, 2012

In Defense of Strange Hispanists (A First Attempt)

Edited to add: I was hired by a Spanish department, so it should go without saying that what I'm describing here isn't the case across the board. But it's certainly the norm.

It shouldn't be as easy as it is for me to get complacent about my place in at least two broadly-defined fields; but every time I have to stand up and defend myself and my intellectual work and its place within the academy, I find myself dismayed and newly surprised. I'm comfortable with the precarious position of the object of my study because taken on its own terms, it's not precarious or odd or contrived at all. It is so correct to look at text and history in the way that I do that I sometimes forget that to interlocutors whose view of the intellectual landscape is shaped by the contours of the modern university or by historical narratives that — for the sake of convenience or nationalism or laziness or a thousand other things — choose (or are unable even to choose) to set aside parts of the panorama even the most basic, central aspects of my work seem marginal or irrelevant. I have been so fortunate in finding kindred spirits everywhere I've landed that it's easy to forget that most people out there aren't.

I joke sometimes that I'm the odd-duck Arabist in the back corner of the Spanish department, but I'm still surprised when it turns out that I can be viewed, in all seriousness, in just that way. In truth, though, I'm a Hispanist. A strange Hispanist, to be sure, but a Hispanist nonetheless.

It turns out that there is such a thing as a stupid question, and I'm sick of being asked them: "Have you actually read the Poema de mio Cid?" or "Do you actually believe that Don Quijote is the translation of an Arabic manuscript?" A question like the first, that incredulously wants to make sure that I'm in some way credentialed according to a traditional curriculum belies the questioner's own intellectual provincialism; just because he doesn't see value in learning about Iberia's intellectual heritage doesn't mean that my view is similarly limited in the other direction. I work primarily with Arabic and Hebrew texts, but I'm well aware of the places they intersect and converse with Romance language texts because I don't section off material along either linguistic or modern-national lines. (And yes, I have read and taught the Poema de mio Cid. I have lost count of how many times I have read it, in fact.) As for a question like the second, I don't know what to do with it. How does one even answer that? No, because I'm not an idiot? No, because I know what fiction is? No, and there's nobody on the face of planet earth who thinks that; why would you even ask? It's the sort of question that I'm sure, one day, if it's ever posed to me again, will get me into serious trouble; I have a very black sense of humor and deadpan delivery, and I'd be sorely tempted to say: "Of course. I've worked with the original manuscript in the BNE."

This is a difficult topic to write about in the abstract, but the deflated state of the question requires that to a certain extent. In the early days of the field, there was really an opposite position to argue against: You were a partisan of Américo Castro or of Claudio Sánchez Albornóz. You believed in the Reconquista or you didn't. Instead, today it's more a question of dealing regularly with folks who have kind of grudgingly accepted that the Arabic material is relevant but think that signing up for one seminar in graduate school will qualify them to teach the Andalusi material and make them really super appealing to search committees far and wide. It's a question of dealing with the petty jealousies and resentments of those who think that dilettantism is the answer to all their problems, the ones who think that a semester or two of Arabic will serve them well rather than make them more foolish and intellectually dangerous to themselves and others.

Not every medievalist who works on the Iberian peninsula needs to work on the Arabic material, though. There is lots of room to do good, interesting scholarship on the Romance language materials and contexts. And what's more, I predict that the Hispanists of the more traditional ilk who will have the best success aren't the ones who, grumbling, attempt to do my thing and do it badly or half-cocked, but rather are the ones who do their thing and do it really, really well. Normal Hispanists and I agree on one thing: We both hate that my particular sub-discipline has become trendy. They hate it because they're not just left out of what's scholarly on trend but are in fact linguistically locked out, and I hate it because I end up having to deal with people like them, who approach my material not because it's fascinating and wonderful, but rather out of resentment, jealousy, anger and a sense of obligation, because they want in on the trend. I do sort of wonder what's going to happen when, in a few years, the Andalusi material isn't sexy anymore, and those of us who actually work on it are still laboring away, quietly, in the trenches on a really important piece of the history and literature. Will the normal and the trend-driven simply move onto the next thing? If a major theoretical work comes out about striped trousers, will all the discourse suddenly have to do with whether we can understand a line of text to mean that the Cid wore striped trousers? Where does that leave whatever it is that they are passionate about? Are they passionate about or interested in anything at all? Or are they more taken with the idea of being a literary critic? What is the value in that?

It is a question of corralling the people — even and especially the ones who really do know better — who think that the study of Spain should be limited to Spain and explaining that I can't afford the luxury of ignoring Cairo and even if I could, I also don't see ignoring Cairo as a luxury or a methodologically desirably outcome. It doesn't mean that I don't principally and wholly work on the literature of Iberia. Through contact with the Cairene community, a lot of Andalusi material ended up in the eastern Mediterranean, which thus becomes an important context for understanding that Andalusi material. Why would I want to leave out a cipher that can help me make better sense of what I work on? I wouldn't. It's worth remembering, too that the modern world itself, the one that bounds the Peninsula as though any medieval writer would understand such a boundary, couldn't keep Egypt and Spain as far apart as anyone would like.

In truth, I feel like I'm getting it from all sides, a little bit.

Yes, I am a Hispanist, even though I work with sources that are not all written in an incipient Ibero-Romance or Castilian or Spanish — or a Romance or Indo-European language at all. I'm a Hispanist even though some of my best sources ended up in Cairo during the Middle Ages, nevermind the ones that ended up in France, Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States in modernity. This thing that we now call Spain had a wide reach back then. If it sounds like I'm tilting at windmills — See? I can allude to the canonical of the canonical, too — then that's good; that's exactly what I want. I want this kind of defense or apologia to seem redundant and self-evident to everyone who reads it. But it doesn't yet. And until then, I'll just keep saying it: I belong, and I am right.

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