Wednesday, March 12, 2014

This is Not a Sign of the Apocalypse.

I did something that a lot of my colleagues would consider to be unconscionable. I used that book. In a graduate seminar.

And you know what? Everybody's okay and nobody believes that anyone was nice to anybody else ever in the Middle Ages. Promise.

I'm teaching my first graduate seminar this semester, an introductory-level graduate course called Faith and Text in the Spanish Middle Ages. It is a set of case studies in cultural and literary history that is designed to give an overview of the major literary and religiocultural traditions of the Iberian Peninsula. My predecessor retired several years before I was hired and hadn't been teaching for several years before that; amongst the student population here, there is no institutional memory of the Middle Ages, however you want to define that, as a thing that happened in Spain. In other words, I knew this had to be a very introductory-level course. Even so, after the first couple of weeks it was clear that I was still pitching a little too high in terms of the background that students were missing.

To remedy the situation, I made an uncontroversial choice and added in relevant chapters from Richard Fletcher's useful if imperfect political history, Moorish Spain.

But I also asked my students to read Ornament of the World.

I explained to them why I had left it off the syllabus to begin with. Principally, this was because it is not a work of scholarship and so it really isn't designed or appropriate for a graduate seminar. But I also gave them the other reason why: Having been a student of its author, I have taken unusual flack from colleagues, most often in history, for being soft on the work. For wanting to defend it because its author was my teacher. For being incapable, because of that personal connection, of seeing it for the assault on history that it is. Not my words, of course.

One of the other scholars who was with me at the Katz Center last year took it upon herself to reeducate me about why the book was such a travesty after I suggested, during the opening session of the semester when we all attempted to stake out some common intellectual ground, that a caricature of Ornament's "culture of tolerance" was not necessarily what we needed to gird ourselves against because it wasn't a scholarly work, but was rather a book intended for a general audience of interested lay people.

She understood, she told me later that day in a kindergarten-teacher voice, that she must have hurt my feelings. I didn't tell her that I'd heard it all already. That I'd heard it all from my own professors at Yale, the author's own colleagues who referred to her (to undergraduates, mind you!) as "la que ve moros por todos lados" — the one who sees Moors everywhere she looks. That I'd heard it all from people with gripes about exile and with petty jealousies about publishing. In my co-fellow's mind I obviously couldn't be objective and needed to be made to see the light. After all, she told me, in a line of reasoning I still don't quite follow, people might read the book and cite it in their scholarly works and then it will become part of the scholarly narrative. I insisted then, as I do now, that if a historian or literary critic can't distinguish between a work of scholarship and a work of popular writing, that it is hardly the fault of the popular book. I voiced this objection and was met with a promise of examples of historians and classicists citing Ornament in their scholarship and a lunch date to discuss why this was such a big problem.

What I could never make this other fellow see was that my feelings had nothing to do with any of it. All of this came about because I had the temerity to suggest that we oughtn't decimate the book in a scholarly setting not because it is unassailable but because it is not a work of scholarship. It is a question of audience, a question of venue. Feelings have nothing to do with it. I bear my soul in my scholarship and it is deeply personal but my feelings are not at stake. Even so, this particular conversation managed to burrow deep under my skin, even as I came to have increasing reason to doubt this colleague's professional judgment. The only thing this other scholar — senior to me, a stranger to me — could see was one of Maria Rosa Menocal's students refusing to bash, without qualification, her book that was never intended for a scholarly audience and was always only a literary history, never a political one. Other scholars who dislike the work are often a bit more subtle than this colleague was, and for narrative and illustrative purposes, I suppose I'm lucky that her efforts were so blunt-edged. But the criticisms of the book and of the students is nothing unusual.

Because of where my realization about needing to backtrack and backfill and back form came in the course of the semester, we focused particularly on the chapter that compares the very literarily-informed biographies of the poet Judah Halevi and the mythologized Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, el Cid. Its major focus on the relationship between poetry and prose narrative cut straight to the heart of how I wanted to teach the relevant texts. And I asked the students to read a variety of primary sources from Halevi's life, as well as explicit and indirect critiques of Ornament's treatment of them. We talked about his reliance on Isma'ili terminology in his philosophical work even as he was rejecting the forms of Arabic poetry. We talked about the various exiles of various Arabophone Hebrew poets. I walked away feeling like I had made Halevi out to be a bad guy — but crucially, a very different kind of bad guy than the one Hillel Halkin accuses Menocal of making him to be and, equally crucially, not uniformly a bad guy. We talked in some detail about the cultural paradoxes that are the backbone and the highpoint of Ornament and the most often misread by its critics.

A culture of tolerance that means total interreligious respect and harmony is not the version of the narrative that I would want graduate students to come away from my class with; and it's not the version of the narrative that they'll come away with. (And if we're honest, it's not even the version of the narrative that's there in Ornament even if that's what people take away from it.) The kind of convivencia that obtains in my classroom is the kind where Jews, Christians and Muslims physically cohabit the same space, read the same kinds of books and interrogate their ideas in similar ways.That is also the convivencia of Menocal's more scholarly works, the graduate-level appropriate ones that I also had my students read and that are often ignored by these intellectually neo-conservative reeducators who would see us return to the grand nationalist narratives of Sánchez-Albornoz and Fanjul. But in terms of giving my students an overview of the material and orienting them towards a cultural-historical methodology deeply informed by literature, as my research methodology is and as my classes are, asking them to read Ornament worked really well. Our few class sessions since then have gone much smoother and the discussion has been more involved; and in a two-hour seminar with three non-specialist students, that's no small victory. Convivencia is not an all-or-nothing proposition.

To the naysayers: Naysay away.

My real mistake was letting them live on in my head for as long as I did and for not starting out the first week with Ornament as a useful if imperfect cornerstone.

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