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Shards of Love: Exile and the Origins of the Lyric

Shards of Love: Exile and the Origins of the Lyric

April 23, 2009 11:50 pmComments are Disabled

María Rosa Menocal’s aim in Shards of Love is to trace the origins of what she deems the Romance philological tradition—a tradition steeped in myth, love, longing, and a conversation with the past in the form of memory.  She traces this tradition to the medieval lyric, and thus tries to connect Western philology, in its modern and postmodern forms, to what she views as its foundational moment, its establishment in exile.  She consequently traces the exile lyric to medieval Spain and its lost culture, the literary tradition of al-Andalus.  It is in al-Andalus that Menocal finds the most convincing answers to the question of the origin, because, to classic medievalists, the establishment of modernity in Spain in 1492 all but rendered Arabic culture and influence moot.  Instead, however, Menocal finds that the cultured Arabic of Islamic Spain achieved new salience as the lingua franca of the temporally unbound body of modern philology.

The exile, as the mother of the lyric, is presented as philology’s most prudent mistress, and its devotee.  It would be hard to dispute this central claim of Menocal—that in the face of bitter exile, “superb poetry is born and bred” (119).  Her proof of this claim comes in excess.  She begins by examining the medieval Spanish literature of Ibn ‘Arabi and Ramon Llull, both whom she regards as love poets above all else.  Menocal does not ignore the strong metaphorical femaleness of the lost land in the lyric of Llull’s longing; the essence of love is connected inescapably to the essence of exile.  She then examines the elusive history of Dante and his exile from Florence, and argues, not necessarily out of step with contemporary philology, that Dante’s exile is responsible for the philosophical isolation of Commedia and, more importantly, his De vulgari eloquentia.  In fact, Menocal suggests that the very vulgarity of Dante is born in the desire to reclaim a literary and philosophical home in an exiled world.  Finally, she examines the work of Eric Clapton as a modernist proof of her developed thesis.  Clapton, to Menocal, represents the fruition of a centuries-old tradition in exile lyric—but most importantly, presents a development of the lyric onto a new stage.  The rock presentation of Clapton appears to be no more of radical departure from tradition than the first vulgar Italian of Dante—the two works and worlds are closely linked by canon and by origin.  She argues that Clapton’s lyrics are focused—and possibly obsessed—with a frontier to be crossed and a universalism to be achieved.  At the same time the discussions of Clapton and Dante with their histories are frontierless and fluid, and seek to cross the metaphysical boundary between the historical present and the lyrical past.  It is the existence of the institution, the high civilization against which their lyrics where crafted, that the writers of exile seek to circumvent.  The commonality of Llull, Dante and Clapton can be found in their desire to separate themselves from their own rigid culture—their desire to exile themselves, so to speak, from the world that has exiled them.

Most importantly, Menocal aims to connect the origins of exile lyric in Western philology to the frontiers of medieval Spain and al-Andalus.  Her first extensive chapter is an examination of the pivotal exile from al-Andalus of the Jews—an anachronistic technique employed to discuss the Jewish diaspora in context of the greater exile of the region.  She goes so far as to claim that this exile, as well as many to develop in history in concurrence with greater acts of conquest, was conveniently forgotten in the historical annals of the new Spaniards.  It is in this forgotten history that she seeks to answer the fundamental question of the origins:  If the History of al-Andalus has been written out by the makers of history, is it as certain that its Memory has been dematerialized as well?  The Platonic dichotomy of “History” and “Memory” frame the discussion; it is in the exposition of memory that literature, and philology, is born.  From the “Renaissance” theory of the medieval al-Andalus and its “reconquista” Menocal derives an alternate meaning.  The origin of the literature of exile is in the very absence of this brand of memory, this self-exiled phenomenon, in the heartland of al-Andalus.  Instead of treating the 1492 of Columbus and the Exile as a bookend of modernity, Menocal uses the pivotal date as a bookend of memory, as the beginning of a chapter of philosophical estrangement and the absorption of the culture of exile throughout Europe.  From 1492 Menocal draws an inescapable conclusion:  the physical fragments of history which were cast into the “Horse Latitudes” found their reverberation in music, in art, in poetry, in the wake of Columbus and his conveniently symbolic sail toward the New World.

That exile is not just present at the moment of the origin but is its very inspiration—that “philology not only begins with Babel and its exiles; it is devoted to them” (119)—is a difficult thesis to prove.  Menocal must tackle the complicated interdependencies of literature and its various inspirations; furthermore, she must come to terms with the wayward histories of her literary subjects.  This latter task is easier said than done.  Her exegesis of Dante the exile, for example, exonerates the vulgar self-examining poet from his own textual exogamy—in other words, the origins of his lyric are presented in accordance with her thesis but its alternate intermarriages outside of the traditional canon are conveniently ignored.  The fact that literature on the whole is too expansive to be addressed in 269 pages does not seem to faze Menocal; she selects certain works which form a historical and literary arc, and subsequently form a narrative in line with her thesis.  She does not address, as would be expected, the problem of alternate inspirations and influence—although this is not necessarily her intent.  She does not seek to disprove all other influence, just to prove a strong thematic and cultural connection between works.  Structurally, Menocal’s book suffers from disparate analyses awkwardly fused together; her reasons for selecting this particular path of philology and the writers on that path are not adequately explained, and although the interconnectedness of the writers are expounded upon in great detail, the conspicuous absence of some central writers of exile-lyric—Shakespeare most notably—begs the question of whether her thesis is as universal as is implied.

However, the broader question of this book—whether answers to the origin of the lyric can be found in studying traditionally non-Romantic aspects of Romance philology—is thoroughly examined.  While trying to prove one thesis, Menocal simultaneously takes to task the medievalist community whom she accuses of failing to address the contributions of Islamic Spanish literature to the Western canon, and even goes so far as to say that the “lost” literary tradition is not merely a predecessor of the modern canon but its prerequisite.  Menocal seeks to use her philological study to bring light to the relative obscurity of the Islamic culture of tolerance and high society in modern historiography.  Perhaps for this reason, she begins her book with a nontraditional interpretation of the events of 1492, in an attempt to refocus her audience away from this classic medievalist conundrum.  If the historical accuracy of Columbus and his expedition are in doubt, there is no reason to question whether the memological accuracy of the account is equally suspect.

From an academic standpoint Shards of Love is a strong contribution to medieval studies and Western philology, both for its direct assessment of the questions at hand but also its parallel attempt to address problems in the study on the whole.  It is both a work of philology and a work of protest.  Menocal’s examination of poetry is perspicacious, for it not only analyzes the modern lyric but finds answers to its predecessors.  It also finds historical answers in the heart of medieval Spain—the most unlikely (some would assume) of places.  If one academic accomplishment in this book is to be granted, is would be Menocal’s insistence, and proven claim, that medieval Spain is more medieval than medieval Europe.  Although this can be regarded as a secondary aim of the book, it is nonetheless the most salient.  The primacy of medieval, Islamic Spain as a multicultural, multifaceted society which contributes more than just history to Europe and its progenitors is solidified in Menocal’s mind as the most important lesson to be learned from the study of exile lyric.  That the literature of this “pre-modern” period can reach forward through time to transcendently grasp today’s lyrics, that the hymns and longings of the pre-Columbian era can be so poignantly felt in the rock beats of Eric Clapton today—this is the single most important indication that the soul of al-Andalus, its poetry, its music, its beauty and expression, was not lost in the medieval “Renaissance.”  The study of Western philology, ironically, is not Western at all, but has deeper origins.  Thus the greater challenge for the reader will be to continue to understand and trust the classic medievalist’s interpretation of Europe in light of the revelations of history, philology and memory that Menocal brings to the table.

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