Sunday, April 25, 2010

Excerpts from Saul Bellow's Letters

In the New Yorker's April 26th, 2010 issue there is a selection of Saul Bellow's letters to other authors of his acquaintance entitled "Among Writers". I found many of Bellow's observations on life and letters thought provoking. Here are some excerpts:

"You were engaged, as a writer should be, in transforming yourself. When I read your collected stories I was moved to see the transformation taking place on the printed page. There's nothing that counts really except this transforming action of the soul. ---

Up and down on these rough American seas we've navigated for so many decades; we've had our bad trips too-unavoidable absurdities, dirty weather, but that doesn't count really. I've been trying to say what does count...."
(To John Cheever: December 9th, 1981)

"...losing a parent is something like driving through a plate-glass window. You didn't know it was there until it shattered, and then for years to come you're picking up the pieces-down to the last glassy splinter.

Of course you are your father, and he is you. I have often felt this about my own father, whom I half expect to see when I die. But I believe I do know how your father must have felt, sitting at his typewriter with an unfinished novel. Just as I understand your saying that you are your dad. With a fair degree of accuracy I can see this in my own father. He and I never seemed to be in rapport: our basic assumptions were very different. But that now looks superficial. I treat my sons much as he treated me: out of breath with impatience, and then a long inhalation of affection."
(To Martin Amis: March 13th, 1996)

"I don't do much of anything these days and I spend much of my time indoors. By far my pleasantest diversion is to play with Rosie, now four years old. It now seems to me that my parents wanted me to grow up in a hurry and that I resisted, dragging my feet. They (my parents, not my feet) needed all the help they could get. --- We often stopped before a display of children's shoes. My mother coveted for me a pair of patent-leather sandals with an elegantissimo strap. I finally got them - I rubbed them with butter to preserve the leather. This is when I was six or seven years old, a little older than Rosie is now. Amazing how it all boils down to a pair of patent-leather sandals."
(To Eugene Kennedy: February 19th, 2004)

Friday, April 09, 2010

Allama Iqbal in Heidelberg

For a few years now I have worked for a European company headquartered near Heidelberg in Germany so I have had an opportunity to visit this lovely, historic city several times. Heidelberg is a beautiful town located on the banks of the river Neckar which originates in the Black Forest and flows into the river Rhine only 12 miles northwest of the city.

But before I had ever been to Heidelberg, the city was associated in my mind with the great poet-philosopher Allama Muhammad Iqbal. Iqbal left Bombay for London by ship in September 1905 to attend Cambridge University. He enrolled at Trinity College and eventually received a B.A degree. From Cambridge, Iqbal went to Germany to pursue a Ph.D in Philosophy and studied in Heidelberg and Munich. It seems amazing but the exact chronology of Iqbal's stay in Germany has not been established. Most likely he was in Germany during 1906 and 1907. Sometime in 1907, under the supervision of Professor Dr. Friedrich Hommel, Iqbal submitted his Ph.D thesis titled "The Development of Metaphysics in Persia" to the Ludwig Maximilians University at Munich and was granted a doctorate.

There is a fascinating piece written by M.A.H. Hobohm called "Muhammad Iqbal and Germany" in which he provides some wonderful details of Iqbal's stay in Heidelberg. This essay is worth reading in its entirety. Iqbal stayed for some time in the "Pension Scherer" which was a boarding house for foreign students. At this boarding house Miss Emma Wegenast was Iqbal's German language tutor. Iqbal corresponded with Fraulein Wegenast for several years after returning to Lahore. Hobohm has copies of 27 such letters which includes 2 postcards and this collection reveals Iqbal's fondness for his former tutor but also his love for German literary culture and his affection for Heidelberg. Hobohm provides some wonderful quotes from the letters:

"Here it is: Fraulein Wegenast, that is Goethe, Heine, Kant and Schopenhauer, it is Heidelberg, the Neckar, Germany —it is those happy days!"

"It is impossible for me to forget your beautiful country where I have learned so much. My stay in Heidelberg is nothing now but a beautiful dream. How I’d wish I could repeat it!"

"I’d wish I could see you once more at Heidelberg or Heilbronn whence we shall together make a pilgrimage to the sacred grave of the great master Goethe."

This brings me back to my own visits to Heidelberg where I have occasionally tried to retrace Iqbal's steps. I have wandered the halls of the philosophy department at the University of Heidelberg where he studied. Normally I stay at the Marriott Hotel in Heidelberg and "Iqbal Ufer", the street honoring the great poet, is right across from that hotel and a constant reminder of the philosopher-poet's years of association with this city. "Ufer" means river bank in German and this location is right on the river Neckar. All Things Pakistan has done a post about this location in the past. However a colleague of mine, knowing my interest in Iqbal, just sent me a couple of rare photographs of the house where Iqbal lived in Heidelberg and where a sandstone plaque from 1966 acknowledges the historic landmark.

The plaque reads:

Mohammad Iqbal
1877 – 1938
National Philosopher, Poet
and Spiritual Father of Pakistan
lived here in the year 1907.

This honorary plaque was displayed on September 16th, 1966 by the minister of cultural affairs of the state of Baden Wuerttemberg Prof. Dr. Wilhelm Hahn in the presence of His Excellency the Ambassador of Pakistan Abdurrahman Khan and the 1st mayor of the city of Heidelberg, Georg Klemm.

Picture of the house with the plaque on the brick wall

As with all great literary voices it is always most fitting to end with their own words. After my first visit to Heidelberg I searched Kuliyat-e-Iqbal to see if there was any lasting trace of Heidelberg in Iqbal's poetry. I found the nazm "Aik Shaam" in "Bang-e-Dara". The sub-heading says, "Darya-e-Neckar (Heidelberg) ke kinare par". This is a poem of ambience and conjures a lovely atmosphere in which the poet standing at the edge of the river at night experiences a calm and peaceful communion with nature. It is not until the powerful last verse when an inner turmoil and sadness is suddenly hinted at, revealing the heart of the poet at odds with his serene surroundings.

Aik Shaam
(Darya-e-Neckar (Heidelberg) ke kinare par)

Khamosh hai chandni qamar ki
ShaakheiN haiN khmosh har shajar ki

Waadi ke nawa farosh khamosh
Kohsaar ke sabz posh khamosh

Fitrat behosh ho gai hai
Aaghosh maiN shab ke so gayee hai

Kuch aisa sakoot ka fasooN hai
Neckar ka kharam bhi sakooN hai

TaaroN ka khmosh kaarvaaN hai
Yeh kafila be dara rawaN hai

Khamosh haiN koh-o-dasht-o-darya
Qudrat hai muraqbe maiN goya

Aye dil! tu bhi khmosh ho ja
Aaghosh maiN gham ko lay ke so ja

Update: September 20th, 2012:

Much to my delight I found a beautifully done video on YouTube by Dr. Homayun Shirzadeh reciting "Aik Shaam". The video has lovely images of Heidelberg evoking Iqbal's poetic imagery and includes English and German ("Ein Abend") translations of the poem. Here it is:

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Tony Judt's Reflections - "Death be not Proud"

With a short essay entitled "Night" in the January 14th, 2010 issue of the New York Review of Books Tony Judt, the British, Jewish NYU historian and prominent public intellectual, began writing a series of short reflections that he likely expects to be a coda to his remarkable intellectual life. I have blogged about Tony Judt before here and here and have long admired him for his intellectual acuity and moral courage. But these series of memoirs are a startling revelation even for a long time fan.

In 2008 Tony Judt was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) or Lou Gehrig's disease. This deadly motor neuron disease causes the nervous system to degenerate overtime with patients eventually losing their ability to move their bodies even as their mind continues to function normally. Since October 2009, Judt has been paralyzed from the neck down and breathing through a respirator. His voice is now so weak that he can be heard only through an amplifier. In "Night", he vividly describes the experience of losing control over his body and he continues to write with the help of an assistant who transcribes his dictation. As he comes to terms with his approaching mortality, Judt's equanimity, thoughtfulness and his luminous intellect are inspirational.

Since the initial discussion of his illness in "Night", Tony Judt's short reflective essays have been entitled "Joe" , "Bedder" , "Kibbutz" , "Revolutionaries" , "Food" , "The Green Line" , "Saved by Czech" , "Paris was Yesterday" , "In Love with Trains" , "Edge People" , "Lord Warden" and "Work". (Only Kibbutz, Food and Edge People have links to the full essays on the NYRB site.) I particularly identify with "Edge People" as I count myself among them.

Excerpts from "Edge People":
As an English-born student of European history teaching in the US; as a Jew somewhat uncomfortable with much that passes for "Jewishness" in contemporary America; as a social democrat frequently at odds with my self-described radical colleagues, I suppose I should seek comfort in the familiar insult of "rootless cosmopolitan." But that seems to me too imprecise, too deliberately universal in its ambitions. Far from being rootless, I am all too well rooted in a variety of contrasting heritages.

In any event, all such labels make me uneasy. We know enough of ideological and political movements to be wary of exclusive solidarity in all its forms. One should keep one's distance not only from the obviously unappealing "-isms"—fascism, jingoism, chauvinism—but also from the more seductive variety: communism, to be sure, but nationalism and Zionism too ---

I prefer the edge: the place where countries, communities, allegiances, affinities, and roots bump uncomfortably up against one another—where cosmopolitanism is not so much an identity as the normal condition of life. Such places once abounded. Well into the twentieth century there were many cities comprising multiple communities and languages—often mutually antagonistic, occasionally clashing, but somehow coexisting. Sarajevo was one, Alexandria another. Tangiers, Salonica, Odessa, Beirut, and Istanbul all qualified—as did smaller towns like Chernovitz and Uzhhorod. 
Unlike the late Edward Said, I believe I can understand and even empathize with those who know what it means to love a country. I don't regard such sentiments as incomprehensible; I just don't share them. But over the years these fierce unconditional loyalties—to a country, a God, an idea, or a man—have come to terrify me. The thin veneer of civilization rests upon what may well be an illusory faith in our common humanity. But illusory or not, we would do well to cling to it. Certainly, it is that faith—and the constraints it places upon human misbehavior—that is the first to go in times of war or civil unrest.
On March 29th, 2010 Terry Gross interviewed Judt on her NPR program Fresh Air. I highly recommend listening to this 39 minute interview. I can only wish that more of us possessed Judt's vivid powers of observation and language and his contemplative grace in the face of extreme adversity.

Interview Excerpts:
On his religious views:

"I don't believe in an afterlife. I don't believe in a single or multiple godhead. I respect people who do, but I don't believe it myself. But there's a big 'but' which enters in here. I am much more conscious than I ever was — for obvious reasons — on what it will mean to people left behind once I'm dead. It won't mean anything for me. But it will mean a lot to them. It's important to them — by which I mean my children or my wife or my very close friends — that some spirit of me is in a positive way present in their lives, in their heads, in their imaginations and so on. So [in] one curious way I've come to believe in the afterlife — as a place where I still have moral responsibilities, just as I do in this life — except that I can only exercise them before I get there. Once I get there, it will be too late. So, no God. No organized religion. But a developing sense that there's something bigger than the world we live in, including after we die, and we have responsibilities in that world."

On how living with ALS makes him feel:

"You mustn't focus on what you can't do. If you sit around and think, 'I wish I could walk,' then you'll just be miserable. But if you sit and turn around and think, 'What's the next piece I'm going to write?' then you may not be happy, but you certainly won't wallow in misery. So it's an active choice every day to renew my interest in something that my head can do, so I don't think about the body."

Sunday, April 04, 2010

"Toomba" and "Aik Alif" - The Brilliant SaieeN Zahoor at the Coke Studio

SaieeN Zahoor is a Pakistani Sufi musician who has spent his life singing at Sufi shrines in Punjab and Sindh. He has become a household name relatively recently thanks to Rohail Hyatt's brilliantly produced program of fusion music called "Coke Studio". Here are two wonderful "Coke Studio" performances by SaieeN Zahoor; "Toomba" is a solo performance and "Aik Alif" is with the talented duo Noori (Ali Noor and Ali Hamza).