Djelal Kadir


On his book Memos from the Besieged City: Lifelines for Cultural Sustainability

Cover Interview of April 20, 2011

The wide angle

The migration of intellectuals and academics made refugees by the politics and wars of mid-twentieth-century Europe consolidated the emergence of comparative literature as a field in the American university system and its curriculum.

A number of those literary critics and historians, known as “philologists” at the time, sought to keep alive the better part of a Western civilization whose lapse into barbarity was resulting in some of the most egregious acts of cruelty and genocide in human history.

Chief among those refugees was Erich Auerbach.  After spending more than a decade at the University of Istanbul, as in exile from Nazi Germany, Auerbach immigrated to the United States in 1947, one year after publishing Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, a book he wrote in Istanbul.

Mimesis would become one of the defining texts of comparative literature as a discipline.  And Auerbach is now identified as one of the most important figures in the history of the field as we have come to practice it.

Memos from the Besieged City begins by addressing Auerbach’s legacy, especially as he depicts, in counterpoint, the Greek and the Hebraic traditions—our dual intellectual inheritance, among other traditions we have inherited. The way Auerbach positions himself in this lineage, a position he self-consciously sketches through Montaigne, founder of the modern essay, sets the paradigm for our self-conscious practices as comparatists, observant itinerants among diverse cultures.

Memos from the Besieged City ends with a “Coda” for the Italian writer Italo Calvino—a reply to Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Calvino’s Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard in the Fall of 1985 (he died suddenly on the eve of his departure from Italy to deliver the lectures).  More exactly, the “Coda” is a response to the unwritten sixth memo, “Consistency,” of Calvino’s Six Memos.

In between Auerbach’s and Calvino’s ever-present ghosts, Memos from the Besieged City moves chronologically through the last three fourths of the last millennium, and geographically around the globe, through some of the most historically significant cities that have served as nodes of cross-cultural encounters.

This itinerary extends from thirteenth-century Baghdad and that city’s until recently most notorious siege (that by the Mongols in 1258) to Constantinople, Florence, and Rome of the fifteenth century; to the Ottoman capital Istanbul, Rome, Venice, and Oxford at the end of the sixteenth century; to Paris, Mexico City and Philadelphia of eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the nineteenth-century epoch of national emancipations; to Soviet-era Poland, Holocaust-era Germany and mid-twentieth-century New York and Jerusalem; to the era of China’s Cultural Revolution and, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Nobel Prize for Literature for one of its victims.

At each of these historic way stations, Memos from the Besieged City communes with dissident figures who found themselves as much under siege as the city they inhabited:

the Persian Jew Rashiduddin Fazlullah writing the first “world history” in the Ghazanid court of Baghdad at the same time that Dante was composing The Divine Comedy, in flight from his native Florence;

the itinerant Nicholas of Cusa, shuttling between the Eastern Greek patriarchate in Constantinople and Papal Rome and Florence in an attempt to heal the rift between Eastern and Western Christianity;

the ill-starred Giordano Bruno, who lost out to Galileo in the competition for the professorship in mathematics at the University of Padua and, at the threshold of the seventeenth century, would be burnt at the stake in Rome;

the fugitive Fray Servando Teresa de Mier, who would escape the dungeons of the Catholic Inquisition seven times and on more than one continent;

one of Europe’s most signal poets and art critics, Zbigniew Herbert, whose prison poems Report from the Besieged City gives this book its title;

Hannah Arendt, perhaps the most uncompromising and least-forgiven ethical sensibility of the twentieth century;

Gao Xingjian, the first Nobel laureate from China, who would precipitate a diplomatic crisis with his Nobel Prize in Literature and French citizenship;

Orhan Pamuk, as enthusiastically lauded in Stockholm as Nobel laureate as he is ambivalently read and viewed with suspicion in his native country;

Italo Calvino, who continues to teach us, through Ovid and Emily Dickinson, the delicate art of misdirection in reading and writing.

I wrote the book, coincidentally enough, in the same university building and department where Erich Auerbach landed as a refugee in 1947, at Pennsylvania State University—a post from which he was fired shortly after his arrival.  The xenophobias of institutionalized anti-Semitism in mid-twentieth-century America were no less virulent than those of ostensible philo-Semitism at the beginning of the twenty-first century.