Friday, August 10, 2012

Bernard Lewis Again

Followup notes on Bernard Lewis and his Notes on a Century; Reflections of Middle East Scholar. For a man of 96, and one who has placed himself t the center of the passions (if perhaps not the actions of his time, Bernard Lewis has enjoyed a remarkably untroubled life. Grant the odd kerfuffle: a public feud here, a grotesque lawsuit there (Paris, actually), a failed marriage back home--grant all this and grant also that it's a good thing he had a few such encounters or his life would have been boring almost beyond tears. He found his calling early; he got people to pay him what he enjoyed doing, and since before most of his professional peers were born, he has pretty much defined the study of Islam in the West.

Almost boring, then, in its virtually uninterrupted fecundity. Lewis has produced more polished works--monographs, overviews, (semi-) popular accounts, polemics--than many of his aspiring competitors have years in their lives--more than half of all these, in retirement. He has played a dominant role as one who explains Islam to the West, but he has made any number of particular contributions of his own--on slavery under Islam, for example, on the Muslim view of the West, perhaps most important on the place of Jews under Islam. Recognizing that a memoir is only a record of a life--not a life, still on reading Lewis, one is hard put to figure out how he got it all done. For Lewis appears also to have been an indefatigable globe trotter; for all his time in the library, he must have spent a comparable amount of time in the airport departure lounge, on his way to conferences, seminars, festschrift presentations, consultations with potentates and whatnot. Among his many talents, Lewis seems to have been a natural guest: cultivated, affable, easy to have around, an adornment to almost any scholarly gathering. When Lewis says "and so I told the Pope," he means just what he says: he is talking about a real Pope and a real conversation. Thus we get to enjoy the amusing ironies that accompany a Jew explaining Islam to the head honcho among the Catholics.

Of course Lewis' role as the primo interpreter of Islam in the west has not been quite as sedate as his memoir might suggest.  Far from anodyne, he has built his life around a worldview and a model of scholarship that have put him in the center of contention not only of how we understand Islam but for how we conduct scholarly issue.  He doesn't really elide these issues in the memoir; rather he presents them with a kind of austere dignity that makes it easy to overlook just how fraught these issues may be.  In this light, perhaps the centerpiece of the book is a chapter/essay articulating his view on the place of the scholarly inquirer.  It's as good an introduction to the topic as you might imagine; I'd rank it alongside Max Weber's great lecture, "Science as a Vocation,"   But perhaps the critical word here is "inquirer:" scholarship, on Lewis' presentation, begins with the unknown, not known, with hypothesis, not with thesis.  It's a view not always evident among his adversaries nor even (dare one say it) among his friends.  But Lewis makes a strong case for the proposition  as a guiding principle in his own life.

Beyond the basics, I'd say the easiest way to understand Lewis s in terms of three other public figures, two of them obvious linkages, the third perhaps less so.

The first, as Lewis explains with bleak irony, is Osama bin Laden.  By the sheerest chance, a book by Lewis entitled What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response appeared in bookstores just weeks after 9/11.  It gave Lewis a kind of minor/major celebrity that  most academics only dream of.  "Osama bin Laden made me famous," Lewis observes with no particular relish.  "I was interviewed, quoted, filmed, and I even made the front page of The Wall Street Journal."

No doubt Lewis' new-found notoriety was enough to dismay the second of the defining figures in his life--Edward Said, the doyen of what has come to be known as "post-colonial studies."  In his pathfinding Orientalism (1978), Said had done Lewis the courtesy of singling out Lewis for special venom.  The two continued to define and redefine each other until the end of Said's life (he died in 2003).   Lewis, with the gift of longevity, has the last word.  He states his case crisply and with vigor, but I wouldn't say he overdoes it.

The third may be not quite so obvious a choice.  I'm thinking of Abba Eban, known to the world as Israel's public face at the United Nations during the critical formative period for the new Jewish state.  But "public face" scarcely does it: by his dynamic and magnetic presentation, I suspect Eban did as much as, or more than, any one person to breath life into the new nation.

Lewis calls Eban "Aubrey," his non-public name.  He doesn't discuss Eban at length in the book; he doesn't mention that he spoke at a memorial service for Eban (who, like Said, died in 2003), where he declared that they had been friends for 70 years.  But it is almost uncanny how closely those two lives parallel.  They were born just over a year apart; they grew up in modest circumstances in London.  Each achieved a dazzling record at University, in each case not least because of their knack for languages.

From there, their careers part, although they run in parallel.  Eban, far more the public man, devoted the larger part of his career to Israel and to Zionism.    Lewis sustained a passionate curiosity about Israel (late in life, he said he visited there every year).  But his main public presence was in the Muslim countries--Turkey first, but so many other states as well.  What's remarkable in retrospect is how much these two men, Eban and Lewis--three, if you count Said--continue to define so much of what we know, or thought we knew, about Islam and Israel and the Middle East.

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