Learning to Listen: Lebanon’s ‘Ruins’ Testify on Enduring Tragedy

Michael Teague

Standing by the Ruins: Elegiac Humanism in Wartime and Postwar Lebanon
By Ken Seigneurie
Fordham University Press, New York, 2011
The Taif accord of 1989 is best known for its signature accomplishment – bringing the Lebanese civil war to an official conclusion. However, the accord had other important functions as it was sold to the Lebanese public, warring factions, and foreign-interest groups alike as an interim arrangement with the purported goal of doing away with the confessional political system. Furthermore, the document stipulated that this be accomplished in an expedient manner, so it made quick concessions such as giving legal immunity to the militias, and even rehabilitating their blood-soaked leaders as politicians. Although the militias were disarmed, with the “security situation” entrusted to the Syrian friends next door, and the economy shocked into life by obscene amounts of money, the sectarian issue was ritually side-stepped at every opportunity.
All the same, one must consider the possibility that even the successful dismantling of the confessional system would not be capable of soothing, much less healing the deep scars the war left behind. Nor would it automatically preclude the possibility of renewed violence, sectarian or otherwise. In a recent book titled “Standing by the Ruins: Elegiac Humanism in Wartime and Postwar Lebanon,” author Ken Seigneurie outlines, in painstaking detail, the most viable means of engaging the lingering problems of trauma, sectarianism, and violence in Lebanon.
A fresh and somewhat daring work of criticism, it traces the presence of a minor but undeniable aesthetic trend in Lebanese literary, artistic, and cultural productions from 1975 to the present. The author perceives this trend as a particular form of humanism (a philosophy or intellectual discipline that concerns itself primarily with the well-being of individuals), one that he qualifies as “Elegiac,” an adjective that signifies deep mourning. Seigneurie’s thesis states that the outbreak of civil war was accompanied by the gradual emergence of a pervasive theme across different Lebanese cultural productions of “stopping by the ruins” in order to mournfully contemplate the irrevocable losses wrought by war.  Moreover, in the last quarter-century, the elegiac-humanist aesthetic has been developing into a not-uncommon and quite powerful means of resisting the disastrous premises of sectarian enmity.
A brief digression is necessary here to explain that most forms of humanism throughout history, like the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Cartesian philosophical movement, have been dismissed for their shared tendency to disguise moral, ethical, and intellectual limitations in the language of concern for humanity. Mercifully, we can spare the reader the convoluted details of how these forms of humanism were, particularly in the 20th century, deconstructed from a multitude of intellectual perspectives. Suffice it to say that the limitations in question are all similarly problematic because of their objectification of the individual and their attempts to circumscribe subjectivity with preconceived metaphysical notions, rather than apprehending it through empirical observation and scientific empathy.
It is important to understand this point if one hopes to grasp what differentiates elegiac humanism from its nominal relatives. Seigneurie succinctly explains in his introduction: “The ‘humanist’ profile of the ruins-centered aesthetic will be lost on no one by now. An aesthetic that denies the comfort of identitarianism in the name of human dignity is a kind of humanism…” In terms of Lebanon, however, elegiac humanism is a minor trend not because of its competition with bygone historical forms of humanism, but rather because of the prevalence of discourses about the civil war and sectarianism.
The secular-progressive politics of the Lebanese National Movement gave rise to social realism and the literature of commitment, which the work of the late Palestinian Ghassan Kanafani exemplifies. For Seigneurie, this type of discourse contains many of the same coercive tendencies of the aforementioned historical forms of humanism. Its rhetorical progression begins with a fallen society, riddled with festering maladies and injustices, and passes through hellfire and tribulation before arriving at a promised vision of redemption. But when the secular political trend collapsed (in large part as a consequence of the Syrian intervention on behalf of the Phalanges, but also as the result of internal contradictions), the trappings of this literary style were transferred over to the ascendant sectarian militias, resulting in what the author calls “mythic utopianism.” A derivative of commitment literature, mythic utopianism exacerbates the patriarchal longing for order and stability of its predecessor by linking it to the sacred mythology of religion. Thus, while the militias may have used Kalashnikovs and mortars to physically destroy Lebanon and its citizens, mythic utopianism was the underlying ideology that provided them with the justification to do so. As Seigneurie points out, and as we have been reminded most recently by the fighting in Tripoli, mythic utopianism is still fully operative in Lebanon today.
In terms of function, elegiac humanism is the photonegative of mythic utopianism. If the latter is the usher of death and destruction in the service of impossible ideals, the former is the witness left to account for what has been lost. This explains Seigneurie’s observation that the rhetoric of mythic utopianism has had no significant presence in Lebanese artistic and cultural productions over the last 25 years, despite its overbearing role in war-making and political propaganda.
To demonstrate this, Seigneurie selects five war-era and postwar novels by different Lebanese authors that give a fairly exhaustive picture of the essential characteristics, possibilities, and limitations of elegiac humanism. Hassan Daoud’s “The House of Mathilde” (1983) and Hoda Barakat’s “The Stone of Laughter” (1990) embody, in a positive and uncomplicated way, the potential of elegiac-humanist aesthetics. In both of these novels, the ruin of an apartment building is the protagonist’s only link to a past that is forever lost and mourned, and the only reprieve from the insanity of war. In Rashid al-Diaf’s “Dear Mr. Kawabata” (1995), the nostalgia of ruins is resisted by the protagonist before being embraced, while in Najwa Barakat’s “Ya Salam” (1999) and Rabi Jaber’s “Beytus: City Underground” (2005), the main character has more complicated and even harmful relationships with ruins. These novels are distinctly different from those produced by their immediate realist predecessors such as Tawfik Awwad and Ghada Samman (with “Beirut ’75” providing a literal punctuation), not by accepting or rejecting ruins, but by the very fact that ruins are always the backdrop for encounters, or potential encounters, between characters and their traumatic memories.
The image that begins to emerge out of Seigneurie’s reasoning is that of a dynamic contradiction. The loss that is evoked, if not always mourned, is irrevocable. But the act of remembrance, in conjunction with how a given character reacts to ruins, contains powerful presuppositions all the same: it implies a willingness to at least recognize the painfully incongruent facts of history, and unlike the militia-speak of mythic utopianism, a rejection of the artificial and unethical nature of sectarian entrenchment. Mourning before the distorted and damaged image of the past offers no political solution and promises no mythic-utopia, but it does at least provide the opportunity for a uniquely humanist approach to make its case.
While the author does not focus on the Taif accord in any significant way, it is evoked here because it provides an instructive contrast that helps to explain his original concept of elegiac humanism, and its potential to help the continually beleaguered and traumatized Lebanese populace make sense of its horrific history. In this context then, the Taif accord represents the obscene victory of a cacophony of militia ideologies and their bankrupt promises of a better world that instead re-established the religious identity of politics that it promised to abolish.
The ruins aesthetic is not prevalent by chance. The “ruins topos,” Seigneurie’s favored expression for this phenomenon in Arabic literature dates back to Imru’ al-Qays’s pre-Islamic mu’allaqa, about which the author makes the following observation: “The speaker-poet evokes suffering that can be aesthetically contemplated but not eliminated. Indeed, the ache of absence is intensified in a heroic effort to embrace the full range of heroic experience.” Seigneurie maintains that the elegiac humanist aesthetic is a minor trend in terms of the history of Lebanese culture since ’75, while at the same time demonstrating that its development represents a seismic event in terms of the history of Arab literature.
“Standing by the Ruins: Elegiac Humanism in Wartime and Postwar Lebanon” is ultimately a work of striking originality, and occupies a place of privilege within an increasingly well-defined trend of literary and cultural criticism in the Levant. Seigneurie is intellectually and philosophically imaginative, but never wonders from logical thought. This book will be of interest to those who are involved in the humanities, particularly the field of comparative literature, as well as anyone exhausted by the hydra-headed farce that has dominated the recent characterizations and caricatures of the Lebanese political system for longer than anyone can remember. Finally, the author’s greatest accomplishment is the recognition that no political or sectarian discourse can ever measure up to the burden of devastating and irreversible loss that has been visited upon Lebanon with such persistence and cruelty since the days of the civil war.
This review appeared in Al Jadid Vol. 17, No. 64, 2011.
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