May 13, 2007

Pierre Menard, Said Qutb, Don Quixote, Marxism and radical Islam

Theodore Dalrymple has posted an interesting article up at the New English Review comparing Marxism and radical Islam. There are little errors in the article- a bit of Islamic Essentialism but the main focus is on the comparison of Marx and Qutb. Basically Dalrymple argues that both of them seek a perfect man- he is right- and both of them view this perfect man as a creation of politics- there I'm not so sure, he is right about Marx definitely. Qutb though, more like the saints of the English Revolution, an analogy that Oliver Roy a scholar of the Islamist movement has made, argued that Islam reformed the soul and that therefore an Islamic state would reform the people's souls. There is something interesting going on here though- because its true to say that there are traces of Marx in Islamic fundamentalist thought- just as in my opinion there are traces of Neitsche but that could not be said of some varieties of radical English civil war thinking which ressembles it in many ways.

Jose Luis Borges is one of his most inventive stories dealt with this precise problem. He wrote about Pierre Menard, a fictional French author, who had decided to rewrite word for word Don Quixote. Menard had absorbed himself in seventeenth century Spain and Spanish, had attempted to get back to what Cervantes had written but independently of Cervantes- had almost sought to retrace Cervantes's progress towards the Quixote, arriving at exactly the same destination. But Borges argues in his story that Menard, though he wrote the Quixote perfectly word for word, could never write the same Quixote as Cervantes. Though the words were the same- the passage of history between the two works meant that Menard's Quixote was different. One could detect the influence of Neitsche upon it, the influence of a thousand authors that Cervantes could never have read, of the whole movement of the enlightenment etc, the date meant that though the words were the same, the freight that the words carried with them- philosophical, ideological or even literary had changed. Menard's Quixote was not Cervantes's Quixote.

Its a fascinating story- but lets go back to what it means for Theodore Dalrymple and Said Qutb. Dalrymple is right here- the issue is that whereas say a theorist like John Spittlehouse writing in 1653 might address some of the same themes as Qutb writing in 1960 did, Spittlehouse wrote without Marx, without Neitsche, without all the literary and philosophical readings that were available to Qutb. Whereas it is wrong to try and read Spittlehouse as though he were responding to Marx- it is right to read Qutb as though he was and consequently it is right to compare Marx to Qutb. But we can go further- because this suggests something else about fundamentalism that is worth being interested in...

Qutb afterall is concerned primarily with restoring what he sees as the historical essense of Islam. For a moment, lets accept all of Qutb's historical points- even then he cannot be right that it is possible to completely restore the historical essense of Islam. Like Menard rewriting the Quixote, Qutb rewriting what he sees as the historical truth of Islam, ultimately is influenced by his own era and those eras between him and that historical truth. Ultimately neither Qutb nor any contemporary Muslim, nor any contemporary Christian or Jew, can bridge the gap of centuries and rewrite exactly the thought down of the founders of their religion. Obviously its possible to analyse from the outside what those founders wrote, but analysis relies upon later knowledge as well as being an attempt to recover earlier patterns of thought- the historian takes a step into the past but leaves a foot upon his own time, Qutb doesn't want to do that- and in such a desire like Menard with Quixote- he is bound to be disappointed.


Matthew Sinclair said...

Brilliant post. Classic Gracchi.

pommygranate said...


v interesting article. i think he is one of the most outstanding writers of his generation.

vinay said...

Extraordinary article. It uses Borges to understand the link (or lack thereof) between Qutb, Marxism, radical Islam and the Saints of the English Revolution. But Borges himself was unaware of the politics behind such a comparison (Islamic fundamentalism as we know it today is post-Borgesian). Thus he could not have known it when he wrote his story on Pierre Menard. Ironically then, the article uses a 'different Borges' and a different 'Pierre Menard: Author of Don Quixote' while seeking to understand the mind of Qutb. To paraphrase Borges, 'The original (Borges's original story)is unfaithful to the copy (your use of Borges's story in this article).