From 1961 to 1966, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. wrote an annual essay for The Nation on the state of civil rights and race relations in America. In 1965, he wrote about the power of demonstrations and "legislation written in the streets."
The death on January 23 of the French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu came as the American chattering classes were busy checking the math in Richard Posner's Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline--an unintentional parody of sociology in which Posner presents a top-100 list ranking writers and professors according to the number of times they turned up on television or Internet searches. Bourdieu, whose heaviest passages crackled with sardonic wit, would have had a wonderful time exploring this farcical project, which takes for granted that Henry Kissinger (No. 1), Sidney Blumenthal (No.7) and Ann Coulter (No. 74) are in the Rolodex because they are leading the life of the mind--why not include Dr. Ruth or, as one wag suggested, Osama bin Laden? In tacitly conceding the fungibility of celebrity even while decrying it, Posner confirms Bourdieu's gloomy predictions about the direction modernity is swiftly taking us: away from scholarship and high culture as sources of social prestige and toward journalism and entertainment.
Bourdieu himself argued that scholars and writers could and should bring their specialized knowledge to bear responsibly and seriously on social and political issues, something he suspected couldn't be done on a talk show. His involvement during the 1990s in campaigns for railway workers, undocumented immigrants and the unemployed, and most recently against neoliberalism and globalization, was the natural outgrowth of a lifetime of research into economic, social and cultural class domination among peoples as disparate as Algerian peasants and French professors, and as expressed in everything from amateur photography to posture. It's hard to think of a comparable figure on the American left. Noam Chomsky's academic work has no connection with his political activities, and it's been decades since his byline appeared in The New York Review of Books or the New York Times. One friend found himself reaching all the way back to C. Wright Mills.
Bourdieu, who loved intellectual combat, called himself "to the left of the left"--that is, to the left of the ossified French left-wing parties and also to the left of the academic postmodernists aka antifoundationalists, about whose indifference to empirical work he was scathing. Reading him could be a disturbing experience, because the explanatory sweep of his key concept of habitus--the formation and expression of self around an internalized and usually accurate sense of social destiny--tends to make ameliorative projects seem rather silly. Sociology, he wrote, "discovers necessity, social constraints, where we would like to see choice and free will. The habitus is that unchosen principle of so many choices that drives our humanists to such despair." Take, for example, his attack on the notion that making high culture readily available--in free museums and local performances--is all that is necessary to bring it to the masses. (In today's America, this fond hope marks you as a raving Bolshevik, but in France it was the pet conviction of de Gaulle's minister of culture, André Malraux.) In fact, as Bourdieu painstakingly demonstrated in Distinction, his monumental study of the way class shapes cultural preferences or "taste," there is nothing automatic or natural about the ability to "appreciate"--curious word--a Rothko or even a Van Gogh: You have to know a lot about painting, you have to feel comfortable in museums and you have to have what Bourdieu saw as the educated bourgeois orientation, which rests on leisure, money and unselfconscious social privilege and expresses itself as the enjoyment of the speculative, the distanced, the nonuseful. Typically, though, Bourdieu used this discouraging insight to call for more, not less, effort to make culture genuinely accessible to all: Schools could help give working-class kids the cultural capital--another key Bourdieusian concept--that middle-class kids get from their families. One could extend that insight to the American context and argue that depriving working-class kids of the "frills"--art, music, trips--in the name of "the basics" is not just stingy or philistine, it's a way of maintaining class privilege.
Although Bourdieu has been criticized as too deterministic--a few years ago The New Yorker characterized his views, absurdly, as leading "inexorably to Leninism"--he retained, in the face of a great deal of contrary evidence, including much gathered by himself, a faith in people's capacities for transformation. He spent much of his life studying the part played by the French education system in reifying class and gender divisions and in selecting and shaping the academic, technocratic and political elite--the "state nobility"--that runs France, but he believed in education; he railed against the popularization and vulgarization of difficult ideas, but he believed in popular movements and took part in several. In one of his last books, Masculine Domination, he comes close to arguing that male chauvinism is a cultural universal that structures all society and all thought; he is that rare man who chastises feminists for not going far enough--but the book closes with a paean to love.
Bourdieu's twenty-five books and countless articles represent probably the most brilliant and fruitful renovation and application of Marxian concepts in our era. Nonetheless, he is less influential on the American academic left than the (to my mind, not to mention his!) obscurantist and, at bottom, conservative French deconstructionists and antifoundationalists. Perhaps it is not irrelevant that Bourdieu made academia and intellectuals a major subject of withering critique: You can't read him and believe, for example, that professors (or "public intellectuals," or writers, or artists) stand outside the class system in some sort of unmediated relation to society and truth. The ground most difficult to see is always the patch one is standing on, and the position of the intellectuals, the class that thinks it is free-floating, is the most mystified of all. It was not the least of Bourdieu's achievements that he offered his colleagues the means of self-awareness, and it's not surprising either that many decline the offer. His odd and original metaphor of the task of sociology holds both a message and a warning: "Enlightenment is on the side of those who turn their spotlight on our blinkers."
In the modern Greek dictionary, the word "Filipineza" means "maid."
If I became the brown woman mistaken
for a shadow, please tell your people I'm a tree.
Or its curling root above ground, like fingers without a rag,
without the buckets of thirst to wipe clean your mirrorlike floors.
My mother warned me about the disappearance of Elena.
But I left her and told her it won't happen to me.
The better to work here in a house full of faces I don't recognize.
Shame is less a burden if spoken in the language of soap and stain.
My whole country cleans houses for food, so that
the cleaning ends with the mothers, and the daughters
will have someone clean for them, and never leave
my country to spend years of conversations with dirt.
When I get up, I stand like a tree, feet steady, back firm.
From here, I can see Elena's island, where she bore a child
by a married man whose floors she washed for years,
whose body stained her memory until she left in the thick
of rain, unseen yet now surviving in the uncertain tongues
of the newly-arrived. Like the silence in the circling motions
of our hands, she becomes part myth, part mortal, part soap.
The subtitle sounds bad, but keep in mind that Thorstein Veblen considered subtitling his book on academics "A Study in Total Depravity." The really bad news concerns the title: The term "public intellectual" is practically obsolete.
It's dying young. Although the subject of much hoo-ha lately, it has not been current for very long. Russell Jacoby popularized it in his 1987 book The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. Jacoby did not coin the term--he quoted C. Wright Mills using it in 1958--but he found a congenial semantic niche for it: to distinguish unaffiliated from college-based thinkers. In the old days, there wasn't any need to make the distinction, because the generation born in and around 1900 doubted that intellectual life could take place in academia. "To be an intellectual did not entail college teaching," Jacoby wrote of the era that formed Lewis Mumford and Edmund Wilson; "it was not a real possibility." By the time of Jacoby's book, however, contemplative lives were being led on campuses, or so it was claimed, and since the campuses had the dollars to back the claim, the old-fashioned independent intellectuals were marked with the delimiting adjective "public."
Now the adjective is about to disappear, because the independents are on the verge of losing even their right to the noun. In his new book, Richard Posner hints that there is today "a certain redundancy in the term 'public intellectual.'" One would expect Posner to be highly sensitive to the use of the term, because he lives the role it describes. Profiled in Lingua Franca and more recently in The New Yorker, and invited to post his diary on Slate, Posner is a judge on the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, a founder of the field of law and economics, and the author of books on everything from the rational-choice theory of sex to the 2000 presidential election.
The term is redundant, Posner suggests, because an intellectual is by definition someone who addresses the public. Writing for fellow experts may take just as much brainpower but is merely academic. For practical reasons Posner is not concerned, as Jacoby was, with the brave last stand of independent thinkers. "There was a time when an intellectual could do as well (or rather no worse) for himself financially by writing books and articles as by being a professor," Posner writes. "That time is largely past. The opportunity cost of being an independent public intellectual has skyrocketed because of the greatly increased economic opportunities in the academic market." Nowadays the term "public intellectual" merely refers to an academic in his capacity as a moonlighter. The qualifier "public" is expendable once all intellectuals have day jobs.
In other words, the short lifespan of the term corresponds to the interval between the decline of "Intellectuals cannot be professors" and the rise of "All intellectuals are professors." About this transition Jacoby was wistful and, in a desperate, Gertrude-Stein-beckoning-the-Lost-Generation way, optimistic. "A specter haunts American universities or, at least, its faculties: boredom," Jacoby wrote, and he quoted a report that found "almost 40 percent [of professors] ready and willing to leave the academy." Posner, in contrast, is resigned and matter-of-fact. He knows the laws of economics. The marketplace of ideas, like other markets, results from the preferences and resources of those who participate in it. If 40 percent of professors say they want to leave the academy, they must have excellent reasons for staying. After all, if nothing were holding them back, their dissatisfaction would not show up in surveys of professors; they would not be professors.
The market has reasons that reason knows not of, and Posner is willing to respect them. "In the main we shall have to live with this slightly disreputable market," he writes. "But what else is new? We Feinschmeckers have to live with vulgarity in popular culture, the sight of overweight middle-aged men wearing shorts and baseball caps, weak coffee and the blare of the television set in every airport waiting lounge. It is doubtful that the public-intellectual market is a more debilitating or less intractable feature of contemporary American culture than these other affronts to the fastidious."
But although a monopoly by academics may be inevitable, Posner apprehends the mediocrity of it, acutely. "The disappointment lingers," he admits. In fact he was motivated to write this book by dismay at what his tenured peers had written and said about the impeachment of Clinton, the Microsoft antitrust case and the supposed moral decline of America. Their commentary seemed so shoddy and silly as to require an economic explanation.
How do you analyze the economics of something so airy? In fact, once Posner sets in, it turns out to be less airy than bloody. Much of the fun in reading Public Intellectuals consists of watching Posner triage the meats for his sausage.
You won't be put through his grinder just because you're smart and pop up in Nexis. Of Nation writers, Alexander Cockburn and Patricia Williams make his list, as do Victor Navasky and Katrina vanden Heuvel, but Christopher Hitchens inexplicably does not, even though Posner has a footnote to him. John Rawls is out--too, too academic.
Harvard's new president, Lawrence Summers, qualifies, just barely. Theodore Roosevelt, Newt Gingrich, Winston Churchill, Leonard Bernstein and William Sloane Coffin are excluded because they are better known for nonintellectual achievements. This caution is justified because intellectual celebrity is so easily dwarfed by other kinds. The intellectual most often mentioned in the media between 1995 and 2000 was Henry Kissinger, and yet the 12,570 allusions to him are as a drop in the bucket and are counted as the small dust on the balance beside Michael Jordan's 108,000.
Whether devised by art, science or expedience, the tallies and rankings are where most readers will start, and Posner has strategically placed them in the precise middle of his book, as far from either end as possible, for the same reason grocers put milk at the back of the store. "Consumer Reports does not evaluate public intellectuals," Posner observes, and people like to know the score. It is disconcerting to see Camille Paglia and Oliver Wendell Holmes nearly tied in a ranking by media mentions. It is suggestive that the intellectual most often cited in scholarly writing between 1995 and 2000 was Michel Foucault, and even more suggestive that Foucault's score is nearly twice that of the second-most-cited intellectual, Pierre Bourdieu. (Posner himself comes in tenth.)
Once the air of the horsetrack has dissipated, the reader turns to Posner's analysis. Here is the news, in summary:
If you are a public intellectual, your odds of being mentioned in the media improve if you are not an academic, are not dead, have served in government and are either a journalist or a writer.
At first glance this might look like good news. But the higher profile of nonacademics does not mean that the unaffiliated intellectual is alive and well. It means, rather, that those who have managed to become public intellectuals despite a lack of academic credentials tend to be mentioned more frequently than their academic peers. As time goes by, there are fewer such people. Of the 546 intellectuals in Posner's sample, 56 percent of the dead ones are academics, and 70 percent of the living ones. And as Posner deadpans, "Notice the high average age even of the living public intellectuals"--64 years old. Among actual young people, the rate of intellectual institutionalization is probably even higher.
"Media mentions come at the expense of scholarly citations (and vice versa)," Posner observes. "An academic who wants to succeed as a public intellectual might be well advised to substitute government service for additional scholarly publications!" But if it is posterity you hunger for, think carefully. In Posner's sample, being dead correlates well with scholarly citations, which suggests that "public-intellectual work is more ephemeral than scholarship." The correlation may, of course, suggest other inferences to less sanguine minds. So much for the facts. Although Posner is known as a pragmatist, the most provocative analysis in Public Intellectuals is actually of his own hunches and grudges, and of the social maps drawn by observers like Jacoby and Bobos in Paradise author David Brooks.
Posner thinks that public-intellectual work offers the consumer three goods: entertainment, solidarity and information. The consumer (and the magazine editor or television producer who procures on the consumer's behalf) can usually tell by inspection whether a commentary is entertaining and whether it reassures people that they are on the right team, be it of abortion-haters or deconstruction-defenders. In an age of specialized knowledge, however, only another expert can judge whether the information in a piece of commentary is worthwhile. Its value is what an economist would call a "credence good"; consumers have to take it on faith. By the time you figure out that there must have been a flaw somewhere in that September 1999 Atlantic Monthly article titled "Dow 36,000," it is too late to get your money back.
By now even the writers have been paid.
Most markets in credence goods correct for this uncertainty, in order to keep frustrated consumers from fleeing. Sellers may offer money-back guarantees, advertise heavily to signal long-term commitment to a product, cooperate with a third-party rating system, choose retailers who are reputed to be judicious gatekeepers or consent to government regulation. Even in the absence of any correctives, however, sellers usually refrain from offering egregiously low-quality products, because they want customers to buy from them again in the future. They are deterred by "the cost...of exit from the market."
The public-intellectual market deals in credence goods, but Posner fears that it may be suffering from market failure. Consumers trust periodicals and talk shows to act as filters, but they seem to be filtering for entertainment and solidarity rather than for information. More damaging, the cost of exit from the public-intellectual market is very low. No academic loses his job because he has made a fool of himself on the Op-Ed page. It has therefore become unwise for the consumer to believe public intellectuals. Posner likens them to palm readers: They claim to know the answers to vital questions, but the cost of figuring out whether they really do is prohibitive. The rational consumer responds by discounting the value of the information and consulting them merely for entertainment.
Why is the cost of exit from the public-intellectual market so low? For the simple reason that there is not much reward for entering it in the first place. Here economic analysis converges with traditional lament. The professors have ruined everything. They are obscurantist, pedantic, naïve, exaggerative of the reach of their expertise, theory-mad, timid toward anyone who might put a letter in their tenure file and intemperate toward everyone else, but the real problem is their free time. They have a lot of it, and they are willing to sacrifice almost any quantity to see their names in print. They are, in other words, cheap. They drag the supply curve downward on the dollar axis. The price of public-intellectual work drops, and more of it is produced.
With prices so low, unaffiliated intellectuals can no longer make a living. (At many periodicals, the payment for editorials and book reviews is lower than for other kinds of writing. This is not because they require less effort; it is because an academic can always be found to write them.) Absent a class of people whose livelihood depends on the market, an ethos of quality gives way to an ethos of tourism. "He is on holiday from the academic grind and all too often displays the irresponsibility of the holiday goer," Posner writes of the moonlighting professor. "Insulated from the retribution of disappointed consumers by virtue of being part-timers," academic intellectuals behave like movie-star politicians.
You're so vain, you probably think this book is about you, don't you? Public Intellectuals is a portmanteau book. The first part consists of the analysis of the public-intellectual market described above, but in the second, the reader is dropped into conversations whose beginnings he has not witnessed. Martha Nussbaum is wrong to think that the moral of The Golden Bowl is resignation to your husband's adultery. (Martha Nussbaum is here? In the room with us?) Wayne Booth's attempt to reconcile the aesthetic to the ethical is doomed. Aldous Huxley predicted the future better than George Orwell, but Orwell wrote a better novel. Robert Bork is disingenuous about so-called partial birth abortions. Gertrude Himmelfarb is unconvincing about the cultural metastasis of the naughty. Richard Rorty may be the heir to Socrates, Dewey and J.S. Mill, but he deploys a rhetoric that passed its freshness date sometime in the 1930s, and as for Martha Nussbaum--did I mention her already? The chapters are informative and at times highly entertaining ("The 'Ode on Melancholy' is not improved by being made risqué, just as a pig is not enhanced by wearing lipstick," writes Posner, in a simile that becomes more disturbing the more it is considered), but they are miscellaneous, and the reader senses that because of a wish to revisit old grudges--or recycle old articles--the tail is wagging the pig. In his conclusion, Posner returns to topic. Academia has diminished intellectual life, but rebellion is futile, because academia is what Tocqueville would call a soft tyranny. Like the Hand of God as described to me in Sunday school, it destroys not by striking the wicked but by releasing them into the danger they prefer, where they must write for in-flight magazines in order to pay their rent.
Accordingly, Posner offers extremely modest proposals for reform: He would like to encourage academics to post their public-intellectual work on websites, deposit printouts in libraries and disclose relevant earnings. He doesn't think the reforms will be adopted, because "the irresponsibility of public-intellectual work is one of the rewards of being a public intellectual." But even if Posner's suggestions were adopted, they would change nothing. The money involved is usually trivial, as he himself admits, and he has overestimated how hard it is to trace what an academic has said in public.
As near as I can tell, only one of Posner's suggestions has even the faintest chance of success: "One might hope that as a matter of self-respect the university community could be persuaded to create and support a journal that would monitor the public-intellectual activities of academics and be widely distributed both within and outside the community." Thus would specialized academics be matched by specialized journalists, and the failure of one market remedied by the development of another. Alas, Lingua Franca suspended publication in November.
The first time that Agha Shahid Ali, the great Kashmiri poet, spoke to me about his approaching death was in April of last year. The conversation began routinely. I had telephoned to remind him that we had been invited to a friend's house for lunch and that I was going to come by his apartment to pick him up. Although he had been under treatment for brain cancer for some fourteen months, Shahid was still on his feet and perfectly lucid, except for occasional lapses of memory. I heard him thumbing through his engagement book and then suddenly he said: "Oh dear. I can't see a thing." There was a brief pause and then he added: "I hope this doesn't mean that I'm dying..."
Although Shahid and I had talked a great deal over the past many weeks, I had never before heard him touch on the subject of death. His voice was completely at odds with the content of what he had just said, light to the point of jocularity. I mumbled something innocuous: "No, Shahid--of course not. You'll be fine." He cut me short. In a tone of voice that was at once quizzical and direct, he said: "When it happens I hope you'll write something about me."
I was shocked into silence, and a long moment passed before I could bring myself to say the things that people say on such occasions: "Shahid, you'll be fine; you have to be strong..." From the window of my study I could see a corner of the building in which he lived, some eight blocks away, where he'd moved to be near his sister, Sameetah, after learning of his tumor. Shahid ignored my reassurances. He began to laugh, and it was then that I realized that he was dead serious.
"You must write about me," he said.
By the end of the conversation I knew exactly what I had to do. I picked up my pen, noted the date and wrote down everything I remembered of that conversation. This I continued to do for the next few months: It is the record that has made it possible for me to fulfill the pledge I made that day.
I knew Shahid's work long before I met him. His 1997 collection, The Country Without a Post Office, made a powerful impression on me. His voice was like none I had heard before, at once lyrical and fiercely disciplined, engaged and yet deeply inward. Not for him the mock-casual almost-prose of so much contemporary poetry: His was a voice that was not ashamed to speak in a bardic register. I could think of no one else who would even conceive of publishing a line like: "Mad heart, be brave."
In 1998 I quoted a line from The Country Without a Post Office in an article that touched briefly on Kashmir. At the time all I knew about Shahid was that he was from Srinagar and had studied in Delhi. We had friends in common, however, and one of them put me in touch with Shahid. But we were little more than acquaintances when he moved to Brooklyn. Once we were in the same neighborhood, we began to meet for occasional meals and quickly discovered that we had a great deal in common. By this time, of course, Shahid's condition was already serious, yet his illness did not impede the progress of our friendship. And because of Shahid's condition even the most trivial exchanges had a special charge and urgency: The inescapable poignance of talking about food and half-forgotten figures from the past with a man who knew himself to be dying was multiplied in this instance by the knowledge that this man was also a poet who had achieved greatness--perhaps the only such that I shall ever know as a friend. He had a sorcerer's ability to transmute the mundane into the magical.
Shahid was legendary for his gregariousness and his prowess in the kitchen, frequently spending days over the planning and preparation of a dinner party. It was through one such party, given while he was in Arizona, that he met James Merrill, the poet who was to radically alter the direction of his poetry: It was after this encounter that he began to experiment with strict metrical patterns and verse forms such as the canzone and the sestina. No one had a greater influence on Shahid's poetry than James Merrill: Indeed, in the poem in which he most explicitly prefigured his own death, "I Dream I Am at the Ghat of the Only World," he awarded the envoy to Merrill: "SHAHID, HUSH. THIS IS ME, JAMES. THE LOVED ONE ALWAYS LEAVES." Merrill loved Shahid's cooking, and on learning that Shahid was moving to upstate New York, he gave him his telephone number and asked Shahid to call. On the occasion of Shahid's first reading at the Academy of American Poets, Merrill was present: a signal honor considering that he is one of America's best-known poets. "Afterwards," Shahid liked to recall, "everybody rushed up and said, 'Did you know that Jim Merrill was here?' My stock in New York went up a thousandfold that evening."
Shahid placed great store on authenticity and exactitude in cooking and would tolerate no deviation from traditional methods and recipes. He had a special passion for "Kashmiri food in the Pandit style." I asked him once why this was so important to him and he explained that it was because of a recurrent dream, in which all the Hindus had vanished from the valley of Kashmir and their food had become extinct. This was a nightmare that haunted him, and he returned to it again and again, in his conversation and his poetry.
At a certain point I lost track of you.
You needed me. You needed to perfect me:
In your absence you polished me into the Enemy.
Your history gets in the way of my memory.
I am everything you lost. Your perfect enemy.
Your memory gets in the way of my memory...
There is nothing to forgive. You won't forgive me.
I hid my pain even from myself; I revealed my pain only to
There is everything to forgive. You can't forgive me.
If only somehow you could have been mine,
what would not have been possible in the world?
This was at a time when his illness had forced him into spending long periods in bed. He was on his back, shielding his eyes with his fingers. Suddenly he sat up. "I wish all this had not happened," he said. "This dividing of the country, the divisions between people--Hindu, Muslim, Muslim, Hindu--you can't imagine how much I hate it. It makes me sick. What I say is: Why can't you be happy with the cuisines and the clothes and the music and all these wonderful things?" He paused and added softly, "At least here we have been able to make a space where we can all come together because of the good things."
Of the many "good things" in which he took pleasure, none was more dear to him than the music of Begum Akhtar. He met the great ghazal singer when he was in his teens, through a friend, and she became an abiding presence and influence in his life. In his apartment there were several shrinelike niches that were filled with pictures of the people he worshiped: Begum Akhtar was one of these, along with his father, his mother and James Merrill. "I loved Begum Akhtar," he told me once. "In other circumstances you could have said that it was a sexual kind of love--but I don't know what it was. I loved to listen to her, I loved to be with her, I couldn't bear to be away from her. You can imagine what it was like. Here I was in my mid-teens--just 16--and I couldn't bear to be away from her." It was probably this relationship with Begum Akhtar that engendered his passion for the ghazal as a verse form. Always the disciplinarian in such matters, he believed that the ghazal would never flourish if its structure were not given due respect: "Some rules of the ghazal are clear and classically stringent. The opening couplet (called matla) sets up a scheme (of rhyme--called qafia; and refrain--called radif) by having it occur in both lines--the rhyme immediately preceding the refrain--and then this scheme occurs only in the second line of each succeeding couplet. That is, once a poet establishes the scheme--with total freedom, I might add--she or he becomes its slave. What results in the rest of the poem is the alluring tension of a slave trying to master the master." Over a period of several years he took it upon himself to solicit ghazals from poets writing in English. The resulting collection, Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English, was published in 2000. In establishing a benchmark for the form it has already begun to exert a powerful influence: The formalization of the ghazal may well prove to be Shahid's most important scholarly contribution to the canon of English poetry. His own summation of the project was this: "If one writes in free verse--and one should--to subvert Western civilization, surely one should write in forms to save oneself from Western civilization?"
For Shahid, Begum Akhtar was the embodiment of one such form, not just in her music but in many other aspects of her being. An aspect of the ghazal that he greatly prized was the latitude it provided for wordplay, wit and nakhra (affectation). Begum Akhtar was a consummate master of all these, and Shahid had a fund of stories about her sharpness in repartee. He was himself no mean practitioner of that art. On one occasion, at the Barcelona airport, he was stopped by a security guard just as he was about to board a plane. The guard, a woman, asked: "What do you do?"
"I'm a poet," Shahid answered.
"What were you doing in Spain?"
No matter the question, Shahid worked poetry into his answer. Finally, the exasperated woman asked: "Are you carrying anything that could be dangerous to the other passengers?" At this Shahid clapped a hand to his chest and cried: "Only my heart."
This was one of his great Wildean moments, and it was to occasion the poem "Barcelona Airport." He treasured these moments, and last May I had the good fortune to be with him when one such opportunity presented itself. Shahid was teaching what turned out to be the last class he ever would. I had heard a great deal about the brilliance of his teaching, and it was evident from the moment we walked in that the students adored him: They had printed a magazine and dedicated the issue to him. Shahid, for his part, was not in the least subdued by the sadness of the occasion. From beginning to end, he was a sparkling diva, Akhtar incarnate, brimming with laughter and nakhra.
Toward the end of the class, a student asked a complicated question about the difference between plausibility and inevitability in a poem. Shahid's eyebrows arched higher and higher as he listened. At last, unable to contain himself, he broke in. "Oh you're such a naughty boy," he cried, tapping the table with his fingertips. "You always turn everything into an abstraction."
But Begum Akhtar was not all wit and nakhra: Indeed, the strongest bond between Shahid and her was, I suspect, the idea that sorrow has no finer mask than a studied lightness of manner. Shahid often told a story about Begum Akhtar's marriage: Although her family's origins were dubious, her fame as a beauty was such that she received a proposal from the scion of a prominent Muslim family of Lucknow. The proposal came with the condition that the talented young singer would give up singing: The man's family was deeply conservative and could not conceive of one of its members performing onstage. Begum Akhtar--or Akhtaribai Faizabadi, as she was then--accepted, but soon afterward her mother died. Heartbroken, Akhtaribai spent her days weeping on her grave. Her condition became such that a doctor had to be brought in to examine her. He said that if she were not allowed to sing she would lose her mind: It was only then that her husband's family relented and allowed her to sing again.
Shahid was haunted by this image of Begum Akhtar as a bereaved and inconsolable daughter, weeping on her mother's grave; it is in this grief-stricken aspect that she is evoked again and again in his poems. The poem that was his farewell to the world, "I Dream I Am at the Ghat of the Only World," opens with an evocation of Begum Akhtar:
A night of ghazals comes to an end. The singer
departs through her chosen mirror, her one diamond
cut on her countless necks. I, as ever, linger
Shahid's father's family was from Srinagar and they were Shia, a minority among the Muslims of Kashmir. When Shahid was 12, the family moved to Indiana (his father was getting a PhD), and for three years he attended school in Muncie. After that they moved back to Srinagar, which is where Shahid completed his schooling; it was that early experience, I suspect, that allowed Shahid to take America so completely in his stride when he arrived as a graduate student years later. The idea of a cultural divide or conflict had no purchase in his mind: America and India were the two poles of his life, and he was at home in both in a way that was utterly easeful and unproblematic.
After 1975, when he moved to Pennsylvania, Shahid lived mainly in America. His brother was already here, and they were later joined by their two sisters. But Shahid's parents continued to live in Srinagar, and it was his custom to spend the summer months with them: "I always move in my heart between sad countries." Traveling between the United States and India he was thus an intermittent but firsthand witness to the mounting violence that seized the region from the late 1980s onward:
It was '89, the stones were not far, signs of change
everywhere (Kashmir would soon be in literal
The steady deterioration of the political situation in Kashmir--the violence and counterviolence--had a powerful effect on him. In time it became one of the central subjects of his work: Indeed, it could be said that it was in writing of Kashmir that he created his finest work. The irony of this is that Shahid was not by inclination a political poet. I heard him say once: "If you are from a difficult place and that's all you have to write about then you should stop writing. You have to respect your art, your form--that is just as important as what you write about." Another time, I was present at Shahid's apartment when his longtime friend Patricia O'Neill showed him a couple of sonnets written by a Victorian poet. The poems were political, trenchant in their criticism of Britain for its failure to prevent the massacre of the Armenians in Turkey. Shahid glanced at them and tossed them offhandedly aside: "These are terrible poems." Patricia asked why, and he said: "Look, I already know where I stand on the massacre of the Armenians. Of course I am against it. But this poem tells me nothing of the massacre; it makes nothing of it formally. I might as well just read a news report."
Anguished as he was about Kashmir's destiny, Shahid resolutely refused to embrace the role of victim that could so easily have been his. Had he done so, he could no doubt have easily become a fixture on talk shows, news programs and Op-Ed pages. But Shahid never had any doubt about his calling: He was a poet, schooled in the fierce and unforgiving arts of language. He had no taste for political punditry.
Such as they were, Shahid's political views were inherited largely from his father, whose beliefs were akin to those of most secular, left-leaning Muslim intellectuals of the Nehruvian era. Although respectful of religion, he remained a firm believer in the separation of politics and religious practice.
Once, when Shahid was at dinner with my family, I asked him bluntly: "What do you think is the solution for Kashmir?" His answer was: "I think ideally the best solution would be absolute autonomy within the Indian Union in the broadest sense." But this led almost immediately to the enumeration of a long list of caveats and reservations: Quite possibly, he said, such a solution was no longer possible, given the actions of the Indian state in Kashmir; the extremist groups would never accept the autonomy solution in any case, and so many other complications had entered the situation that it was almost impossible to think of a solution.
The truth is that Shahid's gaze was not political in the sense of being framed in terms of policy and solutions. In the broadest sense, his vision tended always toward the inclusive and ecumenical, an outlook that he credited to his upbringing. He spoke often of a time in his childhood when he had been seized by the desire to create a small Hindu temple in his room in Srinagar. He was initially hesitant to tell his parents, but when he did they responded with an enthusiasm equal to his own. His mother bought him murtis and other accoutrements, and for a while he was assiduous in conducting pujas at this shrine. This was a favorite story. "Whenever people talk to me about Muslim fanaticism," he said to me once, "I tell them how my mother helped me make a temple in my room. What do you make of that? I ask them." There is a touching evocation of this in his poem, "Lenox Hill": "and I, one festival, crowned Krishna by you, Kashmir/listening to my flute."
I once remarked to Shahid that he was the closest that Kashmir had to a national poet. He shot back: "A national poet, maybe. But not a nationalist poet; please not that." If anything, Kashmir's current plight represented for him the failure of the emancipatory promise of nationhood. In the title poem of The Country Without a Post Office, a poet returns to Kashmir to find the keeper of a fallen minaret:
"Nothing will remain, everything's finished,"
I see his voice again: "This is a shrine
of words. You'll find your letters to me. And mine
to you. Come soon and tear open these vanished
This is an archive. I've found the remains
of his voice, that map of longings with no limit.
The pessimism engendered by the loss of these ideals--that map of longings with no limit--resulted in a vision in which, increasingly, Kashmir became a vortex of images circling around a single point of stillness: the idea of death. In this figuring of his homeland, he himself became one of the images that were spinning around the dark point of stillness--both Sháhid and Shahíd, witness and martyr--his destiny inextricably linked with Kashmir's, each prefigured by the other.
I will die, in autumn, in Kashmir,
and the shadowed routine of each vein
will almost be news, the blood censored,
for the Saffron Sun and the Times of Rain....
Among my notes is a record of a telephone conversation last May 5. He'd had a brain scan the day before that would determine the future course of treatment. When he answered, there were no preambles. He said: "Listen Amitav, the news is not good at all. Basically they are going to stop all my medicines now--the chemotherapy and so on. They give me a year or less."
Dazed, staring blankly at my desk, I said: "What will you do now, Shahid?"
"I would like to go back to Kashmir to die." His voice was quiet and untroubled. "It's still such a feudal system there, and there will be so much support--and my father is there, too. Anyway, I don't want my siblings to have to make the journey afterwards, like we had to with my mother."
Later, for logistical and other reasons, he changed his mind about returning to Kashmir: He was content to be laid to rest in Northampton, Massachusetts, in the vicinity of Amherst, a town sacred to the memory of his beloved Emily Dickinson. But I do not think it was an accident that his mind turned to Kashmir in speaking of death. Already, in his poetic imagery, death, Kashmir and Sháhid/Shahíd had become so closely overlaid as to be inseparable, like old photographs that have melted together in the rain.
Yes, I remember it,
the day I'll die, I broadcast the crimson,
so long ago of that sky, its spread air,
its rushing dyes, and a piece of earth
bleeding, apart from the shore, as we went
on the day I'll die, past the guards, and he,
keeper of the world's last saffron, rowed me
on an island the size of a grave. On
two yards he rowed me into the sunset,
past all pain. On everyone's lips was news
of my death but only that beloved couplet,
broken, on his:
"If there is a paradise on earth
It is this, it is this, it is this."
Shahid's mother, Sufia Nomani, was from Rudauli in Uttar Pradesh. She was descended from a family that was well-known for its Sufi heritage. Shahid believed that this connection influenced her life in many intangible ways. "She had the grandeur of a Sufi," he liked to say.
Although Shahid's parents lived in Srinagar, they usually spent the winter months in their flat in New Delhi. It was there that his mother had her first seizure--from what would prove to be a malignant brain tumor. The family brought her to New York, where an operation resulted in her partial paralysis. Shahid and his siblings moved her to Massachusetts, where they were living. When she died two years later, in keeping with her wishes, the family took her body back to Kashmir for burial. This long and traumatic journey forms the subject of a cycle of poems, "From Amherst to Kashmir," that was later included in Shahid's 2001 collection, Rooms Are Never Finished.
During the last phase of his mother's illness and for several months afterward, Shahid was unable to write. The dry spell was broken in 1998, with "Lenox Hill," possibly his greatest poem. The poem was a canzone, a form of unusual rigor and difficulty (the poet Anthony Hecht once remarked that Shahid deserved to be in Guinness Book of World Records for having written three canzones--more than any other poet). In "Lenox Hill," the architectonics of the form creates a soaring superstructure, an immense domed enclosure, like that of the great mosque of Isfahan or the mausoleum of Sayyida Zainab in Cairo: a space that seems all the more vast because of the austerity of its proportions. The rhymes and half-rhymes are the honeycombed arches that thrust the dome toward the heavens, and the meter is the mosaic that holds the whole in place. Within the immensity of this bounded space, every line throws open a window that beams a shaft of light across continents, from Amherst to Kashmir, from the hospital of Lenox Hill to the Pir Panjal Pass. Entombed at the center of this soaring edifice lies his mother:
they asked me, So how's the writing? I answered My mother
is my poem. What did they expect? For no verse
sufficed except the promise, fading, of Kashmir
and the cries that reached you from the cliffs of Kashmir
(across fifteen centuries) in the hospital. Kashmir,
she's dying! How her breathing drowns out the universe
as she sleeps in Amherst.
The poem is packed with the devices that he perfected over a lifetime: rhetorical questions, imperative commands, lines broken or punctuated to create resonant and unresolvable ambiguities. It ends, characteristically, with a turn that is at once disingenuous and wrenchingly direct.
For compared to my grief for you, what are those of Kashmir,
and what (I close the ledger) are the griefs of the universe
when I remember you--beyond all accounting--O my mother?
For Shahid, the passage of time produced no cushioning from the shock of the loss of his mother: He relived it over and over again until the end. The week before his death, on waking one morning, he asked his family where his mother was and whether it was true that she was dead. On being told that she was, he wept as though he were living afresh through the event.
In the penultimate stanza of "Lenox Hill," in a heart-stopping inversion, Shahid figures himself as his mother's mother:
"As you sit here by me, you're just like my mother,"
she tells me. I imagine her: a bride in Kashmir,
she's watching, at the Regal, her first film with Father.
If only I could gather you in my arms, Mother,
I'd save you--now my daughter--from God. The universe
opens its ledger. I write: How helpless was God's mother!
I remember clearly the evening when Shahid read this poem in the living room of my house. I remember it because I could not keep myself from wondering whether it was possible that Shahid's identification with his mother was so powerful as to spill beyond the spirit and into the body. Brain cancer is not, so far as I know, a hereditary disease, yet his body had, as it were, elected to reproduce the conditions of his mother's death. But how could this be possible? Even the thought appears preposterous in the bleak light of the Aristotelian distinction between mind and body, and the notions of cause and effect that flow from it. Yet there are traditions in which poetry is a world of causality entire unto itself, where metaphor extends beyond the mere linking of words, into the conjugation of a distinctive reality.
Shahid thought of his work as being placed squarely within a modern Western tradition. Yet the mechanics of his imagination--dreams, visions, an overpowering sense of identity with those he loved--as well as his life, and perhaps even his death, were fashioned by a will that owed more perhaps to the Sufis and the Bhakti poets than to the Modernists. In his determination to be not just a writer of poetry but an embodiment of his poetic vision, he was, I think, more the heir of Rumi and Kabir than Eliot and Merrill.
The last time I saw Shahid was at the end of October, at his brother's house in Amherst. He was intermittently able to converse, and there were moments when we talked just as we had in the past. He was aware, as he had long been, of his approaching end, and he had made his peace with it. I saw no trace of anguish or conflict: Surrounded by the love of his family and friends, he was calm, contented, at peace. He had said to me once, "I love to think that I'll meet my mother in the afterlife, if there is an afterlife." I had the sense that as the end neared, this was his supreme consolation. He died peacefully, in his sleep, at 2 AM on December 8.
Now, in his absence, I am amazed that so brief a friendship has resulted in so vast a void. Often, when I walk into my living room, I remember his presence there, particularly on the night when he read us his farewell to the world: "I Dream I Am at the Ghat of the Only World." I remember how he created a vision of an evening of ghazals, drawing to its end; of the be-diamonded singer vanishing through a mirror; I remember him evoking the voices he loved--of Begum Akhtar, Eqbal Ahmad and James Merrill--urging him on as he journeys toward his mother: "Love doesn't help anyone finally survive." Shahid knew exactly how it would end, and he was meticulous in saying his farewells, careful in crafting the envoy to the last verses of his own life.
They're looking for help with college and a reason to believe in government.
You may have read, in these pages and elsewhere [see Danny Goldberg, "Harvard Raps West," February 4], about the flap that Harvard University's president, Lawrence Summers, kicked off in a meeting with Cornel West, a professor of African-American studies and philosophy. Among other things, Summers implied that hip-hop had little street cred at the university--West had made a rap CD--and suggested that some serious scholarship was in order instead. West, miffed, mused about leaving for Princeton, and other prominent scholars in his department--Henry Louis Gates Jr., the chair, and Anthony Appiah--seemed ready to follow suit. While subsequent meetings have apparently tempered tempers, we thought a look at the CD itself might prove illuminating.
Whatever Cornel West's Sketches of My Culture (Artemis Records) is (or isn't), this experiment in hip-hop and homily doesn't warrant a stuffy fusillade of rabbit punches and groin kicks to West's academic standing. Harvard University is still in America, where an educator, at whatever position in relation to her nation's cultural elite, has the right to throw down, shout out, make a joyful noise and/or public display (if she does no serious psychic or physical harm to others) without being hassled about it by her boss.
Well, wait a moment. Let's try to step into this mess with, you know, a "positive" attitude, as the uplift posses like to put it.
"The Journey," the opening track on Sketches of My Culture, is also the only one whose words aren't conspicuously flattened against a throbbing beat. And thus it's the only track that foregrounds what Cornel West does best: Preach. As anyone who's heard him speak can attest, West can bring the raucous intimacy of a storefront church into the toniest lecture hall. The slashing cadences, rolling timbres and freewheeling alliteration that are standard equipment for the fiercest pulpit orators cleave to West's rhetorical style as crisply as his three-piece suits cling to his frame. He is never more a rhythm master than when he sermonizes with the abandon of a cocktail-lounge organist playing blues-funk variations after midnight.
But there's nothing in the content of "The Journey" that's original or provocative--unless it's news to you that people of African descent have managed to create a profound musical tradition against tremendous odds. The information conveyed on this track and those that follow is intended to comfort, to reinforce, to (you know) be positive and bring uplift to African-American listeners.
West and his collaborators have fashioned a serviceable black product, the digitally mastered equivalent of one of those needlepoint samplers that grandmothers kept--still keep?--on their kitchen walls. If this be insurrection, then I want an extra marshmallow in my hot chocolate before I take a nap.
Public Enemy's Chuck D once proclaimed that rap music is the black community's CNN. Riding this analogy, you could say that Sketches of My Culture transmits its news along frequencies that are practically threadbare from overuse. Once the overdubs, beat machines and vocal riffs settle in for the disc's duration, the obsolescence of thought, the repetitiveness of sentimentality become more pronounced, skating the edges of embarrassment.
Take (or leave) "3Ms" as an example. Now it's possible, though unlikely, that the memories of Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X have become wispy and frail more than thirty years after their murders, especially to 20-something-and-under citizens of Hip-Hop Nation. But if "Martin, Medgar and Malcolm/Keep on keeping on/Keep on staying strong" is the best that these martyrs can expect as a chorus on a tribute presided over by one of the leading African-American public intellectuals of the present day (and the rest of the track is barely less banal), then consider yourself challenged to make yourself a better T-shirt.