Non-Fiction: “Reservoirs and Reservations”, by Omar Sabbagh

Reservoirs and Reservations

By Omar Sabbagh

‘The inwardness of the mind at leisure unlocks the dignity that is so often denied or diminished by social life and social circumstances.  Socrates is, after all, a poor and barefoot misfit, but his commitment to an intense form of leisured inquiry makes him seem more than human.’[1] 

Zena Hitz, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life

This quotation from Zena Hitz’s very recently published Lost in Thought, a part memoir, part reflective book-length essay, seems to encapsulate an insight both, I think, absolutely true, and more so, conditionally true in today’s digitized world, as well as by its invocation of the notion of human ‘dignity’, a conception of the intellectual life that rings very true to me, personally.  What I have found particularly incisive about this book, whose first material chapter is titled ‘A Refuge from the World’, is that Hitz’s conception of ‘escape’ from worldliness or, in a Pauline phrasing, ‘the way of the world’, is nothing like the idiomatic use of the idea of ‘escapism’, which I think carries burdens of pejorative intent.  Or, perhaps more felicitously, via her conception and reflection upon the bookworm’s escape, she seems – by placing such escape in the context of our contemporary, highly anti-intellectual environment – to gift (and return) the idea of ‘escapism’ (to) its own, newly-minted dignity. 

Because dignity is key.  Commonly-glossed, it means the substantive attitude in or at the world –  whether, say, a purely intellectual hunger for truth, or integral behavior more generally – which actively combats and defeats, one hopes, the highly instrumentalized instrumentality that is perhaps the most obvious, glaring feature of late capitalism, and late capitalism to boot, on the steroids provided by a fully digitalized world.  But also, I think, of interest, is the sense above, that by commitment to the reflective life, the so-called ‘intellectual’ comes to seem ‘more than human.’  What I like to take from that last phrase, ‘more than human’ is not some notion of superiority or transcendence in some strange way of what in my view remains the common human condition, but rather the idea of ‘deepening’ one’s humanity.  It’s intension, not extension, that’s at issue; so that, this kind of dignity means in effect becoming more human, rather than more ‘than’ human.  And while the book from which I quote above is indeed both a riveting but also comforting read, I would like now to hook some of this opening talk to my own very recent book of collated critical writings from 2012-2020, To My Mind or Kinbotes: Essays on Literature (Whiskey Tit, 2020).

First, I’ll introduce this new book of mine, its nature and circumstances, and then I’ll do my utmost to discuss in brief its (hopefully exemplary) significance (if just for myself at least) regarding some of the notions about the intellectual life deployed in brief and elucidated above.

So.  The book is a collation of what I hope is my best critical writing, from 2012-2020: including, scholarly essays, reflective articles, conference papers delivered and review articles of substantive enough worth, in my own view, to be aptly included in a volume like this.  It has always been extremely difficult for a regular critical writer (as in, not one with a famous or distinguished name: I’m not, obviously, Umberto Eco or Noam Chomsky!) to have a manuscript of collected essays published by a mainstream or academic publisher, for the obvious reason (and a reason that has become even more powerful over the last decade or so, with a publishing squeeze) that the majority of any such collection are available and accessible for any potential reading public in their previous published places, in journals or magazines and so on.  It’s just a question of marketability; and this, of course, is only, deeply redoubled in our contemporary pandemic-ridden world.  Thus, I was grateful to Ms. Miette Gillette, editor and publisher at Whisk(e)y Tit Books, a very radical indie press in the US for agreeing to publish this book of collected critical writings.  Her ordinary fare, if only to date, has, I gather, been the publication of books of such an outlandish nature, generically or content-wise, that they stand close to null chance of being picked up by mainstream publishers.  She is doing salvaging (perhaps even, outriding) work, one presumes, thereby.  Indeed, my book is the first publication from Whisk(e)y Tit that is wholly comprised of nonfictional critical writing. 

I first discovered Whisk(e)y Tit via becoming literary acquaintances and then literary friends and/or colleagues with brilliant, polyglot poet and novelist, Svetlana Lavochkina.  She happened to be published four or five years ago in the same Routledge journal as myself.  Since then, we began correspondence, and I was very happy to review two of her brilliant and sparkling literary novels, published first by Whisk(e)y Tit, Zap and then Dam Duchess.  Indeed, these two published review-articles are included of course in the respective section of To My Mind.  And so, after a long haul, after my manuscript was accepted by Miette at Whisk(e)y Tit in summer of 2018, and after subsequent supplementation and many kinds of shuttlecocking back and forth, regarding the proofs, the book is now due to be released and available for purchase within December 2020.

A few notes here about To My Mind’s contents, from the title down, more generally (before, that is, I get to my own, brief reflective gambit regarding my own ‘intellectual life’ as expressed in the contents of this book).  The title: To My Mind Or Kinbotes (and let’s leave aside and ignore the presumption and self-importance of the subtitle: ‘Essays on Literature’) makes use of a reference to what I believe is Vladimir Nabokov’s best, most brilliant and indeed most truthful novel, Pale Fire.  The idiomatic phrase, ‘to my mind’ is both an evocation of an opinionated stance, but also dovetails into the second (very 18th century-like) title ‘option’ as it were.  Because the central conceit of Pale Fire is a major autobiographical poem in rhyming couplets, followed in the main by a mock-editorial commentary by a delusional acquaintance of the now-deceased poet.  The delusional chap is named Charles Kinbote, and his delusions of grandeur, it is intimated with such color and flair in this novel, render him a quite prolific but more interestingly prodigal editor.  He reads, line by line, the original poem in delusional ways, relating the autobiographical poem of the dead poet, John Shade, to his own fantasies of personal importance.  But as I don’t want to dally here, let me just say, thus, that the self-ironizing use of this allusion in my title is also there for more serious reasons: which is to say, the adventure of critical reading, then critical thinking, then critical writing, is and perhaps always has been an autobiographical journey for me.  Perhaps any good or true reader of this new book of mine will attach the better kind of self-reflexive (if not, as well, it’s true, ‘self-important’) sense to the way I often enough find critical answers and avenues for discussion of a myriad and plethora of texts and authors from the interrogation of my own breast.  Not quite delusional, the hope is: I often find my insights from out of a kind of dynamic and interlacing nexus between the literary artefact at hand, readied for critique, and the already-formed, or primed, say, aspects or facets or features of my own thinking more generally.  Not an academic philosopher by any means whatsoever, I like to think of myself as a ‘lazy philosopher’ hooking more generic reflective work onto concrete readings of concrete texts.  Indeed, bearing this out, here’s a quick passage from a work by Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, which resonates with me in the context of what I have just noted above:

The arts of doing and knowing, the valuation and the understanding of meaning, are thus seen to be only different aspects of extending our person into the subsidiary awareness of particulars which compose a whole.  The inherent structure of this fundamental act of personal knowing makes us both necessarily participate in its shaping and acknowledging its results with universal intent.  This is the prototype of intellectual commitment.[2]

Such comparatively abstruse reflections aside, this quick quote now serves, nicely, to hook back into a few concluding reflections about, I suppose, the ways in which reading, thinking and writing are for me both critical activities but also, just plain critical.  Zena Hitz, for my money, is absolutely right to stress in her book that there is extended dignity on offer for those of us who either take pleasure in ‘intellectual’ activities or as both my ‘quotes’ have it, those of us who are ‘committed’ to such.  What I think, in fact, so lovely and neatly surprising is how this very notion of ‘commitment’ parsed this way, is in a significant sense the opposite of the usual sense of committed-ness.  We normally speak of a writer, say, as a ‘committed’ writer, when he or she writes with the overbearing intent of effecting politicized awareness and/or, more specifically, ‘worldly’ or practical change.  And yet it seems the committed-ness at hand here is intended to mean a dedication to the reflective life, what Hitz calls a ‘refuge.’

And whether relating it to this new book of collected critical reading, thinking, writing, of mine, or not, I too have always felt, intuitively at first, but then with increasingly confident articulateness the idea that the love and capacity for a life dedicated to thinking (not necessarily, ‘academic’) is a way of deepening one’s selfhood and empowering the same.  This empowerment may seem a strange kind of power, being as it is forged very much and intentionally away and away from the practical exigencies of the social world around us; but empowerment it remains.  I have always felt (and at times, have almost imagined I have a tactile connection with it) that intellectual practices create, and then exponentially deepen, a reservoir in the self, or the imaginary.  This reservoir of as it were tapped and on-tap contemplative experience, empowers one because I suppose it gifts its bearer a certain stronger (sense of) independence.  When the world ‘out there’ gets too hairy, you have a place to which to retreat, making you less of a victim of that very hirsute and troubled world; but more than this, not only is the deepening, deepening reservoir a place to retreat to, but it is also, in my view (and experience), a place to draw-from, readying you for the next (quite inevitable) encounter with the world ‘out there’, the world out there and its way(s).

The inner reservoir I hope to have drawn-from in my book of collected critical reading, thinking and writing, is I hope both a nice place reserved for me, and only me, where I am possessed by own possession of who I am as a thinking man, but also, I hope, a kind of reservation which I offer for intellectual gamboling to any interested readers, a place of escape to escape to, and quite without any reservations. 

[1] Zena Hitz, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2020, p. 57.

[2] Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, University of Chicago Press, 2013, p. 65.

Dr. Omar Sabbagh is a widely published poet, writer and critic.  His first collection and his fourth collection, are, respectively: My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint and To The Middle of Love (Cinnamon Press, 2010/17).  His 5th collection, But It Was An Important Failure, was published by Cinnamon Press at the start of 2020.  His Beirut novella, Via Negativa: A Parable of Exile, was published with Liquorice Fish Books in March 2016; he has written many award-winning pieces of short fiction, and his Dubai novella, Minutes from the Miracle City is forthcoming with Fairlight Books in July 2019; and a study of the oeuvre of Professor Fiona Sampson, Reading Fiona Sampson: A Study in Poetry and Poetics, was released by Anthem in 2020.  He has published scholarly essays on George Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, G.K. Chesterton, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, Joseph Conrad, Lytton Strachey, T.S. Eliot, Basil Bunting, Hilaire Belloc, George Steiner, and others; as well as on many contemporary poets.  Many of these works are collated in his essay collection To My Mind, Or, Kinbotes: Essays on Literature (2020). He now teaches at the American University in Dubai (AUD), where he is Associate Professor of English.

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