I was recently invited to deliver a capstone lecture at the Library of Congress in Washington DC in conjunction with their major exhibition - "A Thousand Years of the Persian Book". The exhibition had explored, as its curators had put it, "the rich literary tradition of the Persian language over the last millennium, from illuminated manuscripts to contemporary publications. The exhibition will bring attention to the literary achievements of Iran and the greater Persian-speaking regions of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Central and South Asia and the Caucasus".
In my talk, I followed the argument of my recent book, "The World of Persian Literary Humanism", and shared with my audience in a marvellous room adjacent to Thomas Jefferson's library, the more than millennial course of Persian literary humanism in which the Persian language emerged as the lingua franca of successive empires in the east of the Muslim world and eventually settled as variations on the national language of Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and with a significant presence in the Indian subcontinent.
Just before my talk, the curator of the exhibition at the Library of Congress, Hirad Dinevari, gave me a tour of the magnificent collection. You entered a dimly lit hall with fine and elegant vertical and horizontal glass cases in which illustrated manuscripts and printed books extending from Ferdowsi's Shahnameh to Farrokhzad's poetry were on display as samples of a thousand years of Persian books.
"The 75 items in the exhibition," according to the Library of Congress, "are selected primarily from the outstanding Persian collection in the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division and will bring attention to the literary achievements of Iran and the greater Persian-speaking regions of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Central and South Asia and the Caucasus."
Mysterious relationship to books
The main feature of this exquisite exhibition was precisely that - its exquisite unreachability, remote orderliness, and above all elegantly fetishised and decidedly staged distance, encased, staged, framed, formed for inaccessibility. From the metal detectors and security officers at the gate of the library all the way to the aura of power and authority attached to the United States Congress - these books were for anything except to read.
The main feature of this exquisite exhibition was precisely that - its exquisite unreachability, remote orderliness, and above all elegantly fetishised and decidedly staged distance, encased, staged, framed, formed for inaccessibility.
"Do not touch" was written with an invisible ink all over them. There was a forbidden pleasure even in trying to read the opened old manuscripts of the "Shahnameh" from behind their glass cases at the very entrance to the exhibition. There were informative descriptions of these books on the walls of the exhibition you could easily read. But not the books themselves. They were not to be read.
In a memorable passage in his magnificent essay, "Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting", Walter Benjamin writes: "There is in the life of the collector a dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order. Naturally, his existence is tied to many other things as well: to a very mysterious relationship to ownership ... also a relationship to objects which does not emphasise their functional utilitarian value - that is, their usefulness - but studies and loves them as the scene, the stage, of their fate."
Benjamin here is dwelling on the non-functional disposition of books, their allegorical resonances as relics, as sights to behold.
"The most profound enchantment of the collector," he says, "is the locking of the individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them."
That "magic circle" is ad hominem, collected and cultivated in a lifetime. Benjamin's dwelling here is thus on one's own personal library, the library one has deliberately and decidedly collected over a lifetime.
"Everything remembered and thought," he rightly points out, "everything conscious, becomes the pedestal, the frame, the base, the lock of his property. The period, the region, the craftsmanship, the former ownership - for a true collector the whole background of an item adds up to a magic encyclopaedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object."
Sight of books
That magic becomes positively vacuous, amorphous, intransigent, when one looks at books as objects of an exhibition, which is a scene and setting pointedly different from when one looks at one's own library or even walks through the stacks of a public library. In both those cases, the sight of books is an irresistible invitation to pick them up, hold them in your hands, leaf through them, sit down on a nearby chair perhaps, lie down on a sofa if you could, and read a passage. But not when books are put on display inside a glass case within the commanding aura of an exhibition, protected by security guards and metal detectors (and who knows maybe even surveillance cameras) near the United States Congress.
Habent sua fata libelli / books have their destiny: Benjamin cites that Latin phrase in his essay and adds: "These words may have been intended as a general statement about books. So books like 'The Divine Comedy', Spinoza's 'Ethics', and 'The Origin of the Species' have their fates. A collector, however, interprets this Latin saying differently. For him, not only books, but copies of books have their fates. And in this sense, the most important fate of a copy is its encounter with him, with his own collection."
Like any other scholar, I too am attached to my own library, divided now between my home and my office on the Columbia University campus, connected via my PDF collections on my iPad, and then spread widely into the cyberspace for books I wish to read right from the internet to check for a citation. Though decidedly I am not an antiquarian Gutenbergian and do read PDFs on my iPad too, my tactile memories of the books in my own library are the fortress of my emotive universe, where I am most at home, where I can (literally) close my eyes and in complete darkness locate my books. For anyone at home in that universe, it is a strange sensation to stand upon a book protected from your reach inside an elegant and shining and frightfully disinviting glass cases.
Copies of the book trapped inside an exhibition have repressed their memories if they are old, and if young, they are memory-less, cold, vacuous, their bodies lacking the maturity of caring and competent hands that would have given them meaning, interpreted their hidden desires. The older manuscripts yearn to remember what they were, who read, interpreted and remembered them. While the younger ones look like unripe fruits, cut off from the trees of their natural habitat and jailed and aborted before their time.
Our tactile memories are eagerly drawn to the older books we cannot reach perhaps to tease out their repressed memories, while the younger volumes just sit there inside their enclosed cases like soulless mannequins devoid of any memory.
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.