Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Yasmine Khayyat reviews Specters of World Literature

Karim Mattar. Specters of World Literature: Orientalism, Modernity, and the Novel in the Middle East. Edinburg: Edinburg University Press, 2020. 360 pp.

Review by Yasmine Khayyat

24 February 2021

In Specters of World Literature: Orientalism, Modernity, and the Novel in the Middle East, Karim Mattar aptly illustrates the problematic of world literature through the book cover’s image––Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors (1533). Mattar directs our attention to an Anatolian rug draped across a mantelpiece flanked by two men—the first an ambassador of the king of France and the second the bishop of Lavaur. The rug unfurls as a metaphor for the perceived self-mastery of “early modern European man the entirety of the world over” only to be undercut by a lurking anamorphic skull (p. vii). The presence of the uncanny skull in its midst helps Mattar flesh out a new perspective on world literature as constituted by a form of haunting. Rendered other to modernity, yet never expunged from its narrative, the local manifests as the ghostly trace, or skull, that infects and inflects the forms of modernity. Mattar thus defines world literature by precisely the dialectic of appropriation of worldly content and projection of European or “Western” power that The Ambassadors’s imagery “unconsciously inscribes”––a critique that continues to resonate throughout the remainder of the book as a haunting presence or shabah (p. vii)­­.

The book is especially deft at situating itself among multiple theoretical strands and debates. Grounded in ideas interrelating world literature to debates in Orientalism, modernity, the novel, and spectrality, it has important resonances with political philosophers from Karl Marx to Jacques Derrida. It also positions itself within contemporary critical debates among world literature advocates (David Damrosch, Franco Moretti, and Pascale Casanova) and their detractors (Djelal Kadir, Aamir Mufti, and Emily Apter) as a work that critiques the manifestation of otherness in the domain of world literature as constitutive of world literature (see p. x). Mattar develops this theory with reference to the world-systems analysis of Immanuel Wallerstein, Terence Hopkins, Samir Amin, and others and by deploying Edward Said’s and Aamir Mufti’s readings of Orientalism as a site of the codification and classification of world textualities as literature in the modern, European sense of the late-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries. Paying special attention to the spectral marks and traces of the local that “infect and inflect” the forms of modernity that circulate in the world(s) of literature, Mattar makes a case for the Middle Eastern novel as “both metonym and metaphor of a spectral world literature” (p. x).

Drawing on the work of Roger Allen, Muhammad Mustafa Badawi, Muhsin al-Musawi, Jeffrey Sacks, Nuha Alshaar, Waïl Hassan, Zachary Lockman, Rashid Khalidi, Abdelfattah Kilito, and others, Mattar argues that lost to the worlding of the Middle Eastern novel is its engagements with the others of Middle Eastern modernity: adab. Mattar attempts to restore the spectral trace of the political, religious, and gender life-world of the Middle Eastern novel through the reinscription of the classical Arabic-Islamic concept of adab in terms of the modern, European concept of literature. Consequently, Mattar’s concept of the “comparative Middle East” explores how the origin of the Middle Eastern novel in modernity continues to determine its being-in-the-world.

In an attempt to disturb canonicity, Mattar offers an eclectic reading of primary literary texts by Abdelrahman Munif, Naguib Mahfouz, Orhan Pamuk, Azar Nafisi, Yasmin Crowther, and Marjane Satrapi alongside staples of world literature from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Marx to the present, the discourse of the modern novel by Miguel de Cervantes, and landmarks of Middle Eastern literary history such as the Mu‘allaqāt and Alf Layla wa Layla (A Thousand Nights and a Night). In each case, he assesses how each primary text’s being-in-the-world is interrupted by domestication and then provides a counter-reading focalized around questions of form. In so doing, Mattar outlines the Middle Eastern novel’s imbrication in the wider process of modernization but also how it produces a “revolution of form” that troubles the Eurocentric modern novelistic forms (realism, modernism, postmodernism, postcolonialism, and cosmopolitanism) thereby expressing the spectral life-world of modernity (see pp. 177–214). In other words, Mattar draws renewed attention to the shabahs or ghosts of world literature’s others produced in its wake.

The book is comprised of five main chapters, but its most powerful section is a corrective reading of Abdelrahman Munif’s five-volume epic of Gulf “petro-modernity,” Cities of Salt (Mudun al-Milḥ, 1984–89; trans. 1987–93) through a spectral reading of its novelistic form as one that haunts and goads static Eurocentric conceptions of literariness (quoted on p. 75). Cities of Salt narrates the impact of US oil development and the implantation of a white US colonial community on indigenous people, animals, environment, and political systems in a fictional area widely understood to be Saudi. The danger is woven into the very title: woe will befall the cities of salt built on fossil-fuel extraction in the Arabian desert or what Mattar terms “petro-imperium” (p. 75). Focusing on the first volume of the Arabic quintet, al-Tīh (The Wilderness), Mattar traces the novel’s English-translation into the (polemical) world of literature, or what he calls Gulf petro-modernity, via John Updike’s now-infamous dismissal of Munif as “insufficiently Westernized” (quoted on p. 56). This response, Mattar argues, is symptomatic of a world literature that conceives of the literary only according to Western norms and models and wholesale disavowal of divergent cultural literary inflections. Rather than equating adab to belles lettres, Mattar reinterprets it as an expression of the multiple modalities of political, social, and cultural traces of the classical to medieval Arabic-Islamic lifeworld. By extension, Cities of Salt, Mattar implies, is at once a swan song to tribal forms of social memory, solidarity, and accountability obliterated under the regimes imposed by what he calls petro-imperium and a communitarian and panoramic overview of empire’s violent interruption of the idyllic symbiosis of traditional life with its animals, cosmologies, and practices. In the words of Mattar "it is a counter-historical novel that seeks to reinscribe the story of the Bedouins’ doubled material and historiographical dispossession and to pry open a space in the (global) cultural imaginary for the losses, the violence, and the disruption that have been written out of or overwritten by official (Saudi, American) narratives, those wrought by petro-modernity" (p. 77).

Too often, the debate on world literature is riven between the Goethean dream of Weltliteratur and its critics. Works like Specters of World Literature play an indispensable role in contributing a promising mediation of these broadly defined positions. It allows for comparatism on a global scale, and it does so precisely via, rather than despite, a sustained focus on the complicity of world literature in what Mattar has identified as global capitalist modernity. In other words, the book’s unique vision opens up avenues for rethinking world literature along the very conditions of its possibility. This is indeed the ambition and resonance of the author’s spectral theory of world literature.