#31: FIRST-RATE MINDS. “The test of a first-rate intelligence,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in “The Crack-Up,” “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time.” Medieval Spain might not be the place we would think to look for such a quality, but in her book The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (Little, Brown, 2002) Maria Rosa Menocal gives us, convincingly, what she calls “a brief history of a first-rate place”. She shows us how the political fracture of the Middle East let Islamic culture cross northern Africa to a new eminence in Spain, until Cordoba at the first millennium could call itself the great city of the Islamic world; and to conjure vividly the traffic between the Islamic, Jewish and Christian cultures in architecture, the sciences, poetry, the reclamation of classical learning, philosophy, all the way to gardening and governing. It’s an utterly charming book—one of the most attractive books on medieval culture since Helen Waddell’s Wandering Scholars.
In The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, Karen Armstrong deals with what Karl Jaspers termed the Axial Age: the period from roughly 900 to 200 B.C. when the Eastern and Mediterranean traditions shifted their emphasis from the efficacy of magic and ritual to a vision more interior, more ethical and more humane. She approaches this vast topic chronologically, taking each of the major religious figures from Zoroaster to the author of the Bhagavad Gita (the Old Testament scribes and prophets are not grouped but scattered individually throughout), giving each the vivid and formative shape of his time, and giving the ideas of each a passionate, respectful voicing. What could have been a reductive and thudding Reader’s Digest Guide to Your World’s Religions is transformed by depth of scholarship, graceful prose and an impressive breadth of sympathy—the best kind of historical writing for the intelligent and curious lay reader. Likewise her 184-page Islam: A Short History (Modern Library, 2000) is a splendid, informative walkthrough, a perfect first book to read on the topic, and corrective of the idiocies and misperceptions common in these fearful, overheated times.
Both Armstrong’s books end with chapters entitled “The Way Forward.” Menocal’s book, true to its topic, ends with an evocation of the current times of violence and, in contrast, a moving account of the saving of the Sarajevo Haggadah, a work of the civilization she extols. What grouped these books in my mind was their obvious shared hope that their topics might, against all odds, through fascination and delight, soften our sectarian rigidities, and the first-rate minds they evoke keep us safer from the brutish spirit abroad. Let’s hope.
P.S.: A more obvious connective tissue between Menocal’s work and Armstrong’s is the latter’s 1988 book Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World (Anchor Books). For all its being twenty years old—the 1991 reissue preface notes the outbreak of the first U.S.-Iraqi war—it’s still an excellent and humane navigation of how the Crusades—the defining act of a then-new Christian European nationalism—has helped lead, with much Islamic and Jewish assistance, to the entangled tragedy of the Middle East today. Armstrong’s approach and style turn out to be ideal for the topic: she’s vivid without being sensational or sarcastic, detailed without letting the book become an overcautious mire. Considering that the history of the Middle East seems to have been one long horrible riff on Jean Renoir’s epigram “In this world there is only one tragic thing—everybody has their reasons,” Armstrong’s combination of moral clarity and restraint is pretty near miraculous. She is pressing herself—and us—to go beyond the “two opposing ideas” to a triple vision, to see from Christian/Western, Jewish and Islamic viewpoints. It’s a serious read and expresses no easy optimism, but the headlines will make a lot more sense after you’ve read it. And Geraldine Brooks’s beautiful essay “The Book of Exodus” (published in the New Yorker, December 3, 2007) extends the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah and Dervis Korkut, who protected it from Nazi confiscation, into an almost incredible turn-by-turn roundelay of courage and rescue.
P.P.S. 2018. A wonderful and appropriate pendant to Menocal’s book, and one of the best poetry anthologies I’ve read in ages, is The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain 950-1492, edited and translated by Peter Cole (Princeton, 2007). Here is one of those rare cases when everything is done right: the biographical introductions are fascinating; the translations are supple and lovely; and it all hangs together to transport us to a world about which we likely knew very little. Under the influences particularly of Arabic literature, you can hear the language breaking loose and dancing to all sorts of new modes and manners (we get to write about kissing boys! Whee!). And in among those sinuous freedoms there are poems based on the endlessly fresh inspiration of the Psalms, expressing love and devotion to God in voices utterly personal and utterly convincing. This is a time, a poetry we’d forgot, and Cole has captured it in its sorrow and fervor and delight.