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American ArabesqueArabs and Islam in the Nineteenth Century Imaginary$

Jacob Rama Berman

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780814789506

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: March 2016

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9780814789506.001.0001

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Poe’s Taste for the Arabesque

Poe’s Taste for the Arabesque

(p.109) 3 Poe’s Taste for the Arabesque
American Arabesque

Jacob Rama Berman

NYU Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the translation of the image of the Arab into a “unique” expression of American romanticism, particularly in Edgar Allan Poe's oeuvre. In Poe, the figure of the Arab facilitates the experience of difference as sameness, the foreign as familiar, and the alien as domestic. In a sense, Poe cultivates the anxieties that are latent in the contact narrative's use of the image of the Arab to establish American national, cultural, and racial difference. Indeed, tracking the arabesque's movement from Arab cultural reference to uniquely American aesthetic demonstrates the role of translation in Poe's romanticism. Retranslating Poe's arabesque back into Arabo-Islamic cultural discourse, in turn, reveals resonance between Arab and American romanticism.

Keywords:   American romanticism, Edgar Allan Poe, contact narrative, American difference, Arabo-Islamic culture, Arab romanticism

While the first two chapters detail American literature’s direct engagement with Arabo-Islamic culture, chapter 3 examines the incorporation of that world into a self-referential American aesthetic. In Edgar Allan Poe’s oeuvre, the American arabesque undergoes a fundamental change in its meaning. This change has a legacy in the poetics of both Eastern and Western modernism. Poe’s arabesque is an abstraction of the Arab world, but in modernist aesthetics, the foliate pattern comes to represent the impulse to figural abstraction in general. William Carlos Williams, devising his own genealogy of modernism in the poem Paterson, alludes to the importance of figural representation and its connection to Arab art:

  • The neat figures of
  •    Paul Klee
  •     fill the canvas
  • but that
  •    is not the work
  •     of a child.
  • the cure began, perhaps
  •    with the abstraction
  •     of Arabic art
  • Dürer
  •    with his Melancholy
  •     was aware of it—
  • the shattered masonry. Leonardo
  •    saw it,
  •     the obsession,
  • and ridiculed it
  •    in La Gioconda.
  •     Bosch’s
  • (p.110) congeries of tortured souls and devils
  • who prey on them
  • fish
  • swallowing
  • their own entrails
  • Freud
  • Picasso
  • Juan Gris.1

Visually displaying his own taste for fragmentation, Williams traces the modernist penchant for figural play back to the “abstraction / of Arabic art” visible in Dürer’s treatment of the line as an ideal form. Dürer provides an excellent example of Arabic art’s abstraction from one culture and narrative instantiation of another. As M. Norton Wise points out, “Dürer had become the personification of Germanness at a time when the Germans had discovered the gothic as their own, a wellspring of their unifying national character even though political unity eluded them.”2 In this formulation, the “abstraction / of Arabic art” into the gothic line play associated with Dürer provides a narrative foothold for German romantic nationalism.

In Dürer, the line itself is a form of Platonic writing, and the line’s capacity for movement between the written and the graphic symbolizes the artistic ideal of metamorphosis. The associated artistic style of the gothic grew out of Dürer’s line play and was retrospectively attributed to Dürer in the nineteenth century as a distinctly German style. Marked by the advent of the 1828 Dürerfest celebrating the three-hundred-year anniversary of his death, the Dürer Renaissance in Germany resurrected the artist as an icon of national identity and co-opted his linear abstractions into an iconography of Germanness at roughly the same time Poe was cutting his own literary teeth. By the time Poe complains about the charges of “Germanism” being leveled against him in the preface to Tales of the Arabesque and Grotesque, the gothic had become a symbol of autochthonous German culture.

Roughly a hundred years after the Dürer Renaissance took place in Germany, Williams resurrects Poe as an icon of American literature and place in his book In the American Grain. Describing Poe’s unique aesthetic, Williams emphasizes figural reinterpretation as a formative component of expressing a new identity. “With Poe words were figures,” Williams insists, “an old language truly, but one from which he carried over (p.111) only the most elemental qualities to his new purpose which was to find a way to tell his soul.”3 The motion between abstract representation and the creation of a new language to which Williams alludes through reference to Dürer’s lines in Paterson returns in In the American Grain as an explanation of Poe’s transformation of an “old language” into a “new purpose.” Poe’s invention of tradition, for Williams, is captured in the translation of familiar figures into a highly personal idiom. Williams acknowledges that figural representation is an old form of expression, one translated across cultural traditions. But he also insists that the abstraction of a figure inspires a new, culturally specific language.

Poe’s conscious construction of a figural alternative to the real world is precisely what makes him an icon of American literary nationalism to early twentieth-century critics such as Williams.4 Thus, it is not Poe’s representation of a real America that is important to Williams but rather Poe’s “voluntary lopping off of [America’s] lush landscape” (AG, 227). This “lopping off” signals the emergence of “a juvescent local literature” (AG, 216). Williams declares, “it is a new locality that is in Poe assertive, it is America, the first great burst through to expression of a re-awakened genius of place” (AG, 216). Genius of place is not identifiable in Poe’s choice of subject matter or native material but rather in his originality, in his will to a “fresh beginning and need to sweep aside all colonial imitation” (AG, 219).

The word “genius” is not accidental in Williams’s assessment of Poe, and its employment purposefully suggests secular models of romantic inspiration. Marking a change in the word’s meaning that began in the eighteenth century, “a genius,” Talal Asad writes, “was [now] the product of nature, and what he produced was ‘natural,’ albeit singular.” “For this reason,” Asad asserts, a genius “could be appreciated by a cultivated audience exercising judgments of taste.”5 The theme of cultivation is central to Williams’s assessment of Poe’s “genius of place.” He argues that Poe’s creation of a “local” literature is possible because Poe’s criticism has “clear[ed] the ground” and prepared the way for America to be “cultivated” (AG, 224).6 Poe, as a former critical arbiter of American taste, provides Williams, a current critical arbiter of American taste, with continuity for his theory of national literature. Using Poe as a seed, Williams nurtures a literary theory of American self into fruition. Williams cultivates a cult of Poe in order to identify a uniquely American aesthetic tradition, establishing for his audience standards of taste that, in turn, link national identity to literary affect.

(p.112) Asad demonstrates in his genealogical study of modernism that the discourse surrounding “the cult of genius” translates the language of religious rapture into the language of secular humanism, thus establishing dichotomies between nation-states regulated by external religious forces and nation-states, such as America, governed by a rationality that is putatively internalized in each citizen.7 In both the narrative of the exceptional romantic writer, around which the cult of the genius collects, and the narrative of the historically exceptional nation, myth operates as the fictional grounding for secular values that Asad argues “are sensed to be ultimately without foundation.”8 Romantic myths of American literary autochthony are generated by the desire to have the spiritual show forth in the actual, to have physical words “tell his soul,” as Williams put it in regard to Poe. These romantic myths represent, for Asad, the profound intermingling of rationality and imagination in the history of secularism.

To read Poe’s arabesque as a secular translation of a sacred Arabo-Islamic symbol, then, is to misread the way the secular and the sacred, the rational and the romantic, are profoundly mingled. The false dichotomy between rational/secular modes and mystical/religious modes of value making on which Asad focuses is one that Poe’s own use of the arabesque both indicates and exploits. In “The Philosophy of Furniture,” the arabesque is a material sign of a cultivated secular taste. In tales such as “Ligeia,” the arabesque is an amorphous affect used to cultivate an experience of the occult. Though the critical and the literary may have been distinct genres in Poe’s mind and perhaps even in his readers’ minds, the rational conceits of the former structured the aesthetic affect of the latter. When the occupant of the “Philosophy of Furniture” is relocated to Poe’s tales, the ordered display of eclecticism that defines his rational interior-design choices turns disorderly, creating the possibility for taste to transform into terror. The disorder is caused by the same graphism that defines Poe’s “genius of place” for Williams. The stable and static arabesque design turns three-dimensional in these tales, indexing the movement of the word off the page and into the reader’s body as stirring affect.

Williams’s critical account of Poe presents him as the lamp of a sovereign inspiration. This inspiration is literally internalized in the image of the artist telling his soul through figures. But these figures are borrowed or, more properly, abstracted from another context. In the case of the arabesque, Poe’s most prominent and poignant figure, this abstraction is a form of cultural translation. Reading Williams’s “abstraction” as code for a form of cultural translation instills an appreciation for the profound (p.113) alienation that Abdelfattah Kilito argues is inherent in the transfer of Arabic cultural products into Western cultural paradigms. “Naturally literary memory is different for Arabs and Europeans,” Kilito asserts. “In both cases, it rests on a certain foundation, a primal model, a particular conception of time and space.”9 To demonstrate his point, Kilito relates a story about Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, a mid-nineteenth-century Arab scholar and major figure in the modernization of the Arabic language. Born in Lebanon to a Maronite Christian family, al-Shidyaq converted to Protestantism and then Islam over the course of a life that also saw him obtain citizenship in London and live for years in France. Al-Shidyaq ultimately sought his fortune in Paris, the place where he was to publish his major works as well as to become active in the social life of the city. The poet had garnered patronage in the Arab world through the traditional practice of writing praise poems to influential men. At one point during his residence in France, al-Shidyaq tried his hand at the same game in Paris. However, in attempting to praise the French monarch Louis Napoleon through poetry, al-Shidyaq abandoned the traditional erotic introductory section of an Arab poem, the ghazel. “In order to assure the acceptance of his poetry,” Kilito explains, “he disrupted the familiar order of the poem, … he amputated his poetry, castrated it so as to approximate European taste” (ML, 78). The ghazel, meant to conjure a poetic mood for the reader/listener by focusing on the often unrelated charms of a departed woman or a young boy, disappears in al-Shidyaq’s French praise poem.

Al-Shidyaq’s “castrated” attempt to praise Louis Napoleon through poetry was actually his second try. His first poem uses the traditional ghazel. Both were returned to al-Shidyaq without the recognition he had hoped. Arguing that al-Shidyaq’s two poems stand in metonymic relationship to all Arabic poetry, Kilito asserts that their rejection is a rejection of Arab poetics on the whole. The lesson Kilito takes away from this anecdote about translation, both cultural and literal, is that “outside its familiar sphere, Arabic literature has no currency—indeed, has no existence” (ML, 81).

Kilito’s anecdote about al-Shidyaq demonstrates the epistemic violence that results from the cultural translation of Arabic art into the forms of Western modernism referenced in Paterson. Arabic art appears in its Western representations as something alien to Arab history and aesthetics. As Kilito suggests in a particularly piquant image of the erotic ghazel’s removal from al-Shidyaq’s second poem, Arabic art appears in its Western manifestations as something “castrated.” Kilito’s choice of words (p.114) speaks more directly to the violence of translation than does Williams’s “abstracted.” While the “abstraction” of Arabic art recognizable in Poe’s figural method establishes what Williams calls a uniquely American “genius of place,” the “castration” of Arabic art forms discernible in the writings of nineteenth-century Arab poets such as al-Shidyaq dislocates Arab identity.

The infiltration of Arab references into American literary sources helps create what critics such as Williams call a uniquely American literary aesthetic. But the opposite is true in the critical response to the presence of Western references in the work of nineteenth-century Arab writers. Just as Williams had in the early years of the twentieth century, modern critics turn to Poe again and again as a source of contemplation about what makes American literature unique. In contrast, many modern Arab critics such as Kilito turn toward Arab Renaissance writers such as al-Shidyaq to discuss how the uniqueness of Arab literature was betrayed in the nineteenth century. In the writings of respected Poe scholars such as G. R. Thompson, Poe’s arabesque appears as a sign of his unique aesthetic sensibility and his romantic genius.10 To critics such as Kilito, Arab Renaissance writers’ use of Western forms signals an unfortunate mimicry of the West and an abandonment of a uniquely Arab literary tradition. Placing an American Renaissance writer, such as Poe, in the context of the Arab Renaissance reveals the extent to which American romanticism is a cultural translation. But it also illuminates how American romantic aesthetics can be used to read Arab cultural forms dialectically.

Though the golden years of the Arab Renaissance, known as the nahda (ةضهنلا), are usually marked as the turn of the twentieth century, its intellectual roots are located in Poe’s contemporary historical moment, in what Albert Hourani has called the “Liberal Age” of Arabic thought.11 Specifically, in the wake of the French occupation of Egypt (1798–1801), discussed in chapter 1, Muhammad Ali realized that European military superiority flowed, in large part, from its modern scientific knowledge. In an effort to rectify the “gap” in modernity between Egypt and Europe, Ali sent educational missions to France in the 1820s, with an eye mainly toward military advancement. In 1831, the Azharite imam Rifa’a al-Tahtawi returned from his mission in France to establish a school for translation in Cairo that was primarily aimed at disseminating modern European science and thought to Egyptian readers.12 The texts translated were initially heavily weighted toward the military sciences, but slowly and surely al-Tahtawi and his growing body of students translated European literature, (p.115) philosophy, and history books. Al-Tahtawi’s efforts represent the most important translation of European knowledge into Arabic since the translation of Greek philosophy undertaken during the Classical era over seven centuries earlier.13

Al-Tahtawi’s account of his five-year stay in Paris, Takhlis al-Ibriz fi Talkhis Bariz (The Extraction of Pure Gold in the Abridgement of Paris), published in 1835 and revised in 1849, was the first comprehensive treatment of European society and culture to be written in Arabic. The Takhlis was the forerunner to the account al-Shidyaq wrote a generation later. Taken together, the two represent a turning point in Arab literature’s relation to the West. Though many prior travel accounts of Europe existed in Arabic, the Takhlis is, in the words of Daniel Newman, unique in its efforts “to provide a detailed discussion of European civilization and, particularly, its political concepts (e.g., the republic, democracy) and institutions (e.g., Parliament).”14 The book introduces many new terms into the sacred Arabic language (such as steamship), as new sciences required new words and new readerships (Ottoman technocrats rather than Islamic literati) demanded a more streamlined and simplified style. In addition, al-Tahtawi applies old terms such as freedom (Hurriyya/ةيرُح) and homeland (waTin/نَطَو) to new concepts. These concepts were influenced by European political thought as well as notions of nationalism bounded by nation-state borders instead of a wider affiliation with the Islamic community (ummaةمُا).15 The Arabic language itself was thus undergoing a radical post-Classical-period innovation in the mid-nineteenth century, and al-Tahtawi was at the spearhead of the changes.16 The intellectual forerunner to the reformism of nahda thinkers who emerged in the next generation, al-Tahtawi encompassed the major themes of the Arab Renaissance: selective appropriation of European ideas, Arab nationalism, and anti-Ottoman ideology.17

While the nahda represents a strain of liberal reformism and intercultural dialogue in Arab thought, it is also a reaction to both Western colonialism and, later, Western literary forms. This reaction occasions a cultural reentrenchment in romanticized visions of the Arab past usually associated with the heroic Bedouin character traits celebrated in pre-Islamic poetry. Al-Tahtawi provides insight into this mid-nineteenth-century turn toward Bedouin idealization:

The issue of personal honour which makes the French and the Arabs similar to each other consists of the perception of the ideal of manhood, the (p.116) fact of telling the truth and other qualities of [moral integrity and] perfection. … These days [the noble character of Arabs] has waned and melted away as they suffered the hardships of oppression and the calamities of time. … [But] there are some who remain faithful to their original Arab nature, … [and the freedom which Westerners value] was also part of the character of the Arabs in past times.

(Takhlis, 365; emphasis mine).

Arabs, in al-Tahtawi’s description, have more in common historically with the French than with their Turkish colonizers. But these shared noble qualities are largely absent in the present-day Arab and must be relocated in the “original” Arab of “past times.”

Arab thinkers’ pre-Islamic nostalgia has many of the characteristics of Western romanticism. The confluence of late eighteenth-century European romantic models of a national identity based on volk practices and the mid-nineteenth-century Arab nahda’s construction of an Arab self that stands outside of time results in what the modern Arab critic and poet Adonis describes as the double dependency at the heart of the crisis of Arab modernity: “a dependency on the past, to compensate for the lack of creative activity and a dependency on the European-American West, to compensate for the failure to invent and innovate by intellectual and technical adaptation and borrowing” (Arab Poetics, 80). In both these formulations of Arab identity, modernity is foreclosed to the figure of the Arab, with the result that authentic Arabness is either only locatable in an ancient past or necessarily corrupted by its borrowings from contemporary Western culture. For Adonis, the modernity that appears in Arab society through the nahda is something “imported from abroad” and ultimately an imitation.

Adonis identifies the problem of Arab modernity as one of imitation. The solution is not just a question of eliminating Western forms but also of eliminating the mimicry of pre-Islamic poetry. Adonis’s criticism of imitative poetry leads him to seek his own “cure” for Arab identity in a genealogical reconfiguration of Arab modernity that can be read against Williams’s “abstraction / of Arabic art.” Viewing poetry as “a beginning, not an imitation” (Arab Poetics, 51), Adonis insists that the modernization of Arab poetry can be retrospectively located in the eighth-and ninth-century switch from a pre-Islamic oral form to a written form influenced by Qur’anic studies. “The poet not only had to avoid imitating pre-Islamic poetry,” explains Adonis, “but also had to break new ground in terms of expression, in exploring his own soul, and in his approach to inanimate things and the world around him” (Arab Poetics, 50–51). The importance (p.117) Adonis places on a poet who explores “his own soul” in order to “break new ground in terms of expression” resonates richly with Williams’s decision to emphasize the figural qualities in Poe’s writing.

Both Adonis and Williams scan their respective cultural heritages for examples of writers who shake off old models in favor of an aesthetic of innovation. Both critic-poets designate the figural aspect of language as the key to resisting imitation and creating the new. “Language here does not only create the object,” insists Adonis; “it creates itself in creating the object” (Arab Poetics, 73). For Adonis, as for Williams, the employment of language as a self-referential and self-sustaining reality keys the creation of a nationally distinct literature. This literature, in turn, provides a grounding discourse of national identity. Rather than find origins, though, these respective poet-critics construct beginnings that place their own work within a recognizable aesthetic tradition.18

It is true that Poe abstracts Arabs in the service of producing Western modernity. But the American writer is also the progenitor of an aesthetic legacy that Adonis identifies as producing his own, authentic, Arab poetic modernity. Adonis explains:

I should acknowledge here that I was one of those who were captivated by Western culture. Some of us, however, went beyond that stage, armed with a changed awareness and new concepts which enabled us to reread our heritage with new eyes and to realize our cultural independence. I must also admit that I did not discover this modernity in Arabic poetry from within the prevailing Arab cultural order and its systems of knowledge. It was reading Baudelaire which changed my understanding of Abu Nuwas and revealed his particular poetical quality and modernity, and Mallarmé’s work which explained to me the mysteries of Abu Tammam’s poetic language and the modern dimension to it.

(Arab Poetics, 80–81)

Adonis credits the Symbolists Baudelaire and Mallarmé with opening his eyes to a nonderivative Arab modernity. He locates this authentic Arab modernity in the eighth-and ninth-century politics of ihdath (ثادحا; innovation), represented by the Arab poets Abu Nuwas (d. 810 CE) and Abu Tammam (d. 845 CE). These poets eschewed imitation of pre-Islamic Bedouin forms and subjects and created a modern, metropolitan language of experience.

In assessing the importance of Poe’s writing, Williams emphasizes his figural approach to signifiers, his ability to make them material entities as (p.118) well as vehicles for communication. Abu Nuwas’s ninth-century poetry evidences the same modernist concern with the materiality of the signifier. Though Adonis does not mention it specifically, a poem Abu Nuwas addressed to his on-again, off-again lover Jinan speaks directly to the point about Arab modernity that Adonis makes through the vehicle of the Symbolists Baudelaire and Mallarmé.

  • Make many deletions, Jinan, when you write,
  • and delete the word, when you do, with your tongue,
  • and passing deletingly over a word
  • draw close to your beautiful lips,
  • for I hold, when running over the lines,
  • the cancelled something up for a lick:
  • That—is a kiss from you from afar
  • which I steal while keeping here to my room.19

Abu Nuwas’s poem, with its tweaking of the traditional ghazel form, represents a shift from an oral to a text-based experience of the world. Placing presence and absence in dynamic tension (as was the norm for the ghazel), Abu Nuwas fractures temporal and spatial constraints in his search for communion. Via the written word, the body becomes an unbounded vehicle of desire rather than the limit of experience. And yet that written word is itself absent of meaning and entirely symbolic because it has literally been deleted. Through the medium of a written language that can be erased but still remains as a trace, Abu Nuwas both captures and destroys the physical world.

Instead of celebrating the heroic ideals of the desert life, such as stoic resolve and tribal honor, Abu Nuwas’s poetry is concerned with word play and the metaphysics of being. In pre-Islamic poetry, the distant woman was the medium of a Bedouin poet’s erotic ingress (nasib/بيسن), but she was usually discarded by the time the poet delivered his final message/boast.20 In Abu Nuwas’s poem, the distant woman, Jinan, remains at the end of the poem.21 In poems such as the one quoted, Abu Nuwas revised the traditional tropes of pre-Islamic Bedouin poetry into the language of the cosmopolitan litterateur. Language in Abu Nuwas’s poem is not only oral sensation; it is a physical entity that can be transferred, erased, and manipulated on the page. To Adonis, Abu Nuwas’s figural approach signals a modernity that has always been latent in written Arab poetry but, like Poe’s “genius of place,” requires critical rediscovery.

(p.119) Adonis’s search for a strain of modernity in Classical Arabic poetry, via the handmaiden of modern European Symbolism, has a striking relationship to the Orientalism of Western romantics. Romantics often located models of modern folk consciousness, noble savagery, and natural men in primitive Bedouin culture and pre-modern Oriental practices. Adonis locates models of Classical-era Arab modernity through modernist European Symbolists. The Western Orientalist taps Arab folk culture to reinterpret the modern. Adonis employs the modern to reinterpret the supposedly premodern Arab. In the spirit of intercultural hermeneutics that Adonis uses to reinvigorate ancient Arab poetry, this chapter turns to the arabesque, a topic in Poe criticism that has received much attention in the context of American modernism but almost no truly intercultural analysis of the kind that approaches modernity as a global flow of ideas that moves between East and West. I want to turn now to reading Poe’s short story “Ligeia” alongside the classic Arab story of love, loss, and spectral renascence, Layla and Majnun. Viewed through the arabesque, the two stories work in dialectic, connecting the romantic traditions of two cultures and dissolving the binaries of secular and sacred, rational and romantic.

Ligeia and Layla

Poe’s tale “Ligeia” begins with the drug-addled narrator describing his continued attachment to the dead and departed Ligeia, a woman who had tutored him in “wisdom too divinely precious not to be forbidden”22 Having replaced the dark Ligeia with the light-skinned Lady Rowena, the narrator now resides in an isolated room of a decaying castle in the English countryside.23 Describing the lavishly decorated bridal suite he has created for himself and his new wife, the narrator proclaims that “in the draping of the apartment lay, alas! the chief phantasy of all” (CT, 661). This draping repeats the “taste” for the arabesque elaborated in “The Philosophy of Furniture.” Covering the carpet, the ottomans, the bed drape, the bed itself, and the curtains, the upholstery is “spotted all over, at irregular intervals, with arabesque figures, about a foot in diameter” (CT, 661). In keeping with Poe’s insistence that every element of a prose tale be written with a mind toward “the single effect to be wrought out,” the arabesque operates as a clue to the reader that the physical furnishings the decorator has chosen reflect the state of his mental furniture.24 The rigidity of the arabesque as cultivated “taste” gives way here to the plasticity of an (p.120) unfettered imagination. When the narrator of “Ligeia” explains the significance of the arabesques, a gothic window into his unquiet mind opens:

But these figures partook of the true character of the arabesque only when regarded from a single point of view. By a contrivance now common, and indeed traceable to a remote period of antiquity, they were made changeable in aspect. To one entering the room, they bore the appearance of simple monstrosities; but upon a farther advance, this appearance gradually departed; and, step by step, as the visitor moved his station in the chamber, he saw himself surrounded by an endless succession of the ghastly forms which belong to the superstition of the Norman, or arise in the guilty slumbers of the monk. The phantasmagoric effect was vastly heightened by the artificial introduction of a strong continual current of wind behind the draperies—giving a hideous and uneasy animation to the whole.

(CT, 661)

The animation of the arabesque allows superstition and guilt to replace rational order and repose. In this transformation of a material signifier of rational order into a dematerialized sentiment, Poe exploits the arabesque’s dual and dueling meanings in his oeuvre.25 As object, it is a sign of rationality; as sentiment, it is a sign of the occult.26

The aesthetic structural duplicity of the arabesque has implications for Poe’s romantic nationalism. In “The Philosophy of Furniture,” Poe uses the arabesque to model the reformation of American taste. The essay begins by claiming that “the Yankees alone are preposterous” among the nations of the world in design choices. It ends with a “room with which no fault can be found,” in which “repose speaks in all.”27 Taste must be internalized, the essay implies, before it can be externalized. Taken as either comic bagatelle or serious attempt at the aesthetic education of Americans, “The Philosophy of Furniture” approaches the question of national identity through taste. If handled with sophistication, Poe suggests, the encounter with one’s own internalized taste provides the contemplative space necessary for both personal and national self-fashioning. The arabesque covers all surfaces in Poe’s remodeled American interior, but Poe’s insistence that the pattern has “no meaning” allows him to abstract it from the cultural context to which it nominally refers and to render it amenable to American national identity construction.

If the arabesque of the bourgeois domestic American interior is a mute figure symbolizing a cultivated national space, then the baroque arabesque of the decadent foreign interiors found in Poe’s tales enact the (p.121) discourse of extranational violence that remains hidden beneath the mute figure of nation. Moving from static “monstrous” design pattern into mobile “ghastly forms,” the change in the arabesque in “Ligeia” has textual and metatextual significance. It both foreshadows the Lady Ligeia’s ghostly reincarnation and schematizes the goal of the tale of sensation. For the dark and displaced Ligeia of the story’s title, the first wife whom the narrator struggles both to memorialize and to eradicate, eventually returns through the vehicle of the arabesque and usurps the place of the fair-skinned Rowena.

“Ligeia,” a tale that narrates the return of a dark and displaced woman who makes counterclaims on a domestic sphere newly occupied by a fair-skinned woman, has obvious racial implications.28 These racial undertones serve to emphasize a larger theme of transference—physical and psychological. The arabesque patterns cast by a saracenic censer play a central role in linking the world of the living with the world of the dead in “Ligeia,” but these patterns also link the world of objects to the world of sensation. The animation of the arabesque in “Ligeia” leads to an unbinding of libidinal energy, to the appearance of a phantasmagoria latent in the fetishized objects populating the room. A synergistic interaction between the censer, the arabesque patterns covering the drapery, and the static world of objects ultimately remanifests the narrator’s ideal object, the human Ligeia. “I gazed with unquiet eye upon the sarcophagi in the angles of the room, upon the varying figures of the drapery and upon the writhing of the parti-colored fires in the censer overhead. My eyes then fell, as I called to mind the circumstances of a former night, to the spot beneath the glare of the censer where I had seen the faint traces of the shadow” (CT, 660). Ligeia’s shadow, brought into relief by the writhing “saracenic” patterns emitted from the censer, moves from the world of suppressed memory into the world of physical objects. In forcing herself from the narrator’s subconscious into the material world, Ligeia ultimately occupies the light-skinned Lady Rowena’s corpse, masking it with her own features. The corpse in “Ligeia,” invested with significance by the narrator and transformed by the arabesque pattern, stares back at its interlocutor with an inscrutability that begs to be interpreted. The narrator’s loss of faith, his special brand of melancholic acedia, finds a response in the reappearance of the person to whom his faith was originally bound—Ligeia. The interpretive act elicited by the cathected corpse allows the world once again to acquire feeling for the mourning subject. In this process, the formerly hollow object, the corpse now draped with the arabesque pattern (p.122) cast throughout the room, undergoes a fundamental shift in meaning—it becomes transformed into sensation itself. It is a sensation released from the subject and now bound to the object. The effect of this reification is the creation of a self-reflexive mirror for the viewer in the corpse. The melancholic narrator stares at Rowena’s body only to see the object of his solipsistic obsession, Ligeia.29

Poe’s “Ligeia” dramatizes rebirth, or at least the potential for rebirth. The tale explores the very theme of autochthonous renaissance that draws Williams to Poe’s “American” legacy. Furthermore, the allegorical function of the corpse in Poe’s story (the way its symbolic message subsumes its materiality) also speaks to the larger mid-nineteenth-century American literary ethos of rebirth. But the corpse’s allegorical function has resonance with a tradition in Arab literature as well. I want now to turn to a discussion of a different kind of transference and a different kind of cultural translation. So far I have suggested that an appreciation for the aesthetic imperatives of the American Renaissance, as well as modernism, enriches our understanding of Poe’s use of Oriental tropes in the tale “Ligeia.” But the tale acquires something of a different meaning when read in the context of an Arab literary tradition.

The seminal story of artistic creation in Arab culture is the story of the poet Qays or Majnun Layla (“mad for Layla”). It has many versions, but its basic form is a tale about a poet who falls madly in love with his cousin, Layla. When Layla’s father refuses Majnun’s advances on his daughter, the poet exiles himself to the desert and sings of his love for Layla. Over the course of time, he goes mad, and when Layla finally goes out to meet him in the desert, he cannot recognize her because he has been consumed with the image of his own love and become obsessed with his own suffering. Layla dies in despair, but Majnun’s songs of love are overheard by shepherds and eventually make their way into general circulation.30

Majnun Layla is a story of exile, alienation, obsession, and solipsism. In these respects, it has much in common with Poe’s short story “Ligeia.” In addition, Majnun, whose name comes from the Arabic word for a demonic force (Jinn/نج), has much in common with the love-crazed, self-isolated, and perpetually mourning narrator of Poe’s tale, a man who claims that he has been possessed by a “demon.” Of course, the particulars are transformed in radical ways, and the endings of the two narratives have quite different takes on the moment of the beloved’s return. But the dark and mysterious Ligeia, who acts as the pivot point of a cautionary tale about excessive passion and the power of the imaginary to overcome the real, strikes (p.123) me as a potential reworking of Majnun’s Layla. In viewing Poe’s exploration of renascence in “Ligeia” through the optic of Arab literary hermeneutics, I am putting American and Arab romantic traditions into dialectic tension in order to explore the tropic connections between the two.

Ligeia/Layla is a source of obsession that is ultimately externalized in forms of creative imaginary. In the “Ligeia” narrator’s final vision of Rowena as a remanifested Ligeia, we have an example of a central trope in the Arabic love lyric, the khayal (لايخ). Khayal can be translated as “disembodied spirit, ghost, specter, imagination, phantom, vision, shadow, trace, dim reflection.” The “faint traces of a shadow” that ultimately manifest Ligeia’s image for the narrator call the khayal directly to mind. The word khayal’s archaic meaning grows out of the Arabic love lyric, and the role the apparition of the poet’s beloved plays within it. As Michael Sells explains in reference to the khayal, “In whatever form we try to seize her, she eludes us. She cannot be possessed. To attempt to possess her, or seize her in a particular image is more than idolatry. The desire for possession violates the adab (taste, literature, manners).”31 Poe’s narrator, by trying to possess the shadow of his beloved, violates adab, both a chivalric code of “good manners” and the Arabic code of “literature.”

Khayal is directly related to the Arabic word for imagination. Ligeia is a khayal in every sense of the word, and the appearance of her specter/trace/dim reflection in Poe’s tale signifies the fundamental connection the American writer made between the artist’s imaginative faculties, the narrator’s haunted reflection, and the reader’s terror. Through the spectral figure of Ligeia, Poe binds writer, fictional character, and reader together on the plane of the imaginary. It is an imaginary that knows no bounds, whether of time or space, and thus not only is Ligeia a khayal, but the tale itself acts as a khayal that can reenact the syzegetic connection between artist, character, and reader at any time, anywhere. Though Poe himself most probably had no knowledge of the Arab literary trope, it is through the khayal that we can link his aesthetics of sensation back to an aesthetic tradition in Arab romantic poetry.

Connecting Sacred and Secular Aesthetics

The khayal has its genesis in pre-Islamic poetry. But in the verses of Sufi mystics such as Ibn Arabi, khayal operates as a spiritual metaphor, indexing divine rapture and love through (p.124) descriptions of earthly passion and desire. Poe’s Byronic antihero seeks to obtain forbidden knowledge through his own khayal, Ligeia. The Sufi mystic also seeks knowledge, something known in Sufi hermeneutics as ma’rifa (ةفرعم; gnosis), through spectral visions and metaphors of rebirth. According to R. W. J. Austin, ma’rifa is “an immediate recognition and grasp not of something new or strange but rather of the state and status of things as they really are, have always been, and eternally will be.”32 The difference between Poe’s Byronic antihero and the Sufi mystic resides in the lack of religious value that the American writer affords his hero’s quest for knowledge. Whereas Poe uses the khayal Ligeia to establish an occult world where man is profoundly alienated and faith in the divine is replaced with object fetishism, the khayal in Sufi mysticism establishes correspondences between the material and the divine. As Austin explains, ma’rifa “involves the knowledge of oneself that is, at the same time, knowledge of the divine Reality of which one is, latently and essentially, inescapably an aspect, which is the meaning of the saying ‘Whosoever knows himself, knows his Lord.’”33

The magnificent in Sufi theology is God. Ma’rifa insists not on transference from one state to the other but on the identity between the visible reality and the divine Reality, as well as between man and God. Much like figurative language in al-Jurjani’s theory of metaphor, ma’rifa reveals the essential unity of seeming binaries. When binaries collapse into one another in Poe’s tales of terror, the revelation of an absence of difference between seemingly opposed states of being evokes anxiety and terror, not a sense of divine connection. The sublime, in other words, has no sacred revelatory value in Poe’s tales. Poe’s sublime entails a confrontation not with divinity but with an otherness that is contradictorily perceived as sameness. The anxiety that emerges from this confrontation is symptomatic of a secular ethos of individualism that is absent in Sufi hermeneutic explorations of fear.

One of the most important contributions that the twelfth-century Muslim theologian Muhammad al-Ghazali (d. 1111/505) made to the teaching of Islam was the reintroduction of the element of fear to religious contemplation.34 Al-Ghazali’s spiritual autobiography, al-Munqidh min al-Dalal (Deliverance from Error), is marked by a dramatic episode in which “a door of fear” opens up to him and forces him to reevaluate his earthly activities as a religious teacher and cleric in Baghdad. Explaining the moment when he realizes that his religious practices are aimed at garnering him worldly fame and prestige, al-Ghazali tells his reader, “so I became certain that I was on the brink of a crumbling bank and already on the verge of falling (p.125) into the Fire, unless I set about mending my ways.”35 Fear does not intensify into terror for al-Ghazali, but it does indicate the importance all Muslims should place on preparing themselves for an afterlife that is already present. Al-Ghazali internalizes the struggle that the faithful have with their faith, modeling an interior life that should be more important for a Muslim than the exterior world.

Largely responsible for the legitimization of Sufism in mainstream Islam, al-Ghazali’s theorization of fear as an impetus to piety usefully contrasts Sufi hermeneutic tradition with Poe’s romantic use of the arabesque to establish terror. Writing about the benefits of Sufi asceticism in Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din (The Quickening of the Science of Religion), al-Ghazali argues,

It is indeed evident that the attainment of the beatitude of meeting God in the hereafter can be only by the acquisition of love of Him and intimacy with Him in this life. But love is acquired only by knowledge, and knowledge [ma’rifa] only by continual reflection (bi dawaam al-fikr). And intimacy is acquired only by love and continual remembrance (dawaam al-dhikr). And persistence in remembrance and reflection is facilitated only by lopping off the love of this world from the heart, and that is not lopped off save by renouncing the pleasures and appetites of this world.36

Al-Ghazali marks the discontinuities between the “pleasures and appetites of this world” and attainment of beatitude in the hereafter. He insists that it is only by “lopping off the love of this world from the heart” that faithful Muslims obtain a clear vision of their purpose in life. Williams lauded Poe for his “voluntary lopping off of [America’s] lush landscape” and creation of a figural substitute for the real. Al-Ghazali encourages the faithful to see the physical world itself as that which is figural and the spiritual world as that which is real.

This contrast signals something other than a religious versus a secular approach to the sublime. It marks an important difference in the aesthetic use of fear. For al-Ghazali, fear (فْوخ/khawf) creates an interface between the temporal and the transcendent. “The renouncement of such [worldly] desires,” explains al-Ghazali, “is impossible except by bridling the passions, and by nothing is passion bridled as it is by the fire of fear, for fear is the fire which burns the appetites” (Munqidh, 36). Fear brings one closer to transcendent knowledge in al-Ghazali’s thought. “How can fear not possess excellence,” al-Ghazali insists, “when by it one acquires purity … and (p.126) piety and self-conquest, i.e., the virtuous acts which bring one very near to God!” (Munqidh, 36). Fear elides the difference between the visible and invisible world, allowing the faithful to approach the divine through the everyday.37

Poe’s tales can hardly be read as religious heuristics, but fear, or more precisely its intensification into terror, has an essential function in tales that refer to the arabesque, such as “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Masque of the Red Death.” Each of these domestic terrors challenges a metaphysics of corporeal transcendence. In fact, the terror in these stories often emanates from bodies that refuse the teleology of death, be they Lady Ligeia, the Lady Madeline, or the Red Death party crasher. Describing Ligeia’s preparation for burial, Joan Dayan explains, “She, like the narrator, is being prepared for a more terrible visitation: her body remains where it is, to be alternately activated and exhausted in tune with the narrator’s oscillating thoughts about the lady he sees and the one he remembers.”38 Rather than transcendence, Poe’s domestic terrors focus on immanence by collapsing the line not only between life and death but between individual subjectivities. In these tales, bodies do not transcend the physical world; they refuse to leave it once they die. Poe and al-Ghazali both employ fear as a response to epistemological anguish. For al-Ghazali, fear motivates him eventually to follow the Sufi path, to practice mystical contemplation as a form of dhouq (قوذ; taste). In al-Ghazali’s account, fear is a religiously grounded response to his epistemological skepticism.

Poe, in contrast, systematically pushes fear beyond its rational limit, into terror. Terror is not only Poe’s signature romantic affect; it also defines his alteration of romance’s signification. A scene from “The Fall of the House of Usher” demonstrates how Poe revised the romantic medievalism of a writer such as Irving into his own unique aesthetic.39 As the narrator reads to Usher from a medieval romance about the gallant knight Ethelrod, the sounds written on the page correlate with the sounds of the actual movements of the prematurely buried Lady Madeline unscrewing her coffin lid and climbing the stairs: “for there could be no doubt whatever that, in this instance, I did actually hear … a low and apparently distant … screaming or grating sound—the exact counterpart of what my fancy had already conjured up for the dragon’s unnatural shriek as described by the romancer” (CT, 244). The passage thematically collapses the boundary separating text and reality. The words in Usher’s book enter the “real” world of the reader, performing as the onomatopoetics of terror. It is a process that ripples outward, for the reader within Poe’s tale acts as (p.127) an analogue for the reader of Poe’s tale, modeling the affective experience of terror that the writer has designed his fiction to produce. Sensation replaces sentiment when the fate of Usher usurps the fate of the knight Ethelrod as the focus of the romance’s action.

Al-Ghazali and Poe both use fear to structure interiority, creating a space where questions about immanence and transcendence are confronted, borders dividing the invisible and the visible world are collapsed, and values are potentially reversed. Fear pushes al-Ghazali toward divine wisdom, the knowledge that here is a preparation for “there,” but it pushes Poe’s characters toward earthly horror, toward skepticism that there is any “there” other than here. The epistemological impasse in Poe’s tales is eventually answered by a terror that embodies the reader and makes the text a living thing. Yet al-Ghazali’s “door of fear” and Poe’s sensational terror both act as a dissolvent, an agent that reveals the inherent connection between the tangible and the intangible, between illusion and reality, and between the present and the eternal. Al-Ghazali uses this dissolution to remind the Muslim reader that earthly life is a dress rehearsal for a hereafter that is already present but invisible. Poe maintains that the here and now of this world may be ultimately inescapable.

Poe’s Arabesque Reconsidered

With a rudimentary understanding of Islamic mysticism, it is now possible to reapproach Poe’s arabesque with an appreciation for the formal violence it enacts. The arabesque conducts Poe’s principle of sensation in “Ligeia,” progressively building a tension that ultimately releases itself in the reader’s experience of “shock.” However, this progressive use of the arabesque, in both theory and praxis, to achieve “shock” is at odds with the Islamic interpretation of the Arab foliate pattern’s (tawriq) nonprogressive nature. As an infinite pattern without development, the Arabo-Islamic ornament diffuses aesthetic tension rather than build it. Through agglutination of foliated forms in its field of representation, the tawriq encourages persistent movement of the eye across the visible patterns, a movement that ultimately encourages the mind to take flight from the artwork itself. Accordingly, tawriqs in Islamic art often appear in truncated forms at the edge of a field of representation, encouraging the viewer to move off the finite and toward the infinite. Grasping and understanding each foliated pattern may provide an emotional release, what the (p.128) ethnomusicologist Lois Ibn al Faruqi has called the principle of dafqah (outpouring), but this release does not produce shock or terror.40 Quite the opposite. The tawriq is a meditative form in Islamic aesthetics, one meant to inspire thoughts of the divine. In Poe’s aesthetics, it provides the formula of romantic tension. The difference in the arabesque’s and the tawriq’s function is in many ways the difference in the respective meanings of taste and dhouq (taste).

The affect of terror created by the convolutions of Poe’s arabesque stands in stark contrast to the original affective purpose of the tawriq. The art historian Ernst Kuhnel writes about the Islamic ornament that “it is obviously the decorative intention that the eye of the viewer is not arrested by the pleasant detail, but that it is delighted by the kaleidoscope passing of an ever-changing and disappearing harmony of unreal forms.”41 The pleasing detail and kaleidoscope harmony of the original “Arab spirit” is perverted into “an endless succession of ghastly forms” in the “Ligeia” interior. In Poe’s formal world, the arabesque pattern does not accrete meaning; it undergoes a catachresis.

The self-replication encountered through Poe’s arabesque represents a formal change in the grammatical structure of the Arabo-Islamic pattern. In Islamic mysticism, the tawriq expresses a mirror motif, but one that has quite different aesthetic aims than Poe’s mirrors. Muslim artists often refer to the tawriq pattern as a reference to creation being a reflection of the divine names on the dark ground of nothingness or a symbol for the heart acting as a mirror that has to be polished repeatedly in order to assimilate the splendor of divine beauty. Both these conceptualizations of the tawriq ultimately bring viewers into contemplation of Allah, not themselves. This Islamic concept is captured in a section of the Qur’an’s Surat al-Baqarah, oft repeated by Sufi mystics: “to Allah belong the East and the West: whithersoever ye turn, there is Allah’s face, for Allah is all-Embracing, All Knowing” (2:115). In Sufi hermeneutics, the mirrored structure of the tawriq represents the essential unity of the world’s constituent pieces. In Poe, the arabesque is both a medium through which to express his individualism (his unique aesthetic, his unique market appeal) and a message about the modern anxieties unleashed when individualism is threatened by a collapse between self and other.

The Sufi mystical writer Ibn Arabi, in his thirteenth-century masterpiece Fusus al-hikam (The Bezels of Wisdom), addresses the collapse of subjective and objective poles of identification, the same collapse Poe explores through the arabesque pattern.

  • (p.129) In one sense the Reality is creature, so consider
  • In another He is not, so reflect.
  • Who grasps my saying, his perception will not dim,
  • Nor may one grasp it save he be endowed with perception.
  • Whether you assert unity or distinction, the Self is Unique.
  • As also the Many that are and yet are not.42

Ibn Arabi describes how the conflation of subjective and objective positions provides the Muslim a vision of unity that is enlightening, not terrifying. As William Chittick explains, Ibn Arabi’s major methodological contribution to Islamic theology was his harmonization of reason and imagination (a goal with which Poe would happily associate himself). Reason, based on differentiation and discernment, held that God was incompatible with worldly things, a doctrine known as tanzih (incompatibility; هيزنت). This is the assertion of “distinction” that Ibn Arabi references in the preceding quotation, the anti-anthropomorphism behind the claim that “He” (God) is not creaturely. Imagination, on the other hand, perceives identity and sameness, and hence through it we see God’s presence rather than his absence in worldly things. This is a doctrine known as tashbih (similarity; هيبشت). Those who believe in tashbih, Sufi mystics who adhered to a theory of unveiling (kashf/فشك), assert the “unity” mentioned in Arabi’s poem. They believe that “Reality is creature.”43

Despite Ibn Arabi’s and Poe’s quite different aesthetic goals, both explore the connections between opposites through the figural method. Ibn Arabi rejected the stance of theological authorities for whom declaring God similar to creation was a heresy, arguing that tashbih was the necessary corollary of tanzih. He sought to reconcile traditionalist and rationalist interpretive approaches through figurative interpretation. For Ibn Arabi, the Perfect Man could become the perfect image of God.44 The Perfect Man is he who combines in himself both heaven and earth in a realization of wahdat al-wujud (دوجولا ةدحو; ONENESS OF BEING).45 This is a person who is “at once the eye by which the divine subject sees Himself and the perfectly polished mirror that perfectly reflects the divine light” (Bezels, 35). Regarded by Islamic historians as the most influential commentator on Islamic mysticism, Ibn Arabi approached the Qur’anic text as, in Austin’s words, “a mirror to the reader, in that the [reader] will perceive in it only what his own spiritual state permits him to see” (introduction to Bezels, 19). Ibn Arabi was fond of perverse formulations that challenged readers to open their inner eye. The contradictions and oppositions in Ibn (p.130) Arabi’s writings are meant to guide the initiate toward a “perception” of unity. Metaphoric language that weds seeming opposites is central to the achievement of this “perception.” To Ibn Arabi, metaphor enhanced the Qur’an’s mystical qualities and allowed readers to see it as text with open-ended meanings. This approach to the Qur’an is perverse in the sense that it goes against traditional Islamic approaches that hold that the Holy Qur’an is a book of answers and fixed certainties rather than a book that opens horizons of new thought.

In Poe’s romantic arabesque, the Islamic religious function of the tawriq is not perverse but perverted. Poe strips the arabesque of its religious significance and reinvests it with the secular anxieties about individuality, distinction, uniqueness, and/or sovereignty. This process is in fact dramatized within “Ligeia.” But so is an arabesque aesthetic that uses figurative language to create conduits between opposites. The characteristic tension in Poe’s tales between life and death, immanence and transcendence, pleasure and terror, and the real and the imaginary is resolved not in a dialectical synthesis but rather in a process of cathexis exemplified by Ligeia’s occupation of Lady Rowena’s corpse. Poe evacuates the presence of Allah in his arabesque. As a result, the viewer of the arabesque in Poe’s fiction is not brought into contemplation of the divine through self-reflection but rather stays mired in self-contemplation. Terror is not grounded in a fear of God, as it is in al-Ghazali, but rather in fear of oneself. The promise of spiritual unity offered in Sufi mystical approaches to the image of the mirror, such as those suggested by Ibn Arabi, doubles back onto the viewer in “Ligeia” as a threat of profound spiritual isolation.

The “alien presence” that infiltrates the home space in Poe’s tales of terror is born out of the decorator’s own decorative impulse. The “alien presence” emerges out of the subject’s effort to create a screen of subjectivity in an aesthetic world without religious underpinning. And yet the secular terror Poe conjures is dependent on religious conceits. For Ibn Arabi, the collapse of the subjective and objective poles of identification captured in his images of the mirror precipitates a realization that all distinction, difference, and contrast are illusory. This conflation brings the realization that humanity is but a facet of a single Being, whose reality commissions all derivative being and experience. For Poe, the collapse of the subjective and objective pole is indicative of a modern world voided of religious authorities and littered with religious pieties that have lost their value. The arabesque in this sense acts as a ruin.

(p.131) In discussing the significance of the ruin to understanding the transformation of material objects into art, Alois Riegl differentiates between what he calls “historical value” and “art value.”46 In Riegl’s grammar of the visual arts, the monument in the past age has “historical value,” and the ruin in the present age has “art value” precisely because it has survived its historical context and exists only for aesthetic truth. But if the arabesque in Poe’s domestic terrors represents on one hand an act of forgetting, an act of replacing historical narrative with aesthetic representation, it is on the other hand an incomplete act of forgetting that always threatens, through its mutable forms, to recall the history it has been summoned to erase. The displaced almost always returns in Poe’s tales, and the dead often refuse to die. This movement from erasure to remembrance creates the affect of terror in Poe’s domestic tales. It is a movement captured in the arabesque’s transformation from static to mobile image. It is also a movement that points to the fundamental connections between Western romantic uses of the arabesque, Arab romantic uses of the tawriq, and Islamic religious uses of the tawriq.

The Arabo-Islamic tawriq is inspired by the Islamic concept of tawhid (unity). In Poe, it appears as an allegorical fragment, borrowed from Arab culture and reinterpreted within a different cultural context. In turn, the arabesque in critical approaches to Poe provides a vehicle for discussing the fragmentation of the artistic sphere from the didactic, religious, and political sphere—for modernity. What had been in Islamic interpretations a principle of unity becomes in Poe’s aesthetics and the critical canon surrounding Poe a principle of fragmentation. This literary principle, in turn, has a political application. Definitions of the secular nation-state insist that, unlike a society built on religious principles, in America, religion and politics, private belief and public ethic, personal morality and state law are distinct spheres.

Using the aesthetic as a space where the threatening aspects of Islam as a competitive source of revelation can be neutralized has long been a tactic of Western approaches to Arabo-Islamic cultural material. This aesthetic neutering of Islamic religious signification has a special relationship to nineteenth-century romanticism. The project of modernity, Asad argues, employs proliferating technologies that generate “new experiences of space and time, of cruelty and health, of consumption and knowledge.” The notion that these new experiences imply direct access to reality, Asad goes on to say, is “arguably, a product of nineteenth-century romanticism, partly linked to the growing habit of reading imaginative literature—being (p.132) enclosed within and by it.”47 Produced by transnational nineteenth-century romanticism, the emergence of a distinct genre of imaginative literature in mid-nineteenth-century America had the immediate effect of reinforcing readers’ belief in the disenchanted nature of their contemporary Western society. The mid-nineteenth-century emergence of imaginative literature also had the retrospective effect of enchanting the “premodern” past. This premodern past was attractive and readily retrievable in the proliferating Oriental tales that appeared in nineteenth-century American magazines.48

For the American reading public in a golden age of magazines, the Orient acted not only as an escapist realm of premodern fantasy and nostalgia but also as a location that structured conceits about the nation’s modern, secular identity. The replacement of religious icons with literary icons or, to put it otherwise, the substitution of the role of aesthetic taste for the role of the religious in promoting a unifying experience of belonging is one of the major innovations of the modern secular state and its print culture. It is an innovation intimately connected to Poe and to his historical moment. Poe’s translation of the arabesque into American literature creates what critics refer to again and again as his modern aesthetic. But what violence does this translation enact on the Arab culture from which the arabesque is abstracted? What relation does this translation have to the development of Arab literary modernity? On the other hand, how can the arabesque be used to distinguish Arab aesthetics from Islamic aesthetics, as well as to reveal the continuities between American romanticism and both these aesthetic traditions?

Adonis sees the problem of modernity in the Arab world as a problem of language. Language in the Arab perspective, explains Adonis, “is not a tool for communicating a detached meaning; … it is meaning itself because it is thought” (Arab Poetics, 82). What was once the sign of the Arabs’ presence and creativity, Arabic, has now become, in Adonis’s view, a corrupt and degraded form. The result is that the modern Arab “appears ignorant of what has given him his identity, or who he is” (ibid.). Adonis explains that for the pre-Islamic Jahiliyya poet, who served as the early Arab grammarians’ resource for “pure” Arabic language, poetry was a communal activity that linked poet to tribe. Poetry was first and foremost oral, and the poet’s “basic preoccupation was … that his poem must correspond to what was in his listener’s soul,” for “what was in his listener’s soul was part of the common code” (27). Adonis asserts that this Jahiliyya poetry “was judged according to how far it could arouse tarab, a state (p.133) of musical delight or ecstasy, and the poetics was founded on what could be called an aesthetics of listening and delight” (27). This experience of aural delight carried over into the early Islamic community of Arabs and still informs much of that community’s relationship to the Qur’an. Thus, the problem of modernity in the Arab world in general, and Arab poetics in specific, comes back to questions of the sacred and the profane. “If we remember [language’s] relationship to the sacred, and more precisely to the Qur’an,” Adonis admonishes, “can we not see in the current ignorance surrounding its usage or in the call for it to be modified by dialectal structures which separate it from the sacred, a sort of declaration of a changed awareness and identity?” (82–83).

Adonis’s conservative meditation on the Arabic language provides a linking point between Poe’s arabesque and modern Arab poetics. The problem Poe explores through the arabesque is the same problem Adonis explores through Arabic, the gap that has emerged between language and experience, between the word and identity. If we view the arabesque in this intercultural context, it appears to have a function very similar to the sacred capacities of the Arabic language itself (whether or not the user is Muslim). Poe’s arabesque, estranged from its original context, functions in American culture as translation divorced from meaning. It has figural value instead of informational content. In a similar vein, the aural qualities of the Qur’an operate as ecstatic sounds independent of meaning, for one need not speak Arabic to appreciate the beauty and religious rapture of Qur’anic recitation. I am claiming that Poe’s arabesque is the translation of Arab culture into American culture, a translation that in its catachrestic quality creates entirely new cultural forms that are often independent of meaning and reliant on direct experience. A return to a world in which the word and sensation have become covalent again is certainly indicative of Poe’s art-for-art’s-sake aesthetic. But this return also speaks directly to Islamic notions of the primary importance of the aural and to Adonis’s emphasis on the importance of “pure” Arabic language.

A Tell-Tale Coda

In M. H. Abrams’s highly influential critical analysis of romanticism, The Mirror and the Lamp, the author posits a thesis as direct as it is powerful.49 Prior to the romantics, Abrams argues, literature was largely conceived as a mirror that reflected the world. In contrast, romantic writing (p.134) was conceived as a lamp pouring light outward. The image of the writer as a solitary and radiant force illuminating the world with his creative power is one that Poe would have embraced and that his later critics did embrace for him. Walt Whitman figures Poe as a glowing light whelmed by the welter of a storm when he refers to him as a “lurid dream” in a November 1875 Washington Star article.50 James Russell Lowell, Charles Baudelaire, Henry James, and William Carlos Williams all employed a favorite romantic trope of creative illumination in referring to Poe as a “genius.” And yet within Poe’s oeuvre, it is not lamps but mirrors and mirroring motifs that consistently develop his own, arabesque, theory of romanticism. Rather than mimetically reproducing the world as it is, Poe’s mirrors produce uncanny doublings that blur the distinction between the real and the imaginary. The relationship between inspiration and transference in Poe’s romanticism is thus a vexed one. It is a relationship triangulated by a third conceptual object, the veil.

Though The Mirror and the Lamp is Abrams’s most acclaimed book, it was a later work of romantic literary criticism, Natural Supernaturalism, that he called his most important.51 In Natural Supernaturalism, Abrams examines the influence of Biblical and theological thinking on secular literature, ultimately defining romanticism as the transference of religious expression into secular expression. Abrams’s analysis focuses on Judeo-Christian sources, but the scope and resonance of his insight is usefully broadened by considering the presence of Islamic references in Western romantic traditions. Infusing Poe’s Oriental references with their Arab and Islamic significations makes his romantic arabesque appear not as the creation of autochthonous genius or the result of mimetic transference. Rather it provides a key to interpreting what happens when the light of Western inspiration shines on the veiled mirror of Eastern culture. The image that returns is a figural interpretation of what lies beneath that veil; it is an American arabesque.

Located in the very middle of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” is an encounter between the anomic narrator and the patriarch of the house. In this encounter, the narrator illuminates the old man’s rheumy eye with a “single dim ray” shot from a lantern. The eye, a natural and metaphysical mirror, stares at the narrator in a veiled form that refuses to reflect humanity back to him. We can think of this moment of encounter between lamp and mirror as analogous to the image of the mirror that Ibn Arabi often uses, an image that relies not on the specially coated glass mirror of today but rather on the metal mirror of his own day. This metal mirror (p.135) had to be expertly polished in order to preserve its reflective qualities. The more skillfully the metal surface was polished, the more the otherness of the mirror was reduced to a minimum or effaced for the reflecting consciousness. But, as Austin explains, “To the extent, however, that the mirror reflects a dulled and distorted image, it manifests its own otherness and detracts from the identity of the image and subject.”52 The identity of image and subject is the key to Ibn Arabi’s epistemology. Linking reason and imagination harmonizes the traditionalist doctrine of tanzih with the Sufi doctrine of unveiling, or tashbih. To think of God as either present or absent, Ibn Arabi argues, is to see with only one eye. Perfect knowledge requires that you see with both the eye of reason and the eye of imagination.

The violence in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” of the narrator against a man who was “like a father” to him and with whom he sympathetically shares the experience of terror, can be located in the absence of identity between image and subject—in the imperfect polish of the mirror that the old man presents to the viewer. It is an absence of identity that emerges with the revelation of a dull and rheumy eye/mirror that distinctly “manifests its otherness.” Here the eye of reason and the eye of imagination are radically split and pitted against each other. Here the mirror is veiled. “I saw it with perfect distinctness—all a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow of my bones; but I could see nothing else of the old man’s face or person; for I had directed the ray as if by instinct, precisely upon that damned spot” (CT, 304–5). This intertwining of gazes—the one prosthetic and mechanical, the other occult and obscured—reads like an encounter between the lantern of Western Enlightenment rationality and the veil of Eastern mysticism.

If the encounter between lantern and veil speaks to the transnational phenomenon of Orientalism, it also has a very particular valence for American Orientalism. Confronted with the interpretive ray of lantern light, the human eye in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” a symbol of nineteenth-century America’s stress on seeing (its eidos of vision, illumination, rationality, and penetration), stares back at the viewer with a blind impenetrability that excites rage and madness. The old man’s eye is an object that both refuses to be disenchanted by the lamp light of reason and refuses to provide vision itself. Doubly impenetrable, the blind and veiled eye clings stubbornly to an obscurity that is reversible for the viewer and the viewed. The symbolic interconnectedness of organic life envisioned in Emerson’s image of a “transparent eye-ball” evaporates in Poe’s tale.53 What remains (p.136) is the image of an eye milky with blindness and parasitically attached to its host, as though it were a “vulture eye.”

There is a lesson about transnational exchange to be drawn from this encounter with a rheumatic eye that refuses to act as a mirror. This lesson suggests that the “deep time” of cultural influence does not always produce smooth transitions from the Persian poetry of Hafiz to the transcendentalist writings of Emerson.54 Tracing the lines of intercultural influence does not always reveal aesthetic “twins” in whose work we can recognize a universal aspect of American culture participating in the development of localized identity across the map. This intercultural influence just as often produces the interpretive violence that characterizes the life of the image of the Arab in American discourse—an interpretive violence that does not create global communities out of spatially separated individuals but rather abstracts certain individuals away from their history, culture, and identity in order to rhetorically clear a space for other imagined communities to flourish.

Although “The Tell-Tale Heart” makes no mention of Arabs, its use of certain transatlantic Orientalist tropes to structure its sentiments of violence, fear, anxiety, and guilt over usurpation demonstrate the central argument I am making about American literature’s catachrestical use of the image of the Arab. Disconnected from any Eastern context and displaying no primary knowledge of the Orient as such, Poe’s Oriental imagery is quite consciously put to the service of creating a variously located American milieu of fantasy. This fantasy milieu had nothing to do with Eastern contact or colonies and everything to do with North American contact and the foundational myths of American identity. The figure of the Arab in Poe is shaped by transnational flows of imagery, but it tells an American story of nativity. What disappears in this story and what is too often ignored in the critical canon surrounding Poe’s Orientalism is any engagement with Arab culture on its own terms. And yet this American adoption of the image of the Arab into the iconography of its domestic colonial dramas has a formative impact on definitions of Arabness that eventually influence modern Arab self-definition.

The point of this chapter, then, is not that the arabesque is transformed from an aniconic religious image to an icon of secularized romantic irony in Poe’s aesthetics but that this transformation is a distillation of the cultural politics of American Arabism. American Arabism is a symptomatic discourse that allows citizens to employ images of the Arab both to confront questions of origins, nativity, indigenousness, belonging, and (p.137) ownership and to structure their own sense of national and personal sovereignty. In Poe’s arabesque, in the critical literature surrounding Poe’s arabesque, and in the Western intellectual history attendant to the arabesque pattern, the image of the Arab becomes a source of speculation on origins of one kind or another and ultimately a literary instrument in creating the imagined community of America. In the course of this speculation, the image of the Arab is disassociated from actual Arab peoples and culture and transformed into a trope of aesthetic contemplation. This transformation from culturally situated material human to decultured figural device in Poe’s poetics is indicative of what happened to the image of the Arab circulating in the realm of American literature proper in the mid-nineteenth century. But it is also a transformation that is reversible. It is by being attendant both to the materiality of the arabesque pattern and to the formal qualities of the Arabo-Islamic design called the tawriq that I have attempted to hark to the heartbeat of a dialectic between American and Arab culture that has been buried, as it were, beneath the floorboards of literary history.


(4.) The tendency toward a dehistoricized reading of Poe’s aesthetics continued through the twentieth century. For a succinct account of the different stages of Poe’s critical reception that is implicitly critical of this dehistoricized tendency, see Donald Pease, “Poe and Historicity.”

(6.) For more on the relation between Poe’s criticism and his poetry, see Robert von Hallberg, “Edgar Allan Poe, Poet-Critic.”

(7.) For the development of the cult of the genius in the eighteenth century, see Gloria Flaherty, Shamanism and the Eighteenth Century.

(p.233) (10.) See G. R. Thompson’s 1989 essay “Romantic Arabesque, Contemporary Theory, and Postmodernism: The Example of Poe’s Narrative.” Positing the arabesque as a “literary form or genre involving elaborately framed designs and ironic strategies that disturb illusion and narrative convention” (p. 219), Thompson argues that the design pattern provides a cipher for understanding Poe’s version of romance. Thompson’s understanding of the arabesque’s formal qualities is grounded in German Romanticism and Friedrich Schlegel’s theory of romantic irony. For Schlegel, the romantic arabesque laid bare the illusion of literature as such and promoted the formal ambiguity, ambivalence, and self-consciousness he admired, but it had little or no association with actual Arabians. For Thompson, the arabesque is a symbol through which to demonstrate a theory of influence almost entirely oriented to the West. When Thompson does acknowledge Arabic sources for Poe’s own use of the arabesque, he refers to “the Rubaiyat of the Persian Omar Khayyam” (p. 201), the design patterns found in “Persian carpets,” and the story cycle known as the Arabian Nights. The first two Persian sources are not actually Arab or the products of an Arabic-language culture but rather represent the conflation of one Islamic culture, Persian, into another, Arab. The final source, the Arabian Nights, is, arguably, as much an invention of Western imagination as it is of Arab culture. In reality, the Nights were translated into Arabic from ancient Persian (and perhaps had earlier sources in ancient Indian literature) and were not the product of popular Arab literature but rather a work that, in Dwight Reynolds’s words, had existed in “its own cultural context in nearly complete obscurity.” Dwight F. Reynolds, “The 1001 Nights: A History of the Text and Its Reception,” pp. 270–91. As Reynolds points out, “only nine of the twenty-one stories in Galland’s Nights are drawn from Arabic manuscripts of Alf Layla wa-Layla. Galland, however, never informed his readers that later volumes of his Mill et une nuit… were not drawn from Arabic manuscripts; in fact, he deliberately misled his audience by indirectly referring to the manuscripts in the introductions to the final volumes” (p. 279).

(12.) Al-Azhar, located in Cairo, is the most renowned center for Islamic studies in the world.

(13.) For more on al-Tahtawi and his significance, see Daniel L. Newman’s introduction to An Imam in Paris: Account of a Stay in France by an Egyptian Cleric (1826–1831).

(15.) For waTin, see Rifa’a Rafi’ al-Tahtawi, An Imam in Paris: Account of a Stay in France by an Egyptian Cleric (1826–1831), p. 145 (hereafter cited in the text as Takhlis). For hurriyya, see ibid., p. 196. Al-Tahtawi uses the word hurriyya in relation to personal freedom, in distinction from its traditional use in opposition to the word for enslaved.

(16.) Beyond providing access to European texts, al-Tahtawi’s translation school also had another function: it Arabized Ottoman Egyptian thought by both replacing Ottoman translators (who were largely Turkic, Greek, or Armenian peoples) with Arabic-speaking Egyptians and changing the preferred language of translation from Ottoman Turkish to Arabic.

(p.234) (17.) It would be almost impossible to overstate al-Tahtawi’s significance to Arab reformism. A respected al-Azhar imam and a favorite of the Pasha Mohammad Ali, al-Tahtawi had immense influence in nineteenth-century Egypt and, especially, on Egyptian education. He literally rewrote the standard educational material for Egyptian primary schools, modeling his texts on French educational material. There is an excellent translation of al-Tahtawi’s account of his stay in France (Takhlis al-Ibriz fi Talkhis Bariz aw al-Diwan al-Nafis bi-wan Baris), complete with an illuminating introduction, cited in note 14.

(18.) For more on this concept of constructing beginnings as opposed to finding origins, see Edward Said, Beginnings: Intention and Method.

(21.) The traditional pre-Islamic Bedouin long poem, known as a tawil, is broken into three parts: an erotic ingress known as a nasib, a journey section, and the section where the poet delivers his final message.

(23.) The name Rowena evokes Sir Walter Scott, but Poe, I would argue, uses the name to differentiate his conception of romance from the way Scott and other writers of his ilk understood the term. Poe, in other words, was consciously revising the romantic medievalism of Scott and his American counterpart Washington Irving, who like Poe, described his tales as arabesque. Poe’s engagement with the term arabesque marks a shift in the meaning of the word romance in American literature. The emergence of a distinct sphere of “literary” narrative in American culture during the middle decades of the nineteenth century followed a transatlantic trend that had brought similar theorizations of the role of literature and the professional writer to England and Germany several decades earlier. In America, Poe, as both professional critic and professional writer, was at the vanguard of this movement, theorizing literature as a domain not guided by political, national, or generic concerns but rather by “the purest rules of Art” (quoted in Jonathan Arac, The Emergence of American Literary Narrative, 1820–1860, p. 66). Words such as “originality,” “genius,” and “imagination” defined his “elsewhere” of the purely “literary” sphere, as they had in England and Germany. The catchwords Poe preached were found in seminal nineteenth-century romantic texts such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (which Poe had enthusiastically reviewed). But they were also key elements of German romanticism’s theorization of aesthetic modernity. “These Romantic premises,” Jonathan Arac points out, “held that the traditional generic categories and divisions between high and low, serious and comic modes, no longer pertained and through a mixture of these levels or tones, the strongest, and most appropriately modern, effect could be achieved” (ibid., p. 69).

(24.) Edgar Allan Poe, “Review of Hawthorne—Twice-Told Tales,” Graham’s Magazine, May 1842, p. 299.

(25.) In the critical treatise “The Philosophy of Furniture,” the arabesque pattern indexes the self-reflection the essay attempts to cultivate, mirroring the decorator’s cultural (p.235) sophistication back to him through the vehicle of design. In Poe’s tales, however, the narrative result of self-reflective encounters with one’s own “arabesque” taste is invariably death for the individual and an Usher-esque collapse of the domestic sphere. The materiality of the medium of self-reflection remains invisible in these moments of confrontation with subjectivity. It would be impossible, for instance, to draw one of Poe’s arabesques because nowhere in his tales does Poe detail their physical attributes. In Poe’s criticism, the arabesque stands for rational order; in his tales, it violates that order through its unruly transformations.

(26.) For more on the tale “Ligeia” as it relates to the occult, see Dorothea von Mücke, The Seduction of the Occult and the Rise of the Fantastic Tale. Von Mücke posits that the arabesque, in this story, illustrates the imaginary materiality of the signifier: “the arabesque—situated at the threshold between the linearity of the two-dimensional composition of an image and the three-dimensional perspectival illusion of space—has been used to illustrate the imaginary materiality of the signifier” (p. 189). Von Mücke analyzes the three-dimensional vivification of the arabesque in “Ligeia” as a form of cultural anxiety. She claims that Poe was expressing his age’s anxiety over print culture and the transformation of three-dimensional printing presses.

(29.) Walter Benjamin’s analysis of the baroque German Trauerspiel is particularly helpful to understanding the dynamics of transference that takes place in Poe’s own baroque short story. “Mourning is a state of mind in which feeling revives the empty world in the form of a mask,” explains Benjamin, “and derives an enigmatic satisfaction in contemplating it.” Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, p. 138. In “Ligeia,” the Lady Rowena is masked with the features of the mourned Ligeia.

(30.) Majnun Layla (Qays ibn al-Mulawahh) was a literal contemporary of the prophet Muhammad and the mythic originator of the love lyric in Arabic poetry, what came to be known as a ghazel. For more details on this story and its intercultural reinterpretations, see Maria Rosa Menocal, Shards of Love: Exile and the Origins of the Lyric.

(32.) R. W. J. Austin, “Introductory Note to Chapter II,” in Bezels of Wisdom, by Ibn Arabi, p. 61.

(35.) Mohammad al-Ghazali, Al-Munqidh min al-Dalal (hereafter cited in the text as Munqidh), p. 79. Al-Ghazali’s invocation of the heuristic capacity of fear and especially of fear of the fire might be productively compared and contrasted to a strain of Puritan theology in American religious history, perhaps best represented by Jonathan Edwards’s sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In this respect, see Miller, Errand into the Wilderness.

(37.) Al-Ghazali’s approach to asceticism and the way in which it distinguishes the pleasures of this life from those of the hereafter is echoed by generations of Muslim writers. However, mid-nineteenth-century contact with European culture placed these Islamic meditations on materialism in the context of nahda debates about modernization and tradition. The nineteenth-century Moroccan envoy to France, Mohammad as-Saffar, provides a good example. After breathlessly narrating the wonders to be found in the French Jardin des Plantes, Bibliothèque National, and Royal Palace, as-Saffar assuages his Arabic readers’ potential sense of inferiority by contrasting a vocabulary of materialism with a vocabulary of spiritualism. As-Saffar reminds his readers, “To some He gave a good life in this world, and for others He reserved the pleasures of the hereafter.” Driving home the point, as-Saffar quotes the Qur’an: “Do not gaze longingly at what We have given some of them to enjoy, the finery of this present life: We test them through this (20:131).” See Kilito, Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language, p. 65.

(39.) In the preface to Alhambra, Irving, as Poe had done in the preface to Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, describes his tales as “arabesque” (preface to The Alhambra: A Series of Tales and Sketches, p. 4), but the difference in their uses of the term is instructive. Irving emphasized verisimilitude in his “arabesque” sketches of Spain. Poe’s “arabesque” tales sought not to depict real life on the page but rather to have the page come alive for the reader. For Irving, the arabesque is denotative; for Poe, it is connotative. Poe uses the term arabesque to indicate a psychological terror that does not rely on cultural difference for effect but rather embodies the self-sustaining power of affect. The narrator of “The Fall of the House of Usher” comments on Usher’s appearance, “I could not, even with effort, connect its Arabesque expression with any idea of simple humanity.” Edgar Allan Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” p. 234. The inimitable Usher, who models the fusion of reading with direct experience, stands as an “Arabesque expression.” Here the term “expression” plays on the relationship between the physical body and the power of words. The “Arabesque” Usher conflates the difference between the two. The confrontation with the occult Usher is a confrontation with the abstracted terror of the sublime, not with the locatable “other” of contact narratives steeped in romantic medievalism. Usher is both medium and message.

(43.) The intricacies of the doctrines of tanzih and tashbih are far too complex for discussion here, but this brief sketch allows us to grasp the sense of Arabi’s poem and should suffice for the analysis which follows. For a more detailed discussion of these terms, especially in relation to Ibn Arabi, see Sachiko Murata and William C. Chittick, The Vision of Islam.

(p.237) (45.) Though Ibn Arabi never used the phrase himself, the idea is implicit throughout his work. It was Ibn Tammiya who associated Ibn Arabi with the concept of wahdat al wojud and attacked him for it.

(48.) For the presence of Oriental tales in leading mid-nineteenth-century American magazines, such as the Democratic Review and the Knickerbocker, see Dorothee Metlitzky Finkelstein, Melville’s Orienada.

(50.) See Walt Whitman, Specimen Days and Collect, p. 157. “That figure of my lurid dream might stand for Edgar Poe, his spirit, his fortunes, and his poems—all lurid dreams.”

(52.) Austin, “Introductory Note to Chapter I,” in Bezels, p. 48.

(54.) I am referring to a concept coined by Wai Chee Dimock in her book Through Other Continents: American Literature across Deep Time and in particular her discussion of Hafiz and Emerson to be found in chapter 2, “World Religions: Emerson, Hafiz, Christianity, Islam.” While I find Dimock’s argument to be compelling and rendered with eloquence, I also feel as though there is an aspect of transnational exchange that reveals these cross-cultural influences to be more jagged, jarring, and at times, frankly, violent. This is especially so in Americans’ (by which I mean both North and South Americans) use of the image of the Arab to structure nationalist sentiments that more often than not relied on models of exclusion.