Writing melancholy : the death of the intellectual in modern Arabic literature



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In this study on the depiction of the death of the Arab intellectual in elegiac writings since 1967, I examine the ways in which modern and contemporary Arab writers who identify with different literary and historical generations have mourned and commemorated the death of other Arab intellectuals. Drawing on theoretical contributions from psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, and gender studies, particularly those investigating the articulations of masculinity and femininity in mourning practices, I argue that the psychological and political imprints of loss that emerge in the modern and contemporary elegies, eulogies, novels, and memoirs that I analyze, contribute to an elegiac discourse that is melancholic at its core. Both a somber outlook towards the world and a resistance to complete the work of mourning, melancholia, as I interpret it in my analysis of Arabic elegiac writings, is an emotion experienced collectively and subsequently channeled in the literary text. In their elegiac writings, the poets Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008), Samih al-Qasem (b. 1939), Mohammad al-Maghout (1934-2006), and the novelist Jabra Ibrahim Jabra (1919-2004), have expressed a collective disillusionment with the modern role Arab intellectual and his embodiment of his generation’s political and ethical sensibilities following the 1967 war. These writers, I argue, understand the death of their peers as a signifier of their generation’s failure to lead their societies to the socialist and nationalist utopias that they have collectivity imagined. I demonstrate how in their elegiac writings, these poets and novelists in fact lament themselves and the collapse of their own modernist intellectual project in which they had attributed to the written word the power of collective salvation. As I investigate the commemoration of the intellectual in contemporary elegiac texts, I explore the works of young writers such as the Lebanese Rabih Jaber (b. 1974) and the Saudi Seba al-Herz (b. circa 1984). By gradually disengaging from the elegiac modes that their precursors had defined in the 1960s and 1970s, the two novelists have formulated counternarratives of mourning. The narrative that emanates from this literary subversion, I contend, presents a distinctive elegiac rhetoric, in which melancholia ceases to be a collective condition, but rather an individual and intimate state of mind of young protagonists marginalized by and critical of the dominant intellectual circles.