Ihab Hassan In Focus

an Interview with Ihab Hassan

by Jerzy Durczak
Lublin (Poland)

In your autobiography, Out of Egypt you make few references to the years immediately following your arrival in America. The account of your Egyptian childhood and adolescence is immensely interesting. The reader misses, however, what is perhaps the most interesting element of all immigrant autobiographies: the process of “making it,” of becoming an American, of becoming a professor. Many readers would be interested in finding out about how you came to discover American literature, in the problems you may have had as an immigrant student and junior teacher, in your response to changing critical and intellectual literary fashions, or to the major literary events of the 60s, the 70s ... Is the second volume of your autobiography ever going to be published?

       HASSAN:  A good question. Out of Egypt was subtitled “Scenes and Arguments of an Autobiography.” It would have been better called “Fragments of a Memoir.” I distinguish between an autobiography and a memoir: the former attempts to recount a whole life without succeeding, the latter succeeds, with luck, in telling about a fragment of life.

       I am more comfortable in the memoir mode. And some of my later works, like Between the Eagle and the Sun: Traces of Japan (1996), focus on a particular experience, a discrete chain of events. This is also true of personal essays like “Visit to Oz,” Salmagundi (Winter 1992); and true even of academic essays like “Confessions of a Reluctant Critic,” “Criticism in Our Clime,” and “Envoy: Beyond Exile,” collected in Rumors of Change. These last address, in a quasi-autobiographical perspective, our profession and its discontents.

       Still, your point stands: I resist writing a full autobiography for at least two reasons. First, I believe that the most personal elements in one’s life should find expression in oblique forms, say in art, or teaching, or the quality of a person’s love. Second, I think that the academic profession is of limited interest to the general public, and even to academics themselves. How many compelling academic autobiographies do you know?

       And so, I doubt that a second volume of autobiography will be forthcoming, only a spiritual memoir, tentatively called Knots of Fire. But don’t hold your breath for it.

As Eva Hoffman insists in her immigrant autobiography, Lost in Translation, recent autobiographies of immigrant authors can hardly be considered by their authors as “success stories.” She is not quite sure whether her own life in America has been a “success story.” “Story of ambivalence” might be--she argues--a better term for the autobiographies written during the decades of postmodern relativity. Do you agree? Would you call your own life a “success story”? What do you consider your major success as a critic, as a writer, as a teacher?

       HASSAN:  I must be blunt: anyone who thinks of his or her life as a “success story” is a fool. That’s why we have religion, nationalism, science, art, because true success always eludes mortals, even in the epics and legends of yore, and mortals must find a way to transcend themselves. And so, human beings make art, or whisper to themselves intimations of their immortality, out of radical lack.

       But I realize that both Hoffman and you speak of a “success story” in a more worldly, more limited, sense. Call it the end of the American Dream, or more accurately, the equivocation, or more precisely still, the transformation of the American Dream. This is due, in part, to the fashion of ethnicity; immigrants must now hug their origins. They immigrate out of political or economic necessity, as did their forebears, but without the gleam. I mean some idea or ideal, dream or gleam; I mean some desire to remake or recreate oneself. For me, personally, origins mean little. As I have written, I consider my birth in Egypt an accident, not a destiny, an accident, though, gravid with memory.

       There is another factor. The transformation of the American Dream is also due to the geopolitical role of America today. For many of my generation, America stood for something other than Capitalism or McDonald’s or the Bomb. I best quote from an autobiographical passage, adapted from Out of Egypt (1986):

... the strangers came, Yanks. Like many Egyptian students, more frantic than informed in their idealism, I saw Rommel in 1942 as a liberator. Surely, we thought, the enemy of our enemy must be a friend. Yet when the Allies defeated the Desert Fox at El Alamein, the same students, changing allegiance, found in Americans, if not liberators, new models for their aspiration. We consumed Coca-Cola, devoured the Reader’s Digest, affected Ray-Ban aviator glasses, and gawked at all those gangling, loping, gum-chewing, foot-propping GIs who began to appear in Cairo, their drawl so different from any sound we had ever heard. Hollywood seemed almost within reach. But the Yanks, some of them, also brought books, fragments of the American Dream. America began to seem then, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s phrase, ‘a willingness of the heart.’ Half a century later, I would wonder if it had become a tyranny of resentments, an imperium of degradations.

       Then the day came: the Egyptian Government sent me on a generous Mission Fellowship to study in America for a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and return to help build the Aswan High Dam. I studied for a Ph.D. in English instead, and stayed. I have never felt exile.

       The point, then, is that my relation to America has never been as equivocal or ambivalent as that of some later immigrants. I feel satisfied in my life in America, though I am increasingly critical of American society itself, especially its media and its “idollartry”--and of American academe. Is this a “success story”?

       As to my “major success as a critic, as a writer, as a teacher,” I would only want to say this: I have particularly enjoyed teaching, and I would not want to be identified solely as a writer on postmodernism.

American universities, scholarly journals and professional associations (such as ASA) have for some time been undergoing a phase of serious political activism. The excesses of this trend are beginning to be mocked or directly criticized by some fiction writers (Ishmael Reed, John L’Heureux) or by journals (The Hudson Review). In Europe this kind of criticism is actually more intense--here, the politicization of American academic culture often evokes feelings of uneasiness and concern on the part of for example, American Studies professors. It is rather obvious why the intellectuals from Central and Eastern Europe remain critical: they have “been there before.” Interestingly, however, many scholars from the West have also become reluctant to share many ideas of their American colleagues. Why do you think Europe which in the 50s or 60s was often willing to accept anything American--has become so skeptical about what goes on in America? Do you think that the politicization in the American university will continue? Or--do you think--the Europeans will eventually follow?

       HASSAN:  I share the uneasiness of European professors toward the excessive politicization of the humanities in America, and I have expressed that uneasiness in many essays, as you know. But there are many American professors who share your uneasiness and mine, and many of these many are not “conservative” in any recognizable sense--they are just labeled so, by a fiat of nomination, as an act of peremptory dismissal. Hence, for instance, the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics--Roger Shattuck is its current president which--offers a less politicized alternative to the Modem Language Association of America. (As it happens, I belong to the latter, not the former.)

       Regarding the European reaction to this trend, again I must concur with you: European professors, particularly in Eastern and Central Europe, indeed have “been there before.” With this signal difference: “politics” in Europe was imposed from the top, by the Party, the Security Forces, the tanks ...

       But there’s more to say on this subject with respect to America. The youthful counterculture of the Sixties has nurtured the “tenured radicals” of American academe today. The widening gap between rich and poor in American society has abetted the politicization of both knowledge and justice, as has the multicultural, multiracial nature of that society. All this has been said before. Perhaps less obvious are the psychological and historical tendencies of Americans: their impatience, their sense of self-entitlement, their traditionally high expectations (a legacy of the American Dream), their paradox of individualism and conformity that Tocqueville remarked a century and a half ago. Few societies are more formally addicted to fashions--perhaps only Japanese society--than American society; few pursue happiness, the Ideal really, to such formal excess. Political correctness, which leads to the firing [Jan. 1999]--but also reinstatement, thank God--of an official in the Mayor’s office in Washington DC for using the word “niggardly” (Scandinavian origin), is simply the latest, if not last, absurd example of our formalism, our Idealism--more form than content--trailing its “foul dust of dreams”.

       This said, we need, in fairness, to examine the European attitude. I have rarely found it to be wholly free of subliminal envy and resentment, admiration and detestation, toward the Lone Superpower--France flaunts only the most predictable, vainglorious expression of that attitude. Moreover, I’ve noticed a rise in Euronationalism since Maastricht. This supra-nationalism applies less to intra- than extra-European relations, when “outsiders” like Japan, China, and America are concerned.

How would you respond to the charge which is frequently voiced against you: some say that Ihab Hassan, who was once the chief promoter of the avant-garde, of innovative ideas, has become conservative, or even reactionary. If you do not agree with those accusations, why do you think they are being made?

       HASSAN:  I would not respond to the “charge” at all, since I am not aware that conservatism is a legal, moral, or intellectual crime. But I would like to comment on some of the stupefying assumptions behind the statement.

       I come out of the left-liberal tradition, which I am on record, in recent essays, describing as friendliest to the work of writers, educators, intellectuals. But in the last twenty years or so, both the so-called Left and so-called Right have proven incompetent in dealing with the needs of a rapidly changing world. The Left has no monopoly on progress, the Right no monopoly on rectitude. That is why large majorities of the electorate, in America as in Western Europe, have veered left and right, without straying far from the center, in search of pragmatic solutions to problems that classic ideologies could not address, could not even recognize.

       That is also why I describe myself, resolutely, as an independent. (I have never published in conservative journals or identified myself with rightist causes, unless you argue that attachment to literature, especially, yes, great literature, and also distaste for the inanities and insanities of political correctness, are automatically reactionary--in which case, I am in a large and good company.)

       Now, an independent stance pleases no partisan, no herd thinker. Mavericks, loners, outsiders, “rogue critics” must take their chance both within and outside the various schools of academe. And those who virtuously teach Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird behave no differently from the flocks of birds in that book. Group-think is a primal, sociobiological imperative, not easily overcome.

       Have you wondered why there are liberals and conservatives in every clime, every society, every class, gender, and race, and even within the same family? Presumably, the facts of deprivation and injustice are out there, the same for all? Why are they interpreted so differently by various groups and individuals? It’s not just a matter of “interest”, not when you’re dealing, say, with members of the same “tribe”, the same family, even with twins. It’s also a question of personal identification, deep need: we declare to the world who we are when we identify ourselves with this position or that on the political (really socio-psycho-biological) spectrum.

       Well, in my experience, the further people drift from the virtual center, far to the left or far to the right, the more they express their own needs, not the needs of the world. It’s all there, really, in Conrad’s The Secret Agent. But I forgot: Conrad is another “reactionary.” You see, the life of ideologues is extended tautology.

       Where need and conformity coincide, powerful polarizations ensue. Right and left can not exist without one another at all; but they can join in attacking--no, not just the center--attacking even more the independents, the mavericks and loners and zigzaggers. And the easiest, the laziest attack is dismissal, not by argument but nomination: reactionary, racist, sexist, humanist, orientalist ... you know the aversive litany, the cant of exorcism. This is plain ideological bullying, and it works on those who fear bullies.

       But I have not yet mentioned the root cause of these intellectual miseries: the reduction of everything--morality, art, religion, culture, metaphysics, every personal feeling and spiritual state--to politics! This, of course, reverts to Marx; this is the true totalitarianism of Marxism, not simply its monopoly of power.

       And, by the way, who are the reactionaries? Those who totemize a defunct and repressive nineteenth-century thinker, or those who improvise their policies to meet the real needs of the day? The followers of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, or the admirers of Churchill and Roosevelt, Kennedy and Blair?

       In short, I think of myself as an amateur, a lover of change, which is perhaps the prime cosmological principle, as Buddha and Heraclitus, Ovid and Shakespeare knew. But not when postmodernisms become tabescent, or cultural studies become rote. We are not compelled to believe that latest is best, and whatever is, must be right. Human beings suffer but also direct change. And the Cosmos looks out for itself.

You do not seem very willing to take part in the current “culture wars “. In some of your recent articles you’ve made several obvious and clear statements addressing this issue, but in your books you ignore the current political debates, choosing instead such topics as travel literature or Japan. This attitude has removed you somewhat from the center stage of intellectual debates, it has removed you--at least in America--from the spotlight Which position do you find more comfortable--being constantly present in the media and on the lecture circuit, and thus having a chance to respond directly to your intellectual opponents’ arguments, or hiding in your study, boycotting major conferences of American professional associations, and--instead of writing about the canon or feminism--focusing on, say, spirituality?

       HASSAN:  I don’t “hide in my study”. I go to all the Milwaukee Brewers and Green Bay Packers games. (Just kidding.)

       I think my answers to the previous question engage this question as well. But the two questions mildly contradict one another: I cannot be labeled “conservative or even reactionary” and at the same time wholly indifferent to the cultural wars, to which I frequently advert in Rumors of Change, and in such quasi-autobiographical pieces as “Counterpoints: Nationalism, Colonialism, Multiculturalism,” Third Text 41 (Winter, 1997-98).

       Still, you are right: I have consciously marginalized myself, geographically as well as intellectually. And I have moved away from the modes of argumentation toward something more tentatively, yet more deeply, expressive.

       They say character is fate. Perhaps so, especially if we include in character the possibilities of self-creation, self-renewal. I feel comfortable on margins, probably because I acknowledge no centers. And I lack what Whitehead might have called the eros of politics. Unlike another critic, born in Palestine, raised in Egypt--I refer to Edward Said, of course--I favor “silence” as a language over eristic discourse and favor spiritual over political issues. Yet I esteem Said--that’s him, this is me. Politics may be necessary, and like other things--sex, death, words, wars, food, status ... there are many “soft” universals, you know--inescapable. But politics is also a form of self-exteriorization, self-flattening. And is the most insistent act of self-concern I know: my share, my right, my tribe. Self-heedlessness also has a claim in our existence, kenosis.

        “Spotlights”, you know, may glaringly reveal, but they reveal only masks, and may finally blind us to ourselves. And who knows but preterits, passed over by critical grace, may have a special place ... where? Some special black hole in space?

Looking back at your theories, observations and predictions, can you think of any texts that you feel you should not have written, statements you feel you should not have made? Would you say that you were occasionally overly enthusiastic about the validity of certain theories or concepts you helped to make popular, or that you overenthusiastically helped to promote writers, books, theories which eventually proved disappointing and not deserving your early praise? Or do you regret nothing?

       HASSAN:  No doubt, I have been “overly enthusiastic” in the past, too simply impressed, say, by Blake’s complex precepts about “the tigers of wrath” and “horses of instruction,” about the “mad of excess” leading to the “palace of wisdom.” A friend recently remarked that a “wild streak,” an American wildness you might say, runs through my earlier work, and this has not benefited me in a profession that prefers reason over energy.

       But I like to think that risk also has its rewards. George Steiner once said to me about postmodernism: “You saw it coming, the rest of us didn’t.” Perhaps he was in a genial and generous mood. Still, I do believe in risk, and not only in its complacent rewards. Risk entails error, entails isolation, entails, worst of all, self-deception--till we wake up to our vanities, and maybe drown ... Courage and grace, in life as in art--I admire these, for they make wisdom possible, habitable.

       Regret, though, is just another vanity, self-concern. I accept what is the case. The point is to move on, forgetting nothing. “I am here to be worked upon,” says Emerson in his Journals.

Although in your books you go beyond strictly literary themes, and often write about philosophy, culture or religion you are basically a specialist in literature. As a literary critic, in the 1960s, 70s and 80s you helped to promote many interesting authors. Who are the writers you would like to endorse in the 1990s? Or do you, perhaps, agree with those who claim that there are no “essential” books and writers anymore?

       HASSAN:  Endorsement and advocacy have receded in my concerns. There comes a point in a person’s life when he has to stop teaching and start learning, the kind of learning one can only do alone.

       Still, advocacy, literary advocacy, is a generosity intrinsic to good criticism. In America, I am drawn to the work of Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, Paul Auster, various as they may be, and to the poetry of A. R. Ammons, John Ashbery, Elizabeth Bishop, Amy Clampit, Galway Kinnell, James Merrill, W. S. Merwin, Richard Wilbur, Charles Wright ... And what about Martin Amis, who has been called “the best American writer England has produced”? There’s great diversity here, if no overwhelming imagination, no Goethean or titanic achievement

       But I am drawn as well to writers from different climes, like Derek Walcott and Kenzaburo Oe, already honored by the Nobel Prize, and still others like David Malouf (Australian) and Zbigniew Herbert (Polish), who should have been so honored. Then, once in a while, you come upon a hidden gem, like Eucalyptus, by the Australian Murray Bail.

       All this leads to the nub of your question: “are there any ‘essential’ books and writers anymore?” Perhaps we should ask instead: are there any “essential” readers anymore? I mean readers for whom certain literary works are absolutely crucial. I think such readers survive in our midst--I’m one--busy reading, as they always have, the works in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. Of course, contemporary culture tries to discourage their “essentialism”, to no avail. Discriminations are inherent to values, distinctions are intrinsic to thought. And this many young people know, I’m glad to say.

*Used with permission from Anglistik 11.2 (September 2000): 25-33.

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