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Fundamentalism and Literature.

Fundamentalism and Literature. Edited by Catherine Pesso-Miquel and Klaus Stierstorfer. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Pp. vi + 220. $65 cloth.

This is a book redeemed by several excellent chapters. Redemption is made necessary because there is so little editorial input that the reader is left without a properly developed sense of initial orientation or subsequent progression. As a result, Fundamentalism and Literature has a flavor more characteristic of conference proceedings, or a journal's special issue, than of a successfully realized book. In order to establish the sense of overall coherence that makes reading something cover to cover such an enriching experience, the editors would need to have taken more care with three things: choosing their material; explaining their organizational rationale; and highlighting some of the, well, fundamental issues raised by this most topical area of study. The four-page Introduction is simply too brief to be effective. It would have helped if it had been supplemented by some sectional commentary for the book's three parts. As it is, "The Many Guises of Fundamentalism: Expanding Visions," "Beyond the Binary: Literary Interventions in Polarization," and "Fundamentalism in Post/Modernist Contexts" are such catch-all titles that--without the necessary annotation--they do little to parse the book's contents into the kind of coherently structured plan that gives readers the sense of deliberation which distinguishes a well thought out text from an assemblage of disparate pieces.

Undoubtedly one of the best of these pieces is Gordon Campbell's. He focuses on a nineteenth-century clash between America and Islam and draws out some fascinating parallels with more recent tensions. Considering various "Miltonic references to the Islamic world" (13), and stressing how, for a long while, Muslims were more or less "written out" (7) of Western history, Campbell moves skilfully between past and present, literary allusion and actual event, in a chapter expert at presenting things from unaccustomed and awakening angles. For instance, looking at Samson Agonistes, he notes that "from the Philistine perspective, Samson is a suicidal fundamentalist member of the ascetic Nazarite sect." He also makes the point that "academics have a role to play at times of national crisis" (10), a sense of engagement sadly missing from some of the other chapters. For Campbell, "universities are places in which balanced discussions can take place, and academics in the humanities, who always take the long view, can resist the rush to judgment and the demonizing of ... the 'other'" (10).

Balanced discussion is, naturally, what one expects in an academic study. However, when literary critics examine a topic that connects with the present in such a rawly urgent manner, can we not also expect "the long view" to try to relate its measured insights with what is up close and urgent? This is certainly something Campbell manages to do, with considerable aplomb. It is less evident in Anne Barbeau Gardiner's "Jonathan Swift and the Idea of the Fundamental Church." Presenting Swift as a fundamentalist and considering how this shapes Gulliver's Travels is not without interest, but it is rather as if a paper from some obscure volume of Swift studies had accidentally blown into the MS. Whatever its intrinsic merits, it does not sit well with the other pieces. Axel Stahler's study of "The 'Aesthetics' of Fundamentalism in Recent Jewish Fiction in English" brings us back to the present and provides a valuable counterweight to the common tendency of presenting fundamentalism as if it was just an Islamic phenomenon. Stressing how "American Jews, especially Orthodox ones, are generous financiers of the shock troops of fundamentalism, the religious settlers" (43), Stahler gives a working definition of fundamentalism, provides some useful background on the Gush Emunim, Israel's most influential fundamentalist group, and within this frame examines how fundamentalism is treated in the work of fiction writers such as Anne Roiphe, Philip Roth, Tova Reich, and Simon Louvish.

Wendy O'Shea-Meddour focuses on "deconstructing fundamentalisms" in Hank Kureishi. She offers some keen observations on his work, but her chapter leaves unanswered the important question of what exactly a "liberal fundamentalist" (86) is, and whether it is accurate to claim that secular liberalism can he "described as having a fundamentalist core" (91). At one point she suggests that "Kureishi's compulsory 'postmodernist doubt' is just another fundamentalist dogma" (97). It is hard to know how seriously such an assertion is meant. Is she proposing that Kuresihi's prose occupies the same conceptual niche as, say, a sermon by Abu Hamza? Hanif Kureishi--specifically The Black Album--is also the focus for Helga Ramsey-Kurz's chapter. Whilst one shares her hope that fundamentalists "will begin to feel the need to revise their perception of secular literature and see it as a domain complementing, rather than competing with, religious writing" (176), it is hard to give much credence to the likelihood of this happening. However laudable it may be, the direction she wants to take is simply not one that figures on the compass of fundamentalism. In the face of a mindset which holds that its outlook has exclusive access to True North and that every other direction is mistaken, how can we encourage "the humble acceptance of one's own limitations as the best reason for turning to an Other for instruction, advice, and perhaps even enlightenment"? (176) Although this may be an unanswerable question, it would have been good to see contributors engaging more robustly with the issues it raises.

Kuresihi is a significant writer, but it seems curious in a short book to devote two chapters to his work. Something on Salman Rushdie, whose voice is so frequently cited, would have been welcome, as would a chapter on, say, Sikh responses to Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's play, Behzti (Dishonour). It would also have been good if "literature" had been understood in a rather more encompassing way so that, for instance, film might also have been brought in, given that medium's tendency to be a site of flashpoint between freedom of expression and fundamentalist prohibition. It would also have been useful to have included a subject index, rather than just giving an index of names.

One of the basic insights of contemporary studies of fundamentalism, as evidenced most impressively in the volumes stemming from the work of the Chicago-based Fundamentalism Project, is that this is a phenomenon which occurs globally. It is by no means confined to the Judaeo-Christian faiths, or to the present age. Fundamentalism and Literature looks a little beyond the usual suspects, taking in instances in Hinduism and--via Catherine Pesso-Miquel's chapter on Rohinton Mistry's Family Matters--the Parsi community, but it would have been good if the sheer commonness of fundamentalism and its occurrence right across the religious spectrum had been given more explicit emphasis. Its "many guises" are only partially glimpsed. That said, as the editors put it, "comprehensiveness is impossible in a study of this kind" (2). It would clearly be unreasonable to expect an exhaustive treatment in 220 pages.

In addition to Hanif Kureishi, the various Jewish writers looked at by Stahler, and Pesso-Miquel's chapter on Mistry, contemporary literature is also represented by Tariq Ali and Arundhati Roy. In his chapter on Ali, Klaus Stierstorfer correctly points out that "fundamentalism is an American invention, at least where the term itself is concerned" (143). The important point here, though, is not the term itself but the fact that the mindset it describes has been in existence for millennia before any name was invented for it. Stierstorfer's chapter draws heavily and effectively on what Salman Rushdie has said about "the apostles of purity" (150), and he offers an interesting mapping of Ali's "imaginative representation of the contact zones between the religions" (154). Meanwhile Suzanne Peters looks at how fundamentalism is touched on in The God of Small Things, and draws some intriguing comments from Roy, which surely deserve further scrutiny, about how "fiction and nonfiction are only different techniques of storytelling" (134).

Most of the chapters consider fundamentalist themes in the work of authors who would be regarded as standing some distance outside fundamentalism's territory. But one looks at an example of writing originating from within the contemporary fundamentalist fold. This is Kevin Cope's examination of the Left Behind series, the twelve books of apocalyptic fiction written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Cope's analysis of the nature and impact of these books is first rate--though Harry Potter aficionados might surely take issue with his claim that this is "the largest literary phenomenon of Western publishing history (short of the Bible itself)" (183). It is also curious, since it provides such valuable background for understanding this whole area, that Paul Boyer's superb study of apocalyptic belief in contemporary America (When Time Shall Be No More [Harvard University Press, 1992]) receives no mention.

It is commendable to hope that one's work "may stimulate further discussion and study of fundamentalist positions in an atmosphere of tolerance and openness" (4). However, with this particular topic a non-judgmental approach can risk obscuring the fact that it is precisely "an atmosphere of tolerance and openness" that fundamentalism reacts against with such vehemence. Academics need, of course, to maintain a proper scholarly objectivity and to distance themselves from the catcalls of polemic that can soon overtake discussion of emotive subjects, hut is there any good reason not to flag up more clearly the dangers posed by this fascinating topic? In the main, contributors show remarkably little sense of the fact that, given the opportunity, fundamentalism would--violently--proscribe much that they value as literature. As such, it is something for scholars to resist as well as analyze.

Chris Arthur

University of Wales, Lampeter
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Author:Arthur, Chris
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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