31 August 2012

Havy bin Yaqzan and Robinson Crusoe: A Study of An Early Arabic Impact on English Literature, by Nawal Muhammad Hassan

This is definitely not your everyday read, but I feel compelled to post about it because the material it covers is just fascinating. The book does not quite do its subject justice, by which I mean, it is a pretty basic academic treatment of the matter, and refrains from milking its content for excitement - or from indulging in reflection on broader implications.

I should perhaps first explain that this book came to my hands after I stumbled across a reference to it in Srinivas Aramadun's Enlightenment Orientalism: Resisting the Rise of the Novel (also an interesting book, worth reading for anyone in 18th century studies, or working on the development of the novel, I think). Aramadun essentially summarizes the critical study in in two pages, explaining that there exists a 12th century Arabic text called Havy bin Yaqzan that was translated, first into Hebrew, then Latin, then English. It achieved some measure of popularity among 17th and 18th century Brits, and may have been an influence on Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. A footnote then cites this study. For whatever reason, I decided I needed to read it. Or at least look it over. Thanks to interlibrary loan, one of the world's best services, I was able to read the University of Pennsylvania's copy. The book itself appears to be a typewritten manuscript - a dissertation perhaps? - that was published in Baghdad (by the Al_Raschid House of Publication) in 1980. Which was just kind of awesome. If that intrigues you, read on - I'm gonna put in a jump, because I think this post is gonna get long.

So, Havy bin Yaqzan is the story of a guy named Havy, or Josephus in some translations. The appendix to this study provides a short version of the text, anonymously translated and published in 1696, and you get a sense of some of the rest from the detailed discussion in the study. Lengthier versions of the text (which I think is quite long) are available online if your library pays for that kind of thing. EDIT: My friend Ruchama alerts me to a recently reprinted edition, newly translated.

In any case, the text begins with the story of an infant who is placed into a box by his mother and tossed into the sea. He washes up on a desert island (apparently in the extended cut, there is a second birth story where he just spontaneously materializes, no parents required) and is taken care of by a deer. Gradually, he starts learning things, like the fact that he's naked, how to make clothes, what fire is, how to cook, how to tame animals or use them, etc. Then he begins to acquire spiritual wisdom. By the age of 35, he pretty much has all the wisdom.

Cut to a neighboring island, where a spiritual sect has gradually taken over. There are two men there, Asal and Salaman. They're both holy men, and best friends, except they disagree over whether one should live in civilization or in solitude - their religious teachings are somewhat contradictory on this point. Asal opts for solitude, and sets sail - finding himself on the same desert island as Havy.

When they meet, Asal immediately recognizes Havy as a sage and tries to leave him alone. Havy, on the other hand, is mesmerized, because he's never seen a human before. They meet, Asal teaches Havy to speak, and they discuss religion (I'm summarizing a summary here, sorry). Havy learns about Asal's home island and wants to go there and enlighten the people. Asal doesn't think it'll work, but they decide to give it a shot. But when they get there, they realize it won't work, so they go back to their desert island, where Havy "betook himself to his former sublime State of Speculation, and Asal (as far as he could attain) followed his example, both worshipping God there, till Death seized them”

Now, that in itself is an interesting story, I think. It reminds me of this Polish novel, The Adventures of Nicholas Wisdom, which also has a somewhat pessimistic ending like that. And in fact, as this study makes one realize - it's entirely possible that the author, Ignacy Krasicki, was actually aware of the book.

So, Havy bin Yaqzan is written sometime in the 1100s, and then got translated a few times, benefitting in particular from the rise of Oriental Studies in England. Simon Ockley, a prominent Orientalist, was particularly interested in the text, providing a translation in 1708 - despite the fact that there were already several at that point - as a way of promoting Arabic philosophy. Hassan briefly, tantalizingly, discusses some weird disjuncts in Ockley's Preface and discussion of the book, how he does a bit of tapdancing over whether or not the book is credible, whether the author actually believed what he was writing, etc. This is especially fascinating to me, because it ties directly into discussions of early fictionality, whether people had a mental category for making sense of books that were expressly not true. Unfortunately, the author doesn't develop this thread, despite the fact that Defoe's own central role in early fictionality, and particularly the question of truth and falsehood, just BEGS for lengthier treatment.

Another important translation of the book was done earlier, in 1674, by George Keith the Quaker - who thought it was a wonderful religious text that spoke strongly to Quaker beliefs. What he was particularly interested in, I gather, was this idea of 'natural religion' - that you can find God and spiritual reason Descartes style, just from being in nature, without the aid of texts or teachings. This aspect of the text is maybe not fully universal, but certainly quite mobile, giving the book of great cross-religious appeal. Also an interesting issue that could be explored further.

Hassan brings these points up, but he mostly just lays out the facts. There's an overview of British Orientalism and some of the critical questions related to the book, but there the author seems to be on somewhat weaker footing.

Where this all gets extra interesting though, is when Robinson Crusoe comes in. Did Daniel Defoe read Havy bin Yaqzan? There are three strong suggestions that he did (aside from the similarities between the two texts) - one is that Defoe was fascinated by Quakers, so it seems likely that he would have heard of it that way. The other is that he is known to have had a book of Ockley's, The History of the Saracens, so he was certainly familiar with Ockley, and quite probably would have heard about the book that way. A third is that he owned another novel, The Spanish Critick, which is explicitly based on Havy bin Yaqzan (and says so on the title page), so he quite possibly might have decided to read the original. This question, figuring out whether or not someone read something, and figuring out how to figure that out, is really neat to me. It's the sexiest form of literary scholarship, really.

Hassan also includes a more detailed comparison of the two works, trying to figure out how similar they really are. This, again, is not as developed as one would wish it to be, but there are some intriguing ideas in there. Overall though, I rather wish that Hassan, or someone else able to read the texts in the original, could rewrite a seriously expanded version of this book. They could start, perhaps, by writing a nice long New Yorker piece, dilating on the interest of the weird conflation of Quakers and Orientalists and quasi-utopias, the meta-questions about what literary scholarship does, how critical studies like this remind you of just how Euro-centric literary scholarship is, etc. I am perhaps qualified to write such a New Yorker piece (and if they'd like me to, I will, ahem ahem), but not, alas, to write the book itself. But I hope someone does.

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