Friday, 26 June 2015

Gaston Zananiri and Nomadic Theory

Michael Haag talking with Gaston Zananiri in Paris in 1996.
After I wrote Alexandria: City of Memory I was asked by an academic, one who had not yet read my book, what ‘theory’ I had used.  ‘Nomadic theory’ was suggested.  I had to look that up. 

Nomadic theory outlines a sustainable modern subjectivity as one in flux, never opposed to a dominant hierarchy yet intrinsically other, always in the process of becoming, and perpetually engaged in dynamic power relations both creative and restrictive. Nomadic theory offers an original and powerful alternative for scholars working in cultural and social criticism and has, over the past decade, crept into continental philosophy, queer theory, and feminist, postcolonial, techno-science, media, and race studies, as well as into architecture, history, and anthropology.

I explained to my enquirer that I used no theory.  I read letters and diaries, studied photographs, went to places and learned about them, and interviewed people who were there, and then I wrote my book.  

For example, there you see me talking with Gaston Zananiri in Paris in 1996.  We are not talking about nomadic theory.  We are talking about Alexandria, the city where he was born, knew intimately and was a recognised man of letters.  Zananiri was a friend of Constantine Cavafy in the 1920s and delivered the eulogy at his graveside in 1933.  Later Zananiri became a friend of Lawrence Durrell during the war years in Alexandria.  Durrell partly based the character of Balthazar in his Alexandria Quartet on Gaston Zananiri.  

In the 1920s and early 'thirties, as Zananiri recalled for me, 'towards twilight, towards evening', he would join Cavafy on his balcony and their view would be over the gardens of the Greek Hospital, today filled with mechanics' workshops and garages, and to the Patriarchal Church of St Saba beyond. With glasses of zabib in hand, they would sometimes talk about Byzantine civilisation, 'this model', in Zananiri's words, 'of poetry, sentiment and sex'. 'Where could I live better?' Cavafy said to him. 'Below, the brothel caters for the flesh. And there is the church which forgives sin. And there is the hospital where we die.'  

That is the way you learn about people and learn about a city.  That is the way you learn about history.  But it seems that for some that is not the way.  

I was reminded of this by a new book, published last month by Brill, called The Crisis from Within: Historians, Theory and the Humanities, by Nigel Raab, a professor of history. His thesis, I gather, is that the application of theory by academics to the writing of history leads to distortions and produces unintended meanings.  He suggests they do less of it.

As an example of writing history 'without a modicum of theoretical intent' he cites my book, Alexandria: City of Memory.

The prologue to a history of the Mediterranean city of Alexandria is titled 'The Capital of Memory'.  This heading is incredibly enticing because of its theoretical potential.  Does capital refer to the economic version preferred by Marxists or the social version preferred by followers of Pierre Bourdieu?  Is memory intended to reflect the collective memory of Halbwachs or the sites of memory of Pierre Nora?  The enthused theorist will be disappointed because the meaning of the title does not extend beyond what is to be found in the Oxford dictionary - capital is a state's political center and memory is a reflection upon the past.  Michael Haag has simply explored the history of Alexandria and covered the biographies of people whose lives the city touched.  Is the work any less important for its unwillingness to engage in theory?  How would the analysis change if the work had a theoretical structure superimposed upon it?

My view is that a historian is like an anthropologist. Anthropologists love theories, but first they need to eat a pangolin, and while they are chewing they should keep their mouths shut.