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Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration



John Docker

What the historians called a ‘fragment’—a weaver’s diary, a collection of poems by an unknown poet (and to these we might add all those literatures of India that Macaulay condemned, creation myths and women’s songs, family genealogies, and local traditions of history)—is of central importance in … thinking other histories.1

It’s rare to know how a book is written. A book catches our eye in a favourite bookshop; we think we must buy it, forget the price; before idling towards the cash register, we might look at what’s said on the back cover, the information on the inside jacket, the photograph (if any) of the author, perhaps the index to see what family of names is being invoked and discussed. We might quickly glance at the preface and acknowledgements, which tell some of the story of how the book came to be, but not usually all that much, or not enough. How is the book first thought? How does it proceed from a mere gleam in its creator’s eye? How does it go from a vague idea involving obscure desires and passions, fantasies and obsessions, to the first shape of an argument, a thesis with a thesis, a narrative where chapters start to relate to each other and that begins to move as if of itself, as if naturally? What I’d like to do in this essay is try to recall the process of getting going, the first moves I made, while recognising that memory is unreliable and always constructing; what memory creates becomes another story. What I seek to do is remember the messiness, how haphazard it was, the luck involved, the clues picked up in conversations over coffee or hearing a seminar or conference paper.

Often, I think, the effect of an unfolding narrative is a very late happening in the whole process, perhaps occurring in the final revising (though that can be a long period). Certainly, in my case, that’s what I found when I was writing, for most of the 1990s, my book, 1492: The Poetics of Diaspora (published in 2000 by Continuum). One thing I knew: I wanted this new book to be very different in spirit and temper from my previous book, Postmodernism and Popular Culture: A Cultural History. I wanted the two books to be in tension, to possess almost a contradictory relationship.

My Postmodernism and Popular Culture came out in 1994, a generally positive evocation of the continuities between carnival and carnivalesque in early modern Europe and twentieth-century popular culture, building on theories of comedy and of language and textuality generally that I very much admire, those of Mikhail Bakhtin, especially in Rabelais and His World. While I was completing Postmodernism and Popular Culture, my mind—materially aided by the award in 1993 of a five-year Australian Research Council fellowship to research ethnic and cultural identities—was already turning to another ‘life’ interest. I wished to address the challenging productive debates that had been coursing for over a decade, in many ways inspired by Edward W. Said’s Orientalism (1978), that addressed issues of colonialism, postcolonialism, migration, diaspora, exile, belonging, identity, ethnicity and ‘race’. I was interested in these debates for autobiographical as well as intellectual reasons; indeed, I could see no distinction between the autobiographical and the intellectual, ideas and being. I felt I could apply my ‘cultural history’ approach to these issues, an approach I had explored in Postmodernism and Popular Culture as well as in my previous writing: the approach of someone trained in literary studies yet who wishes to sustain conversations between literary theory and other fields, not least cultural theory, the history of ideas, intellectual history, political history and historiography.

In the final writing of Postmodernism and Popular Culture, I brought some of these interests to bear on Bakhtin. I observed that Bakhtin’s theory of carnival in early modernity lacked a sense of Europe’s others, that it didn’t hear Caliban’s wounded voice, that Bakhtin’s critical imagination was landlocked: colonial expansion by Europe during the Renaissance and later seems not to have attracted his theoretical curiosity. While Rabelais and His World insists on heterogeneity, awareness of the other, and self-criticality, I suggested that it nevertheless plays down the presence and consequences of European ethnocentrism. In this connection I noted how carnival and its associated activities could produce hostility to, demonising of, violence towards, foreigners or those conceived as outsiders: to ethnic and religious minorities like Jews and Turks, to witches, prostitutes, actors, even to animals like cocks, dogs, cats, and pigs. The Roman carnival included a race for Jews, offering a sadistic opportunity for throwing mud and stones at them as they passed.

I began to feel that when the book-to-be finally developed its own voice and rhythm, it would probably be a kind of dark sequel to Rabelais and His World and Postmodernism and Popular Culture.

By ‘poetics’ in the title of 1492: The Poetics of Diaspora I intended to suggest that we necessarily understand or try to understand identity and belonging, or not belonging, through cultural forms—through representation as in genre, myth, novel, poem, allegory, parable, anecdote, story, sayings, metaphors, puns and riddles. By ‘poetics’ I also had something else obscurely, secretly, in mind: I wanted to return to writing about literary texts, even ‘high’ literary texts. I wanted to move away from a certain emphasis in Cultural Studies I thought was in danger of locking itself in as a convention or orthodoxy: that ‘we’ in Cultural Studies don’t do literary analysis, or at least we don’t do close literary analysis of texts like literary critics do. Yet it would seem to be obvious that many of those who practise literary studies have for a long time now gone way beyond the restrictive formalism and attention only to canonical texts of ‘high literature’, associated in the twentieth century with New Criticism. Such surely is obvious from movements like New Historicism or in postcolonial literary studies. Furthermore, one activity of Cultural Studies has been the close analysis of diverse kinds of semiotic and cultural material. When I contemplated returning to close analysis of literary texts, including ‘high’ texts, in 1492 it was with joyful, fearful, anticipation.

I felt the best place to start would be a detailed re-reading of Joyce’s Ulysses. I knew from early on that I would like to stage a contrast between the portrait in Ulysses of Leopold Bloom, the most famous evocation of a Jewish character in modern literature, and the portrait of Mordecai Himmelfarb in Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot (1961); I’d been interested in Riders in the Chariot for a long time, since I’d talked about it in different terms in my Australian Cultural Elites (1974), and now I wanted to come back to the ways it constructed ethnicity, in particular Jewishness in Himmelfarb. Analysing Ulysses also led quickly to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, especially the similarity of heretical porkeating near the beginning of both novels. I had decided that The Satanic Verses was the great postmodern novel, and the successor to Ulysses as the great modernist novel, soon after it controversially came out in 1988. Then at a conference on cross-cultural literatures in the mid 1990s I heard a paper by a visiting Indian scholar which talked of the Jewish characters in Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh. I bought the novel the next morning, and immediately began to read into it. What particularly struck me was the story framing the novel, relating contemporary India to the fall of the last of Moorish Spain in Granada in 1492.

‘1492’—as a series of connected events and as a kind of iconic and mythological moment in literary and cultural history, perhaps in European and Western and world history—began to intrigue me. I began to read as much as I could about ‘1492’, to learn that three key happenings occurred within a very short time near the beginning of that fateful year: Columbus sailed for the Americas; eight centuries of Moorish Spain finally ended in the surrender by the sultan Boabdil of Granada, with its legendary fortress-palace the Alhambra; and the Jews of Spain, except for those who in perilous circumstances had chosen or had been forced to convert to Catholicism (becoming known as conversos), were subject to one of history’s recurring crimes against humanity, mass expulsion.

Then by one of those pieces of luck, someone—I must have been talking to a fellow literary critic—said, ‘Why don’t you also look at Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, it mentions Moorish Spain and Boabdil’s Granada’. And indeed it does. At novel’s end Rebecca, the black-tressed dark-eyed daughter of Isaac of York, has a famous conversation with the ‘fair Rowena’, now married to Wilfred of Ivanhoe. Rebecca tells the surprised Saxon princess that she and her father will leave England: ‘I leave it, lady, ere this moon again changes. My father hath a brother high in favour with Mohammed Boabdil, King of Grenada—thither we go, secure of peace and protection, for the payment of such ransom as the Moslem exact from our people.’ Rebecca and Isaac will somehow have to travel from late twelfth-century England, when the novel is set, to late fifteenth-century Spain.

Much later, indeed in the final revising year of 1999, I realised that ‘1492’ provided the frame-story not only for Ivanhoe and The Moor’s Last Sigh, but for Amin Maalouf’s 1986 Leo the African and Richard Zimler’s 1998 The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon. By ‘realised’ I should say that a visiting scholar to the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research at the ANU suggested over coffee that I should read Maalouf’s novel, which he thought very highly of.2 And Ann Curthoys, in our favourite Sydney bookshop, Gleebooks, espied near the front of the store’s new novels The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, drawing it to my grateful attention. With the help of friends, new acquaintances and loved ones—amused observers of an obvious obsessive—I was building up a body of ‘1492’ literary texts, a working archive.

‘1492’ as an idea, rich in literary and historical implications, a meeting point for diverse world cultural histories and religions, was starting to suggest itself as the frame-story of my book-in-process. It struck me that ‘1492’ was a disaster not only for the Caribbean and the Americas but for Europe itself, because it enforced a notion of the emergent modern nation-state as ideally unified in ethnicity, religion, culture and mores. Such a notion became an assumption, and frequently led to the further notion that the nation-state should be based on ethnic superiority, separateness, and contempt or hatred for other nation-states. ‘1492’ established in Christian Europe the authority of notions of blood purity and blood lines in the defining of who was a true citizen, who truly belonged in a society: in Iberia the Statutes of the Purity of Blood were used to discriminate against New Christians (former Moors and Jews who had become conversos), while favouring Old Christians. The New Christians became internal enemies to be surveilled, disciplined, punished by the Inquisition on behalf of the rest of the population; they were to be spied on and reported to the state authorities by neighbours, by people one regarded as one’s friends, by family. ‘1492’ created the European and Western nation-state as a metaphysics of desire: to be truly human, truly civilised, people had to live in a strong and organised nation-state; those peoples who don’t have a strong state and unified nation are lesser in the scale of humanity and perhaps less than human. Those from within and without who threaten the ideal unity of the post-1492 nation-state are to be regarded as the foreigner, the stranger, the outsider. Such a metaphysics with its associated tests of proper blood and proper bodies and proper descent led to the catastrophe of nineteenth-century European racism and its culmination, Nazism and the Holocaust. The desire to create internal and external enemies, a desire descending from the Inquisition, led to the disaster of the Cold War and to a grotesque society of surveillance like East Germany with its Stasi. Every apparently democratic egalitarian society in Europe and the West and the world influenced and shaped by Europe and the West remains in danger from the resurgence of such notions and conceptions.

I began to appreciate how much ‘1492’ signified a double movement in early modern and modern history: the development of a desire for a unified culture and strong nation-state within Europe, accompanied by imperial and colonial expansion. ‘1492’ as an idea and series of events linked Europe and the rest of the world which Europe wished to subdue. I became interested in the argument put forward by Ella Shohat, an Iraqi-Israeli-American cultural critic, that the implications of ‘1492’ for Europe and the Americas are closely entwined. The reconquest by Christian forces of Muslim territories within Spain coincided with the Conquista, the invasion of the New World. In the Americas the conquistadors were the direct heirs to the Reconquista in Spain. The constant campaigns within Spain over a number of centuries against Muslims and Jews, as well as against heretics and witches, provided a repertoire of gendered racial discourse which could be immediately applied in the Americas, in the developing Spanish and Iberian Empires. The conceptual and disciplinary apparatus that was turned against Europe’s immediate or internal others, in the Crusades and the Inquisition, was projected outward against Europe’s distant or external others. Just as the Muslims and Jews were demonised and diabolised as drinkers of blood, cannibals, sorcerers, devils, savages, so too were the indigenous Americans and the Black Africans. The practices of the Inquisition, where Muslims and Jews were either killed, expelled, or forced to convert, were extended to the New World.3 (However, I quickly decided I wouldn’t pursue the American journey of ‘1492’: there was an abundance of chroniclers and interpreters of the post-Columbian devastation of the ancient peoples, cultures and civilisations of the Caribbean and Americas.)

I was beginning to conceive a secret, smouldering hatred of Christian Europe as an accursed continent. Even the activities of carnival were influenced and shaped by such ‘1492’ racial discourse; the poetics of carnival and carnivalesque that I once so admired now felt like ashes in the mouth. This smouldering hatred was accompanied by a desire to be interested in the value of other world histories, before 1492. I quickly realised from reading and research that the post-1492 notion of a unified nation-state is not necessary or even common in Middle Eastern and European history; the Hellenistic and Roman and Arab and Ottoman Empires had all been pluralistic, with a central power permitting a variety of communities, ethnic and religious, to co-exist: I have also become a perverse admirer of empires for being supra-national, cosmopolitan entities. Such co-existing, such convivencia, had been what in many ways Moorish Spain was famous for: from 712 to the fall of Granada in January 1492, Muslim and Christian and Jewish communities lived side by side in the Iberian peninsula, clutched in a long, intimate embrace, sharing a land, learning from one another, creating a remarkable period of literary and cultural and philosophical and scientific ferment and achievement, trading, intermarrying, misunderstanding, squabbling, competing, fighting: an historical scene diverse, boisterous, crowded with life, in a pattern of peoples already palimpsestial, the Arab and Berber Moors overlaying a society of Hispano-Romans, Basques, Visigoths, Jews; until in the Reconquista the triumphal Christians enforced a future that attempted a project no less violent for being impossible, forcing the Many into the One.4

I also quickly realised that there was a developing contemporary literature, in novels and critical analysis, in spirit apocalyptic and millennial, that yearned to reach back and evoke and recall the alternative and inspiring value of pre-1492 worlds where the destructive European nationalist desire for ethnic and cultural unity was not normative and defining. Through a review in the London Review of Books by cultural anthropologist James Clifford,5 I learnt of a book I now treasure, Ammiel Alcalay’s After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture, which describes a Levantine world characterised by cultural mixing, relative freedom of travel, and multilingualism. Alcalay suggests that the notion of the Jew as always pariah, outsider and wanderer, is a Eurocentric conception. For more than a thousand years of history in the Middle East, North Africa and Muslim Spain, Jews, like Christians, protected Peoples of the Book, did not live in ghettoes, shared their lives with their Arab neighbours in intimate intricate ways, enjoyed religious and cultural autonomy, and prospered in multiple occupations. In Alcalay’s view, the historic world of Islam established an internationalisation of space, a world of mobility, autonomy, diversity, translatability and fluidity, and yet was characterised by deep attachment to particular cities—a poetics of heterogeneity. Reading Alcalay led me to S.D. Goitein’s great multi-volume work, A Mediterranean Society, a portrait of Jewish communities in the Arab world that draws on the Cairo geniza, the medieval collection of diverse documents in the synagogue storehouse in Fustat in Old Cairo—a synagogue much used by Jewish traders to India.6

In his essay in the London Review of Books, James Clifford mentioned Alcalay’s After Jews and Arabs in passing, though it was enough for me to seek it immediately through Gleebooks; the writing of my book could not have been remotely possible if an excellent, helpful, clever worldly bookshop like Gleebooks didn’t exist. Clifford was actually reviewing In an Antique Land, a fascinating novel by Amitav Ghosh, which attempts to find out, from tiny fragments in the Cairo geniza documents scattered since the 1890s in libraries around the world, about a twelfth-century slave called Bomma, who worked for a Jewish trader Abraham Ben Yiju living in India. Bomma, it appeared, went on long trading voyages back to Egypt and the Middle East on behalf of Ben Yiju (who preferred to stay in India) and also on behalf of himself as a merchant in his own right. The Indian narrator of In an Antique Land feels that the past presence of Bomma should give him ‘a right to be there’ in Egypt, ‘a sense of entitlement’ to belong to a remarkable Judeo-Islamic trading, social and cultural world that stretched from pre-1492 Moorish Spain and Morocco and Tunisia in the west, through the Levant and East Africa to India and China in the east. He also painfully realises that the predatory Portuguese in the late 1490s and early 1500s had cut India off from this Middle Eastern world, so that Indians and peoples of the Levant no longer recognised that they had once belonged to a shared space and time. Because of European colonialism both India and the Middle East had historically become more constricted, more confined. His utopian desire to recover this shared history, to imagine it as ‘in some tiny measure, still retrievable’, is shadowed by the dystopian fear that it has been lost to him forever. Yet the narrator still desires, in mourning and sorrow, to belong to that past international cosmopolitan world, to imagine himself back into it, to keep romancing the past characters and figures he has created in his narrative.7

I now realised that I too shared that utopian longing to romance, to recover in imagination and desire a sense of entitlement to belong to a pre-1492 Judeo-Islamic trading, social and cultural world that stretched from Moorish Spain through the Mediterranean to India and China. My book would represent my various attempts to gain that feeling of entitlement. But how? Ghosh could point to Bomma, the twelfth-century slave. I could point to nothing even remotely substantial. I quickly sensed that my utopian quest would be attended not only by dystopian fear of failure, the pathos of irrecoverability and distance, but also by comedy and farce. As utopian quester I would be a shlemiel, forever reminding myself as I wrote and constructed various arguments of my quest’s absurdity and delusiveness; I would have to have an ever-present sense of self-parody, of rigorous self-mockery. My book would have to be a record of various attempts to seek a sense of entitlement, which I knew would be illusory whatever I did, to that pre-1492 world.

Instead of the assured past existence of a figure like Bomma in In an Antique Land, I sought an elusive entitlement through the romance of an absurd tattoo, the inscription of a figure I imagined as the veiled stranger, who might signify a long, long ago Moorish Spanish or Biblical ancestor. To the story of the tattoo I added an evocation of my favourite cuisines, in particular of journeying every night as I cooked into recipes that stretched from Moroccan and Middle Eastern and Mediterranean (medieval and contemporary) to Indian and South-east Asian foods. I wanted my book to have body, taste, smell, however ridiculous and illusory as a claim to entitlement. Thinking around and about these twin fantasies, on the skin and by ingestion, became the first chapter of the book.8 After a false start at an introduction, where I had too much deferred to conventional ‘postcolonial theory’, I decided not to have an introduction at all, but to plunge straight into the book’s narrative.

I could see my book obscurely imitating Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses. It would offer a kind of mock-Odyssean journey into literature, memory, political history, that related to various fragments of my, as it were, mongrel diaspora ancestry, English, Jewish, Irish, Australian. It would take in certain Indian novels, because there it was following the wide sweep, the remarkable arc, of the pre-1492 Judeo-Islamic-Indian world I wanted to connect to. In terms of romancing Moorish Spain, I thought of a particular fragment of ancestry, through my mother. I recalled family stories she would tell that her English family, from the East End of London, was descended from Portuguese Jews. I knew now that many Spanish Jews came to Portugal after the decree of expulsion from Spain that was announced in 1492, and these were the Sephardi Jews. I conceived a fantasy, that my lineage through my mother could be traced back somehow from England to Holland to Portugal to Moorish Spain; and to further that fantasy I decided to hire a genealogist, actually my mother-in-law, to try and do a genealogical search. So far it appears from her painstaking and imaginative detective work that my ancestry is solidly Ashkenazi not Sephardi.

I was worried that a general reader not familiar with Jewish history would not know much at all about the distinction between the northern European Ashkenazim and the Jews of Spain, the Sephardim, who became a new diaspora after the 1492 expulsion. I was pleased that when I asked my genealogist to write in 1492 about my asking her to do the genealogy, she wrote that ‘the only Ashkenazi I had ever heard of was Vladimir Ashkenazi the famous pianist’. She had ‘never heard the word Sephardi’, though, she added, she suspected I wanted my Dutch ancestors, if there were any, to be Sephardi. She says to herself: ‘Sephardi or Ashkenazi? Facts are facts and I will follow where the genealogical path takes me.’ I liked the slight sceptical quizzical note here, the suggestion of her strange son-in-law’s obsessions. As author I also liked my genealogist speaking in a way that might connect with readers unfamiliar with these terms and histories. I wanted to give readers the experience of learning about the Sephardim, recalling my own experience not that long before, when, on buying in England Jane S. Gerber’s The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience (1992), I read it, in fits of wakefulness, on the long flight from London to Sydney (or read quite a bit of it).9 A great deal of scholarship is looking as though one always knew something, one was always at ease with some area of learning: I wanted to try and undo that scholarly play.

Another problem: How was I going to analyse the novels I wished to analyse as part of my journey? My test case here was Scott’s Ivanhoe. I wanted to place early on in the book a substantial exploration of Ivanhoe, a novel that was remarkably popular around the world from the moment of its publication in 1819; but I didn’t want to do such exploring in a conventional literary critical way, enclosed in a text narrowly conceived, and confining the novel to English literary and cultural history. Here I was immensely assisted in terms of method by Walter Benjamin’s prologue to his The Origin of German Tragic Drama (and by my son Ned Curthoys having told me to read this great book). Benjamin writes that the artist shares with the philosopher the task of the representation of ideas, where representation proceeds by digression, an interrupted structure. Representation as digression, as interruption, will work through the unique and the extreme; representation seeks that which is exemplary, even if this exemplary character can be admitted only in respect of the merest fragment. Representation searches for the most singular and eccentric of phenomena; the representation of an idea cannot be considered successful unless the whole range of possible extremes it contains has been virtually explored.10

In Ivanhoe, intense, wonderfully melodramatic, cinematic, fantastical, I wished to evoke how different world histories in the late twelfth century meet and interact and conflict in the novel’s jousting conversations—of English history involving competing Saxons and Normans, of the Crusaders returning Orientalised from the Orient they had wished to obliterate, of Jews as hoping to belong to the English society which despised and persecuted them as well as knowing they indeed belonged to the Judeo-Islamic medieval world, Mediterranean and beyond. In discussing the novel, and indeed in romancing Rebecca (such I could wryly observe myself doing)—created in the text in her ‘contemplative melancholy’ as learned, intelligent, noble, dignified, gentle, firm, commanding, just, tolerant, generous, and liberal in her faith and sympathies—I lighted on tiny details, the merest fragments: of the delicate food and refreshments partaken by Rebecca and Isaac, of her clothes, and her manner and conversation indicating her urbanity, education, knowledge of languages and medical skills. I then related such details to aspects of the Levantine Judeo-Arab scenography evoked by Alcalay in After Jews and Arabs and Goitein in A Mediterranean Society, including the remarkably sophisticated medieval Arab and Moorish Spanish cuisine, especially the importance of spices and the adventurous mixing of meats with fruits (indicating the widespread influence of the Persian ur-cuisine).11

The references in Ivanhoe to Rebecca’s father Isaac trading in choice silks, myrrh and aloes, gold and silver work, suggest that Isaac and Rebecca can be imagined as being part of the Mediterranean trade with India: Goitein observes that over half of the commodities traded on the Mediterranean market were imported from India and the Far East. I also relate the portrait of Rebecca to Goitein’s evocation of women’s lives within medieval Judeo-Islamic society, especially their high standing and economic independence and variety of occupations and professions, their ease of travel, their favoured dress materials and colours, and their learning. I then fancifully relate Rebecca to certain notions of female divine power in Kabbalism, the mystical movement that began in twelfth-century Provence and spread to nearby Jewish communities in Spain.

Said, contemplating Romantic literature, has observed that we should take note of the ‘sheer folly and derangement stirred up by the Orient in Europe’.12 By the end of my analysis of Ivanhoe I felt I had unhinged and deranged the novel from any inherited English context. Focussing on tiny details permitted long voyages both inside yet far beyond England and Europe, towards other life worlds. When I took to discussing the figure of Bloom in Ulysses I also lighted on tiny details and fragments, which again became the occasion for long voyages. Bloom was a character in a novel I was analysing. He also became a kind of doppelganger, my companion, my friend. Like Bloom I wanted to be all of Odysseus, Harun al-Rashid and Sindbad. Bloom’s shouting out the name of Spinoza, a detail revealing whether or not Bloom was circumcised, a passage of Bloom’s inner thought referring to the Biblical story of Exodus—these became the occasions for journeys into Spinoza as a Marrano and his heretical critiques of Judeo-Christianity, and into critiques of the Biblical stories as they related to Exodus and circumcision. I decided, nervously, the child of atheistical parents, that I had to read the Biblical stories for myself, and became fascinated by and drawn towards and into the language of the King James Bible. Much of the book was written during this odd theological turn, an obsession which was perhaps thankfully supplanted towards the end by an interest in a new field, ‘world history’.

In deranging texts from any usual textual treatment and context and field of intertextuality, I felt one has to take risks, one has to derange oneself, make sideways moves, go over the top and keep going, journey deep within oneself. One has to cultivate method as a kind of art of madness, even to the point of having a tattoo speak at the end of a chapter, provoking one, offering an alternative view. In dealing with ‘world history’—with the many histories entwined in ‘1492’, with critiques of Biblical stories like Exodus which can be recognised as foundational narratives in European and Western colonial societies,13 with figures that might be considered exotic like the conversos and Marranos (conversos who were secret Jews) of sixteenth-century Portugal—my language had to mix parody and self-parody with something of the exaggeration, bombast and agonised violence of style that Benjamin says characterises the baroque theatre, literature and art of the seventeenth century. I have produced an example already, when I grandiloquently declared that Europe is an accursed continent. Benjamin says that the excess of baroque, appearing to be a caricature of classical tragedy, was conventionally considered for a long time, until modernism and especially early twentieth-century German Expressionism, to be offensive, even barbaric, to refined taste. Yes, I thought, pondering this, one sometimes has to be prepared to be barbaric, to feel that one does not have to be ruled by inherited modes, by a laconic Australian style or ideals of English understatement.

It was only in the long final year of revising, in the millennial liminality of 1999, that I worked out what the book was doing. I had constructed 1492 as an assemblage of journeys at once intellectual and fantastical: into literary and cultural history; into autobiography and family ancestry and stories; into the body and ethnic and cultural identity; into a methodology that seeks a kind of derangement; and into a rather bizarre theology. The various journeys themselves would have to be the interest of the book, not arriving at Ithaka, at anything resembling a secure identity or sense of belonging or certainty of argument or set of definite conclusions. I concluded that I should not have a conventional conclusion, but an anti-conclusion, various unrelated or clusters of loosely related reflections and observations and confessions of minor vagaries and fetishes—recalling my doppelganger Mr Bloom, though one could not hope to match Mr Bloom’s range and accomplishment in this area. I called the anti-conclusion Concluding Mosaic.


1     G. Pandey, ‘In Defense of the Fragment: Writing About Hindu-Muslim Riots in India Today’, Representations, no. 37, 1992, p. 50.

2     See P. Hulme, ‘Dire Straits: Ten Leagues Beyond’, paper for conference on ‘National Culture(s)’, University of Casablanca, Ain Chok, November 1998.

3     E. Shohat, ‘Staging the Quincentenary: The Middle East and the Americas’, Third Text, 21, 1992–93, pp. 95–105. See also Y. Yovel, The Marrano of Reason, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1989, pp. ix, 7, 15–17, 24–25, 54, 91, 189.

4     R. Fletcher, Moorish Spain, Phoenix, London, 1994, pp. 6–10, 172.

5     24 March 1994.

6     A. Alcalay, After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1993. See also S.D. Goitein, Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1974.

7     A. Ghosh, In an Antique Land, Granta/Penguin, London, 1994, pp. 19, 237. See also J. Clifford, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1997, Chapter 10, and E. Shohat, ‘Taboo Memories and Diasporic Visions: Columbus, Palestine and Arab Jews’, in M. Joseph and J. Fink (eds), Performing Hybridity, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1999, pp. 131–56.

8     See also J. Docker, ‘An Unbecoming Australian: Romancing a Lost Pre-1492 World’, in R. Nile and M. Peterson (eds), Becoming Australia: The Woodford Forum, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1998, pp. 136–48. Concerning food, cf. S.W. Mintz, Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Culture, and the Past, Beacon Press, Boston, 1996, p. 68, on the importance in all known societies of ‘ingestion as an arena for the classification and acting-out of moral principles’—or bizarre fantasies, he could have added.

9     J.S. Gerber, The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience, Free Press, New York, 1992.

10    W. Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne, Verso, London, 1996, pp. 28, 32, 35, 44–47. Cf. A. Curthoys and J. Docker, ‘Time, Eternity, Truth, and Death: History as Allegory’, Humanities Research, no. 1, 1999, pp. 10–15.

11    See M. Rodinson, ‘Recherches sur les documents arabes relatifs à la cuisine’, Revue des Etudes Islamiques, 1949, pp. 95–165. See also B. Santich, The Original Mediterranean Cuisine: Medieval Recipes for Today, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 1995, and R. Kabbani, ‘Behind Him Lay the Great City of Cordoba’, Third Text, vol. 6, no. 21, 1992, pp. 67–70.

12    E.W. Said, The World, The Text, and the Critic, Vintage, London, 1991, p. 253.

13    Cf. A. Curthoys, ‘Expulsion, Exodus and Exile in White Australian Historical Mythology’, Journal of Australian Studies, no. 61, 1999, issue on Imaginary Homelands, edited by R. Nile and M. Williams, pp. 1–18.

Cite this chapter as: Docker, John. 2009. ‘Writing from fragments’. Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration, edited by Curthoys, Ann; McGrath, Ann. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 4.1–4.13.

© Copyright 2009 John Docker All rights reserved. Apart from any uses permitted by Australia’s Copyright Act 1968, no part of this book may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission of the copyright owners. The fact that this book is published online does not mean that any part of it can be reproduced without first obtaining written permission: copyright laws do still apply. Inquiries should be directed to the publisher, Monash University ePress:

Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration

   by Ann Curthoys and Ann Mcgrath