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Literature and Political Theology

Fantasy and the Prophetic: A Response to The Golem and Jinni

“Dreams come true, in fantasy novels and in prophecy”

Bound. This what the two heroes of the novel are. Each is bound to a master and a destiny and a nature, from which they can hardly escape. All they can do is to cope better with the situation by working, by refraining to express anything about their origin or their nature. What the Golem and the Jinni have that allows them to get beyond their boundaries is fantasy. Fantasy allows the Golem in her figure as a Jewish woman to learn about her surroundings and get over her incapacities as an immigrant, and as a non-human immigrant. However, she has to learn to restrain that power of fantasy. The jinni is itself a product of fantasy, reflecting his past life in what seems to be a world of fantasy, and even curing people like Saleh, an ice cream seller in the neighborhood, who was injured while trying to cure an ill jinn-stricken bedouin girl in Syria, from their fantasies. Memory, the all too cherished tool of the exile, can only exist as flights of fantasy for Ahmad. He revived his memory of his palace in the desert in a tin portrait on the ceiling (chapter 16), reflecting what his past “reality” in a work of art. The entire narrative takes shape as flashbacks, resembling the returns of fantasy.

Scenes of forgetting and remembering can be symptoms of the trauma of exile; but they can also be liberating for the exile, helping them to imagine alternative possibilities. Fantasy as liberating is also a driving force in other works of exile literature, such as The Satanic Verses, where the schizophrenic protaganist mixes up fantasies and reality in a way that cannot be but pathologized by the reader. This liberation is a challenge to both universalist liberalism and identity politics, the one focused on assimilating all to only one identity, while the other focusing so much on identities that does not allow for a constructive exchange between them. Here, instead the two protagonists are part of communities, but are able to distance themselves from their surroundings to connect with others. Ironically, what connects them to their past (other wise a marker of identity) makes them cross that boundary through imagination.

This resonates with the description of the prophetic and the artistic in the work of Muslim peripatetic philosophers. The Muslim philosopher Abu Nasr al-Fārābī (d. 950), who was very much influenced by both Neoplatonic and Aristotelian philosophies, elaborated on the imaginative faculty as having the distinctive capacity of “reproductive imitation” or mimesis (muākāt). Through reproductive imitation, the imaginative faculty imitates things by means of the sensibles stored in it. These sensibles are then represented in different senses, triggering particular emotions, humors, desires, and temperaments. The imaginative faculty can be related to the rational faculty only by means of imitating the sensibles and relating them to the intelligibles.

In the particular case of prophecy, according to al-Fārābi, the active intellect directly provides intelligibles that are accessible to the imaginative faculty in the form of particular sensibles. (This is while usually the active intellect enables the actualization of the potential intelligibles in the material intellect.) Those with a powerful imaginative faculty are not restricted to the supply of images to the other faculties, and can therefore experience sensibles of extreme beauty and perfection by means of imitation. The highest rank of perfection that the imaginative faculty can achieve is precisely when an individual attains prophecy or awareness of present or future events, as well as the capacity to see glorious or divine beings. The prophet and the artist are seen almost on the same level.

Interestingly, the governor of the polis, according to al-Fārābī, should be the one with the greatest imaginative faculty and an ultimate connection to the active intellect. In other words, al-Fārābī envisions the prophet as the best exemplar of the leader of the polis. To our modern mindset, that seems a very dangerous definition. A state that is governed by the verdicts of a self-proclaimed divine authority runs the risk of arbitrary rule and violence. However, we might also read the prophet as the one, who can imagine different possibilities that make the world a better place. Indeed, if we revise al-Fārābī’s system, we may imagine a prophetic community, instead of a prophetic individual, making decisions for the polis. This kind of community avoids the risks of arbitrary dictatorship of the ‘righteous’ by binding itself to the democratic vote (a risk of which al-Fārābī was ignorant); but, at the same time, it is not bound by a normative politics that dictates its own verdicts on the good on to what extent it tolerates diversity. Only by the power of imagination can a critique of this kind of normative politics appear.

The way that someone like al-Fārābī describes it, the prophet (the one with the highest power of imagination) does not have to be the head of the polis. The prophetic can be a recurring experience of the exilic. After all, “no prophet is accepted in his own hometown” (Luke 4:24). In exile, the one with the highest power of imagination can find ways to cope, to ward off evil, and to take care of the other. Ahmad and Chava, each their own way, put this power into good use to survive all that may befall them, for example when Chava is initiated into city life by Rabbi Meyer (chapter 3) and when Ahmad learns the details of the Arab community in the neighborhood in the coffeehouse (chapter 5), to know about the problems to which Chava’s colleague at the bakery, Anna, runs with her secret pregnancy (chapter 18), take care of Anna in wrong or right ways (chapter 18), to subdue Yehuda Schaalman/Walid ibn Malik, who had created the golem and bound the jinni in the first place (chapter 29). This does not mean that Ahmad or Chava do not have their own faults or difficulties; Chava even goes so far as to get married simply because she thinks that she cannot manage herself (chapter 19). Ahmad does not think twice before passionately deciding something, even to the point of seducing a rich girl in her balcony (chapter 7). They are not superhuman. They only enjoy a higher imaginative faculty. That is precisely why they can open up spaces for freedom beyond normative politics.

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