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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary history

The Shahnameh

Hamid Dabashi

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To purchase The Shahnameh

Title: The Shahnameh
Author: Hamid Dabashi
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2019
Length: 232 pages
Availability: The Shahnameh - US
The Shahnameh - UK
The Shahnameh - Canada
  • The Persian Epic as World Literature

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Our Assessment:

B : admirably enthusiastic advocacy, but gets a bit too wrapped up in (academic) debates over 'world literature'

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 26/11/2018 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Whether he succeeds in his ambition "to alter the very notion of world literature," his book will surely drive readers to seek out the poem for themselves." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In The Shahnameh, Hamid Dabashi wants to make the case for this literary classic that is probably not that well-known to most readers, the Persian epic completed by Ferdowsi in 1010. Dabashi repeatedly writes about his classroom experiences teaching the Shahnameh, introducing it to a new audience, and he brings much of that cheerleading enthusiasm to this book -- as well as his obviously deeply informed familiarity with the text, in its original and English translation. He has admirably great ambitions here, too:

By the end of my book, I hope you will rush to read the Shahnameh in the best translation available in your mother tongue, and even if you didn't then through my book you will gain a solid and reliable command over what the book is all about and why people consider it a world-class epic, and what sorts of lesson it has to teach us even today. I will read the Shahnameh with you, place you in its history, tell you about its author, guide you through its illustrious labyrinth, and then we sit down together and wonder at its magic.
       Dabashi (admirably) likes to spell things out, and so he also explains early on:
I intend to write my book in a very simple and widely accessible prose for colleagues, students, and other educated readers alike, inviting them to enter this amazing book and find their own whereabouts in the bosom of its wonders. To facilitate the widest possible reach of my book I intend to follow a simple progression of chapters in a straightforward roadmap. The complicated emotions and deeply dramatic events will do the trick themselves.
       For all his good intentions, the academic in him apparently will out, the promised 'very simple and widely accessible prose' drifting off (or leaping off a cliff ...) into academic jargon for stretches at a time (having mostly to do with a critique of/debate about (the definition(s)) of 'world literature' he gets quite worked up over). This makes The Shahnameh a work that, while helpfully introducing the general reader to the Shahnameh also does get a bit academically specialized (which may frustrate the general reader, 'well educated' or not).
       Dabashi's text does dive deep into much of the work, and presents a good overview of both it and its place, specifically in Persian literature and history (as also, as happens with (national) epics, regimes try to use it for their own purposes); beyond that (and arguably getting slightly (or more ...) off track), he uses it to make the case -- at considerable length -- for a reconception of (the apparently academic category/field/notion of) 'world literature'.
       Dabashi can fairly easily convey the significance of the Shahnameh in Persian culture -- and not just by noting that one of his sons is: "named after a Shahnameh hero" (a still widespread phenomenon in Iran). It is a monumental work that Persian readers have engaged with for the past thousand years, and continues to have an important place in contemporary Persian culture; as Dabashi puts it, it: "is no antiquarian relic. It is a living organism". It is in many ways also a fundamental text -- including, as Dabashi notes:
Ferdowsi did not just preserve the Persian language with this epic undertaking. He in effect crafted that language and made it possible.
       While giving a good overview of the stories it contains, Dabashi perhaps doesn't do quite enough to try to convey the sheer magnitude of the work -- or the limitations facing specifically readers-in-English when trying to access it. At more than fifty thousand couplets, it is an immense work (the Iliad and Odyssey combined have just over 27,000 (shorter) lines). Dabashi does note that most readers come to it in translation, and takes into account some of the implications of that -- but then devotes surprisingly little space to considering what options they have, and what they involve.
       Dabashi understandably relies on and refers to mainly Dick Davis' Shahnameh (first published in three volumes, 1997-2004; now conveniently available as a 1000-page Penguin Classics volume), and lauds Davis as the work's "best translator". He does, however, note some of that version's inadequacies, expressing disappointment that Davis did not, for example, include the prolegomena ("It is like going to see a Mozart opera and suddenly realizing that the conductor has opted to dispense with the overture !") and did not translate the repeated 'admonitions' (a feature Davis: "alas considers boring"), changing some of the feel of the text. Interestingly, Dabashi does not focus much on a more fundamental change -- Davis presenting the translation largely in prose, with only occasional shorter sections in verse --, the consequences of which readers coming to the work in English might be more interested in/concerned about. (Indeed, Dabashi specifically notes Ferdowsi took familiar stories and re-presented them in poetry, and wonders: "what does it mean to say that these stories existed before and that Ferdowsi put them into poetry ?" He also goes on to suggest, for example, that: "The enduring poetry dismantles the politics of its prosaic intention". That would seem to leave rather an elephant-in-the-room sized question of what it means to re-present that in prose in the English rendering .....)
       Disappointingly, too, Dabashi does not discuss alternative English translations at any length, in particular Reuben Levy's very condensed prose version (1967), which was, until Davis' translation came out, the only readily accessible popular version (it was long the only English-language version I had access to) -- and, I suspect, as such quite influential (and, of course, misleading in how very miniaturized it presented the epic) --, while the Warner-brothers' (Arthur George and Edmond) massive (nine-volume !) verse translation (1905-1925) aren't discussed as possible alternatives to the Davis version. (The Warners seem to get short shrift everywhere, and one wonders whether the lack of (especially critical and scholarly) success of that translation impacted the reception of the Shahnameh generally (in the English-speaking world) in the twentieth-century.) (For a good introductory overview of the English translations of the Shahnameh, see the Encyclopædia Iranica entry.)
       It's all the more surprising that Dabashi does not examine more closely the texts available to foreign readers because he is so very well aware of how significant this issue is -- noting that:
     One of the main culprits in domesticating, nativizing, exoticizing, and thereby categorically alienating and deworlding the Shahnameh from itself and its readers is in fact this bizarre phrase of making it accessible to "the Western reader" when translating it into English. Who exactly is this "Western reader" facing a translated Shahnameh ? What sort of a creature might that be ?
       He makes a good point -- illustrated also with examples from his classroom -- how the experience and background readers bring to the text play a role in the reading -- but it's also something that could be explored at considerably greater length (taking into account also the issue of the forms different translations take in trying to make it accessible).
       Dabashi does trace some of the literary antecedents to Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, but gives only a limited sense of these; his treatment of Ferdowsi's version as the be-all and end-all has some appeal, but readers less familiar with the culture out of which it arose might wish for more about this. Dabashi does a better job of placing it in its historical context and position -- the political situation, then and also later -- but the literary environment remains fuzzier -- with Dabashi given to grandiose pronouncements such as:
Like a towering cypress tree rising from fertile ground, Ferdowsi's Shahnameh remains a landmark sign of an entire political and literary history that had anticipated it.
       Little is known about the author, which mostly suits Dabashi, who wants to focus on the text per se -- an admirable try-to-ignore-the-author approach that he argues in this case hasn't been pushed nearly far enough yet:
     The study of the Shahnameh in fact needs to progress exactly in the opposite direction, not taxing it to squeeze nonexistent biographical data about Ferdowsi (more than is possible or trustworthy) but toward a renewed attempt at coming to terms with the work's literary character, its poetic disposition, and above all its dramatic idiomaticity.
       Yet, again, additional context -- especially literary context -- regarding Ferdowsi, such as more about the literature and general culture he might have been exposed to, would have been helpful. As is, Dabashi's very sweeping pronouncements sometimes get him in trouble, undermining some of his claims and arguments.
Did he or did he not know Arabic or Pahlavi ? This is like asking if Shakespeare or Dante or Goethe knew Greek and Latin. Perhaps they did, perhaps they did not. How does that probable knowledge or ignorance add or subtract from the force and elegance of their respective poetry or gift of storytelling ? These are biographical questions that might occasion some convoluted scholarly debates but add very little, if anything at all, to our understanding of Ferdowsi's poetry.
       If he means to convince through his comparison to the presumably-meant-to-be-relatable/familiar (to his 'Western' readers) examples (Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe) he fails completely. Presumably, he chose these three (Western) giants because he sees their work -- certainly Shakespeare's plays and poems as a totality and Dante's Divine Comedy -- as comparably defining their creators, as he argues the Shahnameh does Ferdowsi (which might do for Shakespeare, is debatable for Dante, and is hard to argue for the super-prolific Goethe). Presumably, also, Dabashi is alluding to Ben Johnson's observation about Shakespeare, that he had: "small Latin and less Greek". Dabashi's claim is fair enough, perhaps, regarding Shakespeare. As to Dante, it sounds a bit silly: after all, Dante also wrote extensively in Latin, while his use of the vernacular in the Divine Comedy is, in no small part, a reaction to Latin(-as-literary-language), expanding the concept of the literary/poetic into the vernacular, making it both a foundational and defining work in a way similar to what Dabashi seems to argue for the Shahnameh and the Persian language. Indeed, surely it's unthinkable not to consider the Divine Comedy's poetry (and 'gift of storytelling') in relation to the language not chosen, Latin. (Dante's lack of Greek -- and lack of access to original sources -- also seems clearly evident from the Divine Comedy and its treatment of Greek literary references, such as Inferno 26 (about Ulysses); this, too, seems relevant -- and is surely a fascinating chapter in the story of the transmission of literature (Dante living in a time when (original) Greek literature was not widely accessible or circulated).)
       More troublingly, Dabashi's casual suggestion that Goethe perhaps knew Latin and/or Greek or perhaps didn't suggests he has not engaged very closely with Goethe's understanding of and engagement with world literature. Given how critical Dabashi is of what he presents as the Goethean conception of world literature, this is problematic. Certainly, Goethe's ambit was limited -- and extremely Eurocentric. However, Goethe's reading was extensive -- and included a great deal of original (rather than translated) material. In keeping with the German schooling (of the elite) of the day, he of course learnt Latin and Greek, and his continued engagement with classical Greek literature (including translating from it) suggests a very strong command of the language. (He also was fluent -- certainly in reading -- in French, English, and Italian; he seems to have made some stabs at Hebrew as well, though it's unclear how far he got with that.) Aside from familiarity with the literatures of all these languages, in both translation but especially the original, Goethe was also clearly influenced by the foreign: his exercises in translation were also a means for him to experiment with language and poetry, while his reading of foreign texts taught him or inspired new tricks that he could apply in his own writing, not so much synthesizing the foreign, but building on it. For Goethe, 'world literature' was an active concept -- the texts something to use in his own writing -- rather than just a passive one (to read, and perhaps analyze and compare texts, or consider them literary-historically) and he was surely among the foremost practitioners of using specifically and distinctively foreign literatures in his own. (Of authors of the pre-post-colonial age (very roughly, before 1945) Joyce is among the few who similarly sweepingly actively digested the foreign, though he was much more purely linguistically-focused than Goethe -- and arguably his ambit was considerably more limited (and specifically Eurocentric) than Goethe's.) Faust, The Sorrows of Young Werther, and much else may seem like works of pure, individual poetic genius, but Goethe's (extensive) writings are unthinkable without the immense body of (foreign-language as well as German) literature he was familiar with and engaged with; yes, (some of) the individual works can stand, or at least be considered, on their own, and apart, but certainly in examining Goethe's work as a whole (and it is a very big whole -- an order of magnitude larger than Dante's (whose, in turn, however, also extends considerably beyond just the Divine Comedy)) this background is nothing less than foundational.
       Dabashi suggests Ferdowsi's familiarity with Arabic and/or Pahlavi is immaterial to appreciation of the Shahnameh. Perhaps so -- but his suggestion that Dante's and Goethe's language-background have little to do with their masterpieces is mistaken, and one suspects there might be some value to a closer understanding of just what Ferdowsi was familiar with as well. The fact that so little of Ferdowsi's biography is known plays into Dabashi's hand of claiming the work is all that matters; of course the same can be said for Homer -- yet that doesn't mean that (as much) knowledge (as possible) about Homer's life and background, isn't helpful in appreciating his work. But clearly Dabashi sees things differently:
the exaggerated anxiety over the oral and written sources of inspiration for the Shahnameh has been at considerable cost to the integrity of the text as singular act of creative consistency. Today we no longer worry much about the historical sources of Shakespeare's dramas, nor should we be any more attentive to the textual and oral sources of Ferdowsi's stories.
       Dabashi allows for some contexts -- political and historic, as well as the Persian tradition of the epic -- but tends towards presenting the Shahnameh, at least in its creative respects, as a work of genius ab nihilo; one suspects there's considerably more to say about the contexts of Ferdowsi's work -- specifically the works he was, and might have been familiar with -- than Dabashi allows for. (Interestingly, Dabashi repeatedly complains about how overlooked the Shahnameh has been outside Persia/Iran -- and specifically in academia; one would imagine familiarizing ('outside') readers with the literary and cultural contexts -- the what-led-up-to-it -- would, in fact, be tremendously helpful in making the case for the significance of Ferdowsi's accomplishment (as opposed to Dabashi's approach, which almost tends towards one of just-consider-the-text, almost in a vacuum).
       One interesting way of seeing the Shahnameh Dabashi proposes is its way of seeing, as he argues for the "visuality" of the Shahnameh's "dramatic mechanism", suggesting:
Ferdowsi has a cinematographic mind. His mind works like a camera, his poetry reads like a script, his hemstichs and lines cut, frame by frame, edit, sequence by sequence, with the most impeccable precision and flow. The result is the primacy of the visual over the verbal.
       He gives some examples of this -- though some avisual readers (like myself -- I can't picture a thing; I digest and appreciate description, but it doesn't come (visually) to life in my mind's eye) might not be fully on board. As he notes also, the Shahnameh is particularly well-known for its illustrated editions, pictures to go along with the story, which certainly brings to mind the visual -- but the additional step of seeing it as cinematic is perhaps also, in part, an effort to help make the text relatable to a contemporary audience, who might be able to think in such terms (as the Shahnameh's audience simply couldn't for the first nine centuries of its existence, since there was no such thing as film). Indeed, Dabashi several times uses contemporary examples as glosses -- "imagine her as Brienne of Tarth if you are a Game of Thrones fan", he suggests.
       In introducing the significant stories and storylines from the Shahnameh Dabashi gives a good taste and overview of what is found there. While he notes how impressive Ferdowsi's use of language is he tacitly acknowledges that most of his readers will only come to it second-hand, in translation, and so he focuses more on effect and the larger picture of the epic. He is at particular pains to situate the Shahnameh as a unique -- and also for that reason significant -- epic -- which also brings him to the other main object his book: to rage against the popular-academic conception of 'world literature' and to look for a new one (with, of course, the Shahnameh in central position).
       This is a strange sort of debate, and presumably appreciation of what Dabashi does here depends where you're coming from. As someone reading and writing from well without the academy, even his premise -- that the Shahnameh is not included, much less treated appropriately, in the corpus of 'world literature' -- comes as a complete surprise (and does not reflect the reading-world and -community I inhabit). Dabashi notes repeatedly how the Shahnameh, and other 'non-Western epics' are left out of academic works on the subject of 'world literature', and notes how completely Eurocentric the concept remains; presumably, this is an accurate reflection of the field -- but that is also just the 'field', and influential though that is, there's also something of the ivory tower to it. (Indeed, much of this debate reads like those about the vogue of French literary theory, which rarely seemed to relate closely to most readers' real-world experience of reading.) It would never have occurred to me not to consider the Shahnameh, or the Mahabharata or Ramayana, as 'world literature', ever since I've been aware of them (say, my mid-teens -- i.e. some forty years ago). Admittedly, they never featured in the least when I studied literature in the academy (B.A., in comparative literature, Brown University, 1985) -- but then very little literature did: theory and actual books-you-read are very different things there; my 'literary' reading as a college student was 90+% extracurricular (god bless university libraries !).
       This (scholarly) world Dabashi writes from is apparently also a place where:
Here we must be clear: the only reason anybody cares to read what these Western European or North American scholars think of what they call "World literature" is that they write their speculations in English, or in French or German, or some other tongue they believe is a "European language." If they did so in Arabic, Persian, Bengali, or Chinese nobody would care less what they fantasize or insist on calling "World literature."
       This, too, is a foreign world to me. I would love to read what those writing in Arabic, Persian, Bengali, or Chinese have to say about world literature. To the extent I have, however, I have only found it deeply local-centric (Chinese literary history which barely peeks beyond the borders) or positioning itself in relation to 'Western' literature (so, for example, Japanese writers on the subject, from Natsume Sōseki to Mizumura Minae -- whereby Japan of course also falls into the colonialist camp for a significant modern period (cf. early and mid-twentieth century fiction from Korea and Taiwan ...). Similarly, most African writing on world literature I have read (e.g. Taban Lo Liyong or Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o) write (these books) in the colonizers languages. Among the few alternatives -- not mentioned by Dabashi -- is the Soviet approach to 'world literature', certainly also a problematic one, and 'imperialist' in its own way, but at least suggesting a broader (well, very limited, but limited in an entirely different way) concept of 'world literature', and introducing readers to a very different reading (and collection) of literary works. (Dabashi is right to criticize the ideological (ab)use of the Shahnameh by, for example, regimes in modern Iran and indeed to be put off by ideological reading generally -- hence not even bothering with the Soviet approach -- ; nevertheless, it does offer another way of considering and indeed another world of 'world literature'.)
       Dabashi's bashing of Western academic 'world literature' -- a term, in italics and in scare quotes, he repeats (presumably for that very reason) ad nauseam -- is emphatic and relentless. He has no tolerance for it, denouncing it as:
childish and juvenile. It is simply astonishing how long this world has gone without realizing its own vacuity. Only an imperial hubris could have so sustained it. Today the Eurocentric world has theorized itself into universal nullity. It is clueless about other worlds it has not just ignored but also in fact concealed.
       He is similarly unimpressed by attempts to token-expand this 'world literature' by integrating 'outside' works into the received definition (amusingly suggesting of the scholars engaging in such exercises that: "the more they do so the more they appear like the Christopher Columbus or the Indiana Jones of literary theory"), and does make the valuable suggestion that the object should not be to convince Western academia of the worth of the Shahnameh (so that they can slot it in their system), but rather to look entirely beyond and bring it to a much broader audience (including making it: "meaningful and significant to people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America"), and bringing it to them specifically not refracted though the Western lens of what is 'world literature'. So:
My purpose here, as is quite evident, shares that sentiment and completely dismisses that plea to bring the Shahnameh into the pantheon of this "World Literature" as it is theorized today. My first and foremost purpose is once and for all to dismantle the very idea of "World Literature" as we have received it, from Goethe to [David] Damrosch and beyond, and put the masterpieces of world and worldly literatures outside any scare quotes, after we have ascertained why it is that they are masterpieces, on an equal footing for a renewed global reading on the fertile ground of what Spivak rightly calls "the death of a discipline."
       So also Dabashi explicitly tries to situate the Shahnameh as worthy -- specifically by differentiating it from the (Western) epics that the academics are presumably so hung up on -- not denying their value, but suggesting the Shahnameh stands out in other ways as well, notably as: "neither an epic of conquest nor an epic of defeat but an epic of perpetual, historical defiance". What this new 'world literature' -- presumably also requiring a new label -- would be like isn't entirely clear beyond these generalities, but his explanations of the Shahnameh's qualities being appreciatable beyond familiar categories seems quite plausible.
       A nice point -- which I'm surprised Dabashi doesn't make earlier and more central to his study -- is the observation that:
     The story of the Shahnameh as a "modern epic" is epitomized in the fate of the Shah Tahmasp " and its dismemberment (literally) as an imperial text into colonial and postcolonial state-building projects. [...] (T)he destruction of this precious copy of the Shahnameh is a perfect allegory of what has been the postcolonial fate of the Persian epic.
       (See Sheila R. Canby's The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp for more on that outrageous story.)
       Dabashi's beef with 'world literature' certainly has validity -- but surely resounds much more strongly in the echo-chambers of the ivory-tower room that is the academy, and considerably less so in the wide-open space of the real (reading) world. So, for example, I was amused to see him complain -- completely justifiably:
     Why is it that a monumental novel like Mahmoud Dolatabadi's Kelidar, a modern epic and a world text, entirely foregrounded on the tragic heroism of the Shahnameh, at one and the same time, does not even enter [Franco] Moretti's horizon ? Is Iran not on this planet and part of this world ? Doesn't an epic written in Persian merit the term "epic" ? Why, if not ? Whatever the answer to such critical questions might be, the result of them is the serious compromising of the moment when Moretti and Eurocentric theorists like him come near the term "world." What is the point of even informing these theorists what Mahmoud Dolatabadi's Kelidar is all about, give a synopsis of it, describe its plots and characters, literary prowess and dramatic power ? They have, by virtue of writing in Italian or English or French, claimed and coined the term "World Literature" -- entirely oblivious of the presence of the Italian colonialism in Libya or British and French colonialism in the rest of Asia and Africa.
       The oversight of Kelidar is indeed a great one -- but look who is overlooking. Yes, these are the high-priests of academia, and that matters -- a lot, but also mainly and mostly in that rather rarefied world. For what it's worth, I posted reviews (inadequate, of course, but at least something) of the first two books (of ten) of Kelidar -- the only parts accessible to me in any language that I read (it hasn't been translated into English) on this site already in 2002, its epic and other qualities perfectly obvious to me. Moretti's imprimatur, or lack thereof, had and has no influence on me; Dowlatabadi has been part of my conception and understanding of 'world literature' since I first encountered his work. (The far bigger hurdle to getting at any sort of 'world literature' remains that of access -- generally via translation; the fact that Kelidar is not available in English, or indeed apparently in its entirety in any other language (my feeble little voice clamoring for it not making nearly enough of an impression, apparently), is the sticking point, as it is with the bulk of what I imagine to be 'world literature'. Though, yes, it's true, surely the stamp-of-approval of acknowledgment by the powers that be in the comparative literature departments, checking off 'epic' and 'worthy', might help in that regard .....)
       The Shahnameh frays a bit, pulled apart by Dabashi's two different ambitions, introducing Ferdowsi's classic work and demolishing the literary-department concept of 'world literature' (that: "imperial wet dream of European literature" ...). He does make, and maintain, a connection, the Shahnameh presented as a text that could be part of an entirely reconceived idea of 'world literature', but it does ultimately pull the book in two different directions. Dabashi's enthusiasm also sometimes manifests itself in bold and absolute pronouncements, and more showing rather than telling might have been more convincing.
       While perhaps not all readers will "rush to read the Shahnameh" after finishing this work, they will at least be quite well-informed as to what they're missing if they don't -- and should be convinced of the importance of this monumental epic.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 February 2019

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The Shahnameh: Reviews: The Shahnameh: Hamid Dabashi: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Hamid Dabashi teaches Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He was born in 1951.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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