Reflections on Louis Massignon and His Legacy of Dialogue
One of my realizations over the years has been of the truth that I am not an expert on Louis Massignon. And on this the thirtieth anniversary of his death, the realization hasn't diminished.
When I first met him person to person, in 1959, I knew very little about him and virtually nothing about his scholarly subject of Islamic Studies1.
Following our subsequent association and correspondence and my ensuing work of translating his Passion d'al-Hallaj and others of his shorter essays2, I moved, as he would've wished, from him to Hallaj and other Islamic persons, subjects, and my own present-day friendships. By his opening a door — I hadn't expected to find let alone pass through — he had shown his real approach, the technique if you will, of his "dialogue with other cultures." He had subtly transmitted other persons and ideas of his acquaintance to a stranger, me, by assuming at home the role of host; and then, after sharing with me, in often vivid narrative detail, his experience abroad as a guest, he gradually removed himself from view.
Such, of course, is the ideal but rarely encountered hospitality of scholars, teachers, curators of rare collections, heads of endowments, representatives of public trusts, even of actors and poets. All are called to point to treasures beyond themselves. Their temptation, however, is to claim through expertise and prolonged association those things given to them to preserve and transmit as their own possessions if not inventions.
In sum, I continue to enjoy both the privilege of having met Louis Massignon and the truth of not having become an expert on him as a result of our association. Through him I was able instead to find myself on the other side of the door and to express my own gifts, rather than to attempt to imitate his, through inter-cultural "dialogues" that became gradually available to me: meetings and correspondences with new and unexpected friends made possible through shared interests in art, poetry, scholarship, translation, religion and history. Today I honor his knowledge and gifts, but I appreciate especially his treating me and others with generosity and respect and his facilitation of our passages to worlds beyond. However slight our talents and vocations may seem in comparison with his, he conveyed to each of us, I'm sure, the challenge of doorways and by pointing beyond himself he helped us discover the paths of our own realizations.
What I believe is important to consider now is what we ourselves might do in our teaching, writing, and overall transmissions to reveal doorways to others within and beyond our various cultures and then to make ourselves diminish as unexpectedly and graciously as Louis Massignon did. In other words, to enter dialogue as hosts or guests, as the circumstances indicate, without presumptions of knowledge or aspirations to possess. To put it very simply, dialogue requires recognition of one's own limitations and sincere respect shown to others' differences.
It also requires transcending inwardly our monologues of mere curiosity and clever cultural comparison. The distinguished Iraqi scholar Majid Khadduri wrote of Louis Massignon in this regard that, "he seemed to many outside observers to have lived in two different worlds — Christianity and Islam. But within himself there was no wall separating the one from the other3. And Louis Massignon himself spoke and wrote often of receiving answers to life-long questions from others, never from his own mere conceptualizations.
Indeed, dialogue as it engages us beyond ourselves may even include, as it often did for him, the undertaking of apparently "hopeless journeys" made to distant friends in times of hardship or war to witness alternative human capacities such as compassion and moral integrity to those of brutality and indifference to suffering. The diminishment of self-centeredness shown by such personal, unofficial gestures is one of the most precious fruits of realized kindredness that began in dialogue. It puts in true perspective all the honors and assumptions of expertise.
Louis Massignon told me once that he was guilty at times in his life of great arrogance. I saw him mock himself savagely for it. In a character as passionate and driven as his, perhaps such savagery is inevitable. Moral rage, piercing oneself first, it is hoped, before it is aimed at others, may indeed be a necessary condition of the larger dialogue for such souls: rage on the other's behalf, rage for truth, rage for justice, in the self-consuming spirit of compassion. But in some, rage may be substituted by a less outwardly dramatic testament of feeling that is no less sincere: by what is often unspoken, by the surprise of a deep serenity even in the midst of strife.
A spiritually calm person does not become more humane by imitating a great man's rage. Louis Massignon was not a native to calm. But he transmitted much spiritual nourishment to those he helped to find serenity. He taught much about dialogue and about living humanely in an unserene world.
Louis Massignon went further than most in discovering and sharing a larger worldview than his own. At times, because of his exceptional gestures, others wished to equate him with his country as its authentic representative, and he may have been tempted to assume for them the same equation. Such is a risk of dialogue. But instead of presumptions of knowledge as power, his legacy to us, over and beyond his great learning, must be what his self-diminishment made possible for us: those continuing and new, often seemingly hopeless, journeys which he undertook, despite discouragements and age, to the very end.
1. Note my Memoir of a Friend account, Notre Dame University Press, 1988 (Massignon, Chronique d'une amitie, Desclee de Brouwer, 1990.)
ISSUE NUMBER 20/
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