17 August 2010

Rūmī and Turkish

I’ve recently rediscovered Rūmī, especially since he has become quite a favorite on YouTube.  As a literary artist, of course, Rūmī has raised all sorts of questions about his choice of languages.  For example, here’s a passage from Lars Johanson's "Rūmī and the Birth of Turkish Poetry" (1993):

“The questions heap up:  Why did he not write more in Turkish?  Was he not interested in the emergence of a Turkish literature?  If he had been, would he have contented himself with a few simple verses and playful ‘macaroni’ mixtures of elements from two languages?  What was wrong with his attitude towards Turkish?  Did he regard it as a vulgar language; and did he even despise the common people speaking it?

“Such questions are, of course, wrongly posed.  It cannot be concluded from Rūmī’s choice of language for his poetry whether he looked down on Turkish or not, and whether he was, as it is sometimes formulated, ‘for’ or ‘against’ the people (halktan yana vs. halka karşi).  Even the question whether he was ‘interested’ in the emergence of a Turkish literature seems rather naïve.  It is certainly in the retrospective only that it may appear as if Jelāleddīn Rūmī had been confronted with such an option at all.”

Indeed, a poet's choice of language should not be viewed as a clue to his/her views about the importance of the language.  There are many writers that write in an international language to gain an audience outside their country, but who, when asked, will passionately defend the primacy of their mother tongue.  The 19th-century Philippine novelist Jose Rizal is a good example:  although he wrote his masterpieces in Spanish, he wanted to write in his mother tongue (Tagalog) because he believed that it was superior to Spanish (he says so in his novels); he tried towards the end of his life to write a novel in Tagalog, but failed because, by his own admission, he was not very good as a writer in Tagalog.  Spanish (sprinkled with Tagalog words) was the medium he needed to discuss political ideology; Tagalog is better when it comes to concrete images.  (An example often cited is Tagalog's having numerous words for rice, as opposed to the Indo-European languages.)

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