Monday Musing: Al Andalus and Hapsburg Austria

One probably apocryphal story of the Alhambra tells of how Emir Al Hamar of Gharnatah (Granada) decides to begin the undertaking. One night in the early 13th century, Al Hamar has a dream that the Muslims would be forced to leave Spain. He takes the dream to be prophetic and, more importantly, to be the will of God. But he decides that if the Muslims are to leave Spain, then they would leave a testament to their presence in Spain, to al Andalus. So Al Hamar begins the project (finished by his descendants) that would result in one of the world’s most beautiful palaces, the Alhambra. Muslim Spain was still in its Golden Age at this point, but also just two and a half centuries before the expulsion/reconquest. The peak of the Golden Age had probably passed, with its most commonly suggested moment coinciding with the life of the philosopher ibn Rushd, or Averroes (1126-1198 C.E.).

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Muslim Spain plays an interesting role in different contemporary political imaginations. For Muslim reformers, it is an image of a progressive, forward looking and tolerant period in Islam, where thinkers such as ibn Rushd could assert the primacy of reason over revelation. For radical Islamists, it’s a symbol of Islam at the peak of its geopolitical power. For conservatives in the West it is a chapter in an off-again, on-again clash of civilizations. For Western progressives, it is an image of a noble, pre-modern multiculturalism tolerant of Christians and Jews. That is, for the contemporary imagination, it has become the political equivalent of a Rorschach.

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I see no reason why I should be different in my treatment of Al Andalus (In all honesty, I react fairly badly, I cringe, when people speak of past cultures and civilizations as idyllic, free of conflict, and held together by honor, duty, and understanding. The only thing I’ve ever been nostalgic for is futurism.) Morgan’s post last Monday on Joseph Roth reminded me of Andalusian Spain, of all things.

The Hapsburg Empire is the other Rorschach for the imagination of political history. The Austro-Hungarian Empire carries far less baggage from their involvement with the present than Andalusia does, but it certainly suffered its fair share. The break up of the Soviet Empire and the unleashing of “pent up” or “frustrated” national aspiration had many looking to the Hapsburgs as a model of a noble, pre-modern multiculturalism.

My projection onto these inkblots of history is something altogether different. In the changing borders and bibliographies of Andalusian and Austrian history, I see societies that reach a cultural and intellectual peak as (or is it because?) they are overcome with panic about the end of their world. A “merry” or “gay apocalypse”, is how Hermann Broch, the author of the not so merry but apocalyptic Death of Virgil, described the period. This sentiment echoes not just in literature but even in a book as systematic as Karl Polyani’s The Great Transformation. Somehow it’s clear, Karl Kraus’ Grumbler, the pessimistic commentator who watches the world go mad and then be annihilated by the cosmos as punishment for the world war in The Last Days of Mankind, was lying in wait long before the catastrophe, that is, during the Golden Age itself.

The early 13th century was hardly a trough for the Moors in Spain, just as the period before World War I was not a cultural malaise for the Austrians, or the rest of Europe for that matter. Quite the contrary. If there is an image that these societies evoke, it is feverish activity, even if it’s not the image that, say, comes across in Robert Musil’s endless description of the society, The Man Without Qualities. Broch would write himself to death in some bizarre twist on Scheherazade.

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The inscriptions on the Alhambra, such as “Wa la ghalib illa Allah” (“There is no conqueror but God”), are written in soft stone. They have to be replaced, and thereby they require the engagement of the civilization that is to succeed the Moors. Quite an act of faith. While it may be the case that some such as Kraus (or Stefan Zweig) expected the end of all civilization, Austrian thought and writing of the era show a similar faith despite the Anschluss. Admittedly, you have to really look for it. And it certainly did export some of the better minds of the time—including Broch, Polyani, Karl Popper, and Friedrich von Hayek, albeit for reasons of horror and that are to its shame.

It is harder to know what to make of these civilizations, for which an awareness or expectation of their end spurs many of their greatest achievements. There aren’t too many of them. They have in common the fact that they are remembered for relative tolerance, but that could just be a prerequisite to flourish in the first place. Their appeal is, however, clear—as close to an image a society can have of creating, thinking and engaging, even through despair, some way to survive the apocalypse.

Happy Monday.

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