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Vaguely Islamic

Vaguely Islamic

(p.119) 5 Vaguely Islamic
Weak Planet
Henri MatisseJames JoyceEzra PoundLangston HughesPaul Bowles
University of Chicago Press

This chapter turns to weak forms of a strong religion. Against the contrasting examples of Paul Bowles, Mark Twain, and Edith Wharton, the blurry Islam in Henri Matisse, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Langston Hughes underwrites some of the boldest experiments in twentieth-century art, fiction, poetry, and politics. Embedded in the visual syntax of the Moroccan paintings, Islam inspires Matisse's observation that black is the “color of light rather than the color of darkness.” Dissolved into a sensory overload in Ulysses and scrambled as portmanteau words in Finnegans Wake, a barely legible Islam allows Joyce to write as a nose-thumbing hybrid—a “Mohammadhawn,” at once a Mohammedan and a homadhaun, Irish for a lout. An equally scrambled but largely idealized Islam, traced back to the splendors of medieval Granada, offers Pound refuge from his life in a cage at the American Disciplinary Center at Pisa, awaiting trial for treason. But an off-focus Islam can also have troubling consequences, as we see in Langston Hughes’s partisan vignettes when he traveled to Soviet Central Asia and Civil War Spain in the 1930s, suggesting that a low-resolution Islam serving a political experiment often does so at a cost.

Keywords:   blurry Islam, Henri Matisse, Morocco, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Langston Hughes, Paul Bowles, Soviet Central Asia, Spanish Civil War, Edith Wharton

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