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People of the Book – People of Books

Published May 30, 2018 by Dr Esther-Miriam Wagner and Prof Emrah Efe Khayyat

This blog introduces the Woolf Institute's Sir Mick and Lady Barbara Davis Visiting Fellow Prof. Emrah Efe Khayyat and discusses the themes of the forthcoming Woolf Institute workshop "People of the Book – People of Books".

An ideal Visiting Scholar at any place does not only work on their own project while in residence in a hosting institution, but contributes to the research conducted in their temporary home through discussions and through taking part in seminars, drawing attention to their field of study, methodologies and bibliographies. The Woolf Institute Research Hub was built with this sort of cross-fertilisation in mind: researchers and students at their desks rub shoulders with the Visitors, who come from far away places with new ideas, state-of-the-art research and a zest for conducting research.

Partridge in a pear tree (image and creation by Justin Rowe)

Since the opening of the new Woolf Institute building, we have had a number of Visiting Fellows working with us in our research hub, from countries such as Portugal, Belgium, Italy, Armenia and the US. Being historians, sociologists, anthropologists, philologists and philosophers, they have presented on their work, helped us organise events, socialised with the research cohort and become part of the fabric of the Institute.

Every year, the Woolf Institute elects one Visiting Fellow, usually to stay for a period of two to three months. Past years have seen eminent scholars of their fields, such as Prof. Ana Echevarria, Prof. John Hall, Prof. Fred Astren and Rabbi Prof. Marc Saperstein, take up the position, which comes with the duty of organising a workshop or a conference. These gatherings have then led to further conferences, the establishment of research networks and collaboration on various projects.

This year's Visiting Fellow is Prof. Emrah Efe Khayyat, who is of Turkish background, trained at Istanbul University, at the Gregoriana, and received his PhD from Columbia. He is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers in the Department of African, Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Literatures.

Brother (image and creation by Justin Rowe)

Efe, as he likes to be called, is organising a workshop entitled "People of the Book – People of Books", which is going to be the Institute's first conference on literature and religion. The idea behind this gathering is to take our lead from Erich Auerbach's insights, who is often credited with founding the discipline of comparative literature and pioneering cultural criticism and history as we practice them today. Efe reads his work primarily as a commentary on the relation of religion, Christianity in particular, to literature in the modern sense. That is why he brought his research on Auerbach to the Woolf, where the workshop aims at expanding Auerbach's vision, by looking for example at Islam, women's writing and literature in the modern sense.

Auerbach investigates faith and fiction, not because of how they resemble one another, but rather in their common opposition to another way of relating to life and reality, past and future etc. He thinks that we have come to relate to the past, and attest to the present, through the sort of alertness, through the lens that crystalises in modern disciplinary history. When we hear accounts of the past or present coming from religious or rather imaginative, literary lenses, we know how to react. There is a hierarchy for us moderns according to which disciplinary historical inquiry has primacy over religious and literary representation, in other words the historical fact, whatever it may be, has primacy over religious or literary experience. Auerbach plays with this hierarchy a little, questions it and analyses how it came to be established. He shows how there is continuity between religious testimony and literary attestation, or literature and religion. He turns the tables to see if literature and religion could in fact represent historical reality in a way that is rather more truthful – even more "scientific" – than modern historical representations of so-called facts.

Ten Lords a Leaping (image and creation by Justin Rowe)

There is an interesting proposition in Auerbach's work, which links the phenomenon of individualism to Christian thought, theology and literature. In his work Mimesis, he wrote a history of mentalities in the West, something like an intellectual history of the Western mind. His narrative starts with the "pagans", looking at the Greek epic, and all he finds there are great men, beautiful women and big swords, the most impressionable and the most tragic. This is a naked world in which everything is exclusively presented on the outside, and in which significance of persons, things and events depends on sheer, brutal power. A rooster crowing every morning would not be worth talking about or paying attention to.

Then he looks at the New Testament. There he finds the mundane, earthly life seeping into the narrative: the rooster, crowing twice before Peter denies Jesus thrice, playing an important part. This is because meaning or significance recedes to a "background", as Auerbach explains, a background that is the greatest tragedy of all times – that of salvation. Because owing to Providence, anything and everything and everyone may have a role to play in the tragedy of salvation. Even the rooster doing nothing other than what it does every day may be announcing a most crucial moment. This creates an alertness in our relation to life and the world.

Pipers (image and creation by Justin Rowe)

This alertness, according to Auerbach, is the source of our historical consciousness. He traces this mental state all the way from the Gospels to Dante, to modern disciplinary history (in "Figura") and Virginia Woolf (in Mimesis). Along the way he stops by Montaigne, for instance, explaining how Montaigne's autobiographical impulse, his attention to himself as an individual, could only be possible against the background of the Christian-creaturely mind guided by the thought of Providence. How else could he have come to the conclusion that his miserable personal life and silly thoughts were worth writing about? Christian thought therefore appears to have had an influence on the way people place themselves in the world, and how they regard themselves as individuals.

Discussions of this link between Christian literature and individualism will be part of the workshop, but the gathering will also discuss other ideas of Auerbach and seek to expand his vision to our day and age, turning attention to the non-Western world, women and other religions, among them Islam. Speakers at the workshop will include Dr Tali Artman, Dr Laura Kilbride and Dr Andy Wimbush from the University of Cambridge, and Prof. Michael Levine from Rutgers University. Papers will discuss the Qur'an as literature (responding to Auerbach's reading of the Bible as literature); medieval women's literature; Arnold and Swinburne's relation to the Bible; Wilhelm Jensen's Gradiva and Sigmund Freud's Moses; Samuel Beckett and quietism; Amos Oz and Christianity.

Prof. Efe Khayyat is the Sir Mick and Lady Barbara Davis Visiting Fellow 2018. Dr Esther-Miriam Wagner is the Director of Research at the Woolf Institute.

Anyone interested in attending Efe’s workshop, People of the Book - People of Books, on 13 June 2018 in the Woolf Institute, please register by sending an email to

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