What if you could remember every poem in the next life?
The dead play a sly trick on the living: in dying, they pass on the duty of interpreting what they thought, of arguing over what they said—or might have said, or even what they never said. This is how we get the fantasy, as stubborn as it is unrealizable, of interrogating the dead directly and without an interpreter. To meet them, just once, and to ask them to clarify what they’d said—or even, in certain cases, to ask if they said it at all. If only they would speak, all outstanding claims would be resolved, the contradictions smoothed over, the ambiguities explained. Confronted with the light of truth, all men would agree and no argument would be possible.
This fantasy has produced an entire genre of literature: the dialogue with the dead. One example of the genre in Arabic is The Epistle of Forgiveness (Risalat al-ghufran) by the eleventh century poet al-Ma‘arri, which narrates a journey to the life. Following the Day of Judgment, the hero Ibn al-Qarih is admitted into paradise, where he meets the poets he most esteems, or those whose verses have especially provoked his philological curiosity. During a sojourn in hell, he’s also permitted to interview the poètes maudits. And finally, returning to paradise, he meets Adam.
The Epistle of Forgiveness is a work of tremendous richness. My aim here is merely to examine what it says, directly or otherwise, about poetry and the forgetting of language. Read More