Me and Spinoza
I THINK I have already mentioned that when it comes to reading, I am not the reading kind. I rarely read books. I know: there’s nothing here to boast about, and if I admit it, it is in a mea-culpa spirit. But still, it is my unfortunate truth. Even Doctor Dahesh himself wondered about this peculiar trait of mine, one day that he was in my apartment in New York, on 34th Street.
I was busy preparing lunch for him in the kitchen, when he called me suddenly to the living room and asked me, just like that, point blank: “Joseph, don’t you read?”
Imagine my surprise to hear such an unexpected question, when, in truth, nothing in our previous conversation covered that subject at all. I was at a loss as to what answer to give him, knowing how meager was my reading repertoire¾and so too were my excuses. So I asked him with an I-plead-guilty voice,
“What do you mean by ‘read,’ Doctor?”
“I mean, do you read books like… novels, love stories, poetry, biographies, history… you know, books in general!”
“In Arabic?” I inquired a little further.
“Arabic, or any other language.”
“Not really, Doctor.” I managed to say at length, a little embarrassed at having to admit the fact, then hurried to cook up some sort of an excuse. “Oh, you know how busy I am with my work and all, Doctor. As it is, I hardly have time to scratch my head, let alone fill it with books.”
“You mean nothing at all?” He rejoined as if to stress his astonishment.
“Well, I do read sometimes, like everybody … but I am sorry to admit, whenever I find the time, I confine my reading to browsing mainly through newspapers, magazines, and what have you of the kind; but no books, unfortunately.”
It was then that he told me, after bursting into a hearty laughter: “Aghrab Shee!” Arabic for, “A most strange thing!”
I felt ashamed at the time. I thought he was reprimanding me for my lack of interest in reading books, knowing how much he read, and especially, how much he stressed on this invaluable means of education. But I am not that sure today that this is what he actually meant by his expression of wonderment. Only time can tell. Nevertheless, I did work on improving that bad habit of mine ever since. For after I had lost him, the only way for me to keep living in his blessed aura-of-yore was to read his books. And as I have already mentioned, Arabic has never been my forte¾nor reading for that matter. Notwithstanding that disinclination of mine, I didn’t let those handicaps stand in my way, so much I was in need to bask in his unique world, and as much as I could. So, in order to bring that feat about, I decided to translate some of his works for my own sake and joy since they were now my Lost Paradise on earth. Effectively, one thing led to another, and here I am now writing my book¾with a little help from my Georgie, of course. But still, I am ashamed to say that I was never successful in ridding myself of that old habit of mine: I still don’t read books—not as I should, anyway.
Contrary to me, Chucry used to—and still do—read a lot. As to Georges: he eats, drinks and dreams about books. His life is an uninterrupted journey, ever sailing from one book to another. That’s why he was surprised to see me disinterested in reading to that extent. In fact, during the time I was translating his books and the ones of Doctor Dahesh, he came to me one day with Chucry, who was visiting us in New-York, and they both stood there before me with a pad-and-pen in hand, as if readying themselves to take notes. Seeing them both like that, I asked them, a little surprised at their awkward comportment,
“What’s up, guys?”
“Oh, nothing serious, Joey,” said Georges, with that usual devilish smile of his, “We were wondering, Chucry and I, whether you would be kind enough to give us a list of the books you don’t read, so that we, too, could become as good writers as you are.”
That’s Georgie for you, folks, with his wit, pungent sense of humor and repartees. I tell you, if in the next life you ever were to be given the chance to choose your siblings, make sure they’d be endowed with a good sense of humor. Take my word for it: it makes a lot of difference, and a beautiful one at that. As to books, what can I say? I’ve never been friendly with them. Actually I have a theory.
If you want to be a good writer—of my caliber, of course— don’t read. Sure. Stay away from books as much as you can. Honest. Hey, why bother? Why entangle your mind with other people’s entanglements? How come I can write¾if one can call what I am doing right now that? Well, with me it works like this: my brothers read, and I write. It’s the very principal of communicating vessels. Accordingly, if you are blessed with brothers (or sisters) who read a lot and you are very close to them, you are all set to write; otherwise, you have no choice but to keep your nose stuck in books. Oh, believe me, I did give reading a try, but to no purpose. My problem is that I tend to doze off as soon as I hold a book, or start to float in the clouds of my own thoughts. What can I do; that’s the way I am made.
I tried reading love stories, but I got quickly bored from the first “I love you” that schmoozed out of the page. I tried my hand at cloak-and-dagger whodunit stories, but to find myself acting like a criminal. For no sooner I read the first pages than I jumped to the end to find who’s done it then throw the book. As to philosophy books; forget it. They are too profound for my simply structured mind¾if not shallow. My mind is too prone to rove, especially when the subject in hand is too entangled. Actually, I tried to read Spinoza one time—why in the world Spinoza? Well, it was lying on my night-dresser; Chucry had left it behind when he went on vacation.
We were in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, at the time, and I was out of my usual reading material (newspapers), and too lazy to go out and buy me some new ones. So I grabbed Spinoza to see how far I could go with him without itching. Surprisingly enough, things went rather nicely for a while. As a matter of fact, I enjoyed him very much. That is, as long as he was talking about religious tolerance and the necessity of a religious liberty, and explaining the discrepancies he discovered in the translation of the Scriptures; how some words, when replaced by their proper meaning, could alter the whole context in which they were used. I was fascinated by all his findings, until I reached the part when he turned into another Descartes, and plunged into a metaphysical description of divinity and the characteristics involved therein.
Suddenly, everything became so entangled in my mind that I had hard time breathing. I had to lay down the book at once; my head couldn’t take the pressure anymore. He gave me such a splitting headache that I had to bang my head on the wall to release the pressure¾honest. Ask the neighbors. So I had to stop reading lest I run the risk of having the Saudi police knock at my door (You definitely don’t want to explain Spinoza to a Saudi Police. No sir-ee!), to check who I was clobbering in my house, when in reality, I was the one being clobbered. No offence to Spinoza. What can I say: I have no ear for metaphysics¾nor a stomach, for that matter.
Copyright © 2009 Georges H. Chakkour – Tous droits réservés