Bernard Lewis, 1916-2018.
The university flag at Princeton is flying at half-mast. It's an appropriate tribute to Bernard Lewis, who died on May 19, less than a fortnight from his 102nd birthday. Professor Lewis was one of the great scholars of the 20th century and a happy Princetonian. He left the University of London and moved to New Jersey in 1974. He could be testy about the lack of gastronomic and bookstore possibilities in his new home, but given his London and Paris pedigrees, he was goodhearted about the insufficiencies. I've been taking out Lewis's books since he passed, skimming them, looking at the notes I've jotted in the margins over the decades. One can read Lewis's many works as one reads great novels: repeatedly, for something new always pops out. I'd often circled Arabic, Persian, and Turkish words because they are the signposts that Lewis used to demarcate the primary themes of Islamic civilization. Lewis was old-fashioned and modern: He insisted on understanding foreigners in their own languages, the first rule of the much-maligned orientalists, and he always understood, in much the same way that Wittgenstein did, that our entire frame of reference, our identities—the superstructure of our thought—hinge on words and how they radiate within us.
Lewis is easily the greatest punmeister I have encountered: He could pun in a dozen languages and he would eagerly await to see if the listener picked up his humor, which could be, befitting his English sensibilities, subtle. His luminescent eyes and omnipresent grin would immediately reward a listener who caught his playfulness. If it took several minutes to catch the allusion, if it took days, the professor always, cheerfully, gave partial credit. Lewis was sincerely, deeply, unstoppably puckish—a relief in any academic field, but especially in Islamic studies, which increasingly seems populated with killjoys. I always saw the professor's river of puns as a polite but impish way of taking issue with the political correctness that had descended on American academic life, the crude earnestness that cheats young men and women of the immensity of the knowledge and experiences that make good minds great.
Lewis loathed text-destroying literary deconstructionism—the pernicious movement born of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault that has run amok in history and sociology, giving birth to, among other things, Edward Said's Orientalism—which made subjectivity a virtue among scholars. In his famous 1982 takedown of Said's defining work in the New York Review of Books, Lewis stood staunchly for the Western historical tradition that any civilization or culture is open to critical examination by those who do the necessary homework, first and foremost doing the natives the courtesy of learning their languages and reading what they have said about themselves. Although he never told me that he had a list of commandments for a historian, his commentary and methodology certainly revealed that at the top of his guide for the historically curious would have been: Thou Shalt Not Mirror Image. His second commandment would likely have been: Never Condescend. In describing and critiquing Muslim societies, be they long vanished or modern, Western historians should never dull the edge of their observations because of sensitivity, compassion, guilt, or the incidental fact that the historian isn't Muslim. Lewis's greatest historical work, The Muslim Discovery of Europe, published in 1982, was the product of a 50-year curiosity about how Muslims saw Christendom and the far more complicated and alien force, the secular West.
Contrary to much that has been written, Lewis wasn't a particularly political person. He was a proud patriot, of both America and Britain. Having been a member of MI6 during World War II, he understood that scholars could serve their country without diminishing their intellectual probity—as only one who's been inside truly knows. This disposition, familiar to Americans who saw World War II and the early Cold War, is foreign to many younger scholars, who've been raised to suspect all associations between intellectuals and government. (These sentiments are more common in the United States than in Europe, where intellectual and official elites continue to commingle more easily.) Lewis's sincere patriotism—the commendable imperative that if democratically elected representatives ask for the opinion of scholars they should have the decency to give it—led him occasionally to Washington to see bureaucrats, congressmen, and presidents.
Lewis unfailingly understood that American soldiers, diplomats, and spies aren't trying to dominate or conquer or exploit foreign societies when they do their utmost to penetrate them, to learn how the natives think and how they see foreigners. When I was in the Central Intelligence Agency, I once had an asset who loved the medieval Persian vizier Nizam al-Mulk's Siyasatnameh, perhaps the most famous "mirror for princes," the guidebooks written to instruct rulers on how to govern their realms. Lewis and I once spent hours on the literary genre as I tried to understand better how my asset understood Mulk's masterpiece. I later told the gentleman what I had done. I asked him if he felt "victimized"—a plaything for the amusement of conspiring imperialists. He felt honored.
Despite his willingness to offer his advice, Lewis was never at ease in Washington. The capital's urgent seriousness was not his cup of tea. He knew the place was an all-consuming maw, that it is even nastier than academe. Lewis loved the socializing of good salons, which in his day weren't yet extinct in the capital of the free world. But his preference was always for something more mirthful than what Washington could usually provide. Once when I flew in from overseas to see him in Princeton, he told me to not unpack my bags, that we were leaving immediately for a dinner party. I remonstrated, preferring to just drink with him. He answered that we were going to an intimate gathering of 12, we would likely be the only men present, and "we had to sing for our supper." I relented. As I was ready to knock on the mansion's door, Lewis stopped me, reminding me that he was getting old, that he could sometimes repeat himself in conversation, and that I was to signal him if he was doing so. He added, however, that if the women appeared to be enjoying his stories more the second time round, "please, don't stop me."
Lewis's scholarly instincts didn't lend themselves well to American political etiquette. His willingness to critique anyone or anything through his multi-angled historical prism meant the professor could be dangerous in small gatherings. As much as Lewis didn't care for leftists who viewed him as a Zion-loving bigot, he wasn't fond at all of right-wingers who viewed Islam—the vast, variegated, cosmopolitan civilization—as essentially a long prelude to Osama bin Laden and contemporary jihadism. I was with Lewis and the late Fouad Ajami, to whom Lewis had grown close, at a gathering of intellectuals and scholars in Washington not long after 9/11. Lewis was at his most acerbic when a prominent conservative politician addressed our group, revealing that he had zero idea of what Islam was and probably had spent no time with Muslims. Lewis turned to me, Ajami, and others and complimented the man's diction. Since the early 1980s, Lewis had the deepest foreboding about Muslim immigration to Europe, that neither Muslim immigrants nor Europeans could adjust well to each other given the numbers involved and the proud, deeply rooted, (secularized) Christian identities that underlay European nationalities; he had considerable sympathy, however, for the immigrants who wanted better lives but found it hard to forsake the traditions of their homelands. Lewis could slice at Islamophobes as mordantly as at Saidians. He excelled at appreciating difficult, seemingly intractable situations.
Where Lewis was most comfortable was around books, of course. His personal library, which he gave away to Tel Aviv University, was vast. Among my most cherished memories of him is walking through the rows of books in his Princeton home, stopping as Lewis took out volumes and told stories. He would transport me through space and time, to distant lands and people. So often, he got me off the ground so the winds could carry me. I thanked Lewis for what he had done for me; I didn't thank him enough. The professor was more than a teacher and a friend: He was an oracle, a gift from the gods who allowed men to see their humanity.
Goodbye, Bernard. I loved you dearly.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a contributing editor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.