A book about oddity and literature would naturally seem attractive, with readers expecting it to highlight experimental writing and the absurd.
But the connotations of the topic could be deceiving. The relationship between oddity and literature is not necessarily unique or new. However, it remains engaging because it takes readers through Gothic literature all the way through contemporary times.
“Oddity … The Principle and its Representations in Literature,” the latest book by current Culture Minister Shaker Abdel Hamid, falls in the latter camp. It seems like a sequel to his celebrated 2010 book, “Arts and Oddity.”
Comprising nine chapters and a prelude, the book explores psychological interpretations of oddity. And, owing to Abdel Hamid’s academic background in creative psychology, the book focuses on psychological interpretations of the concept at the expense of others, reflecting prejudice toward the theories of French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Jacques Marie Emile Lacan, and of course the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. In fact, Freud’s famous essay, “The Uncanny,” seems like a starting point for Abdel Hamid’s book.
In the first chapter of the book, he investigates the meanings and connotations of oddity across languages. Among his most interesting finds is that many languages understand oddity as feelings that one is out of place, far away from all that feels natural and familiar like “home.”
But this is not what the book is really about, and as one reads through, one encounters insightful examples of when explorations of oddity became pervasive in literature, after it was a representation of Gothic literature and the stories of zombies and vampires. He builds on the theories of Michael Foucault and Walter Benjamin about how big cities could increase feelings of strangeness, inspiring many writers. Yet he also argues that the internet and social media are contemporary means to feeling odd, with people living in their own worlds rather than actually communicating and interacting with one another.
In each chapter, Abdel Hamid discusses factors that contribute to feeling odd, from fear and self-destructiveness to ghosts. But what is most interesting is the body of literature he cites. It makes you want to read and reread them. He mentions novels that have a lot of strange elements — including transformation, dopplegangers, and feelings of emptiness — including Horace Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto,” Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and Jose Saramago’s “The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.” And in chapter eight, he presents his translation of the “Man of Sands” story by German author Ernst Hoffman as an expression of strangeness.
Abdel Hamid also discusses Arabic literature that plays on oddity, such as “Under the Umbrella,” a story by Egyptian author Ibrahim Abdel Meguid. In it, the narrator stands alone on a street at night, watching strange people cut their heads off or join a protest and raise placards without text written onto them. “Under the Umbrella” plays on the same elements of oddity — fear, madness and solitude.
By virtue of the book’s topic, it is quite academic and a bit dry for general readers. But Abdel Hamid goes to great length to mediate the various concepts he engages with, using an encyclopedic approach, and trying to be as clear and satisfying as possible.
“Oddity … The Principle and its Representations in Literature” was published by the Kuwait National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters in January 2012.