06/07/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Naguib Mahfouz: An Author Who Values Humanity

We complain and seek relief from our own faults; we suffer from the evils which we, by our own free will, inflict on ourselves and ascribe them to God, who is far from being connected with them! (Moses Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed 3:12)

"I guess you were right

When we talked in the heat,

There's no room for the weak,

No room for the weak.

Where will it end?"

(Joy Division, "Day of the Lords")

I was recently reading Daniel Mendelsohn's New York Review of Books essay on James Cameron's mega-blockbuster Avatar and was struck by the following comment: "Humanity and human life have never held much attraction for Cameron; if anything, you can say that in all his movies there is a yearning to leave the flesh of Homo sapiens behind for something stronger and tougher."

I then began to consider the way in which contemporary culture has generated an explosion of social networking sites and technological advances in communication, but has often left behind the precious value of humanity. Popular films like Avatar and The Dark Knight are less about the intricacies of daily life and more about the great spectacle of our illusions and myths.

The Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz made the human the focus of his many novels. After beginning his literary career with a series of mediocre novels on ancient Egypt, Mahfouz moved on to tell the stories of the modern Cairo he knew best. His second novel in his social realist phase, first published in 1945, has just been issued in English translation and gives us a fascinating example of human pain, degradation, and the tyranny of social relations.

In Cairo Modern, Mahfouz tells the story of a young man, Mahgub Abd al-Da'im, who grows up in very humble circumstances and cynically develops a nihilistic philosophy of life. His two middle-class friends, Ali Taha, the socialist, and Ma'mun Radwan, the Muslim fundamentalist, present contrasting viewpoints on the future of Egyptian society -- pitting secular against religious.

In the novel, Mahgub is faced with his family's humiliating poverty and the crushing blows of not having been born into social privilege. He faces an Egypt that is rife with social, financial, political, and sexual corruption. After his father suffers a debilitating stroke, Mahgub is left to ponder his future:

How could he starve to death in such a world? The question seemed bizarrely eccentric to him. He laughed mockingly, sarcastically, defiantly. He asked rebelliously, "Should I die of hunger? May rain never fall. May rain never fall." Had anyone who was really depraved gone hungry in this world?

Mahgub's depravity turns from theory to practice when he enters the job market and finds that his theory about life has become a reality. Seeing that he has no sponsors to get him a position in the civil service, Mahgub enters into a sordid affair involving a marriage of convenience that turns him into a bizarre combination of Pimp and Cuckold. This "New" Cairo is a filthy place where the weak are exploited by the strong, where the wealthy call the shots and can dictate to unfortunates like Mahgub how low they must grovel to simply live and support themselves. To live with humility and moral integrity is seen as an open invitation to persecution and victimization.

The central plot line, with its echoes of Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, shows the way that Mahfouz adapted Western literature to suit his own purposes. Unlike the European novel, which highlights the extreme from of madness that ensues when love goes wrong, Cairo Modern is firmly grounded in the moral principles that underpin Egyptian society. The contrast between Arab and European culture could not be more obvious: in Mahgub's fall Mahfouz shatters the romantic illusions that sustain the European Romantic tradition.

Thirty years after the publication of Cairo Modern, Mahfouz returned, in Respected Sir, to this same theme of the crushing injustice of life. In that novel the protagonist Othman Bayyumi, unlike Mahgub, dutifully follows all the rules: he works hard, keeps his poise and dignity, and makes a success of himself. But, like Mahgub, Othman is dazzled by all the glitter he sees around him. He turns his thrift into miserliness, his high standards for a wife into the curse of social networking, and his discipline into arrogance. His ambition turns pathological. Othman is obsessed with becoming a big player in Egyptian society.

His obsessions turn him into a nasty brute who misses all his chances to have a happy and normal life. Like Mahgub, he ends up in a world of whores, victimizers, and adulterers. Rejecting the simplicity and goodness of life, Othman builds a useless life of frenetic concern for social standing and political power. He spends the many years of his bureaucratic career anxiously awaiting the deaths of his superiors in order to advance up the ladder of the civil service hierarchy.

At one time American writers and artists concerned themselves with these same complexities of life rather than the epic impressions of the spectacle.

I was recently watching an old Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy movie called I Married an Angel (the film based on a musical play by Rodgers and Hart), where the same theme was broached. Eddy plays a wealthy playboy who brushes off the meek MacDonald, until he drifts off into sleep during his own birthday party and dreams that MacDonald is an angel whom he falls in love with.

The dream narrative takes a turn into the surreal when, during their romance, MacDonald begins to act in ways that are contrary to the social conventions of Eddy's upper-crust world. MacDonald the angel begins to speak in very truthful and frank terms with the rich socialites -- all of whom are committing adultery and primping their vanity with lies and deceit. Eddy explains to her that she must not speak in such a frank manner -- but she is not able to process what he is saying, and things begin to degenerate and go haywire.

As we see in Cairo Modern and Respected Sir, life is a very fragile thing. Looking at our present circumstances, we see a great deal of blather about freedom coming from the Right Wing camp. What never seems to be discussed is the way in which our freedom is constricted by the pressures of a culture that demands conformity; when our livelihood forces us to make decisions that lack the rudiments of morality and which serve to make life miserable and unlivable.

So when we think about the massive advances in technology that have enabled projects like Avatar, we would do well to consider our cultural losses when it comes to our humanity. As many in the world continue to struggle with the depredations of poverty, the culture of the spectacle, that of the Avatars and the Lady Gagas and all the rest of the shiny new toys that we get on a daily basis, has anesthetized us to the most elementary values of humanity and the struggle of individuals to live with dignity. The blockbusters of the present often close the window on real life and the way in which we should be caring and concerned for one another.