Farid al-Din Attar: A Reading Journal 5

When I was in my twenties, a friend and I used to talk all the time about how impoverished the English vocabulary for love is, not just in the sense that we use the word love to talk about our feelings for people, animals, food, movies, song, sports, and more; but also, and more significantly, in the sense that we use this word, usually without a modifier, to talk about very different kinds of intimate relationships between and among people. When I say I love my son, for example, is that the same love I refer to when I say I love my wife or my sister, my friend, my mentor, or my student? If not, this friend and I would ask ourselves, then shouldn’t each of those “loves” be signified by a different word? The fact that you can modify love with various adjectives–sexual, romantic, filial, platonic, divine–didn’t satisfy us because, while it was clear that, say, my filial love for my sister ought to exclude sexual love, my love for a girlfriend ought just as clearly to exceed it. I think we might vaguely have been aware of the distinctions between and among agape, eros, and philia, but since neither I nor my friend were Christian—and just about the only contexts in which I had seen those terms discussed were Christian—we did not think of them as a framework for answering our questions.

On the other hand, if love is love and nothing else, if it is not divisible into different types depending on its object and circumstance, then the question of what we mean when we say we love someone becomes at once more straightforward and more complex. What do my love for my parents, my friends, my lovers, my children all have in common? As I said in Part 2 of this series, for me, love is an acceptance in my life of their full existence as people separate from me. This is true even of my love for my son. Yes, he is dependent on me for room and board and many, many other material and non-material things; yes, I set limits on his life and expect from him certain behaviors as evidence of, say, his maturity, and I set consequences when he doesn’t meet those expectations. The fact, however, that I have made a commitment to his physical, emotional, psychological, and socio-economic well being, and to his happiness, is not the same thing as seeing in him an extension of myself, of living vicariously through him, of seeing in him the fulfillment (or not) of my own personal aspirations.

I have come to this way of thinking about love over the course of a lot of years, but I make no claim to its being anything other than my way of understanding what it means for me to love someone. I find it useful, meaningful, fulfilling, because it allows me to distinguish between how I act towards the people I love, which–no matter how hard I may try to make it otherwise–is not always loving and can be motivated by an agenda that has more to do with me than with them, and my overall commitment not to make them into/treat them as extensions of myself. In The Conference of the Birds, Farid al-din Attar also wants to distinguish what we mean when use the word love to refer to this kind of personal agenda and what love itself really is. One bird, for example, refuses to follow the hoopoe on the journey to find the Simorgh, the journey of enlightenment, because he believes he already knows what love is, and he cannot bear to be separated from what he loves:

“Great hoopoe,” said another bird, “my love
Has loaded me with chains, I cannot move.
This bandit, Love, confronted me and stole
My intellect, my heart, my inmost soul–
The image of her face is like a thief
Who fires the harvest and leaves only grief.
Without her I endure the pangs of hell,
Raving and cursing like an infidel;
How can I travel when my heart must stay
Lapped here in blood?” (110)

And then later:

 My pain exceeds all cure or remedy;
I’ve passed beyond both faith and blasphemy–
My blasphemy and faith are love for her;
My soul is her abject idolater–
And though companionless I weep and groan,
My friend is sorrow; I am not alone.
My love has brought me countless miseries,
But in her hair lie countless mysteries;
Without her face, blood chokes me, I am drowned,
I’m dust blown aimlessly across the ground. (110-111)

It’s not an uncommon feeling. You meet someone and, for whatever reason, you’re hooked; you do everything you can not to be away from her or him; and when you are away, it is a kind of misery because the rest of your life pales in comparison. I don’t think anyone who’s older than a teenager, and who is honest with themselves, mistakes this feeling for love, though, and Attar’s hoopoe, at first glance, appears to be no different:

The hoopoe said: “You are the prisoner of
Appearances, a superficial love;
This love is not divine; it is mere greed
For flesh – an animal, instinctive need.
To love what is deficient, trapped in time,
Is more than foolishness, it is a crime–
And blasphemous the struggle to evade
That perfect beauty which can never fade. (111)

On the one hand, of course, yes. The bird who cannot bring himself to leave his beloved, who has given over to her face the power to steal him from himself, to the degree that he, metaphorically speaking, chokes and drowns on his own blood, is clearly more concerned with himself, with his needs, than with her. Yet the hoopoe does not say this is not love, that it is, for example, lust. Rather, he says, simply, that it is not a divine love and that, because it is directed at “what is deficient/trapped in time,” it is a love that has been reduced to “mere greed/for flesh.” The underlying impulse of this bird’s love/greed, in other words, is no different than the impulse that drives one towards “that perfect beauty which can never fade.” Both are a desire for union, to be absolutely inseparable from the beloved, though the desire for oneness with God is (according to Attar) the only properly directed one, since its object is not something trapped in time and therefore never fully possessed, but rather “the absent, unseen Friend” (111) who is beyond possession.

Or, to put it another way, one of the reasons union with God is possible is that God is beyond possession and so it is only in God that you can be loved truly for yourself. Or, in another formulation, since you and a human beloved are always, by definition, irreconcilably absent from each other–because you live in separate bodies that will eventually, and separately, die–the love you have for each other will always be limited by and to those bodies, making the union you desire impossible. Your absence from God, on the other hand, can be reconciled, because in loving God you are not loving another body, but rather the transcendence which is already in you and to which it is possible for you to return.

To illustrate this point, the hoopoe tells the story of a merchant who sells his favorite, “sweet as sugar” slave girl. The merchant regrets what he’s done and tries desperately to buy the girl back, but her new owner, presumably as enamored of her as her former one, refuses. The merchant suffers this loss terribly:

[He] paced the street, his mind in hell,
And groaned: “I cannot bear this searing pain–
But anyone who gives his love for gain,
Who stitches tight the eyes of common-sense
Deserves as much for his improvidence–
To think that on that fatal market-day
I tricked myself and gave the best away.” (112)

The merchant, by placing so much value on “the world’s bright surfaces,” i.e., the money he received for the girl and the things he imagined he might buy with it, ended up losing what was really important to him, the girl herself. By the same token, Attar says, in loving that which is only a surface–someone else whose body will soon die–we fail to value the way our “breaths are jewels” and “each atom is a guide/To lead [us] to the Truth,” which is that we are always already “glorified/From head to foot with His great wealth.” Our absence from God, in other words, is the result of ignorance, of our not knowing just how divine we already are, nothing else, and if we would only understand that, then we “would not wait/Inured by patience to [our] wretched fate,” which is, ultimately, to die.

It’s hard not to see in this desire for union with God, and the definition of that union as love, something of the desire to return to the mother, to the oneness and all-encompassing identification with our mothers that we project back not only on our infancy, but also on our existence within her womb; and if this is the case, then the separation from God that Attar talks about, and the pain of that separation, which he explores later in The Conference of the Birds and also in some of the poems I am now working on from Elahi Nameh, starts to look like the violent and painful separation from the feminine that is part of male initiation rites all over the world. (For an interesting discussion of this, I refer you to Manhood in the Making, by David Gilmore.) The pain of this separation also begins to sound like the male wound that Robert Bly and others made so much of in the 1980s and 90s, when the mythopoetic men’s movement had so much currency.

Bly and his colleagues saw this wound, the responsible bearing of it, the exploration and understanding of it, as the essential task of masculinity; and to the degree that Sufism sees the path to God as a male one, as one on which even those women who take it need to be like men (more about this in a future post), and, more, to the degree that Sufis see failure on this path as unmanning (more about this in a future post as well), the Sufi way—at least as it seems to be defined in Attar’s work—begins to look more and more like a spiritualized male rite of passage. One major difference, of course, is that while Bly and company argued that woundedness was a permanent condition of manhood, one that could not be undone, the entire Sufi project is to undo the wound of separation. This difference plays itself out in how each of these ways of being a man defines love. For the mythopoetic men’s movement, if I remember it correctly, love was a way of transcending woundedness, of making it bearable, livable, of giving it meaning; for the Sufis, love is a way of healing the wound through transcendence. Neither way of thinking really satisfies me I wonder what it would mean to leave this idea of male woundedness behind entirely and imagine love from an the different perspective that emerges.

Cross-posted on my blog.

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