Farid al-Din Attar: A Reading Journal 6

Here’s another quote from The Conference of the Birds:

But think of some new pilgrim, some young boy,
Whose boldness comes from mere excess of joy;
He has no certain knowledge of the Way,
And what seems rudeness is but loving play—
He’s like a madman—love’s audacity
Will have him walking on the restless sea.
Such ways are laudable; we should admire
This love that turns him to a blazing fire;
One can’t expect discretion from a flame,
And madmen are beyond reproach or blame—
When madness chooses you to be its prey
We’ll hear what crazy things you have to say. (140)

I was struck when I read this by how Attar uses the metaphor of the flame not simply to characterize the interior experience of the “new pilgrim,” the young boy who has just discovered his desire for oneness with God, but also to license and excuse, and even praise, behavior that might otherwise seem “rude.” Love in this formulation is heat and it ignites those who feel it into something that is not human, that has no thought, no feeling in itself, though it imparts feeling to those who touch it, and that moves through the world consuming whatever is susceptible to it. This idea, that love is something beyond our control, something that we are helpless to do anything but feel and act out of, is also present in other metaphors, like “falling in love,” where love is something we enter (or in which we immerse ourselves) if not by accident, then certainly in spite of ourselves. How many times have you heard someone say, for example, I think I’m falling in love or I can’t help it; I love her (or him)?

What struck me most about this passage, however, was the way Attar admonishes us not to mistake the young boy’s exuberance for rudeness, asking us—with a kind of boys will be boys shrug-of-the-shoulders—to see it instead as “loving play.” For just as boys will be boys is both an observation and an imperative, something we construct and then, once we’ve erased that fact that we’ve constructed it, something we accept as natural, so too the idea that “one can’t expect discretion from a flame,” that “madmen are [therefore] beyond reproach or blame,” both frames love as a force of nature that possesses human being, obliterating reason and inducing madness, and then calls that framing natural in itself. Indeed, when I first read this passage I could not help but think of the look-what-she-was-wearing-what-else-did-she-expect justification/rationalization/explanation we all too often hear when people try to shift the blame away from a rapist onto the woman who, within this logic, sparked the flame that left the rapist no choice but to do what he did. After all, and I assume the terms of the metaphor are clear enough that I don’t have to spell them out, you cannot blame the fire for jumping from the match on which it started to the piece of paper that gets too close or for burning back to its source the trail of gasoline someone carelessly left on the ground.

I have no idea what Attar himself thought of rape, though I can probably guess, but I have no doubt that he would dismiss the association I’ve just made as ultimately beside the point. By locating my discussion of his metaphor in the carnal and mundane world of men and women rather than the relationship between men and God, I suspect he would say, I am worrying about the wrong thing. It may be true, I think he would argue, that sexual desire can make the man who desires feel like he is on fire, and it may be true that this man will therefore pursue women—sometimes unethically—in order to quench that fire, but focusing on that part of the problem is the problem. Simply put, it does not leave any room for transcendence, for the possibility of desiring, of burning, not just for something that cannot be possessed, but for something (God) that is not even a something—for love, in other words, without an external object.

I recognize that what I’ve just written does not take the possibility of female desire into account, but I’ve done that because the world of desire as Attar describes it—not just in The Conference of the Birds, but also in Elahi Nameh, the book I am now translating—is exclusively male. The objects of this desire can be either women or other men, but the one who desires is always a man, and it is always the problem of transcendence, of finding a way beyond the purely carnal, with which his desire confronts him. Interestingly, Attar does not present this transcendence as something that comes to us “naturally.” Rather, it is a moment of being and consciousness that must be slowly and meticulously constructed, worked towards, because it requires the dismantling, or at least the reining in of what is (constructed as) natural, what is understood to be part of an essential male human nature: the love that burns like fire.

To put this another way: there is a reciprocal relationship between the particular kind of transcendence that the Sufis pursue—at least as that transcendence is described by Attar in The Conference of the Birds—and what they understand to be the “natural” state of male love and desire. Within Sufism, at least as far as I have understood till now, one does not exist without the other, which raises interesting questions about the metaphysical, epistemological, ontological, and perhaps even theological limitations of a love and desire that are rooted in—even if only as a reaction to—the sexual objectification of women.

Cross-posted on my blog.

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2 Responses to Farid al-Din Attar: A Reading Journal 6

  1. 1
    Nancy Lebovitz says:

    I read the passage as ambiguous about sexual assault. “Loving play” could point in that direction, but “rude”, and “boy”, and “what crazy things you have to say” sounds more to me like a child who’s expected to be completely orderly and sedate bursting out in ways which are shocking but not abusive.

    At the same time, it’s the people who are not in a mystical state who are expected to recognize and put up with someone who’s weird and out of control. All the self-restraint is supposed to be on one side, which does have some nasty parallels with how people who are being bullied are frequently expected to behave.

  2. Nancy:

    I read the passage as ambiguous about sexual assault.

    That makes sense to me if you read the passage out of the context of the entire book, but, to me anyway, of you read the entire poem, it’s hard not to give sexual readings to passages like this one, just because so many of the stories involve some kind of sexual/erotic/romantic love.