That mystical experience exists outside of language is axiomatic, and if it exists outside of language, then it also must exist outside the network of power relations, ineluctably embedded in language, that human beings navigate daily. Indeed, this is something I have been told at different times of my life by different spiritual seekers. True spirituality, they have wanted me to believe, the pursuit of an ultimate, transcendent level of awareness is apolitical by definition. What they say makes perfect sense to me when I think about death, the one, final transcendent experience that we all share; but when I think about what it would mean to follow any of the spiritual paths they have laid out before me, not only was the language in which they tried to describe the transcendence that waits for me at the end of it inevitably embedded in the power relations of our culture, but there is no escaping the fact that–at least in the monotheistic traditions with which I am most familiar–the relationship between the individual seeker and that with which he or she wants to achieve oneness is one of power, and how can that not be political?
Farid al-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, translated by Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis, is an allegory of spiritual seeking, in which an assembly of birds sets out in search of the Simorgh, the king of the birds, in order to attain true enlightenment. At their journey’s end, the thirty birds that remain discover that they themselves are the Simorgh, that the enlightenment they have been seeking has always been within them. This moment of revelation turns on a pun that is impossible in English, for Simorgh means thirty (si) birds (morgh):
There in the Simorgh’s radiant face they saw
Themselves, the Simorgh of the world—with awe
They gazed, and dared at last to comprehend
They were the Simorgh and the journey’s end. (219)
To reach this end, the birds must first travel the very difficult path by which they will learn to shed the carnal, mundane, worldly self separating them from what they desire. Divided into stages, this journey forms the overarching narrative of the poem, providing the frame which Attar then fills in with illustrative tales told by the hoopoe, the bird the other birds elect as their guide. The hoopoe defines the journey as one informed by a lover’s desire:
Join me, and when at last we end our quest
Our king will greet you as His honoured guest.
How long will you persist in blasphemy?
Escape your self-hood’s vicious tyranny—
Whoever can evade the Self transcends
This world and as a lover he ascends.
Set free your soul; impatient of delay,
Step out along our sovereign’s royal Way[.] (33)
All three monotheistic religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—enjoin their followers to love their god, but this command, as I understand it, is quite different from what the Sufis mean when they say that you should strive to become a lover of God, for they mean not simply that you should love God the way you love your father, for example, but rather that you should burn with love for God the way you might burn with desire for a human beloved, that the energy you burn with for union with that other person is precisely the energy that needs to be transformed along the mystical path into the pure energy of union with God. Indeed, so strongly did some Sufis connect human sexual love and desire to the love and desire they aspired to experience in their god that there are stories in which Sufi masters advise those who want to follow the path–and in these stories the master and disciple are always men–to try loving a woman first.
Sexual love and desire might be only the dimmest shadow of what is to be found in intimacy with God, but that is precisely why, in this understanding of mystical enlightenment, it is a place to start. Transcending carnal love, however, is not easy, and in The Conference of the Birds, carnal love itself is the first obstacle the birds have to overcome before they can start their quest. The nightingale puts it this way:
My love is for the rose; I bow to her;
From her dear presence I could never stir.
If she should disappear the nightingale
Would lose his reason and his song would fail,
And though my grief is one that no bird knows,
One being understand my heart—the rose.
I am so drowned in love that I can find
No thought of my existence in my mind.
Her worship is sufficient life for me;
The quest for her is my reality….
My love is here; the journey you propose
Cannot beguile me from my life—the rose.
Notice that love, for the nightingale, is about losing sight of its own existence as it becomes lost in “worship” of the rose. This impulse towards a complete loss of self in a human beloved is what the Sufis believed could be nurtured into that deeper more transcendent union with God that I talked about above. Notice also, however, the contradiction between this impulse towards self-erasure and the closing lines of the nightingale’s complaint:
It is for me [the rose] flowers; what greater bliss
Could life provide me—anywhere—than this?
Her buds are mine; she blossoms in my sight—
How could I leave her for a single night? (36)
Whatever else might be true about the nightingale’s impulse towards selfless love, what it experiences in desiring the rose is the precise opposite of selflessness. The rose, it thinks, exists for it, to be possessed by it, and it is so invested in this possession that it cannot bear the thought of leaving the rose even for one night. Even by its own definition, then, what the nightingale experiences is not really love, because its relationship to the rose is not really about the rose at all, but rather the satisfaction of its own selfish desires.
In response, the hoopoe chastises the nightingale, criticizing it for caring so much about “the outward show of things,” pointing out that “sharp thorns defend the rose/And beauty such as hers too quickly goes.” Yet the hoopoe’s point is not just that beauty is only skin deep. Rather, the hoopoe wants the nightingale to know, it is in the nature of the created world that it seduces us with its beauty, with the illusion of a lasting value that exists only for us, and then leaves us desolate when either we or it dies: “Forget the rose’s blush and blush for shame!/Each spring she laughs, not for you, as you say,/But at you—and has faded in a day” (36-7). By way of illustration, the hoopoe then tells “The Story of a Dervish and a Princess,” in which a dervish falls in love at first sight with a princess
Was such that any man who glimpsed her face
Declared himself in love. Like starless dusk
Her dark hair hung, soft-scented like fine musk;
The charm of her slow, humid eyes awoke
The depths of sleeping love, and when she spoke,
No sugar was as sweet as her lips’ sweet;
No rubies with their colour could compete. (37)
The dervish is as stricken with this princess as the nightingale is with the rose, growing “wild/With ardent love, with restless misery;/For seven years he wept continually,” happily choosing to live amongst the stray dogs outside her gate in order to be near her. Unlike the rose, however, the princess has a station in life, making it both unseemly and shameful for her to have this ragged man attach himself to her, and so her “serving-men,” to restore her honor, conspire to murder the dervish. The princess learns of these plans and warns the him, asking him how he could possibly have hoped for love between himself “and the daughter of a queen.” He replies:
That day when I
First saw your beauty I despaired of life;
Why should I fear the hired assassin’s knife?
A hundred thousand men adore your face;
No power on earth could make me leave this place.
But since your servants want to murder me,
Explain the meaning of this mystery:
Why did you smile at me that day [and cause me to fall in love with you]? (37-38)
So fully does he love the princess, the dervish says, so completely has he given his life over to love of her, that he is perfectly willing to die, since he has already, in his estimation, ceased to exist for himself. His final question, however, betrays him. In wanting to know why the princess smiled at him, he reveals his love as a kind of vanity, a desire more to satisfy himself than to lose himself. In the princess’ response, the dervish gets, within this way of thinking, just what he deserves:
I smiled from pity, almost ridicule–
Your ignorance provoked that smile.” She spoke,
And vanished like a wisp of strengthless smoke. (38)
The point of the hoopoe’s story, of course, is to show the nightingale the error of its ways, but every time I read the tale, or one like it—because the literature I am translating is filled with this kind of narrative—I find myself thinking that the error is in calling love, or even a shadow of love, the impulse to self-erasure that the nightingale and the dervish so passionately feel. It’s not just that we would today very likely call the dervish’s behavior a kind of stalking, which few would now mistake for love of any sort; it’s that the idea of love as the desire to lose yourself in your beloved, to disappear as a self into a seamless union with her or him, has never felt right to me, not in my personal relationships, romantic or otherwise, and not in my relationship with the god I believed in when I was much younger, when I thought I might study to be a rabbi, and I first heard about how much my yiddishe neshama, my Jewish soul, ostensibly yearned to be with the god who created it.
Even then, when I desperately wanted that god’s love and approval, when I was fully convinced that living my life according to his laws would make me not just a good person, but a person worthy of him, of life in Olam Haba, The World to Come, even then, the idea that what my soul really wanted was to find its way back to an original, seamless communion with God left me cold. No, more than that, it made me angry and I rebelled against it; and a part of me rebels against it even now, despite the fact that I have left my belief in a god far behind. For whatever else may be true about the experience of mystical union with God, the idea of that union, the theory that posits union as a goal, the union itself–none of that can be apolitical. In this kind of belief system, after all, God has absolute power over us, and absolute power is political by definition. Even if you are a person of perfect faith and believe that this is the only and best, most just way for the world to be organized, all you are doing is assenting to the politics inherent in your faith.
So if love—human or mystical—is understood to be the impulse towards this union with God, then love, too, is political. It is, in other words, not merely an emotional experience we embody; it is also and always an ideology we embrace. What bothers me is not that this should be so, but that people pretend it is not so. More on this in my upcoming posts.
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- Jewish Journal: Hereville is a “perfect Chanukah gift”!
- Incredibly Kind Review of Hereville in School Library Journal!