Longing to touch the untouchable
On Sadegh Hedayat's "The Blind Owl"
September 14, 2006
I recently submitted a short piece on boof-e-koor, "THIS is beaity". I have attached a longer paper I wrote for a university course exploring expressionist themes presented in Hedayat's work.
Kafka furtively writes, hunched over in an almost madman’s frenzy, the role of Abgrund in Die Brücke. What better way to convey the intensity he feels than to cast his protagonist literally as a bridge- how else could he exhibit her fragility, her need to be used? Munch almost falls over himself as he grabs for the red paint- red for the halo of the Madonna-yes, red- a bright gaudy red, and she is stripped, naked, but how else could he have possibly shown the raw sexuality of a virgin, how else could he have made them understand? Hedayat is lying down as he imagines her, the object of his narrator’s affection, being killed-twice-, slashed and cut and stored away-twice- or maybe three times, he still has not decided, for how else could he express what her presence has caused him and how much unbearably more her death will cause?
Sadeq Hedayat’s The Blind Owl molds and crushes only to remold a reality which is as questionable as it is pained. Franz Kafka, Edvard Munch, and Sadeq Hedayat are all most heavily influenced by expressionist ideals which forsake objective reality for “subjective emotions and responses that objects and events arouse in him (the artist). He accomplishes his aim through distortion, exaggeration, primitivism, and fantasy and through the vivid, jarring, violent, or dynamic application of formal elements”. This expressionist ideal is best exhibited in Hedayat’s The Blind Owl in the narrator’s description of himself and interaction with the reappearing female character and is further highlighted when placed in direct comparison with Edvard Munch’s two pieces The Scream and Madonna.
The primary trinity of women dominating Hedayat’s narrator’s mind are the ethereal beauty the narrator first supposedly sees throughout the ventilation-hole in his grimy apartment while trying to reach a bottle of wine for his uncle, the little girl with whom the narrator frolicked away his childhood, and the lakateh, or the heartless whore to whom the narrator is married. Perhaps in an attempt to reconcile the three artistically, if not psychologically, the narrator chooses the occupation of “pen case decorator”. The narrator monotonously decorates each and every pen case with the same design that the reader begins to memorize and expect after the first several introductions to the mysterious figure of ... a cypress tree at the foot of which was squatting a bent old man like an Indian fakir. He had a long cloak wrapped about him and wore a turban on his head. The index finger of his left hand was pressed to his lips in a gesture of surprise. Before him stood a girl in a long black dress, leaning towards him and offering him a flower of morning glory. Between them ran a little stream”.
While each component of this complex scene deserves further analysis and will be examined shortly, it is critical to first focus on the significance of the act itself. The narrator’s pen case decorations are one of his few productive actions throughout the novel and his only means of fruitful expression. The narrator states that “my heart had always been at odds not only with my body but with my mind” and he frequently laments his inability to have what he deems as normal interactions with society from which he feels so estranged. This is most significantly manifest symbolically in his sexual impotence which author Azar Nafisi explores in a critical essay in which she states “the narrator’s impotence in confronting the women in his life is symbolic of his inability to confront the reality of his life”.
The trinity of women, whose actual physical versus merely symbolic separation is as complex and disturbing to the narrator as that of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is to devout Catholics, dominate the narrator’s every thought and it is only through the methodical pen case drawings that he is able to express what he can not emotionally or sexually. The narrator comments that his choice of trade is “ludicrous” and serves only to “stupefy” him, yet his insistence on drawing the same exact scene over and over again suggests that there is much more significance to the drawing than the narrator originally lets on.
The description of the drawing always begins with a cypress tree, which holds very competing symbolic qualities. The cypress was revered by the Zoroastrians as a symbol of great hope, and was decorated for the celebration of Yalda as it was thought that its “strength” and “resilience” were best suitable to represent the revered deity, Mithra (Mitra). Zoroastar famously planted two cypress trees in Faryumaz and Kashmar. The Kashmar cypress was ordered to be felled by a prominent caliph in the area and the fight to save the cypress has become an epic in Zoroastrian oral tradition.
Contrastingly, it is viewed a symbol of great hope in many writings of early Persian tradition, and was decorated for the celebration of Yalda as it was thought that its “strength” and “resilience” were best suitable to represent the revered deity, Mithra. Contrastingly, it is regarded as a symbol of mourning in the Islamic religion due to the Safavid's decision to employ the tree in funerals in a possible effort to detract from its positive prominence in the Zoroastrian religion. Thus the choice of a cypress tree is very interesting granted the tree’s bipolar significance throughout Iranian history; what was once revered for its upright resilience and strength, Shi’ism mutilates into the ultimate symbol of loss and death.
The old man squatting at the foot of the tree appears throughout the story in various forms. The description closely resembles that of the narrator’s uncle who appears throughout the story and who the narrator also interestingly remarks, “resembled me in a remote, comical way like a reflection in a distorted mirror”. It is also significant that whenever this figure appears to the narrator, it is following some sort of sexual attraction or longing and it is the old man’s sinister laugh which wakes the narrator from his sexual fantasies. The reader is first introduced to the old man as the narrator first spots the ethereal beauty of his dreams through the crevice in the ventilation hole and is in utter awe at her beauty describing in detail the sensual nature of her “slanting, Turkoman eyes” and “lips ... full and half open” when his trance is broken by the “harsh, sinister, mocking laugh” of the old man.
Forced into a passionate kiss by his cousin and future wife while at his beloved aunt’s deathbed, the narrator’s uncle appears, described as dressed in the exact same manner as the old man in the drawing, and bursts into “a hollow, grating, gooseflesh-raising peal of laughter” which throws the narrator into an abyss of a horrific shame. Later, the narrator describes a pedophilic encounter with his wife’s younger brother and an intimate kiss that is broken up by the “horrible laugh, of a quality to make the hairs on one’s body stand on end” of his uncle who is again described in almost the exact manner as the old man he has encountered previously. This interchangeability between the old man and the uncle as one and the same is further complicated by the narrator’s frequent descriptions of viewing himself in the mirror and the transformation he himself takes into seemingly becoming the old man.
The description of the scene always ends with the reminder of the stream separating the old man and the girl. The stream serves to sharply divide the ethereal black clothed princess from the earthly harsh reality of the old man creating a bitter dichotomy. The stream is a manifestation of the inability of the narrator to grasp the object of his desire. The fact that the object separating the two is water is also highly symbolic. Water is a longstanding symbol of the feminine life-giving force as Carl Jung states in his article “Psychology of Transference” that water is the feminine yin and that “Of the elements, two are active - fire and air, and two are passive - earth and water”. Thus, it is the archetypal symbol for all that it is feminine that is ironically separating the old man (the narrator) from the girl, further emphasizing the narrator’s physical and metaphorical impotence in the face of women.
The Blind Owl is dominated by the recurring image of various women that have touched the narrator’s life and led to his gradual self-destruction. The first one the reader is introduced to is the ethereal beauty that the narrator first sees through the ventilation hole of his grimy apartment. Her unmarred perfection is too much for the narrator to bear and he believes that the sight of her introduces him to an agony and despair that will haunt him through to his last breath. He describes the moment he saw her as, “in the course of a second, a single moment, I beheld all the wretchedness of my existence and apprehended the glory and splendor of the star”. The raw purity of the unjaded beauty he witnesses becomes a painful reminder of all that he lacks, all that he will never be, and the vast loneliness of existence without this angel. It is significant that the context in which he first views her is the exact scene of the recurring image of he draws on his pen cases. And though he believes he will never again view this being, she appears one night at his door, only to die a few moments later on his bed. And it is only after she is dead that the narrator is able to fulfill his fantasy and lie in bed with her.
The question of the identity of this mysterious woman remains unanswered by the narrator, though as more of the story unravels, it appears that this woman is the imagined spirit of the perfection of the feminine form that acts as a sort of delusional “holy spirit” of the “mother”, the lakateh”, and the “daughter”, the narrator’s wife as a young girl. This theory is corroborated by the work of author Azar Nafisi who writes in an essay, “Buf-e Kur is divided into two parts, each a central metaphor for the other. Near the end of each part the narrator kills a woman-in essence the two aspects of the same woman”.
In the second part of the novel, the narrator begins to describe the relationship with his cousin- a serene little girl who grew up into a frigid calculating woman who manipulated him into marrying her. The ethereal spirit can be visualized as what the narrator senses the serene little girl would have- could have if society had not marred her- become. The first time the narrator lays eyes on the naked body of a female is the body of the little girl as he reminisces a scene behind a cypress tree of the girl naked “smiling and biting the nail of the index finger of her left hand”. This memory remains with and haunts the narrator and he spends the entirety of his life longing for this pure naked feminine form. The image is so beautifully haunting that he creates the ethereal spirit in his mind as a manifestation of what the girl would have grown into and in symbolically killing the spirit and in really killing the lakateh, he comments while mutilating the body that he is surprised at its length and remarks, “she seemed to have grown a little: her body appeared to be longer than it had been in life”.
Just as Catholic theology marks the moment on the cross when the Christ loses his spirit form and becomes wholly man, the moment the narrator cuts into the flesh of his beloved fantasy, she loses a little bit of her ethereal magic and the beloved little girl of his dreams becomes the dead, decaying corpse of a wholly human woman. Nafisi describes that the lakateh and the “beloved” both “carry seeds of destruction, are madly desired, and are destroyed by the narrator who never recovers”. In a brutal irony, the narrator is driven by a unwavering need to destroy the woman, all the while knowing that their destruction would lead to his own.
Many contemporary criticisms of Hedayat’s work focus on the “madness” of the narrator and relate Hedayat’s own struggles with depression and ultimate suicide to the novel’s thematic essence. In fact, it is a common sentiment of Iranians not immersed in intellectual circles to steer away from Hedayat’s book because rooheyahroh kharab-meekoneh, or it will damage one’s spirit. Thus, it is critical to emphasize the expressionist roots of Hedayat’s work to explain many of the novella's features as intentional and necessary rather than convoluted at its best, and merely drug induced ramblings at its worst. These sentiments are expressed by one blogger who writes of Hedayat’s work, “Blind Owl was inspired by madness. Madness is more seductive. Certainly produced a more brilliant piece of work” (Ballard). While the madness theory is certainly a romanticized and seductive view, it fails to take into account the heavy influence of expressionism, most notably through the work of Franz Kafka.
At the Sadeq Hedayat Centenary Conference, the University of Alberta’s Dr. Nasrin Rahimieh presented an entire paper devoted to the strong influence of Kafka on Hedayat and highlighted “the roots of Hedayat’s fascination with the German writer” (Sadeq Hedayat Centenary Conference 2003). Author Tom Stoppard makes a direct reference to the relationship between the authors in a review of The Blind Owl in which he states, “'It has Kafka's nightmare quality ... but at the same time East meets West in the limpid, utterly simple timeless prose and in the essential mysticism of its horror” (The Blind Owl Canongate Reviews). Kafka is a writer strongly associated with expressionist themes and this is one of the most pervading influences on Hedayat’s work. While the term expressionism is often used to describe the movement with which Kafka is associated, there was never truly an “expressionist period”. Expressionism is defined as a genre in which the artist uses intense emotion to convey the intended meaning, or “art that is expressive of intense emotion ... (art in which) an artist distort(s) reality for emotional effect ... the term often implies emotional angst”.
Thus the dream and imagined sequences, the hallucinations, the questionable reality of the narrator’s musings are more correctly defined as hallmarks of expressionism than the psuedo-philosophical rambling of an opium addict. The questionable reality of much of the narrator’s story is necessary to exhibit the multiple dimensions and relativity of reality which expressionism strives to capture. The emotion of the narrator is fraught with an intensity which manifests into multiple layers of meaning and multiple realities because the emotion is too raw, too unbridled to express in any other manner. In the opening scenes of the narrator coming across the turbaned man who could be his uncle, could be a vision of himself, could be the man on his pen case drawings-could very well be all three- followed by a vision of an ethereal beauty who could be his wife, could be an imagined spirit, could be the manifestation of his art-could very well be all three-are presented in an ambiguous light because the emotions the narrator feels is so intense that it splits in a prism of vibrant and piercing strips of meaning.
The work of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch has eerie resonations with that of the narrator in Hedayat’s novel. If one were to attempt to make an artistic rendition of the narrator, what better portrait would suit him than Munch’s The Scream? The Scream is said to epitomize feelings of “anxiety, agitated depression or existential crisis”. Edvard Munch is also regarded as a major player, as is Kafka, in the expressionist movement. The artist’s troubled personal life also closely parallels Hedayat’s unfortunate narrator. Munch once wrote of himself, “From the moment of my birth, the angels of anxiety, worry, and death stood at my side, followed me out when I played, followed me in the sun of springtime and in the glories of summer”. Hedayat’s narrator shares a similar cursed outlook on his life as he states, “I had always been in a state of decomposition and gradual disintegration ... a crumbling, decomposing mass”.
Munch’s The Scream attempts to capture this disintegration of man, this crumbling of spirit that is Hedayat’s narrator’s existence. Hedayat’s narrator often describes viewing his reflection in the mirror and analyzing the figure in front of him, yet there is one scene which stands out from the rest and remains one of those haunting images that is impossible to fully erase from one’s memory. It is after a particularly bitter interaction with lakateh that Hedayat’s narrator begins one of his more frightening fits of anxiety and enters what seems to be a manic state. He describes looking at his reflection in the mirror and experiencing both a dread and sense of twisted satisfaction at “how frightful” the face before him had become. He describes that he is able to see “all the weird shapes, all the comical, horrible, unbelievable images which lurked in the recesses of my mind ... all of these grimacing faces existed inside me ... horrible, criminal, ludicrous masks”.
Munch’s The Scream seems to perfectly capture this scene complete in its ambiguous horror and soul-shaking anxiety. The figure in the forefront of The Scream is a man with a distorted face holding his head and screaming at what can be interpreted at his own reflection. Both Hedayat’s imagery and Munch’s painting capture a pain of the human spirit and a bitter despondence of an existence marred a raw reality of what one has become.
Another similarity between the art of Edvard Munch and the narrator lies in their distorted dichotomization of women. Both have a pathological view of woman in line with Carl Jung’s Madonna-Whore Complex. The theory is that man posseses a strict dichotomization of woman based on the archetypes of the pure virginal mother-figure and the sexual whore and experiences considerable anxiety in effort to reconcile the two. Both Munch and Hedayat’s narrator seem to suffer from a pathological metamorphosis of this complex and view the seeming irreconcilability between the two archetypes as threatening and damaging and ultimately destructive to their very existence.
Edvard Munch’s painting Madonna and the narrator’s pen case drawing are manifestations of the complex conflict. In the narrator’s pen case drawing, the woman is both a representation of the innocent purity of the virginal little girl and of the alluring temptress lakateh. The ethereal angel-like beauty is a metaphor of the purity of the girl while the sexually tempting adult-womanly body and tight black dress is a metaphor for the sexuality of the adult woman. Similarly, Munch’s Madonna is a depiction of the holy virginal mother and while she possesses a halo and is surrounded by light, she lies naked with a seductive look on her face and the halo is tinted red. Again the expressionist undertones are undeniably striking.
Whether staring at Munch's Madonna or reading Hedayat's novella, one can sense the raw honest of the artists and can almost touch their pain through their works. Almost. There is something in the genre of expressionism that leaves the audience longing and feeling a bitter loss- as though there is something more about Hedyat's narrator or the pained face in The Scream that we feel, but can not quite reach; the viewer is given a brief pained summary of something they long to grasp but lack the resources to do so for the artist leaves vital pieces of the work in a deliberate ambiguity. This pained ambiguity the viewers feel is precisely what the artisits are Platonically wishing to convey. Hedayat's narrator can draw his ethereal beauty for days, months, decades, over and over again- and he has- but he will never be able to quite capture the light shining in those haunting, slanted, Turkaman eyes, or the exact black of her flowing hair.
Similarly, the raw sexuality and simultaneous purity of Munch's Madonna cannot be fully understood in the brief instant he has captured her arching body. Both artisits seem to be making a statement about the absolute inability to fully grasp and capture their pain, love, sexuality, beauty, and loss in their works as they are only the artists' representations of concepts far greater- Forms according to Plato. Hedayat's narrator's drawings and lengthy descriptions of his beloved are inherently flawed and incomplete in accordance with Plato's Theory of Eternal Forms. Yet it is this longing to capture what hte narrator knows he can not that drives his compulsion to "replicate the minature" (Milani 12/08/05). The narrator's pain, anxiety, and ultimate madness come from the Platonic understanding that the thoughts and dreams in his mind and hte drawings he produces are all in vain and the beauty he witnessed (or believes he witnessed) for that one beautiful instant while reaching for the bottle of wine in the opening of the novella is unattainable in this world.
While the image of a drug-induced Hedayat rambling off incoherent musings about a beautiful woman and pain over love lost is an alluring, even sexy explanation for The Blind Owl, a more artistic and thoughtful reality seems more likely- and, if understood correctly, much more hauntingly alluring. Hedayat's The Blind Owl is a raw verbalization of the intense longing for that which we wish to hold and hunger to grasp but ultimately can not. It is one man's realization that what is presented before him in this world is a marred imitation of the Platonic ideal and thus his entire existence is merely an eroding imitation. Through the utilization of expressionist themes, the narrator's story is expressed in a vividly scarring manner in which reality and fantasy are both diametrically opposed and one and the same until everything becomes simply a blur of the mind which the reader longs to grasp. Yet, just as Hedayat's narrator can not truly touch the beauty he longs to, the reader can not truly touch the meaning of Hedayat's work, and it is precisely this illusory quality that makes it all the more beautiful. Comment
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