Coleman Barks and Rumi's Donkey
The essential problem lies in the fact that Barks intentionally changes Rumi, perhaps for the better, but at the expense of distortion and misrepresentation
December 13, 2005
The following paper [Full text with notes] is based on two essays in Persian, "Rumi and Coleman Barks" published in "Nameh-ye Kanoon", the literary organ of Iranian Writers' Association in Exile (Vol. 15 July 2002) and "Rumi: Love for God vs Love for a Donkey" included in my book "In Search of Joy: A Critique of Death-Oriented and Male- Dominated Culture in Iran" (Baran Publishers, Sweden, 1990). Please note that some of the language of Rumi in the third part might be offensive. M.N.
I. Coleman Barks and Rumi
During the first half of twentieth century the six volumes of Rumi's Masnavi and a selection of his lyrics were translated into English by British scholars Reynold Nicholson and Arthur John Arberry but these works were mostly known to academia. Recently, Coleman Barks's version of Rumi in English, especially The Essential Rumi which is the subject of this review, has become popular and a best-seller-book in the US. Barks did not know Rumi until 1976 when the American poet, Robert Bly handed him a copy of A. J. Arberry's translations saying "These poems need to be released from their cages".
Barks who does not know Persian, first rewrites some of the old translations in English. Then, by using an unpublished John Moyne's translation on one hand, and with the blessing of a Sri Lankan sufi saint living in the US, Bowa Muhaiyaddeen on the other hand, Barks publishes a new English version of rumi in free verse. No doubt that Coleman Barks's version of Rumi has released these poems from the confines of Departments of Near Eastern Studies but unfortunately, as we will see, he has tied them in the cage of his personal taste.
The essential problem of Coleman Barks lies in the fact that in his version he intentionally changes Rumi, perhaps for the better, but at the expense of distortion and misrepresentation. He approaches Rumi's poetry as sacred texts, which need to be dusted from the passage of times by a touched devotee and prepared for the Post Modern, New Age market in the West. The New Age movement finds a remedy for modern alienation in old recipes, such as horoscope, Extra-Sensory Perception and divination.
Coleman Barks himself, in an afterword to the book, mentions some of his similar mysterious experiences. For example, in his childhood he becomes miraculously acquainted with the name of Cappadocia, a region related to the city of Konia, where Rumi lived most of his life. Or when Barks meets Bowa Muhaiyddeen he realizes that he had seen the saint in his dream the year before!
One can approach Rumi's poetry, or for that matter, all religious and mystical books from two different angles: faith or literature. A person who does not believe in god can read Masnavi, The Bible, Koran, Avesta and Sutra and finds "Listen to the Reed!" in Masnavi, the Book of Genesis or Job, Songs of Solomon or the Meccan verses of Koran or the Hymn to Anahita in Avesta both beautiful and deep. One who chooses to approach Rumi's works only as literary texts must, in turn, respect the right of believers who see these texts as words of a saint and looking into them for eternal truths. By the same token, a reader who considers Rumi as a devote Muslim must tolerate the other readers of Masnavi who read this book either as a free-spirit pantheist text or just as a literary work.
Reynold Nicholson who was the first scholar to publish the first critical edition of Masnavi in Persian as well as the first full translation of this book into English had intellectual honesty. Although his translation is literal but he had no religious or mystical mission and did not change Rumi in order to promote his own agenda.
Coleman Barks is the exact opposite of Reynold Nicholson. In order to remodel and fix Rumi for the American market Barks follows the path of a New-Age sufi. He tries to disconnect the mystical concepts of Rumi from their historical and social backgrounds and modify them for our contemporary taste. For example let us look at the fundamental concept of Love. As I have discussed in my essay, "Rumi: Love for God vs Love for a Donkey" love for Rumi has two mutually exclusive parts: corporal and spiritual. A male sufi can only reach spiritual love, that is, devotion to God, prophets and sufi masters if he avoids corporal passions. Woman has no room in the traditional houses of Mevlavi dervishes. She represents lust and bestial ego. A male sufi who cannot abstain from sex should get a wife but only for expedience.
Sex is not a natural source of joy in life but a necessary evil and women are only the means of its satisfaction. Mathnavi is the product of a patriarchal society and reflects all of its misogynistic prejudices. Of course this dark side does not diminish the importance of Masnavi as a masterpiece in Persian literature. the contemporary reader usually attributes this antiwoman philosophy to the limitations of Rumi's time. The same argument can be made about the literary masterpieces of other nations. For example criticizing anti-Semetisim in Shakespeare, such as his money-lending character Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice" who asks for "a pound of flesh" as a bond for his loan anf eventually has to renounce Judaism and convert to Christianity, does not lower the role of William Shakespeare in English literature. A translator who wants to render Shakespeare's play into Persian would disservice this author by purifying of obliterating the character of Shylock.
Colman Barks instead of conveying the misogynistic and antisexual concept of love in Mathnavi as it is in the Persian text, distorts and misrepresents the letter and spirit of Rumi's work. For instance, at the beginning of chapter 8 entitled "Being a Lover: The Sunrise Ruby" he implies that Rumi's love covers the love between man and woman. At the beginning of chapter 6 entitled "Controlling the Desire-Body: How Did You Kill Your Rooster, Husam?" puts these words in Rumi's mouth that the satisfaction of corporal desires especially sexual satisfaction is considered a part of reaching love of God.
In chapter 11 under the title "Union Gnats Inside the Wine" writes that Rumi's love is filled with "great feminine wisdom". In chapter 16 under the title "Rough Metaphors: More Teaching Stories" regarding the tale of "The Female Slave and the Mistress's Donkey" in which a lady dies because of copulation with a donkey Barks shifts the blame from poet to society for imagining such a brutal and humiliating act toward women.
In chapter 17 entitled "Solomon Poems: The Far Mosque" Barks fails to understand that the allegory of King Solomon and Queen Sheba in which the former represents "divine wisdom" and the latter "Bodily soul" is based on debasement of both "body" and "woman". Here Barks mentions another favorite allegory of Rumi: Jesus and his donkey. According to Matthew 22: 1-10 Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a donkey before his crucifixion. For Rumi, Jesus represents spirit/man and his donkey symbolizes bodily soul/woman, and yet Barks is not troubled by this allegory.
In Persian gender pronoun does not exist but in his version of Rumi Barks frequently has translated the third-person singular pronoun "oo" to "he or she", as if Rumi did not see any difference between men and women, treated them equally and considered both sexes capable of pursuing mystical truth. Of course the Persian pronoun "oo" is neuter and the reader can only guess the gender of the pronoun from the context of the text. Wherever in Masnaviwhich is written in a patriarchal society Rumi mentions the nouns "salek" or "dervish" that is the follower of a mystical order, he strictly means a male person. As a result when Rumi uses the third-person singular pronoun "oo" for "salek" or dervish", it should be rendered to "he" and translating it to "he or she" is a major distortion: "only grammatically is the dervishlover a doer / in reality, with he or she so overcomes / so dissolved into love,/ all qualities of doingness / disappear."
The falsification and misrepresentation of Rumi's fundamental concepts is not limited to Love and spreads to other ideas such as "wine", "master" and "Jesus". As I have discussed in my book, In Search of Joy: A Critique of Death-Oriented and Male-Dominated Culture in Iran "may-e alast", that is, "primordial wine" of Rumi has a metaphoric and mystical significance and completely differs from the "grape wine" in the poetry of another great classical Persian poet, Hafez of Shiraz. Whereas in chapter 1 "The Tavern: Whoever Brought Me Here Will Have to Take Me Home" this distinction is obliterated and the cup of "unity" is filled with Cabernet wine.
The slavish obedience of sufi to his "morshed", that is, master is a fundamental concept in Rumi's mysticism and the main reason that after 700 years his Mevlevi Order is still run by the hereditary line of the male offsprings of Rumi's son, Sultan Veled in Turkey. But at the beginning of chapter 12 entitled "The Sheik: I have Such a Teacher" this cultish and authoritarian relationship is portrayed as an egalitarian and ideal one. To mystify his own portrait Barks writes: "... Colmen to Bawa, Rumi to Shams..." suggesting an affinity between Rumi's master, Shams of Tabriz and his own unlettered guru Muhammad Raheem Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, a Qadiri sufi sheik who came to the US from Sri Lanka in 1971 and died in Philadelphia in 1986. . In order to increase Rumi's appeal for American market Coleman Barks exaggerates the importance of Jesus for Rumi.
In chapter 19 "Jesus Poems: The Population of the World:which is dedicated to the allusion of Rumi to Jesus?" Barks claims that there is a "strong connection" between these two personalities14. Whereas in Mathnavi there are more allusions to Jewish prophets such as Moses, Solomon and especially Joseph than to Jesus. Nevertheless, these allusions either to Jewish prophets or the Christians do not signify that Rumi has a special interest in any of these two faiths. He refers to these prophets only in accordance with Islamic narrative and Koranic text. For example, Rumi does not believe that Jesus was son of God or that Ibrahim took Isaac to the mount for sacrificial offering. Besides, the ratio of these allusions compare to Rumi's references to Koranic verses and Islamic traditions is very low.
Coleman Barks not only "frees" Rumi from the historical limitations of his time but he also tries to disconnect Rumi from the Islamic society in which he lived and the Persian language in which he wrote his poetry. I have never heard or seen that Barks
in his radio interviews and TV shows refer to cultural roots of
Rumi, as if this poet has fallen from the sky and does not belong
to any land or culture. The people of England consider Shakespeare
a national treasures and the works of this author have increased
the appreciation of English literature and culture worldwide. But
unfortunately due to the non-literary and commercial goals of
Coleman Barks, his popular version of Rumi has not created any
interest within the American public in the land where Rumi was
raised, the culture in which he had breathed and the language in
which he wrote his poetry.
In spite of all these limitations and distortions I enjoy the beauty and simplicity of some of Rumi's poems popularized by Barks. I only wish another Robert Bly will appear on the horizon and ask Barks to release Rumi's poetry from the cage of Coleman Barks and let the American reader approaches Rumi untied.
II. Love for God
For almost eight centuries the sound of Rumi's (1207-73) reed of love resonates in our ears. In the past, opinions were not that much divided about the meaning of this love. The elite interpreted it as mystical and the public grew sad when hearing its complaints about separation,
Listen to the reed!Iit's telling the story
And complaining about the time of separation
Since they cut me from the reed bed
Men and women have moaned through my cry
However, today the sound of this reed has found new eckoes. A group considers it as an allegory for the unity of the material components of the world and, labels Rumi a Pantheist dialectician. On the contrary, another group finds Rumi's love the voice of hurt and wandering man who passionately looks for other human beings. Thus Rumi is labeled a humanist, the heat of whose love can melt the coldness and toughness of the machine age and its alienation. Like others, I grow sad while hearing the moans of Rumi's reed and take pleasure reading Mathnavi with its poetical eloquence. Nevertheless, I think that Rumi's love has a mystical and metaphysical meaning and there is a wide gap between it and our contemporary concept of sexual love. In Rumi's canon, love means slavish obedience to master in the house of dervishes, mad resentment toward women at home and at best, ecstasy in the whirling dance of Sama'. >>> Full text with notes
Majid Naficy's books include Muddy Shoes; Father and Son and Modernism and Ideology in Persian Literature. He lives in Los Angeles.