December 28th, 2009 § § permalink
One of eight major works that can reliably be ascribed to Attar, Ilahi-Nama (Book of God or, sometimes, Divine Book) has, according to Encyclopedia Iranica, been translated once into English, by John A. Boyle in 1976, and once into French, by F. Rouhani in 1961. Four of Attar’s eight works—Ilahi-Nama is part of this subset — are mystical narratives, each one dealing with a different aspect of Sufi thought and experience. Ilahi-Nama’s subject is zuhd, or asceticism, which Sufis understand to mean a disciplined stance of detachment and indifference towards one’s desires so that one will not be ruled by them. This focus on the interior world of human emotion differentiates Ilahi-Nama from the other of Attar’s poems with which it is often compared, Manteq al-tayr (Conference of the Birds), his best known work in English. The two poems are similar in form (they are each frame stories) and message (the key to enlightenment exists within each human being, not in the external world), but the framing narrative of Manteq al-tayr, an allegory about a group of birds in search of a king, is essentially a critique of people’s need to find a master who will lead them on the path to true understanding. Ilahi-Nama, on the other hand, is about learning to master oneself.
The framing narrative of Ilahi-Nama is about a caliph who asks his six sons what they desire most. The first son says he wants the daughter of the king of the peris (faeries); the second wants to learn the art of magic; the third son desires Jamshid’s cup because it will reveal to him the secrets of the world; the fourth seeks the water of life; the fifth son covets the ring Solomon used to control demons; and the sixth son wants to master alchemy. As each son gives his answer, the father tells stories to illustrate, first, how shallow and materialistic the son is for wanting what he wants and, second, how the son should understand his desire so he can use it on the path to enlightenment. None of the sons, however, accept their father’s lessons at face value, arguing that he has misunderstood their desires and that the lessons he wants them to learn, therefore, are misguided. When the father tells his first son what has come to be known as “The Tale of Marjuma,” for example — about a beautiful and righteous woman who, after her husband leaves on pilgrimage to Mecca, must fend off a series of men who are so overcome with lust when they glimpse her beauty that they will stop at nothing to have her — the son accuses his father of wanting to eliminate sex. “God forbid[!]” the father replies, explaining that “The Tale of Marjuma” illustrates how sex, properly comprehended and entered into, is a first step on the path to enlightenment:
But when your desire achieves apotheosis,
sex gives birth to a love without limits;
and when this love is pushed by passion to the edge
of its strength, spiritual love emerges; and when
spiritual love can grow no further, your soul
will vanish into the Beloved’s endlessness. (My translation)
Given that the surface of the narrative in “The Tale of Marjuma” feels more like a Perils-of-Pauline-type story in which the depraved and debauched men get their comeuppance than one about the spiritual nature of sexuality, the son’s misreading of the tale is an easy one to fall into. Such a reading, however, fails to account for, among other things, the fact that not all the men who try to possess the woman give in to their desires without a struggle. They are, in other words, neither evil nor merely slaves to their desires; they are human and flawed and, more to the point, they are, in the end, able and willing to repent. Indeed, they must repent, for God has punished them with a paralysis from which — in an irony that is at the core of the story’s meaning — they can be healed only by confessing to the woman everything they did to her. » Read the rest of this entry «
November 1st, 2009 § § permalink
Where I lived in the early 1970s, sixth grade was when boys got to see the movie – or maybe it was a narrated film strip with line drawings – about erections, nocturnal emissions, menstrual periods and such (girls got to see it in fifth grade).[1. I have moved this post over from my other blog. (Click for Part One.) This way, when I finally get around to writing Parts 3 and 4, they will all be in the same place. I see each post in this series as one section of a single piece of writing, not as a discrete essay unto itself. As a result, while each section may contain its own argument, it is not really possible to know whether an issue that you feel is important will or will not be left out of the argument made by the entire piece if you’ve only read a part of the series. I certainly do not mean this caveat to be, in any way, an inoculation against critique, but given the modular nature of posting to blogs and of how blogs are read, it is a caveat I’d like you to keep in mind if you find yourself wondering, and commenting on, why I have not addressed something you feel needs to be addressed. Thanks. Also, to protect the privacy of the individuals involved, some names have been changed and some identifying details have been fictionalized.] Seventh grade, if I remember correctly, was when they started teaching about sex itself, which I assume would have included a discussion of birth control, though I am not sure, since a paperwork mix-up placed me in the health class that did not include sex education. So I know I did not learn about birth control there; nor, I am equally sure, did I learn about it in the yeshiva I started attending when I was in eighth grade, where the only classroom-based “sex education” I remember receiving was in Rabbi W’s all-boy gemara class. He would preach at us week after week about the evils of co-ed dancing – it was the season of sweet 16 parties for the girls – and explain how it inevitably lead to unwanted teenage pregnancy. (The boys and girls watch each other dancing, you see, and then they want to slow dance, and so they are touching each other, and then one thing leads to another and, sooner or later they find someplace dark, and before you know it, her belly is big and both their lives are ruined.) My classmates and I talked about sex, of course, but since none of us were even thinking about actually having it, what we talked about tended to be theoretical and had little do with practicalities like preventing an unwanted pregnancy. Three incidents of such talking stand out in my memory, from 8th, 9th and 10th grades respectively.
I first learned about the baseball-diamond-as-metaphor-for-sex in 8th grade, because the big question was whether or not, at someone’s bar mitzvah to which I had not been invited, Robert “got to second” with Sharon over or under the shirt. “Over or under,” of course, was a huge question, one that my classmates pondered at great length, wondering why she would let him get that far, how cool it was that he could get her to let him get that far; or maybe he didn’t have to do all that much persuading, maybe underneath the “good girl” image that Sharon so carefully cultivated was a whole other person that those of us who knew her only in school had never met; and did this make her a “slut,” and how, precisely, did getting that far, did her letting him get that far, obligate him to her in terms of commitment; and what the hell – some people were smart enough to ask – did commitment mean in ninth grade anyway?
I could not imagine why what Robert and Sharon did or did not do with each other was anyone else’s business, nor did I think that the question of when a girl stepped over the line and became a “slut” was anything other than stupid, but I was new to the school, though, which meant no one thought my opinion mattered very much, and so I was almost never included in these conversations. Still, I do remember one time that I spoke up, asking – in response to I don’t remember what – some far-less-articulate version of the following questions: The whole point of touching a girl’s breasts is to bring her pleasure, right? What is wrong with Sharon wanting that pleasure or with Robert wanting to give it to her? And why are we talking about it like Robert was running bases and Sharon was playing (ineffective) defense? You make it sound like sex is a competition that the girl has to pretend to lose, just a little bit at a time, in order for both people to get what they want.
I was not naïve. I knew that boys did in fact put “notches on their bedposts” depending on how far they got with any particular girl, and I understood that girls who went too far put that hard-to-pin-down thing called their reputation at great risk. I knew these things, however, as facts, and while I accepted them as information I needed to know about how the world worked, I did not really understand them, and, more to the point, I did not like them. Anyway, no one said anything when I was finished talking. All I have is a picture of my classmates’ faces turned towards me in a momentary, non-comprehending stare, and then they turned back towards each other and continued talking in the terms that were relevant to them. » Read the rest of this entry «
September 25th, 2009 § § permalink
I originally posted this in response to a conversation about rape that was happening over at Alas, A Blog but that doesn’t seem to be online anymore, specifically about why some women have a hard time recognizing rape as rape. Something about that conversation – I don’t remember what, and I don’t really feel the need to go back and read through the entire thread – made me think of the first time I had sex and how coming to terms with that experience raised for me some really interesting questions that, while absolutely derailing in a thread about women and rape, were nonetheless important to think about. This has been, consistently, the most popular post on the older version of It’s All Connected, and so I am reposting it, with some small edits, here.
I lost my virginity when I was sixteen with the eighteen-year-old girl who lived on the first floor of the building next to my grandmother’s. As soon as our relationship started to become physical — and this was my first sexual relationship ever — I asked her if she was a virgin. She told me yes. I told her I was as well and that I wanted to stay that way. My position had nothing to do with morals. I knew myself, and I knew that I was not ready for the level of intimacy or the risk of unwanted pregnancy that intercourse represented. She told me that she felt the same way, and so our physical relationship consisted of all the things you can do without losing your virginity. One time, however, as she was making love to me, she climbed on top of me, and by the time I understood what was happening, I was inside her and both the power of the physical sensation, which was overwhelming, and my own confusion, which was overwhelming as well, made it impossible for me to find a place within myself from which to tell her to stop or to push her off me.
I did not like how empty I felt when we were finished, and I told her so. I had thought – assuming we’d decided that we wanted to be each other’s first – that we would plan the loss of our virginities, and so I figured that the sex had happened because we’d each, separately, gotten carried away in the moment. I knew that nothing in the way I’d behaved would have signified to her anything other than my enthusiastic participation, so I was not trying to accuse her of anything. Still, I was disappointed that my first experience of intercourse was one I had not wanted to take place. I told her this as well, assuming that since she too was a virgin, she would at least understand how I felt, even if she did not feel quite the same way. What I wanted, in other words, was to talk about what had happened, to make sense of it in a way that would bridge the gap that, to me at least, had opened between us. My friend, however, responded in a way that shut that possibility down pretty much completely. If I hadn’t wanted to have sex, she told me, I should have told her to stop. Besides, who did I think I was kidding? I was no different from any other guy. The only reason I’d said I didn’t want to have sex was that I was afraid I wouldn’t know how to do it right. » Read the rest of this entry «