Sunday, May 01, 2005

list of grievances

May grief and sadness come to the unfaithful heart,

And in this world may betrayal play a smaller part.

Sadness is the only friend who stays with me, still true,

And for that, loyal sadness, a thousand thanks to you.

#537: From Rumi's Kolliyaat-e Shams-e Tabrizi

Every now and again, I feel a need to make a list of grievances. We all have within us a complainer, one who can never be happy with the world. My favourite depiction of this whinger comes from that most famous TV address: he is Oscar the Grouch of Sesame Street. Every now and again, I take out a clipboard with notepad and visit Oscar to ask him to list all his grievances. I sometimes have to insist because he prefers to grouch away randomly and doesn't like this kind of ordered containment. However, the attention he receives seems to calm him down a bit and he irritates me less for a while, until I hear his whinging far too often and know I must get out my clipboard again.

The word grievance yielded no Rumi line but grief soon filled the bill and here is Rumi in an uncharacteristically complaining mood. He seems to be cursing an unfaithful soul, wishing on him (or her) a pain similar to the one inflicted. Love poems, when looked at as a series, do oscillate from joy to sadness and back again. Petrarch, Donne, Shakespeare, they all had these ups and downs. The love and longing for the beloved is next of kin to the love and longing for life, for god, for some transcendant or inclusive whole that contains all opposites of which joy and sadness are but one set.

Rumi is making a play here on the notion of truth as loyalty, steadfastness and honesty. He wishes people were more often true to their word or true to their promise. Some accounts of the disappearance of Shams suggest that it was Rumi's own son who did away with him, possibly due to jealousy, possibly because the worldview developed between the two friends was becoming too clearly heretical. In this poem, Rumi is embracing his grief as the one sure anchor that he has. Whoever did try to remove Shams from his life was mistaken in believing that the simple removal of the person would do. Rumi and Shams had been very close and Shams remained within Rumi in that most intimate of unions, even or especially after his bodily disappearance. His presence, however, had become an absence and the joy of companionship had become the sadness of separation. This absence and this sadness, however, were still Shams and Rumi remained true to his friend, to both the joy and sorrow that his love entailed.

I found this verse very moving. It pushed my grouchiness deeper into grief and called up past sadnesses like one sweet symphony of woe. Musically, I find this best expressed in the last movement of Gustav Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth) which deals with this theme of parting but reuniting in eternity. The English translation lacks much of the original but does evoke it. Here are the last two parts (from the Emily Ezust translation):
He dismounted and handed him the drink
of parting. He asked him where
he would go, and also why it must be.
He spoke, his voice was choked: My friend,
on this earth, fortune has not been kind to me!
Where do I go? I will go, wander in the mountains.
I seek peace for my lonely heart.
I wander to find my homeland, my home.
I will never stray to foreign lands.
Quiet is my heart, waiting for its hour!

The dear earth everywhere
blooms in spring and grows green
afresh! Everywhere and eternally,
distant places have blue skies!
Eternally... eternally...


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