Saturday, October 08, 2005

love's open sea

Pouring envy and greed from love's open sea,

We steal from each other the waters of bliss.

No fish ever hoards its own portion of water;

Without the ocean, there's nothing that is.

#1463: From Rumi's Kolliyaat-e Shams-e Tabrizi

Search word: envy

There is a fierce wind blowing today and it feels awesome. I wonder at the emotions that a hurricane would release. Emotions themselves are elemental things and wind, rain, sunshine have been drawn into service to describe them. Some, like envy, are viewed as negative and to be repressed. I'm not so sure. When we are hit by a negative emotion, we can harvest something from it first. I'm convinced that, when we do, we make friends with that emotion and it turns into an asset instead of a liability.

Rumi certainly suffered as a consequence of others' envy, as the stories about Shams' disappearance suggest. In this quatrain he sources envy and greed in the same place from which positive emotions emerge, the same vast ocean of the soul, and he thus characterizes them as forms of love. To repress envy is to turn away from the soul but to respond to it by trying to reduce the bliss of another is pointless. Nothing is gained from that. The ocean was available to us before the attempted theft and it is available afterwards.

When I look at the love between Rumi and Shams from the perspective of homosexual love alone, it just doesn't make adequate sense. There is no hint that Shams had the kind of youthful physical beauty that would arouse envy in those lusting after him and seeing Rumi as standing in the way. He must still have had an extraordinary beauty in the eyes of Rumi, a kind of beauty of being that is often found in the innocence and unselfconsciousness of youth. The onlookers who envied this attention that Rumi paid to Shams were really longing for their own Shams quality. The logic, I think, is this: If Shams is removed, then Rumi must cast his gaze elsewhere and since it was his loving gaze that rendered Shams beautiful, then that gaze will miraculously transform everyone else toward whom it is turned. Sadly, it just doesn't work that way.

Or perhaps is does, or did work that way, although not in a direct or obvious way. Perhaps Shams' disappearance (which might, like an earlier disappearance, have been self-imposed) was a necessary catalyst for Rumi to turn away from such focussed attention and gradually come to write about love in a way that could communicate more widely. Perhaps Shams, perhaps indirectly his murderers, sensed that Rumi needed this pain to jolt him out of a too-limited obsession with one man and into a writer who could reach across religious, cultural and language divides and far into future centuries.

A spectacular interest in Rumi has emerged in the West. No mere poet has ever attracted so much attention. Some attribute this to the brilliant poetic renderings of the modern poet-translator, Coleman Barks. However, even the humble efforts of Zara Houshmand that I use in this blog reveal much richness of thought and emotion. Rumi has been compared to Shakespeare but I strongly doubt that Shakespeare in Arabic or Urdu or Malay could have as strong an impact on the Muslim world as Rumi has had on the Christian. No, Rumi is a more special phenomenon than a Shakespeare. His huge and rich opus has the potential to form a cultural space within which all world religions have a place and to which any genuine spirituality can relate. The world certainly needs something like this right now.

If the ocean of love can be embodied in writing then Rumi's opus is it. But the same ocean of love that fed his writing is available to any and every writer, no matter how little or greatly talented. Every one of us can plunge into this ocean and feel its vastness as our home. As Rumi says, it belongs to no single fish. All of us are swimming here.


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