Monday, December 26, 2005

a necessary confusion

I'm not me, you're not you, and you're not me;

And yet I'm me, you're you, and you are me.

Beauty of Khotan, I am this because of you:

Confused if I am you, or you are me.

#1976: From Rumi's Kolliyaat-e Shams-e Tabrizi

I'm taking up the theme of identity confusion as it is clearly expressed in this quatrain. The reference to Khotan does not carry obvious associations for me. It was an oasis town on the southern silk road connecting Eastern Europe (then Asia Minor) with the East coast of China and even on to Japan. The town was conquered for Islam in about 1000 CE. The beauty referred to in the poem could be any (or even all) of the following: women famed for their surpassing beauty (possibly based on mixed Asian and Caucasian genes), a natural musk fragrance (strongly associated with spirituality), silk and jade (for the fine arts), carpets (of mixed Asian and Middle Eastern design), and Buddhism (spreading via this town from India into China). Given the theme of the verse, I would go for multiple associations at least but perhaps with a focus on the border or boundary quality of Khotan, since it stood at the edge of the known Islamic world and about halfway along the route from East to West.

This verse is of the type that suggests to me that Rumi was not entirely dismissive of the clarity of the Greek intellect. In the first line, identities are dissolved (as mystic ecstasy might require) but in the second recalled (getting back to common sense). The result is a kind of agnosticism or confusion: not knowing which is what. It never comes across as despairing in Rumi. It always comes across, curiously, as a kind of knowing.

I've started to read some Omar Khayyam (mainly through the Whinfield translation) and I am struck by a very different mood in his quatrains. His work is attractive, needless to say, and yet also a little off-putting as a sense of life's futility seems constantly to hover about. Here is a quatrain that I particularly like.


When the great Founder molded me of old,
He mixed much baser metal with my gold;
Better or fairer I can never be
Than I first issued from his heavenly mold.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, trans E.H. Whinfield

Recently, under passion's dance, I included the poem by Rumi which starts with:

Through Love all that is bitter will be sweet.
Through Love all that is copper will be gold.

Here we have a contrast of two personalities, two belief systems. Khayyam seems to reject the idea of the alchemical transmutation of baser metal into gold, while Rumi seems to insist on it. Khayyam may be merely criticizing the fatalism implied in the Koran, a fatalism that seems to leave no room for improvement of character during one's stay in this earthly life. And yet, I do like the way Khayyam puts this. There is a wonderful, peaceful self-acceptance implied in his verse: I am what I am, warts and all. And Rumi, too, is right. To love oneself, warts and all, is precisely to turn all the baser metal into gold.


At Monday, 26 December, 2005, Blogger Bob Hoeppner said...

Cool way of linking the two sensibilities into one. As I mention on myspace, I memorized several stanzas from Fitzgerald's translation of the Rubaiyat before I went to Navy boot camp, as a defense against becoming completely dehumanized. Once there, I found that what I really needed was something more surreal, and so had my cousin send me the lyrics to "I am the Walrus".

At Monday, 26 December, 2005, Blogger Arizona said...

LOL, and I guess it kept you permanently spaced out.

At Tuesday, 27 December, 2005, Blogger Bob Hoeppner said...

>I guess it kept you permanently spaced out.

That's what some of my friends might say!


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