Saturday, January 22, 2005

Love & War

Lovely snowfall and such eerie silence! So I feel like text hopping tonight. Too late to be brooding, so why not share, right? There are a few passages I thought appropriate for such a delightful occasion. I mean, from the looks of things, we are going to have an eventful year. And so far this year, I have treated you to posts ranging from the cheesiest of cheese to an assortment of vintage whines. So why not close the circle? Let's chat about love tonight

All this talk about consuming fire and immanent war has gotten me feeling mushy. Ares and Aphrodite have a way of commingling, it seems. As always, we start with Homer's Iliad, book III after Paris is rescued from the clutches of a vengeful cuckolded husband (whom elsewhere Helen indirectly calls both dumb and ugly), to encounter a sophisticated take on desire:

Now when they were come to the beautiful house of Alexandros the hand- maidens turned straightway to their tasks, and the fair lady went to the high-roofed chamber; and laughter-loving Aphrodite took for her a chair and brought it, even she the goddess, and set it before the face of Paris. There Helen took her seat, the child of aegis-bearing Zeus, and with eyes turned askance spake and chode her lord: "Thou comest back from battle; would thou hadst perished there, vanquished of that great warrior that was my former husband. Verily it was once thy boast that thou wast a better man than Menelaos dear to Ares, in the might of thine arm and thy spear. But go now, challenge Menelaos, dear to Ares to fight thee again face to face. Nay, but I, even I, bid thee refrain, nor fight a fight with golden-haired Menelaos man to man, neither attack him recklessly, lest perchance thou fall to his spear anon."

And Paris made answer to her and said: "Chide not my soul, lady, with cruel taunts. For now indeed hath Menelaos vanquished me with Athene`s aid, but another day may I do so unto him; for we too have gods with us. But come now, let us have joy of love upon our couch; for never yet hath love so enwrapped my heart--not even then when first I snatched thee from lovely Lakedaimon and sailed with thee on my sea-faring ships, and in the isle of Kranae had converse with thee upon thy couch in love-- as I love thee now and sweet desire taketh hold upon me." So saying he led the way to the couch, and the lady followed with him.

Some other translation renders the crucial passage "Never has desire so enmeshed my senses!" Compare the description quoted with the account, in Virgil's Aenied Book 4, of Dido's torment:

Unhappy Dido burns and wanders through the whole city distraught, like a doe, who, when an arrow has been fired, a shepherd hunting with his weapons among the woods of Crete has hit from a distance off her guard, and loosed the feathered shaft in ignorance: she, in flight, wanders through the woods and thickets of Mount Dicte; the deadly shaft sticks to her flank. [73] … Afterwards, when they had parted, and the dim moon hides her light in turn, and the setting stars urge sleep, she grieves alone in the empty house and flings herself on the abandoned couches.

And like all love worth eulogizing, no happy ending here either:

But Dido, trembling and maddened by the terrible plans, rolling her bloodshot eyes, her cheeks flecked with a feverish glow yet pale with imminent death, burst through the internal door and in a frenzy climbed the tall funeral pyre. She unsheathed the Trojan sword - a present not intended for this purpose. [647] Here, after she saw the Trojan clothing and the bed she knew so well, delaying a little for tears and thought, she flung herself on the couch and spoke her last words: [650] “Souvenirs, that were dear while the fates and god allowed, receive this soul of mine and free me from my cares. I have had my life, and finished the span which Fortune gave me, and now my great spirit will go beneath the earth. [654] I have built a famous city, I have seen my walls. To avenge my husband I punished my evil brother - I should have been happy, alas too happy, if only the Trojan ships had never touched our shores.” [658] She spoke, and pressing her face on the couch, “I shall die unavenged,” she said,“but let me die. Thus, thus I am determined to go down to the shades. May the heartless Trojan gaze on this fire from out to sea, and let him take with him the omens of my death.” [662] She had spoken, and in the midst of all this, her friends saw her collapse on to the sword, and the sword foaming with blood and her outstretched hands. The noise reached the lofty halls: Rumour rushed madly through the stricken city. [666]

Our Aeneas, it seems, had much more important objectives in mind. What is it about men on a mission? Destroy and build…and utter excitement at the prospects of destruction and plunder. Take the following passage from Book 6, chapter 18 of the Peloponessian War, as an example. Thucydides offers a most startling description of the mood of Athenians before embarking on that disastrous Sicilian Expedition. Some still find this very erotic:

With this Nicias concluded, thinking that he should either disgust the Athenians by the magnitude of the undertaking, or, if obliged to sail on the expedition, would thus do so in the safest way possible. The Athenians, however, far from having their taste for the voyage taken away by the burdensomeness of the preparations, became more eager for it than ever; and just the contrary took place of what Nicias had thought, as it was held that he had given good advice, and that the expedition would be the safest in the world. All alike fell in love with the enterprise. The older men thought that they would either subdue the places against which they were to sail, or at all events, with so large a force, meet with no disaster; those in the prime of life felt a longing for foreign sights and spectacles, and had no doubt that they should come safe home again; while the idea of the common people and the soldiery was to earn wages at the moment, and make conquests that would supply a never-ending fund of pay for the future. With this enthusiasm of the majority, the few that liked it not, feared to appear unpatriotic by holding up their hands against it, and so kept quiet.

And we all know how safe that expedition turned out to be. And even after many centuries, some still refuse to deal with what transpired there and so continue to blame the outcome on the poor leadership of a sick Nicias. Fighting old wars over eternally I suppose.

So let's jump over to Iran of medieval times. I hardly ever talk about Koran. So we change that tonight as well. A great deal of Persian poetry is rooted in that text. And our notions of love are inextricably bound with it. There is a passage that has had enormous influence on poetic imagination here. It is a curious section of the 24th Sura, Al-Nur, or The Light:

024.035 God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The Parable of His Light is as if there were a Niche and within it a Lamp: the Lamp enclosed in Glass: the glass as it were a brilliant star: Lit from a blessed Tree, an Olive, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it: Light upon Light! God doth guide whom He will to His Light: God doth set forth Parables for men: and God doth know all things.

Many treatises have been written about this passage and you'll find all sorts of poems toying with the motif. Hence candle and moth and rose and nightingale!

Take one of our most renowned poets, Khajeh Hafez:

The angels knocked at the tavern-door last night,
With man's clay, they kneaded the cup outright.
The dwellers of God's heavenly abode,

Drank wine with me-a beggar of the road.
Heaven could not bear this wonderful trust,

That to a madman this honor was thrust.
Disputes of religions is but a false pretense,

Having not seen the Truth, they speak nonsense.
Thank God! There is peace between Him and me.

So dancing mystics took their cups with glee.
What makes the candle laughing isn't a flame.

The fire that burned the butterfly is my aim.

I don’t know whose translation. But this next one is taken from here:

Faithful in your love, my fame has spread, candle-like
At the home of the homeless, I make my bed, candle-like.
Day and night, from sorrows, sleep escapes from my eyes
Sick of being apart, my eyes are teary, red, candle-like.
Scissors of sorrows have cut my patience' string
Flame of your love burns upon my weary head, candle-like.
If my bloody tears fail to bring color to my cheeks
How else can my secret tales ever be said, candle-like?
Amidst water & fire, my head is busy with your thoughts
While my heart flooded with tears it needs to shed, candle-like.
In the night of separation, send butterfly of union
Else from your pain the world I'll burn & shred, candle-like.
Without your beautiful vision, my day is night
With the love I have bred, my flaws I dread, candle-like.
My patience is eroding, like a mountain from sorrows' rainsI
n the ocean of your love, path of fire I tread, candle-like.
Like dawn, I blow one breath to see your face
Show yourself O Beloved, else I'll be dead, candle-like.
Honor me one night with your union, my friend
Let your light, light up my house & spread, candle-like.
Fire of your love caught on Hafiz's head
When will my heart's fire, my tears wed, candle-like?

Perhaps happy endings are still a possibility, who knows? Persian Rumi seemingly
in unison with Mr. Jefferson

Ghazal 2133

wake up, wake up
this night is gone
wake up

abandon abandon
even your dear self

there is an idiot
in our market place
selling a precious soul

if you doubt my word
get up this moment
and head for the market now

don’t listen to trickery
don’t listen to the witches
don’t wash blood with blood

first turn yourself upside down
empty yourself like a cup of wine
then fill to the brim with the essence

a voice is descending
from the heavens
a healer is coming

if you desire healing
let yourself fall ill
let yourself fall ill

Translated by Nader Khalili
Rumi, Fountain of Fire
Cal-Earth, September 1994

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