Friday, September 18, 2009

Waiting for Columbus

I went to buy this book because it was the first in the Toronto Heliconian Literary Lecture series and I wanted to do my homework.

I looked at the hardcover price. $35?! Then I read random paragraphs to see if I'd enjoy the writer's style because the jacket blurbs didn't make it seem too appealing.

The publisher's website is absolutely ecstatic about the novel, and Macleans is pretty complementary.

Mystery. Romance. International intrigue. Historical facts. Modern politics. It's almost as if the author is trying to be all things at once to broaden his appeal to the widest sector of readers. Or possibly a Hollywood literary agent. Good luck! And I mean that sincerely, because maybe I'm just cranky because summer is coming to an end and that means the boat will be coming out of the water.

I read the novel and definitely enjoyed parts.... The character's obsession with being Columbus, and how it seemed perfectly plausible in his madness that cell phones could exist at the same time people were searching for the New World and there was controversy about whether the earth was flat. Dwelling on how difficult it would have been for the explorer to persuade the reigning monarchs to fund his expedition and the political intrigue it required. Beautifully drawn scenes of swimming in an underground pool in the abandoned basement of the asylum. Vivid reminiscences about the scent of lovers.

But I think what I appreciated most about this book was the introduction to the Persian poet Hafiz.

from Ghazal 41:
Though the wine is joyous, and the wind, flowers sorts
Harp music and scent of wine, the officer reports.
If you face an adversary and a jug of wine
Choose the wine because, fate cheats and extorts.
- more Ghazals from Hafiz (Sufi poet born sometime between 1310-1325)

His major themes are love, wine and the spirit of intoxication.

From The Wisdom of Intoxication:

One aspect of the art of the ghazal is the ambiguity of the poet’s intention. Is the poet writing about a flesh and blood beloved, or is the poem to be taken as a mystical treatise describing love for and union with the divine? In addition, Hafiz himself often functioned as a court poet, employing the symbol of the Beloved on multiple levels: the personal, erotic beloved; the patron to whom he directed his poem in hopes of obtaining financial compensation for his art; and the mystical, divine Beloved, or God. Although critics debated this ambiguity in the poetry of Hafiz during his lifetime, and continue to debate it today (Schimmel, 1979), for Sufis (Islamic mystics) there has never been any question but that the author’s intention was a mystical one. It is typical of the poetry of Hafiz that worldly and mystical themes are woven together into a patchwork that is both grounded in an embodied sensuality and at the same time transported into the mystical realm of the "Other World."

For the Sufi, the madness of unbridled love for the beloved is not a regression into chaos, but a discipline which leads one to a conscious union with the source of all things. The cup of wine in classical Persian imagery can be understood as the heart of the lover which holds the elixir of life: Divine Love, the consumption of which ultimately leads to union with the Divine Beloved. Intoxication is that state of madness which results from surrender to this overpowering love for the Beloved, which seeks only fana (annihilation) in the baqa (subsistence) of the Beloved/God.

When madness is understood in this way, as a spiritual experience, the idea parallels the Jungian idea of individuation, which process necessarily involves a breakdown and transformation of conscious structures of the personality in order to make room for the inclusion of other, previously unconscious, contents of the personality.

Ironically I can't recollect much about the author's lecture that evening because a friend took me out for a few glasses of wine to help celebrate my birthday.

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