The Blind Owl
The Blind Owl
by Sadiq Hidayat
THE LITRARY WORK
A novella set in Iran in the city of Rayy (south of today’s Tehran) at an undefined historical moment; published in Persian (as Buf-i kur) in 1936–37, in English in 1957.
Narrated sometimes in realistic terms, sometimes in dreamlike fantasy, the two-part novella centers on two accounts of a woman’s death, in one account the narrator is a painter; in the other, an invalid with an estranged wife.
Sadiq Hidayat (1903–51; also spelled Sadegh Hedayat) spent most of his career at the periphery, exerting only an indirect influence on Iranian culture, but he ended up the most powerful literary voice of his generation. Hidayat grew up in a prominent family that had been at the center of intellectual life since the nineteenth century. His great-grandfather, Reza-Quli Khan (1800–72), was a tutor at the Qajar court and the author of a memoir describing Persian poets. (Reza-Quli Khan’s pen-name, Hidayat or “guide,” was the origin of the family name.) Technocrats and advisors to the government were numerous in the Hidayat family. His grandfather was Minister of Sciences; an uncle was director of the college of science and European languages Dar al-Funun; another was the Shah’s physician. Hidayat himself received a secondary education at the exclusive French high school École St.-Louis in Tehran, and later he studied at the Dar al-Funun. In 1926 Hidayat traveled to Europe with a government-sponsored group of young Iranians to earn a professional degree in Belgium, but he abandoned his studies early to paint and write in France for four years. The short stories of his first collection, Zindah bi-gur (1930, Buried Alive), are dated and identified by city—Paris or Tehran. His return to Iran initiated a period of prolific publishing, during which Hidayat produced one series of short stories after another. Never earning enough from writing to support himself, he took bureaucratic positions in government. Meanwhile he lived alone, remaining unmarried throughout his life. Hidayat spent 1936–37 in India, studying Pahlavi, a pre-Islamic language of Iran (more exactly, a dialect of Middle Persian) with the scholar Behramgore Anklesaria. In 1951, on his second trip to Paris, Hidayat committed suicide by leaving on the gas in his rented Paris flat. His suicide was later interpreted as an act of nobility, a withdrawal from a corrupt world, after which his stature grew until he became one of the most influential figures in contemporary letters. Hidayat’s harsh realism and elegant pessimism contrast sharply with the often brittle optimism and hyperbolic praise that typified Iranian letters at the time. Frequently he showed a forthright skepticism about religion. After the 1979 revolution, this skepticism would make Hidayat a problematic figure in the eyes of government censors. Regardless of his status, The Blind Owl would continue to be regarded as his masterpiece, the work in which the issues raised in his other writings coalesce in a powerful condensed form.
Reza Shah and Iran’s intelligentsia
During the Constitutional revolution—a period of agitation in Iran that began in 1906—groups of disaffected citizens tried to restrict the power of the Qajar monarchy (1796–1925). This attempt was the defining event of Hidayat’s childhood. In his early twenties, the writer saw his country undergo another pivotal political change. An officer in the Iranian Cossack brigade came to power in 1921, an event that marked the end of the Qajar dynasty and set the pattern for a new Iran. The officer, Reza Khan, called himself Reza Shah and took the title of “Pahlavi” for his dynasty. Until he was deposed in 1941 (by the Allies, during World War II) his innovations would be carried out forcefully and heavy-handedly, by intimidation. It is often said that Reza Shah Pahlavi aspired to modernize Iran in the way that Ataturk was remodeling neighboring Turkey in the wake of the Ottoman empire, except Reza Shah never established the same kind of trust or efficiency.
Under Reza Shah’s rule, modernization accelerated in Iran. The government introduced paper currency alongside metal coinage in 1932; in 1935 the University of Tehran was founded. Meanwhile, Reza Shah made symbolic gestures that smacked of pre-Islamic Persian patriotism, taking the title “Pahlavi,” the name of the final dynasty before the advent of Islam, and adopting a new type of calendar that invoked old, pre-Islamic Persian names for the months of the year.
For secular intellectuals, the response to Reza Shah’s government was nuanced and often vexed. On one hand, they supported his projects of education and secularization; on the other hand, they were profoundly suspicious of and they fell victim to his heavy-handed methods. Intellectuals of all kinds were regularly censored and often imprisoned. The political poet Muhammad-Riza Mirzadah Ishqi, after writing critically of Reza Khan’s rise to power, was assassinated in 1924. The writer Buzurg Alavi, a friend of Hidayat’s, was imprisoned from 1937 to 1941. The story that the poet Farrukhi Yazdi’s lips were sewn together in Reza Shah’s prisons is no longer accepted as true, but he did die in prison, probably by a lethal injection, in 1939.
Many readers have seen Hidayat’s political surroundings as crucial to his composition. As explained by writer Al-i Ahmad,
[Hidayat] is a child of the Constitutional period and a writer of the dictatorial period…. During his life he witnessed either political chaos or suffocating dictatorship. The reality which held sway over Iran during the forty-some odd years of his life was nothing but trivialities, deceit, poverty and misery [italics added], anarchy and, at the end, tyranny: a constitution which had no meaning and durability and did not bring happiness with it; and then a central government which, under the guise of its “Brilliant Progress,” had nothing but arrests and seizures and nothing but strangulating death.
(Al-i Ahmad in Hillmann, p. 35)
In Persian, “poverty” and “misery” are faqr and maskinat, the same two words Hidayat uses in a famous passage from The Blind Owl: “In this mean world of wretchedness and misery (faqr va mask-inat) I thought that for once a ray of sunlight had broken upon my life” (Hidayat, Blind Owl, p. 4). Al-i Ahmad suggests that the emphasis on solitude and reclusion in the The Blind Owl can be read in political terms: “When a person is afraid to talk to his friends, his wife, his colleagues, or… [anyone] else, ultimately ’he can talk [only] to his shadow’” (Al-i Ahmad in Hillmann, p. 36). Certainly there was “an atmosphere of insecurity” in Iran in the late 1930s; the shah himself “became increasingly insecure,” attacking former friends in the process, killing “by the end of his reign… not only his former enemies, but the people who helped him in his rise to power” (Ghods, p. 110). Al-i Ahmad’s vision of an Iran
A TIMELY COMPROMISE
The national calendar of Iran is a compromise characteristic of the culture, in that it pays deference to Islam but at the same time retains pre-lslamic elements. In most of the Islamic world, the common calendar is the lunar calendar, which dates from 622 c.e., the year the Prophet Muhammad’s community emigrated from Mecca to Medina, and ends up being 11 days shorter than the solar reckoning used by the pre-lslamic Iranians. A Europeanized Iranian at the turn of the twentieth century would be aware of two calendars—the lunar Islamic calendar and the Western calendar. But starting in 1925 there was a third option: the solar Islamic calendar, a cultural compromise. Taking the names of its months from Zoroastrian tradition, this solar calendar, as in the days of the pre-lslamic Iranians, began the new year on March 21—the vernal equinox. At the same time, this third calendar dated back to 622 c.e., the date from which the Muslim era is reckoned, which made it Islamic as well as indigenously Iranian. Thus, the year on Hidayat’s handwritten edition of The Blind Owl was 1315. (In the Islamic lunar calendar it would have been 1354 or 1355; in the Western calendar, between March 21 of 1936 and 1937.)
with government spies everywhere may or may not explain the reclusion and suspicion of Hidayat’s narrator. In any case, it suggests that social contexts exert their force even in a story that perceives the outside world in a distorted fashion.
Hidayat and Khayyam
Today the most renowned Persian literary figure in the English-speaking world is probably the mystical poet Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207–73). In the nineteenth century, the most famous figure was Omar Khayyam (1048–1131), and his popularity has since endured. (See Rumi’s The Spiritual Couplets and Khayyam’s The Ruba‘iyat , both also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times). Omar Khayyam was in fact one of most respected mathematicians and astronomers of his time, part of a committee of scientists hired by the ruler Malik Shah to draft a new calendar. In later generations Khayyam became known for an extensive corpus of quatrains (called in Persian, as in English, by the Arabic term ruba‘i —plural ruba‘iyat) that expressed a skeptical, epicurean philosophy, devoted to the pursuit of pleasure in life. The poems attributed to Khayyam have grown in number over the generations, fueling debate about which ones he really wrote. According to scholars today, almost any sardonic quatrain from that era of Persian letters is likely to be attributed to Khayyam, regardless of actual authorship. In the anglophone world, the name Omar Khayyam became almost synonymous with Persian culture because of the popular translations of his quatrains by poet Edward FitzGerald (1809–83). FitzGerald’s collection of just over 100 quatrains (The Ruba‘iyat of Omar Khayyam ) became so well known that a particular style of melancholic skepticism and a stoic, carpe diem approach to experience came to be synonymous with the word “Persian.”
Omar Khayyam was not a particularly famous poet in Iran before Hidayat’s time, but Hidayat took the trouble to research him thoroughly and obviously considered him a kind of predecessor. He published an edition of Khayyam’s quatrains, complete with extensive commentary, under the title Taranok’ha-yi Khayyam (roughly “Khayyam’s songs,” 1934), which sorted through the quatrains attributed to Omar Khayyam and chose those Hidayat felt to be most authentic. In an elaborate preface he shows a personal fascination with Khayyam as a figure of open-mindedness and skepticism, nonetheless able to make his mark in a strict religious society.
Familiarity with the poetry of Omar Khayyam is useful to an understanding of motifs in The Blind Owl. Khayyam’s work is well known for its praise of wine and its skepticism about religion. Sometimes these two currents are combined, as in the quatrain that begins “The grape that can with logic absolute/the Two and Seventy jarring sects confute” (Quatrain 43 in the first edition; see FitzGerald, p. 54). Among the quatrains attributed to Khayyam is a series that might be a model for elements in The Blind Owl (the sketch on the pen cases or the scenes by the river); the series presents erotic scenes in natural settings—a garden or the bank of a river, for example—and proceeds to consider the remains of former lovers now buried in the same spot (Quatrains 18 and 19 in FitzGerald’s 1859 edition). Another series, which FitzGerald calls the kuza-namah (the story of the vase) features a potter. The potter is compared to God in this series of quatrains, and the pots or vases discuss their fate. In the edition he published of Khayyam’s quatrains, Hidayat discusses this “story of the vase.” The fact that a vase is a central element in The Blind Owl, written two years later, suggests that the two works share a common worldview.
OPIUM—FROM TRADITIONAL ANTIDOTE TO “EVIL” HABIT
A time-honored medicine, opium has been prescribed as a remedy in Iran since at least the 200s b.c.e., having been in use by then for millennia (as far back as the Sumerians—c. 3400 b.c.e.). Muslim physicians used it extensively, as did philosophers, among them Ibn Sina (otherwise known as Avicenna; b, 980). By the sixteenth century the remedy had become entrenched in western European medicine. The nineteenth century saw a huge boost in production and an associated boost in consumption. “ln Iran, supply created its own demand leading to wide-spread addiction to opium-smoking… as an evil habit… touching all strata of the society” (Poroy, pp, 1, 5).
The Blind Owl can be understood as either a fantasy or the tale of an insane narrator, describing hallucinations. It is a tale told in the first person, by an eccentric male narrator, a character who turns out gradually to be at odds with his reality. His voice suggests a dependable observer, without ornament or verbal embroidery, but there are two incompatible components to the narration. On the one hand the speaker is a close observer who seems to inspire trust. His avowed project is to understand a very unusual experience (“I shall try to set down what I can remember, what has remained in my mind”) and he describes it in sparse narrative, marked by visual intensity, with a minimum of rhetorical ornament (The Blind Owl, p. 2). On the other hand, the events he describes are so dreamlike that the reader must decide whether to trust the persuasive authority of his voice or the supernatural aura generated by elements of the narrative. There are two sections, with a transitional passage between them and an epilogue at the end. Current scholarship regards the first section of the novella as a fantasy version of the second. The mysterious death of the ethereal woman in Part One is seen as the speaker’s attempt to justify the murder of his wife in Part Two, which, although realistic, itself includes hallucinations and questionable judgments. In the handwritten, mimeographed version of The Blind Owl that Hidayat prepared in India, the entire second part appears in quotation marks. These quotation marks begin every paragraph of the second part up to the coda, intimating that this is the text in which the narrator committed his experience to writing as stated at the end of Part One.
Plot summary—Part One
The unnamed narrator introduces himself as a recluse living outside an unnamed town. An opium addict and a painter, he practices a kind of folk art, producing designs that resemble Persian miniatures on papier-mâché pen cases. The description of his pen cases is one of the most famous passages in the book:
I would mention a strange, an incredible thing. For some reason unknown to me the subject of all my painting was from the very beginning one and the same. It consisted always of a cypress tree at the foot of which was squatting a bent old man like an Indian fakir [actually misl-i jukiyan-i Hind, like Indian yogis]. He had a long cloak wrapped about him and wore a turban on his head. The index finger of his left hand was pressed to his lips in a gesture of surprise. Before him stood a girl in a long black dress, leaning towards him and offering him a flower of morning glory [gul-i nilufar, also translated as “lotus” or “water lily”]. Between them ran a little stream. Had I seen the subject of this picture at some time in the past, or had it been revealed to me in a dream?
(The Blind Owl, p. 6)
The painting offers up a palette of images and ideas that will recur throughout the novella. The first event of the narrative, a visit from an old man, identified tentatively as the narrator’s uncle (“That is, he said he was my uncle”), replicates parts of the painting: “At all events my uncle was a bent old man with an Indian turban on his head and a ragged yellow cloak on his back” (The Blind Owl, p. 7). Even the morning glories recur regularly throughout the story.
The episodes that begin with the uncle’s visit unfold with surprising speed. First the narrator notices a shelf. On the shelf sits a bottle of wine, which, he remembers, has been there all his life. Through a little window above the shelf, he glimpses the scene of his paintings. He describes a woman, sometimes identified as a “girl,” in a long black dress in sensuous terms that make her seem otherworldly and ethereal. Fainting at the sight of her, he wakes to find no trace of the vision. The old man has left and, in an evocative inexplicable detail, there is no longer a window above the shelf.
In telling the tale, the narrator repeats and paraphrases passages in a manner unprecedented for its day. Uncannily he recounts—as if seeing them for the first time—scenes, phrases, and details used in previous descriptions. Infatuated with the sight of the ethereal woman, the narrator searches the wasteland around his house. After days of his searching, she appears on his doorstep, proceeds into his house, and lies on his bed. He gives her the same wine he planned to offer his uncle/the old man. She dies. His response is to paint a portrait of her face, for once a work of art instead of the folk craft that for him has become automatic, mechanical, and “ludicrous” (The Blind Owl, p. 6).
In the most explicitly supernatural moment (one of Hidayat’s borrowings from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Ligeia”), the dead woman’s eyes open for an instant, presumably so he can draw them perfectly. This moment is a variation on the same odd plot device used by Poe.
From “Ligeia” by Edgar Allan Poe
The greater part of the fearful night had worn away, and she who had been dead, once again stirred…. The corpse… stirred, and now more vigorously than before. The hues of life flushed up with unwonted energy into the countenance… and, save that the eyelids were yet pressed heavily together… I might have dreamed that Rowena had indeed shaken off, utterly, the fetters of Death. And now slowly opened the eyes of the figure which stood before me.
(Poe, p. 328)
Hidayat’s version of the scene is quiet, even gentle: “Her feverish, reproachful eyes, shining with a hectic brilliance, slowly opened and gazed fixedly at my face. It was the first time she had been conscious of my presence” (The Blind Owl, p. 25).
In a series of episodes, the narrator dismembers the body, places it in a suitcase, and receives a visit from an old man with a funeral carriage: “Suddenly, I caught sight of a bent old man sitting at the foot of a cypress tree. His face could not be seen for a wide scarf which he wore wrapped around his neck. I had still not uttered a word when the old man burst into a hollow, grating, sinister laugh which made the hairs on my body stand on end” (The Blind Owl, p. 28). The old man, described in the same terms as the uncle and old man in the painting, takes him to a deserted cemetery and digs a grave. In the grave they find an ancient vase, presumably pre-Islamic, and the narrator takes it home. There he discovers a portrait on the vase, identical to the one he painted when the dead woman opened her eyes. He smokes all of his stock of opium and descends into a dream, which brings the opening sequence to an end.
Between the opening sequence and the longer narrative that follows is a transitional passage that describes an opium dream-state with great intensity. The passage includes what might be called a rebirth image:
With each moment that passed I grew smaller and more like a child. Then suddenly my mind became blank and dark and it seemed to me that I was suspended from a slender hook in the shaft of a dark well. Then I broke free of the hook and dropped through space … When I came to myself, I found myself in a small room and in a peculiar posture which struck me as strange and at the same time natural to me.
(The Blind Owl, pp. 42–43)
On waking, the narrator speaks of waiting for the police to come and arrest him (a fear explained only later). He plans to commit suicide by drinking the poisoned wine that he keeps on the shelf (a detail that allows us to reinterpret the two references to the same wine in the opening sequence), and he decides to write down his experiences:
The source of my excitement was the need to write, which I felt as a kind of obligation imposed on me. I hoped by this means to expel the demon which had long been lacerating my vitals, to vent onto paper the horrors of my mind. Finally, after some hesitation, I drew the oil-lamp towards me and began as follows…
(The Blind Owl, p. 45)
The reader may expect that what he is about to write will be the series of events we have just read. In fact, the longer episode he now composes is much more realistic.
The speaker reintroduces himself. This time he is an invalid rather than an artist, living in a house on a busy city street in the town of Rayy, south of contemporary Tehran. The sense of mystery in the opening sequence has given way to a tone of realism, even of mundanity. The relation between the two narratives becomes problematic because the more realistic lies within the less realistic, dreamlike account. It makes a considerable difference whether the opening sequence is regarded as a frame for the realistic narrative or whether the imbedded, realistic narrative is itself considered the frame. The latter reading, first suggested by Al-i Ahmad and Hassan Kamshad, has a paradoxical element, since it means that the dream encloses the frame or waking vision. On the other hand, it forces the reader to examine consciously the relationship between the two accounts.
In a brief lyrical episode, the narrator of the realistic version tells a story about his birth: “I have heard several different accounts of my father and mother. Only one of them, the one Nanny gave me, can, I imagine, be true” (The Blind Owl, p. 54). This story takes the form of a classical folktale. His mother, a temple attendant in India, was seduced by an Iranian merchant, or perhaps by the twin brother traveling with him, and the result was a child—the narrator—sent to Iran to be raised in the household of the Iranian branch of the family. There is confusion over the identities of the uncle and father, which is a common literary device and adds to the folkloric style. The story of the parents also features a “trial by cobra.” In this trial, the twin brothers are placed in a pit with the temple snake; one is bitten, the other driven crazy. The whole ordeal is recounted with hallucinatory intensity.
Returning to the present, the narrator describes a tormented love-hate relationship with an unfaithful wife, the daughter of his adopted household in Iran, who resembles the ethereal woman of Part One. In the narrator’s account, this woman has seduced him into marriage. She afterwards refused to consummate the marriage and has proven repeatedly unfaithful to him. He plans to kill his errant wife, then during an intense scene of lovemaking kills her accidentally, or at least professes to plunging the knife into her by mistake. The climactic ending shows him visiting her in disguise, forgetting he has a knife in hand, killing her by accident during a vividly articulated scene of lovemaking. (“I involuntarily jerked my hand. I felt the knife, which I was still holding, sink somewhere into her flesh” [The Blind Owl, pp. 126–27]). After the folkloric subplot of the parents and the emotional intensity of his anger at his wife, the reader is likely to distrust the narrator’s account and to see the conclusion as a murder rather than an accident.
The realistic version includes a walk outside town, to a landscape that resembles the scene at the end of Part One, in which the narrator visited a cemetery with an old man who dug a grave and discovered a vase (The Blind Owl, pp. 71–79). The symmetry between the two scenes is not complete, since in this instance his excursion precedes the murder of his wife, whereas in the former instance the trip to the graveyard explains how he disposes of the body. As indicated by this example, events in the dreamlike first part are repeated in the realistic section, with variations.
In the realistic account, a figure described in much the same way as the uncle and gravedigger reappears as an old man selling odds and ends across the street from the narrator’s house.
He looked at me over the folds of the scarf that muffled his face. Two decayed teeth emerged from under the hare-lip and he burst into laughter. It was a grating, hollow laugh, of a quality to make the hairs on one’s body stand on end.
(The Blind Owl, p. 108)
A vase resembling the vase in Part One shows up for sale among the old man’s wares, and the narrator buys it. A character described in much the same way as the ethereal woman turns out to be the narrator’s wife.
The identities continue to intertwine in the scenes leading up to the murder, when the narrator decides that one of the people with whom his wife has had an affair is this odds-and-ends man. The narrator disguises himself to look like the old man and goes to her room, and the resulting sex scene is described with unusual candor. It is then that the murder occurs: “For some reason I kept the bone-handled knife in my hand…. As we struggled, I involuntarily jerked my hand. I felt the knife, which I was still holding, sink somewhere into her flesh” (The Blind Owl, pp. 125, 127). Afterwards, the narrator sees himself in the mirror and utters the final words of the realistic section: “I had become the old odds and ends man” (The Blind Owl, p. 128).
The epilogue returns us to the world of Part One. In this brief coda, the old man, seen once more as a character apart from the narrator, steals the vase that was earlier purchased from him and disappears down the street. It is possible to read the realistic segment as a reality the speaker can acknowledge only intermittently, like a repressed memory that becomes conscious during analysis (the concept of writing for one’s shadow can be read as exploring one’s darker or unacknowledged self). In the event of such a reading, the coda suggests a return into fantasy.
The Blind Owl and religion
One of the reasons that Hidayat did not publish The Blind Owl in Iran until the 1940s is the narrator’s attitude towards religion. In reacting to his nurse’s gift to him of a prayer book, for example, the narrator adopts a clearly anti-religious tone:
As for mosques, the muezzin’s call to prayer, the ceremonial washing of the body and rinsing of the mouth, not to mention the pious practice of bobbing up and down in honour of a high and mighty Being, the omnipotent Lord of all things, with whom it was impossible to have a chat except in the Arabic language—these things left me completely cold.
(The Blind Owl, p. 88)
Religion has long been an important component in the complex process of forging an Iranian national identity, and the narrator’s skepticism can be seen as a way to redefine the Iranian mentality by suggesting that Islam is not a universal revelation but is rather tailored to the culture.
In Iran, a division within Islam shaped Iran’s sense of itself over the course of the sixteenth century, when a Shi‘ite dynasty, the Safavids, came to power. Sunnism is the majority branch of Islam and the one that dominates in most countries of the Middle East. Shi‘ism, which emphasizes the importance of religious authority as passed down through a succession of descendants in the family of the Prophet Muhammad, is the minority branch. In non-Arab Iran, Shi‘ites are an overwhelming majority, about 98 percent of the population, and Shi‘ism is a major component of the Iranian self-definition.
Even within Sh‘ism there are potential divisions. A person can be for or against the clerical community. A person can be more or less amicable towards the practices and beliefs of Sufism (mysticism). A person can be more or less secular in habits. Reza Shah’s project of modernizing Iran aimed at secularization; a 1928 edict, for example, demanded that the fez be replaced by a brimmed hat.
Hidayat was in many ways in tune with the secularization and Europeanization of Iran. But his critique of the Shfite clergy went beyond the focus on surface details such as clothing. In his short story “Seeking Absolution,” pilgrims to the Shfite holy city of Karbala tell stories, each revealing a horrific sin he or she plans to have expunged by paying a donation to a religious authority once the pilgrim gets there. In “The Man Who Lost His Self,” a Sufi (Islamic mystical) leader is exposed as a hypocrite; so thoroughly does he disillusion a disciple that the disciple commits suicide. To Hidayat’s mind, not only religion but Arab culture in general had been too thoroughly absorbed during the period of conversion to Islam. He saw both Islam and the Arab influence as inimical to the Persian character; they were a corruption, he felt, of an earlier, purer culture. In “The Last Smile,” for example, Arabized Persians in eighth-century Baghdad mock the Abbasid court as simple-minded and unrefined.
Genuine elements of Persian life find their way into The Blind Owl The novella makes allusions to actual artifacts, such as the mosque of Shah Abd al-Azim (near which the narrator buries the ethereal woman’s corpse), but these references pass without historical resonance. As Elton Daniel has demonstrated in an essay on Hidayat’s use of history in the story, its references are frequently anachronistic, but Part One appears to take place sometime between 1800 and 1930. The city of Rayy as described in the story seems to be the site in its days as a great metropolis, before its destruction during the Mongol invasions in the thirteenth century. Also in the novella are references to coins (qiran and Abbasi, pishiz and dirham) used at different times in history. The narrator visits a river called Suran —a stream named occasionally in early sources. The anachronisms may be intended to establish a specific effect:
It may be argued that… the deliberate evocations of the medieval period are designed to tell the reader about the narrator’s psychological aberrations, about his belligerent insistence that time has no meaning, and about his assertion that the past is more real for him than the present…. They are expressions of the narrator’s overwhelming desire to believe that his situation is of universal as well as personal significance.
(Daniel in Hillmann, pp. 81–82)
Motifs from Iranian folklore emerge from time to time in The Blind Owl. The image the speaker paints on pen cases in Part One, with the stream dividing the two figures and the cypress tree in the background, reaches deep into Persian iconography. (Indeed, papier-mâché pen cases, a common piece of folk art in pre-twentieth-century Iran, remain popular among collectors today.) When the speaker first resolves to murder his wife in Part Two, he abandons the project because he hears a sneeze, a reaction that is in keeping with a common Iranian superstition that a sneeze is sent as a warning. In Hidayat’s writing about folklore one sometimes gets the impression
THE BLIND OWL AND PSYCHOANALYSIS
Sigmund Freud was a controversial figure in Iran, as in Europe. Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams was translated into Persian by Muhammad Hijazi (in 1933, as Ru’ya); he apparently benefited from Hidayat’s advice about how to translate difficult terms. An interest in psychoanalysis developed among intellectuals in Iran during the generation after Hidayat. If the relation between the two narratives of The Blind Owl is understood to be a system of transformations, in which the speaker takes events from his reality and presents them in altered, fantasy form, Hidayat’s interest in psychoanalysis becomes immediately visible. It is furthermore known that Hidayat was familiar with two books by a member of Freud’s early circle, Otto Rank. Rank’s study The Double explains the transformation of the narrator into the old man at the end of the book. In such a transformation a person finds another self committing crimes in his name. Such a fantasy, suggests Rank, is generated by the feeling of guilt. The guilty party invents a fantasy self in order to disclaim activities that are difficult or painful to own up to having committed- Another book by Rank, The Myth of the Birth of the Hero (1909), may have had a direct impact on the narrator’s legend about his family history in The Blind Owl. The Myth of the Birth of the Hero discusses a story type (visible everywhere in world folklore) in which the hero, by birth an exalted or noble individual, is abandoned and raised by humble substitute parents. In sum, Hidayat, whether consciously or not, seems to combine two archetypes discussed by Rank—that of the double and that of the myth of the birth of the hero.
that he was most drawn to Iranian folklore when it echoed widely distributed motifs or conventions. A superstition alluded to in Part Two, that a person about to die would cast a headless shadow, is also a European tradition that Otto Rank lists in his study The Double (The Blind Owl, p. 79; Rank, pp. 49–50).
The Blind Owl becomes more interesting still if seen as part of the evolution of the novel in Iran. At the turn of the twentieth century Iran boasted a tradition of historical romances set in pre-Islamic times, most notably by San‘ati-zadah Kirmani. The new century saw the rise of a more realistic line of Persian fiction, influenced by a burgeoning field of translations that began in the nineteenth century and featured works from European languages by Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Alexandre Dumas, to name a few. Recent Persian literature exerted an influence too. Most significant in the new Persian fiction for later writers was the collection of short stories by Muhammad Ali Jamalzadah titled Once Upon a Time (1922; also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times). What set Jamalzadah apart particularly was his linguistic exuberance. All but one of these stories are recounted in the first person, and this allows him to explore personalized and regional vocabularies. Hidayat’s short stories often explored what a narrative could gain by including characters who spoke in dialect, but his first-person narrators tended to sound like him—precise, neutral, clear—even those who seem out of touch with reality. What sets The Blind Owl apart is not just his engagement with psychology, but the strategy of a narrative voice that strives to sound like a neutral observer. At the time Hidayat was writing, most Persian prose featured mannered, rhetorically balanced and static text or a colloquial voice, usually comic, personalized as an agent of local color. Jamalzadah preferred the latter. Hidayat contributed a third type of voice, neither rhetorically elevated nor regional, as noted by Al-i Ahmad: The Blind Owl proves that “Persian, simple Persian, is capable of describing the most novel sensual states of a writer and can be employed for introspection” (Al-i Ahmad in Hillmann, p. 30). Hidayat developed a plain style, something close to what Roland Barthes has dubbed (in reference to the French writer Albert Camus) a “degree zero” style—colorless, unmarked, impersonal, objective (Barthes, pp. 76–78).
HIDAYAT AND POE
It is uncertain at what point in his career Hidayat read Edgar Altan Poe (1809–49), no doubt in the French translation by Charles Baudelaire (1821–67). However, the resemblances between their stories are clear. There is a distinctive pattern to Poe’s most famous tales, in which the conclusion presents a revelation that inspires terror, usually involving an act of violence or unveiling a hidden motive. Hidayat seems to have been interested in Poe’s scenes of claustrophobia and enclosure (as in “The Black Cat” or “The Cask of Amontillado”), his characters dominated by fetishes (as in “The Telltale Heart” or “Berenice”), and the sense of panic that characterizes many of his plots. Facets of The Blind Owl echo elements in Poe’s short stories. For example, the character Egaeus in Poe’s “Berenice” also fails to remember violence he has committed against his wife. The narrator of Poe’s story “The Black Cat” kills his wife and opens his testament with the phrase “I neither expect nor solicit belief,” much like the speaker in The Blind Owl, who prefaces his account: saying, “for after all, it does not matter to me whether others believe me or not” (Poe, vol 3, p. 849; The Blind Owl, p. 2). In Poe’s “Ligeia,” when the narrator’s second wife, Rowena, dies, the spirit of Lrgeia (his dead first wife) takes over the body. Poe’s story ends with a Gothic sense of horror, as does Part Two in The Blind Owl.
Translations of The Blind Owl into French (1953) and English (1958) established Hidayat’s international reputation. Iranian readers, always very aware of the world scene, valued this fact as evidence that Hidayat was not simply a proponent of Iranian culture but also a master of European modernist styles. The persistence of his reputation abroad has catapulted The Blind Owl to the context of world literature, in which Hidayat has been compared to European writers from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Jean-Paul Sartre.
In Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler (1979), there is a scene in which a reader (addressed as “you”) finds a passage repeated in a novel: “you [the reader] remark ‘This sentence sounds somehow familiar. In fact, this whole passage reads like something I’ve read before.’… just when you were beginning to grow truly interested, at this very point the author feels called upon to display one of those virtuoso tricks so customary in modern writing, repeating a paragraph word for word” (Calvino, p. 25). Had The Blind Owl come out in 1979, many of its devices would have seemed commonplace. (In fact, the French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, who is credited with pioneering the repeated passage in the 1950s, may have been influenced by the 1953 French translation of The Blind Owl.)
Publication and reception
Hidayat knew full well that The Blind Owl could not be published in Iran, because of both its outspoken skepticism about religion and the erotic scene that closes the book. The first publication was in fact a kind of samizdat, a hand-written text (with two illustrations by the author) copied on a mimeograph machine and clearly marked tab va furush dar Iran mamnu ast on the back of the title page: “Printing and sale in Iran are prohibited.” The novella was not published in Iran until the period of relaxed censorship after Reza Shah’s abdication in 1941.
Hidayat remained a respected writer during his lifetime, but it was after his suicide in 1951 that his reputation reached the dimensions of a cult figure, and The Blind Owl became his defining work. People began to think of him as a mythical figure, an observer who saw further than anyone else, a soul too sensitive to remain in a fallen world. Supporters have often approached The Blind Owl as a repository of hidden meanings and symbols, a tendency encouraged by the psychoanalytical framework that organizes the novella. Conversely, with his suicide in mind, one could see his pessimism as pathology, and in fact his writings have attracted attacks from conservatives who point to Hidayat’s eccentricities as a key to the difficulties of his writing.
The French version, La chouette aveugle, translated by Roger Lescot (assisted by Hidayat), appeared in 1953, two years after Hidayat’s suicide. A positive review by one of the early voices of surrealist poetry, Andre Breton, helped build the novella’s reputation among European readers, particularly among aficionados of Gothic and existentialist fiction.
In the quarter-century following Hidayat’s death, Reza Shah’s son (Mohammed Reza Pahlavi) attempted to control the intellectual world in Iran as his father had done, but even when the most confrontational works were banned, The Blind Owl continued to be read and reread, perhaps because its hermetic qualities made it seem personal and apolitical. After the revolution of 1979, when the Pahlavi reign ended and the Islamic Republic came to power, there was little tolerance for a skeptical and secular writer, though many of Hidayat’s works remained in print in bowdlerized versions. Among Iranian writers themselves, he remains an essential source, the predecessor with whom everyone must come to terms.
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_____.The Myth of the Birth of the Hero. Trans. F. Robbins and Smith Ely Jelliffe. New York: Robert Brunner, 1952.