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Tuesday 13 November 2018

In blogs past: The Phenomenology of Death

Here's a positively ancient blog post from way back in 2008 when I was a Masters student of Aesthetics.

I found the novella 'The Blind Owl' purely by my habit of roaming about interesting sections of the library and I'm glad that I did. I think a re-reading is on the cards and I'm fairly confident that the excellent National Library of Scotland will provide...

The Phenomenology of Death

The Blind Owl by Sadeq Hadayat

The Blind Owl has been interpreted in various ways; as a treatment of the author’s addiction, a reaction against the authoritarian regime of Reza Shah’s Iran, a work of existential psychology dealing with the author’s unease of the female and attraction/repulsion thereof (although the latter is a basic Freudian analysis and, by my opinion, not up to much). However, this short piece will not attempt to give such a broad generalisation for such a complex story as the Blind Owl (as one could easily bring up ancient Hindu and Buddhist texts concerning enlightenment, the mythology of owls, the history of Persia etc). Rather I will focus upon what is a definite ‘thread’ throughout Sadeq’s novella, that of the phenomenology of death. It is not to be doubted that all the other themes mentioned (even the Freudian) play a role, but to reduce the story to only one message is to destroy it. The confusion of powerful images gives it its coherence (we might think of Rimbaud’s poetry as a similar example).

The work is entirely poetic and should be understood as such, for example when Sadeq has he character say that he, “felt a pleasant pain.” When I say this you would understand me, but logically it is a nonsense for pleasure and pain are opposites such as cold and heat. We can all understand quite what a pleasant pain is describing, this is quite a basic example, but the work is full of more complex poetic juxtapositions. Death is a metaphor for the living, we cannot know it. To talk about it poetically makes sense, to talk about it factually we have to be indirect, discuss its effect and so forth. Here Sadeq considers death it what it means to us. That is, how it effects our life (thus phenomenologically).

At this moment my thoughts froze. A unique, singular life was created in me, because my life was bound to all the existences that surrounded me, all the shadows that trembled around me. I felt an inseparable, deep relation with the world, with the movement of all creatures and with nature. All the elements of myself and of nature were related by the invisible streams of some mind-disturbing, agitating current. No thought or image was unnatural for me. I could understand the secrets of the ancient paintings, the mysteries of difficult, philosophical treatises, and the eternal foolishness of forms and norms, because at this moment I was participating in the revolution of the earth and the planets, in the growth of the plants, and in the activities of the animal world. The past and the future, far and near, shared my sentient life and were at one with me.

At such times everyone takes refuge in a strong habit, or in a scruple that he has developed in his life: the drunkard becomes drunk, the writer writes, the stone-cutter cuts stones, each giving vent to his anxiety and anger by escaping into the strong stimulant of his own life. And it is in moments like these that a real artist can create a masterpiece.

It is with this, and at various encounters throughout the novella, that the narrator encounters the immediate potency of one’s own death. That it is I that will die, the realisation floods one with an anxiety that empowers or destroys. With acceptance one can “create a masterpiece” and it is only with this facing up to one’s (everyone’s) mortality that the world can be understood to make sense, thus the participation in everything. This ‘enlightenment’ moment obviously has links with Hinduism and Buddhism, and also with the philosophy of Heidegger and the French existentialists, but it is not a philosophical treaty masquerading as a story. The existential plight of the main character is palpable and considered one of the reasons it was banned for so long.

The dream-like imagery of the novella crowds in and overwhelms the reader (especially during the frantic second part), in effect the over emphasis upon the highly powerful sensory images and descriptions used by Sadeq stun. The language is so intense that it dissolves itself and we are left with the ‘feeling’ of dread, with the struggle of the ‘painter’ (the narrator) the make sense of the world. Who is the girl? His Wife, death itself, addiction/sickness, love, all of these. With his over determination upon language (his attempts to explain) we find that incessant describing is precisely because of its own insufficiency. The ideal then must be silence (death?) “I always thought forbearance from speech was the best of things.” And in this end it is death that “never lies” whereas with speech we constantly make dreams and images that continue to confuse.

The whole novella is a cycle, a dream within a dream. Complex and multi-layered, it's own over abundance of imagery reduce it to the silent image of a corpse.