Hedayat's learning can be subsumed under three headings: (a) research into Iran's past history and culture leading to an understanding, and possibly a resolution, of contemporary problems; (b) research into Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhism as well as into Hinduism for acquaintance with the life and deeds of the Buddha, an exemplary figure who has overcome difficult challenges; and (c) study of the works of European authors for inspiration and self-improvement as well as for familiarity with new forms and methods. In this chapter we shall discuss these efforts at learning in relation to Hedayat's fictional works. This, combined with the previous chapter's treatment of authorship, professional activities, and travels should provide background necessary for an analysis of his works, an analysis which should help us to consider literary techniques and symbolism on the one hand and his mastery of several levels of the Persian language on the other.
Much is written about Hedayat's involvement with the Iranian heritage.1Among others, two major Iranian figures and their philosophies influence Hedayat's life. These ancient and medieval figures are respectively Zoroaster, a prophet who brought a new way to Iran about 1,000 B.C., and Omar Khayyam whose Quatrains achieved world renown through the interpretation and translation of Edward Fitzgerald.2
Hedayat's acquaintance with Zoroaster, occurring early in his life, can be interpreted on two levels. On the socio-cultural level, as mentioned, his "Man and Animal" and its later revision, The Advantages of Vegetarianism, reflect that ancient prophet's concern for life. To gain for Zoroastrianism some international exposure, Hedayat wrote "La Magie en Perse." Here he discussed the Zoroastrian tenets concerning life here below as well as in the hereafter. And he incorporated some of these beliefs into a number of stories about Iran's ancient religion and about persons who studied or practiced that faith.3 Among these mention can be made of "The Fireworshiper" which recounts the story of a French archaeologist working in Iran. Here Hedayat defines faith as a force that recognizes no boundaries and which is not related to any particular religion. The archaeologist discovers it as an innate force evoked by the right stimuli; he feels this force as he watches two Zoroastrians worship before the sacred fire. Is Hedayat telling us something about his own understanding of religion?
In "The Requiem," another of Hedayat's stories on a Zoroastrian theme, the setting is moved from this world to the nether regions. "The Requiem" is the story of a soul, Zarbanu, who after three days and three nights leaves her earthly body and joins the other souls in the nether world. There she is told that all souls are nourished by the Afarinegan prayers recited by their survivors. Zarbanu has one survivor--her step-daughter, Nahid--of whom Zarbanu thinks that she will spend her time reciting prayers for her. But when the other souls accompany Zarbanu to her house, they find Nahid, delirious with love for her boyfriend, unaware even that Zarbanu had died. No one recites the Afarinegan for Zarbanu.
In these and similar stories, Hedayat reintroduces to Iranians the culture of ancient Iran. Would they thus become conscious of their heritage and seek to understand and identify with it? Such was not to be. Stories like "The Requiem" proved to be heavy reading and were ignored by the general reader. Were it not for merits that transcend their cultural value, we could easily ignore them altogether. We shall return to "The Requiem" in Chapter six.4
Hedayat's interest in Zoroastrianism stemmed from his sense of kinship with the adherents of this faith, for in Zoroastrianism Hedayat saw the glory of ancient Iran. He hoped that by acquainting Iranians with their roots it might be possible to direct them toward the precepts of their forefathers and away from Islam. Finding this immediately impossible, Hedayat, like Ferdowsi who embedded ancient Iranian precepts into his Shahname (Book of Kings) centuries before, sought to incorporate Zoroastrian beliefs into his essays and short stories.
Like Zoroaster, Hedayat placed man in the center of creation and made him capable of and responsible for the improvement of his own lot and the lot of the cosmos. If he could choose correctly and if he could follow the dictates of his conscience, man would be able to save his immortal soul and transcend death. To enlighten his readers, Hedayat analyzed the multiplicity of man's character, placing a special value on man's capacity to judge, his ability to accept responsibility and his adaptability to change. In successive short stories, following a strict schedule, he provided many models of "good behavior" by pointing to the unsavory consequences of involvement with evil. (See Chapter four for details).
Hedayat's research into ancient Iranian history and religion is usually attributed to a unilateral sense of nationalism with little or no regard for the total culture.5 This view, however, is erroneous. Hedayat was a Muslim Iranian curious to assess the extent of the influence of the Arabic culture in Iranian life. He felt there ought to be a balance between the Islamic culture of Iran and the nationalistic view of the Iranian pre-Arabic heritage. In the lack of such balance, Hedayat saw the reason for the Iranians' loss of self- reliance, confidence, and self-esteem. Centuries of oppression by Arabs, Turks, and Mongols, Hedayat thought, have "broken" the Iranians' spirit and made the nation submissive and servile.6
As he saw it, the strategy to keep the Iranians a deprived people was simple: they should be kept hungry and ignorant so that their energy would be spent on day-to-day survival, leaving no room for the leisure which leads to exploration and discovery. Haji Aqa explains this strategy in this way:
Like Shari'ati, Hedayat believed that societies are living entities; modern societies reflect phenomena the import of which transcends current realities and the genesis of which extends into the hoary past. Iranian society is hardly different. During the Achaemenian times its government and people were highly stratified; every one was locked into a profession and a recognized status. Once exposed to Roman lifestyle, there was some social mobility during the Parthian rule. But later Parthians and Sassanians reinstituted the ancient pyramidal structure so characteristic of Iranian society. When the Arabs, and later the Turko-Mongol invaders, came to the plateau, the general picture did not change. The monarchy and the feudal system that supported it continued to plague Iran even many years after Hedayat's death. In his stories Hedayat identified as evil some of the choices and decisions that had brought Iran to the state he deplored and tried to liberate the people from, not through political machination but through a recognition of past mistakes. Through literature he tried to break away from past practices and to institute a new approach for discussing Iranian life and culture.8
Hedayat's kind of approach to Iran's problems, however, was not acceptable; even some of his close colleagues criticized him. Such colleagues, of course, could not distinguish between the merit of editing a text and the greater merit of introducing a new thought.9 Indeed they thought that only experienced scholars could advance reforms. Of such scholars Hedayat speaks quite eloquently in "The Patriot." Consider, for instance, the following insight into Iran's past offered by one such scholar:
What Hedayat could see but the traditional scholar could not was that man comes into this world only once. This onetime experience should not be wasted copying one book into another. Rather, something new and dynamic should be added to the knowledge in the first book. But his colleagues, like those who wait for a Saoshiyant, a Messiah, or a Mahdi, felt that some genius will one day benefit from their labor and that person's contribution will enlighten the world. Hedayat, on the other hand, like his character in The Blind Owl, feared that he would die and leave much unsaid.11
In short, Hedayat felt that Iran's recent past had produced nothing but ignorance and that ignorance had multifariously enslaved the Iranians, keeping them from recognizing the situation in which they lived. While over the centuries the yoke had changed, the slavery had remained the same. For the Iranian to save himself and his fellow countrymen from servitude, Hedayat advocated recourse to knowledge. Knowledge would expose automatically the many chains with which the feudal lords, the clergy, and the monarchy had fettered the people. A good example of this conflict between "good" and "evil" appears in "The Water of Life," a simple story about three brothers. Two, through lying and deceit, become wealthy and respected; they enslave those who respect them and make them rich. The third brother seeks the water of life. Upon drinking this water, he can see the world much more clearly and can readily understand the plight of the masses. He rises against his brothers and as his weapon he brings the water of life. When the enemy soldiers run out of water and are forced to drink the water of life, they, too, become cognizant of their own plight:
The result of such a change would be a prosperous Iran, an Iran for which Zoroaster exhorted his followers to till the fields, to settle down, marry, and have many children. During their leisure, Zoroaster advocated they give seasonal feasts and enjoy themselves. The world that Hedayat creates around the spring that has the elixir of life is hardly different from Zoroaster's promised land:13
But Hedayat was aware that this is an idealized life; real societies have to accommodate evil as well as good. Using his knowledge of Iran's past, he tried to expose the manner in which evil permeates the kingdom of good. He hoped that by illustrating the pitfalls and the consequences of bad judgment, distrust, and abuse of power he might prevent man not only from destroying himself but from destroying all that he holds dear.
It was especially the Ruba'iyyat (Quatrains) which drew Hedayat to the works of Omar Khayyam. Already when he was about nineteen, Hedayat had tried to understand the sage. And he wrote, as we noted, the elementary piece entitled "The Quatrains of the Philosopher Omar Khayyam." But at that time (1923), unaware of the merits of primary Persian sources, he based his study on E.G. Browne's A Literary History of Persia. Nevertheless, he identified the problems accurately and discussed them intelligently. What is more, he rejected the proposition that Khayyam was a Sufi because, as he said, while Khayyam used Sufic terminology, he did not convey a devotion to the creed of the Sufis. Similarly he rejected any unilateral attribution of naturalism and fatalism to Khayyam. He concluded that Khayyam is a philosopher concerned equally with life, death, predestination, and free will. Religion, man's great source of inspiration, said Hedayat, has proved incapable of surmounting his inherent fears; thus Khayyam finds himself alone and insecure in a universe about which his knowledge is nil. His lack of security, Hedayat concludes, makes this philosopher a skeptic of the utmost pessimism and despair.
For his later study (1934-35), Hedayat consulted the oldest manuscripts that have discussed the Quatrains of Khayyam. He also evaluated the assertions of authors nearly contemporary with the poet-philosopher. Eventually Hedayat became convinced that among some 200 to 400 quatrains, fourteen could be attributed to Khayyam with certainty.15 Of these, thirteen quatrains are recorded in Munis al-Ahrar (The Companion of the Noble Ones) written in 1339-40 and one occurs in Mersad al-'Ebad (The Watch Tower of the Faithful) written between 1221 and 1223 by Sheykh Najm al-Din Daya.16 From an analysis of the style and content of these fourteen quatrains, Hedayat derived the following topical criteria for including a quatrain in his Taraneha-ye Khayyam (Khayyam's Quatrains):
Hedayat further asserted that from his youth until he was an old man Khayyam had practiced a known and unchanging philosophy. When the torment of reality transcended human endurance, Hedayat continues, Khayyam took refuge in wine to ward off bitterness and to blunt the cutting edge of his thoughts. The Khayyam who emerges from Hedayat's collection of Quatrains is a realist aware of the prevalence of Time over Matter. Khayyam, says Hedayat, recognizes that man's sole weapon against the ravages of Time is his life and even that, Khayyam laments, has to be lived one moment at a time. That an old man with white hair and a shaky hand should be compelled to reach for the cup, Hedayat concludes, is the very image of the poet's desperation in the fatal battle against Time.
Kamshad points out that Hedayat and Khayyam are kindred spirits.18 But his statement must be modified. They are kindred spirits only in their patriotism, individuality, and rejection of institutionalized religion. That they saw the world through the same spectacles was not so much because they were the same as because Hedayat modeled his life (from age twenty) on a unique, personal understanding of Khayyam's philosophy. Other Iranians, as is well-known, respected Khayyam as a mathematician and astronomer while condemning him as a drunkard and an atheist. Was Hedayat, who at the time was regarded as a suicidal maniac and a drug addict, trying to draw a parallel between his contemporaries' misunderstanding of his works and medieval Iranians' condemnation of Khayyam?
Where life is concerned, Khayyam and Hedayat parted company. Although both authors recognize the moment as the ultimate reality, the quality of life they find in that moment eloquently bespeaks their differences. For Khayyam life is a joy and it must be lived to the fullest. At times he even looks forward to an afterlife in which he might come to this world as a flower or jug of wine. Hedayat, on the other hand, tolerates life as if it were an imposition. He shudders at the thought of being reborn in this world in any form. For Hedayat suicide is a path to a tranquil life; for Khayyam perseverance and enjoyment of the bliss of this world are the key to fulfillment. Perhaps that is why the moment--or the totality of moments that constitute one's life--is so short for Khayyam but languid, sluggish, and burdensome for Hedayat.
The world which Hedayat attributes to Khayyam, and in which Hedayat himself lived, would be quite frightening to ordinary people. In that world individuals live a life separate from the rotating particles of which their physical form is made. Here the soul views the body in the same way that man views with awe the revolving spheres in the heavens; the soul has no control over the body. And the soul's wishes can in no way influence the course of these particles, themselves destined for nowhere. Although temporarily assuming a shape, these molecules, in whose bondage the soul abides, are really amorphous. The soul must endure their constant fluctuation: so Hedayat sees Khayyam's world.
Echoing Khayyam, Hedayat adds that to throw this ever-present yoke aside man must discover his own position on the canvas of the primordial painter. He must see the design according to which the Artist has fashioned his soul and he must alter that primordial design. Were he able to do that, these authors believe, man's soul would become free from molecular bondage and would enter the void, a void similar, according to Hedayat's assessment of Khayyam's views, to the void preached by the Buddha as the destination of the soul of the accomplished Buddhist.19
Many Khayyamic concepts--among them mortality, molecular existence, and determinism--appear quite frequently in The Blind Owl. But it is Khayyam's joi de vivre which alone reverberates throughout the second part of the novella. As death and mortality close in on the narrator, he becomes more determined to fight. To assure himself that he must live his life from moment to moment, and to concentrate his efforts to reach a blissful life, he recites a carpe diem:
Thanks to a careful examination in Leonard Bogle's "The Khayyamic Influence," we can here forgo a discussion of these concepts and of their role in The Blind Owl. 20 There is, however, an aspect of Khayyam that Bogle does not discuss. That is Khayyam the Aryan--a personality who, like the Buddha, did not accept life at face value and balked at submission to the traditions of the past and of his time. Rather, he tried to change the world so as to accommodate his own conception of harmony and understanding:
Using this parallel between Khayyam and the Buddha, Hedayat created an unforgettable character: the painter of an ancient Raq jar recovered at Ray after centuries of neglect. The Quatrains, which so vividly describe Khayyam's struggles against his contemporaries, and which are recalled as a pair of enchanting eyes, painted by the ancient painter of the jar, tell of the painter's childhood, his youth, his struggles with desire (symbolized as his wife) and his final battle and victory--they reveal how an ordinary man can rise against tyranny and win liberation.
Hedayat's interest in Buddhism, as we said, is to be seen already in The Advantages of Vegetarianism. But more intense interest and research in this field came only late in the 1920s, when while in Europe, he examined the philosophy of the Buddha. This involvement could have come about in one of three ways. He could have met a Buddhist by chance and been party to religious discussions which gained him an understanding of the basic principles and rituals of the faith; he could have frequented circles which in France began in 1929, 22 a year in which Hedayat had not embarked upon any particular course of study and, being on scholarship, had plenty of free time to investigate the world around him; or he could have become involved in Buddhist studies in the same way that he became involved in Zoroastrian studies, i.e., through a gradual expansion of his Aryan studies so that they encompassed Buddhism and later Hinduism as they had Zoroastrianism and the study of Khayyam's Quatrains. Though the most plausible route, this last makes it harder to pinpoint the beginning of his involvement.
Vincent Monteil explains Hedayat's involvement with Buddhism in this way:
But whenever he began it, there is very little doubt about the extent of his involvement, both doctrinal and practical. This is not to say, of course, that Hedayat practiced Hinduism and Buddhism or that he became an adherent of these faiths in any way but rather that, as with Zoroastrianism, he studied their literatures and synthesized their contributions for the benefit of future generations. One expects Hedayat, as involved in these religions as he seems to have been, to write a few essays about them or to treat them at least in the same way that he treated Zoroastrianism. But in Iran these faiths were perceived as different from Zoroastrianism. This difference, which Hedayat could not easily ignore, stemmed from the Islamic milieu for which Hedayat wrote. They would have had to tolerate praises of Zoroaster, even to allow discussions of the faith, as part of the recognition of Iran's ancient heritage. Even so, its study could not sit well with the Muslim clergy, though Islam had built upon this heritage in Iran. But with Hinduism and Buddhism Hedayat would be bringing into Iran a non-Iranian, non-Islamic set of beliefs. This the Muslim clergy did not have to tolerate. And since the Iranian masses were generally uneducated and thus ignorant of the ancient bonds between Iran and India, Hedayat knew that he could not win their sympathy. In his fight with the clergy he would, therefore, remain alone. Nevertheless, although he did not overtly profess any substantial knowledge of these faiths, he incorporated as much of their doctrines and rituals as he could into his stories, especially in "The Last Smile,"24 "The Requiem," The Blind Owl, "Sampingue," and "Lunatique." We shall return to a discussion of these stores later.
Hedayat's close friends, of course, were aware of his interest in Buddhism, but even they seem not to have been sure of its extent. Hedayat's search for authentic sources of information on the subject, as opposed to information per se, points to the advanced stage of his study. Even though our documents, such as an August 5, 1948 letter, for instance, belong to a later stage of his career, their contents and an analysis of his earlier stories point to substantial previous exposure. In the above mentioned letter to Dr. Hassan Shahid Nura'i, he writes:
Shahid Nura'i apparently sent a book about the Buddha shortly thereafter. On October 19 of the same year, Hedayat wrote another letter acknowledging receipt of a volume he had not requested:
Hedayat concludes the letter as follows:
This shows that as late as 1948, i.e., eleven years after The Blind Owl, Hedayat was still involved in Buddhist studies. There are, no doubt, many letters in which Hedayat seeks information both about the Buddha and about Iranian politics. In the following, posted on 12 November, 1948, he mentions a book which could well be the one published by Trois Collines:
The letter goes on to criticize the government of Iran for its pro-French stance and to describe a party at Chubak's house. Interestingly enough, in this letter Hedayat asks for a copy of Sartre's La Nausee, a work sometimes cited as strongly influencing The Blind Owl.32
So far we have discussed Hedayat's involvement with Buddhism as evident in the literature about him and in his own letters. The telling evidence, however, is the 1933 piece entitled "The Last Smile." It is evident from this story that Hedayat could not have learned about Buddhism and distilled such information into a story within a short period of time. Further evidence that he must have had extensive prior exposure. In what follows we shall briefly trace Hedayat's development of Buddhist thought in his stories.
The first short story in which the world created by man's own mental faculty overshadows the real world is "Haji Morad." In it the protagonist finds himself in the position of a judge. He has to decide, on the spur of the moment, whether a passing woman is his wife. Overwhelmed by "visions" from his real life, he decides that she is. And he pays dearly for this error in judgment.
A similar line of thought is developed much later in one of Hedayat's most memorable stories--"The Stray Dog." There the protagonist is forced to make a decision as to whether to follow his instincts and desires or to follow his master as before, i.e., to visit the archaeological cite near Varamin and to return home. The protagonist chooses the former and again, like Haji Morad, readily pays the consequences.
Hedayat's use of Buddhist concepts is not always subtle. In 1931, following "Haji Morad," he published "Suratakha" ("The Masks"). This minor story examines the lives of two incompatible young people who, once their faces are covered by masks, become highly compatible and decide to get married. Unfortunately, on the dangerous highway north of Tehran, their car goes out of control and both are killed.
The concept that the world we live in is an illusion, something imaginary created by our own mental faculty, is rooted in Buddhist philosophy. So is the philosophy of reincarnation, according to which one visits this world many times and in each life may grow in understanding, thus meriting a better life in the future.
If we compare the statement above with the following quotation from "The Masks," it becomes apparent that Hedayat intended only to insinuate his knowledge of Buddhism into this story:
The writing of all these stories, however, seems to have been merely preparatory to the big task, the writing of The Blind Owl. In this work, rather than using single concepts, Hedayat uses entire narratives in order to jolt his uncritical Iranian readers into reality. What is more, he grafts the current reality to the body of past struggles for liberty and justice. Among others, two sources, one Tibetan and the other Indian, stand out.
The first is the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. It chronicles the sojourn of a soul in the nether regions and examines that soul's readiness for reincarnation on the one hand and for the attainment of Nirvana on the other. This tradition is used in the first part of The Blind Owl.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead explains that, when leaving the earthplane, the soul enters the underworld; there it seeks the Clear Light. Only select souls, those which have reached perfection on the earthplane, are saved. These fortunate are delivered from rebirth--they become Buddhas. Those remain earthbound who out of desire for the phenomenal world have failed to achieve perfection.
As they enter the underworld, the souls appear before the Lord of Death. There they are judged. Each soul carries either black or white pebbles in his hand. These are the token of each one's deeds. Black pebbles signify that it must return there for additional suffering until it can resist the temptations of desire. White pebbles signify that, while on the earthplane, the soul achieved perfection. It understood desire, the progenitor of the phenomenal world, and suppressed its temptations. It can live a tranquil life.
The Lord of Death views the deeds of the deceased in the mirror of Karma. He then assigns each soul an appropriate reward. To the souls which carry white pebbles he assigns one of the six lokas where, as Buddhas, they will lead a tranquil life. The souls which carry black pebbles he hurls into the abyss of rebirth. Thence these doomed souls are carried by the River of Forgetfulness to the Place of the Wombs. Here the unfortunate soul is offered a womb. Entering this womb, the soul gradually loses its memory of the past life and is reborn.34
How does Hedayat use this tradition? He takes up the narration after the character or narrator is dead. Then he brings this character to judgment--asks him to bring down a wine flask. Since the character has not been a free man--he has slavishly produced pencase covers all his life--he does not recognize the importance of the wine flask he is supposed to take to his uncle. Rather, as expected, he is engaged by his nemesis whose enchanting eyes take him back to a life of suffering once more. Hedayat then takes the character to Shah 'Abdol 'Azim (which here represents the Place of the Wombs) and assigns him a jar, or, a womb.
The narrator now smokes opium and becomes one with the painter of the jar. And, as he sees it emanate from the eyes of the girl depicted on the jar, the doomed narrator explains a successful jar painter's life. This narration then constitutes the life-like story of the second part of the novella.
Whereas the first life follows the Tibetan tradition, this successful life is to be modeled on the life of the fourth Buddha in the Mahayana tradition. Before describing the events of the novella in any more detail, let us briefly discuss this tradition as embodied in the Buddhacarita.
Like most Buddhist traditions, it begins with the birth of the child, his early life in the palace as a prince, and his later family life. At some point the young prince becomes acquainted with the suffering caused by disease and with old age and death. The details of the prince's renunciation of the world and of his determination to seek and to eliminate the cause of suffering in the world constitute a good portion of the text. The prince visits many sages and acquires much knowledge. But acquired knowledge brings him no closer to enlightenment. He then resolves to meditate, hoping through meditation to examine his past lives and, thereby, to discover the cause of his own perpetual reincarnation. He meditates for six years. He vanquishes greed, doubt, and fear and he comes face to face with desire. When at the end he vanquishes desire, he emerges as the Enlightened One.
Next he considers whether he should announce his newly found way or keep it to himself. He thinks that the world, being ignorant, will not understand his message, but he convinces himself that, should someone understand it, this would be enough to enlighten the world.35
The Mahayana tradition teaches that salvation and liberation must be earned. And that, in order to overcome the temptations of the phenomenal world, man must examine his self and destroy all those elements that hinder his flight to the Ultimate.
This is the way Hedayat seems to have used this tradition. The doomed character tells the story of the jar painter's life leading to his liberation. Thus we learn of the latter's unusual birth (was it his father or his uncle who sired him?), his childhood, his marriage to a woman he calls the whore, their quarrels and their separation.
The separation, in which he renounces and leaves his life in the city of Ray, brings the painter to the Suren river. There, as if, in meditation, he recollects an event in his life. He sees how an ethereal girl, resembling his wife, distracted him from seeing the light of the bright sun. The more he ponders and views the surrounding river bank, the more compelling the resemblance of that ethereal girl and the phenomenal world becomes. Finally he identifies the phenomenal world embodied in the whore (i.e., his wife as he refers to her) as the main obstacle to his salvation. He rises against it; he rises against the whore.
Naturally, the whore tries to subjugate him. She seeks her brother's assistance. She reminds him of his coming death. She tries to seduce him by standing at his door. But even the fact that she is pregnant does not bring the painter back to her. She then plays her last card. She comes to him in full regalia, all made up. But this repulses the jar painter. He sees her for what she really is, rather than for what she would like to appear. Having failed, she retires to her room and stays there. He, on the other hand, decides to destroy her. He takes a knife, enters her bed, and kills her. He leaves the room a tranquil man, freed from all the bonds of the phenomenal world.
How dexterously Hedayat combines the stories of the two main characters! One, a doomed man, wants to tell how, seduced by a pair of enchanting eyes, he was prevented from reaching a-wine-flask, the embodiment of his liberation. Now he must go to Shah 'Abdol 'Azim to live with those eyes. The other tells how he succeeded in identifying the whore, his wife, as the cause of his suffering and how, to reach tranquillity, he eliminated her.
Hedayat chooses to tell the story in the words of the first man. No doubt he and the reader, too, resonated with his failure. Thus this character who has just lost the very jar through which he had relived the life of the successful painter of Ray, becomes our narrator. Miserable, his failed life is constantly compared with that of the painter of the jar.
Like his use of Buddhism, Hedayat's use of Hinduism, too, is quite subtle. There are, of course, a number of overt references to Hindu life early in the story of The Blind Owl. And the second part begins with a strong overlay of Hindu imagery: the Bugam Dasis, their dances in unknown meydans, the significance of the lingam and the like. But these overt references, like drawing attention to Buddhism by using the word Nag, remain superficial in nature. The actual use of Hindu imagery in relation to the lingam and associated rituals must draw our attention. Thanks to a well-researched study by David C. Champagne entitled "Hindu Imagery in The Blind Owl,# we can forgo a detailed study here. Champagne discusses the various mudras and their relation to higher levels--all helpful in understanding the imagery in the novella.36
Two more stories are the last pieces written by Hedayat on the subject of Hindu and Buddhist thought. After his return to Iran, he became involved in Iranian political and cultural life. He abandoned his established style of short story writing and began to write more journalistic and less philosophical pieces. Only in The Pearl Cannon, much later in his career, does he return for a final look at Hinduism.
The titles of these stories are "Sampingue" and "Lunatique." The first is the story of a Hindu girl. Driven by life's hardships, she decides to join a society of ethereal beings which, in her imagination, inhabit a nearby village. In essence the story is Hedayat's earlier "The Elder Sister" enhanced with Hindu imagery. A comparison between the two stories, however, reveals that Sampingue commits suicide because she literally lives next door to death. For her, suicide is only a step out of this life, while for Abji Khanom (see Chapter four), death is an extraordinary happening. In other words, "The Elder Sister" is written by one who is unsophisticated about death and dying; "Sampingue;" is the creation of a man who has made a sojourn into the realm of death and was comfortable there.
"Lunatique" is the story of a vagabond adventuress who befriends the narrator. She believes in the transmigration of souls and loves an old man quite reminiscent of the odds-and-ends man in The Blind Owl. She loves him in preference to wealthier or handsomer men because in this old man she sees the tradition of India and the patience that this tradition has fostered. The old man, who is supposedly reincarnated as a bat to vex her, she explains, has lived because he had had to live; he has died because he has had to die. She admires him because he has carried out both tasks well.
In the absence of factual documents, i.e., more letters with specific references, essays on Buddhism and the like, in the preceding we have reconstructed Hedayat's involvement on the basis of the concepts used in his stories. Thus, a passing reference in his introduction to Khayyam's Quatrains or a mention in "The Don Juan of Karaj" of reincarnation has afforded the same evidence that mention in a letter would. Ample references to Buddhist concepts throughout his writing career--in "The Masks," "The Requiem," the 1933 piece entitled "The Last Smile," and in the Hinduesque stories just mentioned--all point to Hedayat's early exposure to Buddhism. How early is debatable, especially if we were, for any reason, to discount Montei'ls assertions quoted earlier. What is not debatable is the fact that by the time he embarked on writing The Blind Owl he was acquainted with a substantial body of Buddhist beliefs and rituals.
Furthermore, with regard to the influences of Hinduism and Buddhism, and indeed, of Zoroastrianism and Islam on Hedayat's works, especially The Blind Owl, we should recognize that Hedayat did not deal with these religions as a theologian would. He used them as devices to make points. It is the point that is important, not the device. Thus whether it is Hinduism or Buddhism that brings us an understanding of suffering should not be the issue here. They both do.
As mentioned, Hedayat's involvement with Western cultures began at the Dar al-Fonun and later at the Saint Louis Academy. Later, Hedayat corresponded with European literary circles dealing with esoteric subjects such as magic and the occult.37
Thus, by the time he arrived in Europe, he was not as open to the professional and technical aspects of European life as he was to European arts and cultures. To this such stories as "Madlin" ("Madelene") and "Asir-e Faransavi" ("The French Prisoner of War") bear witness. To this we may add the major story in his first collection of stories, "Buried Alive," which portrays a life very similar to his own during his stay in Paris. There are indications that Hedayat was acquainted as early as 1927-28 with Rainer Maria Rilke's reflections on death. In the same year, he published a commentary on death entitled "Marg" ("Death") and unsuccessfully attempted self-destruction. Were these events related?
Rilke was doubly fascinating for Hedayat. On the one hand was Rilke's openness about death. Hedayat had not heard anyone else discuss this difficult subject with such ease and command. On the other were Rilke's literary abilities, especially as they emerge in the Notebooks. This book, which Maurice Betz translated into French in 1923,38 so intrigued Hedayat that he memorized a number of passages from it and later reproduced them in his own words in The Blind Owl. Indeed, the novella abounds in imagery lifted from theNotebooks. Since there have been at least two extensive examinations of these passages and images, we shall not discuss them here.39 After his return to Iran Hedayat became involved in Iranian cultural affairs and, gradually, developed an anti-Western attitude. In only some of his minor stories does he reflect on Europe. Among these "Buried Alive" depicts his loneliness as a foreign student uprooted at a tender age and transplanted into an alien land; "A'ine-ye Shekaste" ("The Broken Mirror") reflects his disappointment with Westerners' preoccupation with life as a spectacle; while "'Arusak-e Posht-e Parde" ("The Doll Behind the Curtain") conveys Hedayat's belief that in the last analysis one's native culture triumphs over any other culture, no matter how attractive the other culture might be.
In "S.G.L.L." ("The Serum of Sterility"), Hedayat evokes the Western preoccupation with science as an end in itself. A science-fiction fantasy about man's future, "S.G.L.L." is set in the year 4,000 A.D. on a day in which everyone on the face of the earth is scheduled to be injected with a special antifertility serum. Man's expansion of his scientific knowledge at the expense of an intimate knowledge of himself and of nature causes this communal suicide.
In the story two groups conflict, a highly sophisticated society and a nudist camp. The former strives to subjugate the latter so that all human beings can be annihilated together. The nudists, who dwell in the forest, are out of reach. The device by which humankind is to be annihilated is an antifertility serum developed by a professor. This serum is supposed to destroy sexual desire without harming the life force. A population that has no desire for sexual intercourse will, it is said, grow old and die and mankind will be painlessly obliterated.
At the lab where the serum S.G.L.L. is prepared, however, a mistake is made. The serum, rather than removing lust, intensifies it. In the general state of lunacy which follows people commit suicide, blow up factories and kill one another. Ted, an American, and his friend Susan, an Iranian, also commit suicide. Their bodies, like those of many others, are found by the nudists who eventually come in from the forest and take over the town.
While in Europe Hedayat became acquainted with the European Expressionist school. He saw films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Student of Prague, and Nosferatu. Scenes from these films appear frequently in his later writings. The carriage drawn by two gaunt horses in Nosferatu closely resembles the hearse in The Blind Owl, for instance. Since these are silent films, one could supply imaginary dialogs or interpret a given character well outside the filmmaker's intention.
During this time, and later on in Iran, Hedayat continued to enhance his knowledge of past and contemporary literary developments. Hence he could have become acquainted with A. P. Chekhov whose "Kashtanka" seems to have influenced "The Stray Dog." Thomas De Quincy's "Confessions of an English Opium Eater" shares its hallucinatory imagery with a number of stories, especially "Buried Alive" and The Blind Owl. Fyodor Dostoevsky's "Notes from Underground," Knut Hamaun's "Les Mysteres," Wilhelm Jensen's "Gradiva," Gerard de Nerval's "Aurelia, Edgar Allan Poe's "William Wilson," and Otto Rank's "The Double" are all cited as works having influenced Hedayat, most of them in relation to The Blind Owl.
In assessing his learning, the above catalog of names and works signifies not only Hedayat's erudition but also his ability to synthesize knowledge and to represent it in images familiar yet distant and vague. While Rilke's meditations on death and his literary style dominate the young Hedayat, it is Franz Kafka who attracts him in later life when he is addicted to drugs and alcohol. In fact, in Kafka Hedayat discovered a confrere, one who similarly hoped for justice, placated feudal lords, and suffered the bureaucracy. So carefully did he study Kafka that a few years after the Indian publication of The Blind Owl, in the midforties, Hedayat began translating his works. These included "Maskh" ("The Metamorphosis") and "Jelo-ye Qanun" ("Before the Law"). Both works were published in Sokhan in 1944.
By this time The Blind Owl, which was officially published in Iran in 1941-42, had been the subject of scholarly discussion for seven years (1937-44) and public discussion for three. Readers and scholars had sought the key to its mystery. Could Hedayat's involvement with Kafka at that time have diverted attention from Rilke and the Eastern sources? Or did Hedayat's Sphinx-like silence on the meaning of the novella and his 1948 commentary on Kafka's In the Penal Colony shore up the current belief that Kafka had been an inspiration all along? What effect could Hedayat's realistic portrayal of the horror of his time, a horror already so vivid in Kafka's works, have had on Hedayat's critics? These are some of the issues that call for an explanation before one can close the chapter on Hedayat and his European mentors.
The European inspirations for Hedayat's work can no doubt be overrated but of all Western authors Rilke is the one with the most lasting influence on Hedayat as a person. And Kafka is the writer who influences the last stages of Hedayat's craft.
Having alluded to the influence of these authors on Hedayat, it is appropriate to briefly mention Hedayat's reaction to Western culture as well. While he was eager to understand the West's theories of human rights and democracy, he resented their practice. Having seen his nation partitioned in the early forties, he could not ignore the Westerners' naked grab for power at the expense of the less developed nations. He criticizes such Iranians as the Qajar shahs and Reza Shah for parceling out Iranian national resources to Western interests. Haji Aqa is a classic example of how crucial land grants, economic deals, and political expediencies are negotiated in a bureaucrat's vestibule. And he condemned Mohammad Reza, Reza Shah's son, for slavishly following the dictates of Western powers. In The Pearl Cannon, for instance, the late Shah is pilloried as Nazar Qoli, or Know-It-All. This latter work, a satire of Iranian affairs from the rise of the Safavids till the late 1940s, is as revealing a criticism of Mohammad Reza's rule as is The Blind Owl a heavy look at the rule of Reza Shah.
In conclusion, we have looked at the role of Zoroastrian and Khayyamic influences on the one hand and those of Hinduism, Buddhism, as well as the West on the other. There is little doubt that both Zoroastrian and Khayyamic ideas have had a lasting effect on Hedayat. The roles that Hinduism and Buddhism play need further discussion as these fields are quite distant from the mainstream of Iranian studies--our judgment can be only superficial. The European influences could be examined briefly, thanks to the ongoing contributions of Michael Beard.
The Fiction of Sadeq Hedayat:
The Life of Sadeq Hedayat
Social Setting and Themes
"The Message of The Blind Owl"
A Personal Note
|The Pearl Cannon