Jack Kerouac’s Omar

USA On the roadMichael Skau, emeritus professor with the University of Nebraska at Omaha, recently published an article in the Journal of Popular Culture titled: “Jack Kerouac’s Rubáiyát: The Influence of Omar Khayyám” (vol. 48, No. 3, 2015).

Almost all of the Kerouac studies have ignored the influence of FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát in his life and work. The Rubáiyát provides significant similarities to Kerouac’s dualistic viewpoint: “the extremes of innocent indulgence of the beautiful variety of life and bitter, or even perverse, acceptance of the desolation of mortal existence”. The author, expert in ‘Beat poetry’ (Corso, Ferlinghetti, Burroughs, Ginsberg) points to numerous allusions to and echoes from Khayyám’s poetry, not only in On the road but in his other novels, essays and letters as well.

In a letter to Stella Sampas, his third wife, he writes: “When I’m an old man I’ll at least have my jug of wine and a loaf of bread too”. Another example of how Kerouac looks upon life is his lament on this world “which made us, but only imperfectly, that is to say unsuited to its every barb and to most of its insuitable commandments […] I never asked to be made, and so unsuited born”. To the reader this almost immediately brings to mind the book of pots . Skau’s conclusion:

For Kerouac and FitzGerald, the intertwining of delight and sadness, of happiness and dreariness, cannot be denied. Both writers find that the approach toward life is one of bright melancholy, a mournful smile, a reminder that the rose is both flower and thorns. They cannot deny the twin poles of human experience, a “triste Plaisir” that continues to resonate with their readers.

Skau’s nice and very well readable article is an almost inescapable invitation to get back On the Road again for a new experience.

Recent papers and articles

KhayyamwisdomA couple of recent articles show that there is still a living interest in Khayyám’s rubáiyát, and that there is wide range of subjects and aspects left to be studied.

Rebecca Mueller, graduate student at Indiana University, published a paper “Balkan Rubaiyat”, in which she presents two case studies of post-Ottoman translation. The studies concern the translations by Safvet-Beg Bašağić (1870-1934), Omer Chajjam. Rubaije published in 1920, and by Theofan Stylian Noli (1882-1965), a version in Albanian, in 1926. Mueller’s aim is to discuss how these translations can be seen in the context of Western as well as Eastern orientation of Bosnian or Albanian indentity-formation in that period.
Balkan Rubaiyat. The post-Ottoman polysystem between East and West. Rebecca Mueller.
Online available at: http://www.academia.edu/7868153/Balkan_Rubaiyat_The_Post-Ottoman_Polysystem_Between_East_and_West.

D.P. May, from the Mathematics Department, Black Hills State University, Spearfish, takes a mathematical view on the Rubáiyát: how can graph theory be used to explore the connections between the various quatrains in FitzGerald’s translations.
Complete graphs in the Rubáiyát. D.P. May. Journal of Mathematics and the Arts, 8 (2014), nrs. 1-2, 59-67. DOI: 10.1080/17513472.2014.939526.

Rebecca Weston raised the question whether readers of Chinese and Persian poetry, notably by Li Bo, Khayyám or Hafez, should read between the lines when themes like ‘drunkenness’ or ‘drinking of wine’ occur. Drunkenness is not only a state of physical intoxication, but also refers to a state of spiritual enlightenment, and apart from the view that the reader takes in this discussion, Weston concludes that this unquestionably is an issue for “lengthy debate”.
Implications of Mystic Intoxication in Chinese and Iranian poetry. Rebecca Weston. The Undergraduate Historical Journal, 1 (2014), nr. 1.
Online available at: https://escholarship.org/uc/item/56m0j6zp

The recent translation into Dutch by Paul Claes, Omar Chajjaam. Kwatrijnen (2010) is discussed by Benoît Crucifix, student at Université catholique de Louvain. In this article, the author looks at quatrain nr. XI, to demonstrate the principles and theoretical ideas in Claes’ translation.
Woestijn waar ik dit paradijs aan dank. Claes vertaalt FitzGerald vertaalt Chajjaam. Benoît Crucifix. Filter, 21 (2014), nr. 2.

And finally, Reza Taher-Kermani presents new insights into FitzGerald’s translation practice, to substantiate the claim that FitzGerald succeeded in transmitting an authentic Persian spirit in his Rubáiyát.
FitzGerald’s Anglo-Persian Rubáiyát. Reza Taher-Kermani. Translation and Literature, 23 (2014), 321-334. DOI:10.3366/tal.2014.0162

Two recent volumes reviewed

Dulac illustrationIn the recent issue of ‘Iranian Studies’, Erik Nakjavani, (Professor Emeritus of Humanities, University of Pittsburgh, USA) reviews and discusses two recent volumes on the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. The first is Edward FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám: A Famous Poem and its Influence, by William H. Martin and Sandra Mason (Anthem Press, 2011).
The reviewer discusses this work in respect of contemporary views about reception and assessment of poetry, by enthusiasts and devotees as well as scholars and academics. Some quatrains are quoted to illustrate ontological and metaphysical dimensions in the Rubáiyát, which turns this part of the review into a more or less philosophical essay.
Next Nakjavani reviews a second volume: Edward FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám: Popularity and Neglect, edited by Adrian Poole, Christine van Ruymbeke, William H. Martin, and Sandra Mason (Anthem Press, 2011), in which he summarizes and discusses the separate essays. This volume contains the essays that were presented at a conference, held at the University of Cambridge, July 2009.
The reviewer judges the two volumes as “dual complementary works of scholarship, reflection, and academic research, in the strongest sense of the adjectives. Scholars, academics, literary critics, translators, and those who love poetry and share Khayyám’s and FitzGerald’s twofold concerns with the human lived experience of being and nonbeing will find these twin texts of much interest.”

Erick Nakjavani (2014) FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám: Critical
Celebrations of a Beloved Poem, Iranian Studies, 47:4, 627-648, DOI: 10.1080/00210862.2014.906184

Secular pleasures

Victorian Poetry published a very interesting essay in their latest issue, by Ayşe Çelīkkol, titled ‘Secular Pleasures and FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám‘. Pleasure
The author starts from the point of view that FitzGerald’s poem “imagines a secular experience that resists the reign of reason. Musing on transcendental matters cannot help the speaker to make sense of his own existence, but neither can rational inquiry. (…) he relates to the material world around him by seeking and embracing pleasure. Through the senses of wonder, connectedness, and enchantment inspired by the self’s engagement with the natural world, FitzGerald transfers some of the most fulfilling aspects of religion onto a secular experience.”
The essays then goes on to demonstrate how this idea is an “articulation of  some of the insights that have come to inform the critical study of the secular today”.

Secular Pleasures and FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. By Ayşe Çelīkkol.
Victorian poetry, vol. 51 (2013), nr. 4, (winter), pp. 511-522.
DOI: 10.1353/vp.2013.0029 (Abstract, project MUSE)

Omar and the Victorians

Juan Ricardo Cole (1952), who describes himself as a public intellectual, prominent Skull Sullivanblogger and essayist, and the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, recently translated a large number of quatrains from Whinfield (1883). Many of these were published in his weblog as separate posts, see: http://www.juancole.com/?s=khayyam

In a recent article Rescuing Omar Khayyam from the Victorians  (Michigan Quarterly Review, vol 52, nr.2) (Abstract) Cole explains his translations by stating that “Fitzgerald’s verses are often lovely and memorable and are justly celebrated. But each generation deserves new translations of the classics. What would happen if we put the Persian instead into contemporary idiomatic English? What if we removed the distancing language and spoke of being in a bar instead of “frequenting a tavern”?”

Here is an example of what that looks like:

Since no one can trust
     in tomorrow,
        find a way to fill
this grieving heart
     with joy.
Drink up in the light of the moon –
     a moon that someday
            will look for us
and not find us.

In the parallel quatrain, FitzGerald, (1859, nr. 74) “neglects to mention the poet’s inconsolable broken heart or resort to wine to dull the pain”, as Cole notes, for not finding “the now-deceased revelers” in the light of the moon that keeps on shining when we all are gone.

In his article Cole gives a few more arguments for a new translation. One is that “the poems attributed to Khayyam are in a simple, direct, irreverent, and bawdy language”. That doesn’t imply, I trust, that we also need hiphop versions of  Alle Menschen werden Brüder or a comic version of the Nightwatch.

I feel that Cole has a point though, and of course, some of FitzGerald’s renderings are mysterious and hard to grasp, but that is part of the magic. Surely we can live on water and bread, but we want something on it.

The rose and the wine

RozenThough drinking alcohol is forbidden in Islam, in classical Persian literature wine was a common subject for most authors and poets. The debate as a popular genre was often used to let forbidden objects or ideas, in this case the wine, present the pro’s and con’s and argue about their position in an Islamic society. A very popular theme was the debate between wine and a rose. In this highly interesting article, the author discusses a treatise by the thirteenth century author Muhammad  Zangī Bukhārī Gul u mul (“The Rose and the Wine”).
The form of the debate offers the poet an opportunity to list both the positive and the negative qualities of each of the objects, using citations from even the Qur’an and prophetic traditions. He also must exploit all possible traits so that the speaking object can defend itself and prove its superiority to its adversary.

The Rose and the Wine: Dispute as a Literary Device in Classical Persian Literature
Asghar Seyed-Gohrab
Iranian Studies, vol. 47 (2014), nr. 1, pp. 69-85