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Omar Khayyam's Bible for drunkards

Mehdi Aminrazavi
The life, poetry and philosophy of Omar Khayyam
396pp. Oxford: Oneworld. £24.99.
1 85168 355 0

In a rose garden, a turbaned old man clutches a pitcher of wine and communes with a darkly beautiful young woman wearing a gauzy shawl. There is an eerie
glow to the vegetation; for it is as if the trees and flowers are lit from within. Pink petals swirl in a sky made golden by the setting sun. The silhouettes of minarets, domes and temples break the horizon line. The architecture of Assyria and India mingles with that of Persia. There are further images of gilded melancholy: the old man and the young woman walk amidst trellised vines under a powder-blue night sky; naked houris with musical instruments and wine cups infest the garden; an ethereal winged muse hovers in the air; animated pots with human features are lined up on a shelf in a shed where they josh one another; and, finally, coming up behind the turbaned philosopher, the cowled envoy of death approaches. We shall return to the man in the turban and his beautiful young woman later. But is there any other work in world literature that has attracted so much in the way of kitsch illustration as the Rubáiyat
of Omar Khayyam?

First published in 1859, Edward FitzGerald’s version of Omar Khayyam’s quatrains was widely read only after it was taken up by the Pre-Raphaelites in 1861. The height of the poem’s popularity corresponded with the heyday of the illustrated book, and such well-known illustrators as Edmund Dulac, René Bull and Frank Brangwyn received commissions to illustrate the poem. The drive to illustrate the Rubáiyat was given extra impetus first by the development from the 1860s onwards of wood-engraved colour illustrations and later, around the end of the century, by the coming of colour halftone printing. The lushly exotic and sentimental coloured illustrations, enabled by Victorian print technology, matched the melancholy hedonism of FitzGerald’s version of
Khayyam, which as we shall see was more of an imaginative resurrection than a translation. FitzGerald’s creation appealed to a readership that wanted to escape in their imaginations from urban and industrial Britain, from dark business suits, grim utility buildings, grey skies and daily toil.

Apart from the vast number of illustrated Rubáiyats, the proliferation of Omar Khayyam clubs was another manifestation of the cult. Their meetings furnished excuses for rumbustious drinking and the composition of appalling doggerel. The membership of London’s Omar Khayyam Club included an impressive number of convivial bookmen including Andrew Lang, Arthur Pinero, Arthur Conan Doyle and Edmund Gosse. Justin McCarthy, the politician and prolific hack novelist, presided. The literary dinners and the pastiches of Khayyam’s quatrains tended to stress the heedless bibulousness of the original work. But there is another aspect to the appeal of Khayyam to the Victorian and Edwardian reading public. The first version of the Rubáiyat had been published in 1859, the same year that Darwin’s Origin of the Species had appeared. A few years later, Matthew Arnold would publish “Dover Beach”, in which the melancholy long retreat of the “Sea of Faith” left humanity on a “darkling plain”. Already in 1850, in “In Memoriam”, Tennyson had raised questions about Christian doctrine and the immortality of the soul, only to dismiss them with suspicious glibness. The doubts and fears of the twelfth-century Persian philosopher were shared by many of his English and American readers. In the Rubáiyat, as the day wears on, its mostly agnostic protagonist becomes increasingly preoccupied by thoughts of mortality and judgment in a possible afterlife, and this too perfectly matched the Victorian preoccupation with death. Deathbed scenes were a popular staple of fiction and the cowled figure stalked through quite a few novels.

Since the Rubáiyat was a kind of Bible for freethinkers, materialists and sensualists, FitzGerald’s translation attracted much criticism from Christian quarters. Edward Byles Cowell, the illustrious Sanskritologist and Persianist, who had first got FitzGerald interested in Persian and provided him with a key manuscript of quatrains attributed to Khayyam, strongly disapproved of the creed of the Rubáiyat: “I admire Omar as I admire Lucretius, but I cannot take him as a guide. In these grave matters I prefer to go to Nazareth, not to Naishapur”. Matthew Arnold, who thought that poetry should conduce to virtuous living, was shocked by the poem’s hedonism. Robert Browning also disapproved and wrote “Rabbi Ben Ezra” as a versified retort. Chesterton judged the Rubáiyat to be brilliant, but evil and “a thing unfit for a white man, a thing like opium”. He thought that the poem was a sad thing and he went on to argue that one should only drink when happy. However, American temperance groups campaigned against the Rubáiyat as “a Bible for drunkards”.

Mehdi Aminrazavi’s The Wine of Wisdom, though it is centrally concerned with the Persian quatrains known as the Rubáiyat, also covers Omar’s career as a mathematician, astronomer and philosopher as well as his poetry in Arabic. He also gives an account of FitzGerald’s discovery of Persian literature, his work as a translator, and the discovery and promotion of the Rubáiyat by the Pre-Raphaelites. Aminrazavi devotes special attention to the Omar Khayyam Club of America and reproduces some of the Club’s trashily erotic illustrated menus. Twain and Emerson were early fans of the Rubáiyat. The enthusiasm of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot is more surprising. Eliot wrote that after his youthful discovery of the poem, the “world appeared new, painted in bright, delicious and painful colours”. He subsequently had to fight to break free from the
spell, and it is arguable that he did not entirely succeed.

But Khayyam, who may have died in 1126 (the date is not certain), was not famous in his lifetime as a poet. That reputation was the invention of later centuries. Rather, he was celebrated as a mathematician and disciple of the philosopher Ibn Sina (the latter was known as Avicenna in the West). Yet, curiously little is known about Omar’s scientific career, apart from what can be adduced from those mathematical treatises that are authentically his. Aminrazavi has faced considerable difficulties in attempting to reconstruct the personality and beliefs of Khayyam. He is well aware that there are problems in such an enterprise. The Rubáiyat with its seventy-five quatrains that FitzGerald first published (like the three subsequent variant collections he produced), has no single Persian source. Rather, FitzGerald chose to translate some quatrains attributed
to Khayyam in later manuscripts, some anonymous quatrains that could possibly have been by him, and some that were definitely by other hands. FitzGerald also sometimes took lines from two different quatrains and soldered them together. Moreover, whereas the original quatrains were all freestanding, he used his arrangement of chosen verses to suggest the progress through the day of a hard-drinking amateur philosopher from the time when “Morning in the Bowl of Night / Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight” until melancholy nightfall when “The Moon of Heav’n is rising once again”.

Aminrazavi argues for a canon of quatrains that are either by Khayyam himself or express so exactly the sorts of sentiments that Khayyam espoused that they are to all intents and purposes the work of Khayyam. There is a certain circularity in the process: asAminrazavi’s image of the personality of Khayyam is largely dependent on a selection of quatrains judged to be authentically Khayyamian, while his proposed authentic canon of quatrains by Khayyam depends on Aminrazavi’s image of the personality and beliefs of Khayyam. Aminrazavi defensively declares that he is “of the opinion that by focusing on the question of authenticity, we miss the Khayyamian message which lies at the heart of the Ruba’iyyat”. Again, “I find the discussion concerning Khayyam’s authentic Ruba’iyyat somewhat diversionary and irrelevant to his message, and whereas such a discussion is necessary for academic and scholarly purposes, it does not shed new light on the intellectual content of Khayyam’s thought”. And finally, in the book’s conclusion, he declares that he has made use of some quatrains that are not by Khayyam in order to reconstruct the life and thought of the man. This is a curious manner of proceeding – rather as if one should draw on Raymond Chandler’s novels in order to shed light on the life and works of Wilkie Collins.

The earliest writers to refer to Khayyam appear unaware that he wrote poetry in Persian. The trouble is that he lived in an age and a culture when it was normal for the authors of poems or essays to renounce the vanity of authorship and to ascribe their works to more famous names, in order to secure a greater circulation for what they had composed. For example, the quasi-legendary alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan had hundreds of treatises on all sorts of occult subjects ascribed to him, but it is unlikely that he wrote a single one of them. Thus, famous writers became more famous yet by the process of posthumous accretion. As François de Blois has shown in a brief but magisterial survey of Khayyam’s career and writings (published in the Storey Survey of
Persian Literature), there are no firm grounds for believing that any of the quatrains purporting to be by Khayyam are really by him. His reputation as a Persian poet was the product of later centuries, so that the “Khayyam” of the Rubáiyat is really a collective pseudonym.

All sorts of quatrains about melancholy, fatalism, hedonism, spiritual doubt and blasphemous speculation by many anonymous hands were foisted upon a literary construct. Such verses, which constitute a genre of medieval Persian literature, are extremely interesting. In Le Problème de l’incroyance au 16e siècle: La religion de Rabelais (1942), Lucien Febvre argued that it was not possible for Rabelais or any of his contemporaries in France to have been atheists, because of the collective mentality and the vocabulary of the age. It is noteworthy then that medieval Persians seem to have enjoyed a greater speculative freedom. It is one of the merits of Aminrazavi’s book that it draws attention to the wider intellectual context of Khayyam’s world.

It was an age of ferment and speculation that seems to have tapered off towards the end of the twelfth century. Thereafter, there was a marked narrowing of intellectual horizons in the Persian and Arab lands. Scientific thinkers were attacked and the Greek scientific heritage disparaged. The Shi’ite theologian Musa al-Nobakhti wrote a treatise to demonstrate that the use of logic was heretical. It was against this background that mostly anonymous figures composed quatrains about the fleeting nature of life, the meaning of life without a God, the unfairness of God if he exists, and similar dangerous topics. Approximately 1,200 quatrains have been ascribed to Khayyam and, though they are not really by him, they are authentically medieval Persian.

On the other hand, the Arabic poetry ascribed to Khayyam is almost certainly by him, and his Arabic verses are more pious in content than the probably spurious Persian quatrains. “Breaking my fast, the Lord’s praise I shout.” Aminrazavi has usefully provided translations of the Arabic poems. He also seeks to draw upon another type of source as evidence for Khayyam’s
philosophy of life, as he discusses and translates the philosophical treatises that are attributed to him. One of these in particular is used as evidence for the view that though Khayyam was not a full-blown Sufi in the sense of one who belonged to a Sufi order or participated in mystical rituals, he was a kind of mystical fellow traveller who was sympathetic to Sufism. But here again there is a problem. In his view that Khayyam was some kind of Sufi sympathizer, Aminrazani depends heavily on a philosophical treatise, Risalah dar ‘ilm kulliyat-i wujud (“The Letter concerning the territory of knowledge of all existence”), that purports to be by Khayyam. However, the ascription is certainly false; Khayyam was a disciple of the Aristotelian philosopher and commentator Ibn Sina, but the Risalah is, as
Blois again has pointed out, an exposition of Isma’ili Shi’ite theosophy, into which is inserted a short section on the excellence of the Sufi way of knowing the world, which has been copied from the famous Sufi al-Ghazali’s spiritual autobiography, Munqidh min al-dalal (The Deliverance from Error). Since it is well known that al-Ghazali was an opponent of both Ibn Sina and Khayyam, it is hardly likely that Khayyam should have gone out of his way to quote him with approval.

It is not really possible to construct a life of Khayyam. What we have instead is a legendary life constructed from discrete anecdotes. There are even doubts about some aspects of his scientific career. For example, there is no direct evidence that Khayyam was involved in the reform of the Persian calendar carried out for the Seljuk Sultan Malik Shah, as Aminrazavi and many before him have suggested. (The view that he did is based on the careless reading of a thirteenth-century Arab chronicler.) Nevertheless, what can be ascribed to Khayyam (and it ought to be enough to ensure his lasting reputation) was his work as a highly sophisticated mathematician. He excelled at using geometry to solve cubic equations. He also did important work on Euclid’s fifth postulate and on irrational ratios.

Aminrazavi’s attempt to establish an authentic Khayyamian canon has had many precursors. The most interesting of these was by the Persian novelist, Sadeq Hedayat (1903–51). Seeking to establish a corpus of quatrains by Khayyam, Hedayat picked out fourteen key quatrains that he believed to be indisputably authentic and then assessed the rest according to how closely their sentiments matched the fourteen touchstones. Good literary taste rather than systematic scholarship shaped the selection, and the result was a Khayyam in Hedayat’s image. The medieval poet, like the modern novelist, was a fervent Persian nationalist who looked back to Persia’s glorious imperial past before its seventh-century conquest by the Arabs. Khayyam had also become an atheist with a death wish. (Hedayat was to commit
suicide in Paris.) Hedayat’s close engagement with the literary problems concerning Khayyam’s oeuvre resurfaced in his novel, The Blind Owl (1937), a masterpiece of Persian fiction and one of the most sinister and remarkable novels of the twentieth century. The title refers to a quatrain of Khayyam’s concerning an owl in ruins. (In Persian literature, the owl is a
sinister bird, usually associated with ruins.) The novel’s menacing sequence of opium- and alcohol-fuelled horrors opens with a pen-box painter catching a glimpse of an old man being offered a flower by a beautiful young woman – the stock image of so many illustrated Rubáiyats, but here the prelude to a story of erotic degradation and murder.

Other attempts to make a Khayyamian canon have depended on whether the editor assumed that Khayyam was a blasphemous atheist, an agnostic, an orthodox Muslim or a Sufi mystic. In 1959, the distinguished scholar of Persian and Arabic, Professor A. J. Arberry, attempted to make a scholarly edition of Khayyam,
relying on thirteenth-century manuscripts. However, those manuscripts were soon to be exposed as twentieth-century forgeries. Arberry’s work, though misguided, had been published in good faith. The alleged translation in 1967 of the Rubáiyat by Robert Graves and Omar Ali Shah was something more scandalous. This purported to be a translation of a twelfth-century manuscript located somewhere in Afghanistan, where it was allegedly used as a Sufi teaching document. But it proved impossible to produce the manuscript, and British experts in Persian literature had no difficulty in proving that the translation was in fact based on a study by Allen of the possible sources of FitzGerald’s work by Edward Heron Allen (an eccentric amateur scholar who moved from
Persian poetry to palmistry, to the history of the violin, to the study of formanifera seashells). Graves did not come out well from the affair. He had disparaged FitzGerald’s ability as a translator and poet, and characterized him as “a dilettante faggot trying to pretend he was a scholar”. Above all, FitzGerald had sinned by failing to perceive what was obvious to Graves: that the Rubáiyat was a great mystical poem.

The truth is that the Rubáiyat is more FitzGerald’s creation than Khayyam’s, and FitzGerald was not a Sufi. The garden setting is his invention and the “Persian” poem is a Norfolk eclogue inflected by loneliness and
by the “Blue Devils” of melancholy. To FitzGerald, the decay of Victorian England was as obvious as the ruins of Persia’s imperial past. At the time he composed the poem, he was mourning the break-up of his marriage and the departure of his young friend the Persianist Cowell for India and perhaps also anticipating the death of his best friend, William Kenworthy Browne, who died early in 1859. No women feature in the Rubáiyat and it is most probable that FitzGerald envisaged “the thou beside
me” to accompany him in the wilderness as being a young male. The poem is the work of a Christian beset by doubts. According to A. S. Byatt: “Our hearts beat five times for each of our breaths, and the iambic pentameter FitzGerald used is the rhythm of our passing lives themselves”. It is hardly surprising that his colloquy with the dead should also have appealed so strongly to W. G. Sebald, the author of that gloomy East Anglian masterpiece, The Rings of Saturn.

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