Analysis of Sadeq Hedayat’s The Blind Owl

Sadeq Hedayat (1903–51) was for many decades the best-known modern prose writer in Persian, the language of a country whose purified literary lexicon and restrictive linguistic formalism he sought to violate by introducing crude idioms and colloquial phrases. He has generally owed his reputation to his extraordinary and enigmatic novella The Blind Owl, which on the surface is reminiscent of Thomas De Quincey’s opiated phantasmagoria and Edgar Allan Poe’s hysterical first-person narratives of obsessive morbidity, murder, and deathless corpses. These elements, together with the writer’s personal habits, have given the work its unwarranted reputation as a druginduced, formless, and singularly incomprehensible reverie suffused with intimations of mortality and populated by its harbingers. But while it may seem to sacrifice character development in favor of mood, in the manner of a prose poem, and while it does convey the trance-like states and hallucinations produced by the narrator’s opium smoking, The Blind Owl is actually an intricate narrative exercise whose formal elements perfectly express the density of its metaphysical and metapsychological preoccupations.

The novella has a two-part structure. The first part is a dense, dreamlike narrative told by an unnamed narrator, who describes himself as having escaped beyond the city limits into the gravelike solitude of his coffinlike room. In order “to kill the time,” he paints the covers of pen cases, obsessively reproducing the same scene each time: “a cypress tree under which a stooped, old man squatted on the ground shrouding himself in a cloak in the manner of Indian yogis. He wore a shalma around his head and had his index finger on his lips as if perplexed. Opposite him a girl in a long, black dress was bending to offer him a lily—because between them a brook intervened.” One day he sees through an air vent in the wall a wondrous yet strangely familiar tableaux: the very scene he has been painting over and over again, except now the lilies are black. The narrator’s visionary glimpse of this woman exalts and inspires him by instantaneously resolving “theological riddles”; but when he leaves his room to locate her, he finds only the remnants of a dead animal and a pile of trash where the old man had sat. Soon after, in a “coma-like limbo between sleep and wakefulness,” he receives a mysterious visitation, an “ethereal,” somnambulistic woman dressed in black. Without explanation, she enters his life like a transient angel of light, radiating an “intoxicating supernatural beam” from her mesmerizing, unnaturally large and “glistening” eyes— eyes that he alternately experiences, such is his ambivalence, as “wonder-stricken . . . condemning . . . “dreadful, enchanting, reproachful, . . . worried, threatening, and inviting.” Although her whole being is unnervingly placid and her face expressionless, the narrator can see, behind her unfocused, unacknowledging eyes, “all my miserable life . . . the eternal night and the dense darkness that I had been looking for.”

Sadeq Hedayat

The woman seems to possess an exquisite, altogether unearthly, symmetry, “like a female mandrake separated from her mate.” He senses that he is that mate, whose soul “had bordered on her soul” outside of time and that “we were doomed for a union.” He feels himself “annihilate[d]” by her uncanny familiarity; only when she closes her eyes does he feel “sudden tranquility.” When he finally touches her, he realizes by her coldness that she has been dead for days. “Her transient, brittle soul, which had no relation to the world of earthly beings . . . left the carcass that tortured it, and joined the world of wandering shadows. I think it took my shadow with it as well.” Yet he feels that she too has been an “angel of torture,” that she had “poisoned my life or else my life had been susceptible to being poisoned and I could not have had any other type of life.” Despite this, he also feels that “I had to be with her corpse. It seemed to me that from the dawn of creation, since the beginning of my existence, a cold feelingless corpse had shared my dark room with me.” At this moment he experiences cosmic consciousness, the recognition that “My life was bound to . . . the eternal foolishness of all forms and species . . . far and near had all become united with my sentient life.” He undertakes to paint, and thereby to preserve forever, the eyes of the woman and the impact they had had on him. As he is trying unsuccessfully to remember her gaze, her eyes open straight at him with a reproachful look, before returning to death and manifest decomposition. Bizarrely, as if under a compulsion, he then proceeds to dismember her body, place its fragments in a suitcase, and cart them away for burial, with the help of a corpse-carriage driver who is vaguely reminiscent of the old man in his paintings.

The narrator explains that in recording these events, he has been “writing only for my shadow on the wall” in the hope that “we can know each other better.” And he refers to the woman as “the refl ection of the Shadow of the soul.” This emphasis on uncanny shadowings and doublings also pervades the second part of Hedayat’s novella, which is slightly less eerie while altogether more perplexing in its refusal to provide any rationale for its obscure, disquieting incidents and scenes. The second part of the book constitutes a murky first-person description of the stages of a man’s feverish illness and his unhappy marriage to a woman, always designated “the whore,” who casts “a lustful shadow, very hopeful of itself.” The exact relationship between the two parts remains a matter of speculation. It is not clear, for example, whether the narrators are the same man (and what sameness might mean) or whether the events of the second part occur before or after the first part. It is also unclear whether the mysterious female visitant who is dismembered and buried, and who may personify the promise of death, should be associated with or identified as the whorish wife, whom the narrator eventually stabs to death. Equally tortuous presences, both might be said to function as his anima, a feminine manifestation of the impulses of his soul.

What establishes the two parts as an integral whole is the recursive nature of the imagery—the uncanny repetitions, recurrences, and mirrorings that produce the novella’s hypnotic quality. The same images appear again and again, while symbolic gestures and actions migrate from archetypal figure to archetypal figure (a motherly nanny, an erotic temple dancer, a butcher, and various avatars of old age, all of whom may or may not be aspects of the same composite archetype of the enlightened, liberated soul). Perhaps the most notable symbolic action is the “repulsive . . . ominous” laughter that issues from these old men. This laughter seems to break out at those moments when the narrator is deeply immersed in the network of desire-born illusions and misrecognitions that constitute this life. For example, immediately after hearing this laugh, the air vent that had allowed the narrator to gaze at the woman and the old man disappears: “I saw a dark, black wall in front of me . . . The same darkness that had obscured my vision all my life.” Another example, of migrating gestures and acts, is a left-hand finger placed at the lips, between chewing teeth, or in the mouth. This possibly lewd or degraded action is first seen as a gesture of the old man under the cypress, but later the mysterious female visitant, the narrator’s wife in childhood, and her younger brother are all identified by similar actions.

Hedayat’s use of persistent motifs produces the impression of extraordinarily insistent, almost incantatory, obsessions. A few of the many other motifs that appear insistently throughout the text include: a fl ask of wine dating from the narrator’s birth, which has been intermixed with a serpent’s poison; the butcher’s caressing dismemberment of dead sheep; golden “beeflies” that swarm corpses; an ancient jar (or funerary urn) covered in a glaze reminiscent of “broken-up golden bees” and painted with a woman’s eyes and black lilies; a city of shadowy, seemingly uninhabitable houses of strange geometrical shapes (suggesting honeycombs) and darkened windows (suggesting death); and the act of lying prostrate with a great weight on the chest (the suitcase carrying the dismembered corpse, the antique jar, and, finally, the narrator’s own being). The same things seen and experienced, again and again, by the narrator of each part of the novella progressively combine to suggest the principle of karma that governs the cycles of birth, death, and rebirth. The narrator’s (and the reader’s) déjà vu also evokes Friedrich Nietzsche’s conception of eternal recurrence inasmuch as the antique jar purchased by the narrator is likely to have been painted by “the same unfortunate painter of pencases” with whom the narrator is also identified. This uncanny doubling and self-distancing serves to suggest that the past and the present are coinherent. (“Weren’t their experiences inherent in me? Did not the past exist in me?”)

Hedayat’s recursive narrative accretes associations between the images and establishes a feeling or tone that insinuates the dialectic of dissolution and regeneration. This serves to identify the essence of being alive as a repetition-compulsion—the most fundamental of repetition-compulsions that keeps beings subjected to the karmic wheel. Metaphysical coincidences seem to exist in reciprocal relation to metapsychological compulsions. Thus, the narrator comes to occupy (while lying in a fetal condition), “[t]he place where life and death meet and distorted images are created; past, dead desires, obliterated, choked desires come to life again and cry aloud for vengeance.” This principle may also help to explain the uncanny relationship between the narrator and the other archetypal characters. Hallucinating a face that he recalls also having seen in childhood and which seems to resemble that of the butcher, the narrator speculates: “Perhaps it was the shadow of the spirit produced at my birth and was thus within the restricted circuit of my life.” Similarly, he wonders, “Perhaps the old odds-and-ends seller, the butcher, nanny, and my whore of a wife had all been my shadows. Shadows among whom I had been a prisoner.”

Recalling how in childhood he used to experience the characters in stories as if they were himself, the narrator considers, “Am I not writing my own story and myth? Stories are only a way of escape from unfulfilled desires; unfulfilled desires imagined by various story makers according to their inherited, narrow mentality.” This last remark may help to explain Hedayat’s convergence of philosophical perspectives (ranging from Zoroastrianism to Omar Khayyam to Schopenhauer) and his experimental literary strategies. Hedayat was for many years an expatriate in Paris, and this may account in part for his syncretic imagination. Though nominally a Muslim, Hedayat apparently jettisoned his religious tradition for an eclectic mix of Western and Eastern ideas better suited to this philosophical pessimism and to a psychological nihilism that culminated in his suicide in Paris at the age of 48. Hedayat’s familiarity with European modernism may account for The Blind Owl’s remarkable, perhaps unprecedented, originality: its audacious appropriation of incidents and images of another writer’s book within a complex synthesis of Western and Eastern intimations about being and nonbeing. Hedayat sometimes goes beyond pastiche to the borders of plagiarism by dismembering and burying within his text extended passages from Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, seemingly replicating at the formal level the book’s persistent references to physical burial and decomposition. Among the passages he incorporates from Rilke’s angst-ridden reverie is a catalogue of feverish sickbed intimations and a recognition before a mirror of multiple constituent selves “in me” but “not in my possession.”

In the structural analysis that accompanies his translation of The Blind Owl, Iraj Bashiri attempts to demonstrate the paradigmatic presence of Buddhism, which was popular among Parisian intellectuals during the late 1920s, the period of Hedayat’s residence. Bashiri argues, not entirely convincingly, that the incidents that comprise the second part of the novella are modeled on the Buddha-carita, which recounts legends of the Buddha’s encounter with old age, sickness, and death, his repudiation of the desirability of women (after heavenly beings distort their bodies), his beggarly sojourn in a hovel, and his subsequent renunciation of asceticism prior to the achievement of enlightenment and the cessation of the cycles of “becoming” from incarnation to incarnation. There is no denying the book’s substantial references to the desire to renounce the world of illusion (“this selfcreated night”), to the desire to resist being (re)born, and to the longing for death (“death that saves us from the deceits of life”).

Hedayat, however, subjects Buddhist renunciation to an almost Gnostic emphasis on disgust that approximates contempt: “Perhaps [the odds-and-ends seller] himself was not aware of it, but these sufferings, these layers of misfortune encrusted on his head and face, the general misery that emanated from him, all these had created of him a demi-god. That dirty display in front of him was a personification of the creation.” Yearning for his death and decomposition, the narrator is fearful “that the atoms of my body might blend with those of the bums. I could not bear this thought. Sometimes I wished myself to have long hands with big fingers by which I could gather the atoms of my body and keep them to myself so that they would not mix with those of the bums.” That said, the long ordeal that constitutes the purgation of lust and the repudiation of material existence as intrinsically worthless is a fitful process. It is a process punctuated by the repeated fl aring (and inevitable dwindling) of desires for his wife, who has long kept him from consummating their marriage, though she seems to have performed multiple infidelities with the most abject men.

Sadeq Hedayat

Desire and annihilation are confl ated in the ambiguous climax of part two. His wife makes immersion in desire painful by biting and splitting the narrator’s upper lip as they unite sexually. In an impulsive response, he knifes and kills her. Does this act constitute, in symbolic terms, the necessarily violent severing by which the soul is finally able to divorce itself from fruitless desire and the insipid seductions of the dustlike flesh? Or is it an act that ensures further incarceration in the cycles of incarnation (symbolized by the book’s final image of dead weight)? The ambiguities do not end there. The narrator finds that he has somehow come away with his wife’s eyeball in the palm of his hand: Is this merely a grisly and macabre moment of horror, or does it constitute an esoteric image of mystical enlightenment? Going to the mirror, he discovers that he has suddenly become the odds-and-ends seller, an old man, a dealer in “meaningful forms” that have been “refused by life . . . rejected by life.” Possessed by this otherness, he bursts into loud, raucous laughter that shakes his whole being: “The anguish of this woke me as if from a long deep sleep.” He sees the odds-and-ends seller laughing and spiriting away the antique jar, leaving him surrounded by golden bee-flies and “the weight of a dead body,” no doubt his own, “pressing on my chest.”

Bashiri, Iraj. Hedayat’s Ivory Tower: Structural Analysis of “The Blind Owl.” Minneapolis: Manor House, 1974.
Beard, Michael. Hedayat’s “Blind Owl” as a Western Novel. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990.
Fischer, Michael M. J. Mute Dreams, Blind Owls, and Dispersed Knowledges: Persian Poesis in the Transnational Circuitry. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004.
Ghanoonparvar, M. R. In a Persian Mirror: Images of the West and Westerners in Iranian Fiction. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993.
Hedayat, Sadeq. The Blind Owl. Translated by Iraj Bashiri. Hedayat’s Ivory Tower: Structural Analysis of “The Blind Owl.” Minneapolis: Manor House, 1974.
Hillmann, Michael C., ed. Hedayat’s “The Blind Owl” Forty Years After. Austin: Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Texas, 1978.
Manoutchehr Mohandessi. “Hedayat and Rilke.” Comparative Literature 23, no. 3 (Summer 1971): 209–216.
Milani, Abbas. “Hedayat and the Tragic Vision.” In Lost Wisdom: Rethinking Modernity in Iran. Washington, D.C.: Mage Publishers, 2004. 93–100.

Categories: Iranian Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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