Conscience, Self-Perception, and the Subversive Powers of Poetry

This panel was compiled by the Conference Program Team from independently submitted paper proposals


Justine Landau


Justine Landau
Institute of Iranian Studies, Austrian Academy of Sciences


by Cameron Cross / University of Chicago

One of the earliest romances of New Persian literature, Vis-o-Rāmin is also one of the most unusual, for it inverts the standard convention of chaste love to create a scenario in which an adulterous relationship forms the nexus of the plot. This unique feature has elicited a variety of reactions in the scholarship on this work; some critics read it as an artifact of the pre-Islamic cultural milieu, others as a metaphorical exposition on kingship, and still others as a carnivalesque satire that overturns established norms and celebrates carnal pleasure (cf. Minorsky, Hedayat, Mahjoub, Meisami, Southgate, Davis). While all of these arguments have merit, they tend to place too much emphasis on the illicit act itself while neglecting the context in which it occurs, resulting in a skewed reading that overlooks some key aspects of Vis-o-Rāmin’s contribution to the development of the romance in Persian literature. More important than the explicit adultery, in my view, is the characters’ relationship with their own actions. The ‘seduction’ of Vis is the result of a lengthy exchange of arguments and negotiations that take up nearly a third of the work, highlighting the seriousness of the issue. During this process, it becomes clear that Vis regards her actions as sinful, and by the end of the story comes to loathe both herself and Rāmin for her fall from grace. The fact that she nevertheless agrees to the affair suggests that she is motivated not by physical desire, but a complex and sometimes conflicted set of moral standards. The ethical ambiguity of the situation is enriched by two additional seduction attempts, the first between the Shāhanshāh and Vis’s mother, the second between Rāmin and his wet-nurse, that identify a number of alternative ways of negotiating illicit sex within the world of the romance and clarify why Vis’s relationship with Rāmin is so tormented. Arguing against previous readings, this paper contends that Vis’s affair is not evidence of her lack of moral rectitude, but rather the opposite: a firm commitment to right behavior even if and when it entails sin, shame, and disgrace, demonstrating a set of lofty, almost rigid, ideals about romantic love and its obligations. Through this study, we may further appreciate the significance of Vis-o-Rāmin in establishing the central themes, conventions, and problems of a nascent literary genre.

by Ali Ferdowsi / Notre Dame de Namur University

Sultan Ahmad Jalayer, the last Jalayerid king, was unceremoniously beheaded in 813 AH. He has left behind a huge corpus of verse that is roughly equal to the production of Jalyerid court poet, and Sultan Ahmad's own tutor, Salman Savaji, and twice the volume of the poetry of another of his contemporaries Hafez. Clearly we are confronted with a remarkable situation, once we remember that this colossal volume of poetry is produced by a prince who is as often on the run (particularly from the “decisive” and relentlessly ferocious Timur), as he is at “rest” in his winter and summer capitals of Baghdad and Tabriz. How do we account for this “urge to poesy”? Why would a prince often on the run compose poetry, and so much of it?

Generally speaking, two answers are possible: the urge to poesy (1) as the vehicle and accouterment of the prince's escape from the harsh and insecure circumstances of his reign, perhaps as a sign of decadence; or, on the contrary (2) as a genuine expression of his need to give an account of himself inside the dominant discursive formation of his time. Although my findings are tentative at the moment, I can say with reasonable assurance that the final answer is the latter: sovereignty becomes an issue for the sovereign inside the amatory and Sufistic discourses of the 8th century, once the sovereign, being educated as he is by the poet, is socialized into and submits to the spirit of his age. He becomes a reluctant sovereign.

This study will allow us to enter into an analysis of the relationship between poetry and sovereignty in a way that our usual understandings of the social and political function of court poetry do not, for here poetry is not addressed to the sovereign/patron but rather issued by him. What ultimately appears to be the case is this: The king is not, as often assumed, a pure manifestation of the will to power and domination, but appears to genuinely yearn for the kind of “anxiety” that alone affords “authenticity” according to the dominant discourses of the age. This would permit us to revisit the controversial thesis put forth by the likes of Mirza Agha Khan Kermani, and Ahmad Kasravi: Persian poetry subverts, rather than buttressing, sovereignty.

by Michael Hillmann / The University of Texas at Austin

Writing on Hâfez since the early 1980s–commentaries, monographs, essays, encyclopaedia articles, and prefaces to translations–has added to the appreciation of Hâfez's ghazals, except arguably in one regard: the appreciation of those poems qua poetry. According to Websters Third International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged, “ writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through its meaning, sound, and rhythm.” A “poem,” according to Websters, is “a piece of writing designed as a unit and communicating to the reader the sense of a complete experience.” In a famous early twentieth-century lecture, A.C. Bradley said: “ actual poem is the succession of experiences–sounds, images, thoughts, emotions–through which we pass when we are reading as poetically as we can....this experience is an end in itself, is worth having on its own account, has its own intrinsic worth alone. Poetry may also have an ulterior value as a means to culture or religion....So much the better.... But its ulterior worth neither is nor can directly determine its poetic worth as a satisfying imaginative experience...and the nature of poetry is to be not a part, nor yet a copy of the real world..., but to be a world by itself, independent, complete, autonomous.” Using a printed outline of Bradley’s lecture, “Hâfez’s Ghazals as Poetry” engages two Hâfezian ghazals, QG1/Kh1 and a ghazal suggested by the paper’s audience, in seeking to identify what in those texts make them poems.

by Mahmood Fotoohi Rudmajani / Ferdowsi University of Mashhad

During Shah Tahmasp Safavi's reign (1524-1576/ 930-984 AH) when Shia's government had been formed recently in Iran, a new style of Persian poetry called “woqu’ ghazal” appeared and very soon spread throughout central Iran, from Kashan, Qom, Isfahan, Shiraz, and Khorasan to Tabriz. “Woqu’ ghazal” (factual lyric sonnet) was common throughout Iran up to about 1611 CE/ 1020 AH.
Unlike the Sufi ghazal, the new ghazal does not refer to spiritual and metaphysical love; the love experience in it is real and actual. All poets, including court poets, religious scholars, and people of high culture wrote about their actual love experiences in a manner similar to that of popular and folk poetry. Hidden love was the main content of this kind of poetry.
This paper discusses the non-erotic love and the lovers’ behavior in the “woqu’ ghazal,” and argues that the enjoyment and pleasures of love in it are different: that the lovers in it actually enjoy the anxiety, the fear, the furtive glances to the beloved in public places, and the covert speaking that marks this kind of love. It also examines the social and cultural factors that formed and affected this kind of love-expression.