Monday, 12 October 2009
Zuleikha Dobson- the ultimate Indglish Sufi parable of mimetic desire.
In Islam, especially Sufi poetry, Zuleikha is the name of Potiphar's wife who falls in love with Joseph.
The name Zuleikha derives from, the Arabic, zallakah- a place where the foot might slip- however, Allah defends Joseph against the temptation posed by Zuliekha's beauty
She tears off the back of his shirt as he attempts to flee her and then accuses him of misconduct to her husband. However, her cousin points out that since Joseph's shirt was torn from the back- far from having been intent on rapine, the poor fellow had been trying to run away.
When the women of Egypt cry out against Zuleikha's crime, she invites them for a banquet. While they peel oranges with their knives, Zuliekha causes Joseph to appear. The women cut their hands, not the oranges, dazzled by his beauty. In Persian, zuleikha is also an inauspicious term for the color red, or blood.
This 'loveliest of tales' (Holy Quran) dramatises the dilemma of the 'impossible object' of philosophy's love. The late Victorians had fully assimilated Sufi poetry- through the Persian- (though it was an earlier generation, Tom Moore, Southey etc, which wrote oriental pastiches) so much so that W.S. Gilbert is actually referencing Jami's Salaman & Absal in the figure of the amorous Nanny in the Pirates of Penzance.
Beerbohm sets up Zuliekha to fall for an impossible object- the snobbish Duke who has dedicated his life to a sort of monastic dandyism- but then introduces a truly delicious complication- the perfection of the Duke's amour propre is that paradoxical Monism which the Sufi Masters decry as 'an idolatry because it is a shielding of the heart from the Other- and the Other does not exist!" This hubris, or more than mortal perfection, sets the Olympian Gods in motion to bing about his destruction. A miraculous change in the color of his shirt studs convinces the Duke, against his own will, that he truly loves Zuleikha- but, alas, it is not the flesh and blood woman of that name- but a, will o' the wisp, amor fati generated by his own tragic egotism- one, moreover, he is destined to to woo to no happier end than his own undoing. This is the 'Romantic Irony' of Santayana which always pursues its object by methods most fruitful in frustrating its own end.
Like the Duke, Zuleikha too is an egoist- but, unlike the Duke, she can have babies. She represents Goethe's eternal feminine- like Anna in Shaw's Eugenic rather than Schopenhauerian "Man and Superman." - but in her willingness to be used and then brutally discarded by the Duke, she combines an Ibsenite Rebecca West quality with the Wildean 'Woman of no Importance' who, rending the veil of her hidden shame- reduces all Power, all Punditry, all Patriarchy to utter insignificance.
In fact, from that point of view, the 'Life-force' did a good job of work when it ensured that, if the Duke 'loves' Zuleikha, she can't love him! There were plenty of other Grand Dukes for her to marry, while there was a nice little house-maid who would have done very nicely for the Duke if he really wanted to strike a blow against the class system.
Okay, the English reader may feel Zuleikha is irrational in wanting everybody to commit suicide for her- but such behaviour is de riguer in the Islamic ghazal tradition! In fact, Beerbohm gives this Islamic convention a sort of psychological probability by depicting Zuleikah as a publicity hungry starlet.
Ultimately, the Duke agrees to commit suicide because this represents an aristocratic yielding to Fate- the Olympian Gods- which is purely a matter of bon ton good form. This is wholly Victorian. Behind the Duke we see Matthew Arnold puzzling over the Bhagvad Gita, harvesting deontics' bitter fruit, and ever thereafter a salt and blighting note warping the pastoral lyricism of 'scholar gypsies'- Housman, Hardy and so on- but also Santayana's 'the last Puritan'-
'She stood as a rose might stand
Half-open in the sunless air
If but once the salt winds of fate
Had touched her beauty with despair'
Beerbohm's depiction of the workings of 'mimetic desire'- (vide Rene Girard's analysis of Proust)- and the manner in which it can lead to a thymotic disaster- like the Gadarening rush to the trenches of the First World War- is like a piece of hyper-elegant mathematics rivaling the work of Weyl, Poincare etc.
This gem of English literature has so much meaning packed into it while appearing nothing more than an Undergraduate jeu d'esprit- a Musical Comedy of a little novel. If only some one had explained its excellence to people like me, back when we were teens- we would never have thought we too could try to be writers! Beerbohm had genius. In vain do we drown ourselves in ink. Zuleikha was never for the likes of us.
Incidentally, after Zuleikha went to Cambridge- and the students there drowned themselves- she married Rajni Palme Dutt who, being a Marxist, understood not just the Hegelian dialectic but the infinitely more subtle Saavanih love dialectic of Ahmed Ghazali.
Thus, sad to say, she became an instructor in Statistics at the London School of Economics and did noteworthy research in Bayesian Analysis.