Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Ghalib's safina and Ibn Arabi's 'ship of stone'

Amongst many treasures contained in the Ibn Arabi Society website, is a beautiful essay by
Claude Addas titled 'the Ship of Stone'.

"Of the many voyages that Ibn 'Arabi describes, it is on the one to which he invites us in Chapter eight of the Futûhâtthat I would like to focus.[5] Chapter eight is dedicated to the ard al-haqîqa, the 'World of Reality' that was created with what remained of Adam's clay. It belongs, says Ibn 'Arabi, to the 'âlam al-khayâl, the Imaginal World, and it is part of the barzakh, the 'isthmus' that joins all the orders of reality. It is the theatre where the visions of the gnostics are seen, where dreams take place, where souls reside as they await the Last Judgement. It is a spiritual World where, contrary to what happens in this one, bodies have a subtle consistency and intelligibles take on form. This world is penetrated only by the 'spirit', not to be confused with the imagination, for the imagination is capable of engendering only that which is unreal. This preliminary information just outlined is followed by first-hand accounts of spiritual travellers who, like Dhu-l Nun al-Misri, had the privilege of visiting this marvellous world: cities of gold, silver, saffron and musk, fruit with unparalleled flavour, oceans of precious metals that touch one another without mixing their waters. The 'fantastic' character of these descriptions should not be misunderstood; the ard al-haqîqa is not a mythical kingdom. Despite the fact that it is ma'nawiyya, 'spiritual', it is nonetheless no less real than is the ground upon which we tread. It is first and foremost the World of the purest Adoration offered to God: 'It is God's World', Ibn 'Arabi explains elsewhere.
He who inhabits it has realized true servitude before God; God joins him to Himself, for He has said: 'O, my servants who believe, My World is vast, so worship Me!' I myself have been worshipping God in that World since the year 590, and we are now in 635. That World is immutable and imperishable; that is why God has made it the abode of His servants, and the place par excellence of His worship.[6]
And it is undoubtedly to remind us of this essential truth that Ibn 'Arabi then reports that in that world he saw a Ka'ba, from which the veil (kiswa) had been removed, speak to those who were making the ritual circumambulations, and that it granted them spiritual Knowledge.
But the account that follows plunges us into a strangely phantasmagoric universe reminiscent of surrealist paintings. He says,
In that world I saw a sea of sand as fluid as water; I saw stones, both large and small, that attracted one another like iron and a magnet. When they came together, they could not come apart without someone intervening, just as when one takes the iron away from the magnet without the magnet being able to hold on. But if one fails to separate them, these stones continue to stick to one another at a set distance; when they are all joined, they have the form of a ship. I myself saw a small vessel with two hulls. When a boat is thus constructed, its passengers jump into the sea, and then they embark for wherever they wish. The deck of the vessel is made of grains of sand or of dust, soldered together in a special way. I have never seen anything so marvellous as these stone vessels floating on an ocean of sand! All the boats have the same shape; the vessel has two sides, behind which are raised two enormous columns higher than a man's head. The rear of the ship is at the same level as the sea, and is open to the sea without a single grain of sand coming inside.[7]
At first glance, the reader is tempted to see nothing in this text other than a typical example of ajâ'ib, the mirabilia in which Arabic literature abounds. This would be ignoring the fact that, regardless of his form of discourse, the author of the Futûhât never aims at 'distracting' his reader but, quite on the contrary, at bringing him around to the essential. It is also a fact that a careful reading of the vocabulary used by the author in this passage suggests that this strange story is masking a subtle point in Ibn 'Arabi's teaching. This is not to suggest that the account is a simple allegory. In theMundus Imaginalis, where a square can be round or something small can contain something large, Ibn 'Arabi has certainly been the astonished witness to this quite distinctive ocean voyage. But his narration of this experience is, for him, less an occasion to astound us than it is a means of subtly teaching us a principle of initiation of which the scene he describes is the concrete expression.[8] It is also true that to structure the story he deliberately borrowed key terms from a specific lexicon in Arabic linguistics: bahr is the word commonly used for the ocean. But it is also the word that, in the language of Arabic poetry, denotes the meter of a poem; likewise, ramal, which ordinarily refers to sand, is the name for one of the sixteen meters in classical Arabic prosody.[9] The use of vocabulary borrowed from the language of Arabic poetry is obviously not coincidental in the least. From this point of view, the story of the stone vessels sailing over a sea of sand has nothing to do with the dream state of a delirious mind. The vessel (safîna) represents the qasîda, the classical Arabic poem; the inseparable stones are kalîmât, the words that, when joined together, form the verses which, when arranged together make up the poem; the two sides of the boat are the hemistiches of each line of verse, and the two columns refer to the two 'pillars', watid, of Arabic meter. Thus, with slightly encrypted language, Ibn 'Arabi points out to us that poetry is the privileged way to 'travel' in the 'âlam al-khayâl, whose haqâ'iq (spiritual realities) it carries, although spiritual realities, by their very nature, are supraformal.'

I have no iota of proof that Ghalib was familiar with Ibn Arabi's works, still, I confess, there is scarcely a line of Ghalib whose meaning is not enriched by reading the essay quoted above.
Some ten or twelve years ago, I translated a pair of couplets from Ghalib as follows-
woh sehar mudda talbee mein na kaam aaye
jis sehar se safina ravaan hon saraab mein.
Ghalib chutee sharab par ab bhee kabhee kabhee
Peeta hon roz-e-abr-o-shab-e-maahtaab mein (97.12)
It’s good for nothing else & actually, the Lake’s a mirage
Tho’ still that Magic steer Avalon’s faery barge
Ghalib’s given up Wine, tho’ now & then he might
Drink on a cloudy day, drain a moonlit night.

Actually the previous couplet, 'woh naalah dil mein khas ke barabar jagah  na paee
                                                           jis naale se shigaaf parhe aftab mein'
is thought to compose a 'qita' with 'woh sehar mudda' with the meaning- whine, whine, my complaint hasn't entered her heart to the extent of even a blade of grass; whine, whine, though I'm such a smashing poet that it could have scarred the face of the sun, whine, whine. 
On the other hand if Ghalib is speaking of his own reception of Arabi then it isn't a case of whine, whine but Wine! Wine! 

Which is as it should be.

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