Secular pleasures and FitzGerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
The overlap between religious and secular modes of thought has been a topic of interest in current cultural critiques as well. Works such as William E. Connolly's Why I am Not a Secularist (2000), Talal Asad's Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, and Modernity (2003), and Vincent Pecora's Secularization and Cultural Criticism (2006) treat the secular as a mutable and internally contradictory set of concepts and practices, which, like religion, deal with suffering, shape attitudes toward the body, and potentially lead to destructive collective formations. (2) A prominent recent contribution to this emergent field is Charles Taylor's A Secular Age (2007), a comprehensive exploration of the origins and trajectory of secular thought in the West) Taylor challenges the commonplace modern narrative that treats the rise of secularity as liberation from irrational delusions. He argues that modern subjects who sought to ascribe meaning to human experience without reference to a transcendent power had to invent new ideologies and myths about human life and its role in the cosmos.
As A Secular Age suggests, to approach the secular as a social construct is to look beyond its claims to rational objectivity and explore how it crafts fulfilling accounts of existence. In this essay, I turn to a Victorian text that offers an early articulation of some of the insights that have come to inform the critical study of the secular today: Edward FitzGerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which had arguably become "by far the best known and most popular poem in the English language" at the end of the nineteenth century. (4) In this poem, FitzGerald imagines a secular experience that resists the reign of reason. Musing on transcendental matters cannot help the speaker to make sense of life or his own existence, but neither can rational inquiry. Longing instead for "A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse--and Thou / Beside me singing in the Wilderness," he relates to the material world around him by seeking and embracing pleasure. (5) Through the senses of wonder, connectedness, and enchantment inspired by the self's engagement with the natural world, FitzGerald transfers some of the most fulfilling aspects of religion onto a secular experience.
Discussing sensuality and materialism in the Rubaiyat, some Victorian reviewers drew attention to the poem's secular orientation. (6) a reviewer in National Review, for example, suggested that FitzGerald ably captured the zeitgeist (1899):
there is now some recent change in the mood of the Anglo-Saxon race that has caused this wide response to Omar-in-FitzGerald. It is, one must imagine, that there has been of late a wide and rapid decline in religious belief, so that a vast number of English people are able to understand and largely sympathize with the old rebel against the orthodox Islamite Puritanism of the East. (Holland, p. 649)
Another reviewer claimed that the "inexactness" of FitzGerald's translation had "allowed for the infusion of a modern element" into the quatrains. "That we have heard a good deal of late about Omar Khayyam is not due ... to any increase in the number of Persian scholars, but to the fact that the existing translation harmonises with a special phase of modern thought," commented the reviewer, diligently comparing individual quatrains to their Persian originals (Cadell, p. 650). In these accounts, the Rubaiyat's popularity is rooted as much in its appeal to present-day skepticism and worldliness as in its successful rendition of an eleventh-century Persian voice. (7)
At the same time, the reviewers fail to recognize the peculiarity of the secular experience they encounter in the Rubaiyat. The secular in this poem does not capture trite convictions about the triumph of reason or reaffirm cliches about monetary or sensual fulfillment. FitzGerald invents a remarkable strategy for maintaining a sense of unfathomable vastness in the modern world: he relocates the central tenet of religious transcendence--the invocation of what is beyond our experience--to the act of reaching out to an Other separated from the self by centuries and continents. (8) In this instance, Orientalism opens the self up to an outside that is neither fully knowable nor immediately present, all the while grounding both the self and the embodiment of otherness in a material world. Closely reading and creatively translating the work of a medieval Persian poet constitutes a materialist version of some of the longings and pleasures more traditionally associated with religion. Hence, the poem provides a useful vantage point for exploring the remarkable complexity of Victorian secularities and reveals why the secular has the capacity to offer experiences of enchantment.
To address secular experiences of wonder and chaos, this essay first examines the speaker's sense of interconnection with other life forms--and even inanimate objects--in the Rubaiyat. Like belief in a transcendent power, such connections require the self to both recognize and embrace alterity. Worldly attachments in the poem compensate for the speaker's detachment from a deity whose arbitrariness frustrates him. After examining those attachments, this essay traces how the speaker's fascination with alterity goes hand in hand with FitzGerald's own Orientalism. FitzGerald's audience must attempt to hear the voice of a poet across time and space, thus reaching for an Other they cannot glimpse. The poet's and his readers' effort to connect to what lies beyond their immediate experience offers a secular counterpart to the religious imagination of a deity located beyond the material world. As the last section of the essay explores, insofar as Orientalism offers enigmas that the self seeks to comprehend, it converges with science. Through this convergence, FitzGerald illustrates and expands those modern forms of enchantment that naturalist writing inspired in the Victorian period.
The Horizontal Social Imaginary in the Rubaiyat
While the crown and national institutions officially sponsored Anglican Christianity in the nineteenth century, British subjects frequently pondered and debated the role of faith in the modern world. For some, the salience of scientific reasoning accounted for transformations in faith. The Belfast Address, the lecture that the physicist John Tyndall famously delivered at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1874, virtually reduced the secular to the reign of scientific reason and identified religion as irrational. With characteristic self-confidence, Tyndall asserted that in earlier epochs humans believed that "supersensual beings" ruled and governed "natural phenomena," but later developed "scientific notions" to "place natural phenomena on a basis more congruent with themselves." According to his account, scientific rationality generated the "desire and determination to sweep from the field of theory this mob of gods and demons." (9) The Rubaiyat, on the other hand, neither discards the possibility of transcendence nor equates worldliness with the rational. It offers another approach to the secular, in which connections among living beings present a meaningful alternative the self's sense of intimacy with a transcendent power.
To be sure, since the poem's subtitle and FitzGerald's introduction to all four editions identify Khayyam as an astronomer, the Rubaiyat subtly evokes the alliance of scientific reasoning with religious skepticism. At the same time, however, the cosmos continually confounds the speaker's desire to comprehend it in rational ways. In a world where rational inquiry and divine power both fail to provide a sense of stability, creative strategies are necessary for the speaker to invent meaning. Chaos generates an inexhaustible sense of wonder, and the failure to glimpse God's design or benevolence fuels the longing for sensual pleasure. The full range of affective and epistemological possibilities embedded in the secular emerge when we follow the speaker into a state of creative disorientation.
If neither divinity nor rationality constitutes a source of knowledge in the Rubaiyat, there are other sources of wisdom and fulfillment:
Then to this earthen Bowl did I adjourn My Lip the secret Well of Life to learn: And Lip to Lip it murmur'd--"While you live Drink!--for once dead you never shall return." (34)
The material, rather than the transcendent, offers instruction about the mysteries of life. Yet what we find is neither scientific distance nor objectivity. The bowl touches intimately and speaks mysteriously. If the intimacy between God and the self is one of the most fulfilling aspects of religious belief, here that sense of intimacy is not lost but rather transferred onto the connection between the subject and the material world. The personification of the bowl of wine, like the foreseen death of the speaker, interconnects living beings with lifeless matter, attesting to the transformative power of nature. If this approach to the material is deeply secular in its refusal to conjure a transcendent power for meaning or salvation, it also opposes the autonomy and fragmentation that various modern discourses historically construed. (10)
Throughout the quatrains, the speaker establishes intimate contact with diverse forms of life--vines, nightingales, the woods, and, of course, the second-person addressee of the poem. Attuned to the ways in which living beings come into contact, the speaker even hints at mysterious interconnections that extend back in time:
And this delightful Herb whose tender Green Fledges the River's Lip on which we lean-- Ah, lean upon it lightly! for who knows From what once lovely Lip it springs unseen! (19)
Through a figurative use of fledging, the river turns into a young bird whose wing feathers take the form of grass. The contact between humans, plants, and the animated river suggests the intermingling of diverse life forms. The river's mysteriously organic origin draws attention to the striking transformations that time brings about. Tracing back the feathered, lipped river across space and into the past, the quatrain intimates that links among life forms develop in--and remain hidden because of--the course of time. The poetics of naturalism here translates Victorian scientists' fascination with animal and plant life--and its origins--into a primeval enigma.
The speaker, connecting intimately with what he encounters through his senses, immerses himself in worldly attachments. The proliferation of such interconnection echoes the social reorganization that historically accompanied the emergence of the secular. In modern times, the sense of connection to God no longer had the power to structure society; or, to adopt the terminology that Taylor employs in A Secular Age, a "horizontal society" replaced its "vertical" counterpart (p. 209). The vertical social imaginary of the Middle Ages relied on a chain consisting of the people, the monarch, and God. The self internalized a map of social space that linked this world to a transcendent power. In the following centuries, secular modernity gave rise to a horizontal social imaginary that embedded the self among peers, privileging immanent attachments over the sense of connection to God (Taylor, pp. 159-218). In the Rubaiyat, horizontal connections proliferate as the speaker articulates his sense of detachment from any transcendent entity.
Worldly attachments compensate for the speaker's alienation from divinity:
And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky, Whereunder crawling coop't we live and die, Lift not thy hands to It for help--for It Rolls impotently on as Thou or I. (52)
By suggesting imprisonment under the sky, this quatrain asserts an impermeable boundary between the world and what may lie beyond. The hands lifted up in vain for prayer recall an alternative order of things, one in which no such boundary existed, and human beings felt that their gods acted on and through them, whether in the form of demons who possessed their bodies or kings who embodied divine will. There is no room for such vertical connections in the horizontal universe that the speaker depicts. The futility of the lifted hands and the impotence of the skies express a vertical disconnect. The severing of the tie between the immanent and the transcendent fosters the intimacy between the "thou" and the "I." As the quatrain's use of the first person plural suggests, horizontal connections--a sense of camaraderie between living beings--supplant vertical ones.
Even where the vocabulary of transcendence persists, it migrates into the realm of the interpersonal:
Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse--and Thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness-- And Wilderness is Paradise enow. (11)
Paradise here is markedly worldly, a space of reading and companionship. Through it, FitzGerald evokes the Persian notion of paradise as a walled garden. Generations of illustrators to the Rubaiyat have narrowed down the significance of the relationship between the self and the other in the poem through visual representations of heterosexual attachment, but, as Erik Gray has shown, the poem often portrays homoerotic contact, and "the word Beloved first appears near the close of a series of stanzas that admire and speculate about the loveliness of male bodies." (11) The interpersonal connections that figure so importantly in the poem coexist with the implied bond between the speaker and the reader, which is foregrounded by the frequent use of 'thou' and 'I.'
If the Rubaiyat's direct appeal to the reader constitutes a form of horizontal connection, so does FitzGerald's sense of kinship with Khayyam. The vast stretches of time and distance separating one poet from the other were no impediments to the intimacy that FitzGerald felt. Before the publication of the poem, he explained to his mentor, the Orientalist scholar Edward Byles Cowell, the motive behind his interest in Khayyam's poetry: "But in truth I take old Omar rather more as my property than yours: he and I are more akin, are we not? You see all [his] Beauty, but you can't feel with him in some respects as I do." (12) More than ten years later, in the introduction to the second edition he wrote, "I cannot help calling him by his--no, not Christian--familiar name" (1868 Preface, Decker, p. 35). The fascinating sense of intimacy informing the production of the poem reaffirms the horizontal frame of reference constructed within it. The unifying role of the aesthetic balances the absence of a divine focal point.
In feeling a sense of kinship with a man who lived many centuries earlier and thousands of miles away, FitzGerald replicates the speaker's cultivation of connections between the self and what remains irreducibly dissimilar from it. Forged across time and space, intimate links between the seemingly irreconcilable worlds of the East and the West, and the past and the present, complement the speaker's urge to establish fleeting but meaningful bonds among the inhabitants of the world. This peculiar experience of the secular at once nods at and revises more commonplace practices of modernity. According to Taylor, one of the most significant developments fueled by secularization has been the imagination of nationhood (pp. 185-211). The nation may be one of the most dominant forms that the horizontal social imaginary has historically tended to assume, but the Rubaiyat does not restrict its reach on the basis of similarity or simultaneity. Foregrounding the act of reaching across to an Other, the Orientalism at work in this poem successfully reproduces the appeal of the transcendent while at the same time supplanting the vertical social imaginary. The self immerses itself in a web that remains too wide and too varied for any individual to grasp it fully. No single perspective embodied within a specific point in time and space allows a full view of the two nodes that FitzGerald's creative translation interlinks. Embodying the longing--and the partial failure-to glimpse that which lies beyond the self, Orientalism here serves a form of secularity that cultivates wonder.
Taylor's "Immanent Frame" and the Vertical Disconnect in the Rubaiyat
FitzGerald's vision of the secular valorizes confusion as a source of reflection and pleasure. In the quatrains, meditations on angels and destiny stress that divinity remains inaccessible from the material world. Precisely because the worldly and the transcendent remain mutually isolated, it is just as hard to negate God's existence as it is to prove it. Through this separation, FitzGerald delineates the boundaries of the material realm, offering what Taylor calls an "immanent frame," a conceptual lens for understanding the operation of the universe that does not rely on transcendent entities. In what follows, I briefly discuss what this term conveys, with the goal of exploring why materialism and uncertainty go hand in hand for FitzGerald.
Taylor's notion of the immanent frame utilizes the standard definition of immanent--"indwelling, actually present or abiding in" (OED). In some religions including Christianity and Islam, God is both transcendent and immanent--God precedes the universe and then participates in it. Deity can also be conceptualized as only transcendent (having created the universe, God remains external to it) or only immanent (God is the inner essence of everything). According to Taylor, when we treat the "natural, 'physical' universe" as an entity that can be "understood on its own, without reference to interventions from the outside," we are looking at it through an immanent frame. The universe appears to be "governed by exceptionless laws, which may reflect the wisdom and benevolence of the creator" (p. 542). In Taylor's terms, if the immanent frame remains open, it does not preclude the existence of the transcendent, although it contrasts the natural to the supernatural and thus creates a categorical difference between them. The immanent frame can also be closed, in which case the existence of anything beyond the natural world would no longer appear to be possible.
In the Rubaiyat, FitzGerald outlines an immanent frame that he astutely leaves open. The famous hedonism of the poem, mediated through references to alcohol, most conspicuously expresses the sense of abiding fully in this world without--or despite--a transcendent deity. The famous debate between FitzGerald and J. B. Nicolas, whose translation of Khayyam's quatrains from Persian to French appeared in 1867, foregrounds the former's embrace of sensuality. Even before Nicolas in his introduction claimed that wine was only a metaphor, FitzGerald had maintained that Khayyam's references to wine were literal: "his Worldly Pleasures are what they profess to be without any Pretence at divine Allegory" (1859 Preface, Decker, p. 6). After exposure to the French translator's claim to the contrary, FitzGerald became only more assertive of his own interpretation. He was motivated to prepare a second edition whose introduction contained an elaborate rebuttal of Nicolas' metaphorical reading. The significance of wine in the Persian poet's verse is beyond the scope of my essay, but FitzGerald's interpretation of the original sheds light on the significance of the English poem.
Circuitous and enigmatic, the Rubaiyat rejects absolutes, which in turn contributes to the openness of the immanent frame. The diction in the quatrain in which the speaker emphatically denies an afterlife, for example, is so perplexing that it undermines the very possibility of certainty:
And if the Wine you drink, the Lip you press, End in the Nothing all Things end in--Yes-- Then fancy while Thou art, Thou art but what Thou shalt be--Nothing--Thou shalt not be less. (47)
The conditional that opens the quatrain produces a tone of doubt that clashes with the absolutism of what follows: all things end in nothing. The competing epistemological stances introduced in the first two lines--doubtful and absolutist--find an unexpected counterpart in the repetitious diction of the next two lines. These repetitions at once suggest a truth too self-evident to question and present a puzzle too complex to solve. Having just asserted that life ends in nothing, the speaker reasons first that one is nothing in life as in death and finally suggests that the recognition of nothingness amounts to something. The incomprehensible chaos portrayed by the speaker allows the Rubaiyat to downplay one constituent element of secular humanism--rationalism--and foreground another, the call to dignify the human body and its desires:
You know, my Friends, how long since in my House For a new Marriage did I make Carouse: Divorced old barren Reason from my Bed, And took the Daughter of the Vine to Spouse. (40)
Less predictable than the barrenness of reason here is its characterization as old. Promising bodily pleasures, the daughter of the vine replaces the very entity that Tyndall singles out as the endpoint of human progress. Allowing the speaker to renounce rationality, the divorce expresses his penchant for new beginnings.
While some quatrains reflect the tenets of irreligious materialism, others refer to destiny and angels. One way to account for the tension between the materialist orientation of some quatrains and the presence of the supernatural in others would be to claim that the views expressed by the speaker throughout the poem lack philosophical coherence. Such disunity would not constitute an aesthetic or intellectual failure. William Cadbury, for example, writes that "the reward we garner" as we read the Rubaiyat is "a comprehension and internalization of a rendered character who may have a variety of attitudes which have in common that only he can hold them." Attentive to questions of theology, Cadbury argues that the speaker seeks neither "worldly nor unworldly hope," creating a space in which "neither nature nor God is appealed to for human validation, (13) While FitzGerald's aesthetic of disunity is important to acknowledge, Taylor's notion of the immanent frame would suggest that there is no discrepancy between the speaker's presupposition of God's existence and his desire to understand the natural world on its own terms. While the quatrains treat the universe as self-sustaining, they do not preclude a transcendent power that once created it. The Rubaiyat can promote worldly pleasures without negating divinity, because it treats the immanent as existing independently of the transcendent. God may exist, but divine intervention does not.
Like the quatrains, FitzGerald's introduction leaves it ambiguous whether God is present, though inaccessible, or absent altogether. Stating that the Persian astronomer "failed (however mistakenly) of finding any Providence but Destiny, any World but This," FitzGerald suggests that the failure need not imply the absence of God. He likens Khayyam to Lucretius, who "consoled himself with the construction of a Machine that needed no Constructor, and acting by a Law that implied no Lawgiver" (1859 Preface, Decker, p. 6). In this description, the Roman poet-philosopher acquires an uncanny resemblance to such Enlightenment figures as Adam Smith, who devised a model of society governed by the operation of immutable laws. Historically, Smith's formulation played an important role in the development of secularity, as it promised harmony without divinity. Extensive references to Khayyam and Lucretius in FitzGerald's introduction ensure rhetorical success: it is Roman and Persian thinkers who carry the burden of impiety. The poem itself allows readers to enjoy the wonders of the machine-without-a-constructor without implicating the Victorian poet in blasphemy. Indeed, as FitzGerald effaces his own labor in emphasizing his speaker's identity as poet, he presents the Rubaiyat as an unauthored poem, aestheticizing the notion of a Machine without a Constructor.
Even as loaded a topic as fate allows the immanent frame to remain open in the Rubaiyat. Omar, writes FitzGerald, "yielding his Senses to the actual Rose and Vine, only diverted his thoughts by balancing ideal possibilities of Fate, Freewill, Existence and Annihilation"(1859 Preface, Decker, p. 8). Does Fate--itself only a possibility--point to the existence of divine power or correspond instead to "a law that need[s] no lawgiver," just like Smith's invisible hand? The uncertainties planted in the introduction develop within the poem:
'Tis-is all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays: Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays, And one by one back in the Closet lays. (49)
Destiny, whether or not it corresponds to God in the monotheistic sense, is located beyond material life. The arbitrariness of "play" ascribes an absolute power to this transcendent power, which is undermined by the checkerboard metaphor. The highly organized game of chess suggests immutable laws, precluding divine intervention and restoring the primacy of the immanent. This quatrain reveals with striking clarity how the speaker manages to reconcile a worldly outlook with the possible existence of the supernatural. If there is a transcendent power, it is emotionally and intellectually so disconnected from those who exist within the universe that its existence cannot mark everyday experience.
Oriental Alterity and the Limits of Knowledge
Estranged from God, the speaker displays characteristics that the Victorians often attributed to individuals in their own milieu. Such putatively modern traits as skepticism and worldiness are thus mediated by a centuries-old Persian voice that FitzGerald's quatrains profess to ventriloquize. Locating in medieval Persia a critical disposition congruent with what many perceived as the zeitgeist of modern England, FitzGerald echoes Victorian histories of secular thought. In the Romantic imagination Oriental spaces often stood outside time, untouched by mechanization and unintegrated into global circuits of progress. (14) Yet however common a trope the anti-modernity of the Orient may be in poems by William Wordsworth and Lord Byron, mid- and late-nineteenth-century accounts of the rise of secular thought assiduously disclosed Middle Eastern scientists' contributions to rationalist inquiry. Tyndall, for instance, hailed the Moors for introducing scientific thought to Spain: "W-hen smitten with disease, the Christian peasant resorted to a shrine, and the Moorish one to an instructed physician." Tyndall spoke highly of the English-born American scientist John William Draper for revealing "the systematic manner in which the literature of Europe has contrived to put out of sight our scientific obligations to the Mahommedans" (pp. 16, 17). In the Rubaiyat the Orient similarly appears constitutive of European secularity, but not for reasons having to do with historical causality. In the poem, Orientalism allows the self to relate to an Other that is neither fully imaginable nor comprehensible, thereby secularizing the sense of awe that religious faith traditionally inspired. Critical studies of Orientalism have overlooked the Oriental other's capacity to offer a secular mode of transcendence, even though they have shown that in the Victorian imagination the Orient embodied modern sensibilities. (15)
The secular becomes appealing and compelling only if it can allow the self to connect to something external to itself. After all, the transcendent had traditionally offered this possibility: the capacity to look beyond "here," to reach out toward what one's own existence lacks. If the secular is to provide a viable alternative to a life centered on religious devotion, it, too, must enable meaningful connection to a realm or consciousness that remains external to the self. In this act of connecting, the Other is neither reducible to the self, nor presents a foil standing in binary opposition to the self. In FitzGerald's vision of the secular, the medieval Persian poet offers an embodiment of otherness that allows the self a fulfilling recognition of its own incompleteness. The Orient in the Rubaiyat is both the external realm to which the self can open up and a double of the self--external in that it reminds the self of its limitations and a double in that it shares the secular values that help to define modern Englishness.
The earth and the heavens, the Occident and the Orient: from the Western perspective, the second term in each binary introduces an unfamiliar realm. The mortal attempt to detect divinity in some ways evokes the Victorian audience's effort to hear the Persian poet's voice:
"How sweet is mortal Sovranty!"--think some: Others--"How blest the Paradise to come!" Ah, take the Cash in hand and wave the Rest; Oh, the brave Music of a distant Drum! (12, emphasis original)
The quatrain culminates in a meta-poetic moment. In reading the Rubaiyat, FitzGerald's Victorian readers are indeed already listening to "the brave music of a distant Drum." Just as divine power is located beyond immediate experience, for FitzGerald's audience the Persian poet's verse originates from a location and time beyond their reach. Like divinity for the speaker, the Orient for the reader--and for FitzGerald himself remains elusive. Victorian readers' spatial and temporal distance from Khayyam's verse suspends them in a state of not fully knowing, which matches the speaker's uncertainty about divine power. The limits of our capacity to know surface in references to specific persons and objects that have become inaccessible. "Iram indeed is gone" (5); "no one knows" where "Jamshyd's Sev'n-ring'd Cup" is (5); "Jamshyd and Kaikobad" are taken away (8); and "the Lot / Of Kaikobad and Kaikhosru" is to be forgotten (9). The elusiveness of these markedly Oriental personas intimates the Victorian audience's remoteness even as it more overtly draws attention to the transience of all mortals.
The conceptual link between transcendence and otherness, captured so deftly by the Rubaiyat, lies at the heart of Emmanual Levinas' treatment of exteriority. In his work on "welcoming the Other," Levinas calls the transcendent "infinitely Other." He writes, "The Other is the very locus of metaphysical truth, and is indispensable for my relation with God." The self's relation to God reveals that the Other is not oppositional to the self: "I ... contains within itself what it can neither contain nor receive solely by virtue of its own identity." (16) Metaphysics, then, offers a relation between the self and Other that is neither based on sameness nor seeks to destroy alterity. When the Rubaiyat in its secular outlook retains the senses of vastness and wonder traditionally associated with religious faith, it also preserves this non-oppositional relation between the self and the Other. The modern Oriental does not serve as foil to the self; instead, he enables the self to ponder the limits of its capacity to know the world outside. The defining feature of the Other--its ultimate resistance to the effort to understand it--finds a thematic echo in the speaker's inability to fully comprehend the universe. Through this parallel, FitzGerald's Orientalism merges with a peculiar variant of secularity characterized by uncertainty and wonder.
The Rubaiyat reverses the Romantic treatment of the Orient as primeval. In the Romantic imagination, the Orient frequently provided an anti-modern cover that science and disenchantment could not penetrate. To address the peculiar temporality of the Orient in British Romanticism, Saree Makdisi memorably adopts William Wordsworth's phrase, "spots of time," to indicate a self-enclosed enclave that stands apart from the teleological move toward modernity. As Makdisi explains, spots of time work dialectically to affirm the existence of a linear flow of time. Wordsworth and Byron employed spots of time to gain critical distance from modernity, but for other Romantic writers, insofar as the Orient existed outside modernity, it was a "backward, debased, and degraded version of the Occident," and as such, not a true alternative to modern civilization but an underdeveloped form of it (Makdisi, p. 113). In contrast, the Oriental quatrains that FitzGerald presents to his Victorian readers uphold neither anti- nor pre-modern values. What the Rubaiyat has in common with the Orientalist Romantic poems that Makdisi discusses is that it upsets the perception of time as linear. Anti-modern spots within modernity allow for non-contemporaneity, and so does FitzGerald's endeavor to find modern values in the Middle Ages. In both cases, Orientalism provides a means to resist notions of time that assume a gradual, homogeneous move toward one desirable endpoint.
To address experiences that the Victorians frequently associated with the rise of modernity in Europe (crises of faith, meditations on immutable natural laws), FitzGerald ventriloquizes a medieval Persian poet, but this act of translocation does not come at the expense of historical accuracy. Roughly from the eighth through the thirteenth centuries, religious freedom and rational inquiry flourished in Baghdad and other cosmopolitan centers in the Abbasid Caliphate, cultivating what we may in retrospect call humanist values. The Victorian secular tradition thus incorporated Arabic civilizations of the Middle Ages into historical narratives about the rise of rationality. As Tyndall declared in the Belfast Lecture, "During the draught of the Middle Ages in Christendom, the Arabian intellect, as forcibly shown by Draper, was active. With the intrusion of the Moors into Spain, he says, order, learning, and refinement took the place of their opposites" (p. 16). The European fascination with scientific achievements originating in the Middle East also surfaces in the introduction to the Rubaiyat, where FitzGerald notes, "the French have lately republished and translated an Arabic Treatise of [Khayyam's] on Algebra" (1859 Preface, Decker, p. 5). Tyndall, Draper, and other nineteenth-century champions of scientific reason were well aware that Islamic science, art, and literature were themselves rooted in Greek and Roman philosophies. The oscillation between similarity and alterity in the Rubaiyat (the Orient as both identical to the self and as the other) thus captures historical transformations through which various philosophical trends in Western Europe and the Middle East converged and diverged over time.
The poem draws attention to the alternation between identity and alterity through the technique of defamiliarization. The "Kuza-nama," in which inanimate objects come alive, best exemplifies this pattern. In this book of pots, when "the Earthen Lot" in the "Potter's Shop" spontaneously turn into metaphysicians, the binary between living beings and inanimate matter begins to dissolve (60, 59). "Kuza-nama" distances the speaker from his own ideas by displacing them onto objects. One pot's metaphysical question, "Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?" speaks of a whole series of displacements (60). The human mind recognizes itself in the image of a pot. If those who made the pots were themselves made by a potter, then the categories of human, object, and creator begin to dissolve. The interchangeability between 'thing' and 'self' finds a counterpart in the difficulty of distinguishing between creation and creator. While "Kuza-nama" is not an allegory about the relation between the Occident and the Orient, it raises the critical issues that the figure of the modern Oriental also evokes: the appeal and challenges of finding the self in an Other.
Science and Secular Enchantment
Revising Orientalist cliches that attribute voracious sensuality to sultans and odalisques, the Rubaiyat offers an Oriental figure whose heightened awareness of stimuli leads to philosophical wisdom and scientific achievement. As Orientalism converges with science in the poem, each in its own way secularizes the sense of awe that the self feels for that which lies beyond its immediate comprehension. The natural world and the mindful operation of the senses become vehicles for retaining wonder, and meditations on the mysteriousness of nature parallel the effort to glimpse an elusive Other. Through this interplay, FitzGerald not only captures the sense of wonder that scientific writing inspired in the Victorian period, but also anticipates the more recent critical endeavor to conceptualize modernity as enigmatic.
It was not until 1918 that Max Weber was to tell the famous disenchantment story that brought existing attitudes toward modern times into sharp focus: "The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the 'disenchantment of the world.'" (17) With the magical and the mystical gone, he implies, there remain few sources of marvel for the modern subject. What Weber articulated in the twentieth century was already afloat in mid-Victorian Britain. For example, some reviewers of the Rubaiyat, who related the poem to the ideas of naturalists and the critical spirit of the age, articulated the putative aridity of rationality. Positing the dreariness of materialism, a Catholic theologian named William George Ward wrote in the Dublin Review:
In [this book's] quatrains we have the whole gist of the philosophy of materialism set forth with a clearness and precision which might put to the blush Mr. Huxley or Mr. Tyndall, and lighted up by touches of tree poetic thought and feeling, that but serve to bring out more strongly the dreariness of the poet's creed. (p. 241)
Reviewing the poem for National Review, Bernard Holland similarly expressed concern about the triumph of reason: "It is a time of disenchantment and doubt. That common-sense non-mystical Protestantism, foe to all enthusiasm and symbolic adoration ... has received its mortal wound at the hands of Rationalism and Free Criticism, its own children" (p. 651). Ward's and Holland's evaluations revolve around the question of whether the poem resists or reflects the supposed insipidness of rationalism.
Scholars today question the characterization of modern life as disenchanted. According to the cultural historian Michael Saler, "a new historiographic position, if not consensus, has emerged that presents Western modernity as 'enchanted'":
Specters are once again haunting Europe and America--as are magicians, mermaids, mesmerists, and a melange of marvels once thought to have been exorcised by the rational and secular processes of modernity. In recent years, historians from disparate fields have independently challenged the long-standing sociological view that modernity is characterized by "disenchantment." (p. 692)
For Saler, the persistence of ideology and the resilience of non-rational cultural formations account for experiences of thrill and astonishment in modernity. Modern experiences are too diverse to be characterized by disenchantment, but "secular processes" still appear insipid in his account. If the nineteenth and twentieth centuries offer possibilities of pleasurable awe, they do so only because alternatives to the secular persist within them.
If Saler overlooks the possibility of an enchanted mode of secularity, FitzGerald foregrounds it. Religious doubt introduces an aesthetic of chaos; unexpected connections among living beings stimulate the imagination; Orientalist tropes preserve an alterity that defies the attempt to comprehend it. This prolonged state of uncertainty and the futility of rational inquiry in the Rubaiyat contrasts to the self-assured tone that Tyndall employs in the Belfast Lecture when he dismisses religion. Tyndall's own prose may offer little possibility of enchantment, but he actually tries to capture the senses of wonder and amazement embedded in, and inspired by, biological writing:
That chastened intellectual emotion to which I have referred in connexion with Mr. Darwin is not absent in Mr. Spencer. His illustrations possess at times exceeding vividness and force; and from his style on such occasions it is to be inferred that the ganglia of this Apostle of the Understanding are sometimes the seat of nascent poetic thrill. (Tyndall, p. 49)
The dynamism of scientific writing matches the vitality of its subject matter. As the distinction between the intellectual and the emotional fades, the scientist becomes a figure that stimulates and delights. As Tyndall's comments begin to reveal, secular pleasures in the Rubaiyat complement the various ways in which Victorian scientific discourse excited readers. The speaker's musings extend beyond and at times challenge rational inquiry, but the poem's appeal becomes possible in a historical moment when science contributes to the enchantment of the secular. It is in this context that the emphasis on Khayyam's scientific achievements in FitzGerald's introduction finds its full meaning. FitzGerald describes Khayyam as a man "unrivalled" in science, who wishes to "spread wide the advantages of Science," and in the same breath tells a marvelous story about the Persian poet predicting with mysterious accuracy that the North wind would scatter roses over his tomb (1859 Preface, Decker, pp. 4, 6). Darwin's writing best exemplifies why the endeavor to comprehend life without reference to a transcendent power did not divest the world of wonder and fascination. George Levine discusses the appeal of scientific writing:
[Darwin's] natural world breaks down the absolute borders that separate species from each other, puts the world in motion, opens sublime vistas of past and future, ennobles a humanity that constantly threatens to denigrate the body ... and submit itself to some noncorporeal Other beyond the reach of time and change. Darwin's world--which is our world--is an enchanted one. (18)
Extensive sets of horizontal connection in the Rubaiyat undertake strikingly similar functions: the speaker embeds himself in nature, valorizes transformations across time, and honors bodily yearnings. Major themes in the Rubaiyat, from the vitality of matter to the primacy of the senses, exemplify the kinds of enchantment that modernity cultivates, not despite, but because of, materialist sensibility and scientific curiosity. When can constituent elements of modernity--rather than anti- or pre-modern elements that persist within it--become enchanting? The Rubaiyat's emphasis on interconnections among living beings and its embrace of uncertainty resonate with a wide range of literary, philosophical, and scientific sites of modern enchantment that the political theorist Jane Bennett pinpoints in Enchantment of Modern Life. Interspecies crossings whereby beings morph from one category to another; the "amazing interior world of reason" conceptualized by Kant; and "hi-tech, artifactual" phenomena that complement the sublimity of nature--these novel encounters and disruptions transfix us. (19)
For Bennett, what distinguishes such sites of enchantment from their religious counterparts is their resistance to teleology. A world that is neither "predisposed toward human happiness" nor "expressive of intrinsic purpose or meaning" reflects Victorian naturalists' outlook, but such a vision indeed precedes modernity and can be traced back to the very philosophers who inspired FitzGerald. About Epicurus and Lucretius, Bennett writes, "they offered an enchanting but materialist explanation for how nature came to have its complexity and patterns, a materialism where matter ... is animated but not designed" (p. 11). Reviving their philosophy at a time when Darwin and other naturalists had just presented a non-teleological approach to life and its mysteries, FitzGerald presents a crossing where the ancients meet Victorian science. Resistance to teleology, in addition to providing a nexus among diverse traditions that honor materiality, informs the structure of the poem. With no causal development linking one rubai to the next, the quatrains ramble. Indeed, given its etymological roots in the act of chanting, enchantment already encompasses an aesthetic of meandering: "chant is modal music, which means that it doesn't have the powerful drive that much of modern music has to arrive at a final harmonic destination," writes Thomas Moore in The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life. Multiple enchantments without design--the Epicurean nature as "endless flow of molecular events," evolutionary transformations across time, the honoring of bodily pleasure--converge as they together find embodiment in meandering verse. (20)
The Rubaiyat, which embraces randomness as it "prizes interruption and rapid metamorphosis over continuity," resonates with statistical sciences as well as the theory of evolution. (21) "As early as the first half of the century," writes Tina Young Choi, "the emergence of statistical sciences ... radically transformed popular attitudes toward causality." Informed by new forms of scientific thinking, an awareness of "the uncertainty surrounding any one possible outcome" came to mark Victorian literature, as fictional narratives highlighted contingency. (22) Forgoing causality, the Rubaiyat links arbitrariness to the severed tie between the immanent and the transcendent:
The Ball no Question makes of Ayes and Noes, But Right or Left as strikes the Player goes; And He that toss'd Thee down into the Field, He knows about it all--HE knows--HE knows! (50)
As Gray points out, the ayes and noes, which echo parliamentary rhetoric, remain conspicuously out of place on the playing field--they do not determine the course of the game. The irrelevance of the ayes and noes comment on divine will: "[FitzGerald's] deity is not a deliberate judge weighing both sides of a 'Question' but a 'Player' whose actions are arbitrary" (p. 8). The transcendent entity may have knowledge, but the player and the ball move randomly. Indeed, the syntax obscures the nature of the relation between the player and the ball, upsetting any commonplace expectation of a subject acting on an object. Gone is the sense of harmonious stability that the Romantic tradition cultivated in the preceding decades. Whereas William Wordsworth reconciled the divine with the material ("A motion and a spirit, that impels / All thinking things, all objects of thought, / And rolls through all things"), (23) FitzGerald describes a material world that is no longer linked to the transcendent but no less Romantic for being so, given its affinity for exuberance and sensual delight.
Relying on imagination and marvel, FitzGerald's vision of the secular opposes the narrative of disillusionment that Tyndall offers in his Belfast Lecture. Tyndall acknowledges that religion is valuable where science fails, but in doing so asserts a hierarchy between reason and faith. Conspicuously incapable of recognizing the philosophical complexity of religious belief, such an approach also fails to reflect the richness of the secular imagination in the nineteenth century. FitzGerald's endeavor to discover meaning in the absence of transcendent power rejects the account of progress offered by the Belfast Lecture just as it resists Christian accounts of design and purpose. Locating religious skepticism in medieval Persia, the Rubaiyat upsets teleological reasoning and integrates a non-linear notion of history into the secular aesthetic of chaos that the quatrains embody.
(1) Meyer Howard Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: Norton, 1971), p. 96; Barry Quails, The Secular Pilgrims of Victorian Fiction: The Novel as Book of Life (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 14-15.
(2) All of these authors focus on the internal contradictions of secular ideologies. William Connolly argues that "the secular wish to contain religious and irreligious passions within private life" actually undermines the pluralism that liberal secularists seek to ensure (Why I Am Not a Secularist [Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2000], p. 5). Talal Asad lays bare the ways in which secularism reproduces the beliefs and practices that it deems non-rational (Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity [Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 2003]). Vincent Pecora maintains, "secularism, in constantly redefining and reenergizing itself by reference to outworn religious traditions, is finally a way of preserving ... precisely what it seeks to destroy" (Secularization and Cultural Criticism: Religion, Nation, and Modernity [Chicago: The Univ. of Chicago Press, 2006], p. 20).
(3) The scholarly response to this work is already voluminous: see Michael Warner, Jonathan VanAntwerpen, and Craig Calhoun, eds., Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2010).
(4) Erik Gray, "FitzGerald and the Rubaiyat, In and Out of Time," VP 46, no. 1 (2008): 4.
(5) Edward FitzGerald, Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: A Critical Edition, ed. Christopher Decker (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1997), quatrain ll. All subsequent citations of the poem will be to this reprint of the first edition (1859) and will appear paranthetically by quatrain number.
(6) In the interest of space here I focus on Bernard Holland, "The Present Popularity of Omar Khayyam," National Review 33 (June 1899): 643-652 and Jessie E. Cadell, "The True Omar Khayam," Fraser's Magazine 19 (May 1879): 650-659. For other reviews that discuss the poem's espousal of secularity and other aspects of modernity, see H. Schiitz Wilson, "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the Astronomer Poet of Persia," The Contemporary Review 27 (December 1875): 559-570 and William George Ward, "Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the Astronomer Poet of Persia," Dublin Review 30, no. 59 (1878): 247. Charles Eliot Norton, whose review of the second edition was published in 1869, wrote, "The prevailing traits of Omar Khayyam are so coincident with certain characteristics of the spiritual temper of our own generation" (North American Review 109, no. 225 : 565). Literary critics in the twentieth century have also noted that the Rubaiyat upholds secular values. David G. Riede, for example, writes, "The great cultural importance of FitzGerald's Rubaiyat is not merely in its exemplification of the Victorian age's melancholy agnosticism but in its exemplary severing of poetic beauty from any kind of Christian duty" (Allegories of One's Own Mind: Melancholy in Victorian Poetry [Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 2005], p. 197).
(7) Even though modernity can be defined in different ways, I follow Michael Saler in using this term to denote a "mixture of political, social, intellectual, economic, technological, and psychological factors," which include "the emergence of the rational and autonomous subject; the differentiation of cultural spheres; the rise of liberal and democratic states; the turn to psychologism and self-reflexivity; and the dominance of secularism, nationalism, capitalism, industrialism, urbanism" (Michael Saler, "Modernity and Enchantment: A Historiographic Review," The American Historical Review 111 : 694). This definition is descriptive only of the way in which modernity historically developed in the West, but is apt for my purposes because that is precisely the tradition that this paper examines.
(8) By "Other," I wish to evoke two interrelated uses of the term, intersubjective and political: a subject whom the self encounters, as in the philosophical traditions of Hegel and Edmund Husserl, and also an entity exterior to one's own national, ethnic, racial community, as in the use popularized by Edward Said.
(9) John Tyndall, Address Delivered Before the British Association Assembled at Belfast (London, 1874), pp. 1, 2.
(10) While the endeavor to construct a non-transcendent base for organizing human activity has been the cornerstone of humanism in Western history, I would not want to preclude the possibility of a modern existence that accommodates the transcendent. For an exploration of the ways in which modernity can be embedded in and experienced through religion, see Robert F. Hefner, "Multiple Modernities: Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism in a Globalizing Age," Annual Review of Anthropology 27 (1998): 83-104. As Pecora highlights, "it is ... the necessity and universality of the link between modernization and secularization that is at the heart of much recent discussion" (p. 7).
(11) Erik Gray, "Common and Queer: Syntax and Sexuality in the Rubaiyat," FitzGerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Popularity and Neglect, ed. Adrian Poole, Christine Van Ruymbeke, William H. Martin, and Sandra Mason (New York: Anthem Press, 2011), p. 33. Gray shows that both the history of illustrations and modern criticism "tend automatically to describe any sensual element in the poem as heteroerotic," even though "in the poem's most sensuous moments when the speaker begins to picture actual erotic contact, the figures involved are once again all implicitly male" (pp. 36, 34). For a history of illustrations, see William Mason and Sandra Martin, The Art of Omar Khayyam: Illustrating FitzGerald's Rubaiyat (London: I. B. Tauris, 2007).
(12) Letter of December 8, 1857 to Edward Byles Cowell, in The Letters of Edward FitzGerald, ed. Alfred McKinley and Annabelle Burdick Tethune, 4 vols. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1980), 2:305.
(13) William Cadbury, "FitzGerald's Rubaiyat as a Poem," ELH: English Literary History 34 (1967): 542, 550.
(14) Saree Makdisi, Romantic Orientalism: Universal Empire and the Culture of Modernity (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998), pp. 8-20.
(15) The ways in which Britons in the nineteenth century fashioned their selfhood over and against an imagined Orient have been explored in detail in and after Said's Orientalism, but more recently a complementary effort has been focusing on the other's imagined similarity to the self. Billie Melman, for example, argues that women's travel writing treated the harem as a reflection of the Victorian ideal of the separate spheres: the harem was the "image of the West rather than its 'other'" (Women's Orients: English Women and the Middle East, 1718-1918 [New York: Palgrave, 1995], p. 162). John M. MacKenzie shows that the East served as inspiration both artistically and psychologically, modeling what the liberated self could become and opening up new uses of space, color, and composition in art (Orientalism: History, Theory, and the Arts [Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1995]). Similarly, Emily Haddad and Zhou Xiaoyi suggest that the adoption of Oriental forms by British artists was central to the proto-modernist endeavor to make it new, especially in the case of aestheticism finding inspiration in Islamic non-mimetic verse and Japanese painting (respectively, Orientalist Poetics: The Islamic Middle East in Nineteenth-Century English and French Poetry [Surrey: Ashgate, 2002] and "Oscar Wilde's Orientalism and Late Nineteenth-Century European Culture," ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 28 : 49-71). While these studies of Orientalism do not attend to the secular, recent criticism on Victorian visions of the global has linked secularization to the cosmopolitan desire to view the world as a totality: "cosmopolitanism, alongside nationalism and socialism, [is] another of modernity's great sublimations of religion" (Tanya Agathacleous, Urban Realism and the Cosmopolitan Imagination in the Nineteenth Century: Visible City, Invisible World [New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011], p. 18). Rather than focus on the parallel between the panoramic perspectives offered by cosmopolitanism and religion, my argument singles out the role that the irreducible alterity of the Other plays in imagining a realm beyond immediate experience.
(16) Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 78, 27.
(17) Max Weber, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, ed. H. H. Gerth and Wright Mills (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970), p. 155.
(18) Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-Enchantment of the World (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2006), p. 44.
(19) The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2001), pp. 13, 14.
(20) Thomas Moore, The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), p. 108; Bennett, p. 14.
(21) Annmarie Drury, "Accident, Orientalism, and FitzGerald as Translator," VP 46, no. 1 (2008): 40.
(22) Tina Young Choi, "Natural History's Hypothetical Moments: Narratives of Contingency in Victorian Culture," Victorian Studies 52 (2009): 277, 278.
(23) William Wordsworth, "Lines, Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour," repr. in English Romantic Writers, ed. David Perkins, 2nd ed. (New York: Thomson, 1995), p. 302, ll. 100-102.
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|Title Annotation:||Edward FitzGerald|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2013|
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