“This preference of the genius to the parts is the secret of that deification of art, which is found in all superior minds. Art, in the artist, is proportion, or, a habitual respect to the whole by an eye loving beauty in details. And the wonder and charm of it is the sanity in insanity which it denotes.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
From the beginning to the end of this course—after having examined so many different art forms from so many different times and places—one of the questions that first most interested me and that continues to interest me is the problem of a universal in art—in Islamic art or in any art. To what extent can something that Maulana Rumi finds beautiful or something that I find beautiful coincide? For me, the sense of a universal—of being able to appreciate an image in Rumi, such as the reed singing of longing and separation after it has been torn from the reed-bed—is intuitive and obvious. I feel that my ability to enjoy a Rumi poem is not contingent upon my performing a creative misreading of it, re-interpreting it into terms more coherent in my particular time and place (though that may very well—and probably, to some degree or another, will—occur.) So, while, I’m willing to take this for granted, the world clearly is not. While social, economic, and historical circumstances clearly effect and determine the structures of all works of art to some degree or another, I cannot believe that that determination is overwhelming or absolute. Thus, I can read an author like Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who searches for a deeper spiritual or mystical meaning in Islamic art, with relative comfort. Increasingly, the Islamic idea of the world as a series of symbols or signs intimating a higher unity strikes me as a fine interpretive tool—and it possesses particular relevance to this question—regardless of whether one is content to see that higher unity as God or as a definite and finite principle of self that is shared by humanity as a whole. Yet, this revelation of a shared universal is always shrouded and clothed in socially-conditioned forms, which inevitably prevent it from shining with absolute clarity—as the great poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson put it, “Words like nature half-reveal and half-conceal the soul within.” (The exception may be Shakespeare, who seems to translate well into nearly every language and resonate with virtually everybody.) Yet the sense of a definite presence in a work seems to outweigh the sense of an absence, of everything being simply the product of social over-determination.
Jacques Derrida and most other contemporary French theorists would see the concept of art as a tool for reflecting Divinity (however imperfectly) or some other universal (like, essential humanity) as an anachronistic concept—for these theorists, art only can reflect social circumstances, economic circumstances, history, other works of art, etc. Meaning is always deffered. There is never any real presence or essence to art, they would contend—no universal—just the various conditions and circumstances that go up to make the human condition. Yet, to my Pennsylvanian intellect, this seems like nonsense—saying that something is conditioned or determined by external circumstances, implies a real object that is being so conditioned. “Conditions” cannot be the only real objects, because then they wouldn’t be able to condition anything! That is to say the idea of a condition implies something that is being conditioned. Social circumstances or economic circumstances could not have their affect if there was not some prior universal substance for them to affect, just as the gods must always assume a mortal guise when venturing down to middle-earth. This is a delicate philosophical point, but I make it only to strengthen my argument that some universal continually manifests itself in Islamic art (or in any art) conditioned by forces from such widely differing times and locations as the Shiraz of Hafiz’s time and the New York of contemporary America. In this opinion, I am indebted to the views of Mircea Eliade as expressed in his book, “The Sacred and the Profane.”
While it seems to me that it’s fairly difficult to translate the universal from its native idiom into another—the tropes and conventions of the ghazal would be one such idiom—I think that it can (though perhaps not to an absolute degree) be done. As the great American author, Ralph Ellison, put it when describing the universality of certain themes in African-American folklore: “It’s like jazz; there’s no inherent problem which prohibits understanding but the assumptions brought to it. We don’t all dig Shakespeare uniformly, or even ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’ The understanding of art depends finally upon one’s willingness to extend one’s humanity and one’s knowledge of human life.” I do not mean to suggest that God is necessarily the universal presence behind any art-work or to take an explicitly theological position—I’m perfectly content to stop at the frontier of mysticism. As before mentioned, one could simply call this universal “the self”—whether one takes that in a Sufi sense or a biological sense is perfectly a matter of taste and disposition. As I understand it, the mistake made by many modernists, was that they attempted to extract the universal from its cloaks and coverings and create a bare-bones architecture—but it is precisely that system of coverings and veils that allows the universal its fullest expression—in the same sense that it is not one particular color that can do justice to the pure light that manifests the visible spectrum. One requires all the colors in order to combine them and deduce their common source.
For instance, I at first found the Five-Percenters’ idea that black men are “Gods” and black women are “Earths” and that God is the primordial Asian black man to be rather strange, mildly discomfiting because of its explicitly racial formulation, and to bear little relation to any other Islamic idea I could think of. Yet—and probably despite a lack of literal Sufi sources, as far as I know—the images and figures of the Five Percenters possess a certain weird mythological resonance. The idea that all present and future (black) people image a primal person from a perfect pre-lapsarian past is fairly deep in the mythological and mystical vein—just as, for Hindus, Purusha is the single body from which the multiple bodies of human beings are derived, and as the thirty birds in The Conference of the Birds are a sort of refracted image of the primal unity of the Simorgh. This is not to suggest that this similarity is due to any sort of direct influence—but the similarity is, at least, intelligible.
In a sort of Talmudic parable—the epilogue to his seminal work, “The Anxiety of Influence”—Harold Bloom narrates the tale of a rider (read, writer or reader) in search of this absolute or universal. It concludes thusly:
“After riding three days and nights he failed to come to the place, and rode out again. Was it that the place knew him not, or failed to find him? Was he not capable? In the story it only says one need come upon the place. Riding three days and nights he came upon the place, but decided it could not be come upon.”
This parable highlights the brokenness, the imperfection of any work of art or of any attempt to locate the universal and the perfection that the pure universal implies. Yet it still implies that that universal is real—but it can only be expressed uncertainly, or in fragments. Interestingly, the mystical side of the Islamic tradition also uses tropes relating to fragments and broken-ness in order to intimate how divinity is expressed in the world. For instance, there is the famous trope of the mirror—every human heart is imagined as a heart that must be cleansed—purified through a kind of asceticism (either of the flesh or of the spirit or both)—in order to reflect the divine reality. Yet consider that this reflection involves removal, emptiness—annihilation. The universal is dependent to some degree on this purgation, on the elimination of obstacles to the direct penetration of the light of God. Also, Annemarie Schimmel notes that “finding” for the Sufis is often a synonym for “breaking,” and quotes Rumi: “Wherever there is a ruin, there is a hope for a treasure.” Perhaps, in a sense, every work of art is just such a ruin, wrecked in its own attempt to image a universal (whether divine or human) that is too big, too multi-faceted, to be fully represented by any one work of art or even by any single human creator (except maybe Shakespeare.) Studying Islamic art and Islamic mysticism this term has brought me a better sense of this—something articulated by Bloom and other critics before, but which I hadn’t exactly seen reflected in Islamic mysticism and its art-objects until I considered them more closely.
Consider the use of elaborately decorated “beggars’ bowls” in Islamic art. These bowls are richly crafted out of precious metals…yet, they are still the tools of “beggars”—they are instruments for bearing the wine of divine intoxication, yet they are intended for our use—we, the poor, the homeless, the wandering. Gershom Scholem writes about the Kabbalistic concept of the “broken vessels,” which bears a certain similarity to all of this mystical ruination. To far oversimplify his description, Scholem writes of how God attempted to manifest Himself in various primal forms—this is likened to pouring the divine light into a number of “vessels.” Yet these vessels were not able to bear the influx of divinity and were shattered into so many fragments constituting the stuff of our world. Whether one considers that light as a metaphor for the common power of the human imagination or takes it as the mystical symbol it is intended to be, it hopefully seems suggestive—perhaps every work of art that manages to achieve something is just such a “broken vessel,” forced into fragments by the weight of its excessive imaginative/spiritual burden. Having considered examples of poverty or ruination as a spiritual metaphor in Islamic art and in Jewish mysticism, one can locate a roughly contemporary analogue: Wallace Stevens, in the secular American tradition, writes, “…Within a single thing, a single shawl / Wrapped tightly around us, since we are poor / A warmth, a light, a power. The miraculous influence.” For Stevens, this may be a purely aesthetic epiphany, but aesthetic epiphanies and religious epiphanies tend, at their most intense, to dissolve into one another, anyway.
Yet wading through socio-economic-cultural conditions, in order to get at the absorbing Fact, the universal, can be somewhat like the quest to which Walt Whitman invites the reader at the end of “Song of Myself”: “You will hardly know who I am or what I mean / But I will be good health to you nevertheless / And filter and fiber your blood. / Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, / Missing me one place, search another, / I stop somewhere, waiting for you.” And for the final resolution of the quest—as both an example of and a commentary on the existence of a universal—one could turn to The Conference of the Birds: “Then, as they listened to the Simorgh’s words, / A trembling dissolution filled the birds— / The substance of their being was undone, / And they were lost like shade before the sun; / Neither the pilgrims nor their guide remained. / The Simorgh ceased to speak, and silence reigned.”
 Annemarie Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1975) 268.
 Jacques Derrida, Positions (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981) 21.
 Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans. Willard Trask (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959).
 Wendy Doniger, The Rig Veda: An Anthology: One Hundred and Eight Hymns, Selected, Translated and Annotated, (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1981) 29-33.
 ʻ Farīd Al-Dīn Aṭṭār, The Conference of the Birds, trans. Dick Davis and
Afkham Darbandi (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1984) 218-220.
 Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence; a Theory of Poetry (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1973) 157-158.
 Schimmel, 190
 Ibid, 190-191.
 John Renard, Seven Doors to Islam: Spirituality and the Religious Life of Muslims (Berkeley: University of California, 1996) 140-141.
 Gershom Gerhard Scholem, Kabbalah (New York: Quadrangle/New York Times Book, 1974) 135-140.
 Wallace Stevens, The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1971) 368.
 Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass: The 1892 Edition (Toronto: Bantam, 1983) 76.
 Attar, 220.