A Poet’s Fantasy, A Persian Romance

(This essay contains fragments of a talk I presented at a symposium in Melbourne in 2018.)

Oil on canvas painting of woman

The epic love story of Qays (known as Majnun) and his beloved Leili is a Persian tragedy written by the 11th century poet, Nezami Ganjavi. Over the centuries, the legend became the ultimate meaning of love in cultures influenced by the Persian Empire.

The talk today is inspired by the question of, what is love, inspiring me to write this after my attendance at the Dance-Opera of Leili and Majnun at the Melbourne International Arts Festival, this year [2018]. I felt irritated by the Azerbaijani interpretation of the Opera, and this form of loving, if I dare say, is largely influenced by sufism ideas, which normalizes the seeking of and the unity with the divine object, enduring physical and mental suffering on the journey to find this idealized impossible love, never reaching it and losing one’s mind because of it. So as the name goes for the man who fell in love and became mad, a majnun, in Ganjavi’s tale. His epic poem is a fantastic sublimation of his own tale, his pain, despair and love which came from losing his beloved wife. She died after Khosrow and Shirin was written by Ganjavi.

According to a British curator of the Persian Love and Devotion exhibition held at the State Library of Victoria in 2012, Nezami teased us with double meanings and word play. The word Leila can also mean the onset of drunkenness and intoxication, as an unfortunate after-effect of drinking too much wine. Nezami appears to introduce Leili as an intoxicating universal beloved, that everyone is inclined to love. She is beautiful and intoxicating. A Sufi interpretation would describe his love along the lines of a soul’s journey towards God, as the ultimate beloved. I am interested in the symbolic meanings of love. This presentation is my take on the legend, Majnun.

Becoming of The Poet and His Fantasy

The first story is about a poet by the name of Qays (Majnun) who fell in love with his muse, Leili. Majnun fantasized about Leili day and night, and he wrote poetry about this unattainable love-object. He composed poetry of his longing for leili and sang it to her from afar:

…the killing witchery that lies
in her soft black delicious eyes
when gathered in one amorous glance
pierces the heart like sword or lance
the prey that falls into her snare

for life must mourn and struggle there
her eye lash speaks a thousand blisses
her lips of ruby ask for kisses
with all these charms – the heart to win
there was a careless grief within
yet none beheld her grief, or heard
she drooped like a broken winged bird…

Nezami Ganjavi

Majnun was infatuated. He roved the streets drunkenly like a mad man, restricted by the prohibitions set by Leili’s father, giving rise to frustration, and he sang of all things sensual and lustful. But it wasn’t really the woman that he loved, our mad man was in love with his own image. His beloved was a whole, with all the qualities that he wanted in his possession. She exuded beauty and grace, and she was deadly. This kind of love is a killer to desire, because it is a fantasy cast on to the beloved in a perfect and ideal one-ness. It defies the differences that are required to give rise to desire. Our man, Majnun, wanted the impossible. He wanted to become one with the beloved object. The more his passions intensified, the less he desired, and the more out of control, love-sick and deceived he was.

Leili’s father who realised Majnun had become mad, prohibited the union and Leili married someone whom she desired. This idea was a big blow for Majnun’s ego, and unbearable for him who thought he possessed Leili. He was maddened and consumed by excessive grief, and in the lone desert he sought relief. He roamed bare among the beasts in his wilderness, he drank to excess, and sunk deep into what previously gave him pleasure, writing poetry but no longer for love, as he wrote to himself, and for the beasts in the deserts.

He spent day and night writing with his fingers into the sand, and recited poetry to himself. The great poet had become an inaccessible creature, and he never spoke to another soul ever again. He did not eat or sleep, not by his own volition but something more powerful had placed a wall between him and life. He became consumed by passion and madness, instead of speaking, he chose a deadly silence. Majnun was certainly majnun. According to the British curator, the name Qays carries the connotations of being measured or discerning which implies intelligence, and so it was, his transition from Qays to Majnun – from intelligible to incoherent.

In line with Sufi thought, Majnun had done a respectable thing perhaps, to abandon all material possessions, going and living like a peasant in the desert with the beasts in his wilderness. Whilst this is romantic and poetic and we all enjoy camping in the desert every now and then, in reality to choose this sort of life style, is a terrible idea, because deserts are hot and there is a reason why societies were formed. One cannot leave society, exercise abstinence by taking minimal food and sleep, live in a cave with a rock for a pillow and have wild animals for company. Moreover, studies have shown that one makes bad decisions, when one is sleep deprived! There is also no electricity in the desert.

He even says, that through this process “I freed myself from all desires to allow love to take over”, which is precisely what he had done and to his detriment and suffering. The Persian interpretation of love appears to entail psychological or physical torture and suffering. Martyring oneself for love. Martyrdom is a rather dangerous psychological concept. For example in a pop song, the singer reminds that we must love like a Majnun:

“…a broken heart, a tortured mind, a lone lover, helpless, a majnun
from that proud man a mad man has remained
a ruin you took my world with you and gave it to sadness
but in my fantasy, I am still with you”

translated lyrics from a Persian song

Majnun in Folklore

Folklore music sang by Sima Bina. Lyrics: “I wasn’t majnun, you made me” – there is no responsibility in this form of loving, but we can enjoy the beauty of the sounds emanating from the instruments and Sima’s beautiful voice.

Possessed by Love

Majnun comes from the word Jonun, it is both a romantic notion in the Persian language, and a psychiatric term. Jonun as a psychiatric term means psychosis.

Other translations refer to Majnun as “possessed”. The possessed would become the vehicle by which demons would take over and attack. One could only hope that exorcism (!) …or may be… psychoanalysis, could crack the narcissistic image, the demon in the mirror, and release the passion from the inflicted individual. Perhaps only then, the individual could be released from his suffering. Madness however may not always be a disturbing phenomenon. One might be possessed by creative muses! At some point one might pose the question: shall I follow the demon, or shall I follow the muse!

This lone helpless loving seems contrary to love, picturing love as the death of the symbolic Other. Jonun as an outcome of enjoying one’s self too much without much aim, is both lovely and deadly. Love as a form of self-deception, causes confinement, it presents, as narcissistic madness, which appears to be more alluring than the love transpiring from speaking to a psychoanalyst. Speaking from a couch to a pair of ears is not so easy and going mad
might be more convenient! As majnun says:

Let me be at peace with my troubles
let me feel the despair of my love
have mercy on me in my grief
let me feel even more despair for my love
I yearn to feel this sorrow for as long as I live
I need this sorrow because this sorrow needs me

Fragment from Leili and Majnun Epic Poem by Nezami Ganjavi



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