Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Blind Owl

Some notes on an old favorite.

Sadegh Hedayat was born "of an aristocratic family" in Iran in 1903. He committed suicide, in Paris, in 1951. His best known work, The Blind Owl, was published in Bombay (Mumbai) in 1937 and in Teheran in 1941. An English translation was published by Grove Press in 1957. This small, repetitive book is as exquisite a portrait of madness as one is likely to find.

The narrator, a pen-case illustrator, lives in a small house in a decrepit suburb. Addicted to opium, he is obsessed by visions seen through a chink in the wall, high up in a closet. He sees a beautiful woman and a harsh, mocking old man with a "hollow, grating laugh, of a quality to make the hairs of one's body stand on end." There are gestures between the two, a cypress tree, and a small stream, images which recur throughout the narrative. The artist seeks the source of the scene, but it exists only when peered at through the aperture, not in the objective world.

The artist obsesses over the repetitive vision, painting it on his pen-cases. When the visions cease, he sinks into despair fueled by wine and opium. The mysterious woman appears to him one night, remote and spectral. On his bed, she turns cold and inanimate. Her eyes open and shut, and then her beautiful body begins to putrefy. In panic, the artist dismembers the body and stuffs it into a suitcase. He leaves the house with the gruesome luggage, and encounters the old man, face covered, sitting at the base of a cypress tree. With derision, the sinister old man offers to help dispose of the body...

At this point, the narrative takes a backwards turn. We learn of the narrators betrothal, at his mother's insistence, to a woman he despises as "the bitch, the sorceress." His anger and misogyny explode with bitterness at the hated woman. The elements of his vision- the gestures, the tree, and the woman- reappear repetitively. We find clues to the opium vision, fears of mortality, and the horrors of eternal recurrence, life as a dark ride and a closed circle from which there is no escape, neither through death nor madness.

The Blind Owl is a masterpiece of existential horror, a portrait from inside a mind deranged by obsession. It is an angry, uncomfortable book, a Persian descendant of Poe, prefiguring Beckett, with touches of central Asian Buddhist imagery. For those intrigued by this text, Hedayat's The Blind Owl Forty Years After, edited by Michael C. Hillman (University of Texas Press, 1978) is an excellent resource for examining its intricacies.