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The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Spotlight on … Sadegh Hedayat The Blind Owl (1937)

 

‘Perhaps no other modern Iranian writer has been claimed by his countrymen more than Sadegh Hedayat has. Born in Tehran in 1903 to an aristocratic family, Hedayat studied in Paris and went on to become one of the founders of modern fiction in Iran. And while he had a wide range—he wrote nationalist plays, satire, and both realist and surrealist fiction—he is most recognized for his novel The Blind Owl. Published in 1937 in a limited edition in India, where Hedayat was then living, the novel appeared in Iran in 1941 and went on to have a tumultuous existence in the hands of Iran’s ubiquitous censors. Translated into multiple languages, it has been reissued in the United States by Grove Press, with a 1957 translation by D. P. Costello and a poignant introduction by Porochista Khakpour.

‘A tale of one man’s isolation, the novel contains a maze of symbols, recurring images, social commentary, allusions to opium-induced states, contemplations of the human condition, interjections on art, and references to literary and religious texts—all of which have, for decades, made it fertile ground for critical interpretation. The most long-standing theory was espoused by the Iranian Communist Party (Tudeh), with which Hedayat for a time sympathized. The Tudeh’s claim was that the black mood in the book is an allusion to life under Reza Shah, who ruled Iran from 1925 until 1941. But as scholar Homa Katouzian points out in Sadeq Hedayat: The Life and Legend of an Iranian Writer, while Hedayat did oppose the shah’s tyrannical reign, the book is a far more universal statement about alienation. Often compared to the work of Franz Kafka (whom Hedayat admired), The Blind Owl also brings to mind Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet in its stark meditation on dejection.

‘“There are sores which slowly erode the mind in solitude like a kind of canker,” begins the book, and in the pages that ensue we glimpse this solitude, through the narrator’s room, which “stands upon the ruins of thousands of ancient houses… like a tomb”; through the landscape of “crouching, accursed trees,” between which there are “ash-grey houses” where “no living creature could ever have dwelt”; and through the narrator’s estrangement from the “rabble-men” who bear “an expression of greed on their faces, in pursuit of money and sexual satisfaction.”

‘An ethereal girl appearing throughout offers hope. She is the image the narrator paints on his pen cases, a vision he falls in love with, and the portrait on an ancient jar, inside “an almond-shaped panel” (perhaps a reference to a mandorla, an almond-shaped contour found around images of Mary—the almond representing virgin birth). But the girl has a “double nature,” resurfacing as the narrator’s cunning mother, and, later, as his promiscuous wife.

‘Any discussion of Hedayat would be incomplete without mention of his suicide, by gassing, in 1951 in Paris—an event that has overshadowed his work.

‘On April 9, 1951, Sadegh Hedayat entered his rented apartment in Paris, plugged all the doors and windows with cotton, and then turned on the gas valve to liberate himself from all the wounds that had been gnawing on him in seclusion. Two days later, his body was found by police, with a note left behind for his friends and companions that read: “I left and broke your heart. That is all.” The prominent Iranian writer and intellectual had torn up all his unpublished work a few days before his suicide.’ — Dalia Sofer

 

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Talking with a Shadow (2006)

Documentary about the life and works of Sadegh Hedayat. It follows a teacher, a researcher, and a journalist as they discuss some of Hedayat’s most famous works and their influences. The film intermixes the three conversing along with a narrated history of the author with images.

Watch the film here

 

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Further

Sadegh Hedayat’s Corner 
Sadegh Hedayat Tribute Page 
‘This Book Will End Your Life’@ The Rumpus 
Sadegh Hedayat @ Les éditions José Corti 
‘Sadeq Hedayat’s Heritage’ 
Sadegh Hedayat’s ‘Davood the Hunchback’ 
Sadegh Hedayat Page (in Iranian) 
‘The Symbolism of Women in The Blind Owl’ 
‘The Blind Owl’ @ Resistance is Futile 
‘Poisons and Remedies in The Blind Owl’ 
‘What is left for me from Sadegh Hedayat?’ 
Buy ‘The Blind Owl’

 

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Media


Naked Solitude: Sadegh Hedayat


‘The Blind Owl’, an extract


Omar Khayyam-Sadegh Hedayat


Tomb of Sadegh Hedayat

 

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Adaptation

Raoul Ruiz La Chouette Aveugle (1987)
‘A projectionist falls in love with a dancer that he sees onscreen and finds echoes of his own life in the images he projects. Everything changes when fiction and reality merge… For Ruiz, La Chouette aveugle was not so much an adaptation as an adoption of the novel written by Sadegh Hedayat. Free composition in a labyrinthine narrative, this explosion of imagination and creation celebrates the fantastical power of cinema in a fictional continuity, mixing past and present, dream and reality. An existential work as well as gigantic hoax, this flamboyant, this baroque jewel is as enchanting as it is extravagant.’ — pariscinema.org


Excerpts

 

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Book

Sadegh Hedayat The Blind Owl
Grove Press

‘Plot summary: The narrator, a pen-case decorator, falls in love with a girl who is at once angelic and devilish. Later, the girl appears by his doorstep, enters his house, and lies on his bed, where she dies. He cuts up her body and buries her. The narrator, seemingly in a past life, recounts his mental and physical decline following his marriage to a woman who refuses to have sex with him but has countless lovers. He accidentally kills her; Main characters: the narrator (present and past), the girl/narrator’s mother/narrator’s wife, an old peddler/narrator’s father/narrator’s uncle, a butcher;? Representative sentence: “If I have now made up my mind to write it is only in order to reveal myself to my shadow.”’ — The Believer

 

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Excerpt

There are sores which slowly erode the mind in solitude like a kind of canker.

It is impossible to convey a just idea of the agony which this disease can inflict. In general, people are apt to relegate such inconceivable sufferings to the category of the incredible. Any mention of them in conversation or in writing is considered in the light of current beliefs, the individual’s personal beliefs in particular, and tends to provoke a smile of incredulity and derision. The reason for this incomprehension is that mankind has not yet discovered a cure for this disease. Relief from it is to be found only in the oblivion brought about by wine and in the artificial sleep induced by opium and similar narcotics. Alas, the effects of such medicines are only temporary. After a certain point, instead of alleviating the pain, they only intensify it.

Will anyone ever penetrate the secret of this disease which transcends ordinary experience, this reverberation of the shadow of the mind, which manifests itself in a state of coma like that between death and resurrection, when one is neither asleep nor awake?

I propose to deal with only one case of this disease. It concerned me personally and it so shattered my entire being that I shall never be able to drive the thought of it out of my mind. The evil impression which it left has, to a degree that surpasses human understanding, poisoned my life for all time to come. I said “poisoned”: I should have said that I have ever since borne, and will bear for ever, the brand mark of that cautery.

I shall try to set down what I can remember, what has remained in my mind of the sequence of events. I may perhaps be able to draw a general conclusion from it all – but no, that is too much to expect. I may hope to be believed by others or at least to convince myself; for, after all, it does not matter to me whether others believe me or not. My one fear is that tomorrow I may die without having come to know myself. In the course of my life I have discovered that a fearful abyss lies between me and other people and have realized that my best course is to remain silent and keep my thoughts to myself for as long as I can. If I have now made up my mind to write it is only in order to reveal myself to my shadow, that shadow which at this moment is stretched across the wall in the attitude of one devouring with insatiable appetite each word I write. It is for his sake that I wish to make the attempt. Who knows? We may perhaps come to know each other better. Ever since I broke the last ties which held me to the rest of mankind, my one desire has been to attain a better knowledge of myself.

Idle thoughts! Perhaps. Yet they torment me more savagely than any reality could do. Do not the rest of mankind who look like me, who appear to have the same needs and the same passion as I, exist only in order to cheat me? Are they not a mere handful of shadows which have come into existence only that they may mock and cheat me? Is not everything that I feel, see and think something entirely imaginary, something utterly different from reality?

I am writing only for my shadow, which is now stretched across the wall in the light of the lamp. I must make myself known to him.

In this mean world of wretchedness and misery I thought that for once a ray of sunlight had broken upon my life. Alas, it was not sunlight but a passing gleam, a falling star, which flashed upon me, in the form of a woman – or of an angel. In its light, in the course of a second, of a single moment, I beheld all the wretchedness of my existence and apprehended the glory and splendour of the star. After, that brightness disappeared again in the whirlpool of darkness in which it was bound inevitably to disappear. I was unable to retain that passing gleam.

It is three months – no, it is two months and four days – since I lost her from sight but the memory of those magic eyes, of the fatal radiance of those eyes, has remained with me at all times. How can I forget her, who is so intimately bound up with my own existence?

No, I shall never utter her name. For now, with her slender, ethereal, misty form, her great, shining, wondering eyes, in the depths of which my life has slowly and painfully burned and melted away, she no longer belongs to this mean, cruel world. No, I must not defile her name by contact with earthly things.

After she had gone I withdrew from the company of man, from the company of the stupid and the successful and, in order to forget, took refuge in wine and opium. My life passed, and still passes, within the four walls of my room. All my life has passed within four walls.

I used to work through the day, decorating the covers of pen cases. Or, rather, I spent on my trade of pen-case decorator the time that I did not devote to wine and opium. I had chosen this ludicrous trade of pen-case decorator only in order to stupefy myself, in order somehow or other to kill time.

I am fortunate in that the house where I live is situated beyond the edge of the city in a quiet district far from the noise and bustle of life. It is completely isolated and around it lie ruins. Only on the far side of the gully one can see a number of squat mud-brick houses which mark the extreme limit of the city. They must have been built by some fool or madman heaven knows how long ago. When I shut my eyes not only can I see every detail of their structure but I seem to feel the weight of them pressing on my shoulders. They are the sort of houses which one finds depicted only on the covers of ancient pen cases.

I am obliged to set all this down on paper in order to disentangle the various threads of my story. I am obliged to explain it all for the benefit of my shadow on the wall. Yes, in the past only one consolation, and that a poor one, remained to me. Within the four walls of my room I painted my pictures on the pen cases and thereby, thanks to this ludicrous occupation of mine, managed to get through the day. But when once I had seen those two eyes, once I had seen her, activity of any sort lost all meaning, all content, all value for me.

I would mention a strange, an incredible thing. For some reason unknown to me the subject of all my painting was from the very beginning one and the same. It consisted always of a cypress tree at the foot of which was squatting a bent old man like an Indian fakir. He had a long cloak wrapped about him and wore a turban on his head. The index finger of his left hand was pressed to his lips in a gesture of surprise. Before him stood a girl in a long black dress, leaning towards him and offering him a flower of morning glory. Between them ran a little stream. Had I seen the subject of this picture at some time in the past or had it been revealed to me in a dream? I do not know. What I do know is that whenever I sat down to paint I reproduced the same design, the same subject. My hand independently of my will always depicted the same scene. Strangest of all, I found customers for these paintings of mine. I even dispatched some of my pen-case covers to India through the intermediary of my paternal uncle, who used to sell them and remit the money to me.

Somehow I always felt this subject to be remote and, at the same time, curiously familiar to me. I don’t remember very well… It occurs to me that I once said to myself that I must write down what I remember of all this – but that happened much later and has nothing to do with the subject of my painting. Moreover, one consequence of this experience was that I gave up painting altogether. That was two months, or, rather exactly, two months and four days ago.

 

 

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p.s. Hey. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. Bizarre but very canny (if wildly impractical) in a way. Thanks for the Nabokov/Pivot link. Ha, Stubby Kaye isn’t a name I’ve heard spoken or even seen written since my parents were young. Flashback. ** Steve Erickson, The 17th Door was extremely well done. Well, basically you’re led/rushed through a series of doors, numbered 1 to 17 obviously, whereupon are suddenly thrust into the midst of various scenarios. In one room, you and fellow guests are lined up against a wall facing bright, kind of blinding lights, a hood is put over your head, told you’re going to be executed by firing squad, and shortly thereafter you start getting shot from head to toe with these tiny pellets that hurt a little bit. That stops, and you’re de-hooded and rushed to the next door. Several doors later, you enter a room and are told you are to execute some people, at which point you see a later group of guests hooded and lined up against a wall. So you realise you had been executed by earlier haunt guests. You’re given a gun full of plastic pellets and you execute the people standing there until your pellets run out, then you’re rushed through the next door. I haven’t heard 100 gecs, but the comparison to Skrillex will probably prevent from ever trying them out. Ugh. Ah, year end lists. You’re starting early, for sure. ** Brendan, Hi, B! Yes, it is very sad about Stephen Dixon. A fantastic, very good, very singular writer. A real loss. I think I did a spotlight post one of his novels years ago that I need to restore. Very nice NYC visit there. And awesome about the Zorn gig. I’ve never seen him live, very strangely. He comes through Paris in various incarnations fairly often, and I really need to catch him. I’m good. You sound really good. ** Bill, Thanks. I’m waiting to hear from our producer if we need to do any last tweaks to the documents. They’re due to the CNC (government funding agency) today. Sold out? Even without much publicity? Must be the robots. All those hungry SRL fans or something. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi, Ben. Swell news about the busy zine fest and ‘Call’ dispersing. ** Misanthrope, Hi. Yep, sad, sad. I don’t think I remember any of KIX’s songs. Off the top of my head. I suppose if I youtube-searched them, I’d go, ‘oh right, them’. Whatever works. Fun is invaluable. Yeah, I’m one who needs 8 hours of sleep or else I felt varying degrees of shitty. Even getting 7 and 3/4 hours, I feel the missing 15 minutes of snooze time. ** N, Hi, N. Welcome! Wow, Forehead. I remember that magazine. Hm, I don’t remember, but I’m thinking that if the story of mine was called ‘David’, it was probably the second chapter of my novel ‘Closer’, which I think is the only fiction thing I’ve written that would have ‘David’ in the title. So my guess is if you get or have a copy of ‘Closer’ and go to Chapter 2, that should be it? Unless I’m blanking out. I hope that helps. Thank you a lot for asking. ** Armando, Hi. There must be — or probably is — a ‘walk-through’ video of the Zombie maze on youtube somewhere? I’ll be in London for just about 24 hours. I’m doing an event there on Friday night. This event. Excellent beyond excellent about your new psychiatrist! I hope that continues to go well and increasingly well. Today, me … other than any last fiddling I might need to do with the funding application docs before they’re due late afternoon, not too much. Go see some art probably. Yeah, probably that. Work on my new gif novel a bit maybe. Phoners with friends. Nothing too dramatic. Your yesterday? ** Right. I’m spotlighting a superb novel today if you don’t already know it. See you tomorrow.

8 Comments

  1. hi dc/all!! i did my disappearing trick again. how is everyone? i’ve been keeping up w the blog and it sounds like the year’s been a rough ride for you, i’m sorry. i hope things are a least a little calmer now.

    my life has been pretty dull in most respects, but i went to China for a while to study taoist philosophy w a descendant of Lao Tzu on a pig farm in the mountains. which was a lot, and is difficult to talk about without sounding like i’m humblebragging. (you’ll be glad? to hear that the blog is somehow not yet blocked over there.) luckily this was before the HK riots really kicked off.

    what else? i took a long sabbatical from writing to escape from an anatomy/body-horror fixation, a sabbatical i broke last week and has… sort-of worked. so far. we’ll see. politics is everywhere and everyone is exhausted. that sums it up as far as i can think.

    anyway, how are you doing? i’ll try to drop in more often (he said, again) — also i see you’re in london on friday! i hope to make the event, not sure yet — but i finish my shift at the TM at 4 if you fancy some free art or cheap coffee. (would assume your day is pretty packed tho.)

  2. Thanks for the clip from the film version of “The Blind Owl.” I miss Raul somethin’ awful.

  3. Hey Dennis,

    Long time no see! How’ve you been? I totally missed commenting all of Halloween, which is a bummer, but it’s spirit is obviously not far from the blog with this book in the spotlight. I totally adore this book, and had no idea it had a film adaptation. Have you seen it? Do you think it’s worth trying to find?
    Just to catch you up, this semester has been really great for me. I’m in a creative writing class with Valeria Luiselli, which has got me writing fiction that I’m actually happy with in a real way, rather than a compromise of accepting the stories good parts and my inability to correct its failures (does that make sense?). Otherwise, I’ve been doing a lot of interesting work with Conjunctions, and am right now trying to commission some Leonora Carrington translations, which would obviously be insanely cool if it ends up working out. This issue is about monsters, so given my literary interests I don’t have think too intensely about writers who might fit in with that theme (haha). I’ll probably be sending my stories I’ve written to other publications sometime this week, that or internship application stuff. So, yeah, things have been good!
    How about you? I heard about the completion of your new novel! Soooo exciting and huge congrats, I’m of course hugely looking forward to it. How did writing the rest of that go? Also, how was the Home Haunt search?
    Hope you’re having a great week!

  4. Ah yes, I recall reading this book in 2008, the year I began keeping a reading list of books read, and I’m sure the main reason why I did so was because it was on your top 50 list, Dennis. I should give it a reread one day, as, though I recall liking it a great deal, I’d be a liar if I could tell you what even happened in it… it’s a funny thing, my memory is very good and there are books that I haven’t read in 25 years but which I can still recall down to the smallest plot details, but with some books it’s the opposite… this is one of those books I suppose.

    Right now there’s been a lot of controversy in the horror/weird fiction scene revolving around a small press named ChiZine… I guess they were lax about paying some of their authors and there were some allegations of behind-the-scenes sexual harassment/misogyny and this blew up on Twitter last week and there’s been the usual holier-than-thou proclamations and pile-ups. On the one hand I’m sympathetic because I have a friend who had been published by them and who was set to have them do another book of his next year (he’s since dropped out of his contract), but some of the grandstanding I’ve seen (often from people who don’t even have a hat in the ring) gets pretty tiresome after awhile. I think the funniest comment I saw on Twitter was some no-name writer (who was supposed to be in one of their anthologies, but has since dropped out) going on and on about his ethics and integrity and talent, and then he ended all this off by saying something like, “Guess I’ll need to find a new home for my weird crime story about a pagan god disguised as a mall Santa.” Yeah, good luck with that, mate…

  5. Hi again, very exciting to hear things went well on your trip! All the haunts you mentioned look like fun, Stoney Pointe Haunt and Salem: Escape the Coven especially seem interesting, I always love to see what smaller haunts can come up with. My October was sort of a mixed bag, but Halloween was good. Ended up watching the entire Child’s Play series for the first time with a friend, which was definitely some kind of experience haha. I’ve had “The Blind Owl” on my reading list for awhile but just placed a hold on it with my library thanks to this post, looking forward to reading it. On a somewhat related note, do you have a preferred translation of Rimbaud’s work? My library has multiple versions and I’m not sure which to get.

  6. Unfortunately, I’ve missed Ruiz’s THE BLIND OWL the few times it’s played New York. Is the full film online anywhere?

    My interview with Annabelle Attanasio today went pretty well and should be published tomorrow. It was a good day in New York to stay inside. You’ve probably heard about the Arctic front that North America is currently suffering under, which led to our temperatures going down by 20 degrees Fahrenheit from the morning to the late afternoon. Tomorrow sounds nasty.

    One of the members of 100 gecs did some production work on Dorian Electra’s FLAMBOYANT, which has a somewhat similar aesthetic but is much more listenable.

  7. Yup, that’s the one. I’ve been looking for it for a long time. I remember the Forehead version being slightly different, thank you though.

  8. Yes you should try to see Zorn if at all possible. He was with his Masada quartet at the Vanguard. One of my favorite things he does. Speaking of Zorn, I’m excited about Mr. Bungle in LA in February. Have you heard about that? They are playing their first demo tape and Dave Lombardo is on drums. My happy place.

    I am pretty good, actually! Kind of hard to believe. Now that my show is over I’m back to making new work. And I’m on the hunt for a gallery in NY to work with. Hope to be going back there more often. I know people complain that NY isn’t what it used to be, but it still feels like the center of the world to me. So hopefully thats the next thing for me.

    Hope you are finally un-lagged!
    B

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