(Dis)covering the Gaps: The Representation of Representation in Farid ud-Din Attar's Conference of the Birds.

Farid ud-Din Attar’s Conference of the Birds is chiefly concerned with trying to come to terms with mystical experience—with trying to represent union with the divine, and with the enumeration of the steps by which one can attempt to attain such a state. The goal is to spur the reader on to seek such an experience for himself, as we can see by the final lines of the poem, which address the reader directly (practically for the first time): “I have described the Way-- / Now, you must act—there is no more to say” (229, my emphasis).

The problem is that the poem assumes that accurate representation of mystical experience is impossible, as we see throughout the poem, but most notably at the very end. The experience of union with the godhead, here, is ineffable, numinous, beyond the reach of representation. It is a “pearl” that “cannot be pierced” by the poet’s words (214). Even further: it is an experience that is not only impossible to relate, but also unlawful to relate: “I know if I / Betrayed my knowledge I would surely die” (214). Thus we are faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, representation of the Absolute is both impossible and unlawful; on the other hand, the poem seems to imply that such representation must still be attempted.

The poem, then, is concerned explicitly with the problem of representation, and is thus, insofar as a representation of an object also involves interpreting the object of representation, also explicitly concerned with the problem of interpretation. This, in turn, suggests that, insofar as representation and interpretation, within the poem, takes place through language, the poem is concerned explicitly with the problem of textual interpretation. In this paper, then, I’ll argue that the poem can be read as an extended meditation, in language, on the limitations of language—and that it is also in many ways a celebration of those limitations. In other words: the poem works within the constraints of language and is deformed by them—but it also exploits them.

The main conceit of the poem is that it is an account of the journey of the birds of the world to find their king, the Simorgh. In this task, which is, of course, a metaphor for the journey of the soul towards communion with the divine, the birds are guided by the hoopoe. By extension, then, he is our guide, and not merely the guide of the birds in the poem—and in fact, this is the very first assertion made by the narrator (who is, one would hazard to guess, not a bird): “Dear hoopoe, welcome! You will be our guide” (29).

And the hoopoe is, from the very first, figured as a kind of communication medium: “It was on you King Solomon relied / To carry secret messages between / His court and distant Sheba’s lovely queen” (29). Furthermore, he is the most vocal character in the poem, and the main device by which the poem proceeds—it is very often hard to distinguish between the voice of the poet or the narrator and the voice of the hoopoe. The hoopoe is, then, arguably a kind of personification of language—or, at any rate, a personification of a certain kind of language. He is the personification of the kind of language that has the power to guide us on the “Way” to transcendence—his is the tale that inspires the birds, that “convulses” their hearts with the desire to “quit the hindrance of the Self” (75). He is also a purveyor of the truth, a reliable conduit of information—he is the one who “know[s] the perils of the Way” (78), and who can describe them to the birds. He is “heaven-sent,” and wears “Truth’s crown” (32); he is the one who first tells the birds of the existence of the Simorgh, the one who sets the birds on the path towards the Simorgh.

But the hoopoe acknowledges that he, too, has his limitations. His words—however eloquent—are, according to him, ultimately “unequal” (79). And long before the end of the poem, the hoopoe disappears: we have no way of knowing for certain whether he is even among the thirty birds who survive the journey to the Simorgh (although, of course, we rather suspect he is). If the hoopoe, then, is language (or, at least, useful / truthful language) it is apparent here that language alone cannot help us reach the absolute. In fact, more often than not, the poem seems to take the opposite view of language: that language is hindrance rather than help in our search for the divine. The birds’ journey to the Simorgh is interrupted, almost as soon as it begins, by their “loquacious ignorance […] floods of foolish words […] clamour of complaint” (51). It is their “crippling sin[s]” (79) that cause these torrents of words, of course—but it is nevertheless the case here that language is what facilitates the expression of sin. Words are what interrupt the journey.

Indeed, certain portions of the text would seem to suggest that the Self is inextricably linked with (or tied to?) language. The Self, as the poem emphasizes over and over is what must be abandoned in the search for union with the divine: in order to join with God one must “renounce [the] soul” (38); “bid the Self adieu” (30); “renounce the Self” (56). In that context it seems significant that, when the birds finally reach the Simorgh (i.e., are at the point of bidding the Self adieu), there are no words: they interrogate themselves “inwardly; they make no sound”; the Simorgh speaks to them “silently” (219). The narrator, in fact, informs us that the use of language (or the state of having a use for language) is a sign of one’s distance from the divine: “Those who can speak still wander far away / From that dark truth they struggle to convey” (221).

In the story of the youth who falls down the deep well, the boy’s father calls on his son’s name Mohammed, in order to try to bring him back to life. But: “’Where is Mohammed now?’ the youth [replies], / ‘Where is your son? Or anyone?’” and dies (186). Language is worse than useless: the name of the son (and the father’s anguished words) cannot revive the youth. The youth gives up (or denies) his name, that part of language that most specifically pertains to him—and it is as if he thereby gives up his self-hood. At one point, indeed, the poem reveals a positively Lacanian sense of the ways in which words constitute the self: a dervish is advising a would-be disciple that the boundaries between self and other are malleable, that “All things are one—there isn’t any two; It isn’t me who speaks; it isn’t you” (191).

The distinction between self and other—“me” and “you”—is, in other words, an artifact of speech. It is a mirroring of the structure of language, which leaves out the crux of the matter, the link between self and other—the structure of language leaves out, in other words, that which links everything, namely the divine. Language—or at least “mortal speech” that cannot contain the “secret words” of the Way—is, then, what must be left behind, just as (and precisely because) the Self must be left behind. Language, then, is double: it is both guide and trap, help and hindrance. It reveals the Way, but blocks the path—it is the means by which we start feeling our way towards transcendence, but it is also precisely what must be transcended.

This ambivalence towards language is, I think, encoded at every level of the poem: not only at the thematic level, but also at that of referential structure. That is to say: the poem proceeds by creating symbols that have, initially, a seemingly fixed referent. The fixed relationship between sign and referent, however, is continually being thrown into question—and the deconstruction of the links between sign and referent serves to foreground the gaps in language. At the beginning of The Conference of the Birds, for example, we find (among other things) the following apostrophe to a parrot:

[…] welcome, parrot, perched in paradise!
Your splendid plumage bears a strange device,
A necklace of bright fire about the throat,
Though heaven’s bliss is promised by your coat,
This circle stands for hell […]
We have an interesting tension here: on the one hand, the poem’s evoking a perfectly concrete, realistic parrot; one whose plumage is marked by a bright, flame-colored ring around its neck. But then, at the same time, we’re made aware that this is a figurative fowl. Its plumage is a text that the poem interprets for us. It is a symbol (a “device”), or a complex of symbols; its colors have meaning—meaning, moreover, for humans (what do birds have to do, after all, with heaven or hell?). So the parrot is ontologically and referentially double—it is both a simple bird and an image of the human condition. The poem is both describing the colors of a bird’s plumage and the predicament of the soul, which is capable of attaining heaven but is also liable to be damned to hell.

A similar multiplication of referent happens over and over throughout the poem. Much of the first half or so of the poem is taken up by the dealings of the hoopoe with the objections of the other birds. This part of the poem is interspersed with stories that are told to the birds (and to the reader) by the hoopoe (or by the narrator), in response to some caviling remark made by one of the other birds. The story, however, is usually quite self-contained. It usually doesn’t make reference to the particular objection that precedes it (and to which the story is supposed to be a response)--and it never has anything to do directly with birds. The stories are concerned, instead, with the trials and tribulations of holy men and infidels, kings and slaves. For an example, we can look at the first of these stories, which comes after the objection of the nightingale. The nightingale is in love with a rose, and he doesn’t want to leave the rose to go on the journey to seek out the Simorgh. The hoopoe, in answer, tells the nightingale that his love for the rose is a “superficial” love for “outward appearances” (36); and that “Each spring [the rose] laughs, not for you, as you say, / But at you—and has faded in a day” (37). Then the story follows, seemingly a propos of nothing (after all, the hoopoe has already answered the nightingale’s objection with his direct admonitions). A dervish (we are told) has fallen in love with a princess, because she has smiled at him. The dervish undergoes tortures for love’s sake, only to find that he has been deceived—his beloved does not favor him: her smile was from “pity, almost ridicule” (38). The princess informs the dervish of this fact and then vanishes “like a wisp of strengthless smoke” (38).

The similarities between the stories are obvious, of course. Just like the nightingale, the dervish is beguiled by appearances, his beloved laughs at him, and she vanishes. The story of the dervish thus comes to stand in for something other than itself: it’s not just a story about the dervish—it’s a story about the nightingale. And the nightingale, in turn, is standing in for the reader. Thus the story of the dervish is not just a story about the nightingale disguised as a story about the dervish—it’s also a story about the reader. But—and this is what I’m trying to get at—these connections are never made explicit—at least throughout most of the poem. Instead, the poem leaves us to make the connections for ourselves: we’re meant to notice the isomorphism between the predicaments of the nightingale and the dervish, and from that observation, draw the conclusion that the tale of the dervish is a response to the tale of the nightingale. But before we make that connection, there is a moment of doubt or dislocation, where we’re left wondering why we’re being told the tale of the dervish: a moment where the signs of language are cut loose from meaning.

And these moments of dislocation themselves multiply: the poem is riddled with discontinuities (that become, in effect, riddles). The tripartite structure of

a. bird asks question / makes an excuse
b. hoopoe’s rejoinder / chastisement
c. seemingly unconnected parable
repeats over and over. And these units of question/answer/parable are themselves not explicitly connected to each other: there are no transitional passages that explain their relationship to each other. There is only the implicit connection—the connection of analogous parts; of similar structures; of similar situations; of proximity.

This is, course, the structure of metaphor; of analogy, parable, allegory—of techniques of representation that work precisely by harnessing the explicit awareness of the impossibility (and even further, the transgressiveness) of representation—structures of meaning that operate by throwing everyday modes of referentiality into confusion. Metaphors always violate the rules of logic. Logically, A can’t be B and not B at the same time—the nightingale is not the dervish, for example. There are logically irreducible differences between the nightingale and the dervish: the nightingale is a bird, for one thing, while the dervish is a man. Yet when we read a metaphorical statement, we “get it,” because we recognize some kind of similarity between A and B. We fill in (or ignore) the irreducible differences between them—we gloss over the gap, perhaps because the gap, ultimately, is a gap in language; a gap that cannot be represented through language.

But this is not a simple covering of the gap. As long as there is a some sort of “essential” similarity between A and B, we tend to appreciate the metaphor more, the more A and B are superficially dissimilar. We enjoy filling in the gap, in other words; the larger the gap, the greater our surprise and enjoyment. A metaphor is, in fact, a discovering of the gaps in the referential structures of language. The negative space of the metaphor represents the unrepresentable. And this is, as I said at the very beginning of this paper, precisely the object of the poem. So (at the risk of, like Attar, repeating myself): language is an obstacle to union with the divine. The signs of language are opaque, multivalent, limiting. They divide Being into self and other, and in that process of division, leave out the divine, rule out transcendence—which is why we can’t represent union with the divine through language. The divine is to be found precisely in that which language leaves out. At the same time, however, as I’ve just argued, through the use of metaphor, we can use these gaps in language in order to trace the outlines of that which cannot be represented—those very gaps that comprise the divine. But to represent the gaps in language is to trace the limits of language—is, in that sense, to represent language itself. In that sense, then, what the poem seems to be saying is that the divine can be reached if we turn language inside out—if we try to represent the very act of representation itself.

In this context, it becomes important to note that, in the poem, the journey of the birds (the journey of the soul towards the divine) takes place only through words—and also that this journey both emphasizes and obscures a discontinuity. By this I mean not only to emphasize the obvious—that the journey of the birds is a fiction (or, in other words, a linguistic edifice)—but also the fact that the physical journey in which the “world of birds” are culled down to “thirty exhausted, wretched, broken things” (214) is given remarkably short representational shrift. The entire journey is glossed over within less than twenty lines. We’re told the birds “traveled on for years”; that some drowned, some burned, some starved, and some got eaten—but we’re not given any specifics; the journey happens at a farther remove from us than anything else in the poem. It remains invisible. We lose sight, moreover, of the individual birds. As I’ve already pointed out, the hoopoe, who has been our guide thus far throughout the poem, is never mentioned again after this.

The full account of what happens to the birds over the course of their journey, in fact, appears only as a “written page” (217), which, in the end, turns out to be what finally catalyzes their union with the Simorgh. Brought at last before the throne of the Simorgh, the birds are given a missive that both narrates and explains the meaning of their journey:

The thirty birds read through the fateful page
And there discovered, stage by detailed stage,
Their lives, their actions, set out one by one—
[…] they shrank with shame.
Then, as by shame their spirits were refined
The past and all its actions were no more.
they see the Simorgh—at themselves they stare,
And see a second Simorgh standing there;
They look at both and see the two are one
The written page, in fact, is a kind of representation of the poem itself. The journey of the birds is a journey away from language; away from representation, but the final stage of their journey takes place in a representation of a representation—a written page depicted on the written page that we are reading. And thus the poem comes full circle. Through representation we come to a representation of the unrepresentable. Through self-referentiality, we come to transcend the self. The moment of dislocation and discontinuity—of “Bewilderment,” in which we experience “pain and gnawing discontent” and stray from “unity” with “indecisive steps” (196)—is precisely the moment in which we lose ourselves and reach “Oblivion, the Nothingness of love” (207).

But even as I write this, I feel deeply uneasy; my words are not adequate representations of the whole of the work, nor even of the part of the whole that I am focusing on. How does one deal with this? How does one interpret part of something without referencing (and ultimately reproducing) the whole—while knowing, in fact, that one can’t reference the whole; can’t hold the whole complete in one’s hands, to be turned over and passed around and poked and prodded? My role is, supposedly, to “unpack” an aspect of this work; to open it up, dissect it, expose its inner workings; to analyze. But to analyze is in some sense to trivialize. When you unpack something you discard things; you set them aside, saying: this is not essential, this is not relevant for the purposes of this discussion: I’ll skip this page, instead I choose this line. We talk of levels of meaning, layers of structure and theme and technique as if the poem were an onion; as if it were possible to peel them back one by one and consider them separately from one another. We link the peeled layers together, string them on the thread of argument: a necklace of planes, a bundle of loose leaves, a skein of Ogham knots. But that’s not the way the poem works. Despite the fragmentations that I’ve just gone to such pains to illustrate, there are no easily separable layers. Every piece of the poem we hack away from the whole bleeds—bleeds, that is, into everything else. And so our interpretations fray and fall apart.