For the Anniversary of 9/11, A Book That Really Matters

In connection with 9/11, any book recommendation risks seeming trivial. Even the best writing can’t bring back the dead. Ten years after the event, the most a book can hope for is to embody a stance opposite from the one that drove those planes into those buildings. In other words, to be humane, sophisticated, and wise. Also, ironic.

At least one pundit pronounced irony dead after 9/11, as if like iron it were the marker of an age that civilization had outgrown. But irony is still our best technology, the only one guaranteed never to become obsolete. We didn’t invent it—it’s a built-in feature of our world—but we can try to master it. It didn’t contribute to the attacks, and it can help prevent others.

As a technology, irony is usually compared to a weapon (“barbed,” “double-edged,” etc.), but I like the image of a tonic: one that we can spike and drink together to wash away some of our dishonesty. With that in mind, the recommendation I've chosen is Edward FitzGerald’s translation of “The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.” A long poem often published as a single slim volume, it’s part carpe diem warning cry, part skeptic’s gospel, and part elegiac drinking song.

It’s also the product of a kind of collaboration between cultures. The original “Rubáiyát” emerged from Persia during the Islamic Golden Age, a period in which literature, mathematics, and science flowered across the Middle East. Khayyám was an eleventh-century scientist, mathematician, and scholar as well as a poet; in the 1850s a portion of his verses were translated into English by FitzGerald, a Victorian gentleman of letters who never produced a single other work of note. The result, as Jorge Luis Borges describes it, was a remarkable synthesis:

A miracle happens: from the fortuitous conjunction of a Persian astronomer who condescends to write poetry, and an eccentric Englishman who peruses Oriental and Hispanic books, perhaps without completely understanding them, emerges an extraordinary poet who does not resemble either of them….Some critics believe that FitzGerald’s Omar is, actually, an English poem with Persian allusions; FitzGerald interpolated, refined, and invented, but his Rubáiyát seem to demand that we read them as Persian and ancient. (Borges, “The Enigma of Edward FitzGerald,” Esther Allen trans.)

I think this emphasis on mysterious unity is the right approach to the poem. The author is both Khayyám and FitzGerald; the cultural context is both ancient Persia and the post-Enlightenment West. Likewise, the poem is both funny and sobering, blasphemous and spiritually humble; its presiding deity is both Allah and the Christian God—or else a nameless “Presence” who is neither, and may not even be a god at all. Whatever he is, he can be understood only through metaphor: he is the “Player” moving all of us as pieces on his chessboard; the “Moving Finger” that authors (but never alters) our fates; and, above all, the winebearing “Saki” to whom all our lives are bubbles winking in his cup.

Wine is a constant presence throughout “The Rubáiyát,” which views intoxication as a glorious comfort and not a sinful indulgence. In general the poem’s tone evokes the bracing honesty of a cheerful drinker, admitting, after a few glasses, what he really thinks of the universe. 

The truths he tells remain dangerous. With its learned but casual attitude toward belief, “The Rubáiyát” has only gained in its freshness and power to provoke. I’m thinking, for example, of the stanza in which wine is compared to the prophet Muhammad, inspired by Allah to drive “Fears and Sorrows” from the soul. If it appeared today, this passage might generate the same kind of global uproar as the infamous Danish cartoons of 2005.

But “The Rubáiyát” is no crude caricature. It does not attack the Islamic tradition but derives from and plays with it—even perhaps within it. Anyway, for practical purposes, it’s uncensorable. It’s too much out in the world, and too much inside our heads. It’s part of our common culture and has to be confronted. Or better yet, embraced.

The lines that move me most, post-9/11, are these:


Some for the Glories of This World; and some

Sigh for the Prophet's Paradise to come;

Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go,

Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!


That, in a single stanza, is the “The Rubáiyát”: not a screed against belief but a laugh in the face of pious certainty. It makes me laugh along with it, but after years of terrorism and war, it makes me wince, too. I wish the 9/11 jihadists had digested its lessons, and I wish America—with its supposed pragmatism—would start heeding this stanza rather than the Drum.

So much for wishful thinking. But “The Rubáiyát” reminds us that we are, actually, all part of a single civilization, which is capable of better things than the past decade would suggest. It reminds us that Arabic culture was once the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan on earth, and that both anti-Islamic prejudice and militant Islamism insult that tradition. When we call Iran or Syria “repressive,” that’s what we mean to say has been repressed: the culture’s own best self, the deepest awareness that emerges out of its history and literature. In fact the literature of Khayyám’s period also produced the single finest counterstatement to modern Islamic theocracy: the figure of Scheherazade, fighting despotism with imagination, calming hysterical misogyny, keeping her head.

This is the kind of precise irony great books have to teach us. Now more than ever, FitzGerald’s “Rubáiyát” is true prophecy for the two cultures, Middle Eastern and Western, that produced it. It rejects comforting illusions, but also paralyzing fear and grief (the first word of the poem is “Wake!”). Its cosmic vision raises, over the 9/11 decade, a monument as humble as its final image: a wineglass overturned in a garden.


[Image: William Morris/Edward Burne-Jones manuscript of "The Rubáiyát,” 1870s. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]

comments powered by Disqus