Hedayat's "Blind Owl" as a Western Novel


The Iranian writer Sadeq Hedayat is the most influential figure in twentieth-century Persian fiction—and the object of a kind of cult after his suicide in 1951. His masterpiece The Blind Owl is the most important novel of modern Iran. Its abrupt, tortured opening sentence, "There are sores which slowly erode the mind in solitude like a kind of canker," is one of the best known and most frequently recited passages of modern Persian. But underneath the book's uncanniness and its narrative eccentricities, Michael ...

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The Iranian writer Sadeq Hedayat is the most influential figure in twentieth-century Persian fiction—and the object of a kind of cult after his suicide in 1951. His masterpiece The Blind Owl is the most important novel of modern Iran. Its abrupt, tortured opening sentence, "There are sores which slowly erode the mind in solitude like a kind of canker," is one of the best known and most frequently recited passages of modern Persian. But underneath the book's uncanniness and its narrative eccentricities, Michael Beard traces an elegant pastiche of familiar Western traditions. A work of advocacy for a disturbing and powerful piece of fiction, his comprehensive analysis reveals the significance of The Blind Owl as a milestone not only for Persian writing but also for world literature.

The international, decentered nature of modernist writing outside the West, typified by Hedayat's European education and wide reading in the Western canon, suggested to Beard the strategy of assessing The Blind Owl as if it were a Western novel. Viewed in this context, Hedayat's intricate chronicle challenges the very notion of a national literature, rethinking and reshaping our traditions until we are compelled, "through its eyes," to see them in a new way.

Originally published in 1990.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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Editorial Reviews

The Iranian writer Sadeq Hedayat (1903-1951) is the most influential figure in 20th-century Persian fiction, and his masterpiece The Blind owl is modern Iran's most important novel. Beard's (English, U. of North Dakota) analysis (and advocacy) reveal it to be equally important for world literature. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691600819
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 7/14/2014
  • Series: Princeton Legacy Library Series
  • Pages: 286
  • Product dimensions: 9.10 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

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Hedayat's Blind Owl as a Western Novel

By Michael Beard


Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-03137-8




By authorship, language, and setting Sadeq Hedayat's short narrative called Buf-e kur (The Blind Owl, 1936) is a Persian novel. But it is a novel so profoundly informed by Western narrative conventions that it defies the reader to lodge it securely in an accepted category of Western or non-Western writing. And it is informed by more than one Western convention: Roger Lescot's French translation, La chouette aveugle (Paris: José Corti, 1952), is reprinted in a series with Gothic romances and contes fantastiques; D. P. Costello's English version, The Blind Owl (1958), flourishes in the company of nouveaux romans and the theater of the absurd. Western readers have evidently found it meaningful, since both translations are still in print. Criticism meanwhile has treated it as a lusus naturae. It exists somehow on the margins between vague cultural entities called East and West, like the imaginary dwelling portrayed in its opening pages, away from the inhabited world in a landscape of ruins.

The purpose of this study is to classify a single text, taking classification to be a relational process: it requires us to focus on the tradition that holds the work in place, its predecessors and its influences, and on the fields of force that make intertextual pressures sensitive issues, for the writer and also for the critical reader. My purpose is not to demonstrate how The Blind Owl imports Western techniques and utilizes them to deal with a new set of cultural and social problems. Nor is it my purpose to follow the other polemic line of arguing that the importation never took place. My focus is on the process of "dealing with" cultural and social problems. How does any novel deal with (that is, process, alter, continue, swallow, digest, define, evade) the narrative traditions and social issues it finds in its way? The importation has undoubtedly taken place, but the means of transport are no less mysterious across cultural boundaries than they are between writers in a single tradition. There are two distinct processes—the process of influence and the process of communication between cultures—and the additional variable complicates the analysis.

I propose to simplify the object of study by limiting it to the forces at work between The Blind Owl and the Western narrative traditions. The result may be to help determine what the non-Western properties of the text might be, though this is not my primary concern. It is my contention that The Blind Owl is a masterpiece of world literature (even in translation, despite the fact that many of its virtues in Persian are totally unavailable to the translation process), but it is not my primary concern to belabor that point. This study is not "about" The Blind Owl in the sense that previous explications have been about it. I propose to let critical attention flow in the other direction, to examine The Blind Owl as a commentary on its Western predecessors, to use it as a lens through which to see, as if from outside, aspects of our own narrative tradition. The difference is one of point of view: the texts cited, the endnotes, the "substance" of the book would be largely the same in either case. The advantage is to help the Western reader avoid what might be called the doppelgánger effect: to recognize, that is, when the alien under our scrutiny is in fact ourselves.

Ironically, the book through which I have chosen to inspect Western literary conventions professes in its title to be blind. It is a first premise of the argument that the speaker of The Blind Owl is an unreliable, in fact an insane, narrator. This results in two specific kinds of blindness: the blindness of the narrator, who sees only what his obsession allows him to see, and the blindness incurred by the reader, who has access to the narrated world—to the extent that it can be said to have an independent existence—only through the mechanisms of the speaker's distortions. Through most of this study we will leave aside the blindness of the writer, who, under the perhaps false security of the madman's disguise, may speak more personally than he intended.

Both instances of blindness are relative. The narrator's ability to perceive his outside world varies. The reader, once aware that the narration does not mesh with a consistent narrated outside world, reverses the process of misperception and extrapolates a reality concealed behind the narrated surface. We might speak of two narrative motions proceeding at different rates: the narration of the narrator, consistent in its repeated obsession but undependable in its interpretations of them, moving inexorably toward the revelation of the murder scene that is the climax; and a complementary pattern, the reader's gradual realization that the speaker is mad. Two acts of narration at right angles to each other. The blindness of the text forces a slower reading or, more likely, multiple readings—whose ultimate effect, inevitably, is to make the reader aware of the importance of artifice and conscious conventionality, which are characteristics of modernity.

The purpose of this introductory chapter is to indicate, from a distance, a series of legitimate fields of inquiry that are not part of this book. Although my aim in giving priority to formal elements of The Blind Owl is not to keep it indefinitely out of the hands of social scientists and literary historians, there is an element of protection in my attitude toward the perception of total form, which is easily broken. (Inevitably broken, we might add, and always a tentative project.) No book suffers more from summary or injudicious quotation: it is a narrative made to order for New Critical analysis, and yet in the course of that analysis the critic feels certain directions mapping themselves out on the other side of the explication du texte. Outside the boundaries of this inquiry I perceive two specific issues that seem relevant, two boundaries: that of national identity and that of biography.


The first issue we will look at is that of national identity. Latent in the project of examining The Blind Owl as a Western novel is an unstated question: what are the properties of an Eastern text that are being left out of consideration? The question is usually understood to break down into two parts: what does an Iranian text reveal about an Iranian national character and, second, what modes of presentation characterize contemporary Persian writing? The two of course intertwine: presumably the kinds of behavior we designate with the term "Iranian national character" will be the content presented through the characteristic Persian modes of writing; presumably the Iranian national character will be one of the factors determining what modes of writing will be congenial to the Iranian writer. Even if we isolate such cases as Gobineau's Nouvelles asiatiques or Galway Kinnell's Black Light, where a Western writer portrays Iranian behavior, and Ali Hejazi's Sereshk (Tears), where an Iranian describes life in the United States, we have probably still not separated the two questions.

It is not my purpose to consider the validity of the concept of an Iranian national character, nor to deny what is sometimes said informally, that The Blind Owl is in the final analysis a profound statement about that concept. Its imagery of walls and barriers, its insistence on the privacy of significant experience, its juxtaposition of highly romantic and intensely physical depiction of the erotic, its brilliantly concrete treatment of feeling—all could be taken as analogues for modes of behavior and expression Americans commonly think of as distinctly Iranian. As L. P. Elwell-Sutton has pointed out, The Blind Owl is "a veritable mine of folkloric and mythical motifs" from Iranian popular tradition.

But seeing The Blind Owl in this way does not account for the complex effects the text achieves, nor does it help us distinguish it from ephemeral literature and expressions of popular culture that might express the same content more directly and efficiently. The possibility that The Blind Owl may embody characteristic Iranian styles of writing is a question of greater complexity, which by and large has been answered by fiat. "Despite its French influences," writes William K. Archer in a frequently quoted article in the Saturday Review, "'The Blind Owl' is, above all, deeply Iranian." We can see what this means as a sentence in a book review—that The Blind Owl expresses anxieties of concern to Iranian intellectuals (Archer cites "the terrible Persian awareness of time, of the past, of the direct burden of a great and antique culture"), and that (by suggestion) it is a "deep" book (since "deeply Iranian") rather than a superficial one—but what would it mean as literary criticism? What model of the text permits us to say that one book is more Iranian than another? (Had it been a superficial book could it have been deeply Iranian?) Can national identity be quantified? If we look hard enough for national identity, we can find it everywhere.

Christophe Balay and Michel Kuypers's Aux sources de la nouvelle persane (1983), a sensitive and meticulously documented study of the prehistory of the novel in Iran, perhaps demonstrates the limits of that search. It insists on the coherence between the novel and indigenous narrative forms, and in the course of the argument presents the clearest and most detailed account we have of their evolution in Iran. Its virtues, however, are independent of the central premise. The reader can assent to individual steps in the argument without being convinced of the essential oneness of the tradition: the examples could be run the other way to emphasize the differences and to confront the two traditions with their mutual strangeness. In earlier criticism Iranian national identity is often asserted by a visible force of will. Peter Avery, in a 1955 article, speaking of the popularity of the short story in Iran, depicts a continuity of narrative tradition that makes foreign influence inconsequential:

The short story is very old and dear to Iran. Modern authors have been influenced by Western writers in this genre and the names of de Maupassant and Edgar Allan Poe are often mentioned in this connection. But in using this form, writers of this present day are simply returning to the traditional Hekiyah [sic, apparently a misprint for hekâyah or hekâye] or anecdote, though this has been given a new kind of plot and subject matter.

Here again we are not so much in the realm of literary criticism as that of compliment. It is a significant compliment: the Iranians had no need of an imported short story because there was an indigenous tradition of short narrative already. It is still a compliment rather than a neutral commentary.

It is not demeaning to the hekâye tradition or to Persian classical culture to point out that the two traditions of hekâye and short story are profoundly different. The distinctive set of narrative conventions we designate by the ambiguous term "short story"—which developed over the course of the nineteenth century, primarily in France, but which today seems a genre most practiced outside of Europe—appealed to Iranian writers as a revolutionary vehicle for commenting on a changing society. With its specificity of setting, its awareness of social detail, and above all the interaction of character and environment, the short story made incidental the anecdotal qualities (marvel, adventure, stratagem) that were central to classical Middle Eastern narrative styles. There has been occasional interaction between the hekâye and the Western short story. An example from the Arab world is a collection of anecdotes by the Egyptian writer Zaki Najib Mahmoud, Qasâ-sât al-zujâj (Pieces of broken glass, 1974). There narrative situations dissolve and reconstitute in interplay with an expository narratorial voice; the result is hard for a Western reader to classify—popular philosophy that keeps solidifying into exempla, narratives that never quite get started because they drift off into commentary. It is clearly a crossbreeding of Eastern and Western traditions, but such exchanges are more frequently the result of conscious experiment than the crying out of the writer's Middle Eastern blood.

We enter the same obscure area in a moving short story by Samad Behrangi titled "Mâhi-ye kuchelu-ye siyâh" (The little black fish), where the accoutrements of the beast fable (an Aesopian genre popular in the Islamic world at least since Ibn al-Muqaffa"s Kalila wa Dimna) are used in the service of a modern political statement about the necessity of questioning established beliefs. In a review of the English translation, Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak has argued for the importance of its Eastern origins: "All discussions of whether this short story ... is to be viewed in the genre of children's literature or not stem from irrelevant superimpositions of Western categories alien to the Persian tradition of story telling, itself largely rooted in the ancient idea of instruction through animal fables."

He is right that Behrangi's story cannot be written off as children's entertainment, but Behrangi is no more immune to the Western categories than anyone else in our century, and "The Little Black Fish" is hardly any closer generically to Persian classical literature than the oriental tales in the Tatler and the Spectator. The strangeness to Western (and Eastern) eyes of much contemporary Iranian narrative traces back more often to the absence of relevant tradition than to a surfeit. Wishing the Iranians a strong cultural identity is a strangely ambiguous gesture. On the one hand it portrays them as self-sufficient, as possessors of an indigenous narrative tradition that obviates importations; on the other hand it puts a wedge between our world and theirs, which prevents the possibility of comparison on equal terms, and in a sense forestalls taking them with complete seriousness.

If criticism in the West tends to emphasize the alien properties of Middle Eastern writing, it is not the result of an imperialist conspiracy to make all non-Westerners seem to be gibbering aborigines. The area-studies orientation in Middle East studies, like the philological orientation of a previous generation, naturally draws the attention of Western students to differences, with the result that the coherence of Middle Eastern cultures is exaggerated. Consequently, the profound break that separates classical and modern styles in every Middle Eastern literary tradition is insufficiently acknowledged. The novel, like the short story, is a borrowed Western innovation. There is no indigenous tradition for it to graft on to, and to some extent its early practitioners have no choice but to speak in a borrowed voice, even in an alien voice. Edward Said, in a passage on the Arabic novel (a distinct but not unrelated development), suggests particular philosophical limits to the success of the transplantation:

Modern Arabic literature includes novels, but they are almost entirely of this century. There is no tradition out of which these modern works developed; basically at some point writers in Arabic became aware of European novels and began to write works like them. Obviously it is not that simple; nevertheless, it is significant that the desire to create an alternative world through the act of writing (which is one motive underlying the novelistic tradition in the West) is inimical to the Islamic worldview; thus the word heresy in Arabic [bid'a] is synonymous with the verb "to innovate" or "to begin." Islam views the world as a plenum, capable of neither diminishment nor amplification.


Excerpted from Hedayat's Blind Owl as a Western Novel by Michael Beard. Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Preface, ix,
Acknowledgments, xiii,
Abbreviations, xv,
Chapter One Nationalist Poetics and Its Shadows, 3,
Chapter Two The Book of Love: Dante as Template, 42,
Chapter Three Chapter One Says You Love Her, 68,
Chapter Four Gothic I: A Generic Background, 103,
Chapter Five Gothic II: Poe as Generic Background, 140,
Chapter Six Salome: The Parable of the Artist, 177,
Chapter Seven Prolegomenon to The Blind Owl as an Eastern Novel, 219,
Notes, 238,
Index, 263,

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