Over the past decade Iranian films have received enormous international attention, garnering both critical praise and popular success. Combining his extensive ethnographic experience in Iran and his broad command of critical theory, Michael M. J. Fischer argues that the widespread appeal of Iranian cinema is based in a poetics that speaks not only to Iran’s domestic cultural politics but also to the more general ethical dilemmas of a world simultaneously torn apart and pushed together. Approaching film as a tool for anthropological analysis, he illuminates how Iranian filmmakers have incorporated and remade the rich traditions of oral, literary, and visual media in Persian culture.
Fischer reveals how the distinctive expressive idiom emerging in contemporary Iranian film reworks Persian imagery that has itself been in dialogue with other cultures since the time of Zoroaster and ancient Greece. He examines a range of narrative influences on this expressive idiom and imagery, including Zoroastrian ritual as it is practiced in Iran, North America, and India; the mythic stories, moral lessons, and historical figures written about in Iran’s national epic, the Shahnameh; the dreamlike allegorical world of Persian surrealism exemplified in Sadeq Hedayat’s 1939 novella The Blind Owl; and the politically charged films of the 1960s and 1970s. Fischer contends that by combining Persian traditions with cosmopolitan influences, contemporary Iranian filmmakers—many of whom studied in Europe and America—provide audiences around the world with new modes of accessing ethical and political experiences.
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About the Author
Michael M. J. Fischer is Professor of Anthropology and Science and Technology Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Lecturer in the Department of Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He is the author of Emergent Forms of Life and the Anthropological Voice (published by Duke University Press) and Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution. He is coauthor of Debating Muslims: Cultural Dialogues in Postmodernity and Tradition and Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences.
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Mute dreams, blind owls, and dispersed knowledgesPersian Poesis in the Transnational Circuitry
By Michael M. J. Fischer
Duke University Press
Chapter OneYasna: Performative Ritual, Narrative Mnemonic
"I shall declare to you in verse, not in non-verse, in total inspiration."-ZOROASTER, Yasna
There is a story that after years of fruitless proselytizing Zoroaster complains to God that only one man has converted. God replies that it does not much matter if Zoroaster makes converts, for at the end all will convert except Evil himself (Zahhak, Ahriman), who cannot. For Zoroaster this is unsatisfactory. The world of man is at stake. Why should men live in misery when they could achieve the restoration? And so in the Gathas he urges God and man to cooperate.
Understanding religion in modern times depends increasingly on an attitude of recovery: of unraveling ancient and half-forgotten meanings; of piecing together clues embedded in language, ritual, and customs that are now more emotionally than intellectually compelling; of (re)constructing an intellectual persuasiveness, informed in large part by appreciations for the historical growth of traditions. Such an attitude, once the exclusive realm of scholars within a given tradition, is of growing concern both among the nonreligious, who must come to terms with the political realities represented by religious movements, communities, and individuals, and amongmembers of religious traditions, who must defend or clarify (even if only to themselves) the emotional core of their identities. No community is more open to this modern attitude, or feels more in need of it, than the Zoroastrian one.
An anecdote. Although, understood superficially, this anecdote might fall into the genre of the joke about the half-forgotten ritual still performed only by one native and six intently observant anthropologists, it actually instead testifies to the importance of ritual in preserving a tradition so that meanings decayed in one era can be recovered in a later one.
21 January 1971. Dastur Mehreban-i Mobed Siavush had invited me to observe his performance of the yasht (yasht-i visperad, a yasna ritual extended by twenty-four short sections of recitation) on the first day of the gahambar (a five-day holiday occurring every two months). This ritual may only be performed during the first daylight watch (havangah, sunrise to noon) and is begun with the first light after dawn. So I arose at five a.m. and made my way to the fire temple. Dastur Mehreban allowed me to sit in the room where the high liturgies are performed (the yazishn-gah) outside the pavis or water channels (from paw or paki, meaning "clean" or "pure") which enclose and separate the pure ritual space. He complained that, although it normally required two priests, he had to perform the three-hour ritual alone because there were so few priests.
After the ceremony, he told me that he had learned to perform the rituals from his father and that he was the only one of the locally resident priests (only six remained in Yazd proper, with one more in Sharifabad forty kilometers away) who really knew them. As a young man he had gone to Tehran to engage in trade, but his father had asked him to return and take up the priesthood because there was no one else. So he had returned, studied with his father, and been examined by the old dastur, Mehreban-i Tirandaz. On various occasions, he had suggested to the other priests that they should meet regularly to discuss and learn the proper ways, but they were uninterested.
He was content to have me just sit and observe but afterward asked what I had learned from what I had seen. I replied that I had just wanted to see what was done, I had taken detailed notes, and now I would have to consult the books and ask him and others about the meaning. He confirmed a few meanings I had learned from reading Jivanji Jamshedji Modi's classic The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Parsees. But he demurred, claiming to know very little about symbolic and theological meanings. The person to ask was Rustam Shahzadi in Tehran, or better yet, I should go to Bombay. He discouraged me from consulting Khodadad-i Shahriar Nerosangi, his rival in Sharifabad. Khodadad was, Dastur Mehreban asserted, full of superstitions and his insistence that Muslims be excluded from partaking in the gahambar was wrong. If you read the Avesta, he continued, Zoroaster says that if someone does you an evil turn, that is no reason for you to compound the evil. Moreover, many of Khodadad's superstitions were not even Zoroastrian ones, but Muslim ones. Later in the morning, when I returned from the fire temple and told my Zoroastrian neighbors what I had seen, I was surprised to find that many of them were extremely hazy about the ritual, even about the fact that it was regularly performed on the first day of the gahambar on behalf of the community and not merely on an individual's request to produce the elixir haoma as a prophylactic against illness or for a departed soul.
Almost ten years later, the Parsi priest Dastur Firuz Kotwal conducted a semester-long seminar at Harvard on the yasna. When I mentioned my 1971 experience, Dastur Kotwal expressed skepticism both about the efficacy of performing the ritual with one priest and about whether the Yazd community could be expected to have maintained a correct ritual procedure at all. This goaded me to look up my field notes and compare them item by item with what Dastur Kotwal had shown us. I was delighted to find the two ritual procedures were identical: a vindication of Dastur Mehreban's efforts, as well as of my hopeful response to his query. Dastur Kotwal's open-minded demonstrations and teachings a decade later brought alive the detective game of recovering the meanings encoded in the yasna as no reading of J. J. Modi or other scholarly descriptions could.
Exploring the meanings of the yasna (worship, sacrifice), the basic high-liturgy ritual of Zoroastrianism, can provide one of the most direct entries into the religion. Although the present text for this ritual was codified only in the Sassanian period-a codification of seventy-two chapters from various portions of the partially preserved twenty-one nasks (books) of the Avesta (Kotwal and Boyd 1982)-and although the ritual itself may have been slowly expanded in both Achaemenian and Sassanian times, nonetheless the yasna has a dramatic unity and coherence which make it a key link to the most ancient past, as well as a mnemonic framework for the elaboration of Zoroastrian cosmology and eschatology. Until the Avesta was written down in the Sassanian period, the ritual served as the occasion for practicing and preserving the texts orally. Since Sassanian times, a few elements-animal sacrifice with a libation of fat to the fire, and the participation of eight priests-have dropped out: their places, however, are preserved in the text and so can be reconstructed. A few other minor changes-substitution of metal twigs for vegetable ones in the barsom (see below), substitution of a metal mortar and pestle for stone ones, introduction of a stone seat for the officiating priest, substitution of a metal sieve for one of bull's hair, introduction of German silver or brass fire-holders-are also marked.
In the yasna, God (Ohrmazd or Ahura Mazda), with the aid of the archangel Sorush, manipulates the elements of the universe in order to create a pure world and to provide means of communication between the world of men and the spiritual world. There is an evocation of the conversion of King Vishtaspa (or Gushtasp) by the prophet Zoroaster and of the ritual duties of each Zoroastrian. And there is a recitation of the Gathas, the oldest portion of the Zoroastrian scriptures, attributed to Zoroaster or his immediate disciples.
There are two means by which one can recover the meaning of the yasna. First, since ritual action provides the dramatic unity and coherence of the yasna as a whole, once the basic framework of ritual and symbolic elements are identified, it is then possible to utilize the yasna as a mnemonic for multiple bits of Zoroastrian lore. One cannot, however, begin with such bits and expect them to reveal the coherence of the ritual. That the creation story, cosmology, mythic composition of the prophet, or the eschatological drama are being reenacted can only be a post facto judgment. Each of these can be attached to the yasna to deepen its symbolic resonance; the yasna can in turn become a mnemonic for them. But none of them can account for the entire ordering of the ritual. To begin with, it is clear that the text is an assemblage of disparate pieces. Some parts are in the dialects of Avestan and are chanted in full voice (goshadeh, "open voice"); much of the text is in Pazand, the Pahlavi (Middle Persian) of the Sassanian period, and is chanted sotto voce in a mumbled undertone (basta, with "closed" lips). The seventeen gathas are ordered by metrical form, and they are not arranged continuously but enclose eight other chapters. And so on. In other words, it is to the ritual structure rather than to the text, the folklore, or the philosophical elaborations that one must first turn. Why else, after all, should the priests have chosen the ritual form as the preservative medium?
The second means of recovery involves the central narrative portions of the text, particularly the Gathas of Zoroaster, but also the yashts (hymns; odes) to Hom, to the fire, and to the waters. The poetic language used is what Willard Johnson, writing about the Rig Vedas, has called the language of enigma, of verbal puzzles. Priests in Vedic India prepared for their ritual tasks by composing and trying to respond to such poems in oratorical contests (sadhamada; viz. Greek, symposia), metaphorized as chariot races. The poetic puzzles are brahmans (with the accent on the first syllable, as opposed to brahman, priest), a term which includes hymns and mantras and which refers particularly to the powers of these forms. In these "chariot races," the most formidable brahmans are entered by those whose speech is prepared with poetic inspiration (kratva). Their patron is Agni, fire, the inner light of divine inspiration. The effort was to gain a nimbleness of mind, an extraordinary consciousness, an ability to grasp what is normally unseen. Gaining such vision was metaphorized as Vac revealing her beauty, like a bride desiring her husband. Not only were these brahmans verbally composed, but they were often figures utilizing sound repetitions (yamaka) and the protective rhythm of meter to move one forward through the searing fires of approaching divine insight. Inspiration was aided by, and metaphorized as, the elixir soma.
Among the many images in the Vedas which are resonant with the Gathic texts are those of the cow as the vision of a harmonious, beneficent world; the rising sun as an initiatory experience; the changing moon becoming whole as insight; the sun and moon as the creative powers (maya) chasing one another, one rising while the other wanes, like two children playing or like the priests going round the sacrificial altar; the wandering of the sun as the perpetual search for inspiration; chariots as figures of divinities and horses as figures of divine speed; and the seven priests who yoke the wheeled chariot of the sacrifice (yagna). Regarding the ritual of worship (yagna), the Vedas pose the following brahman.
I ask you: what is the farthest end (limit) of the earth? I ask: where is the navel of the world? I ask you: what is the semen of the powerful horse? I ask: what is the highest sky of speech?
To which the following answers, respectively, are provided: the altar (fire, inspiration); sacrifice (the ritual); soma (the elixir); the priest (in a state of inspiration). There is, as well, Dirghatama's (Deep Gloom) account of failure in a sadhamada poetry contest, in which he describes the setting of the fire before him, the preparing of the sacrifice, and yet his despair at being unable to achieve inspiration; so he prays for the gift of understanding.
In later times, the poetic chariot races were standardized into a ritual disputation form, the brahmodya. In later times, as well, the this-worldly ethic of the Vedas was transformed into an ascetic other-worldly ethic of the Upanishads. The famous imagery, for instance, of the two competing birds in the fig tree became inverted. In the earlier period, the victor is the bird who eats of the fig and thereby participates in transcending inspiration; but in the Upanishads, the eating bird is condemned to mere worldly existence, while the abstinent bird achieves the nonexistential, transcendent state.
In following the translation of Zoroaster's Gathas by Stanley Insler, it becomes clear that they are superbly constructed compositions, analogous to the brahmans insofar as they depend on an abstract play with metaphors. All too often in previous attempts at translation these metaphors have been taken literally, thereby destroying their coherence.
The ritual is performed by two priests: the zot and his assistant, the raspi. In Sassanian times, when there were numerous priests available, supported with ample funds, eight priests took part. The zot performs the role of Ohrmazd, seated cross-legged on a platform, with his back to the north, the side of the demons. The raspi plays the role of all the other seven priests, stationing himself in the position of the priest who had special responsibility for the fire; he represents Sorush, guardian of both the material world and especially of the transfer of souls after death between this world and the next. In order to perform the ritual, both priests must undergo a severe purification: the nine-day long bareshnum. Once in their roles, they are elevated beyond the world of men: there are stories both of the Sassanian king Khosrow Anoshiravan (r. 531-579 c.e.) and of a senior nineteenth-century priest in India, both of whom having entered a fire temple while a yasna was in progress were offended by the failure of the zot to acknowledge their presence, until reminded that to do so would transgress the spiritual state and activity of the yasna performance.
Excerpted from Mute dreams, blind owls, and dispersed knowledges by Michael M. J. Fischer Excerpted by permission.
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Table of ContentsBy Way of Acknowledgments:
Divided Selves and Doubled Genealogies vii
Prelude: After Epic, Writing, Painting, and Film 1
I. Speaking After Zarathustra: Ritual, Epic, and Philosophical Forms of Reason
1. Yasna: Performative Ritual, Narrative Mnemonic 25
2. Shahnameh: Parable Logic 66
Coda: Illuminations: Philosophical Allegory 131
II. Seeing After Film: Textual and Cinematic Forms of Ethical Reason
3. Awaiting the Revolution: Surrealism Persian Style 151
4. Filmic Judgment and Cultural Critique: The Work of Art, Ethics, and Religion in Postrevolution Iranian Cinema 222
5. War Again: Qandahar, 911--
Figure and Discourse in Iranian Cinematic Writing 259
Coda: Balancing Acts (After 9/11) 355
Epilogue: Beyond “Mobile Armies of Metaphors”: Scheherezade Films the Games 370