Adonis’s Sufism & Surrealism
published by Saqi, 245 pages, paperback, ISBN 978-0-86356-189-4
published in The Middle East in London, Vol 12, No 4, June-July 2016
This is a complex work, inevitably so, since it intends to unite two apparently contradictory traditions, the age-old practices of Islamic mysticism with a controversial avant-garde movement formed by a group of painters, playwrights and poets in Paris between 1924-1969. Adonis is one of the most celebrated poets of the contemporary Arab world, saluted by Edward Said as ‘the most eloquent spokesman and explorer of Arab modernity’ and often compared to T.S. Eliott as a revolutionary literary force. He was born into an Alawite family of farmers in northern Syria in 1930, educated in Tartus, Damascus and Beirut, but since 1975 has lived as a political exile in Paris. Despite his Hellenistic sounding nom de plume, he is a passionate Arabist and politically engaged polemicist whose cultural hinterland includes the myths of ancient Arabia as found in Assyria and Sumeria, not just the 1,500 year old Islamic tradition.
One of the corner-stones of understanding the Sufi tradition is that it is not an alternative to conventional piety but an addition. But in other ways it stands apart. It is rooted in an oral heritage not a sacred text. It is a lifelong search not a definitive written legal code. A Sufi is used to listening out for the unspoken, taking a pilgrimage towards the unknown, questing for the unseen.
In a remarkably similar way the Surrealists, goaded by the catastrophe of civic obedience that led to the carnage of the First World War, turned their back on the rational world and looked to examine the interior world and unlock the imagination. They were especially empowered by Freud’s work on the importance of dreams, and the hidden layers buried beneath the carapace of the ordinary obedient mind. They were also intrigued by such practices as automatic writing, hypnotic sleep and fabricated delirium as a vehicle for this inner journey. Like a Sufi they believed that at times the contemplation of a tree, a stone or a sound could reveal knowledge as powerfully as a book, and that sometimes the physical experience of the body was as important as the mind, so the feet and the hands could learn things aside from the head. It brings to mind a story about the Prophet Muhammad who was once blessed with the power to hear the prayer of the pebbles towards their creator in his hand.
There are of course great differences. The Surrealists were emphatically pagan, and their internal searches strongly driven by their desire for creativity, be it on paper, canvas or in plastic form. For a Sufi, the efforts on paper, on the dance floor, or in a musical score were the means to an end - the souls journey towards the Absolute. But in their way of describing this pilgrimage journey, through outwardly anarchic, astonishing, baffling and obscure forms of life, the Sufi and Surrealist are very close. And the Sufi goal, the final delirium of love, where the individual worshipper is consumed within the deity has parallels with the Surrealists search for the single point in the world that made sense of all the opposite forces, where what might be called the rational world of matter, and the intuitive world of the spirit, come together. In this way the Sufi tradition can be seen as the Islamic contribution to eternal surrealism - joining forces with Coleridge, Blake, Orpheus and Heraclitus who prove our need for freedom and love, so that we can recognize that everything is in everything.
But this rich, intriguing, intellectually fertile study should not be picked up out of idle curiousity. It demands continuous engagement and a real interest in the motivational springs of creativity. But for the small readership who can engage in the poetics of two cultures situated in two different ages, it is a work of extraordinary richness, which places Adonist in a fragile chain, one hand linked with Ibn Arabi, the other with Rimabud: the anti-hero of the Paris boulevard united with the Moorish saint buried on the hill above Damascus.
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by Barnaby Rogerson