Gnostic (Sufi?) influence on Sadegh Hedayat’s “The Blind Owl”?

In the Blind Owl Sadegh Hedayat speaks of a disease that has cut him off from others in agony and suffering as if he’d been branded and marked by this secret and obscure ailment:

“Will anyone ever penetrate the secret of this disease which transcends ordinary experience, this reverberation of the shadow of the mind, which manifests itself in a state of coma like that between death and resurrection, when one is neither asleep nor awake?

I propose to deal with only one case of this disease. It concerned me personally and it so shattered my entire being that I shall never be able to drive the thought of it out of my mind. The evil impression which it left has, to a degree that surpasses human understanding, poisoned my life for all time to come. I said ‘poisoned’; I should have said that I have ever since borne, and will bear for ever, the brand-mark of that cautery.”1

Then Hedayat speaks of fears, along with his course of action (a decision to “remain silent and keep my thoughts to myself” etc.). Then reveals that the only one he will open himself up to is his “shadow”: “It is for his sake that I wish to make the attempt. Who knows? We may perhaps come to know each other better.”*

Petra Mundik in her study of Gnosticism and Cormac McCarthy “A Bloody and Barbarous God” mentions the the work of Hans Jonas in connection with the notion of the shadow as being a “mythic idea of the substantiality of an image, reflection, or shadow as representing a real part of the original entity from which it has become detached”.**2 Then she goes on to say:

“The Gnostics believed that a fragment of the divine—essentially, the spirit or pneuma within all living things—had become trapped in the mire of created matter, simply through this act of reflection, or mirroring of the light in the darkness.”

In this sense for Sadegh Hedayat the shadow on the wall is more real that he is himself, as if the man were a mere inverted image of the shadow’s pneumatic splendor; and, that the shadow was truly that fragment of the divine with which he seeks once again to connect with in hopes of gaining a better “knowledge of myself”. The clincher here is the notion of knowledge: is it a gnostic knowing rather than a conceptual knowledge he seeks? In fact the notion of The Blind Owl as Gnostic literature, as an heretical text is shown forth in the next passage when he speaks of other humans surrounding him in the world as deceivers seeking to trap him in the shadow-lands of a false reality:

“Do not the rest of mankind who look like me, who appear to have the same needs and the same passions as I, exist only in order to cheat me? Are they not a mere handful of shadows which have come into existence only that they may mock and cheat me? Is not everything that I feel, see and think something entirely imaginary, something utterly different from reality?”

This notion that world and its inhabitants is both unreal and imaginary, that is is a den of deceptions and shadows, a place within which humans are self-deceived and imprisoned by false images is at the core of both Gnostic and Buddhist thought. As Mundik puts it:

“Though Judge Holden’s discourse on the hallucinatory nature of the world is, in itself, a nihilistic denial of reality, his words point to a more authentic state of being beyond the absurdities and delusions of manifest existence. Dreams and hallucinations only lack reality in comparison to the full consciousness with experience in waking life. In other words, there would be no point in talking about the unreality of dreams if there were no waking life; dreams, in that case, would be our only reality. By this same logic, it makes no sense to talk about the unreality of manifest existence unless we are prepared to admit the existence of a higher level of reality. The Buddhists teach that the “world is like a dream” because “just as one perceives the lack of objectivity in the dream pictures after one has woken up, so the lack of objectivity in the perceptions of waking life is perceived by those who have been awakened by the knowledge of true reality”. For the Gnostics and Buddhist—and indeed for all traditions that adhere to the Perennial Philosophy—“the crown of all…endeavour” is “an attempt to penetrate to the actual reality of things as they are in themselves”. As McCarthy himself puts it: “the mystical experience is a direct apprehension of reality”. This ultimate Reality “is defined as that which stands completely outside the sensory world of illusions and ignorance”.”

It’s in this sense that Hedayat’s disease is also part of his cure, his suffering is that of awakening from the dream of the world, realizing that he is cut off in a dark and terrible realm of fear and delusion; and, for him the only source of solace is to regain the truth, the knowing which will come only by making himself known to his shadow, his pneuma – the divine spark within him as manifested as the shadow outside him:

“I am writing only for my shadow, which is now stretched across the wall in the light of the lamp. I must make myself known to him.”

The notion of the “light of the lamp” in regards to the shadow is also telling, as the Gnostic text On Origin of the World, (Nag Hammadi Codex II, 5) puts it: “Just as many lamps are kindled from a single lamp and the light shines but the lamp is not diminished…”. Is the lamp behind him; or, from him? Is this the lamp of intellect or gnostic knowing? Allegory or irony? And the notion of making himself “known to him”: is this the notion in reverse of the Call from the alien god that awakens the sleeper; or, the call from spark within to the sleeping pneuma as represented by the shadow without? Gnosticism was always personal and experiential so that any linguistic or literary portrayal is always and forever a shadow of a shadow, a darkened reflection of an inner-experience that can never truly be spoke, but is always registered in the silence surrounding both text and experience. As Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh in his study of silence suggests of Sadegh Hedayat:

He is neither the novelist of perfect individuality, for his shadow matters more than himself, a dark emblem of a mind moving towards fractal exteriority, nor a storyteller concerned with conveying messages to the expectant crowd, for his textual labyrinths remain incommunicable. Instead, he is a ringleader who must sell a work of rapidity and ephemeral manifestation. For even when it is allowed its transient ascent toward what might be called a plot, such a book remains a lesson in vast estrangement; it tips its encryptions into the light only so slightly, as a baiting- scheme through which all readers are filed away into heteroglossia, bewilderment, and silence. (p. 77).3

That sense of “shadow matters more than himself” rather than some exterior movement of fractal immiseration seems to me more of a sense that the gnostic pneuma, the divine spark matters more than the mirror world of the body’s existence in this dimension of entrapment and alienation.

(Still need further investigation into this Gnostic/Sufi influence… much work to be done!)

* “My one fear is that tomorrow I may die without having come to know myself. In the course of my life I have discovered that a fearful abyss lies between me and other people and have realised that my best course is to remain silent and keep my thoughts to myself for as long as I can. If I have now made up my mind to write it is only in order to reveal myself to my shadow, that shadow which at this moment is stretched across the wall in the attitude of one devouring with insatiable appetite each word I write. It is for his sake that I wish to make the attempt. Who knows? We may perhaps come to know each other better. Ever since I broke the last ties which held me to the rest of mankind my one desire has been to attain a better knowledge of myself.”

**“After establishing that creation was evil, the Gnostics asked another question: “Who is to blame?” The answer they gave was that “the created order cannot be the product of the transcendent God[head] but must have been created by a lower divine being”. In most Gnostic myths, the demiurge, with the assistance of a host of evil angels knows as archons, created the cosmos after seeing a reflected image of the divine light of the true Godhead. Hans Jonas writes that “it is with the help of the projected image of the divine form that the lower forces make the world or man, i.e., as an imitation of the divine original”. Jonas explains that this concept arises out of the “mythic idea of the substantiality of an image, reflection, or shadow as representing a real part of the original entity from which it has become detached”. Hence, the Gnostics believed that a fragment of the divine—essentially, the spirit or pneuma within all living things—had become trapped in the mire of created matter, simply through this act of reflection, or mirroring of the light in the darkness.”

  1. Sadegh Hedayat. The Blind Owl (Kindle Locations 184-189). Grove/Atlantic, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
  2. Mundik, Petra. A Bloody and Barbarous God: The Metaphysics of Cormac McCarthy. University of New Mexico Press (May 15, 2016)
  3. Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh. Silence in Middle Eastern and Western Thought: The Radical Unspoken (Intersections: Colonial and Postcolonial. Routledge; 1 edition (November 26, 2013)

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