Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Love and Devotion

Another thing we did in Melbourne was to visit an exhibition at the Victoria State library, which was free of charge.  I am probably not going to do it justice because I have to admit a lot of it was over my head.  I did my best to plow through the vast number of displays; there were many things to read and beautiful detailed drawings to admire.  The subject was Persian poetry, which traditionally was accompanied by amazing illustrations.   Much of the exhibit was on loan from the Bodleian Library of Oxford University.

I'm not very familiar with Persian culture and so it was a bit difficult to take in.  I did sit down and make notes after we left, and here's what I took away, for what it's worth.

We were introduced to a Persian poet named Hafez, who wrote in the 14th Century.  His writing is still commonly found in libraries and in homes in India, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.  He wrote about the feats of Iskander, whom the Western world calls Alexander the Great.   He influenced Western writers including Shelley, Byron, Thoreau and Emerson. 

Gog and Magog in the Royal Arcade

Another piece was about Gog and Magog.  I'd vaguely heard these names.  They are mentioned in the Bible, though apparently it is unclear whether these names refer to people or to places in Christian, Jewish and Muslim writings.  Somehow mythology has decided these are names of giants and it is in this way the names are used in Britain.  As giants they are depicted in Melbourne's Royal Arcade, an incredibly beautiful shopping mall. 

I'm guessing this is Magog, but I didn't know north or south
when standing beneath, so I could be wrong.  He is however
the one who bangs the heck out of the bell when the clock
strikes the hour.

The writing underneath the giants says:

These two 7-feet giants have been striking the time on Gaunt's clock since 1892.  They were carved from clear pine and modelled on the figures erected in Guildhall, London, in 1708 to symbolise the conflict between the ancient Britons and the Trojan invaders.  Mythology tells of the giants Gog and Magog (also known as Corineus and Gogmagog) having been captured in battle by the Trojans and made to serve as porters at the gateway of an ancient palace on a site later occupied by the Guildhall.  It is traditional for Gog to stand to the north and Magog to the south.
I scribbled down the name of Darius.  Turns out he was king of an Middle Eastern empire in 550 BC - or I guess one is supposed to say CE or BCE these days.   I need to work on my imaginative powers to even think about what his life might have been like in that place, that time and in his position. 

"Rose and Nightingale" also appears in my notes.  I recall a slide show quoting a story that was quite captivating, but I don't find any reference to it on Google.  Oscar Wilde wrote a story with this name.  Nightingales and their affection for roses is a common theme in Persian poetry.  In fact, the city of Shiraz, where Hafez was born and lived, is known as the city of roses and nightingales.

Who hasn't heard of 1,001 Arabian Nights?  Compiled of writings from the Islamic Golden Age (750 - 1257 BCE - I wonder what happened in 1257/8?), the first English edition was published in 1706 and gave us wonderful stories about Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sinbad.  

I was really pleased to find a display about my old friends Omar Khayyam and Edward FitzGerald.  In this display I learned that the original Rubaiyat, said to have been bound in gold and set with precious gems, was lost on the Titanic. 

I learned the term 'orientalist' and read about several men who left their homes in Europe and lived for years - usually decades - in the Middle and Far East, learning foreign languages, culture, geography, only to have to return to home to share their knowledge.  I didn't retain any specific names, but I was awed by the courage they must have had to have immersed themselves in such a different world.  I took away the feeling that they came to love their eastern homes as much or more than their country of birth.  However, I gather that the term 'orientalist' is felt by some to describe a 'prejudiced outsider interpretations of the East' influenced by 'imperialist attitudes.'   Oh well...

This display about early orientalists was in the midst of some lovely old maps, owned by the Victoria library, including charts drawn up by Abel Tasman (as in Tasmania) and James Cook.   Somewhere in this display I read that the 'Myth of the Flat Earth Theory' was supported by scientists of the "modern period" - around the turn of the last century - in order to make their own discoveries seem more impressive.   It's a bit confusing, but apparently scientists and travellers have understood that Earth was spherical since several hundred years BCE (I seem to have lots of use for that term today!).  The idea that in the days of Columbus people believed that the Earth was flat is simply not true.

As far as my impression about the Persian idea of love goes, I wasn't that impressed.  I took away a story about a woman servant, supposedly the beloved of her master, who when she displeased him got dumped off the back of and trampled by his camel and left to die in the desert.  Another story portrayed a quite aggressive woman, one who sought out a young man in his bed chamber and demanded that the man father a child.  The man of course was pure of heart and all that.  I didn't see these these stories as having much to do with love or devotion.

In writing this and trying to find the the story about the camel I found instead this amazing lecture by Susan Scollay about this upcoming exhibit in the library.  It's quite an academic presentation and one doesn't see as many of the illustrations as might have been hoped, but her talk is well worth sitting through as it gives a wonderful over view of the background for the exhibit, some insight into another world and time and a chance to hear some of the classic stories with references to Shakespeare, Mark Twain and Eric Clapton.   In some way, listening to her talk I perceived the world as a little cozier and more comprehensible.

I clearly didn't get the whole story that was there in the exhibit.   Then again, I didn't see any mention of Twain or Clapton on the day either...


Anonymous said...

I have heard of Hafez and thought that he had some influence on Rumi. Did the exhibit discuss Rumi?

It sounds to me like you learned quite a lot from this exhibit.

Anonymous said...

THAT was a lot of information. I love learning of other cultures and I am amazed by how much I do not know. Thank you for sharing your notes!

BigLittleWolf said...

The world is such a huge place. So much to discover.

What an amazing trip you two must have had.

Shelley said...

Terri - I believe it did mention Rumi, but I didn't jot down the name. The video definitely talks about Rumi - so named because he came from Rome? I did learn a lot, but probably only because I knew so little when I went in.

Bliss - I seem to get dumber the older I get, I don't mean senior moments. Having emptied all the space in my brain that work used to fill, I'm realising how miuch about the world I don't know, and probably never will. Still, finding out some of it is very entertaining!

BLW - I agree and yes, we did.