A Mirror for Princes[ses]

Friendship, Relationships, Social Skills, and Self Awareness

Category: Book Review

Use Bird Stories to Find Yourself: A Book Review

The Conference of the Birds is a Sufi allegorical story written by Attar about multiple birds quest to find God.

Each bird represents a certain type of person with certain virtues or vices. The birds are greedy, lazy, fearful, arrogant, and so on.

Attar’s poem is a mirror which we can use to see parts of ourselves and others.

Attar’s hope was that his birds quest could serve as a mirror we can use to become more self aware. Here is Attar’s verse at the poems conclusion:  

I, with my words,

Have shown to sleeping men their souls as birds.

And if these words can prompt one heart to wake

From lifelong stupor for their mystery’s sake,

I’ll know, I’ll have no doubt, that all my pain

And grief are over, and were not in vain-

I will have been a lamp, a candle’s light

That burns itself, and makes the whole world bright.1

Attar’s poem is a mirror for cultivating self awareness.

Attar’s poem begins with the birds electing the Hoopoe as their guide. As soon as the journey begins so do the birds excuses, doubts, and questions. The Hoopoe answers each bird with 3-4 allegorical stories. This pattern of question and multiple stories as an answer repeats and makes up most of the Conference of the Birds

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A Hoopoee.

For example, one bird fears death. So the Hoopoe tells a story about Socrates:

When Socrates lay close to death, a youth-

Who was his student in the search for Truth-

Said: ‘Master, when we’ve washed the man we knew

And brought your shroud, where should we bury you?’

He said: ‘If you can find me when I’ve died,

Then bury me wherever you decide.-

I’ve never found myself; I cannot see

How when I’m dead you could discover me.

Throughout my life not one small particle

Had any knowledge of itself at all!’2

Sounds like the ever whimsical Socrates to me.

Attar mimics and, I think, surpasses Plato’s story about this same moment: 

[Crito said] ‘how shall we bury you?’ ‘In any way you like,’ said Socrates, ‘if you can catch me and I do not escape you.’ And laughing quietly, looking at us, he said: ‘I do not convince Crito that I am this Socrates talking to you here and ordering all I say, but he thinks that I am the thing which he will soon be looking at as a corpse, and so he asks how he shall bury me.’3

Platonic echo aside, Attar’s Conference of Bird’s also resembles Dante’s Inferno; both stories are framed as journeys to God which explore human virtues and vices for listener and or readers benefit.

Like Dante, Attar had a soft spot for the virtuous of other religious traditions. As we’ve seen for example, noble non-Muslims such as Socrates are approved of by Attar.

But despite this soft spot for specific virtuous Greek philosophers, such as as Socrates, Attar condemns Greek philosophy in general:

How will you know the truths religion speaks

While your’re philosophizing with the Greeks?

How can you be a man of faith while you’re still wrapped in their philosophic lore?

If someone traveling on love’s Way should say

‘Philosophy’, he doesn’t know loves way; […]

Philosophy, though, snares you with its ‘why’s

And ‘how’s, and it mostly ensnares the wise. […]

Medina’s wisdom is enough, my friend,

Throw dirt on Greece, and all that Greece might send.4

Attar sees that love is the true path to wisdom and God, and that Greek philosophy leads us away from love.

I have to disagree with Attar.

Generally, Greek philosophers saw love and the proper practice of it as the key to self awareness and self improvement. Take Plato for example, he thought that the sight of beauty quickens love which through the use of reason leads to the truthPhilosophy, is after all, a love of wisdom.

Generally speaking, proper reason mirrors proper love in the Greek philosophical tradition; one cannot reason well without love or love well without reason; reason and love act in harmony when either is done well.

But Attar, unlike his Greek predecessors, sees reason as always in opposition to love. As he puts it so eloquently:

My book’s all madness, Reason won’t appear

Within it’s pages, she’s a stranger here,

And till the soul breathes in this madness she

Remains a stranger to eternity.5

I’ve spent too much time philosophizing with the Greeks to be able to agree with Attar’s complete rejection of reason.

But, thankfully, we don’t need to agree with Attar entirely to see how we can use his poem as a mirror to ritually channel our awareness for the sake of self improvement.

We simply need to be very clear about why Attar distrusts reason…

What’s the reason Attar distrusts ‘reason’?

I think we all can benefit from taking Attar seriously here, especially if you’re the kind of person attached to seeing themselves as ‘logical’ or ‘rational’ rather than ’emotional.’

It would be easy, boring and lazy to dismiss Attar’s distrust of reason as complete nonsense. More to the point, such a lazy dismissal would make it much harder to enjoy or benefit from Attar’s Conference of Bird’s.

Whether or not we agree with Attar’s reasons for distrusting reason we need to understand them to understand him, or give a real reason why he might be wrong.

Here’s what I think Attar is up to…

Now, I’m certain you’ve noticed at some point in your life that you can rarely -if ever- convince people to believe something based on pure logic, reason, or empirical claims.

That’s because a more reliable way -perhaps the only reliable way- to change someone’s mind is telling them stories that appeal indirectly to them.

This is of course, exactly what Attar does.

Attar’s poem is a bunch of stories, not a bunch of systematic ‘reasons.’

Still, there is a recurring pattern behind most of Attar’s enjoyable stories, one which amounts to a kind of reasoned argument when we examine his poem as a whole.

In Attar’s stories, usually a lover falls in love with someone they are perceived as being unworthy to love: a beggar for a prince, an ascetic for a princess, a Sufi for God, etc,

Generally, the pattern in Attar’s poem is that a social inferior falls in love with a social superior. This love is usually seen as scandalous, and as a rule of thumb the lovers love for the beloved is questioned and challenged by society. 

Most of Attar’s stories end badly for the social inferior. Often in death.

But this ‘death’ is shown as a metaphor for our egos death and changes in our self understanding. Death is seen as only a kind of change, and change as a kind of death.

This is why Attar’s and Plato’s Socrates laughs when his followers desire to bury ‘him.’ ‘Socrates’ won’t be around after death. Nor will ‘Socrates’ experience his own death. In other words, death is not an event ‘we’ experience in life.

Socrates_Louvre

Good ol Socrates.

There’s some wisdom in distrusting reason in favor of intuitive love.

For it is only when we let go of who we think we are -and what we are attached to thinking we look like to others- that we can become more aware of who we truly are, which is the first step in any process of self improvement.

The problem with Attar, as I see it, is that I doubt he would be satisfied with this conclusion, he would want more of us than ‘just’ cultivating our self awareness for the sake of self and societal improvement.

Attar would want us to go even further, to dissolve our Self and loyalty to others into a mystic rapture of ‘oneness’ with the world; by submitting to a true and un-reasoned intuitive and spontaneous love for God, the universe, and everyone in it.

Here’s why I think Attar would want us to go one step farther:

Certain of the beliefs central to Sufism seem to engage Attar’s imagination more than others.

Two themes in particular are diffused throughout the whole poem -the necessity for destroying the Self, and the importance of passionate love.

Both are mentioned in every conceivable context and not only at the ‘appropriate’ moments in the narrative.

The two [themes] are connected: the Self is seen as an entity dependent on pride and reputation, there can be no progress until the pilgrim is indifferent to both, and the surest way of making him indifferent is the experience of overwhelming love.6

Attar’s stories show again, and again, and again, that through the right kind of love we over come our selfish vanity and find the nature of god, the universe, and ourselves as more interrelated than we imagined.

Attar wishes us to see that we are the universe witnessing itself -that we are all ‘god’- and that the right kind of love is indiscriminate, universal, and impartial to all ‘differences.’ After all, if ‘we’ are ‘everything’ and all ‘god’ then preferring to love some people or things more than others is downright foolish, because all we are doing is rejecting ‘ourselves.’

This is why the Conference of the Birds ends the way it does.

At the very end of the story, the birds that persevered throughout the poem and heard all of the Hoopoes stories find themselves looking into a pond. Within it, they see God within themselves reflected, the very thing they started their journey in search of.

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Attar’s prologue succinctly states what we are to take away from that scene and the Conference of the Birds as a whole:

The things you seek and know are you, and so

It’s you a hundred ways, you’re forced to know.7

I think this is the reason why Attar distrusts reason in general.

Reasoning with others always creates conceptual differences between things, otherwise we can’t speak of one thing being different than another. And if we are the universe witnessing itself, then ‘reason,’ as well as language, merely creates false categories and abstractions, enslaving us to concepts, blinding us to how interconnected everything and everyone is.

While I think this is all a fine metaphor we benefit from learning, I don’t think it’s literally true and I also think this metaphor creates just as many problems as it solves.

Let me first explain where I think Attar is right, and helpful to us all, before I move on to places where he creates problems for us if we value social relationships, friendship, or family.

We can all agree that I am not the same person I was when I was 10.

The only reason I think of there being a continuity between 10 year old me and present day me is because I automatically use the concept of the Self

As I imagine Attar might wisely say: I am a fool if I out of loyalty to 10 year old me, I refuse to try a new activity because I want to be ‘true to myself.’

For example, 10 year old me thought that skateboarding was something dumb punks did because 10 year old me recited the opinions of his Catholic grandma. Spongebob Squarepants was also suspect, for her, and thus for me, just in case you were wondering.

pexels-photo-87220.jpeg

The early 2000s Kids Tv Show Rocket Power was also suspect in my childhood. Why? It glorified the great satan of skateboarding.

Anyway, years later, I only realized how silly my suspicion of Spongebob and skateboarding was as friends of mine told me stories about their love of Spongebob and skateboarding.

These friends opened up new (and truer) ways of seeing the world for me.

My reasons to distrust Spongebob and skateboarding were ridiculous, but if someone had tried to reason or argue me out of them, I likely wouldn’t have listened. My ‘reasons’ came from a foolish, if understandable, loyalty to the opinions of a loved one.

Attar is, like a good friend, excellent at telling us stories which help us get rid of silly ideas we get from ourselves and others about who we really are, can be, and whether Spongebob is corrupting the youth.

Sometimes ‘reason’ is just a convenient and socially respected cudgel we -or society- use on ourselves and others as a means of creating a conformity as meaningless as it is misguided or damaging. This is Attar’s concern, and why he can help us.

Attar is great at helping us see and imagine who we really are, and could become, because his stories constantly remind us how fluid who we are really is.

So that’s what sound about Attar’s distrust of reason, and why he’s especially worth a read, but here’s the rub.

Attar doesn’t distrust reason in specific cases; he doubts reason is ever useful. Because if we are the universe witnessing itself, reason can only ever divide and blind us into partial, foolish, and selfish love.

From Attar’s way of seeing things, my 10 year old preferential beliefs about skateboarding and Spongebob are as delusional as my preferential love for close friends and family.

After all, where do we usually get get our reasons from, and who do we usually address them to? While we can marginally reason on our own, we primarily do so because of, with, and for others we have social relationships with.

Reason is primarily a social tool, like storytelling, that we use to renew, repair, and reform our social relationships and society.

This is why Attar’s categorical distrust of reason leads to a categorical distrust all social relationships.

From Attar’s way of seeing things, both reason and social relationships imprison us into a partial, limited, and distinct sense of self apart from the universe as a whole -think of my reliance on my beloved Grandma’s reasoning about skateboarding and spongebob.

If you’re like me, you probably don’t find this side of Attar helpful, and want to pinpoint where he went wrong, especially because he’s so helpful at freeing us from foolishly hating things, such as Spongebob.

Plato can help us answer Attar.

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Plato

Plato’s answer is one Attar might not agree with, but Plato’s answer will let us read, enjoy, and make sense of Attar whether or not we fully agree with Attar’s categorical distrust of reason.8

Plato has Socrates argue that a categorical distrust of reason is as foolish, misguided, and silly as hating all humanity.

SOCRATES: We must not become haters of reason as people become haters of humanity. There is no greater evil one can suffer than to hate reasonable discourse. A hatred of reason and a hatred of humanity arise in the same way.

A hatred of humanity comes when someone without knowledge or skill has placed great trust in someone else and believes him to be altogether truthful, sound and trustworthy.

Then a short time afterwards, they find him to be wicked and unreliable. Then this happens in another case. When this happens enough, especially with those you believed to be close friends, then in the end, after many such blows, people come to hate all humanity and to believe that no one is sound in any way at all.

Such a hatred of humanity comes most easily to those that have little experience and skill in social relationships. For great experience would lead one to believe -what is in fact true- that the very good and the very wicked are both quite rare, and that most people are between these two extremes.9

A complete distrust of reason, verging on hatred, arises when we have frequently been let down by arguments. But this does not mean we should give up on our ability to talk clearly, truthfully, and honestly to each other.

If we find ourselves constantly let down by others, or arguments, this means we have something to learn, not that we should give up on our ability to learn.

Plato compared the hatred of reason to the hatred of humanity for a very good reason.

For Plato, and much of the rest of Greek philosophy, reason was something you did by speaking with others, it was a social act, not a private mental one. Thus, to give up on reason did not mean giving up on your own ability to think or speak, but giving up on our collective ability to clearly discuss things, learn, and have plans and relationships with each other.

Reason and love, on this view, are mean’t to harmonize with each other, however exactly that harmony works out…10

I think, with Plato, that we should not hate everyone else, or all reason, but take courage, and eagerly question and wonder -in the company of trusted friends and storytellers- what led us to mistaken love or reason in the first place.  

Still, whether we prefer to see love and reason like Plato or Attar, we can benefit from the Conference of the Birds by using it’s stories as a mirror for cultivating self awareness. His poem, is like a journal, a way of regularly ritually reviewing the direction of our life.

Attar’s stories are enjoyable and useful with or without us fully agreeing with his views on love, reason, or God.

Just please don’t give up on reason or humanity because of a few bad apples.

3/5 Stars: The Conference of the Birds by Farid al-Din Attar, Translated by Dick Davis and Afkham Darbandi

Postscript:

Thanks for reading.

Please comment, criticize, or ask questions below…

Finally, this is when I invite you to subscribe to this blog by clicking here. Only fabulous footnotes exist after this point! The footnotes now follow…

Stephen King On Writing and Geniuses: A Book Review

On Writing mixes the memoirs of Stephen King with his thoughts on best writing practices. He shares his personal writing code, rather than the 10 commandments of writing. This book is for you if you enjoy his second foreword to On Writing:

“This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do- not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less of the bullshit.

One notable exception to the bullshit rule is The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr and E.B. White.

There is little or no detectable bullshit in that book. (Of course, it’s short; at eighty five pages it’s much shorter than this one.) I’ll tell you right now that every aspiring writer should read The Elements of Style. Rule 17 in the chapter titled “Principles of Composition” is “Omit Needless Words.” I will try to do that here.11

With respect to Strunk and White, I tend to prefer the King.

Strunk and White are not present in their Elements of Style. They present sound abstract rules rather than themselves. But you can’t separate King from the rules of On Writing.

When I see the writer and the life behind the words; their suggested rules feel more like a friend’s gentle criticism than a textbook’s stern admonition. On Writing is not a general text book on how to write, it is a memoir from King on he how writes.

King argues that bad writing is often the result of fear rather than inexperience. 

King thinks that fear scares writers out of bold and simple sentences. Fear causes writers to abuse equivocations, adverbs, and the passive voice while dancing around their subjects and verbs with needless words. 

If good writing is like seduction, as King says, then bad writing is like pick up lines delivered in place of honest conversation.

King’s seductive advice is practical, humble, and direct; learn by reading:

Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.12

Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing -of being flattened in fact- is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you. 13

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.14

In general, I found the rest of King’s writing advice sound with one notable exception; on page one King says that there are certain fixed tiers of writers. In King’s taxonomy there are; bad writers, competent writers, good writers and great writers.

A bad writer will always be bad, and competent writer may become good with supreme diligence, but no good writer ever becomes great.

King’s On Writing is pitched at competent and good writers, not the bad or great, because King sees that neither the bad nor great can learn to write properly speaking; their writing skills are fixed, innate, and immutable. I have two questions for King. One, why are bad writers always bad? And second, why can no one become great?

In On Writing, I couldn’t find any place where King answers my first question, he just takes the existence of immutably bad writers for granted. But, thankfully, he does see the need to at least try to explain why he sees that some are immutably great

No one can become great because, great writers, Shakespeare is an example, are:

geniuses, divine accidents, gifted in a way which is beyond our ability to understand, let alone attain. Shit, most geniuses aren’t able to understand themselves, and many of them lead miserable lives, realizing (at least on some level) that they are nothing but fortunate freaks, the intellectual version of runway models who just happen to be born with the right cheekbones and with breasts which fit the image of an age.15

Either I don’t understand King, or he is being incoherent. In this preceding quote I see two overlapping but incompatible ideas about what makes a writer great. Look closely at this quote and you’ll see it yourself.

Both ideas say that great writers can’t be taught; they are magical geniuses, but they diverge on what exactly the nature of creative genius is. For the sake of clarity, here are the two ideas spelled out explicitly:

Idea 1. Geniuses are naturally gifted and skilled people. They are ‘beyond our ability to understand’ or ‘attain.’ 

Idea 2. Geniuses are lucky people. They are ‘fortunate freaks’ who fit ‘the image of an age.’  

Since King mentions Shakespeare as a great genius, lets see how his career was received to test these two ideas and see which one is closer to the truth.

Shakespeare

Just look at those cheekbones.

King isn’t the only one to see Shakespeare as an obvious example of genius, many people do. Which is why it’s interesting to know that Shakespeare wasn’t universally recognized and immortalized as a great genius in his own era, or for quite some time afterwards.16

Idea 1 is in hot water, Shakespeare was more like a ‘fortunate freak’ than someone ‘beyond our ability to understand.’ Shakespeare’s example strongly suggests that we make up who the ‘geniuses’ are by collective consensus, whether or not they do have actual skill. So, Idea 2 (luck) is looking like a better explanation for what makes a ‘genius’ than innate, immutable, and obvious talent. 

Skill, practice, and a much larger serving of luck is all you need to explain the successful career of any writer, including the great Shakespeare.

Any writer can improve their craft, however flawed they start, given enough dedicated time, practice, and feedback.

Now it may, of course, be a waste of time for some to write if there are other things they do with more skill, ease, and pleasure. Which, is maybe Kings larger point when he refers to the the immutably bad writer?

In any case, King’s ideas about genius and bad writers were the only major problems I had with On Writing. This problem sticks out, because King’s idea of what kinds of writers can (or can’t) improve is how he opens the first few pages of On Writing.  But, I don’t fault King too much for these questionable ideas because King is always at pains to remind the reader that he’s not certain his way of writing or seeing how to write is “the right way.” 

King is just sharing what’s worked for him and, if it doesn’t work for us, he’d probably remind us he warned us in the foreword that his writing advice may be all bullshit. And while his ideas about genius and bad writers may be, the rest of the book isn’t. 

It is King’s gentle but persistent and respectful tone, his willingness to share his life and his flaws, combined with his idea that good writing is a kind of seductive telepathy that endeared me to his writing advice.

5/5 Stars: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: by Stephen King

Postscript:

Thanks for reading.

Please comment, criticize, or ask questions below…

I learn best when others ask me questions, so please, ask questions if you’d like. I’ll take the time to (eventually) answer.

Finally, this is where I invite you to subscribe to this blog by clicking here. Only footnotes exist after this point!

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