When I was young and times were tough, I would find solace in the poetry of the Rubaiyat, no doubt imagining my future in terms of Omar Khayyam’s refined hedonism: “a book of verse, a flask of wine – and thou beside me singing in the wilderness…”
Now I look back to many years of work and family – taking children to soccer games, clarinet lessons, school plays – but I can recall not a single instance of singing in the wilderness. To my amazement, it turned out my life wasn’t primarily about my own thoughts and feelings. To my greater amazement, it’s a good life. Throw in the occasional flask of wine, and it’s much better than I deserve.
Yet I still read the Rubaiyat for consolation in turbulent times, and I would like to explain why.
There is, I think, a secret hedonist inside most of us. Even a desert hermit dreams of tearing at the rules of decency and decorum – rules which seem so arbitrary, so hypocritical when we account for human nature. For this reason, we are repelled by sanctimonious rogues, but often, against our will, are charmed by honest ones: Don Juan shouting defiance while being dragged down the mouth of hell.
There’s also a terrible sadness attached to hedonism. A man who lives strictly for physical pleasure has, in a sense, already died: a moral suicide. The contrast between the outer liveliness and the inner corpse exerts a powerful hold on the imagination.
I don’t know a more honest rogue in history than old Omar. He was a brilliant astronomer and mathematician, but his hedonism was rooted in intellectual humility: he was confused by the world – “this battered Caravanserai” – and he was smart enough to doubt all the standard explanations.
The rose came in beauty, he observed, then withered on the vine. Love was exciting, but ended in dull dust. Sultan after sultan held power, awed the world with mighty deeds, then dropped into his grave and was forgotten.
How to make sense of the brevity and insignificance of human life? Omar informs us that he tried and failed:
Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and saint, and heard great argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same door as in I went.
I always experience a feeling of serenity from these lines. Omar the hedonist, mathematician of genius, confesses with a smile that the world can’t be explained by mathematical formulas. The most towering human intellects are profoundly ignorant. The vital questions – about my importance, my place in the scheme of the world – are precisely those no one can answer.
Such humility is liberating. Not only are joy and love and beauty transient things: so are uneasiness and pain. They will take hold of me only for a little time, after which I will be gone. Many of the anxieties which trouble my mind are “about it and about” – that is, caused by some notion, internal to me, that I must know solutions, I must fix problems. Omar laughs at my pretension. I don’t know. I can’t fix. That’s truth.
Health, wealth, the future of my children: substance of my worries. Under the hedonist’s long gaze, these anxieties seem comical. I may be dust in a month, but I’m worried about my bank account? I’m blind to what will happen in the next minute, but I’m anxious about some setback to my children’s future?
Terrified by the inexplicable brevity of human life, the hedonist surrenders to pleasure in the moment. Here I part with Omar, because I’ve never seen the logic in that. Scarcity makes life precious, not pointless.
The long view doesn’t negate duty or pleasure, only predictability. Imposing a theme on my actions which takes me outside my skin to family and community is the harshest struggle and the highest calling. But I undertake the attempt, like old Omar, from a position of radical uncertainty: about the past and the future, about cause and effect, about myself in the world.
I think the sorrow drenching the Rubaiyat is as close to absolute as the human heart can bear. The beauty of the poem derives from its utter hopelessness, which casts the shadow of desperation on the call, repeated in almost every stanza, to wine-drinking and love-making. The hedonist aims to obliterate the world before Time, the great enemy, does so.
The Moving Finger writes, and having writ
Moves on: not all thy piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.
Omar Khayyam sought refuge in predestination, which in his mind became confused with resignation. Trapped between daily regret and cosmic despair, he imagined an escape by abdicating to destiny. Omar was brilliant but weak, and the weak are ever pleading, “How could things be other than they are? How could I have done differently?”
But the power of this stanza for me is the opposite of what its author intended: if the Moving Finger writes and moves on, then every moment of our lives becomes large with importance. If I, a humble player on the world’s stage, get a single chance to speak my lines before being shuffled off to the wings, then let me say the right words in the right way.
I have always been aware of the irrevocability of my actions. The friend with whom I quarreled in college is forever lost. The words I forgot to say to my dead father are forever unsaid. Pleasure and pain can be recalled, but never called back.
This isn’t a call to resignation, but to right action. Humility and uncertainty forbid resignation: I don’t know enough to assert that things can never be other than they are. Since I do know right and wrong – they were given by the community – the choice ahead is clear. I can throw out excuses like the wounded Omar, surrender to an absolving fate, and become a moral corpse.
Or I can experience every moment to the highest levels of intensity, and behave in that moment like a good man, that I may not wish forever after to call the moment back in shame and regret.
In other words, I can become ever more of a nullity or ever more human.
My interpretation would not have healed the broken heart of Omar Khayyam. If most of us conceal a secret hedonist, it’s equally true that every hedonist hides a disappointed zealot, for whom only cosmic explanations will do. That probably served the poet well in his search for inspiration.
For the rest of us who live in a prosaic world of family, what’s needed isn’t theorems or explanations but direction: and in this battered Caravanserai, given direction, I will write my stanzas in the lives of my children and the love of my wife and the everyday achievements of my friends and neighbors.
And, to be sure, in the occasional flask of Montepulciano Nobile.