March 2019

I just finished Rūmī: Poet and Mystic, an anthology translated by Reynold Nicholson. And by finished I mean struggled through. I love Khayyam, and I appreciated Attar, but Rumi is a slog.

Which may be surprising, because Rumi is booming right now. Checking Amazon right now, he’s got the #30 bestseller spot under “Poetry”, and takes 4 of the 50 top slots under “Ancient, Classical, and Medieval Poetry”, including #3. That’s pretty impressive for a Persian dude who died in 1273, and for a Sufi Muslim.

At least I can say after reading Rumi how un-Sufi Khayyam is. The contrast is evident when Rumi uses one of the same subjects, wine:

He comes, a Moon whose like the sky ne’er saw, awake or dreaming,
Crowned with eternal flame no flood can lay.
Lo, from the flagon of Thy love, O Lord, my soul is swimming,
And ruined all my body’s house of clay.

When first the Giver of the grape my lonely heart befriended,
Wine fired my bosom and my veins filled up,
But when His Image all my eye possessed, a voice descended:
“Well done, O Sovereign Wine and peerless Cup!”

This is obviously about God– there’s no worry that the poet is secretly tippling; he’s just using a quick metaphor of wine overflowing a cup. It’s a million miles away from

And much as Wine has play’d the Infidel,
And robb’d me of my Robe of Honour— well,
I wonder often what the Vintners buy
One half as precious as the stuff they sell.

It may not be mysterious that people who like devotional poetry like Rumi. It’s not hard to see that his message is all about a loving though imperious God, about the devotion expected of his disciples, about God’s omnipotence and even his own craving for communion with humanity. It could equally appeal to a Muslim, a Christian, or a bhakta of Shiva or Vishnu. However, it’s not likely to appeal to someone who just doesn’t believe that a god like that exists, or that devotion to one is lovely and moving.

And to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with devotional poetry. And it would be odd to complain that there’s not much here besides the devotion: why would we expect there to be? It would be like complaining that fantasy contains a lot of fantastical elements. But, well, in other poets sometimes there is more. Attar is more readable, if nothing else because he’s also telling a story, and because his paradoxes (like the Sufi saint who falls in love with a Christian) are striking. Sometimes devotional works have other things with wider appeal, such as a fervor for social justice, or a celebration of human love, or just really groovy language.

Nicholson’s edition, at least, makes it very clear that Rumi was firmly rooted in both Sufism and Islam. Sufis are the mystics of Islam, and big on love and devotion and God’s immanence. Sometime this looks like pantheism: some Sufis said “I am God”, but this was not a claim to be divine; it was a claim (or dream) to have so defeated the self that nothing was present in them any more but God.

But they take Muhammad’s pre-eminence for granted, and are full of quotations from the Qur’an. Rumi even makes it clear that he’s Sunni rather than Shi’a, and throws a few barbs at the Christians. And the Zoroastrians, for that matter. (He has a dialog where a pious Muslim tears up a foolish Zoroastrian; this might have been a literary trope even in his time, but the old Persian religion was undoubtedly far stronger then than it is today.)

One of the barbs, by the way, was the supposed preference of Christians for hermitage. (Islam arose when hermits were a big thing in the Christian East.) Islam is big on community; it seemed strange and wrong for supposed holy men to go off to live by themselves. Plus, Rumi says, there’s no great worth in avoiding temptation by running away from it. “Hark, do not castrate yourself, do not become a monk: chastity depends on the existence of lust.”

One poem has some interesting comments on asceticism:

The mystic ascends to the Throne in a moment; the ascetic needs a month for one day’s journey. […]
Love (maabbat) and ardent love (‘ishq) also, is an attribute of God; Fear is an attribute of the slave to lust and appetite. […]
The timorous ascetic runs on foot; the lovers of God fly more quickly than lightning.
May Divine Favour free thee from this wayfaring! None but the royal falcon hath found the way to the King.

And yet there are also justifications for the tribulation of the world: the Sufi saint accepts mortification and asceticism as the purifying fire of God.  It’s a very old paradox, found in many religions: someone comes along and breaks all the rules, emphasizes that the Path is simple and made of love, and invites even the sinful to walk it. But then that simplicity offends others, who put all the rules back (or invent a new set), because salvation should require overt virtue and work.  (For ease of exposition I talk about this as if it’s a cycle in time requiring opposite personality types, and often it is; but in any mature religion it’s possible to have both tropes coexisting in the same person.)

By the way, his name was really Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī. The epithet Rūmī simply means ‘Roman’! Or to be precise, it refers to Rūm. In the Qur’an, this means what we call the Byzantine Empire, but which till its very end called itself Rome. When the Turks conquered Anatolia, they continued to call it Rūm. Rumi lived for years in Anatolia, thus the name. (Balkhī means ‘from Balkh’, which was his home town.)

The “whirling dervishes” belong mostly to the Mevlevi order of Sufis– which was founded by Rumi’s followers, and is still led by one of his lineal descendants. The dance is a form of worship. Atatürk banned the order, but the dances are now allowed because tourists like them.

A curiosity of Rumi’s life was his intense devotion to a male companion. The first was Shamsu’l-Din of Tabriz; he so monopolized Rumi’s time that his followers chased him to Damascus, twice. Rumi sent his son to bring him back each time. He named one of his major works (“The Lyrics of Shams of Tabriz”) after him. And when Shams disappeared, he had similar relationships with other Sufi men, one of which succeeded him as head of the Mevlevi order.

These days, this is bound to arouse speculation that he was gay (or bisexual). His followers generally insist that it was a deep love but entirely non-sexual. But gay writers are quick to point out that at lot of these historical “oh they were just really close friends” judgments are rife with homophobia. So who knows?


I don’t like most poetry. I don’t know why, I lack the gene for it or something. But some stuff gets past the blocks. Chinese poetry, for one, but also the Ruba’iyyat of Omar Khayyam, the 12C Persian poet and scholar.


Wake! For the Sun, who scatter’d into flight
The Stars before him from the Field of Night,
Drives Night along with them from Heaven, and strikes
The Sultán’s Turret with a Shaft of Light.

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread— and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Some for the Glories of This World; and some
Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come;
Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant drum!

You know, my Friends, with what a brave Carouse
I made a second Marriage in my house;
Divorced old barren Reason from my Bed
And took the Daughter of the Vine to Spouse.

But helpless Pieces of the Game He plays
Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days;
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.

The Moving Finger writes, and having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

Yesterday This Day’s Madness did prepare;
To-morrow’s Silence, Triumph, or Despair:
Drink! for you know not whence you came, nor why;
Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where.

And much as Wine has play’d the Infidel,
And robb’d me of my Robe of Honour— well,
I wonder often what the Vintners buy
One half as precious as the stuff they sell.

These are all in Edward FitzGerald’s translation— the 5th edition, from 1875. The first edition in 1859 was remaindered, and sold for a penny a copy. The artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the poet Algernon Swinburne happened to buy copies, and fell in love with the poems, leading to a craze for Khayyam for a century, at least. Thus the illo above, a 1950 strip from Walt Kelly’s Pogo.

It’s easy to feel that we’ve got the number of FitzGerald’s Khayyam. They’re melancholy and yet hedonistic, fiercely appreciative of the human predicament and skeptical of all cosmological doctrines. They frequently refer to wine-drinking— forbidden to Muslims— and yet one intuits that the drunkenness is not real; these are far from the musings of an alcoholic.

Who was the real Khayyam? Perhaps a glance at one of his scholarly works is in order.

If it is said that existence is a concept that cannot be described through existence by negating the attribute, that is: not to negate either of the two sides even if it is said, “either it is an existent or a non-existent in reality.” We ask them, moreover, that both sides be negated and we say, “is existence an existent in a reality or is it non-existent in reality?” So, if the answer is positive, it becomes necessary for what is axiomatic to become impossible, and if the answer is negative, then existent is not existent in reality and this position is false.

This is less likely to be quoted in a popular comic strip.

I just finished a book which attempts to explain all sides of Khayyam: The Wine of Wisdom: The Life, Poetry and Philosophy of Omar Khayyam, by Mehdi Aminrazavi (2005). In his time, Khayyam was known as a mathematician and an astronomer.

  • He attempted to shore up Euclid’s fifth postulate, making use of Saccheri quadrilaterals, which were adopted by Western science half a millennium later.
  • He made a systematic study of cubic and quadratic equations, finding ways to solve them all, though his analysis is marred by considering only positive roots. He closely linked algebra with geometry, which was a new thing.
  • He used continued fractions to deal with rational numbers, and was one of the first to seriously consider four or more spatial dimensions.
  • He led a Seljuk commission to create a new solar calendar, the Jalāli, which is slightly more accurate than the Gregorian calendar we use. A variant of this is still used in Iran.

In philosophy, he was a follower of Avicenna, and more remotely of Aristotle. If you’ve read some early philosophy, Khayyam’s philosophical treatises (which are included in Aminrazavi’s book) will seem dense but unsurprising. Essence and existence are concepts that go back to Aristotle, as is Khayyam’s deriving the idea of God from that of causation: everything we see has a cause, but there can be no infinite chain of causation, so something is the uncaused cause of everything else, and that is God.

He considers the problem of evil, concluding that by creating good attributes, God could not help but create their opposites, without intending to. That leads to the meta-question: wouldn’t he know that creating those goods would also bring in evil, and therefore avoid it? But, he maintains, the sheer quantity of good to evil is overwhelming, and to deprive the universe of those goods simply to prevent a small amount of evil would itself be wrong.

There’s also a version of the ontological argument for God:

The Necessary Being… is an essence that is not possible to be conceived except by an existent. Therefore, the attribute of existence before the the intellect is due to His essence and not because one has placed it there.

It all sounds familiar because Aristotle, Avicenna, and Averroes influenced Anselm and Acquinas, so such concepts are part of Catholic theology. To put it another way, Muslims and Christians think very similarly about God, except for the bit about Jesus. And yes, the divinity of Jesus is a big deal, but not when you’re at the level of uncaused causes and essences that include existence.

So far, it looks like Khayyam is an orthodox philosopher who believed in a rationally supported God who was (with some steps better left unexamined) that worshipped by the local religion. He studied Islamic theology and jurisprudence, and was seen in his own time as a respected scholar and even called imām. What he’s not known for is entering the theological disputes of his time. He didn’t write discourses about them, not least because this could be dangerous.

But he treated them indirectly in Ruba’iyyat, taking advantage of the greater freedom offered to poets. His position was consistently skeptical: issues of life after death, or the justice of the world, or the nature of the attributes of God, could not be resolved and the disputes were not worth one’s time.

The sphere upon which mortals come and go,
Has no end or beginning that we know
And none there is to tell us in plain truth
Whence do we come and whither do we go.

All the biographical information we have on Khayyam relates to his scholarly life. He lived most of his life in Nishapur, a city in eastern Iran, at the west end of the Silk Road; for a time it was the capital of the Seljuk Empire. He took some students (apparently reluctantly), but lived on a generous stipend from the Nizam al-Mulk, the Seljuk vizier. He’s said to have had a photographic memory: twice he traveled to read a manuscript he was not allowed to copy, and came home to dictate a near-perfect match. (The poet Attar was also from Nishapur; he was born a few years after Khayyam’s death.)

The first ruba’iyyat (quatrains) attributed to Khayyam— not much more than a dozen— occur in manuscripts dated about a century after his death. We can add about twenty more in books about a century later. Over the centuries the total mushroomed to over a thousand.

This makes for a huge textual puzzle, and many scholars have attempted to find the “authentic” ruba’iyyat. The puzzle is really impossible to solve, because it becomes an investigation into what the poet Khayyam really was: FitzGerald’s hedonist Epicurean? The Aristotelian deist of the scholarly works? An eccentric but orthodox Sufi?  Which answer you choose affects which ruba’iyyat you consider authentic. Aminrazavi suggests that the quest is futile, and that one might as well just call the whole mass the Khayyamian school of poetry.

In Persia, the received wisdom is that he was a Sufi. This is the mystical side of Islam, which emphasizes divine love and simple living, sometimes shocks the fundamentalists, and has little patience for doctrine and ritual. On the plus side, the philosophical Khayyam, in On the knowledge of the universal principles of existence, reviews four possible paths: theologians; philosophers; Ismā’ilis, and Sufis, and declares of Sufism, “This path is the best of them all.” Khayyam is known to have preferred solitude and a relatively simple life, though there’s also that stipend, an indication that he was no ascetic. There’s no evidence that he had a Sufi master or adhered to any particular Sufi school.

Aminrazavi concludes that the poet was comfortable with Sufism and used Sufi themes, but wasn’t a Sufi. It’s true that the Sufis were also fond of the metaphor of wine; a French translator carefully footnotes every reference to wine in the Ruba’iyyat with the annotation Dieu. I have to say I agree with Aminrazavi, simply because the atmosphere of the Ruba’iyyat is a thousand miles (or about 250 parasangs) from that of Attar, who was an actual Sufi poet. Like many a religious teacher, Attar likes to shock the student with paradox, but it’s all in the service of an ascetic though emotional devotion to God. And Attar’s allegories are not at all hard to decipher (hint: one of the parties represents God, another the human).

Khayyam (or if you like the Khayyamian school) doesn’t seem to talk about devotion to God at all. God is referred to, but as the inscrutable hand behind fate and the mixed justice and injustice in the world. The jug of wine in the wilderness is not a jug of God. It might not be a real jug of wine, but if not it still represents the pleasures of this world, the only one we can be certain of.

Could the same man who wrote those very dry treatises also have written the Ruba’iyyat? Well, sure. It’s a bad scholarly habit to declare that the same person couldn’t have created very different kinds of works. As a modern example, Richard Feynman was both a serious scientist, a musician, and a humorous storyteller with a taste for roguish adventures.

If you want to know more, pick up FitzGerald’s translation. It’s short— my copy is only about a hundred pages and includes three of his five editions. Curiously, Aminrazavi agrees: he says that FitzGerald is still the best gateway for readers who don’t know Persian, that he captured the spirit of Khayyam better than translators who were trying to be more accurate. He did choose the more Epicurean ruba’iyyat, and his idea of translation is very free, but it’s hard to argue with a version that comes alive so fiercely.

And if you want to know more than that, read Aminrazavi’s book. It reviews both Persian and Western scholarship and attempts to reconcile the scholarly and the poetic Khayyam. I do think he spends too little time on the scientific works (admittedly it would probably take a long and difficult chapter to do justice to them), and a little too much on various “Omar Khayyam Clubs” in the West. Though there’s probably a lesson about research there: once he had all that material, it was difficult not to use it.




I just finished this, the 2010 novel by N.K. Jemisin.  It’s great. I wonder if in India it’s known as One Lakh of Kingdoms.


The story: one Yeine, is chieftain of Darr, an insignificant barbarian nation somewhere in the north. But the entire world is subject to a single clan, the Arameri. She is summoned to the capital, where the aged patriarch of the Arameri informs her that she is now his heir. She knows a bit about world politics: she asks, doesn’t he already have an heir?  Oh, yes, two of them; they will fight out who will succeed him.

It’s a nice setup: as an outsider, Yeine is placed to discover how this strange and cruel clan operates (and explain it to us), and it looks like it’s going to be involve a lot of power struggles. And it does, though the story has a way of shaking itself and twisting into new forms, each time raising the stakes for Yeine and everyone else.

For one thing, Yeine is not quite so much a nobody as it seems at first. Her mother was Arameri, and was once the heir to the empire. But she renounced this position and went off to live with the man she’d fallen in love with, in Darr. (Yeine takes after her father, so she is brown-skinned where the Arameri are white.)

For another, there are gods involved, and not remote ones. Much of the story involves coming to understand the theology and history of the gods, so I won’t explain in detail. But the power of the Arameri over the world is because several of the gods are enslaved to them.

I think the thing I like the most about the book is how thoroughly it’s suffused with gods and magic. The Arameri believe they rule the world justly, but they’re ancient and corrupt and nasty. But they would be, with the power of gods at their fingertips. There are human plots for Yeine to worry about, but there are also divine plots.  She spends most of the book as a detective, uncovering each of them.

At one point she asks a counselor if there’s any important politician or family member yet to meet. He says no, not really, she’s met them all. Which isn’t very naturalistic, but it makes excellent narrative sense. There’s about half a dozen humans and about the same number of gods to worry about, and that’s quite enough. We don’t learn about very many of the hundred thousand kingdoms, but that’s just as well; it lets Jemisin close out the story in just over four hundred pages.

It turns out to be the first book in a trilogy, but I suspect Jemisin herself didn’t know that when she wrote the final words.  It doesn’t read like 1/3 of a story; it’s complete in itself and would be hard to continue in a conventional way.  (I haven’t read the next book, but I know that it has a different protagonist.)

If you haven’t read her, she doesn’t write anything like Neil Gaiman, but her material is similar: the mixture of mortals and gods, the deeply human motivations and imperfections of the gods.

There’s also something deeply subversive about the book— which is refreshing in a work of fantasy, which too often is enamored of old stone keeps and the old stony-faced tyrants within. All power is suspect here, including the gods’. At the same time, it’s not just that everything is weird and corrupt, as in China Miéville. The Arameri are presented as complex characters; only one is truly villainous. And Yeine is driven by the hope that at least some of the world’s ills can be put right.

First the good news: if you own Skyrim, you already own this: a free mod that’s its own game. It’s made by the same obsessive Germans who made Nehrim, and it’s the same sort of deal: new continent, everything hand-made, fully voice acted (in English too this time), and all the mechanics reworked. The bad news is that I bounced off it pretty hard.


Yes, you can have a D.Va tattoo

I didn’t finish Nehrim, but I appreciated it. The tutorial dungeon, for instance, was way better than Oblivion’s, the side dungeons did seem hand-crafted, and there were some nice UI changes.

Enderal’s tutorial, by contrast, is terrible.

  • It’s full of cutscenes.
  • It’s divided into scenes, each of which forces you to the next one. Whatever you could do as a player against an enemy, even as a noob… well, you can’t do it, the cutscenes make the enemies win. There is no respect for player agency at all.
  • Not once but twice you meet a character who explains something to you, then for his pains gets killed (in a way you can’t influence).
  • There’s very little combat. The one thing a tutorial should do is introduce the basic mechanics! This one is focused on story… and it’s not even the game’s main story, it’s just how you got to Enderal.
  • There’s a lot of dialog, but no real choices, not even the usual Bethesda style of insulting the questgiver.  The final dude you meet basically forcibly enrolls you in the next quest.

So, finally I’m on my way.  I do a couple nearby side quests, I pick up a mess of herbs and such.  And then the murders began. Three wolves quickly wiped me out.

Fine, I’m not good at the game, or at wolves, but give me a break: I’m completely new to the game, I don’t know the mechanics yet, and I have trash weapons.  I tried again, defeated the three wolves, walked about ten feet, and was attacked by three more wolves.

Recall, this is a few hours into the game, so I have no health potions or any magic besides My First Fireball™.  Plus, the game is made by people who think Bethesda’s gameplay is way too easy, so there’s no health regen. And magic is evil somehow so using it makes you sick, though if you chomp certain herbs you’ll get better.

I guess somebody in Germany got a copy of Dark Souls. But I feel like they’re wasting my time. If they’re so proud of their quests and lore, why are they keeping me from it by placing wolves every ten feet on the road before I even get to the first quest marker? You’re not deepening the game or making it more Grim N Gritty by sprinkling in generic monsters like parmesan cheese, you’re just making travel tedious. And really, if you can’t make the game fun in the first three hours, it’s really hard to believe it gets better.

Now, if all this sounds great to you– you really want a game where you fight endless wolves and then flail around to find something to restore your health, and did I mention the inscrutable skill system?– well, more power to you.  Can’t complain about the price!

(And just to be clear, I don’t want tips on dealing with the wolves.  What I want is better damn design.  I gave up on Skyrim for similar reasons: I’d try to ride to another city and get waylaid by a dragon. Three times. Unless you’re writing Doom, just adding more of the same monster rarely makes your game better.)

I do feel a little bad about being so negative, because these guys are working hard for free, and that’s awfully nice of them. But I think it’s fair to say that it’s a step backwards from Nehrim.

Short shameful confession: I liked Sin City, both the movie and the comic. Both are extremely over-the-top noir, and graphically stunning. There’s a sequel, and I finally got around to it— the chunkily named Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.  (It’s directed by Robert Rodriguez and Miller, and came out in 2014, nine years after the original.)


Marv teams up with Catwoman

I read some reviews that mostly said “Kind of gross, but if you liked Sin City I guess you’ll like this.” And it is mostly more of the same: same extreme-o-noir, same green screen, many of the same stars, same nasty heroes, nastier villains, and warrior prostitutes. But not, unfortunately, the same fun. I think there’s several reasons for that.

One, it may be that one Sin City is about all we needed. It’s true that genre can get away with a lot of repetition, but you have to have a wider range of situations and emotions. Dashiell Hammett knew not to write a sequel to The Maltese Falcon where Spade gets a new partner, who’s killed, and there’s a new tempting woman who sends him on the hunt for, oh, the Templar Duck.

Two, the movie knows it had a good thing in Marv (Mickey Rourke), so it plasters him all over the movie. And Jessica Alba dances a lot, and Bruce Willis is there, as a freaking ghost. And Gail and Miho show up. When a work is in love with its own material, it’s usually a bad sign. It’s like nudging the audience and saying “See, didn’t you enjoy him in the first one? There he is again! Look!”

That might be OK if the new material was good, but I think it’s something of a step down. Dwight was my favorite character in the first film, maybe because of Clive Owen’s soft voice: he’s the only one who isn’t auditioning for Batman. Here he’s replaced by Josh Brolin. There’s a story reason for this, but never mind, it’s a downgrade; he’s just dumb and ugly. This is one of the few Sin City stories with a female villain, Ava (Eva Green, who single-handedly has to provide all of the film’s bare breasts). And… it shows that Frank Miller should stick to male villains.  Philip Marlowe would have become an insurance salesman before being such as sap as Dwight.

There’s one odd omission. In the comic, Ava brings in crimelord Wallenquist, who gives her a rare rebuke: “I’ll warn you once and once only… Do not flirt with me, I have no use for your charms.” It’s minor, but it shows that there are limits to Ava’s power, and makes Dwight look like even more of a sap.

There’s two more new stories. One is a hotshot gambler who goes up against Senator Roark.  I liked his cockiness, but the payoff is low. The other is a sequel to the story of Nancy (Jessica Alba) in the first movie. She’s like, all troubled and stuff. This feels like a cheat, because the only way Miller gets away with his bondage-gear babes is that they’re all also badasses. Plus, the whole point of her story arc in #1 was that she was a tough cookie herself, so why the regress?  Fortunately this bit is over quickly, especially if you fast forward, and she puts on a goth outfit, takes Marv for backup, and goes off to commit badassery.

The stories interleave with those of the first film, in a way that probably makes no sense, but I’m not going to be bothered to work it out. Most of the stories feature Marv, which means they have to come before the first movie; but the Goth Nancy story is after the events of the first film.

It’s not all bad. Rourke does a good job, and whenever Gail, Miho, or Goth Nancy are onscreen it’s fun. Honestly I wish the movie had been all about Miho.  They could have adapted “Family Values”, which features her.

The DVD also has a featurette showing the whole movie in green screen. It’s pretty amazing… pretty much everything but the characters is CGI, even if it’s a crappy apartment or the side of a road somewhere. Kudos to the actors who had to act as if they weren’t surrounded by ridiculous green walls and floors.