Transcript of Conference of the Birds: Philosophical Analysis
Conference of the Birds: Philosophical Analysis
In the Conference of the Birds, Attar of Nishapur constructs a metaphysical tale with tangible, understandable symbols. Each species of bird represent a different sin or personality. The hoopoe guides these birds spiritually and physically to bind themselves to the will of God through selfless annihilation. However, every bird has reasons for not embarking on the Way, which are countered by the leader (hoopoe) through Sufism as well as anecdotes. The Way represents the trials and tribulations that one such as a Sufi must undergo in order to realize God.
Relation to Islam
Throughout this entire work, Attar masterfully describes the nature of Islam in a metaphoric way through items easily visualized such as birds. Every anecdote and aspect of the story has its aspects in Islamic tradition. Most importantly, the very nature of the format and pictures presented are based in Attar's Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam focusing on intrinsic value. The Way is the Sufi's life, filled with trials and tribulations, in order to attain the realization to view and understanding the universe. The end of it being the annihilation of oneself into the universe merging one's own energy with it returning your drop to the "ocean of Truth." The end of the story is significantly profound with the birds realizing that the universe is not an external thing but one of intrinsic value being in everyone as the Simorgh was the Si morgh (30 birds).
Below I will describe how each species is symbolic for the types of hindrances that prevent men from reaching enlightenment:
Nightingale: The lover who believes that it is painless love that is the essence of life.
Parrot: The fool who only seeks immortality instead the truth of the Way.
Peacock: The fallen man who sided with evil conspiring to return to the paradise.
Duck: The pious fool who believes that comfort denotes piety.
Patridge: The miser who only revels at material wealth instead of the wisdom of the Way or the Simorgh.
Homa: The vane, self-important man who believes that power is more important than wisdom or love.
Hawk: The subservient man who revels in serving the souls of lesser rulers than the Simorgh.
Heron: The despairing man who lives in sorrow on the edge of a force he cannot fathom or control.
Owl: The treasure-seeking fool who believes that gold is the only true noble pursuit not bordering on blasphemy.
Finch: The feeble, hypocritical bird who believes that he is too weak to stand in front of the Simorgh
In Sufism, the goal of the masters is to attain enlightenment through the annihilation of oneself with the universe. In this story, the birds guided by their leader, the hoopoe, seek out their mystical ruler, the Simorgh by traversing the Way, a treacherous path symbolic of a Sufi's
. At the end of the book, the thirty birds remaining reach the palace of the Simorgh only to find a reflecting pool in which they see themselves. Through this scene, Attar is demonstrating that God or the universe is not external but intrinsic to all life as we are our own Simorgh. (Note: Si morgh means 30 birds in Farsi)
Through this story, the hoopoe is describing the power that is love. In the story, the highly religious and influential Sheikh Sam'an falls in love with a Christian girl who tries to make him live as vagrant by renouncing his ties to Islam. Finally, she is persuaded by the angels that her actions were unjust returning to the sheikh begging for the light of Islam. The hoopoe uses this story to show that love and pain are indistinguishable on the Way.
The Dervish and the Princess
Through this story, the hoopoe is countering the excuse made by the nightingale to refuse the Way. The nightingale believes that his love is only for the rose, which breathes life into him. However, the hoopoe states that there was once a dervish who at first glance fell in love with beautiful princess. His love ruled him making him become a vagabond in front of her door. Finally, the princess states that she only glanced at him because of his stupidity and ignorance. The story shows how love is insensitive and easily misguided.
Through this story, the hoopoe is countering the excuse put forth by the Homa believing himself to be to important to seek out the Simorgh. The hoopoe states how vanity and self-importance are evils that exist in you like a suppressed storm. In the story of King Mahmoud, a man meets the king in the afterlife and questions his emotions. The king states that after death he has realized how inconsequential he is and that his vanity caused him to believe he was an equal to any deity. Finally, King Mahmoud curses the Homa for spreadign his wings over his kingdom making him king.
While on the Way, the birds are awestruck and terrified by the power that is the complete austerity of their journey. The hoopoe then proceeds to describe to them the story of Sheikh Bayazid who once looked out into the desert night terrified of its complete desolation. A voice then responds telling of how only the worthy may look upon the kingdom of the stars and their light.
One of the last to hesitate at the thought of the quest, the heron describes his despair and his complex relation to the sea. The heron says that even though his beak cannot taste its water, his rage would rise if a single drop was lost. The hoopoe then describes of how once a hermit asked of why the ocean seemed as if it was boiling. Its answer was that it was disgrace and lonely pain for the loss of its "one" that causes it to be tumultuous at times.
Specific Format Examples
This seriesexplores the ideas of three mystical thinkers, and looks at how their philosophies can be applicable to theatrical work.
Farid ud-Din Attar (d. 1221 CE), born in Nishapur, Iran, was one of the most important Sufi poets. The son of a prosperous chemist, he was a pharmacist who personally attended to a very large number of customers. Like many Sufi thinkers, Attar eventually abandoned his day job and traveled widely on a spiritual pilgrimage, throughout the Arab world, South Asia, and along the Silk Road, as far away as Turkestan. During these travels, he met with Sufi leaders and studied their ideas. He then returned to his hometown to continue studying, writing, and promote Sufi thought.
Attar penned one of the most important and beautiful Sufi poems, his allegorical journey Conference of the Birds. In this piece, the birds of the world gather to attempt a voyage to see the “simorgh,” a mythical bird representing God. However, the vast majority of them—each individually representing a human fault that prevents people from realizing God-consciousness—die along the way, in one of the valleys. The trip to the end of time passes through seven horrifying vales:
- The Valley of Quest
- The Valley of Love
- The Valley of Understanding
- The Valley of Independence and Detachment
- The Valley of Unity
- The Valley of Astonishment and Bewilderment
- The Valley of Deprivation and Death
According to Attar and the Sufis, spiritual attainment extinguishes the human ego, the sense of “I am.” Sufis assure that the individual self is but an illusion, and all truth resides in the universal “naught,” or nothingness at the heart of being. Realization of unity takes place through losing the individual sense of self in the divine ocean of naught, “seas that have no shores.” As Attar notes in his Conference of the Birds:
If you kill the self, the darkest night
will be illuminated with your light.
If you would flee from evil and its pain
swear never to repeat this “I” again!
This idea of killing the “self” provides a powerful and counterintuitive inspiration for a theatrical production. For theatre does not exist without conflict, but conflict is invariably imagined as taking place between two people—two “I’s” adrift (as Attar would assure) in the ignorance of self, fighting against each other to attain some kind of un-shareable goal or supremacy over the other.
Applying this central mystical ideal of effacing the individual ego to theatre shifts all conflict into the head of the main character, as they wrestle with the “self’s squint-eyed” gaze: “part dog, part parasite, part infidel.”
This influences a production in profound ways.
First and most importantly, it changes the presentation of all but the main character. With the conflict moved to within the protagonist’s head, the rest of the personages in the piece become twisted representations of the internal struggle of the hero. In a sense, this is a far more realistic presentation of “reality” than the current theatrical aesthetic, in which each character is presented from an “objective,” omniscient point of view. In point of fact, each of us lives within a narcissistic bubble, experiencing and judging the world from our personal standpoint.
Attar’s point of view can influence language, set design, action, blocking—all aspects of the production, which become expressions of the protagonist’s struggle. For instance, each character might linguistically mimic the central character, speaking with a similar lilt, vocabulary, or nervous tic, blurring the line between interior and exterior experience.
Language might also be used in an opposite manner, with the interior character having a particular accent or vocabulary choice and all of the other characters sharing a different trait, thereby highlighting the struggle within the hero’s head. This difference in language—with the main character offset against the others—would throw the protagonist into relief against a backdrop of verbal similarity.
Costume and set designs might also be affected. These props would no longer represent the individual aspects of each character, but the way they were perceived through the scrim of the protagonist’s vision. Costumes might bleed into the absurd, as a seemingly normal lawyer was envisioned as terrifying, impotent, or perhaps as bland as beige. Hatred, love, anger, or another strong emotion toward other individuals in the play might all be represented by clothing choices. These would not be representative of each character’s personality, but represent the feelings of the protagonist, the only point of view that mattered.
Set design would also be affected. The stage would represent the inside of the main character’s mind, as they attempted to free themselves of their “self.” Spaces might seem enormous or tiny: the individual might be represented as adrift, or straddling a world they thought could be controlled. Color might bleed from the environment, turning all to white, to represent the nearing of the goal of the divine naught. Or the space might be presented in riotous colors, indicating an inability of the main character to achieve the stated goal.
It should be noted that the idea of setting the play within the main character’s head doesn’t necessarily have to lead toward spiritual maturity. This concept of presenting a world approaches our lived reality far closer than the standard method to which we are accustomed: with every character presented from some omnipotent point of view, with each enjoying an independent reality. We do not live like that. We live far more within Attar’s vision, than the contemporary theatrical zeitgeist.
This is but one small iota of inspiration one might take from Attar’s work. TheConference of the Birds is rich in symbolism, heightened language, metaphysical and spiritual ideas, bizarre stories, characters, and a plethora of other potential motivations. The beautiful book awaits your perusal.