Yahia Lababidi and the Case for Mysticism, Part One: “Desert Songs”

Nobody has a transcendental vision in the town square. Based on his own ventures into the desert while living in Cairo, Egypt, Yahia Lababidi tackles timeless themes of spirituality, nature, and solitude in his slim but rich new poetry collection, “Desert Songs,” (Rowayat Publishing House, 2022). As his Arabic translator Osama Esber says in the foreword, Lababidi is not “awash with references,” and his poems, while far from simplistic, are also not “piles of verbiage.” His verses, while profound, have a sense of immediacy requiring no special erudition to enjoy, inviting the reader to share in his own mystical insights.

Mysticism—What’s the Big Deal?

As William James writes in The Varieties of Religious Experience, “personal religious experience has its root and centre in mystical states of consciousness.” According to James, there are four main attributes of mysticism: 1) “ineffability,” a state of feeling that defies expression; 2) “noetic quality,” or illuminations of direct knowledge into the state of things; 3) “transiency,” or the short period during which the mystical state is sustained; and 4) “passivity,” the way that mystical state “occurs” to a person, making the mystic feel “as if his own will were in abeyance…as if he were grasped and held by a superior power.”

Psychologist and philosopher William James, 1903. His groundbreaking “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” delivered in lecture form a year before this photograph was taken, sought to identify the common practices and insights across different religious traditions.

Ineffability notwithstanding, the most famous mystics in history are remembered because they recorded their experiences. And indeed, when mystics attempt to describe their feelings it is usually through poetry or poetical prose: speaking in riddles, mumbling prayers, reciting invocations. The mystic and the poet both share a common style of consciousness, and the four criteria described above could just as well apply to the poet. One might say that poetry, along with music and art, is one of the proper vocations of the mystic; that it is only through art that one can convey the profound meaning of the private spiritual experience. James himself describes the “strangely moving power of passages of certain poems read when we were young” as

…irrational doorways…through which the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang of life, stole into our hearts and thrilled them. The words have now perhaps become mere polished surfaces for us; but lyric poetry and music are alive and significant only in proportion as they fetch these vague vistas of a life continuous with our own, beckoning and inviting, yet ever eluding our pursuit. We are alive or dead to the eternal inner message of the arts according as we have kept or lost this mystical susceptibility.

Poets speak through metaphor rather than to the logical brain. Practically oriented people who claim to not understand poetry tend also to dismiss the mystic as a madman. The logical brain is closed to the noetic quality of direct illumination—though these same practical persons will often practice escapism through drunkenness, at which times they crudely approximate the state of mystical revelation. But when they awaken the next morning, they have forgotten this connection. A hangover is punishment for artificially induced insight.

“Drunkard Lifting a Beer,” by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg. Though the alcoholic counterfeits a cheap mystical understanding, it comes with a headache.

Lababidi himself has long recognized the spirit’s proper calling of poetry. In The Artist as Mystic (Onesuch Press, 2012), co-written with philosopher and man of letters Alex Stein (a profound thinker himself who is not nearly as well-known as he should be), one encounters the observation that, “The life of the artist may not be apparently monastic, or holy, but there is the same sense of sacrifice, of vocation, of having been entrusted with something greater and dearer than one’s own happiness.” The mystic shares with the artist the quality of self-renunciation that is necessary for insight. In terms of consciousness, “Attention is the artist’s mode of prayer.” Lababidi compares Picasso taking off his shoes when entering his studio to Moslems when entering their mosques. In this partly autobiographical early book, he also describes the formative experiences that led to “Desert Songs.” While living in Cairo as a young man he says,

I went to the desert periodically. Pilgrimages to empty and refill myself…Every time I go to the desert it is with the intention and in the belief that I am going to encounter that part of myself that is not entirely accessible in other circumstances. In the desert, there is nothing to hide behind, no-where and no-one to turn to. It is where all those crazy hermits and mystics—my people!—had their visions. It’s an extreme environment and I suppose I felt if I flirted with that extremity, but in a committed, honorable way, a breakthrough might be granted me.

Two Approaches to Religious Experience

From Lao Tzu to Basho to Hildegard of Bingen, the mystical “type” presents itself as a sensibility, almost an archetypal character style, that cuts across different sacred traditions, transcending divergences in the rituals and sacred objects particular to a given religious sect—although certain spiritual schools (Sufism, Zen Buddhism, Catholicism) have actively cultivated this solitary temperament more than others. Yahia Lababidi has earned his place as one of the foremost living writers in this tradition.

The West is much in need of a voice such as his. Sophisticated American mystics, especially, are few. The standard American character as described by Tocqueville—and to which every boy and girl is molded to varying degrees of fruitless rebellion—is an essentially materialistic, social, overly-practical being dedicated to voluntary clubs and the pursuit of truth-as-cash-value. His motto is “Let’s go bowling.” As economic decline, social malaise, and technocracy encroach upon him, he increasingly feels lost with nowhere to turn. It thus comes as no surprise that the leading American mystic of the early 21st century is, in fact, an Egyptian immigrant.

It is no accident that when the Protestant reformation eliminated monasticism and personal confession from its practices to focus on the more sociable side of Christianity and harness its famous work ethic, it marginalized the lone visionary. In Protestant nations, most of the great mystical thinkers like Blake, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Thoreau broke with the orthodoxies of their surrounding culture—from the perspective of that culture they became worthless “bums,” unproductive vagrants. The Catholic faith, by contrast, offering more of an outlet for this sensibility, has continued to produce mystics into modern times in proportion as its “backward” southern European nations stagnated and were left behind in the race to industrialize.

“London” plate from “Songs of Innocence and Experience,’ by William Blake, 1794. Blake himself suffered periods of abject poverty, though he never gave up on his art. Wordsworth once wrote of him, “There is no doubt that this poor man was mad,” and Ruskin said he was “full of wild creeds and somewhat diseased in the brain.”

The focus on organized religion’s social aspects over the inner spiritual experience reaches its extreme in fundamentalism. The fundamentalist is the ultimate anti-mystic, anesthetizing the mind and molding the soul into a dim conformity. Where the mystical tradition cuts across cultures and sects, fundamentalism is grounded in dogma and encourages xenophobia among its members. The Christian fundamentalists occupying the American hinterland endorse freedom as the pinnacle of human values, yet wield their political clout to morally regulate the behavior of others and, in in contrast with their rosy image of themselves, represent the nascent totalitarianism of a well-organized minority. Their character is essentially the stereotypical American one as described by Tocqueville, extended into the religious sphere: their view of spirituality is a curiously materialistic one focused on the palpability of sin and salvation.

Being a nice openminded person, however, you decide to set your qualms aside, give the fundamentalists a chance, and pay them a visit. But you soon discover that to interact with them in a setting more intimate than a potluck is to teeter on an abyss of boorishness. Initially impressed by their ability to recite long passages of the Bible from memory, you soon learn that this is, in fact, a rote habit impressed from childhood, and they no more understand the meaning of their recitations than does a pet parrot. Good luck, as well, trying to have a conversation about the literary merits of the King James Version: for though a fundamentalist can readily quote Lamentations, the subtle patterning of its acrostics interests them not at all. Personal confession is replaced by the custom of confessing one’s sins before the entire congregation—a practice which must be pursued with zeal (for persuasion) and navigated with delicacy (for survival), as the confessor will afterwards have to endure the gossiping busybodies of their rural community or mega-church. (These public admissions tend to focus on minor lapses in ritual—not praying enough, not reading the Bible as often as one should, etc.—and an enthusiastic newcomer who, taking these performances at face value, commits the gaff of revealing an actual sin is apt to suffer undying shame.) The discipline of fundamentalist aesthetics encompasses two chief subtopics: denouncing nakedness in Renaissance paintings and discussing one’s favorite faith-based films. If you explain that liberals took over American culture because they have been the ones producing all the sophisticated cultural artifacts in the past half-century, you will be redirected towards the pervasive influence of a secret Jewish cabal. When The Ten Commandments inevitably tops the rankings of faith-based films and you point out that Cecil B. DeMille was half-Jewish, the horror of the insidious plot against hearts and minds is brought full circle. The solitary consciousness that adheres to Keats’s doctrine, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” is reluctant to behold the lumpy brain that diets on propaganda and conspiracy. Where the mystic translates feelings into art, the religious fundamentalist is a consumer of kitsch.

The descendents of the Puritans are alive and well in America; one has only to replace the noose and wagon with rifles and anti-immigration signs.

“Desert Songs”

Finally, we’re getting to the reason that you clicked on this weblink. Ostensibly a review of Lababidi’s Desert Songs, the author has hitherto only merited a few sideways mentions in an essay that is, in actuality, an overview of the long and ever-evolving conflict between spirituality, materialism, and fanaticism. If you made it this far, good job.

The best free verse tends to have a subtle patterning that, though without the surface structures of rhyme and meter, provide a certain organization that is unique to the verse in question. One might say that the distinction between a good free verse poet and a mediocre or bad one is that the former invents distinctive styles of organization individual to each poem, where the latter simply engages in spontaneous rambling. No art can be purely formless and still be meaningful. On the flip side of this, most bad formal verse relies on its formality to hide its weaknesses, leaning on clichéd rhymes and the skeleton of an unvarying metrical structure, and lacks any sense of individuality at all. Good formal verse poets are able to bend pre-existing structures to their will, expressing their own particular vision and voice.

The free verse poems in “Desert Songs” stand with the better representatives of its genre in occupying the boundary between structure and formlessness. Much like the ever-shifting contours of desert dunes that skirts the edge of Arab civilization. As a formal verse poet myself who obsessively looks for organizational tendencies everywhere (whether it is on the page or criticizing the layout of a Wal-Mart aisle), I found myself applying my automatic sensibility to Lababidi’s work. Most of the stanzas of the six poems comprising “Desert Songs” are comprised of three or four lines, usually containing three or four hard beats per line, though occasionally two or five. Each stanza is like a little sand dune nestled in the rolling landscape of the larger poem, a mound of imagery and wisdom.

As Aristotle pointed out, an aptitude for metaphor-making is the surest indication of talent in a writer, and the reverse is also true—one need look no further to diagnose bad writing than to incompetence in crafting imagery. Once while on a winter camping trip, I thought I might pass some time by reading the only book in my remote West Virginia cabin: a Nicholas Sparks novel. I do not remember exactly which novel it was, or anything at all about it save this detail: a few pages in, Sparks likens time to “a clock.” Hmm, okay…so the author is comparing the indefinite continued progress of existence and its passing events with the mechanism for measuring that indefinite continued progress? Great job, Sparks. You are guilty of crafting the worst simile in all of the indefinite continued progress of existence and its passing events. Popular novels in the standard genre fiction categories tend to be full of these sorts of very literal similes, and we can be thankful to their movie versions that the lousy descriptions get lost in translation. Needless to say, I closed the Sparks novel and decided to go chop some wood. While filling the stove I tossed the book in for extra kindling—no other wanderer among those sublime Shenandoah Mountains would ever again suffer the oppressive contrast of badly written imagery.

Thankfully, Lababidi is the furthest thing from Sparks. Each poem begins with an image that reflects its abstract title in a tangible way and frames how the mind approaches it: the desert is a “cemetery,” the sky a “whirling skirt,” eternity contrasted with a “sandaled foot” in the sand; mountains are “overbearing rock sculptures,” hermits “bearded black beetles,” and dusk scuttles “quietly / like a crab.”

The first poem, “Solitude and the Proximity to Infinite Things,” develops the imagery of the tomb:

The Desert is a cemetery
picking its teeth with bones
littered with brittle stones
marked by a grave air.

The second and third lines form a pleasing parallel, and the imagery of death continues: winds scatter lament, “hostile growths” wear “crowns of thorns,” trees break the skin of the desert with their “bloodless veins” of dry grass, and wanderers travel “to see Stillness, to hear Silence.” The intrusion of the human wanderer in the fifth stanza, exactly halfway through the poem, briefly frames the vastness with his lone perceptions, before we are returned to descriptions of the indifferent, heartless desert.

Lababidi’s aphoristic skill is on display throughout. Some of the stanzas of his poetry are entirely comprised, in fact, of chopped-up aphorisms. Take the last stanza of the poem:

The desert has its dark jokes
over which it smiles alone,
Mirage is the word for desert humor.

Lababidi may very well have written these first two lines as one and included it in one of his books of aphorisms. And yet, “The desert has its dark jokes over which it smiles alone,” does not quite have the same effect as it does above, with the reader lingering over that word, “jokes.”  The last line, a full aphorism in itself, aptly encapsulates and concludes the piece.

Some of the stanzas are more akin to aphoristic fragments, like this one from the second poem, “Desert, Revisited”:

incorruptible starting point
inviolable horizon
where eye and mind are free
to meditate perfection

One might clean this up and say, “The desert is an incorruptible starting point, an inviolable horizon where the eye and mind are free to meditate perfection.” An astute but slightly long-winded observation that, in its straightforward prose, doesn’t capture the sensibility that experiences the continuous chain of broken insights making up this poem. The mystic himself is not overly concerned with grammar in his struggle to verbalize the fragments of his fleeting ecstasy. “Desert, Revisted” describes the sky as a “whirling skirt,” and the mystic as one who is “groping for that tremendous hem.” A strange drawing of an eye by Lababidi accompanies the poem, and “the gaze” takes center stage here, which seems a sort of pantheistic merging of the mystical eye with the sky, sun, moon, and perhaps God as well. Beginning the previous poem with a rhyme, Lababidi now ends this one with two:

only striving supreme or pure
can ever hope to endure
the absolute face
the awesome embrace.

It nicely clinches things: “the absolute face / the awesome embrace” gives a sense of reconciliation and oneness.

Photographs by Zakaria Wakrim accompany the poems. In four of them a cloaked figure stands amidst the vastness of the sand, looking out to the horizon, his back facing us. One is reminded of Taoist art in which a sprawling landscape is framed by a solitary wise man, or paintings by the Hudson River School featuring a tiny pioneer carving out a farmstead from the dense forest. In the cases of Thomas Cole and his followers, of course, the pioneer is beginning the process of “taming” the wilderness and claiming it for civilization. With the desert, though, there is no sense of manifest destiny. It cannot be colonized or subdued. Unlike in Taoism, the desert is too harsh an environment to ever allow one to exist in complete harmony within it. The Bedouins only survive through frugality. Lao Tzu’s philosophy of nature was conditioned by a temperate zone.

“New England Scenery,” by Frederic Edwin Church, 1851. The picturesque landscape here and the small figures carving out a romanticized existence (notably devoid of illness or the constant threat of scalping tribal warriors) are a far cry from the harsh desert inspiring Lababidi’s mystical experiences and Wakrim’s photographs of hermetic wandering.

The poem “Eternity Beckons” deals with the theme of transfiguration, opening with, “A sandaled foot sinks into the sand, / and Time collapses…” In the accompanying black-and-white photograph, the cloaked figure stands at the center. In the lower half a line of footprints precede him. In the upper half the figure is eclipsed by sand dunes. The two art pieces, poem and photo, perfectly parallel one another as the mystic hears and sees nature being “formed, deformed, transformed,” and his “heart laid bare” is

…mapped out
like overlapping tightropes
absorbing as a spider’s net.

The mystic’s favorite themes of divine inspiration and language’s ineffability are touched on towards the poem’s close, as “Safeguarding her Secret / the Muse makes a mockery of words…”

The next poem, “Mountain Meditation,” is accompanied by the first color photograph in the series and the only one not framed by the lone cloaked figure. Fitting, as this is the first poem in which the environment is not described through the viewpoint of human perception. The poem is wholly taken up with physical descriptions and metaphor, featuring no clever aphorisms. The “overbearing rock sculptures” protrude with “angular ribs,” “stony hearts,” “crooked, rotten giant teeth,” a “sinister grin,” and “craniums exposed.” The mountains are a “School of inscrutable sphinxes,” impenetrable to human understanding.

In the fifth poem, “Hermetic,” Wakrim’s photo features the return of the dark wanderer, this time standing before a ruined stone retreat. Lababidi describes “bearded black beetles” moving across the sand. They are

exercises in restraint
exorcisms of the spirit
bodies without organs
organs without bodies.

The nice alliterative parallel of the first two lines is followed by the overtly paradoxical reversal of the last two. The logical mind is at a loss: how do hermits have “bodies without organs,” much less “organs without bodies?” The mystic’s transcendence of the physical cannot convey this experience to those trapped within pleasure organs in any way rationally comprehensible to them. One can only take refuge in Tertullian’s phrase, “credo quia absurdum.”

The final poem of the collection, “Dusk Scuttles,” is permeated with imagery. The disappearing sun is likened to a scampering crab. The moon is an “ivory button” that gleams in “the vast sky vest.” The sand’s waves are “luminous cats” and its sea is “a dark jewel.” Wakrim’s lone figure again centers the landscape as the crimson sun setting over the curving sand suggests the red shell of the crab, its smooth carapace punctuated by little bumps. Standing atop a sand dune, the shadow of the hermit looms in the lower half of the photograph as he looks out, a bit like the gazer in Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.” The scene’s grandeur reflects Lababidi’s visually evocative descriptions, though the manner in which the verbal images rapidly transition from one to the next—never pausing for punctuation, each metaphor an ultimately inadequate approximation—recalls Kant’s definition of the sublime as that which is so great and limitless as to be beyond all comparison.

A more comprehensive review than mine would have discussed the subtleties of Osama Esber’s translations that alternate with Lababidi’s original poems. As I do not know Arabic, such a task is beyond me. I am only capable of commenting on two-thirds of this remarkable collaboration, and it stands to reason that one must be fluent in both languages to fully appreciate it. The boorish and limited American English speaker will, however, enjoy grasping toward the meaning of Lababidi’s ecstatic experiences secondhand.

2 thoughts on “Yahia Lababidi and the Case for Mysticism, Part One: “Desert Songs”

  1. A fabulous and intriguing review. Speaking personally, I like the long digression and assorted thoughts and ideas you present, especially those debating the necessary structure or form that must inhere in ‘free verse’ if it is to have any meaning at all. Unlike some formal purists, I agree with you: it is possible to write good free verse, but it is immensely difficult, partly because not only does one have to cope with creating the semantics, but one has to start completely afresh with form itself – that is tricky, as well as being non-replicable. After all, who can imitate, say, e e cummings? Anyone who does, just seems cheap; but yes, we can imitate a Shakespearean sonnet and still create something completely original! Bizarre or what? When I get an opportunity, I’ll take a look at LABABIDI’s work. Thanks again.

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    1. Thanks for the appreciation. Yes, you are right about the non-replicability of free verse. I imagine the free-verser would see non-replicability as a positive as its virtue is utter uniqueness, or, the possibility of not being ‘derivative,’ as I have seen some free-versers accuse formalists of being.
      The benefit of being ‘derivative,’ on the other hand, is that when one is Dantesque or Byronic, it not only allows the formalist to borrow a bit of the ancient poet’s glory but breathes new life into the original poet’s work and extends their status, showing that Dante or Byron is still relevant after so many hundreds of years. Think of all the imitators of Spenser I mentioned in my blog on Virtue’s End. Whereas, as you say, imitating cummings has the effect of cheapness. In the modern age so many strive for ‘pure’ originality as a form of unique self-expression, but one of the downsides of that is that 1) most are destined to fail, as they are not utterly unique originals, and 2) you will establish no schools of verse.

      Thanks for the thoughts!

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