Autumn Vibes: Green Apples and Onion Still-life

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Existentialism in Mahfouz’s Arabian Nights and Days #middleeasternliterature #literature

Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Arabian Nights and Days powerfully depicts a variety of characters, drawn from the classic tales of the Arabian Nights, whose relationships with one another are entangled in a web which they are unable to escape. This web is designed with a purpose, but men must be able to work their way through the web and struggle for their existence. Existentialism, as defined by the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, flourished two decades after World War II and found its way into the Arab world during the 1960’s (Bramann). Influenced by Postcolonialism, the Arab world encountered many of the same problems defining man and existence as the West (Di-Capua). It is therefore not surprising that Mahfouz’s novel is embedded with existentialist themes and can be viewed as a written response to those seeking to define not only what it means to be Arab, but what it means to exist.


Image Source: Desert Treks of Mohammad Nowfal (Wikimedia Commons)

The idea that man is responsible for his or her action is not alien to the Arab intellectual tradition. According to Yoav Di-Capua’s article “Arab Existentialism: An Invisible Chapter in the Intellectual History of Decolonization,” Arab existentialism arose primarily as a result of a failed attempt at national liberation through influence of philosophers such as, “Sartre, Camus, Beauvoir, Guevara and Arthur Kostler” (1084). All of Mahfouz’s characters demonstrate a clear connection to these thinkers by defining themselves through their own actions rather than relying on the idea of fate, or some type of determinism.

Sartre’s vision of existence, for instance, closely resembles that of the sultan Shahriyar. In the beginning of the novel, he is described as a corrupt man who is responsible for the deaths of innocent people and the beheading of virgins. According to Shahrzad, his second wife, he is arrogant and immoral (Mahfouz 4). Although he is characterized as immoral by some, he himself begins the process of provoking existential thought with the words “Existence itself is the most inscrutable thing in existence” (Mahfouz 2). According to Sartre, existence must precede the essence of a thing, so that human existence begins subjectively (Sartre 2). Once the idea that one’s life is subjectively defined is accepted, one can proceed to defining oneself.

In Sartre’s “Existentialism Is a Humanism,” he uses the allegory of an artisan creating a paperknife to show how a definition of a thing can precede the existence of a thing and how humans, if created by God, are created with a purpose and with an intention in mind. However, men must define themselves according to their own will. Sartre further states that “man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself” (3). Regardless of whether or not God exists, man is not only responsible for their own lives, but also “is responsible for all men” (4). This means that every action taken by man is in some way defining an aspect of mankind.  Shahriyar, through time, is able to come to terms with himself. Shahrzad’s powerful tales works to reveal his errors which causes him to change his corrupt ways. Shahriyar is a representation of the consequences of realizing one’s reality, which is that that one’s life is not set or fated but is being continually defined in the present moment through a process of actions taken by oneself.

The character Sinbad, also faces the same struggle with finding meaning in his life and faces his own existential crisis. While conversing with some of his friends and acquaintances at a café, Sinbad reveals his dissatisfaction with life and states that he wants to “throw [himself] into the arms of the invisible” (Mahfouz 9). Sinbad sets off on a voyage where he encounters hardship, and is finally told by the sheikh that he must face himself, and death (Mahfouz 219). Sinbad’s call to the sea, in other words, will not be pacified until he is at peace with himself.

Sanaan al-Gamali is another character who represents an aspect of existentialism. Sanaan is a man who is unable to take responsibility for his actions, which inevitably leads him to his death. Like Sinbad, Sanaan is overcome with anxiety. This anxiety, which is provoked by a genie, causes Sanaan to rape and murder a 10-year-old girl. The genie, who stirs Sanaan, and tells him to kill Ali al-Saloulli the governor, who is known to be corrupt. In this way, the genie is attempting to get Sanaan to see the error of his ways and offering a chance at redeeming himself. Sanaan, upon killing the governor, pleads with the genie Qumqam to save his life and instead is told that “he who does good is not troubled by consequences” (Mahfouz 28). The intentions of the genie, although not entirely noble, causes Sanaan to confront himself regardless of what the consequences were.

Mahfouz’s novel provides an effective existentialist commentary on life and culture using characters familiar to the Arab world. His representation of Shahriyar, Sinbad, and Sanaan, provides the reader with clear examples of the consequences to leading a life that is corrupt, undefined, and irresponsible, but most importantly, without the search for truth. Jean-Paul Sartre’s view of existence clearly fits Mahfouz’s model for how man should seek to find meaning in a world that is corrupt and apparently meaningless. Like Sinbad, who is thrown into the sea, “the moment that [man] is thrown into the world he is responsible for everything he does” (Sartre 5). One, in essence, begins to exist once one is able to take responsibility for one’s own actions.

Works Cited

Bramann, Jorn K. “Sartre: Existentialism and the Modern World.”Existentialism. Frostburg State University, 2009. Web. 27 Aug. 2016. <;.

Di-Capua, Y. “Arab Existentialism: An Invisible Chapter in the Intellectual History of Decolonization.” The American Historical Review 117.4 (2012): 1061-091. Http:// Web. 27 Aug. 2016.

Mahfouz, Naguib. Arabian Nights and Days. New York: Doubleday, 1995. Print.

Sartre, John P. “Existentialism Is a Humanism.” Existentialism Is a Humanism. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Aug. 2016. <>.


Rumi and Mystical Poetry #poetry #middleeasternliterature

The mystical traditions of Christianity and Islam bear a striking resemblance to one another. The only little knowledge of mysticism that I have is through my experience attending  Eastern Orthodox Church services. I have been reading Rumi’s poems and have grown to love them. Each of his poems, like the themes found  in Christian mysticism, is about emptying the soul of all preconceptions of God and of the world, and embarkening on a search for truth. The idea is that the material world will often cloud our judgement and it is through avoiding indulging in worldly pleasures that we can truly find ourselves and existence.

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It is easy to see why Rumi was, and is, still read worldwide. Regardless of one’s faith, there is much to learn from Rumi, the 12th century Sufi poet, about deepening our understanding of ourselves and of the world around us.

Here are some examples of Rumi’s poems:

“This is love: to fly to heaven, every moment to rend a hundred veils;
At first instance, to break away from breath — first step, to renounce feet;
To disregard this world, to see only that which you yourself have seen6 .
I said, “Heart, congratulations on entering the circle of lovers,
“On gazing beyond the range of the eye, on running into the alley of the breasts.”
Whence came this breath, O heart? Whence came this throbbing, O heart?
Bird, speak the tongue of birds: I can heed your cipher!
The heart said, “I was in the factory whilst the home of water and clay was abaking.
“I was flying from the workshop whilst the workshop was being created.
“When I could no more resist, they dragged me; how shall I
tell the manner of that dragging?”

“Mystical Poems of Rumi 1”, A.J. Arberry
The University of Chicago Press, 1968

“Sweetly parading you go my soul of soul, go not without me;
life of your friends, enter not the garden without me.
Sky, revolve not without me; moon, shine not without me;
earth travel not without me, and time, go not without me.
With you this world is joyous, and with you that world is joyous;
in this world dwell not without me, and to that world depart not without me.
Vision, know not without me, and tongue, recite not without
me; glance behold not without me, and soul, go not without me.
The night through the moon’s light sees its face white; I am
light, you are my moon, go not to heaven without me.
The thorn is secure from the fire in the shelter of the roses
face: you are the rose, I your thorn; go not into the rose garden without me.
I run in the curve of your mallet when your eye is with me;
even so gaze upon me, drive not without me, go not without me.
When, joy, you are companion of the king, drink not without
me; when, watchman, you go to the kings roof, go not without me.
Alas for him who goes on this road without your sign; since
you, O signless one, are my sign, go not without me.
Alas for him who goes on the road without my knowledge;
you are the knowledge of the road for me; O road-knower, go not without me.
Others call you love, I call you the king of love; O you who are
higher than the imagination of this and that, go not without me.”

“Mystical Poems of Rumi 2” A. J. Arberry
The University of Chicago Press, 1991


Tethis Comforts Achilles

I was inspired by Homer’s The Iliad, and decided it would be fun to try something literature based.

The Iliad is a tale about fate. It is characterized by the Ancient Greek belief that the gods, just like the natural elements, are fickle, and appear throughout the tale to be less than the humans as they succumb to anger easily. Appeasing the Gods, as a man, meant to live your life with honor and valor regardless of your fate. Achilles’ fate is revealed to him from the very beginning of the tale and has to choose whether to die in battle with glory or live a long life without meaning. Achilles chooses to die in battle. My question is whether we can handle, or deal, with such ideas today. In some sense, we can. We are all, for instance, fated to die. We should question, therefore, how we should live out our lives knowing this. Should we choose the easy, long life, or struggle for something better?

Charcoal: 18×14 Posterboard

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Postmodernism and Modernism in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

I decided to write a paper on Ken Keseys’s One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest for my Literary Theory course, as it is one of my favorite books of all time. Kesey presents the perfect allegory of the Modernist and Postmodernist perspective. There is so much symbolism in this book, that it would take pages upon pages to detail each one. Each character in the book presents a unique struggle within the modern vision.

Modernism is described as “a radical break with the past and the concurrent search for new forms of expression” (Kuiper). It is characterized by industrialization and the idea of progress. Scientific achievements and technological advancements, war, and the development of the idea of the “consciousness,” as explicated by Freud, led people to question themselves. The Victorian ideals of morality and society were questioned. The time period between the 1890’s and World War I is described as the peak of Modernism in America (Kuiper). Modernists’ views infused every nook and cranny of society, causing a massive change in the perception of art, literature, clothing, politics, and culture. Traditional roles of man and woman began to be questioned. Art, which had been normally viewed as an endeavor towards platonic conceptions of universal ideals of beauty began to take on a new form. Form, lines, and colors began to take importance over the subject depicted. Art, in other words, shifted its focus to the individual self a it relates to the mind and the subconscious (Kuiper).

Postmodernism began during the period following World War I, but did not reach its height until the 1980s, through and after the Cold War. According to English author Malcolm Bradbury, Postmodernism has unclear origins but is mainly correlated with the rise of existentialism following Word War II. The “evils” caused by the Holocaust and Nietzsche’s idea of the will to power had a profound influence on social thought. Increase in anxiety as the Cold War proceeded also became a dominant feature of Postmodernism. Bradbury describes the production of writing during this time as a “distinctive, dissenting voice of postwar alienation (Bradbury 767).” Postmodernism did not just affect literature, it affected every form of human expression from art to media. It was a movement “from the real to the hyperreal” (Okeeffe). The major influence of Derrida’s vision of language and the idea that there is no such thing as an original truth impacted literary criticism. What ensued is the idea that humans can never be objective observers, since they are humans of their own time, so everything that is spoken is essentially a truth for a person only.

Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest fits the postmodern perspective, but also displays some modernist themes within the story. The whole story, essentially, is a microcosm of the outside world, a world steadily changing from modernist to postmodernist ideals. Postmodernism questions authorial intent. An allegory for this idea can be found using the mental state of a schizophrenic person, since “schizophrenia is basically a breakdown of the relationship between signifiers, linked to the failure of access to the symbolism” (Giulian 62). What better way to display this message than in a mental hospital where the patients are unable to form meaning in any real sense and are prevented from attaining an identity outside of being a patient? Disorganization, removal from historical context, an obsession with identity, and subjective symbols are characteristics displayed throughout the plot. There is also the experience of “alienation of people from one another, of the development of increasingly agonistic identities (Schulte-Sasse 9). This is notable in McMurphy’s charcter.

The main focus of this paper will be on the main characters, Chief Bromden, Nurse Ratched, and Randle McMurphy. Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a novel about a Native American named Chief Bromden who describes his personal experience at a mental hospital for 10 years. The Chief pretends to be deaf and mute in order to stay in the mental hospital. There is no reason stated for him choosing to stay, but one can infer that he stays in order to avoid confronting the outside world. In essence, he has become the voice who observes all that is taking place in the hospital and sees this as an important part of his identity. By doing this we get a first person view of a situation, a characteristic of the postmodern idea of the self as the sole authority of truth.

Through his stay at the hospital, he comes to the conclusion that the chief nurse, Ms. Ratched, is essentially a destroyer of men, condescending, and manipulative. Randle McMurphy, is the protagonist of the story, a war veteran who was diagnosed as a psychopath for drinking, fighting, and being extremely promiscuous. He has 3 years left at a prison camp, but is unable to behave well enough to finish his sentence. He, like the rest of the patients, is plagued by disillusionment and alienation through the changing perspectives of morality in the postmodern milieu. Most of the patients are described as war veterans who for some reason cannot cope with day to day activities, and have dysfunctional relationships with friends and family. In essence, the patients are symbols of those who have lost their identity because of their inability to adapt to the changing times.

Ms. Ratched can be said to display the modernist view of achieving a perfect society by the implementation of a set of specific rules and through the insistence upon strict adherence to a code. Chief Bromden’s depiction of the hospital is that it is a representation of the outside world; he says, for instance, “Under her rule the ward inside is almost completely adjusted to surroundings” (Kesey 26). The workers and the patients alike are subjected to her condescending and manipulative nature. Bromden, for instance, describes the workers as black men, because Ms. Ratched sees them as easy to control and because they keep things neat (Kesey 5). These men have become commodities to her. Her vision for a hospital is a place where the “schedule is unbreakable and all the patients who aren’t outside, obedient under her beam” (Kesey, 27). She wants to create the perfect hospital by implementing a specific set of rules and codes.

Her description, as a middle aged aloof woman, unmarried, and no children, makes her seem even more unnatural. This may be a reflection of the feminist spirit that male dominance has caused many problems in society. In order to escape the identify of being a women, she resists all attempts at developing a feminine character. She is not motherly, attractive, or emotional. She believes that she can control everyone by application of force. An example of this can be noted when Ms. Ratched does not allow the patients to watch the world-series on television. Her stated reason was that it would disrupt the routine of the hospital and thereby cause chaos to arise. Throughout the story, one gets a sense that she does not want her patients to feel too human or too happy, as she knows this would naturally lead to the questioning of her ideas. She restricts them from gambling or engaging in any sort of activity that she sees as superfluous. Ms. Ratched explains that all changes occur through a democratic vote. McMurphy attempts to incite everyone to vote, but is disappointed to find out that the votes do not truly count as the votes of the chronic patients, who are unable to vote, are counted. McMurphy becomes angry, but eventually gives up the fight with Ms. Ratched for a brief moment. Later in the story, he attempts to rouse Ms. Ratched by pretending to watch a game on the television and getting all of the other patients to participate in his charade (Kesey 137). Ms. Ratched feels usurped and is determined to regain authority by medical intervention by forcing McMurphey to undergo shock-therapy.

Utilitarian ideas, utopian visions, and the reliance on science as the cure to ailments are ideas that fit well within the modernist perspective. Nurse Ratched, throughout the story takes notes on everything that happens in order to assess and gain control of the situation. She, at one point, takes hold of all of the patient’s cigarettes in order to ration them out as she sees fit. She is viewed as staunch, unnatural, and repressed. As the authority figure of the ward, she is described by the patients, especially McMurphy, as manipulative and essentially robotic. She sees routine as an essential aspect of therapy for the patients. Kesey attempts to make her, not into a person, but a personification of the modern idea. From Ms. Ratched’s perspective, she feels that her authority as a women is being questioned and challenged after McMurphy enters the scene. In one part of the story, Harding, a patient who has been there for a long time, tells McMurphy that Ms. Ratched is strict but is not a monster. McMurphey responds by telling Harding that she is pecking “…at your balls” (57) denoting the power struggle between the male characters and the only female authority figure in the story. Towards the end of the book, for instance, in a dispute between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, McMurphy attempts to degrade Ms. Ratched by revealing her breasts to the patients, almost to remind her and the other patients that she is a person and not an idea. This occurs immediately after Billy Bibbit, a young man who defied Ms. Ratched by sleeping with a loose woman, commits suicide in front of her as a response to her oppressive behavior. McMurphy’s action could be viewed as an attempt to reveal the true nature of the situation, but also a desperate attempt to establish male dominance (Kesey 304- 305). McMurphy, in some sense, represents a failed man who becomes anxious. He has no children himself, no wife, and is characterized as dysfunctional.

McMurphy is the rebellious character. He is viewed as the savior of the disillusionment experienced by all of the other patients. He sees no meaning and value in staying in the prison camp or in the hospital. Progress can never be achieved and is unrealistic. So one should rebel and be free to discover ones truth. Avoiding the work prison camps, he cheats his way into what he thinks is an easy way out of his situation. His concept of morality is that it is subjective. He refuses to let the other characters be fooled by the notion that someone has control of their thoughts and choice on truth. In the plot, he invites two young loose women to the hospital, and gets everyone drunk (Kesey 287- 288). As the Christ figure in the tale, he essentially communes them before he decides to escape from the hospital. Although McMurphy plans to escape, he never does. He eventually gives in to Nurse Ratched. One can say that even he could not overcome his own situation. In the end, Nurse Ratched gets the hospital to perform a lobotomy on him so he becomes “a vegetable” (Kesey 308-309).

Another important aspect of Kesey’s work that points to the postmodern vision is the appearance of fog that is used by the hospital throughout the plot as described by Chief Bromden. The use of this fog is to cause confusion among the patients. Bromden believes that the fog is used to disorient the patients in order to hide some deeper secrets, or atrocities, in the hospital. He hears distant machines moving as the fog appears. This is a reference to the pessimistic view of technology. Displacement of time and the sense illustrates a clear postmodernist vision. The fist time the fog is mentioned, Kesey begins the paragraph with “When the fog clears to where I can see” (Kesey 8). The next paragraph begins with the words “This Morning I plain don’t remember” (Kesey 8). Both statements can be viewed as the cause and effect of what happens after one is placed in the hospital, or in a postmodern society with modernist perceptions. The story ends with Chief Bromden escaping the hospital, by breaking a window, and running away. He attempts to go back to all of the places he knew before entering the hospital. In essence, Kesey attempts to direct his readers from the unnatural to the natural. However, Bromden’s vision is clouded with nostalgic illusions of the world, as the world Bromden is returning to no longer exists.

Ken Kessey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest is a reflection of the disillusionment that arose toward the end of modernism and the inevitable entrance into the postmodern world. In other words, it is a postmodern vision of the struggles faced by modernists who are unable to conform to the changing times. The three main characters discussed all point to different perspectives within this paradigm, Nurse Ratched as the disillusioned authority figure who believes that her truth will save everyone, Bromden, as the Indian Chief who has been displaced by progress, and McMurphy, who tries to bring clarity to the situation, but is himself overcome by the same force as everyone else.

Works Cited

Bradbury, Malcolm. “What was Postmodernism? The Arts in and after the Cold War.” International Affairs 71.4 (1995): 763-774.

Bruno, Giulian. “ Ramble City: Postmodernism and ‘Blade Runner.’” October 41 (1987): 61-74.

Kesey, Ken. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest: A Novel. New York: Viking, 1962. Print.

Kuiper, Kathleen. “Modernism | Art.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2016. Web. 17 Jan. 2016. <;.

Okeeffe, Angel. “WEEK 2: Modernism and Postmodernism.” LITR330. American Military University, West Virginia. 17 Jan. 2016.

Schulte-Sasse, Jochen. “Introduction: Modernity and Modernism, Postmodernity and Postmodernism: Framing the Issue.” Cultural Critique 5 (1986-87): 5-22.