3. Ganjavi, Layli and Majnun, Eskandarnameh



Ainah I Sikandari from Khamsa

We will begin the discussion around the text before coming to the story of Layla and Manjun proper,  in order to reveal or illuminate an aspect of global cultural history:  transmissions of texts across cultures.   Ganjavi’s epic poems stand at several cross roads, pre-Islamic and Islamic,  modern and ancient ,  east and west, Persian and Arab.    We will look back to an important source for Nezami, Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, who looked back to preislamic lore and myths; and we will look ahead to the 14th century when Nezami’s Khamsa is purchased by European kings, as well as to the 16th century when it is gifted to Italian rRenaissance courts; we will look east to India, to Khosrow’s adaptions, and west to Ottoman and Turkish renderings.

Layla and Majnun inspired many poets to write their own versions  of Layli and Majnun.  In light of a recent discussion at the university about  “appropriate punishments for ‘self-plagerism'” we will probe into the logic of various types of repetitions:   borrowing, plagerism, commemoration, and working through…    What is the difference between a repetition and a working through, to use a psychoanalytic term?   Can a self in fact ever remain in character—to use Daniel Day lewis’s speech this week at BAFTA—if one does not repeat oneself?

1. Discussion topics for Ganjavi’s Layli and Majnun:   What is the significant of a “name”, and the specific names in the poem?; Love: how does Majnun’s love compare with the eros at Plato’s Symposium? Which definition of eros does Majnun’s resemble the most? Or differ?; Madness: what is majnun’s madness standing for in this poem? Is it idealized? is it condemned? Why cant he be cured?; Wondering, meandering, home and wilderness; Love: What vs. Who?; role of  friendship and community; Compare to modern version, SILVER LINE PLAYBOOK?

2. The art of the book; words and images.  calligraphy.  Stockstad, Art of Islamic World, pp.279-281.


11 thoughts on “3. Ganjavi, Layli and Majnun, Eskandarnameh

  1. There are some rather obvious difference between Majnun’s love and the description of Eros we get from Plato in Symposium, but the idea I keep coming back to is that of Erotic creation.

    In Symposium, Diotima says that part of Eros is the desire to create in a beautiful medium—we write great poetry or music when we are in love. Eros, of course, is the middle space between fulfillment and lack, between absolute knowledge and total ignorance—Eros is the wanting of what one does not have, and, having it, desiring to possess it forever. It is this longing that defines us—think of that tragic comedy of searching for one’s other half—and that allows for the creation of something beautiful.

    In this way, Plato and Majnun are precisely in line with one another—Majnun writes the world’s most beautiful poetry out of his longing for Layla. The presence of Eros—longing for what is beautiful that he does not have—leads to creation (much like Rumi’s Reed Flute who sings out of the pain of distance).

    On the topic of Majnun’s madness (now there’s a repetitive phrase), I think he is mad in that it is certainly not a path that many would choose willingly. Perhaps it appears pathetic to many a modern viewer, but I think that it takes a quiet sort of courage to love someone, day in, day out, without expectation of anything in return but more pain and longing. Majnun has the option to walk away, to marry another woman and forget about Layla, to be “healed”—and yet he turns it down. In that choice, he is making a true commitment and showing real courage.

    Say that their love comes to nothing—but doesn’t it? They communicate. They understand each other. He writes for her and she for him, and they do meet a very small number of times. Perhaps, as has been suggested, he was in love with the idea of longing, and there is a good point there. But perhaps it really was love for her, and though their love is never “requited” in the modern sense, perhaps our perception of that has as much to do with living in a highly sexualized culture as anything else. In any case, Majnun and his longing for Layla are clearly relevant enough that these two lovers have been emulated throughout literary history—and we are still asking ourselves the same questions about the natures of love (Is it love?) and longing.

  2. Ganjavi was clearly influenced by the Symposium, but Layla & Majnun is equally influenced by the Islamic world in a way that makes it definitively different from Plato’s musings on love. Like Socrates, Ganjavi relates a story where the lover is the most noble being, a slave to his own sense of yearning. The process of loving and the all-consuming nature of that feeling is what merits enlightenment and creativity in both traditions. Socrates says that creation is a birthing made possible by the human condition of wanting, or even fear of losing. Majnun recites beautiful poetry as a result of his love driven madness for Layla.

    The difference is that while Socrates advocated love as a means to a noble end, Ganjavi implies that love is the noble experience in itself, and the creations borne of it are simply byproducts. Socratic love is polygamous because yearning in most cases is a finite passion, one that can be consummated and then repeated in a new context. Majnun and Layla’s love is fiercely monogamous. Their virgin love is never consummated, and as such, the state of desire and yearning is never quelled.

    While some find Majnun’s dedication to adoring Layla courageous and noble, I find it to be the opposite. Courage requires action, and Majnun never takes any decisive action. His poetry is arguably what makes him admirable, but even so, that art is only made possible by his refusal to act upon his desires. In this sense, I think Layla & Majnun is essentially more of an allegory than a love story. Majnun is given chances to grab for what he seeks, but he ignores them because the feeling of loving (or moving closer to Eros as Socrates would say), is more intoxicating and more safe than doing what is truly courageous. However, I don’t think Majnun is tragic, because I don’t think he would have had it any other way. He wasn’t a hopeless, miserable being, he was a lover and he relished in that feeling. Only through a Western lens does Majnun’s stroy seem pathetic and horrible. Sure, it doesn’t adhere to Disney principles of love and happiness, but neither does real love. At least in his steadfast loyalty to the truth of love do I respect Ganjavi.

    During the first day of my Junior year, my eccentric English teacher wrote the word DISCOURSE in capital letters with a felt marker on the white board in front of class. He asked us, “What have I written on the board? What does it mean?” The answers varied and my teacher eventually told us, “Discourse is intellectual discussion, and it is the answer to everything you will study in dis-course (Ha! It’s a joke!).”
    Now, I’m choosing to answer the question “What is the difference between a repetition and a working through?” with one word: discourse. Every writer, artist, creator is involved in a continuous discourse with his audience, his peers, and himself. For example, a writer composes a piece that is meant to provoke discussion within the public, consider ideas from his fellow writers, and continue the ongoing discovery process within himself. A creator must repeat himself, because that is essential to have a proper discourse. Discourse is not plagiarism, but a “working through” for the creator. One cannot create new ideas and products every single time.

    In some ways Majnun’s role of the mad lover is idealized in this story. Majnun is able to use his madness to create beautiful music and communicate with Layla which isn’t how life always works out. This story is written with the assumption that there is only one woman that Majnun is meant to be with, as opposed to the idea in the Symposium that a man should have many lovers before he decides on one. However, Majnun is also condemned within his society for his being literally ‘madly in love.’ However, Majnun cannot be “cured” because his desire has taken over his body and he is unable to think of anything or anyone else.
    Majnun plays his role as the tragic lover well, and his desire fuels every aspect of his life and every decision he makes. The piece relates very well to modern society. Majnun is defined by his name which literally translates to “madness” in English. Often, when we find people who are deeply in love we call them “mad” or “crazy.” Even the words we use to describe love are violent and painful: FALL in love, head over heels, madly in love, love sick. Love is often represented as maddening, and “Layla and Majnun” is a perfect representation of this concept.

    • Gloria… thinking about your two ideas, discourse and Majnun’s madness: Is Majnun doomed to repeat the same song, layla… and this is his madness, and a cure would mean a working through, a “discourse” the way you define the term here?

  4. Discourses on Layla on Majnun (kudos to Gloria for providing a definition of the term):

    1. The Power of Names

    To name something is to berth it into the realm of the intelligible. A name is but a word, a noun–the written manifestation of an amalgamation of thoughts, words and bodies that makes up a person. Names validate one’s sense of existence, whether it be Allah, Yahweh (lit. “I am” in Hebrew), Layla, or Majnun. Without them, one feels a strange sense of ambiguity towards the nameless. I cannot fathom how to begin to comprehend something without knowing its name, or at least my knowledge of one’s name gives my mind a framework from which I can better perceive and understand another. Names define and illuminate. For in a sense, giving a name is an act of ekphrasis; by associating someone with a word or series of words, one creates associations with the connotations of those words–those that are inherently linked to not only the word’s definition, but our perception of it and feeling of it. By choosing a word that becomes that person, one simultaneously defines the word as well as the person. The person becomes the word in all of its meanings, and likewise our experience becomes reprogrammed with the new definition of it.

    For example, Majnun is the word for “Madman.” By simply hearing the name “Majnun,” I already have created him in my mind, as if I can see him in my mind’s eye plain as day. When I think of the a madman, I see someone who is possessed, crazed, rash, desperate, and covetous, unstable, and perhaps even insane. The name has already done half the work in bringing the individual to life, and I once I know how desperately he loves Layla, I can empathize much more with his emotions and persona. Another example: the word “Layla” means “night,” but later interpretations have added the connotations “dark-haired beauty” to it; essentially, I can interpret the name to mean “one who is as beautiful as night.” I can already imagine such characteristics of the person: the night itself is dark, mysterious, and somewhat enchanting in a certain light. It also can be very beautiful – images of the moon, and the starry sky come to mind when I hear the name. Put both the two names together, and one gets a wonderful palette of imagery that begins to capture of the feeling or essence of the story or relationship between the characters: a man possessed of someone as beautiful and ravishing as the night. Two words have already created the framework in which I experience the story. Thus, names have extraordinary power: to name something in itself is an act of creation.

    2. On the nature of love in Layla and Majnun

    As we have discussed in class, and how Courtney, Kenzi, and Gloria have beautifully illuminated in the above comments, the story of Layla and Majnun can be described as highly erotic. I will attempt to summarize the key similarities and differences in the points below:

    a. Layla and Majnun desperately love one another, almost in the Platonic definition of desiring that which one has not.
    b. Majnun’s love for Layla becomes the impetus to create in an attempt to preserve/immortalize that experience in the only way that is attainable for mortal humans – Diotima’s idea of creation in a beautiful medium. However, there is a lack of emphasis on the object of goodness and beauty attained by such creation as Plato outlined. However, the idea that love creates a desire to create and express is an important thought in itself which I will discuss below. (essentially Kenzi’s point that Plato’s love is an instrument, while Ganjavi’s love is a journey.)
    c. Layla and Majnun mutually acknowledge each other’s love.
    d. Unlike in Symposium, where one must love many to learn of beauty, Layla and Majnun are totally devoted to but one person – each other.

    The aspect of their love that I would like to explore in Ganjavi’s love between Layla and Majnun is the effect it has had over their lifetime described in the story. The fact that Layla and Majnun spend the majority of their lives yearning and desiring in a state of “ishq” (ishq is a term I read coined by the Islamic philosopher Al-Jahiz which refers to “passionate love”, one that works like a sickness to totally consume the individual) without fulfillment is in fact tragic – it reminds me of the old question “is it better to have loved and lost than to have loved at all?” The fact that Layla and Majnun rarely get to actually be together puts an emphasis on the journey itself; it almost makes it seem as if the end is but unimportant compared to what the two experience (they forever search for that goal, yet do not attain it. If they do not attain it, then what do they attain?) The focus of Majnun’s love, Layla, in a sense gave Majnun purpose in life and direction – similar to Aeneas’s journey – but his motivator was destiny rather than a beloved; it can be argued that his future was his beloved but I won’t get into the details – and Augustine’s daily desire to know God in Confessions. Majnun, out of his love for Layla, ended up scorning all of his possessions, going on a journey experiencing the world with princes among other people, and writing some of the most beautiful love songs and poems of all the land according to the story. Winning Layla became his vocation, his purpose, and his existence in life, and through his burning desire he was able to frame his experience of the world (although painful as it was, though I often hear people say something along the lines of “nothing worth achieving comes without pain.”) Does love create purpose? Does love bring the best, and sometimes the worst, out of us? This concept, illustrated by Layla and Majnun is an intriguing idea.

    (I laughed when I read about the comparison to Silver Linings Playbook.) I’ll have to think about it, but off the top of my head I feel like the same essence of love is there, and there are similarities you can draw between aspects of the plot to Majnun. The modern-day patina and setting of the film is entirely different though; it seems to be more reflective of contemporary social and cultural ideas than those in Majnun.

    • Like your remark on ‘ekphrasis’ a lot… specially since it brings in concepts from last semester. About Silver Lining Playbook, I am very serious. Here is a man who has been labeled as ‘mad’ and has been hospitalized in a mental institution because of the excessive love he feels for his wife… No one else will do, and he is so obsessed he has to get her back and so on and so forth. Except that he has a break through and gets out of the compulsive repetition…

    • Spencer, I liked your comment about ‘ishq so much that I felt the need to quote al-Jahiz, because it’s actually rather perfect: “Infrequency of meeting aggravates and inflames it [‘ishq], and separation fans its flames to the point of delirium, exhaustion and neglect of all everyday matters…” The one difference I would point out is that according to al-Jahiz, prolonged separation leads to the disintegration and eventual disappearance of ‘ishq (though it leaves scars). So does this make Majnun the absolute perfect example of overwhelming ‘ishq? And is it possible that al-Jahiz actually knew this story?

  5. The other day, I decided to go to the National Gallery. As I wandered through the museum, I saw countless repetitions and retellings. Some of these were based on classic tales. These stories, which were originally written, inspired works of art. As for repetitions, in the National Gallery alone there are over 20 paintings titled ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’, the earliest of which was painted in 1370 (to be I honest, I didn’t notice all 20, but I saw enough of them to catch my attention).
    As I passed the third painting on Narcissus, I couldn’t help but think of the conversation that we had in class. What is the role of retelling and re-imagining? Should we use the nasty term ‘plagiarism’ when talking about these repetitions?
    I still believe that retelling and re-imagining are valid forms of creativity. Each version of ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’ is different, has its own worth. While working on a school project last year, I found three separate latin accounts of the story Theseus and the Minotaur (Ovid, Plutarch, and Catullus). Each of these stories was slightly different. They come together to form the general myth acknowledged today.
    The story of Layla and Manjun largely focuses on the connection between love and madness. This idea appears repeatedly in stories. Narcissus became so infatuated with his love (his own image) that he died staring in a lake, unable to function. In Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, one could claim that Ophelia is driven to madness by the actions of Hamlet. In ‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald Gatsby goes to extremes to see Daisy, his past love, and win her back. This includes throwing lavish parties on a nightly basis and taking the blame for her for Myrtle’s death. As the character Willow Rosenburg noted on the cult phenomenon ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, “Love makes you do the wacky.”
    The Story of Layla and Manjun also includes love as a means of inspiration. Manjun creates beautiful poems for Layla. This idea is constantly repeated throughout history. In the Symposium Diotima believed that the greatest result of love was creation (either the birth of humans or ideas). There are countless love songs inspired real life loves, countless love stories based on reality.

  6. The story of Layla and Majnun made me question the role of names. Why are names important? How important are they for us? There have been studies, showing how names can define one’s identity and mould her life. As a matter of fact, there’s an episode of a father who called his two sons (respectively the oldest and the youngest) Winner and Loser (no joke, I read it on Freakonomics, real stuff). Winner became a lifetime criminal; Loser a detective in the NYPD. Back to my point, Ganjavi has chosen different methods to relate to his characters: some characters are called with the same name throughout the entire story (Layla, for example), others don’t even have a name of their own, but only denominations (such as sayyid or the chieftain), and then the pivotal character, who has his name changed. First known as Qays, because of the love he felt for Layla, was soon renamed Majnun, “mad man”. Indeed, many of the actions we undertake (especially if exceptional or repeated on a daily basis) lead other people to call us according to them. In Qays’/Majnun’s case it’s non the name that defined his being, rather his feelings that lead people to adapt him a different name.

    But the significance of name in the story goes far beyond what I just said: we see how Layla’s father is offended by the fact that Majnun calls his daughter name in his songs. Yet, the reason is not really explained in the text, perhaps because it was implicit in the culture of the time. The only conclusion I could come to is that, according to ancient beliefs, to say one’s name is to own them (e.g. the Hebrew name for God was either YHVH or YHWH, unutterable names, because no one could possess him). Majnun keeps on calling the name of his beloved, chanting it in his songs, causing him only to grow fonder of her and, at some point, even confuse himself in her.

    As regards love, Ganjavi undoubtedly drew on Plato’s Symposium and the idea of love portrayed in it: the love Majnun harbours for Layla is never physical, there is no sexual intercourse between the two, yet it begins from the physical attraction of the two persons, which eventually develops into something deeper and emotional. What the term Platonic Love stands for (minus the Supreme Good part). Your question about the comparison with a more modern version, such as the one seen in the movie Silver Linings Playbook is rather interesting: in both of these stories, the man tries to prove his love through intellectual activities (Pat reads the books that his wife told him to read during their marriage, but he never has – he’s trying to prove that he could be a more caring and listening husband), yet never interacts with the beloved, if not indirectly. Love is for both these “mad” men harrowing, as neither is actually reckless, but it’s a sort of cliché to define a man such if he’s ready to do anything for the woman he loves.

  7. Majnun the incurable lover:

    Majnun is the perfect lover. He is faithful and loyal to his partner, but as his nickname suggests, he is mad. There is no cure because he does not want it. The pain that comes with his longing for Layla allows him to create the most beautiful poems. He dwells on his pain and creates poems from thin air. It is his agonizing emotions that result in such beauty. This might suggest that the most beautiful literature only comes from pain. Therefore, are things only beautiful in the eyes of a person in agony? His ability to withstand the pain of love emphasizes his strength.

    Layla and Majnun is a documentation of true love where passion conquers the minds of the lovers. Ganjavi reveals to the readers the true consequences of a love relationship. In general, when ending a relationship lovers are usually left with a broken heart that might not be able to be mended. Majnun has been consumed in emotion and cannot rationalize. His soul does not balance between emotion and reason, but is dominated by passion. Passion never dies and therefore he remains mad. Another reason for him not being cured is because passion can be an addictive emotion. Layla is his drug and he cannot live without her. His life depends on his thoughts about Layla or he is left empty. In order to be cured, he must erase Layla from his memory, and that means all his life in the desert and the poems that he composed no longer has a meaning. Therefore, his only cure is death because that is when his emotions are stopped and he can rest in peace.

  8. Majnun, which means madness, is both the name and description of one of the characters in Ganjavi’s story, Layla and Majnun. While Majnun follows Plato’s description of Love in Symposium; however, the main difference between Plato’s description of love and Majnun’s love is the ending. Plato describes love as helping us improve ourselves, as love is the process by which we learn to love truth and eventually move beyond the love of the physical to the love of an idea. In Layla and Majnun, Majnun descends into madness because of his love for Layla. Because of the madness Majnun creates poetry, however he also withdraws from society. Majnun’s madness is far from the idealized idea of love found in Plato. While the story of love in Layla and Majnun is not entirely fruitless, as both Layla and Majnun communicate through their art. However, while they are able to communicate through their art they never get to be together, until their death. In this story death brings the happiness that Layla and Majnun were not able to have in life, but is love just a torture that causes us to go mad? The question remains is should Majnun have tried to improve himself so he could have been with Layla, or was it better for him to remain mad? Love might have enabled Majnun’s love of Layla to be immortalized in his poetry about her, but the story also contains the story of the madness that love brought Majnun. Is love a beneficial force or a destructive one? Ganjavi’s story leaves the reader in doubt as Majnun’s love comes to define him and prove to be both a source of art, and a source of sadness. So love in Ganjavi’s story is both a source of beauty and sadness; pain and pleasure; madness and clarity.

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