Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Ode to an old lesson

The wisest erotic dictum I know of was attributed, if I remember right (can't find it...), to a friend of the notable 20th century courtesan Pamela Churchill Harriman, onetime wife of Winston Churchill's son Randolph, who subsequently worked her way through Leland Hayward, Averell Harriman and a long train of  lovers. Asked what kind of tricks Harriman deployed to attract so many famous and powerful men, the friend reportedly replied, "The only trick is enthusiasm."

Last night I tripped over the same insight in a different context: reading the thirteenth century Sufi mystic poet Rumi -- who like many mystics, joyfully extended the tradition of the Song of Songs to cast the relationship between the human soul and God as an erotic one. Behold:

The Only Teaching

For lovers, the only teaching is the beauty of the Beloved;
their only book and lecture is the Face.
Outwardly they are silent,
but their penetrating remembrance rises
to the high throne of their Friend.
Their only lesson is enthusiasm, whirling, and trembling,
not the minor details of law.

Mathnawi III, 3847-3819
translated by Kahir Helminski and Camille Helminski

Enthusiasm literally means to be possessed by a god, though I don't know whether the etymology holds in the original Persian.  "Whirling" is the ecstatic dancing of the "whirling dervishes," which Rumi pioneered. 

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