paper for a Contemp Lit
class, in which I compared Sadegh Hedayat
's The Blind Owl
with Edgar Allan Poe
's "The Raven
". (I got an A oddly enough):
Just as Sadegh Hedayat’s title, The Blind Owl, contains the addition of an adjective when compared with the title “The Raven”, so too does it define horror over Edgar Allan Poe. While Poe was one of Hedayat’s many antecedents it is interesting to see how much Hedayat’s work goes beyond in terms of its appeal to the senses. Poe may be accredited as one of the first great horror writers but Hedayat is more able to make the external become internal. What I mean by this phrase is his ability to use adjectives to bring experiences from the senses and convert them seamlessly into thoughts concerning emotions, time, and space. This is strengthened within The Blind Owl through the constant repetition of the same strings of adjectives appealing to different thoughts of the narrator. While Poe attempts this too he is limited in his use of "trochaic octameter" and ultimately falls short of Hedayat.
The initial sense which is appealed to within both stories is that of touch. Both narrators are alone in their rooms with some burden upon them. This burden is exemplified through depictions of bodily exhaustion. There is a circular effect in which, as their minds deteriorate so do their bodies, which in turn further deteriorates their minds. Here, however, within the first sentences, we can see the start of many separations. Poe’s famous opening line is one of the most recognizable in poetry: “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary”, and is obviously describing the state of his entire self. When compared with Hedayat’s: “There are sores which slowly erode the mind in solitude like a kind of canker”, we are struck with a much more gruesome, succinct representation. Hedayat then expands this idea into his entire first section in which a cacophony of words flow to describe his immense despair and the reasoning behind his story. While the following lines from Poe, “the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain / Thrilled me--filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before” (lines 13-14), do effectively link the external rustlings with feelings of internal terror they pale in comparison to the weight upon the narrator’s chest within The Blind Owl. Repeatedly we are reminded of the burden that is both physically and mentally compressing the narrator, an all-encompassing entity of guilt leading to insanity. Whereas Poe leaves us with a sense of implied terror, Hedayat exposes it outright. When all is said and done we are left with the weight of a dead body, not the rustling of curtains.
Scent is another of the senses which has a more powerful presence within The Blind Owl and leads the narrator into madness over the “smell of a corpse in process of decomposition” (26). The nearest equivalent which I could find within “The Raven” was the mention that, “the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer” (Line 79). But while the lines include an air of mystery and is well linked with the following sounds of the “Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor” (80), it remains less effective overall than the, “smell of death, the smell of decomposing flesh, which pervaded me, body and soul” (37). If we look further into Hedayat’s work we see that even the odor of grass contains a reference to the passage of time:
I recognized the familiar smell of the grass. Long past days of my life came back to me, but all these memories, in some strange fashion, were curiously remote from me and led an independent life of their own, in such a way that I was no more than a passive and distant witness and felt that my heart was empty now and that the perfume of the plants had lost the magic which it had had in those days (74).
At this point the narrator has been surrounded in death so long that he can no longer retain the memories that sensations used to bring and he loses touch with all reality. Death is all he can experience. Hedayat does seem to borrow from Poe at times, as can be seen when he conjoins the “perfume of sandal wood” with the “faintly bitter taste of the stub-end of a cucumber” through the unifying image of his wife’s legs (115). Smell and taste go seamlessly together to form something even more powerful, a flashback to the dead woman.
Taste is one of those senses which few express very well when it comes to literature, but Hedayat employs it with ease. By repeatedly using the words “acrid” and “bitter” and the simile “like the stub-end of a cucumber” we see characters that would normally have been taken as separate entities come together as one. Once again Poe only mentions, momentarily, a “sour within me burning” (line 31). We know that the cause of this sour is the silence and, with it, an increasing fear of what exactly is beyond the door, but Poe indulges us little beyond this. The cucumber taste, on the other hand, is brought up in multiple contexts to unify and connect the act of kissing with memories of his wife. Hedayat conveys his ideas of taste in a meaningful fashion over Poe, who struggles to implement it successfully.
Moving now to the sounds within both stories it is easy to map them as parallels to the progression of the plot. Within “The Raven” is a straightforward, linear story that progresses from an initial “rapping” on the door to an ominous, single, repeated word, “nevermore”. Here I congratulate Poe, for he displays an immaculate sense of genius in the simplicity of word choice. The effect of this simple word is enough to break the narrator down to the point at which he calls out, “Leave my loneliness unbroken!--quit the bust above my door! / Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!" (Line 100-101). In such a respect I think Poe actually does have Hedayat beat here. For though Hedayat successfully uses the “hollow, grating laugh, of a quality to make the hairs of one’s body sand on end” to conjoin each of the male characters, it inevitably has less of an effect on the reader (31). In addition, the laugh does successfully foreshadow the literal transformation of the narrator into the odds-and-ends man on page 115, but comes across as almost more irritating than scary. His usage does work within the context of the other sensations but falls short of Poe’s eloquence and simplicity.
Finally I have come to the topic of sight, or, in the case of these two stories, the lack thereof. For within both we see a heavy reliance on the darkness and shadows of the confined spaces to instill a sense of eerie discomfort. This discomfort is successfully transcribed from the physical into the mental as our narrators begin to cogitate more and more on their situation. The difference between the two comes in the role which the birds play in conjunction with the shadows. For Poe there emerges the “stately Raven of the saintly days of yore” (line 38), whom enters from the darkness beyond the chamber door. The narrator desperately believes this very Raven might tell him the answers of his lost love, Lenore, knowing well it will only answer, “Nevermore”. We see this fascination grow into fixation that drives him into a frenzy of screams:
"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil!--prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us--by that God we both adore—
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore— (lines 91-94)
He knows well that the dark messenger has no intent of answering, and is instead, “never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting” (103). The Raven then transforms itself into a demon, a grim reaper of sorts, whose shadow takes the narrator’s very soul. This last image works as a powerful mechanism to ignite fear in the reader, yet we are left with a sense that this death was almost senseless and contrived. Within Hedayat’s work we see the Blind Owl fulfill a different role. It is tied deeply to the shadow, which takes on many forms. While at first the narrator confesses his story to the silhouette upon the wall, he later takes to describing the shadow itself. As the other characters begin to develop the dark image becomes less of a conscience and more of a representation of the narrator himself.
I observed my shadow and saw that I was as frail and thin as I had been ten years earlier, when I was a child...I felt that my life had passed without purpose or meaning like the flickering shadows and was effaced instantaneously (103).
At this point the shadow is child-like because the narrator has released many of his burdens through the creation of the other characters. But he is also frail and vulnerable so upon their return the pain transforms him once more:
The shadow that I cast upon the wall was much denser and more distinct than my real body. My shadow had become more real than myself. The old odds-and-ends man, the butcher, Nanny and the bitch, my wife, were shadows of me, shadows in the midst of which I was imprisoned. I had become like a screech-owl, but my cries caught in my throat and I spat them out in the form of clots of blood…My shadow on the wall had become exactly like an owl and, leaning forward, read intently every word I wrote (123).
In a way Hedayat’s narrator has his soul stolen too by the owl, yet as the guilt amasses it becomes something more. The shadow grows into the owl, which knows the unending guilt of the narrator and becomes both the defendant and judge of the crime. Again the shadow acts as a conscience which condemns the narrator to the body of the odds-and-ends man. Though it seems conclusive, the story doubles back on itself once again at the end, leaving the reader with the same feelings of irresolvable guilt. Through this process of condemnation of oneself we get the full depth of a tortured soul. Although Poe’s Raven is also a memorable character it is ultimately too vague in comparison to this ominous owl.
In contemporary literature many of the books deemed “horror stories” are really just simple thrillers with little substance. While they may have a few of the elements of a truly scary story, their lack of cohesion contributes to a rather dull narrative. Though “The Raven” does not quite live up to its successor it does have a style about it that makes it very relatable and horrifying. Poe has an incredible knack for depicting horror through simple rhythm that makes his work quite unique. But what brings The Blind Owl to a higher standard is its ability to make every one of the senses come alive in some aspect of the story and then, once established, allows them to change it. In such a way Hedayat brings what is normally outside the character into his psyche and allows it to sit and disrupt all its prior experiences.