Translating Love’s Confusion: Hollywood and Misreading Rumi

Translating Love’s Confusion: Hollywood and Misreading Rumi February 13, 2017

The 2010 Hollywood celebrity fest chick-flick Valentine’s Day opens with Reed Bennett, a florist played by Ashton Kutscher, proposing marriage to Morley (Jessica Alba), as she wakes up on Feb. 14.

Evidently startled, Morley initially accepts, sending Reed on a joyful mission to let everyone know his sweetheart said “yes”! But his elation is short-lived. A few hours later Reed finds Morley in his apartment packing her bag as she hands back his ring and walks out on the relationship entirely.

Just then, as movie’s downtrodden protagonist leaves the scene, the narrator — a radio show host named “Romeo Midnight” — drops a word of wisdom that sounds a tinge sufi.

“It’s Romeo Midnight back again.
And if those topsy-turvy feelings have got you twisted inside out, think of the poet Rumi who 800 years ago said: `All we really want is love’s confusing joy.’
Amen, brother.”

Livlu Ghemaru -- Heart of Steel
Heart of Steel, by Livlu Ghemaru

When I watched this movie shortly after its release, I was bemused at the irony of hearing a 13th-century Islamic poet and scholar quoted in a cheesy American blockbuster seemingly unwittingly. A Persian poet of love, Rumi is often uprooted from his historical context and polished for resale for Western audiences who may not realize his object of affection isn’t a romantic love interest, but the Divine Beloved.

Rumi writes in a transcendent and inclusive way about love and loss, so his wide-reaching appeal isn’t surprising. Yet it can be frustrating to see him conspicuously taken out of context. Not only is he often divorced of the Islam, or Self Surrender, his poetry conveys, Rumi’s words can be used to propagate unrealistic ideals of how romantic love is the magic key to personal fulfilment and happily ever after.

I’ve certainly been swept up in these sentimental pursuits, especially in my 20s. My upbringing combined Egyptian influences and North American popular culture (Hollywood and Disney included), particularly in the late-1980s and 90s, both of which dictated I needed to find love, get married and have children to be whole.

Measured against these standards, I was a failure. Before 25, I’d broken off two engagements, and for many years after that my love life was one long dry spell punctured by a handful of dates and a couple of agonizing encounters with unrequited love. A resentful inner critic insisted I was to blame, and that persistent hollowness in my core could only be filled with romantic love, which I felt I couldn’t be worthy of; I couldn’t get the part.

Rumi’s was one of the first voices that rescued me from these dark delusions. We crossed paths as I started exploring Sufism, Islam’s spiritual tradition, in my early 30s, drawn by its persuasion to open my heart to God through love rather than fear. Quite fittingly, it was a broken heart that forced me to take a hard look at my miserable inner world that was hoarding years of guilt, shame and disenchantment.

Vinoth Chandar The Drongo Love
The Drongo Love, by Vinoth Chandar

The remedies to my suffering began to reveal themselves in sound bites.

“You have to keep breaking your heart until it opens,” Rumi said in one.

“The wound is the place where the light enters you,” he mused in another.

In the months I spent reading and reflecting on the wisdom of Rumi through translated segments of his 25,000-verse Masnavi, as well as the Holy Quran and other historical and contemporary spiritual scholars, something changed in me. Outwardly I was still a single woman navigating societal and familial pressures that held me responsible for my relationship status. But I began to comprehend how the affection I sought to direct to others was desperately needed by someone more worthy of my compassion and consideration: me.

I had been too preoccupied with reprimanding myself for relationship mishaps to notice the remedy to my inner emptiness was embracing my circumstances without limitations. Each step I took toward this shifted my consciousness, enabling me to perceive the Beloved I’d been searching for all along. God wasn’t an abstract being existing outside of me, He was, as the Quran teaches, closer to me than my jugular vein. Yet only through self love and acceptance did I begin to discern the Divine’s presence.

Curious about the origins of the Rumi quote that appeared in Valentine’s Day, I first encountered it in a longer passage carried in the 1995 book The Essential Rumi:

If you want what the visible reality can give, you’re an employee.
If you want the unseen world, you’re not living your truth.
Both wishes are foolish, but you’ll be forgiven for forgetting: 
what you really want is love’s confusing joy.

What fascinated me about this translation was seeing the two lines that preceded the Hollywood snippet. They spoke to me both of the dangers of relying on transient attachments for a false sense of wholeness and hiding in a spiritual bubble to avoid feeling human sensations, like heartbreak. I have been guilty of both.

Yet I was recently directed to a version of the quatrain translated by Kabir Helminski and Lida Saeedian that more closely honors the original poem in Persian, and notably makes no mention of “love’s confusing joy.”

O you who study the world, you’re just a hired worker.
And you who want Paradise, you’re far from the Truth.
And you who are happy with the two worlds, but unaware,
because you have not experienced the happiness of His sorrow,
you’re simply excused.

The first translation reflects a reading of Rumi that’s designed to appeal to the sensibilities of New Age spirituality, even if that disconnects his words from their authentic backdrop. Herein lies the predicament of reducing Rumi’s poetic tradition into quotes that can be appropriated to fulfil a purpose not only divorced from its original language, but also the intended meaning.

I imagine I’ll spend my lifetime bewildered by Rumi, and what I can learn from him on how to strike a balance between my role as a lover of the Beloved and as a romantic partner. Yet even simply the process of pursuing intimacy with God has transformed how I approach human love. I’m more open to giving love with fewer conditions and embracing the confusing and messy realities of relationships that Hollywood often glosses over.

As I learn to appreciate the divinity within myself, my capacity to perceive and honour the divine qualities unique to my partner expands too. It’s this radiant  continuum between human and divine love that regrettably gets lost in contemporary translations.

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