Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Lost Camel--and Humanity

In Book II of Rumi’s Mathnawi, the desert traveler goes in search of his or her lost camel, frantically calling out, “Has anyone seen my camel? The caravan is leaving me behind.”  And persons lie to the traveler, claiming to have seen the camel, pointing the wrong way! The traveler goes almost manic because a camel carries all one’s treasures; without the camel it’s impossible to traverse the desert. Making the journey of life looks hopeless. How does one tell the true clue from the false ones? How do we track destiny?

While the traveler is indeed an interesting figure, right now it’s the person following the searcher that’s caught my attention.  Several accounts of this story don’t even include the follower. This second person acts the fool, a comic figure mimicing the words and actions of the traveler. “Have you seen my camel running loose?” the traveler asks an old fellow. The follower, having no notion of even having a camel much less a lost one, still says the same: “Have you seen my camel running loose?”

I’m very drawn to the moment when the traveler recognizes those directions that tell the true way. The follower sees this, and I think it’s seeing with a hungry vision, a longing for the transcendent. Coleman Barks includes this story in his book titled: This Longing.*  At the moment when the traveler discerns the right clue, the follower sees the traveler’s eyes light up, sees the dance in the traveler’s feet, and sees that the “screams of joy are not delirious.”**

In recent years when I’ve listened over and over to Coleman’s resonant voice reciting his version of “The Lost Camel,” I knew there was a pearl in the story, waiting for illumination. Maybe I needed to make sense of this second person who doesn’t even know he/she has a camel until this trial of imitation is done. 

Just as the archetypal fool or trickster fills a complex role in the ecology of mythology, just as it does in the complete life of a person, this follower offers something vital to the story Rumi gives us. What is this that chases after the sincere searcher? How can it be that this charlatan discovers a camel? And how can this strange turn ring true? Maybe this “non-rational” behavior fits in Timothy Wilson’s discussion of the “adaptive unconscious” that knows in the gut even when not in the mind (Strangers to Ourselves, for example, page 172)

When the “Lost Camel” found its way into our Good Stories this past week, an answer fell into place for me. The rightness relates to a long-standing conversation, often an argument, I’ve had with myself about the rhetorical canon of Style. In the many times that I get disillusioned with preachers and politicians and glitzy advertising, it’s often about matters of stye: emotional, seductive, waxed-over. Even if there isn’t “etymological justification for the common story that the word sincere means ‘without wax,’” sincerity  ought to go with pure motive, free of artificial covering, no excessive style. Right?

When I get worked up like this, there’s usually a wake-up call coming. And I think that’s what the Lost Camel has been trying to bring, especially with the part about the second person who appears to lack sincerity. The mercy of the story includes the good news that style has a redeeming quality, especially when the definition in classical rhetoric is met: style is the (hu)man. The passionate style of the traveler might be the key to waking up the “lost human.” 

The second person might be the most important figure in the story. It pushes us to care for all those, including oneself, who don’t even realize their own camel is missing. Look into the faces in a sports stadium and see the desperation, the mask of hunger, of longing for meaningfulness. See the empty eyes filling shopping malls. Listen to all the voices full of words without depth. The emptiness is not only in depression or misplaced enthusiasm or obsession; it’s also in despair and rage because there’s not even awareness of a lost camel that could provide the means to cross the desert.

But the story “Lost Camel” offers hope. The lost human might yet see someone’s passion and follow it. Even when the motives are not pure, the person can get attracted to a stranger’s eyes that light up. And why can’t that light come off a friend, a co-worker, a teacher? 
** Materials can be found on: Coleman Barks’ website. “Lost Camel” is on the CD, Just Being Here. A terrific interview with Coleman shows his passionate style related to following Rumi’s work: “Different Ways of Laughing,” Gibson Fay-LeBlanc interviews Coleman Barks, February 27, 2007.

*Quoted line is from Jawid Mojaddedi’s translation, Rumi: The Masnavi, Book Two, p. 175, about line 3000.  In Nicholson’s classic translation of the Mathnawi, the Lost Camel comes in around line 2980, Book II. Whinfield’s translation of the Masnavi includes the story but not the follower. Arberry’s Tales from the Masnavi also has the story but omits the follower.