Upon any discussion on the elaboration of “death” in Iran, one inevitably comes face to face with the often argued and examined notion that Iranians symptomatically suffer within a culture that is obsessed with the celebration of death, nostalgia and mourning. Many interdisciplinary scholars in recent decades have examined and provided data which proves such tendencies and their disastrous consequences for Iranians. Here, Gohar Homayounpour attempts to delve deeper into the various palettes of the “Persian Blues”, in the name of integration and a continuous re-examination of our comfortably established notions, she attempts to add a but, referring to the various derivatives of Eros’s footsteps upon the Persepolis of Persia, dreaming that this but might become a possibility for “linking”, a sense of orientation, inspiration, out of these particularly destructive and melancholic aspects of the Iranian culture, orienting us towards a voyage from melancholia to mourning.
Homayounpour has published various psychoanalytic articles, including in the International and Canadian Journals of Psychoanalysis. Her book, Doing Psychoanalysis in Tehran, published by MIT Press in August 2012, won the Gradiva award and has been translated into many languages.
Homayounpour is a member of the scientific board at the Freud Museum in Vienna and a board member of the IPA group Geographies of psychoanalysis.
The first thing that comes to mind when one is asked to elaborate on “death” in my geography is the often discussed and examined notion that Iranians symptomatically suffer within a culture that is obsessed with the celebration of death, nostalgia and mourning. Many scholars in recent decades have examined and provided data which proves such tendencies and their disastrous consequences for Iranians.
I have also written about this exact notion in my book Doing Psychoanalysis in Tehran, with reference to our famous myth, “Rustam and Sohrab”, from Ferdousi’s Book of Kings (Shahnameh, the most celebrated Iranian source of mythology), which has a storyline quite similar to that of Oedipus Rex, the main difference being that it is the father who unknowingly kills his son in the end. My extensive research shows that Greek mythologies appear to be populated with myths about the actual killing of fathers, while it is impossible to escape the common patterns of killing sons right across Iranian mythology. The wish to kill each other between fathers and sons is common across both mythologies, but who actually gets killed at the end and who gets rescued and is granted the right to life, is where the culturally specific element can be observed across these mythologies.
I am convinced of the universality of the Oedipus complex, and the struggle for power and control it represents while embodying within it the universal fear of castration; the culturally specific element seems to be the reaction to this fear. My premise is that the Iranian collective fantasy is anchored in an anxiety of disobedience that wishes for an absolute obedience. The son desiring to rebel knows unconsciously that if he does so he might be killed, and so, in a way, he settles for the fear of castration.
Is this not also seen in the differences between Catholicism and Islam? Islam means submission and demands absolute obedience to God the father, while in Christianity the demarcation between God the father and Christ the son is not quite as clear. This is clearly a very complicated and nuanced discourse, beyond the scope of this podcast. However, it appears that religions were socially constructed to fulfill the collective fantasies of these differing cultures. An analysis of Iranian history reveals it has always been a one-man show, while democracy was born within and is the essence of Greek society.
In Iran one can observe a moment of discontinuity from the past, and also from the future, because we have killed our sons, our future. Ferdousi’s discourse communicates a great deal of pain, tragedy and mourning. We symbolically killed our sons, became alienated and thus became a culture of mourning, for we have destroyed and killed the best part of ourselves. We destroyed our future and imprisoned ourselves in the past, eroticizing pain and suffering, and celebrating nothing that is not past.
Could we say that Ferdousi’s discourse provides a diagnosis of the Iranian society? He is trying to warn us, awaken us; his discourse is often that of a depressive.
Daryoush Shaygan, the late famous Iranian philosopher, informs us that the Iranian past is full of the myths and epics represented in the Shahnameh, in which there are continual allusions to the good attitudes of our ancestors, the beliefs and actions of our heroes and the myths of our great kings. This is a very nostalgic recollection: in a sense a very nostalgic collective unconscious.
One has to bear in mind that in countries like Iran the past is everything, and unfortunately we do indeed breathe in the air of regrets, as Shaygan puts it.
I still think all of the above assertions are significant, true and noteworthy, but… This but becomes significant, for in the name of a continuous re-examination and integration, or, as Lorena Preta puts it as the raison d’être of the Geographies of Psychoanalysis project: to put psychoanalysis to work in different geographies in the wish for a reciprocal contamination, not in the name of cultural relativism where we are categorizing, naming and therefore identifying the other but in the name of a non-humanitarian hospitality, to use Derrida’s term, in the name of a de-territorializing where borders are delineated as barely visible lines.
Within this discourse and above it, this but becomes a necessary act. A but that for me has only become visible after more than a decade of living in Iran and doing psychoanalysis in Tehran, certainly not mutually exclusive to the above assertions, but as an attempt to thicken the plot.
To just provide a few examples for the aforementioned but, can we escape the resilience that we observe when working with Iranian patients under an excruciating socio/political climate? Can we forget that this is inherently a culture of storytelling and is bestowed with a magical ability to play with language, encapsulated within Scheherazade and the Thousand And One Nights? Can we also remember that this is a culture of an exceptional cinema, of hospitality, breathtaking architecture, of marvelous poetry and of wine, yes of the best of Shiraz wine, of pleasure, of Sufism, Zarathustra and of the alluring, quintessential Persian Garden, an uncanny ability for humor and a hierarchy of friendship, just to name a few derivatives of Eros’s footsteps upon the Persepolis of Persia?
This is masterfully elaborated in Abbas Kiarostami’s film “Where Is The Friend’s Home?” The title is taken from a poem by the celebrated contemporary Iranian poet Sohrab Sepehri. To return to my ideas at the beginning of the paper on absolute obedience and authoritarianism, possibly anchored in the Iranian collective unconscious, well, the Kiarostami film is about a little boy, Ahmed, who accidentally takes his friend’s notebook home. Upon realizing his mistake, he becomes terrified of the punishment that might await his friend from their severely punitive and cruel teacher if his friend isn’t able to complete his homework due to the missing notebook. Our protagonist spends the rest of his day after school unsuccessfully trying to find his friend’s house. The next morning, we the audience anxiously join Ahmed in his classroom, hurriedly returning Reza’s notebook under our horrified gaze.
We are terrified to see the punishment that awaits Reza, only to discover that Reza’s homework has been completed by his friend. The movie ends here, with Reza flipping through the pages of his finished homework and finding a lovely dried flower, also left there by Ahmed.
We can speculate that to find one’s friend’s home metaphorically to be an investment of the psychic apparatus’s search and re-search for the linking process, or, to put it in Andre Green’s terms, the “objectilizing function of the drive”. This desire for linking indeed prevalent within the very being of the Iranian culture is an antidote to authoritarianisms and the death-oriented-ness of my geography. A binding that comes along as a cure to the unbinding of the death drive.
All I want to convey within this but is that inherent within the Iranian culture is also the desire and the courage to search for a friend’s home. In short, just as we cannot speak of pure destructiveness or creativeness, attempting to stay away from such binaries, in Iran we clearly don’t even have any exclusivity to Thanatos, as such a thing would be an impossibility in any case. We all have an internal compass (Eros) that could be our guide out of these particularly destructive aspects of this culture into the true meaning of the Orient, Eshragh, which in the etymology of the word means both inspiration and the place where the sun rises. In short, perhaps in the Orient there is still a sense of orientation to be discovered for all of us, as we put psychoanalysis to work, even if, like Ahmed, we don’t find our friend’s house, perhaps the road we take will indeed lead us to his home.
Over the years I have attempted to delve deeper into the Persian Blues; a word associated with melancholia, a mysterious Persian color, and indeed a genre of music which is as much a representation of life as death, encapsulating triumphs and laments, loss, love, friendships, loyalties, betrayals, joys, and fears.
Just like my beloved tunes of the blues from the Deep South; the sound of the slaves, the lyrics of the laments of the formerly enslaved and their descendants; Persian Blues is associated with depression, melancholia, misfortune, betrayal, pain and regrets. But we should not forget that inherent within Persian Blues, as it is within the tunes of the Blues, there is also a sense of orientation to be re-discovered, possibly not only for my geography but for yours as well, where pleasure, passion, humor, dreams, and friendships are celebrated.
Central to the idea of blues performance is the concept that, by performing or listening to the Blues, one is able to overcome one’s sadness: to lose the “Blues”. It is precisely this inherent duality of life and death, Eros and Thanatos, that makes the Blues such a joy to hear. Persian Blues is not about merely eroticizing sadness; it is not about drowning in it; it is about transforming it, feeling it, making music with it. Ultimately, it means going beyond the “Blues”.Like Abbas Kiarostami, I have a hunch that in getting us to this beyond, from melancholia to mourning, a newly discovered sense of orientation/inspiration will be instrumental; towards a linking inherent within the project of geographies of psychoanalysis.
Ferdowsi, A. (2016). Shahnameh: The Persian book of kings. UK: Penguin Press.
Green, A. (1999). The work of the negative, Weller A, translator. London: Free Association Books. [(1993). Le travail du négatif. Paris: Minuit.]
Homayounpour, G. (2012). Doing psychoanalysis in Tehran. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Derrida, J., & Dufourmantelle, A. (2000). Of hospitality. California: Stanford University Press.
Kiarostami, A. (1987). “Where Is The Friend’s Home?”[Film]. Home for the intellectual development of children and adolescents Productions.
Shaygan, D. (2005, 12 Dec). The depth of ordinary. Tehran: Shargh magazine, 294(20). [In Persian]
Sepehri, S. (2008). Eight books. Tehran: Tahoori publication. [In Persian].
Hezaar va Yek Shan (Thousand nights and a night) (2011). Translated by Mirza Abd-al Latif Tasuji Tabrizi. Reprinted of Kolaale Khaavar Publications (1936): Tehran
Definitions and the symbol of Eshragh. (2018, 6 Jan). Tehran: Eshragh Institute of higher education.