Satisfaction, Distraction, and the Human Condition

One of the most remarkable features of the age we live in is that the most meaningful and important things in the lives of individuals and societies — things like religion, ethics, and education — must struggle for relevance against a tide of nihilism. The comfort which has come with the satisfaction of all of the basic material needs of humans in the modern world along with the various distractions that have been invented to occupy and pacify the human mind have made the task of educators, missionaries, and anyone else who still believes in the importance of ideas perhaps more difficult than it has ever been. Whereas Christians of earlier generations had to confront the passionately held beliefs of those with rival philosophies and religions, Christians today must confront an enemy which is far more destructive, a sort of passion for apathy, or what might appropriately and simply be called nihilism.

It is a universal truth of the human condition, elucidated by St. Augustine of Hippo in his Confessions, that “the human soul on earth is always restless.”1 The combination of satisfaction and distraction in the modern world, however, has provided a seemingly endless string of temporary alleviations for this restlessness, preventing the restless human soul from ever finally reaching a point of satiation or boredom with worldly things. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter heaven,” not because there is anything intrinsically wrong with wealth but because the rich man is so entrapped by his wealth that he fails to search after something higher and more ultimately satisfactory.2

The rich man of Christ’s statement, who is nearly synonymous with modern man generally, has separated himself from the human condition and so, in a sense, from his own human nature. He does not “redeem the time” by seeking to live a life of meaning and significance but instead merely passes the time.3 As Henry David Thoreau pointed out already about those around him in the middle of the nineteenth century, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. … A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work.”4 Most of these “games and amusements” have assumed a nature that is unrelated to the life of man in the truest sense of that phrase. As Fr. William F. Lynch has pointed out, modern man has “create[d] a night-time culture, and a kind of time within it that has no relation to the day or to the work we do during the day.”5

One of the oldest forms of play, and the most essential, is the communal play of religious ritual. Religious ritual, however, is not a mere amusement, unlike the play of modern man. Just as the play of children, such as the care little girls give to their baby dolls or the war games of boys, is a kind of preparation for the sorts of tasks they will have to encounter as adults, liturgy is a form of pure play for the soul. Fr. Romano Guardini, a Catholic priest and thinker, once wrote, “it [the soul] must learn not to be continually yearning to do something, to attack something, to accomplish something useful, but to play the divinely ordained game of the liturgy in liberty and beauty and holy joy before God.”6

Even when modern man does find himself, usually through accident or coercion, confronting something of significance, such as one of the great books, he refuses to confront it with his whole being. He confronts it as if he were a neutral observer. As Michael Vander Weele writes, there has been an “attempt to defuse reading by separating it from the rest of life.”7 We must, however, “read with our lives.”8 Modern man has forgotten the fundamental truth enunciated by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, that “God and the devil are fighting … and the battlefield is the heart of man.”9

The first and most basic question, then, for the Christian, for the educator, for anyone interested in a life of thought and meaning, is what to do to overcome this indifference to the great existential questions. The only really viable answer to that question is to live such a life oneself. Mahatma Gandhi perhaps more than any other well-known figure of the last hundred years embodied and most succinctly stated this principle: “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. … We need not wait to see what others do.”10

1 Michael Vander Weele, “Reader-Response Theories,” in Contemporary Literary Theory: A Christian Appraisal, eds. Clarence Walhout and Leland Ryken (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), 128.
2 Matthew 19:24 (King James Version).
3 Ephesians 5:16 (KJV).
4 Henry David Thoreau, Walden, ch. 1.
5 Fr. William F. Lynch, Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2004), 55.
6 Fr. Romano Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy, (accessed 12 November 2013).
7 Weele, 128.
8 Ibid.
9 Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Book III, Chapter 3.
10 Mahatma Gandhi, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 12 (New Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1964), 158.

"I have to find Zaabalawi"

Naguib Mahfouz’s short story “Zaabalawi” exhibits the qualities of both the traditional allegorical stories often told in the mystical traditions of many religions as well as the dreamlike tales of twentieth century existentialists such as Franz Kafka. In bringing together these two streams of thought, Mahfouz establishes himself directly in the line of religious existentialists such as Soren Kierkegaard and especially the storytellers of that tradition, the most remarkable of whom is probably Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Mahfouz also brings a unique element to this synthesis of mysticism and existentialism in drawing upon the contents of his Islamic heritage to present a story that is both universal in its meaning and yet unique Islamic in its content.

The character from whose perspective the story is told is never explicitly identified by name. As with other stories which stand in the existentialist strain, the identity of the main character as an individual person is unnecessary and perhaps evens a dangerous distraction. Rather, the story itself is a means by which the reader can enter into the subjectivity of another. The main character has no individual identity; the reader is expected to identify himself or herself with that character. In this story, the character is suffering from “that illness for which no one possesses a remedy.” Although ailment remains unexplained and undefined throughout the story, it is clear that the reader is expected to identify with it; it is the universal human condition identified by Kierkegaard as “the sickness unto death,” a state of despair at the meaninglessness and ennui that permeate human life.

The main character of the story, and the reader through him, sets out on a desperate search to find Zaabalawi, the only one who can heal his affliction. Although Zaabalawi is identified as a holy man and sheikh, it is clear from what is said about him that he stands as a symbol of God. The first sentences of the story, in which the character explains why he decided to search for Zaabalawi, make this connection clear. He explains that “the first time I had heard of his name had been in a song.” The connection with Islamic worship practices, in which prayers are generally recited in song and chant, makes the identification of Zaabalawi with God obvious.

The ensuing search for Zaabalawi consists of a number of short scenes in which the main character questions various characters concerning the nature and whereabouts of Zaabalawi. Each of these characters represents a group in Islamic society and their stereotyped reactions to and thoughts on God. A businessman, for instance, exhibits little interest in Zaabalawi and even seems to imply he may be dead, a parallel with Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous exclamation on the death of God, that is, the irrelevance and unsustainability of the idea of God in the modern mind. Similarly, a theologian who is questioned about Zaabalawi responds to the main character by drawing a complex map the character is unable to understand, a scene which conjures the famous words of Thomas Aquinas, a Medieval monk who is one of Christianity’s most prolific and influential theologians. Late in his life, he experienced a mystical vision which caused him to state to his companions that “all that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me,” after which statement he never wrote again. In other words, the both Aquinas and Mahfouz reject the complicated conjecture and theory of the academic theologians in favor of a direct approach to God through mysticism. Interestingly, all of the characters who is featured in this series of scenes exhibit a felt absence of someone who is very important to their lives. Although not all of them are willing to acknowledge the importance of this person to their lives, each clearly feels that something is lacking because of this person’s absence.

After a series of such encounters, the main character finally has a direct mystical experience of Zaabalawi/God. In line with many mystical traditions from around the world, including the Sufi tradition of Islam, this experience is presented as a state of intoxication and a kind of stupor. The main character experiences a “deep contentedness” and “ecstatic serenity” as well as ontological unity with the cosmos. The disorientating imagery used by Mahfouz to describe the experience, including phrases such as “the world turned round about me and I forgot why I had gone there,” is reminiscent of the practice of whirling famously associated with certain groups of Sufis.

Following his experience, the main character is unaware that he has had a direct experience of Zaabalawi. He becomes more determined in his search. Mahfouz’s conclusion once again brings together the mystical and existential in his thought. The main character confides that he sometimes doubts Zaabalawi’s very existence and yet he asserts that he is unable to go on without him. His search for Zaabalawi, he concludes, must continue.