So Said The Narrator


I made upon a wall a painting out of memory.

I had seen a painting once part of some traveling exhibition. It was made by the 16th century Persian painter named Sultan Muhammad, a skilled master at the atelier of the Aqqoyunlu Turkman in Tabriz. It was called "Rustam Sleeps While Rakhsh Fights the Lion." It brings to life a famous story from the Shahnama, which is the national epic of Persia.

The great warrior Rustam and his faithful red horse Rakhsh were on a long journey to rescue a king held captive by a demon in a distant country. They stopped to rest in a dangerous forest (originally a meadow in the story, but Sultan Muhammad chose to depict it as a forest), not realizing that they had camped at a lion's lair. Later, after Rustam had fallen asleep, the lion, as an agent of the demon, returned and attacked Rakhsh. The horse and the lion struggled fiercely together, until Rakhsh managed to trample his attacker to death.

Sultan Muhammad depicted the forest very effectively. Many dangers lurked among the dense landscape of trees, rocks and streams, such as the marauding snake raiding a nest of birds. An assortment of strange faces looms out of the rock formations, including the face of the a lion and a horse, echoicing Rkhsh and his adversary; and, if one looks closely, the face of the demon is there as well.

I loved this painting so much because it expressed perfectly the wisdom of the Eastern world in the realm of human spirits. There is nothing to compare this work to in the history of Western art. The closest relative to the painting is the book Steppenwolf, by Herman Hesse. In that book man is shown to be two. The wolf and the human could reach a balance if they truly wanted but generally they were engaged in warfare. The East understands the human soul differently. Rather than two, there are three forces inside a man. There is the monster, who has an urgent desire to devour and consume, to rampage, loot and destroy. Then there is the man, who is calm, composed, reposed upon the dewy ground next to the river with a stone as his pillow. But there is a third, a horse. On one hand he has in him a certain demonic ferocity which is what permits him to engage in outright war with the agent of the demon. On the other hand, the horse is nothing more than a beast of burden whom Rustam admonishes. The horse wears the reins which are a mark of his subservience. He wears a saddle which means that he is owned. He is the convergence of demon and man.

I saw myself as the horse. He is the most necessary piece in the painting.

Imagine what would happen if the painting came to life and the horse was taken out of the picture. The agent of the demon would rush up at the sleeping Rustam and devour him completely. As long as the horse is alive humanity still has a chance. If he dies, there is no hope.

In the Shahnama the horse prevails.

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