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  • Music, Mysticism, and Experience:Sufism and Spiritual Journeys in Nathaniel Mackey's Bedouin Hornbook
  • S. R. Burge (bio)

The opening metaphor of Jalal al-Din Rumi's famous poem the Mathnawi has striking resemblances to Nathaniel Mackey's contemporary expositions of loss, music, and mystical experience. Rumi begins by comparing the mystic's search for God to that of the reed in a reed pipe seeking to be reunited with the reed bed:

- Listen to this reed as it is grieving;       it tells the story of our separations.

"Since I was severed from the bed of reeds,       in my cry men and women have lamented.

I need the breast that's torn to shreds by parting       to give expression to the pain of heartache.

Whoever finds himself left far from home       looks forward to the day of his reunion."


The Mathnawi is not simply about the notion of separation but also describes the Sufi path—the mystical journey to God, where the mystic's self becomes united with the Oneness of God, where the "reed" is reunited with the "rush." For Rumi, as for many Sufis, music resonates with the spiritual journey. The experience [End Page 271] of music as mysticism is also an important theme in Nathaniel Mackey's Bedouin Hornbook. In "Cante Moro," Mackey refers to Rumi's reed pipe (nay) and, having quoted the opening line of the Mathnawi, comments:

[Rumi] goes on to say that the reed was cut from rushes and that what we hear in the sound of the nay is the remembrance of that cutting, that the very sound calls to mind the cutting which brought it into being and which it laments. The sound subsists on that cutting. The nay not only mourns but embodies separation.

("Cante Moro" 90)

Mackey's Bedouin Hornbook, part 1 of his series From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, comprises letters written by a horn player known only as N., addressed to the "Angel of Dust." In each of his letters, N. muses on meaning, philosophy, (religious) experience, and most importantly, his music, particularly jazz. During a series of concerts, N. undergoes mystical experiences, induced and influenced by his music. To what extent can the idea of the spiritual journey be seen in Mackey's Bedouin Hornbook?

Norman Finkelstein, in his study exploring "why the sacred remains a basic concern of poets today" (1), reads Mackey's poetry in light of shamanism, linking the ideas of initiation, and the spiritual journey, as well as "wound[ing] and heal[ing]" (184)—all themes prominent in shamanism—to Mackey's poetic world (183-207). The influence of religious mysticism, particularly Islamic mysticism (Sufism), has been acknowledged by Mackey himself in his interviews with Christopher Funkhouser (325-26) and Peter O'Leary (37), especially the thought of the Andalusian Sufi Muhyi al-Din Ibn 'Arabi (d. 1240). My aim in this essay is to explore Mackey's Bedouin Hornbook in light of the Sufi tradition and to assess the extent to which the experience of music in Bedouin Hornbook has common links with Islamic mysticism. In the various studies that have been made of Bedouin Hornbook, such as those indexed by James C. Hall, few have attempted to explore the impact of Islamic mysticism on N.'s experiences of music; furthermore, the information about Islam that has been provided in the secondary literature is, at times, misleading. For example, the idea, suggested by Peter O'Leary ("Deep Trouble" 523), that "Sufism can trace its origins in part [End Page 272] to Andalusia" is simply incorrect. The origins of Sufism are found in the central Arab lands. Andalusia, like the rest of the Islamic world, had a number of notable Sufis, including Ibn 'Arabi, but the "origins" of Sufism are not found there. In Bedouin Hornbook, particular Islamic features such as the name Djamilaa, references to udhri poetry, and Sufi musicians are openly and easily found; others, such as the use of music to achieve a mystical state, are more alluded to than stated clearly.

English literature has had a long interest in Islamic thought, from examples of indirect Islamic influences on Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe...