Authors: Naguib Mahfouz
“‘Why not? Studying is in itself a kind of work. You are only twenty-five years old. This will be an advantage, making it easy for you to learn your lessons.’
“I liked the idea. ‘I like studying,’ I said, ‘and I do not care about the years I lost. Besides, I want to work, but I do not want to be in a regular office job.’
“I began my studies with a new enthusiasm. I left the age of covert and real unemployment and entered the world of learning, which made me forget that I was a husband without work. I did not consider running Huda’s estate true work, since it consisted primarily in collecting the rent, supervising some repairs and renovations, and appointing lawyers whenever needed.
“I achieved huge progress in my studies, with the occasional help of some instructors. During my free time I went with Huda to the theater and the music halls, which she loved very much. I continued drinking, despite her dislike for alcohol, but I did not get drunk, a state she despised. She made me promise to give up drugs, and whenever she saw me in Shakroun’s company she reminded me of my promise. I did give them up, relying on my strong will to get me through that delicate period. Amused, Muhammad Shakroun made the following comment on my behavior: ‘You can be a devil when boisterous and an angel when straight.’
“‘I am determined to be somebody,’ I said.
“I lived a wonderful life that reminded me of my happy days with my mother’s legend and the clarity of purpose I experienced in my
grandfather’s house, but sometimes I was overcome with anxiety, due to my strong desire for self-accomplishment. I wanted to be somebody, but I did not know what. A knowledgeable and successful lawyer? I was enamored of the various topics I was studying and assimilated them well, with the capability of a mature person. I was attracted to them more than I had been to the religious subjects, and I learned more than was required, delving deep into various branches of knowledge. I read extensively on history, philosophy, psychology, and sociology. I was filled with a love for the truth.”
Jaafar laughed loudly. “Imagine,” he said, “the journey from the dreams of the jinn to the love of truth! What do you think?”
“It is a great journey,” I said.
He went on.
“I was especially attracted to the scientific method, which contributes to the achievement of the highest degree of precision, objectivity, and integrity. Are we capable of thinking in the same way in relation to all matters in life, in order to know society, country, religion, and politics with the same precision, integrity, and objectivity?
“Huda was helping me. She was educated and had a degree from a foreign school. She had studied the foundations of science, mathematics, literature, and languages; she had studied the Arabic language with a private tutor. She was very bright and understood her lessons well. She helped me more than any teacher. She would tell me, ‘A degree in itself does not matter, but it is the only acceptable way to get a job. It also gives education a more serious character.’
“She continued to help me even after her mood changed due to her pregnancy and morning sickness. We were bound together, despite our age difference and the different natures of our education. Our love grew stronger with time and was not at the mercy of whims and violent reactions.
“My life went from chaos and drug addiction to the serene life of a couple motivated by a limitless desire for knowledge. I followed a rigorous discipline that helped me shed my false semblance of freedom. It opened for me the gates of an enlightened freedom, the sort that allows a person to transcend himself through awareness, the kind of awareness that the free man appreciates, even when he perceives more powerfully the tragic nature of the unknown.”
At that moment I interrupted Jaafar with a specific request. “Tell me about your experience with truth, freedom, and tragedy.”
He laughed and asked, “Who are you talking to? You are talking to a person who does not exist anymore, a person with nothing left of him but the wasteland you see sitting with you at the Wadud Café, in al-Bab al-Akhdar. He died. I have, in fact, buried more than one personality who lived in my body, and nothing is left but this wasteland.” He laughed again. “It is, nevertheless, a wasteland rich in antiquities.”
He cleared his throat and said, “I loved the mind passionately, I venerated it, and that led me to the love of truth. The mind works with logic, observation, and experience to reach a pure judgment, totally free of any impediment to logic, observation, and experience. This is what I called truth.
“The mind is a relatively new creation when compared to instincts and feelings. The human being is linked to life through an instinct, and it is an instinct that connects him to existence and to the reproduction of the species. The mind plays the role of the smart servant in all that.
“Well, how can the situation be reversed? In other words, how can the mind be the first to decide and then use the instincts to serve its purpose? Can a person be convinced by a necessity, then decide to kill himself? Those who are motivated by their instincts to kill are myriad, but no one has ever killed because he was motivated by pure, sincere, and stainless thoughts. As a result, I loved the mind passionately and dreamed all the time of its absolute supremacy. I considered it the most
sublime divine gift we had received. I envisioned it as the sole motivator for our existence—its sole aim, with only the mind as an inspiration for our conduct. I dreamed of a life where the mind reigned supreme, and the instincts would nestle down in obedience and submission. I wished we could erase from our culture sentences such as ‘I know in my heart,’ ‘my feelings inspired me,’ and ‘the existential expression of life.’
“I concentrated my anger on the degree of consciousness and unconsciousness, and on Freud’s submerged mountain, only its tip visible, since the question is not a matter of size but of value, first and foremost. I wanted the mind of the human being to be in command, to govern and control even in matters such as food and sex. What is the value of love if the mind is not totally convinced by it? Blind love would remain blind and would result, after its initial satisfaction, in nothingness, thus repeating my tragedy with Marwana. This is the reason I wanted the mind to assume its role in our intimate life the way it would in a laboratory, with the same awareness, honesty, and objectivity. We should, as a result, change our songs, our yearnings, and our dreams.
“I don’t pretend to have attained this high level. It is even possible that my inability to do so was an important factor in my tragedy. I do not preach the disregard of instincts or the underrating of them, but I long to avoid their negative impact on the truth. Imagine us free of submission to ego, capable of evaluating our countries without the influence of what we call patriotism. Generally speaking, the wise human being became my goal, as the godly human being had been in the past.”
I said to Jaafar, “Some writers have painted a frightening picture of this logical concept of the world.”
“I know that. It is because they approached it with sick, romantic, stupid hearts. But I believe that the mind will one day help the human being do without his instincts and emotions, and they will all become as useless as the body’s appendix.”
“But how did your life turn upside-down so tragically?” I asked.
“I told you before that I proceed in life by impulsive leaps. I discovered the world of the mind suddenly and it fascinated me. I
became aware that I had been experimenting in the void, and I was now invited to venture truly into the world of the mind. That was the genuine adventure.”
“What about freedom?” I asked with interest.
“Freedom is like an adventure. You practice it sometimes, for the enjoyment of the instincts, the way I enjoyed Marwana, wine, and narcotics. But that is slavery masquerading as freedom. True freedom, on the other hand, is an awareness of the mind, its message, and its objectives. It consists in determining freely the means to be used, and organizing them meticulously in a manner that causes them to act like chains. It is therefore freedom masquerading as slavery. This is how my life proceeded in the house in Manyal. There was a time for studies, a time for free reading, and a time for discussions, promenades, and love. It traveled on a long road over which I raised the flag of reason.”
Interrupting, I asked him to tell me about the tragedy.
He sighed and said, “Be patient. It was a private tragedy. First I want to submit to you my vision of a public tragedy, that of the wise human being. Before the creation of the mind, man was in harmony with himself and his life: a life of harsh struggle. He did not seem to have a choice but to endure it, like any other animal. When he received the gift of the mind and began creating civilization, he bore a new charge, an inevitable responsibility, and one that he was not qualified to assume. It was then that he became aware of the full view, that his life on earth was the life of a single being, despite the obvious contradictions. The truth of the matter is that that man was and continues to be in a period of transition where the instincts and the mind are both present. The instincts oppose whatever the mind advises, and to this day, the instincts always win—at least in public life.
“The mind achieved total supremacy only in the sciences. Apart from that, it submits to the instincts, and even the achievements of science are gobbled up by the instincts. Though the mind maintains its own language in the field of research, the language that appeals to the masses continues to be the language of emotions and instincts, as evidenced by songs about sex, the homeland, racial discrimination, stupid
dreams, and blunders. This is the public tragedy, and its red clouds won’t vanish until the voice of reason rises and instincts wither and cease to exist.
“My personal tragedy, however, was the result of the struggle between my mind and my unshakable belief in God. I was faced with the question that begged to be asked: how could I maintain my faith if I wanted to make the mind my guide and my inspiration? Consequently, my trust in pure faith was shaken, and so was my belief in the language of the heart. It was up to the mind to resolve this dilemma with its own strength. To deny that the mind was not created for this purpose is nothing short of an admission of failure, and to suggest replacing it with the heart or with spontaneity is another admission of failure.”
“What did your mind tell you to do?” I asked.
“My mind failed completely to comprehend God, or even envision Him, but it could not help but assume His presence. This is the tragedy, because if people believe that the problem is artificial and it is possible to live without thinking about it, everything loses its meaning, no matter how much meaning we attribute to all things with the power of our imagination, will, and courage. I envy those who live happily and die contented, having not known a god.
“I shared my worries with Huda, who has an unwavering faith, so strong that she never neglected a prayer or a day of fasting.
“She told me, ‘It is impossible to accept the universe without the existence of God. Don’t you see the continuous acts of creation taking place under our own eyes, in the world of plants, animals, and human beings? It is not possible to doubt the power of creation.’