Suffering as a point of encounter: Juan Goytisolo, John of the Cross, and Farīd ud-Dīn Aṭṭār

Manuela Ceballos

University of Tennessee, USA

This paper examines how Spanish author Juan Goytisolo represents human suffering through engagement with Christian and Islamic mystical traditions, particularly the works of 12th-century Persian Sufi Farīd ud-Dīn Aṭṭār and sixteenth-century Discalced Carmelite from Spain, St. John of the Cross. In his novel Las Virtudes del Pájaro Solitario (Virtues of the Solitary Bird), Goytisolo –who frequently references the history of Islam in the Iberian peninsula and its legacy—has re-imagined the poetry and life of St. John of the Cross, whose imprisonment and persecution mirror those of a contemporary, exiled author (an allusion to Goytisolo himself, exiled in Morocco). These characters are, in turn, brought together by the figure of the “solitary bird,” a clear reference to ‘Aṭṭār’s Maniq-u-ayr (Conference of the Birds). The solitary bird, lovesick for human and divine beloved(s), faces either death from illness –a permanent end to her agony—or redemption through and from pain by way of annihilation in God. Her fate is ultimately left unresolved, as is the fundamental question of whether there is a theological (or literary) justification to physical and/or spiritual pain. While there has been previous scholarship on the Sufi influences on Goytisolo’s writing (see Luce López-Baralt, 1985; Stanley Black 2001, 2007), here, I wish to center on the particular uses and interpretations of ‘Aṭṭār’s work in Goytisolo’s approach to the problem of suffering, a common theme in Islamic and Christian theological and literary texts. In this process, I draw upon original and secondary sources on Christian mysticism, Sufism, and other contemporary authors dealing with theodicy, particularly Navid Kermani (The Terror of God: Attar, Job and the Metaphysical Revolt/Der Schreken Gottes), and Goytisolo himself in later works (Telón de Boca/The Blind Rider).  I argue that this secular literary reflection on what has been traditionally a theological question, is also a way of meditating on the nature of encounter between texts, authors, lovers, religious traditions, pasts and presents, and finally, between official and unofficial histories.