Memoirs of a Dervish: Sufis, Mystics and the Sixties

Remembering a mystical era.

Memoirs of a Dervish: Sufis, Mystics and the Sixties
Robert Irwin
Profile Books, 288pp, £14.99

"It was in my first year at Oxford that I decided that I wanted to be a Muslim saint. I wish I could remember more." With these deceptively simple sentences, Robert Irwin begins one of the most delightfully diverting explorations of the byways of memory to have appeared in many years - and one of the most profound.

The subtitle suggests that this is an attempt to recapture the spirit of the Sixties, and Irwin recounts what it was like to be young at the time with playfully surrealistic humour. Yet he has no special fondness for the years that shaped him, during which, he confesses, he was "lonely, unconfident, sex-starved and somewhat mad".

Irwin reserves his tenderness for an era in which he never lived. "I feel nostalgic about Britain in the Second World War," he writes, "even though I was not born then." Nor does he pretend to unravel the tangle of events and influences that occurred in the Sixties. As he writes, "I did not understand what was going on in the Sixties and I am no wiser now."

At certain points, Irwin presents the book as an exercise in cultural retrieval, but Memoirs of a Dervish tells a story that is more personal and at the same time more universal. An expensive private education had left him adrift in the world with no idea of what to do with his life. Like many others at the time, he looked for meaning in exotic religions, but it was not Zen or Vedanta that attracted him. Weeks after arriving as an undergraduate in Oxford in 1964 he joined the Buddhist Society, only to find that most of its members were "much more interested in anarchism, drugs and Sufism than they were in Buddhism".

It was to Sufism that Irwin was drawn, and in the summer of 1965 he set off for Mostaganem, a small town in Algeria that contained a zawiya, or Sufi lodge, which, according to the Guide Bleu that he consulted on his journey, commanded over 100,000 adherents. He believed that the Islamic mystical tradition embodied the "perennial philosophy", a notion popularised by writers such as the Swiss guru Frithjof Schuon, which holds that all the great religions contain the same primordial wisdom.

Rightly, Irwin came to distrust Schuon and to view the ancient esoteric tradition that thinkers of his kind claimed to have recovered as a fraudulent modern invention. Later, he dabbled in various secretive cults, mostly the preserve of well-heeled flâneurs, and for many years dutifully recorded his dreams, without ever learning anything useful or inspiring.
Despite these disillusionments, he has never renounced the belief that, in Mostaganem, he "found the truth".

If he was confused during a decade of delusion, Irwin shows that he was at the same time one of the sharpest observers of the Sixties. Lindsay Anderson's iconic film If . . . , a fantasy of violent upheaval at a public school, captured the dreamtime in which many of Irwin's undergraduate friends passed their days. He reports that when he went to see the film in December 1968, "the audience was packed out with ex-public school boys" who "cheered the massacre with a Gatling gun of the assembled teachers, parents and boys".

A hot topic of debate among Irwin's friends at Oxford was the value of the public schools' Officer Training Corps, some maintaining that the true revolutionary must scorn military discipline and others urging that marksmanship and orienteering would be useful skills once the revolution erupted. Irwin notes, running parallel with these fantasies, a submerged sense of pessimism:

It is striking how many of the pop lyrics were set in the future and looked back to the present from a position of compromise and defeat . . . Defeat, the sellout to maturity and "the toad work" were almost universally anticipated by the lyricists.

In many ways, the feeling of despair was as self-indulgent as the fantasy of revolution. I much preferred the gritty realities of the Seventies. The Sixties were a time of incoherent dreams. But most of those who were caught up in the excitement suspected it would come to nothing, and even at the time it was apparent that many were banking on just such an outcome.

Irwin's story is only incidentally one of collective self-delusion. The core of the book is a sincere spiritual search, recounted with rare candour and arresting insight. Though a copious literature exists on the "dark night of the soul", few of those who have written about the spiritual life have noted how boring it can be. During many of Irwin's long days of prayer in Mostaganem, nothing happened at all. Then, sometimes for days or weeks at a time, sometimes for minutes, ecstasy came. This was nothing like drunkenness (to which many Sufi poets have compared it): it was a hollowing out of the soul - "like being eaten out from the inside". When Irwin returned to England, he was "a walking flame", "possessed by a horrible energy, but going nowhere". Similar states would recur in later years, but he confesses that he has "no idea what ecstasy is for".

The author tells us in the preface that he has written this memoir in order "to give my youth a retrospective artistic shape". Memory, he believes, is not a passive process of retrieval, but rather the active construction of a life in retrospect. What emerges here is a tale as fluid and as finally mysterious as the life it recounts.

There is sadness in what Irwin remembers - his Sufi teachers being arrested and tortured as Zionist agents in the course of Algeria's savage internal conflicts, for example. His greatest regret, however, is that he resisted his mother's pressure to go to dancing classes as a schoolboy.

After Algeria, he continued to drift, struggling for years with a doctoral thesis that was never finished, but as he aged, "the world seemed to become more solid". Under "the vast gravitational pull of every day, of work, of marriage", he fell to earth. Along the way, he became an accomplished novelist and turned himself into an expert on orientalism and its critics.

Now in his sixties and starting to think of death, Irwin looks back on his zigzag journey without any of the faith in personal autonomy of which liberal humanists - unknowingly promoting a Christian myth - make so much.

A character in a novel may behave as if he or she has free choice, but that is not the reality, for his or her actions are determined by the creator, the novelist . . . It may well be that the universe we inhabit is like that and our sense of being free to will what we do is merely an illusion.

He believes in an afterlife, though one so utterly different from anything we know that it is impossible to imagine: "the universe is stranger than we can think".

Citing Keats on negative capability - the ability to remain in "uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason" - he tells us he can only explain "why Islam is true for me". Then he goes a step further. "But even granting Islam to be essentially true, as I believe it to be, how does that solve the Meaning of Life? Frankly, I have no idea." Here, at last, Irwin may have found a truly perennial philosophy. l

John Gray is the New Statesman's lead reviewer. His latest book is "The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Defeat Death" (Allen Lane, £18.99)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis