Robert Irwin: The Dabbling Dervish

Robert Irwin is an English writer who has written six novels and numerous studies of different aspects of Islamic culture. He is also the Middle Eastern editor of the Times Literary Supplement and has been instrumental in shaping the list of the hyper literary and thoroughly esoteric publisher Dedalus. While still a student at Oxford in the 1960s he travelled to Algeria with the intention of becoming a Sufi saint, an experience he describes in his latest extraordinary book, Memoirs of a Dervish.

The experiences you describe in Dervish seem to have inspired several books in your career- an Englishman immersed in his dreams in North Africa is the protagonist of The Arabian Nightmare; while you described the occult, weird side of the late 60s in Satan Wants Me. In some ways Dervish feels like a key of sorts to those books, a missing chapter in the Irwin oeuvre I didn’t even know was missing. Why did you wait so long to tackle this aspect- perhaps the central aspect- of your 60s experience?

‘Poetry . . . takes it origin from emotion recollected in tranquility’ (Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads). I needed to put a lot of space between myself and sixties before writing about that time. (The book started out as a history of the sixties before changing direction.) More important, I wrote the Memoir as a provisional settling of accounts before death and judgment. Finally, the gap of several decades meant that two people worked on the book, for there was a dialogue between present self and my youthful self. We found the collaboration satisfying.

In Dervish you describe your efforts to become a Sufi saint. Given that in the UK religion is a very private affair, and celebrity atheists such as Richard Dawkins receive regular tongue baths from a (generally) fawning media, were you at all nervous about the reaction you would receive to your ‘coming out’ as a religious person?

Not bothered at all. I intended to write a personal credo, but not a religious polemic. I did not write my book in order to steer people to Sufism. (There may be ecstasy, but there is also a lot of suffering in Sufism.)  Since I am not posing as a spokesman for Islam or religion more generally, I have no intention of debating with Richard Dawkins or anyone else on these matters. Dawkins can argue away as much as he likes, but I know what I have seen and experienced.    

The idea of a youthful ‘freak’ heading off to Algeria these days to study religion is inconceivable- unless perhaps he has a great desire to learn about bombs & killing. The Islamic, and in particular Arab world has changed so much in the last four decades. Have you been shocked by the spread of Islamism, given that secularism was all the rage (at least among the ruling elites) when you visited?

Though there are still dangerous areas, Algeria has calmed down quite a bit in recent years and for example the ‘Alawi fuqara now hold annual reunions in Mostaganem which thousands attend. I have been appalled by the spread of Islamism. I think that it is a political heresy with no real precedent in Islamic history. In its most extreme form it is nothing more than a satanic death cult. As you may be aware, Sufis in Pakistan have been targeted by the Taleban and murdered.  

Your description of Sufi life contrasts with the popular Western image of Sufis as bearded pantheistic mystics, the ‘nice’ Muslims. For example, the Shaikh under whose rule you lived insisted on observing all the regular rules of Islam, and on engaging with the world. Is the popular image of Sufi Islam then entirely wrong?

The popular image of Sufis is not entirely wrong. There are Sufis and there are Sufis . . . and then there are Sufis. Some are strict, some are disorderly and some are merely playing lateral-thinking-style mind games. Some, but not all, of the Indian Sufi groups seem to be less orthodox in their practices than the mainstream North African orders. Some Sufi murshids are awe-inspiring holy men, but there are certainly others who are merely charlatans.

I enjoyed your list of ghastly sixties iconic personages in the book, and agree that Yoko Ono belongs at the head of the list, which could probably be greatly expanded (you missed out Germaine Greer, for instance). Too many of these wearisome people still command far too much respect in today’s culture. Which iconic figures from the 60s do you think is still worth our time, or have been unfairly neglected?

Good question and hard to answer. Obviously from the Memoir I rate Donovan more highly than would most aficionados of folk and rock. Philip K. Dick, Thomas Pynchon, Vladimir Nabokov, Flann O’Brien, John Updike and John Fowles were all excellent novelists publishing in the sixties. (Yet only Dick engaged with the hippy, druggy aspects of the decade. Angus Wilson and later Anthony Powell and A.S. Byatt wrote hostile fictions about the hippy sixties.) Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings was published in 1965. My political heroes were pre-sixties figures like Kropotkin and Durutti.

It is striking to read a memoir in which the author freely admits on multiple occasions that he doesn’t remember or doesn’t understand the things he is describing. You don’t even remember why you decided to become a Muslim saint, and at the end of the book apologize for failing to convey the holiness of many of the people you knew. Is there a reason for these lacunae, do you think, or is it just the inevitable effect of distance? Are you grateful for these gaps or do you regret them?

I became so disconcerted by the gaps in my memory, as well as things that my diaries told me that I found hard to believe, that at one stage I considered getting myself hypnotized in order to travel back to the sixties, but I lost my nerve. Who knows what frightful things I have concealed from myself? I experienced so much anguish as a young man that I should be grateful that the passage of time has dulled it all. But anyway, as I note in my book, memory is not a lumber room where past experiences are merely stored. Memory is an active agent which works and reworks with past experiences in order to give their owner a sense of identity.

Although your experiences as a ‘dervish’ form the core of your book, it also serves as a great introduction to many occult figures and spiritual charlatans who have now been forgotten. And yet the late 60s/early 70s was a time in which many people were ‘searching’… Robert Fripp, guitarist of King Crimson, became a follower of JG Bennett for instance, while Richard Thompson became a Sufi Muslim. Do you think this was widespread in British culture, or restricted to the elites? What lay behind it?

I don’t have anything like a complete answer. But increased affluence made it easier to travel out to ashrams and zawiyas. Also more swamis and other gurus started arriving in Britain. Moreover, as more people traveled abroad, more drugs came to be smuggled into Britain and drug experiences made their consumers question the nature of conventional reality. There was a reaction against the values of wartime and post-war austerity. Jobs were fairly plentiful. So those who dropped out did so in the knowledge that it would be easy to drop in again. It was evident that the Church of England was losing its way. (If I remember rightly, Honest to God was published in this decade.) The writings of American Beats had a certain influence, as did translations of the novels of Herman Hesse.

You have written novels and multiple types of non-fiction related to Islamic culture, but never (until now) a memoir. Did it pose any peculiar challenges?

Battles with my memory apart, no challenge at all. It was exhilarating. It was like writing a novel, only more so – a novel squared. Or, to put it another way, it was like being dictated to in a séance.

Satan Wants Me reads like a parallel fictional memoir to Dervish based on your “other” sets of interests- Dr. Strange, the occult, esoteric European/decadent fiction (much of which you have promoted in your behind-the-scenes role at Dedalus books). Was it necessary to divide your interests like this in order to deal with them? Did you feel a terminal contradiction in your life at the time?

With each book, I like to tackle a totally new subject. Back then in the sixties I did feel a bit shifty, dabbling in all those daft or sinister (or both) esoteric cults, but yet an acute sense of boredom drove me on. It still does.

Who is the most dubious guru you have ever encountered?

I think an honest answer here might be libelous. Those who are really curious can find a fictional version of the man in Richard Bulliet’s thriller The Tomb of the Twelfth Imam, in which he comes to a bad end. In reality he is still alive.

Having published your memoir, is there anything you now realize or remember about the tale you have told that was obscure to you while you were writing it?

It is a hard thing to say, but it has since come to me how little love I received from my parents. I did not want to come to this realization.

You set out to become a Muslim saint and failed. Do you ever wish you had succeeded, or do you think it was better that you ‘fell to earth’?

To have spent my life muttering over my rosary in a monastery seems pointless. God does not need that and neither do I. The Memoir was a provisional settling of accounts and my failure has been provisional. I shall not necessarily be earthbound forever. I refer you to the discussion in the Memoir of Hesse’s Siddartha, in which the protagonist has to leave the path of asceticism and immerse himself thoroughly in the world (sex, money, etc.) in order to become fully realized.

Your novels are unlike anything written in English, they are widely acclaimed, and yet it’s been over ten years since Satan Wants Me was published. Will you ever write another one?

I have two half-finished novels, which I have had to set aside because of non-fiction commitments, but I think it most likely that I will find time to complete my novel about mathematics next year and then one about old films the following year. Then maybe a novel about the Wars of the Roses.

Originally published at the Dabbler

This will close in 0 seconds