Cole Interview – Podcast May 17, 2021

Advice From The Distant Past. Democratic Perspective welcomes Juan Cole back to the show to discuss his new book The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – A New Translation from the Persian. Cole is a professor at the University of Michigan and commentator on the modern Middle East and South Asia through his website Informed Comment.

Cole’s research suggests Khayyam is what is often called a frame author. He says the poems were likely written by various people over centuries. But they were all attributed to Khayyam. Centuries later, the poems were discovered by Edward Fitzgerald who translated about 50 of them. They became beloved in Victorian England and the US during the Gilded Age. According to Cole, “By 1900 you had a new edition of the poetry coming out every day…it was tremendously influential. T.S. Elliot started writing poetry under its influence that was well thought of by all the modernists. And Robert Frost’s Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Night is actually an homage to this poetry.”

A careful reading of these 800-year-old poems shows another side of the Middle East and may dispel common stereotypes. They also have much to say about how to best live our lives. For example, by dismissing the “fear of hellfire and the hope of paradise,” Cole says the poetry seems to tell us not to worry about death and our own non-existence. “I think what Khayyam was saying is don’t spend a lot of time worrying about that. It’s that time you take away from living in the moment.”

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