In the epic poem Shahnameh* by Ferdowsi, there is a character called Siyavash. At some point of the narrative, Siyavash as a young man is approached by Sudabeh, a married woman (to the King), who wants him in an experimental sex project. Sudabeh, herself forced to marry the King, has an “open mind.” Her offer is an attempt at melting Siyavash’s moral ice, and to break the fabric of obligation: his intense commitment to the father-king combination, (also known as the myth of the strong personality.) But he cannot love the feminine processes of Sudabeh. Siyavash is raised by the bad-boy of the story, Rostam, who doesn’t know how to greet her snaky figure. He excuses himself of a vital encounter and sustains an ascetic subtraction (a Sassanid fable), and permits Ferdowsi execute Sudabeh by Rostam’s blade.
The story goes that Sudabeh had to publicly accuse Siyavash of raping her. This becomes a dispute, and one of the two is lying. The king comes in and smells them. We have the king’s nose objective on the matter. The results are (1) the smell of Sudabeh: musk, rose water, wine, infinite odors, prodigal drugs, feast of toxins, nuptial ornaments, rumorous texts, instruments of seduction and hypnosis, and chemistry. She is full of it. (2) The smell of Siyavash: nothing. Neutral. Sober. We are dealing with the illusion of non-drunkenness. The benchmark of smelling is too messy to create proper proof. But it gives a hypothesis, that she is guilty. According to Sassanid juridical sensibility, fire must decide or test the essence of them. “Let’s burn ’em!” Siyavash goes through the fire untouched, comes out “essencial.” The results show that Sudabeh, on the other hand, has actually no essence.
The visible and public apparatus of fire finalizes the judgment, promotes essence and magically marks idioms of fixed identity for both Siyavash and Sudabeh through the test. We might ask what form of trial, the fire invents that sustains the ground on which Sudabeh has no standing? With fire we are on the itineraries and technologies concerning processes of transformation and transcendence. We are at a testing site.** In agreement with God, who demonstrated a perpetual desire to test his subjects, fire is a testing device for a sort of subsidiary admission policy. You can get into the “beyond” if you pass the fire test. Beyond is exactly that which is outside testability, and sustaining it. Beyond cannot be tested, it tests you.
Shahnameh, written under the generous patronage of a Samanid prince around 9th century Iran, is a beautiful monument inspired by the pre-Islamic Sassanid national heroism and functions still today as an Iranian textual bodybuilding.
For more on the mania of testing go to Avital Ronell's "The Test Drive" (2005).
Last modified: November 22, 2023