It was 1998, I had just migrated to the United States from Jordan with my family to start a new life. As I reflect now on that time period, I realize that I had subconsciously sought a certain cultural trace in order to understand and appreciate America.
Of all the possible venues for me to undertake this quest, I stumbled upon professional wrestling; known as WWF (World Wrestling Federation) at the time but WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) now. For many years, I wondered what captured and intrigued me in this form of entertainment. From 1998 to 2001, I spent countless hours watching men and women in tights perform a choreographed version of ‘clash of the titans’; not to mention the enormous amounts of apparel and video games that I acquired over the years.
It is only in the past few years, after I began my doctoral program and study of Islamic mysticism, that I understood the tremendous importance of professional wrestling during that period of my life. The vivid memories of being introduced to characters like the Undertaker, Goldust, Mankind and Kane for the first time was surreal, to say the least. For a few ephemeral moments every Monday night, I was drawn into a world that was presented so masterfully, it veiled me from its theatrics... from the performance itself.
Professional wrestling was described then as the ‘Attitude era’. There was more magic in this ‘Attitude’ than theater... it was a perfectly positioned liminal place between a stage performance and a Tolkien novel on film. To be able to believe and invest emotionally in the Undertaker as the Prince of Darkness and Dead Man who returns from Hades every time he appears in the ring is itself a creative act. These larger-than-life personas were masterfully submerged within a feeble and very real human flesh in order to captivate the audience.
It is precisely this perplexing mixture of the imaginary in the material and elemental that makes professional wrestling an example of what the famed Muslim Sufi Ibn al-ʿArabi calls a barzakh (isthmus) and ʿalam khayal (imaginal realm). It is neither an entirely material realm with very human characters nor a completely spiritual experience with fantastic supra-elemental events that are distant and intangible. On the contrary, it is where bodies are spiritualized and spirits are corporealized. This is a collapse of the magical unto the mundane. It is the Parthenon of modernity, where the gods of heavens and the underworld grace the mortals with their immortality... even if for only a few moments.
Shakespeare was able to mimic this ontological performance by piercing through the facade of theater and transforming his plays into mirrors of multiple realities. ‘Breaking the fourth wall’, as it is called, ravages the formality of the stage, actors and audience and deconstructs the entire apparatus into mere traces of a beyond. This excerpt from the Tempest shows this eloquently:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits and Are melted into air, into thin air: And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.
Shakespeare shows us that we are all actors who unsheathe their performances constantly and incessantly. As Ibn al-ʿArabi also informs us, our essences (that which is beyond the soul), go through a khalq jadid (renewed creation) at every indivisible moment in time; we shed an old form and clothe ourselves in a new expression of eloquence that emerges from the most immutable of essences that define us. We engage Shakespeare and Ibn al-ʿArabi in a conversation in order to learn from them that, as actors on the grand stage of life in the divine comedy and tragedy of creation, we are constantly in a dress rehearsal. The moral of the play, its success and rapture, is to know that it is a play and yet remain drawn in and captivated by the props and set. The memories of the ‘Attitude era’ should ignite in us a new ‘attitude’ towards the importance of mythology. The tales of legends and folk stories the importance of which lies not, contrary to common modern belief, in their truthfulness or falsity, but rather in their very ability to ignite the spark of the imagination. The importance of the imagination was part and parcel of the credos of the pre-modern man. From Shakespeare’s Globe theater to gladiator games and ritual sacrifices at the Parthenon, mythology has always been at the helm of history’s creative act. The advent of the “rational positivist era” has transformed these acts and human sacraments into figurative shells of their former selves. Much as Robert Orsi highlights in Between Heaven and Earth regarding the sacraments in Catholicism: The believer is no longer consuming the blood and flesh of Christ but rather igniting the trace of a lost memory. The modern man is therefore in need of fully setting aflame his connection with that which is fascinating, surreal and larger-than-life; for in reality, that - and only that - is a glimpse into al-Haqq, the very real and true. Perhaps religious communities, more so than others, are in dire need of embracing a curriculum that cultivates the imaginal faculties of students and even teachers. The book, novel and poem of Virgil or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein must also be generous enough to host new forms of that same meaning of inspiration and mystique. From films and music to video games, there must always be a hope and attempt to increase the Marxian modes of imaginal production and doors into the vast and endless world of the mythological. There precisely lies the ‘logos’ of myth and its ability to plant the seed of dissonance and expand the heart in anticipation of the piercing and impending appearance of the One.