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Middle-class radicals had to engage in struggle from where they stood already.
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In an ongoing column, Amit Chaudhuri teases out personal memory, cultural history, and meaning from a word, phrase, or line.
“Classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion”: This is a quote from a sentence in T. S. Eliot’s preface to his 1928 collection of “essays on style and order.” The preface itself is really no more than a note, and the only reason anyone would be aware of it is because of the free-floating bit above, which has long been in circulation and is taken to be a statement by Eliot, mid-life, on positions or beliefs he had then arrived at. He was 40. The actual sentence, however, is about the essays in the book: “The general point of view [of the essays] may be described as classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion.”
My interest lies in the word “classicist,” whose meaning, in the context of Eliot’s work and the cultural history it springs from, I have long puzzled over. I’d like to dwell on the word, and a cluster of other words that are equally odd and make comparable interventions. I think of these terms as “odd” because, although they are, or were, words that had reliable lexical and conceptual meanings, they had become subtly angular in the way they were used by a few writers. Eliot’s “classicist” is, like the other words I’ll discuss in this footnote, at the crossroads of cultural history.
No sooner does Eliot make his three categorizations about his essays than he says, in the next sentence, that “I am quite aware that the first term is vague, and lends itself to clap-trap; I am aware the second term is at present without definition, and easily lends itself to what is even worse than clap-trap, I mean temperate conservatism; the third term does not rest with me to define.” Is the vagueness of “classicist” the same as the vagueness of “royalist”? In what way do they veer towards “clap-trap”? I don’t know enough about Eliot’s royalism to venture anything except that the term “royalist,” like “anglo-catholic,” expresses a tendency that had lain dormant in the poet and had to be, by 1928, for whatever reasons, identified. I think “classicist,” though, comes from an older, revolutionary moment in Eliot’s thinking. I remember reading somewhere that, by calling himself “classicist,” Eliot was simply reminding his reader that he wasn’t a Romantic. My first response on encountering this explanation was confusion: what was it about the Romantics, particularly, that made Eliot uneasy? The commentator may have said—or I may have concluded—that it had to do with emotion; with utterances like Wordsworth’s “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” At some point I may also have connected “classicism” to Eliot’s rejection, in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” in 1919, of the idea that a poem is a vehicle for the emotions of the poet. Eliot points out that his interest lies, instead, in “significant emotion” (my emphasis): “emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet.” Eliot’s “classicism,” then, echoes T. E. Hulme’s definition of the “classical in verse”: “even in the most imaginative flights there is a holding back, a reservation.” More problematically, it also echoes the right-wing Frenchman Charles Maurras’s advocacy of monarchism in politics and classicist clarity in literature (as opposed to Symbolist vagueness). But Eliot’s use of the word comes from a very different—a more culturally ambiguous—history than Maurras’s position.
The word “classicist” is hardly used anymore except in conjunction with the prefix “neo,” in order to designate an architectural and artistic style. Without the prefix, it usually refers to a person who has something to do with the classics, or the classical, where these terms denote a European and specifically a Graeco-Roman inheritance. A few characteristics come to mind as a shorthand for the architecture and art of Greece’s classical period: it is formal; it is representational (in the case of sculpture) and figure-based; it provides (again, in Hellenic sculpture) the provenances of realism; it is orderly. It comprises a static storehouse, frozen for eternity.
What does this storehouse—which we encounter, reified, in the sections displaying classical sculpture in the Louvre—have to do with, say, the imploded form of The Waste Land? Eliot’s 1922 poem creatively reuses a number of sources, including classical ones (the story of Tiresias, for instance)—but in what way does its assemblage share the classicism of a bust of Plato or an iambic by Archilocus? What relation does Eliot’s use of “classicist” in 1928 have to the sentence in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” that states, running counter to the assumptions of historians, that “[tradition] cannot be inherited”? What to say about the way Eliot, in the same essay, ascribed to “the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country” not a linear movement from “classical” to “modern” but “a simultaneous existence” and “simultaneous order”? Here is a critic who’s arguing with the foundational teleology on which a periodization like “classical” rests. Yet characterizing his own essays, he describes his temperament as “classicist.” If “classicist” has a new meaning, then, to do not with European inheritance but with creating a disjunction between the artist and the work—between the emotion in the poet and the emotion in the poem—in which history can we place it?
To me it seems that the word needs to be located in a cultural interface that begins to occur in the world from the 18th century onwards, and which propels the anti-humanist, anti-Enlightenment, anti-Renaissance drives of some varieties of romanticism, and of modernism. The drives are liberatory. Their aim is to free up art and thought from the parameters of Enlightenment and Renaissance humanism: parameters that are representational, and whose representational ambitions include (through, for instance, perspective in painting) the mastering of reality. “Personality,” “emotion,” and “thought” are key facets of the post-Enlightenment, post-Cartesian “individual.” The interface I’m speaking of—with key texts and artworks from Japan, China, Africa, and India—leads to a breakdown of these concepts. The breakdown is transformative and playful. I would see Eliot’s “classicism,” and other terms used by his predecessors and contemporaries—“disinterested”; “impersonality”; “emotion”; “reality”; “form”; “thought”—as part of a new, affirmative, anti-Enlightenment language that emerges with and participates in this breakdown. These terms engage in a dismantling of the Enlightenment’s ownership of meaning by laying claim to a larger world-history of thought and artistic practice.
Over a decade ago, I began to inadvertently call my mother’s singing “classicist.” I say “inadvertently” because I think I was, without fully realizing it, using the word in Eliot’s sense. My mother, Bijoya Chaudhuri, was a singer of Tagore songs—largely ignored, but admired by a few for being one of the great singers of her generation. In using “classicist,” I may have meant to connect her style to North Indian classical music. And North Indian classical music is “classicist” in the way Eliot, I believe, uses the word: vocal music in this tradition preoccupies itself with the expression of the note, of the raga, but not with emotion in the conventional humanist sense—that is, not with self-expression. One of the ways it does this is by eschewing vibrato and tremolo, which became such an effective means of bringing emotional drama to opera in the Romantic period. However intricate the embellishments in North Indian classical vocal music (and they are the most complex and difficult in any vocal tradition), they must return repeatedly to the stillness (thheherao) and purity of the note. One of the ways this happens is through the ah sound that dominates North Indian classical vocal music. The ah dissolves or displaces the singer’s self, just as the aw sound of polite diction both expresses and consolidates it; through the ah, it’s the note that occupies center stage, rather than, as is the case in a humanist universe, the human or individual. The ah expresses itself best through meend, or a continuous, clean glide or bend from note to note, which frees the raga from the teleology that fixed, separate, unbent notes have (as on the piano), with clear beginnings and ends.
My mother’s singing, which was invested in all these features, made her a misfit in a Tagore-song milieu in which middle-class emotion and polite bhadralok personalism were accentuated through vibrato, somewhat histrionic meends, and the parodic aw sound of self-conscious educated discourse. The Tagore song had become a vehicle for the singer and for the song’s words, because it was implied that a poet’s words must be sung with appropriate gravitas. My mother’s approach gave primacy to the song’s notes and words by allowing them to speak for themselves, without her personality noticeably intervening. She did have personality, as everyone who knew her agreed—quick to laugh, quick to lose her temper, and quick to forget she’d been angry. The personality was apparently evident even in her photos. A woman I was having a fitful relationship with when we were students stared at her picture on the cover of a cassette and paled, saying, “I don’t think she’ll like me.” “Why?” I asked, disquieted. “She has personality,” she replied, as if that were enough explanation. When Eliot observed that “poetry is not an expression of personality, it is an escape from personality,” he added the ingenuous caveat, “But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” I don’t know at which points my mother “wanted” or didn’t want to escape her personality. But, with the song, she allowed its personality—not related in obvious ways to hers—a standalone existence. This was unsettling for those who wanted the song to have emotions they could recognize, and understand in the context of either the poet, the words, or the singer.
It’s these proclivities that lead me back to Eliot’s term, “classicism,” behind which I find not Greece but the wide availability in Europe, from the 18th century onwards, of ideas and histories to do with the non-representational and the non-binary. In this context I’d also place two terms Eliot first used, in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” nine years before he wrote the preface to For Lancelot Andrewes: “significant emotion” and “escape from personality.”
What histories and ideas are these? Let’s begin with the circulation of two poetic-critical-philosophic texts that Eliot had studied closely, as had his predecessors: the Upanishads and the Gita. From the first—brought to France in Dara Shikoh’s Persian translation from India in the 1760s by Abraham Hyacinthe-Duperron, translated then by him into French and Latin, and the Latin version published in 1801—comes an idea of equanimity and impersonality that is neither Judaeo-Christian, in that it is not transcendental; nor European classical, in that it is not orderly and Apollonian; nor an Enlightenment construct, in that it is not legal, institutional, and remote. The Upanishads and the Gita (Charles Wilkins’s English version appeared in 1785) used a number of words, some in common with each other, that could be translated into “equanimity,” or “peace,” or “impersonality,” or “disinterestedness,” or “reality,” or, interchangeably, as all of these. Among them are brahman (not Brahmin, the priestly caste, or the god Brahma), and shanti, ordinarily translated into English as “peace.”
Eliot, in a reference to the Upanishads, closes The Waste Land with “Shantih shantih shantih,” and alerts us, in his notes, that “peace” is not an adequate translation: “Shantih. Repeated as here, a formal ending to an Upanishad. ‘The Peace which passeth understanding’ is our equivalent to this word.” But the Biblical phrase is not quite an equivalent either, and Eliot will spend—has by then already spent—many years fashioning critical-creative equivalents, and moderately late offshoots like “classicist,” for terms and formulations he’s encountered in the Upanishads and Gita. A few questions come up as we look again at “shantih” at the end of The Waste Land. If this word comprises “a formal ending to an Upanishad,” is The Waste Land a version, parody, or poetic-critical-philosophical reimagining of an Upanishad? Does the term “formal ending” hint that “shantih” comprises not a culmination, or a sublimation, of the poem’s agonized subject matter—that it’s simply a ritualistic closure? Is the poem itself both a critical-poetic and a ritualistic act, and, therefore, measured and equanimous? Are we to understand The Waste Land in formal and shant, rather than agonized, terms?
This “shantih” at the end of The Waste Land returns the reader to Eliot’s struggles with articulating the concepts of peace or equanimity in his 1919 essay. Here’s an instance of the struggle:
When the two gases previously mentioned are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum, and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected; has remained inert, neutral, and unchanged. The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum. It may partly or exclusively operate upon the experience of the man himself; but, the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.
The “shred of platinum,” the adjectives “inert, neutral, and unchanged”—these look forward to the last line of The Waste Land; they look further forward to “classicist”; they also look back at the earliest known attempts to formulate a theory of impersonality and equanimity as a critical position.
Through the idea of equanimity or inertness or shanti, there are continuities in Eliot’s nascent classicism with certain lineages in English Romanticism, especially Wordsworth: continuities that Eliot is keen to disavow. “Poetry is the overflow of spontaneous feelings: it takes its origins from emotion recollected in tranquility,” writes Wordsworth in his “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads. The first half of the sentence, removed from the second, is one of those articulations that lead to our vulgarized understanding of Romanticism as a rebellion against poetry as artifice. But I’m interested in the sentence’s journey towards its second half: the bit which Eliot, in his 1919 essay, scrutinizes disapprovingly:
We must believe that “emotion recollected in tranquility” is an inexact formula. For [poetry] is neither emotion, nor recollection, nor, without distortion of meaning, tranquility. It is a concentration, and a new thing resulting from the concentration, of a very great number of experiences which to the practical and active person would not seem to be experiences at all; it is a concentration which does not happen consciously or of deliberation.
The two halves of Wordsworth’s sentence, joined together by a colon, are actually opposed to each other. The first half articulates the primacy of “feeling,” the second distances itself from that primacy. The colon lulls us into thinking that the first half leads to the second half. A “but” would have alerted us to the fact that the second half of the statement contradicts or qualifies the first. Wordsworth, though, makes the sentence seamless in order to capture a transition in literary history from the Romantic and reason-defying “overflow of spontaneous feelings” to the radical and provocative idea, in that domain of feeling and emotion, of “tranquility.” Something has happened, both in Wordsworth’s sentence and in history, that has made that transition possible. Within the binary of Enlightenment vs. Romanticism, Reason vs. Emotion, shanti or “tranquility” or “concentration” or “impersonality” has added a dimension, a paradox, that the terms set by the Enlightenment can’t grasp. How can we recollect emotion when it is something we experience, and how can we recollect it tranquilly, unless by “recollection” Wordsworth is implying a process at once distancing and creative, akin to Eliot’s chemistry experiment? The second half of Wordsworth’s sentence does distort meaning, it is indeed an “inexact formula,” but deliberately so. It’s part of a turn in thinking.
To revisit the history of “impersonality,” “tranquility,” “concentration,” and even “classicism” as critical terms, one needs to look at brahman in the Upanishads and Gita; dhyan (“concentration” in Eliot’s sense; “thought” in D. H. Lawrence’s; diluted and gentrified to “mindfulness” in our time) in these two texts as well as in Buddhism; yoga (as a concept rather than a self-help exercise routine); ananda (“joy” or “bliss”); and, of course, shanti, a relatively minor player in comparison to some of these other terms, but nevertheless key. We have to approach these concepts as critical terms that ask for our engagement and challenge our thinking, as they challenged the thinking of their contemporaries. We need to see the verses, lines, and practices in which they occur not as representative texts or traditions, but as wayward critical projects that never really became mainstream, but which resurfaced later in multiple idiosyncratic critical traditions, like the Bhakti and the Sufi, across constituencies, castes, and gender. Modernism is only the most recent of these resurfacings and engagements.
Juan Mascaró translates brahman as “spirit.” It’s clear, early on, in the opening pages of his selections, that neither the Judaeo-Christian “spirit” nor “God” fits what is really articulated as a challenge to binary as well as linear thinking. These unusual formulations (unusual in their time; still unusual today outside poetic language) are from the Isa Upanishad: “The Spirit, without moving, is swifter than the mind . . .”; “Standing still, he overtakes those who run . . .”; “He moves, and he moves not. He is far, and he is near . . .” And in the Kena Upanishad: “What cannot be spoken with words, but that whereby words are spoken . . . What cannot be thought with the mind, but that whereby the mind can think . . . What cannot be seen with the eye, but that whereby the eye can see: know that alone to Brahman, and not what people here adore.” Brahman, then, is neither quite “spirit,” nor a god, nor God (“what people here adore”), but an invitation to abandon the conventional binaries of the supplicatory man-God relationship; to embrace, instead, a decentering: “What cannot be thought with the mind, but that whereby the mind can think.”
The idea that something unable to be immediately seen or grasped constitutes an intervention is also put forward by Krishna, ventriloquizing for brahman in the Gita. Reluctant to reveal his true form to Arjuna, Krishna asks Arjuna to infer his presence not from what’s visible, but from a radiance that creates transient states of visibility: “That splendor of light that comes from the sun and which illumines the whole universe, the soft light of the moon, the brightness of fire—know they all come from me.” With this decentering and interrogation of what can be known, experienced, and seen comes a taste of impersonality, and, with it, not the attainment of salvation, but an experience of bliss or joy—that is, an experience synonymous with a freeing up of thought (ananda). The experience isn’t “religious” in the classical European sense of the term; translated by Eliot into the language of criticism, it’s “a concentration, and a new thing resulting from the concentration, of a very great number of experiences which to the practical and active person would not seem to be experiences at all”—an alterity leading to new ways of thinking (ananda; yoga; brahman; tranquility; concentration).
Even as they have been trapped in categories like “religion” and the “Orient,” these concepts—Buddhistic-Upanishadic—have been domesticated as knowledge in the (for the want of a better term) Brahminical tradition, despite the anti-knowledge argumentation they’re situated in. Part of the domestication comes from the words these terms become when they’re relocated to a Western discourse—“spirit,” “self,” “bliss”—from which they are then transported back, with universalist assonances, to the “Orient.” But it’s in the aesthetic-critical-imaginative domain that their subversive capacities are repeatedly tapped throughout history. Most recently, from German and English Romanticism onward, certain German, French, and English words, used in response to those newly circulating texts, become, in the course of translation, dislocated. For instance: “Beyond my visible nature is my invisible Spirit,” says Krishna in the Gita. “This is the fountain of life whereby this universe has its being.” These tropes reshape, in paraphrases and rewritings, notions of authorship, as in Coleridge: “Our genuine admiration of a great poet is a continuous undercurrent of feeling: it is everywhere present, but seldom anywhere as a separate excitement.” When Flaubert, during the writing of Madame Bovary, remarks to his friend Colet that the author, in his new work, needs to be “like God in the universe, everywhere present but nowhere visible,” he, like Coleridge, is echoing the Upanishads and the Gita, both of which he would have read (like Eliot, he was deeply taken with Buddhism). Flaubert was using a Judeo-Christian term (“God”) to subvert the Judeo-Christian model from which “godlike” ideas such as “author,” “great poet,” and “creator” emerge. “Everywhere present but nowhere visible”: Flaubert is translating “God” into a brahman-like concept—that is, the author is not simply a producer of meaning, as they would be if they were presiding over, and shaping, their work. The author is part of the meaning that’s produced, “everywhere present but nowhere visible” (“He is far, and he is near”).
The circulation of these texts from the late 18th century onward led to acts of translation and rethinking that made words step askance from immediately erstwhile inheritances and intellectually familiar usages that had been put in place by the Enlightenment, or were Judeo-Christian, or Platonic. It’s not “influence” I’m interested in, or the impact of “East” on “West”: that model of interpretation doesn’t illuminate this history. I’m thinking of the competing traditions (realism; modernism; rationalism; poetry) and their itineraries which have produced me, and affect me, far more than “East” and “West” have. I’m also interested in how words with particular identities and backgrounds—“spirit,” “God,” “thought,” “tranquility”—take part, without comment, and perhaps without full knowledge, in a metamorphosis, a movement across meanings that leads not so much from the “West” to the “East” as, subtly and suggestively, away from the Enlightenment to a new emergence and sense of the “literary.”
Rasa—which may be translated as “aesthetic emotion” or “aesthetic juice or flavor”—is an idea set out cryptically, but influentially, by Bharata in his 2nd-century BCE treatise (on theatre and the performing arts, and, in passing, on music), the Natya Shastra. There are eight rasas in art, theatre, and music, says Bharata: adbhut (to do with wonder), veer (heroic), sringaar (to do with adornment, embellishment, or the erotic), bibhatsa (to do with disgust), hasya (related to laughter), karun (pathetic or sad), raudra (angry), and bhayanak (related to terror). A crucial observation is made by Bharata: we identify an aesthetic experience as a rasa because it’s “capable of being tasted [asvadvate].” As a result, in Bharata’s text, the conceptual becomes sensory, and the sensory (“taste”) conceptual and metaphorical.
The first critics to create a productive relationship between the peculiar non-binary thinking of the Upanishads and aesthetics did so in the domain of rasa theory. One thing is probably not completely clear in Bharata. Is, say, karun rasa, or the experience of pity, pain, or sadness (when it occurs, for example, in a play), different or indistinguishable from our day-to-day experience of these emotions? It’s to address this aporia, which is pervasive, and with us even today, that the 9th-century critic Bhattanayaka, evidently, articulates a theory of distancing. I say “evidently” because Bhattanayaka’s works are lost; we know them through the 10th-century Kashmiri philosopher Abhinavagupta’s account of Bhattanayaka’s ideas. To put things as simply as possible: Bhattaanayaka came up with his formulations while taking issue with his famous 9th-century contemporary, the rasa theorist Anandavardhana. Abhinavagupta, an admirer of Anandavardhana, leaps to the latter’s defense a century later, and, in the process of taking issue with Bhattanayaka, reveals to us most of what we now know of his insights.
Among the principal insights is a commonsensical but provocative observation: the actor can’t be experiencing sorrow when the character he’s playing is grieving because he wouldn’t be able to complete his job if he were. Eleven centuries later, Yeats would echo this in “Lapis LazulI’ in his response to the “hysterical women” who demand that art be as immediately responsive to the world as they are:
All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
What about the audience, then? Is the experience of the emotion of a particular rasa—say, again, sorrow—the same as their ordinary experience of that emotion: that is, is it, like our day-to-day emotion, a physical or personal product (utpatti)? No, says Bhattanayaka: if that were the case, the spectator would be “so pained by his (physical) sorrow (karuna) that he would never return to watch a tragic (karun) performance.” The “enjoyment of rasa” is “different from the apprehensions from memory and direct experience”; it “takes the form of melting, expansion, and radiance.” Also, intriguingly, Bhattanayaka tells us that the “savoring (bhog) of rasa is akin to the savoring of brahman.” At this point, the role of the Upanishads in creating a vocabulary of impersonality in aesthetics is brought out into the open. Revisiting this extraordinary moment, we step out of the binary not only of Enlightenment thought but, well before the Enlightenment, ordinary, well-worn human, thinking—which tells us that the impersonal is the opposite of personal emotion, and therefore cold, emotionless, and aloof. Poetry and rasa tell us that impersonality, within a creative work, is a specific addiction; it can be savored and enjoyed. And it throws light back on why the attainment of brahman is not a moral imperative, but a form of delighting. So Bhattanayaka’s comments comprise not only an annotation on rasa and on art, but also on the Upanishads.
Is rasa a universal, then? The sensory metaphors—“taste,” “savor”—undermine the idea of rasa being an essence, or universalizing representation, of particular emotions. So do the physical and psychic registers of “melting, expansion, and radiance”: rasa isn’t physical in the sense that personal emotion is, but our experience of impersonality, in rasa or in brahman, seems to be physical inasmuch as it leads to change in our formation and outline: “melting.” In his rebuff to Sir Philip Sydney’s advice to poets, “Look into thy heart, and write!,” Eliot replied, “One must [also] look into the cerebral cortex, the nervous system, and the digestive tracts”: a further elaboration on “significant emotion” being unlike what we think of as emotion (“the heart”) and akin to an “expansion” and “melting” (“the cerebral cortex, the nervous system”) and a “savoring” (“the digestive tracts”). The word used by Abhinavagupta that is possibility mistranslated as “universal” is the sadharinakarata he attributes to rasa—literally, a “making ordinary” or “making simple.” I understand this word as “accessibility”—not in the present-day meaning given to it by publishers and the market, where it refers to a militancy against complexity and dumbing-down on behalf of the reader. I think Abhinavagupta means, by sadharinakarata, that rasa makes delight accessible to us. Whether we avail ourselves of it or not is our business.
A history of impersonality would be different, then, from a history of the universal. The universal is an abstraction; impersonality is neither an abstraction nor a denial of emotion. It’s a dislodging of emotion from ourselves: a non-humancentric idea of emotion, “a concentration, and a new thing resulting from the concentration.”
In this history, Abhinavagupta introduces a crucial modulation in the 10th century. He adds a ninth rasa: the shant (“peaceful” or “calm”). It’s not just an addition: it’s a judgement, via Bhattanayaka and Upanishadic concepts, on the mystery of delight, and why we don’t break down when we enact a death in a play or see one enacted; why we—artist and spectator—tranquilly delight in the enactment. Shant is not really another rasa; it’s the rasa we find in the eight other rasas. It already existed in them; it was why audiences in antiquity could take pleasure calmly in a range of representations, from the bibhatsa (disgusting) to the bhayanak (terrifying) to hasya (the comic). It needed Abhinavagupta to point out, borrowing from the Upanishads (as Eliot did later), that every rasa was shant, and consequently not “emotion” but “significant emotion.” Abhinavagupta shrewdly observes that it’s the shant rasa that engenders ananda, or bliss. This moment—the addition of the shant rasa—is a forerunner of adjustments made by Romanticism (“emotion recollected in tranquility”) and modernism (“a concentration”; “classicism”) as they reposition literary language. The relation of the shant to ananda will be echoed by Eliot towards the end of The Waste Land, when he begins riffing on words from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: “Damyata: the boat responded/ Gaily . . ./ The sea was calm, your heart would have responded/ Gaily.” “Gay” is Yeats’s word too when he presents his annotation in “Lapis Lazuli’ on the same relationship in art between the absence of personal emotion and joy: “There struts Hamlet, there is Lear”; but “If worthy their prominent part in the play,/ [they] Do not break up their lines to weep./ They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay,/ Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.”
It’s very possible that Bhattanayaka and Abhinavagupta take their cue from the 8th-century philosopher Shankaracharya’s commentaries on the Gita and the Upanishads. Three words—brahman, ananda, and shanti—occur recurrently in both these texts, and Shankaracharya draws attention to the fact that ananda and shanti, through their proximity to brahman, begin to connote something different from their workaday meanings: something close to the Buddhist shunyata, or “void,” or “emptiness.” For coming up with this insight, Shankara’s critics refer to him as a “crypto-Buddhist.” Ananda, shanti, and brahman—roughly, bliss, peace, and impersonality—become, to an extent, interchangeable for Shankara; and Bhattanayaka and Abhinavagupta are clever to notice the bearing this has on the radical view they’re developing, through their revisions of rasa, of art’s relationship to emotion. With this intervention, philosophy can be seen as a form of art-speech, and art as a form of thought or meditation.
Versions of shunyata or “emptiness” reach Europe in the late 18th century. (According to scholars like Urs App and Alison Gopnik, Buddhist thought had been arriving into Europe from the 16th century onward through a stream of Christian missionaries. I’m interested in how, and the moment at which, this worldview created an increasing self-reflexivity in literature.) Shunyata is embraced by Schopenhauer, and influentially rebuffed by Hegel in 1828 in his review of Wilhelm von Humboldt’s translation of the Gita, which he rejects for its “stupefaction” and “Insichsein” or quality of “nothingness,” attributing these to the Gita’s irritating provenance in the “Yogi sitting there mentally and physically unmoved, staring at the top of his nose.” Hegel’s is one of several Enlightenment-era mimetic readings of “void” or “emptiness,” which identify it with “nothingness” and “nihilism” (common 19th-century charges against Indian philosophies). It’s in poetry that the idea of the void takes on an unsettling, ill-fitting, non-mimetic life, in keeping with poetry’s vocation, from the late 18th century in Europe, of being a record and exploration of misplaced meanings:
For oft when my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude
And then my heart with pleasure fills . . .
Like many others in the Anglophone world, I read Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud” first in a school textbook. It’s only now that I notice the odd juxtaposition of “pensive” (or “thoughtful”) with “vacant,” the interchangeability given to the words by the conjunction “or” (as if “vacancy” and “thought” were, contra Hegel, synonyms), and the connection set up—again, an interchangeability—between these terms and the idea of an “inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude.” Apparently the poem was set off by an encounter William and his sister Dorothy had with a “long belt” of daffodils in a forest in 1802; but other encounters are also directing and changing (“distorting,” to quote Eliot’s term for Wordsworth’s use of “tranquility”) certain words in the final verse, a distortion that accompanies the emergence of the literary (far more than philosophy at this time) as a counter-Enlightenment project.
The earliest formulation of the counter-Enlightenment shift in art or literature arguably occurs in Kant’s Critique of Judgement (1790), in his observations on aesthetics and beauty. For a thinker whose work is an indispensable expression of the Enlightenment faith in “reason,” the turn that the Critique of Judgement represents has maybe not been adequately acknowledged. Could this be because Kant’s thoughts here—so radically different from the more conventional and instrumental Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime (1764)—were at first ignored, and later placed in safekeeping in a separate box called “aesthetics,” a box whose contents were exempt from the rules of reasoning? Kant’s tenets in the third Critique fit poorly within the parameters of reason: for instance, the idea that the appreciation of beauty is independent of desire. Reason can’t account for how this notion works. Of course, this peculiar formulation has already been put forward in the Gita, Buddhism, and the Upanishads, and rearticulated, by the 8th century, by Shankara, and in their interface with rasa. Kant must be aware of, and responding to, the texts and world-views in circulation around him in the lead-up to the third Critique.
The really notable breakdown in Enlightenment thought comes with Kant’s interpretation, in the third Critique, of “disinterestedness.” “Disinterested” is a key component in one of the Enlightenment binaries around the term “interested,” where “interested” might either imply “enthusiastic” or “invested in for an instrumental purpose” (as in, “He’s an interested party”). The first definition of “interested” forms a binary with “uninterested,” or “indifferent” or “bored.” The second definition is one part of the binary with “disinterested”; that is, “objective,” “fair,” or “even-handed.” “Disinterested” is a facet of Reason—legal judgement relies on it; so does Science. (This sense of the word is almost forgotten today in daily speech. People often use “disinterested” for “uninterested,” as if the tradition of “objectivity” had vanished, leaving only “boredom” to complete the binary.) Kant doesn’t use the word before the third Critique, but he relies on the workaday meaning of “disinterested” elsewhere—as in the second Critique, where he maintains that morality should be independent of our individual preferences.
In the Critique of Judgement, however, Kant implies that, where art is concerned, we don’t proclaim a work beautiful or significant after having arrived at an objective judgement, after weighing the merits and demerits of the artwork’s facets or “message.” “Disinterestedness,” instead, is a specific experience, where detachment from outcome-oriented judgement makes pleasure possible; the binary breaks down. It is not fair-minded, evidence-dependent, and legalistic, like the lineage of objectivity in which we’re tempted to place the term; instead, it’s “nothing other than the state of mind in the free play of the imagination and the understanding.” Also: “Taste is the faculty for judging an object or a kind of representation through a satisfaction or dissatisfaction without any interest. The object of such satisfaction is beautiful.” The journeys each of the last two sentences is making, and the distance covered from the first one to the next (“faculty for judging… without any interest”; “such satisfaction is beautiful”) captures not a thought, but a historic movement.
I’m also startled by Kant’s formulation of “taste” (the idea of “taste” itself was then new-minted) and the way it inflects judgement with the experience of impersonality (“a satisfaction or dissatisfaction without any interest”): the echo of rasa, both as taste and concept, in Bhattanayaka and Abhinavagupta (“the savoring of rasa is akin to the savoring of brahman”) is unsettling. Each one of these philosopher-critics seems to be tapping into the same array of source texts. Having expressed the notion, Kant struggles with it; he suggests that “disinterestedness” and “beauty” are part of a universalizing action. Neither in the Upanishads nor the Gita, however, is there a mention of the “universal”; what those texts set out is the radical, paradoxical possibility of a passionate detachment in the pursuit of brahman. It’s a non-binary tightrope without any of the comforts of universalizing. Kant translates brahman into a new, liberating sense of “disinterestedness”; then half-withdraws into Enlightenment universality. But the translation has been done; the conceptual turn has occurred, via the now-ambiguous domain of art and beauty.
Matthew Arnold revitalizes “disinterestedness” in 1865, in “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.” His move is partly to rescue criticism from being a “secondary” form, a kind of writing that occupies a lower rung than the “creative.” Before doing this, he must, among other things, benignly arraign the English character for one thing in particular: “practicality”—that is, the Englishman’s attachment to “outcome.” Arnold wishes to replace the “interested” criticism of the time—“fake or malicious criticism,” according to Wordsworth— not with “fair” or “objective” criticism, but with criticism that is detached from outcome:
It is of the last importance that English criticism should clearly discern what rule for its course, in order to avail itself of the field now opening to it, and to produce fruit for the future, it ought to take. The rule may be summed up in one word,—disinterestedness. And how is criticism to show disinterestedness? By keeping aloof from what is called “the practical view of things”; by resolutely following the law of its own nature, which is to be a free play of the mind on all it touches.
The word “fruit” is loaded: the term of “fruit of action” occurs in Wilkins’s Gita where Krishna advises Arjuna to act without thought of the result. Wilkins also introduces the words “interest,” “practice,” and “practical” in his translation, where Krishna is exhorting Arjuna to not be tied down by the “practical,” to nurture a temperament which, in the midst of acting, has “no interest either in that which is done, or that which is not done.” This phrasing is what Arnold (who had studied the Gita for two decades by the time he wrote his essay) and Kant (whose third Critique was preceded by five years by Wilkins’s Gita) would have been exposed to: it leads to the departure in the conceptualizing of “disinterestedness.” Once disinterestedness becomes a form of impersonality, a detached savoring rather than objective, rational judgement, it also frees up criticism to be independent not only of an outcome, but also of its immediate object, the primary work; it allows us to read a work of criticism for itself, rather than as a route to understanding another text.
Arnold makes his associations overt: “It will be said that it is a very subtle and indirect action which I am thus prescribing for criticism and that, by embracing in this manner the Indian virtue of detachment and abandoning the sphere of practical life, it condemns itself to a slow and obscure work. Slow and obscure it may be, but it is the only proper work of criticism.” The paradoxical refusal to conflate thought, meditation, even stillness, with inaction had fascinated and provoked Arnold. In 1848, three years after he’d first read the Gita, he’d written to his friend Arthur Hugh Clough: “The Indians distinguish between meditation and absorption—and knowledge: and between abandoning practice and abandoning the fruits of action and all respect thereto. This last is a Supreme step, and dilated on throughout the Poem”—“the Poem” meaning the Gita.
What kind of “action” might comprise a non-action, or vice versa? For Kant and Arnold, it’s creative and critical activity. The shift has taken place.
Toward the end of “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” Arnold recognizes, pre-emptively, that his essay has put a strain on definitions: “But stop, some one will say; all this talk is of no practical use to us whatever; this criticism of yours is not what we have in mind when we speak of criticism . . .” Arnold’s reply makes another gesture at placing “disinterestedness” not in the Enlightenment, but further afield, in what he euphemistically calls the “world”: “I am bound by my own definition of criticism: a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world. How much of current English literature comes into this ‘best that is known and thought of in the world’? Not very much, I fear . . .” Taken at face value, the first sentence reads like a policy statement, and the second and third like a rant. Only in the disturbance of meaning (or “distortion,” to again invoke Eliot’s term) from which Arnold’s essay emerges do we get a sense of the move he wishes to make: to historicize this development in critical thought. The development couldn’t have come from nowhere; and it can’t be entirely accounted for by England and Europe, unless it’s from a Europe that’s already in conversation with the “world” Arnold refers to. It must be a Europe, he goes on to say towards the end of that paragraph, “whose members have . . . a knowledge of Greek, Roman, and Eastern antiquity.”
The equivalence made here of “Greek, Roman, and Eastern antiquity” is somewhat casual and problematic, because the conceptual intervention of the last—by which Arnold means the Gita, the Upanishads, and Buddhist thought—is what propels the movement in words like “disinterestedness,” “tranquility,” “emotion,” and “practical outcome” away from the legacy of the first two. These concepts undermine the Graeco-Roman heritage—representational, idealistic, reasonable, universalizing, and Apollonian—and they will lead, in another fifty years, to modernism. They create the aporia in Eliot’s “classicism”: a term that (like Eliot himself) arises as much from the contrary currents and arguments implied by “Eastern antiquity” as Arnold, the Kant of the third Critique, or “disinterestedness” do.
The early 20th century sees a group of thinkers and practitioners emerging in England that takes this lineage forward, in sculpture and art in particular, diverging from the Renaissance, the Graeco-Roman, and from neoclassical representation towards largely non-representational preoccupations. The sculptors Eric Gill and Jacob Epstein, the painter and critic Roger Fry, the critic Clive Bell all have contiguous agendas, and all move in the same circles. Gill’s turn towards non-representational sculpture, or a sculpture in which form subverts the Renaissance ambition of representational fidelity, owes significantly to his consulting the sections on Indian art and architecture in the book Wonders of the World. Gill’s friend Jacob Epstein spends time at the British museum at the Indian exhibition in order to—as the historian Rupert Arrowsmith has shown—rework its motifs and styles.
The impulse in Gill and Epstein seems not to be to produce something “Oriental,” but rather to escape the Graeco-Roman model in a way that anticipates Eliot’s advocacy of the “escape from personality.” A revolution has been taking place in Europe from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries, dependent on the currency of ideas and forms from the non-European world, but—since the time of the revolution is also the time of Empire and Orientalism—its debts are never fully acknowledged or discussed. It’s as if modernism happened by the same kind of civilizational miracle that produced new technologies and machines in the West: via the inheritances of the Enlightenment, principally Science and rationality.
We know there are no miracles in culture. Even so, Enlightenment articles of faith define the appearance of the avant-garde; it’s the notion of progress through which we interpret statements like Pound’s “Make it new.” Yet the avant-garde is a turn against the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment could not have produced modernism, except antithetically. Gill, like Arnold (and to some extent Eliot), reminds us of the non-binary and (for the want of a more specific term) non-Western resources that shored up the opposition. Not only does he record his debt to Indian sculpture; in his autobiography, he describes the formation of his project under the influence of art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy. “I dare not confess myself his disciple,” he says, “. . . that would only embarrass him. I can only say that I believe that no other living writer has written the truth in matters of art and life and religion and piety with such wisdom and understanding.”
Does this mean Gill was under the spell of some kind of guru in Coomaraswamy? London’s “high art circles”—which overlapped with Bloomsbury—“repelled” Gill “more and more,” and yet his interactions with its members (Epstein, Fry) were contributory to departures in artistic practice and thought. These circles are a seedbed, it seems, for formulations that resurface in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” And here Coomaraswamy (who’s long been banished, with some justification, by present-day art historians as an Orientalist waffler), is a key transmitter—a disseminator of theories that will be translated into the language of an emergent modernist criticism.
Coomaraswamy was the son of a Sri Lankan father and an English mother. He was born in Colombo but moved to England when he was two years old after his father died. Till about 1906, his life was a back and forth between Sri Lanka (then “Ceylon”) and England, and between his apprenticeship in mineralogy and his discovery of Indian art theory. When his parents named him “Ananda,” they couldn’t have known he would one day re-present rasa. But this is presumably part of what he did in his conversations with Gill and Epstein. Coomarawamy (following Bhattanayaka and Abhinavagupta) knew, crucially, that rasa—the pleasure we take in the portrayal of an emotion—was something that couldn’t be confused with emotion or representation itself. “Rasa is tasted—beauty is felt—only by empathy, ‘einfülung’ (sadharana).” Paraphrasing Bhattanayaka, Coomaraswamy reminds us that tasting rasa is “the twin brother to the tasting of Brahman.” And in the following paragraph he addresses the journey early Christian formalism makes towards “emotion” in the Renaissance:
Christian art, for example, begins with the representation of deity by abstract symbols, which may be geometrical, vegetable, or theriomorphic, and are devoid of any sentimental appeal whatever. An anthropomorphic symbol follows, but this is still a form and not a figuration; not made as though to function biologically or as if to illustrate a text book of anatomy or dramatic expression. Still later, the form is sentimentalized; the features of the crucified are made to exhibit human suffering, the type is completely humanized, and where we began with the shape of humanity as an analogical representation of the idea of God, we end with the portrait of the artist’s mistress posing as the Madonna and a representation of an all-too-human baby; the Christ is no longer a man-God, but the sort of man we can approve of.
Besides giving us a brief but pointed history of the movement of the image from the “geometric” or non-representational to “sentimentalized form,” this also prefigures John Berger’s critique of Renaissance oil painting, in which sacred subject matter becomes more and more lush, hyper-real, and product-like. These positions are completely germane to Eric Gill’s desire to create Christian artworks that had none of the dramatic realism of Renaissance portrayal; they are moments in the formation of a subculture or counterculture.
Coomaraswamy, Gill, Epstein, and Roger Fry joined, or were connected to, the India Society, created in London in 1910 by the art historian E. B. Havell, the founder of the Government Art College in Calcutta and a collaborator of Coomaraswamy’s. Fry’s conversations with his friend, Clive Bell, lead, I think, to the latter’s formulation (again part of a larger anti-representational, anti-Graeco-Roman argument) of “aesthetic emotion”—an emotion specific, Bell says, to the pleasure we take in an artwork, unconnected to whether it’s beautiful or ugly. The artwork that allows us to partake of “aesthetic emotion” in this way possesses “significant form” (the title of Fry’s 1914 tract). Here, in Bell’s argument, are near-literal translations: of rasa (“aesthetic emotion”), and disinterested tasting (“significant form”). “Significant form” will lead to another articulation of the distinction between “aesthetic emotion” and “emotion”: Eliot’s “significant emotion” in 1919.
When Eliot used the terms “Anglo-Catholic” and “classicist” in 1928, it seems he was invoking, and increasingly trying to reconcile, two different histories that he had, in a sense, set apart, or even against each other, in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The first (“Anglo-Catholic”) is connected to the personal history of “the man who suffers” in Eliot, and God’s personal relationship to that man, and the second (“classicist”) a conceptual history of impersonality in the life of the “mind which creates.” The Archbishop’s sermon in Murder in the Cathedral (1935) points again to an attempt at reconciliation, and it examines the word “peace”—that is, whatever is void of emotional freight—in order to see whether the “impersonal” might be found in a Christian mystery:
Reflect now, on how our Lord Himself spoke of Peace. He said to his disciples “My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.” Did He mean peace as we think of it: the kingdom of England at peace with its neighbors, the barons at peace with the King, the householder counting over his peaceful gains, the swept hearth, his best wine for a friend on the table, his wife singing to the children? Those men His disciples knew no such things: they went forth to journey afar, to suffer by land and sea, to know torture, imprisonment, disappointment, to suffer death by martyrdom. What then did He mean? If you ask that, remember that He said also, “Not as the world gives, give I unto you.” So then, He gave to His disciples peace, but not peace as the world gives.
A conduit is being created here, via “peace,” between “Anglo-Catholic” and “classicist”: between personal emotion (“peace as the world gives”) and “significant emotion,” which derives from another space and practice in Eliot’s life—from a cluster of concepts from a different lineage. These conduits had been created in that other lineage too—for instance, by Shankaracharya, between shanti (“peace”), ananda (“bliss” or “joy”), and brahman (“impersonality”; “disinterestedness”). This is a secularizing process—a movement away from both worldly (“the swept hearth”) and unworldly peace (“peace not as the world gives”) to a conceptual freeing up (shanti as ananda).
My interest, as I have already stated, is not in uncovering the “impact” of the “East” on the “West,” or the “influence” of the “Orient” on Europe. The Upanishads, the Gita, Buddhism: these texts don’t comprise the “East”—they represent fissures; anomalies; arguments within the “East” that break up the idea of a unitary, unbroken East, and, even more, wayward arguments and positions within the history of thought. They are minority projects; they come into view gradually in India, then fall out of view, then come into view again, in India and elsewhere. They are domesticated as heritage, or are placed in an airtight container called “Oriental Studies.” Buddhism itself, in India, was wiped out by Brahminical hostility. These are intellectual aberrations that can hardly claim to stand for the “Orient.”
Nor can Kant’s third Critique, or Wordsworthian Romanticism, or Arnold’s idea of criticism, or Eliot’s “significant emotion,” represent the “West.” They comprise aberrations not only in European thought; they are aberrations in Western creative and critical practice. Since I’m invested in this aberration, I’m interested in the journeys these minority projects make, and why and how they persisted until recently.
They take on new inflections across genre. The Upanishadic and Buddhist departure from the “God as Author” model would loosen things not only for Flaubert, with his “nowhere-visible” author, but also for the Anglo-American music avant-garde’s—specifically, John Cage’s—conception of the composer as a semi-redundant figure. Cage’s view becomes cozily domesticated within the narrative of avant-garde disruption, though we know he was immersed in Buddhist thought, for which—as with brahman—the creator-god is irrelevant. Similarly, Barthes’ “The Death of the Author”: “Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very body of writing.” “Negative” not in the nihilistic sense that Hegel would have given the word; this “negative” is a plenitude: the death of the author leads to the birth of the reader. Once the “theological” notion of the “Author-God” is removed, we experience a liberating impersonality: “For [Mallarmé], for us too, it is language which speaks, not the author; to write is, through a prerequisite impersonality (not at all to be confused with the castrating objectivity of the realist novelist), to reach that point where only language acts, “performs,” and not “me.””
Then, this too is domesticated, professionalized, and misread in terms of another “development” in the “onward march” of Western history: “postmodernism,” “structuralism,” poststructuralism.” Its critique, and its recuperation of the ill-fitting, “difficult” lineage (in Woolf’s sense of the word: “how difficult not to go making ‘reality’ this and that”), are ignored.
I find the emergence of literary and artistic critiques of the Enlightenment far more unsettling than the various manifestations in criticism placed under the umbrella of “postmodernism”: structuralism; poststructuralism; postcolonialism; cultural studies, among others. The first two have continuities with modernism and poetics, continuities which their followers have disavowed but which were important to some of their most articulate theorizers. What makes postmodernist critiques of the Enlightenment less persuasive is their dependence on an Enlightenment definition of “disinterested.” Nothing is “disinterested,” this critique says: there is only interestedness on behalf of one constituency or another. This may be true, but the literary, in the particular argument it made in the last two centuries, distanced itself from an Enlightenment-style “disinterestedness,” or “objectivity.” It did this by making a case for a type of “disinterestedness” that’s not part of the binary of interested/uninterested. In its revision of the concept, it made a subtle, and freeing, distinction. “Disinterestedness” is not a static position arrived at through a set of universal rules; it’s a “difficult” navigation.
I myself had little knowledge of Buddhism or the Upanishadic texts or the Gita when growing up. With the latter, this would have partly been because its Sanskritic associations raised a subconscious shudder. (When I say “Sanskritic,” I mean, of course, both an Indological/Orientalist reinvention of Sanskrit as well as a nationalistic canonization, especially through Hindi.) You do a slight double-take when first encountering Coomaraswamy, or even Tagore in English, because the ineffable bits of their rhetoric seem to derive from that same, largely 19th-century, cultural resource. (It’s only gradually that you learn to read between their lines and feel their oppositional acuity.) I myself was a votary of the modern even before I knew I was one: that is, a savorer of the frayed, the contingent, and the provisional. Naturally, I steered clear of the Upanishads.
As a 13-year-old visiting my uncle in Calcutta, I tried to demonstrate to my maternal aunt (the only devout person in the family) the ineffectiveness of the Gita by touching a copy available in their house to my feet. Her response was quasi-Christian: “The gods will forgive you. They can see you’re a child.” I purchased copies of the Gita and the Upanishads when I 16 or 17, probably led towards them by Eliot. I liked them and put them aside.
My first real encounter with Buddhist thought—that is, an encounter unmediated by the “Orient” which slowly, then, sent me off on a journey—took place in Oxford in 1989, not through a text but a throwaway remark. I was sitting in a friend’s room late at night—Heeraman Tiwari, a Sanskritist who was there to do a DPhil. Also present was one of those middle-aged non-elite visiting professors from India that no Indian at Oxford took seriously. At about midnight, they asked me about my writing practice and what I wrote, as they knew I was writing, or had just completed, a novel. I said: “The one thing I do know is that I can’t take language as a given.” “What do you mean?” they asked. “I mean I can’t say, ‘The flower is beautiful,’ because—as ‘reality’ is changing every moment—I already know that it’s not the same flower. So, each time I want to say ‘The flower is beautiful,’ I have to start afresh and look for words. I can’t reach out to a pre-existing language.” “Ah!” they both said, smiling. “Buddhism—flux.”
I wasn’t sure what they meant. My instinct was to dismiss the remark in the way I dismissed many remarks from these visiting professors for being variants on the uncle’s raucous cry in Goodness Gracious Me: “It all came from India!” But I was curious about the word “flux.” The Buddhism I knew had been encapsulated in my school textbook: a prince went out into the world, encountered suffering, old age, and death. The experience was so distressing that he abandoned his palace and family and went out in search of “enlightenment,” which he duly received under a tree. His message was “desire is suffering,” and he advocated the “middle path.” That was the sum total of what I knew about Buddhism. There was no mention of “flux.” It was much later that I read about Nagarjuna, “emptiness,” and the unfixed nature of “reality.”
I reread the Gita in 2011 because I was asked—I’m not sure for what reason—to write an introduction to a new Folio Society edition. It was on this rereading that I began to think once more of Arnold and Eliot.
So I encountered Buddhist and Upanishadic thinking not directly, but in modernism, where it was buried. Modernism gave this lineage to me, though it took me years to figure out what it was that was buried there. And I think that 19th- and early 20th-century counterparts to the person I was in the ’70s—an occasionally ambitious reader; a misfit; a writer-manque—would have had a far more immediate proximity to the variety of these strains of thought than I did. And they would have—whether or not they overtly acknowledged that encounter—loosened that thinking’s ties to an artificial category, the “East,” and transformed it to what became a poetics, or a practice, which would then become my only way and—since I was a writer-manque—the best way of accessing that lineage.
Recently, I discovered these sentences by John Cage: “For living takes place each instant and that instant is always changing. The wisest thing to do is to open one’s ears immediately and hear a sound suddenly before one’s thinking has a chance to turn it into something logical, abstract or symbolical.” This took me back to the dilemma of language and writing that I’d shared in Heeraman’s room, and the response, “Ah! Buddhism—flux.” I now know, of course, of Cage’s absorption in Buddhism. The journey between what’s overt and hidden, what’s given to me and what’s concealed from me, what’s mine and what’s not mine, moves both backward and forward.
The narrative of modernism has seemed wide of the mark to me for two reasons. The first is the paparazzi-like excitement exhibited by commentators as they link the avant-garde to “progress” and “development”; and, needless to say, the history of development and progress is Western history. “When you respond to tradition like you do,” says an English interviewer to the composer Stockhausen, “you revolutionize it—you tear it all up. . . Are you doing that because you hate the tradition, or just because you want to do something new?” Stockhausen replies softly: “You are such a dramatic person.” Progress is solipsistic and self-generating—the result of the human being’s urge, and miraculous ability, to constantly better themselves. Modernism, on the other hand, is a turn that has happened before and will probably happen again.
Second, modernism has been placed in a mimetic interpretation, an allegory, that runs counter to our actual experience of it. Everything that’s odd about modernism—its fragmentariness; its cherishing of the incomplete over the finished product; its non-linearity; its apparent abandoning of stricture—is, in this allegory, an embodiment of a breakdown, a trauma to do with the destruction of the rationalist legacies of the Enlightenment on the one hand and Christianity on the other. Even Eliot falls back on the mimetic interpretation in “The Metaphysical Poets”: “We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results.” Modernism, then, becomes an art of the “age of disenchantment.” But it doesn’t seem to match our actual emotion of experiencing modernism, whatever its subject matter, ugly or beautiful: buoyancy. The buoyancy comes from modernism’s actual location—in lineages of unconstrained modes of thinking. The Enlightenment, Renaissance, and Christianity had, in fact, become disenchanting by the 18th century; modernism regained enchantment fitfully through different, newly available routes. Modernism is joyous because these routes are liberatory. The intimation of their possibility makes Kant invoke “disinterestedness” in terms of “freedom”: it is “nothing other than the state of mind in the free play of the imagination and the understanding.” And here’s Arnold, on the same concept: “a free play of the mind on all it touches.” Not God, nor truth, but freedom was the pursuit of the texts put into circulation again in the 18th century. That freedom is a kind of delighting: a freedom from our habits of thinking.
Why not simply call it “a masterpiece,” damn it? Because that’s what it is, no qualifications necessary.
I will continue to wreak havoc on New York media insiders. And outsiders. Until I get a book deal.
The two grand abdications: one occurred in academic philosophy departments, the other in American fiction.
Russia today thus breeds a desire for stories that bear at least some resemblance to reality.
The Bengali poet Joy Goswami saw me in the doldrums, in my Calcutta flat, on the eve of yet another departure to England.
School, from my first day in kindergarten, had been unspeakable misery.
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