I can never say which is more poignant: the sun breaking into colours from the darkness of the night sea, or the bright sun sinking over the darkening horizon. When I was there in the east coast each day was a miracle. Each day began with the birth of new light, like a new and newer horizon being discovered. Like any eager soul who has without regret or remorse, un-reluctantly left the warmth of the bed and sought the sea shore in the early dawn in the east coast I too have known the touch of the sun. Pondicherry was for me like a warm tin-can placed squarely under the glowing sun; all it does is to go from warm to extreme hot and then rework from where it left off throughout the year. The birth of the sun was the beginning of a blistering hot day the year around. But the sweetness and silence of a glorious sun emerging from the deeps of the sea was always a sight that brought tears from the deeps of myself. I recall murmuring to myself: hiranmayena patrena, satyasyapihitam mukham/ tat tvam pushann apavrinu, satya-dharmaya drishtaye | (The face of truth is covered with a golden disc. O Pushan, Sun, unveil it so I who love the truth may behold it!)
There is certainly light behind light behind light. What blinds us at the beginning need not be the true light. Do I search within myself again and again?
The Mother of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, in one of her conversations, speaks about the idea of beauty thus:
. ..At first your sense of beauty is instinctive, impulsive, infrarational, lacking light, wanting reason, simply without any true understanding, and so, because the origin of the aesthetic sense is infrarational, it is understood, one always says this: “There’s no disputing tastes and colours.” You know, there are all kinds of popular proverbs which say that the appreciation of the beautiful is not a matter of reasoning, everyone likes a particular thing he doesn’t know why, he takes pleasure in looking at a thing, and this pleasure cannot be discussed.
(WRITINGS BY THE MOTHER, Aesthetic consciousness, 1 June 1955)
One just looks upon sun rising like this with awe like a child, infrarational. It is full of mystery full of meaning. Although at the back of our rational mind we “know” that it is the earth that goes round the sun and not the other way round. But like the wise scientist Galileo Galilei we also murmur to ourselves: nevertheless it moves! It moves alright it “moves” our minds too!
But the mind of man is never satiated: the artist and poet are condemned to wander forth forever never tied to one place or time. As I left Pondicherry the sun had begun its descent. Of course it resurfaces even in the west coast. From among the mountain ranges I see the quiet dawn breaking free once again. Now when the sun goes down I see the magnificence of another secret. There is no light without darkness as there is no darkness without light.
Does the intellect realise this or does the heart feel it? What can we say after the touch of God in the glorious dawn? Sri Aurobindo has written:
[…] Whoever has once felt the glory of God within him can never again believe that the intellect is supreme. There is a higher voice, there is a more unfailing oracle. It is in the heart where God resides. He works through the brain, but the brain is only one of His instruments. Whatever the brain may plan, the heart knows first and whoever can go beyond the brain to the heart, will hear the voice of the Eternal.
(Sri Aurobindo on the Glory of God in Man, January 1, 1908)
To feel at one with the universe is to touch the deeper self of all being. This is a realization that just dawns on one or need I write “in “one? Have I felt that the glory of the dawn is profounder or more poignant than the serenity of the sun setting over the Arabian sea? What can I say?
There is no secret in life: everything is free for the taking, open and approachable. As one walks towards the rising sun one feels this truth in one’s veins. It is the similar state of being one arrives at as one walks toward the setting sun. East is East and West is West. There is little difference.
The sun is a miracle. Dawn. Silent and serene. Evening. Silent and serene. We are such tiny creatures that we cling to the edge of all being and refuse to let go. The night is broken and dawn is free. The day is ended and the sun is set. Our heart is hushed. Silenced. If we are willing to turn inwards our hearts will learn to sense much more that what our brains later reason with us. Pondicherry or Trivandrum.
In this west coast I feel the rush of the centuries as the sun disappears round the bend in the silent horizon. It is with a suddenness that my heart is overtaken by the sweeping sadness of emptiness. Have I lost the sun? Which is more poignant? The sun breaking into colours from the darkness of the night sea, or the bright sun sinking over the darkening horizon? Do I know?
This is the empty nest syndrome they speak about. When the children have grown up and left for the wide world seeking spaces for themselves the parents who stay at home feel the pang. My father used to say, I recall: “Leave the front door always open!” Now I know. The sun rise and sun set are never separate. The question that remains large is just this: Is it the same sun that comes round? Silence and solitude are deep within the seeking self. To touch silence is to awaken the whir of the reasoning mind. To realize solitude is to awaken the ever questing mind. The poet and artist are condemned to wander in silence and solitude. Only the sun follows him.
Murali Sivaramakrishnan[Professor of English at Pondicherry University, India. He is also a poet and painter. His recent publication includes the poetry book Silversfish. E-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
It had rained so heavily last night. But now the dawn has brought so
much soft light on the wet boughs and silken flowers. Everything appears
fresh and clean. The sky bears an amazing touch of blue. From where
I sit on the low balcony of my house I can see right up to the end of the
street where it turns sharply to the left and right hiding beyond the heavy
laden trees. Now there is a shower of insects. There are termites all over
the place. Crows, mynas, drongos and magpie robins are dashing in and
out of the strange volcano-like eruptions from the ground. Millions and
millions of tiny winged creatures zoom about only to be devoured in hundreds
by these birds and other little lizards and hairy mongooses which
join them. This is certainly a protein rich repast for them. Nature is so
strange. Each one thrives on the other. Life is one long unending chain.
And yet the survival of each species is ensured through different means.
The termites might be food for the birds but their sheer numbers makes
them outlive their predators. It is not the time span or specific niche in the
food chain that ensures this, for after all in nature time means different
stuff for different species.
They say that the Mayfly has the shortest life span of all living creatures.
It lives barely for one day. And within this short life circuit the entire
drama of birth, growing up, reproduction and the ensurance of the species
and death comes full circle. Some moths and butterflies live a little longer
and dragon flies live up to a week. While on the other hand, the longevity
of elephants and tortoises takes them close to a century and beyond
sometimes. All life forms on earth have their own intrinsic space and time,
and one significant point we have to bear in mind is that they are there
for themselves and they play a significant role in the biosphere and ecosphere.
We can say they have intrinsic significance which means they have
essential rights to exist independently of what we humans might consider
their worth. Of course we human beings have the definite capacity to decide
their fate and destiny because of our might and forceful histories. We
have become the dominant species on earth the masters of all our universe
(until we encounter such superior alien creatures in other planets or stars
which is a future possibility). But for the present we humans have absolute
right of control over all of this planet earth, this third rock from the sun.
I once heard someone state over the television that Americans have
such superior weapons nowadays that they can destroy the entire earth
nine times! This immediately made me wonder how such a threat is feasible!
Simply because once the earth is destroyed there would not be another
to destroy a second time let alone till the ninth! But the threat is obviously
a bit exaggerated for the sake of its magnitude! Of course humans do have
the power to annihilate all life forms including ourselves. This is certainly
a potential threat to all nature.
But nature thrives through creation and destruction. Even the giant
reptiles of the Jurassic age had to face extinction through the great ice age.
Nevertheless nature did find a continuity in ensuring the success of life by
permitting new and newer life forms to germinate even after such a massive
catastrophe. It is said that even after a horrendous chemical warfare
cockroaches can survive to live another day! Perhaps they have evolved
their own biological adaptations after encountering repeated attacks from
us humans inventing and reinventing several chemical and biochemical
atomisers and such stuff to eradicate what we hold as pests from our domestic
spheres! Life does find new ways!
We humans are indeed great consumers. We gorge on our planet. And
down the centuries as we read in our history books we have been exploring
and conquering new territories inside our earth as well as on the surface
and even above our earth. We have created cultures and civilizations,
languages and technologies that have helped us spread all over the globe.
There is virtually no place on earth which has not felt the shadow of a
human being! Our great creativity and adaptability has ensured our survival and success. There is little doubt that us humans are the sole owners
of this mass of rock from the sun. We might defend ourselves by saying
that we have every right to ensure our own survival because we are the
dominant species on earth. We can command the fate of all else. And now,
even if we do produce a mass of garbage which might pollute our earth and
water and air around us we can eventually find new scientific means to
get rid of all that. There are many among us who would strongly advocate
for human beings alone as the apex creations of god – after all we are the
direct decedents of god – he or she produced us in their own image (this is
what our religions would teach us).
This I have heard: humans are not the only creatures who leave debris
behind. Large herds of wandering elephants pull down and destroy
innumerable trees, thorny shrubs and bushes. Aren’t they then culprits of
destruction of nature and habitat? With the discovery of fire human tribes
have torched and scorched miles and miles of bush and terrain down the
history. So then, why only blame our present day generation solely for habitat
Having said that, we come to realise that the axe and the fire have laid
waste miles and miles of living land through countless generation. But the
point is simply that now we have reached such a pass that we do not have
any more chance: we have reached a cul de sac in our history and the history
of our planet. We have the first wake up call.
We have built up our civilizations and cultures with us humans as the
centre of it all. When we put our interests in front of everything such a
view is called anthropocentricism – human centred world views. Little do
we recognise as the intrinsic rights of all other non-human stuff to exist.
But nature as we have come to realise through all our learning and pursuit
of science, is something that cherishes what is called biodiversity. There
are innumerable living and non-living things that are besides the human
existence and they too have a need and necessity to exist side by side. In
fact it is through the continued preservation of this vibrant harmonious
web of life that we can also aid in our own survival. Ecology teaches us
that everything in our universe is interlinked with every other thing else.
We break one and it makes a dent in all others as well. When each animal,
each bird, each amphibian, each insect is deprived of its survival space – its
biological habitat – we also are making dents in the other interconnected
chains. We are locked in with everything else that exists. Some we can see
and make out, others are invisible to us but nevertheless exist. We have
so little right to assert our own right over everything else. But yet, this is
exactly what we have been trying to do so far. Our history, or rather our
environmental history is so full of our own footprints and finger prints.
We are the culprits.
Our second wake-up call is one that tells us our earth is not a garbage
dump! All the nations of the world produce waste and they are of several
levels from chemical to bio-chemical to nuclear waste. What do we normally
do when we are left with some waste? We simply dispose of it over
our wall; if it is in our neighbour’s yard it is safe beyond our sight. Now that
we have come to realise that all of this is our home where shall we dump
our waste? Is there space beyond stars? Can we find a distant galaxy where
we can heap all our waste?
These are not mere lists of facts or a fanciful array of fantasies – but
his could be a clarion call to stay awake and recognise our responsibilities.
We should not reach out for the snooze button
There has been no time in our histories as in the present when our
wake-up call has been so persistent. It is screeching. We have so polluted
our earth, our waters – including fresh water lakes, rivers and the seas –
and our air. We have to change our ways of living. Before that we need to
wake ourselves up. Do we need to wait till the last and final call has to go?
Was it indeed Mahatma Gandhi who said that we have not just inherited
the earth from our forefathers but simply borrowed it from our children!
My reverie is rudely broken by the door-bell. Someone is at the door.
I need to go and get the front door. The sunlight outside has become warmer
and shadows have started to shrink. The sun is moving beyond the tree
line up into the blue skies. The termite volcano appears to have subsided.
The crows have already left. Satiated no doubt with their fill of sumptuous
protein-rich meal. Only a couple of stray mynas still hang about pecking
at this and that. A couple of squirrels dash in and out of the bushes. Probably
the late comers. It dawns on me suddenly that I have left the lights on
inside my rooms. It is imperative that I conserve whatever is left, including
our electricity. I definitely do not want that doorbell to be the third and
final wake-up call. I am up and about in no time!
Revista rile, joão pessoa-pb, v. 1, n. 1, p. 289-292, jan – jun 2018
November 12, 2013 Making sense of human suffering
Disorienting Dharma: Ethics and the Aesthetics of Suffering in the Mahabharata. Emily T. Hudson; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001.
Suffering is a natural fact of existence that cannot be wished away or denied. And recognition of this fact is apparently the beginning and end of all human wisdom. Small wonder then, that this problem is highlighted by all great works of literature irrespective of geography, time or culture. And over many years of human history this one narrative strand is maintained by all genuinely sensitive poetic minds, and integrated into their poetic vision.
The Mahabharata of Vyasa is unarguably one of the most significant and poignant works of all times, and as this epic amply bears out in what could be among the most famous of all its poetic statements:“what is here is elsewhere; what is not here is nowhere else.” So huge and complex is its narrative canvas that it encapsulates the very span of human reach. And the entire text is replete with dimensions of human suffering which virtually appear to be endless, and persistent. Suffering then is the prime mover of the aesthetic of the text — an idea that requires a genuinely human-centred and sensitive approach. Emily Hudson has done exactly that and more. Her book is an erudite exploration into the complex web of textures and structures of the aesthetic of suffering and the ethics of dharma in the most tragic of all Indian narratives, the Mahabharata. The strangest and the most elemental characteristic of the epical narrative of Vyasa is that it is so notoriously paradoxical and blatantly reluctant to provide any easy answers to life’s eternal questions. What is explored in the text is the virtual inexhaustibility of all life itself. And what Emily Hudson sets out to do is to expose the triadic relationship of suffering, the idea of dharma, and the aesthetic function of the narrative strategies as they work themselves out in her intensely sensitive reading. To take the cue from the text’s narrative strategies as she artfully argues would lead one to unravel what the text “does” as opposed to simply what it literally “says.”
The book is a delight to pore over — in some places as interesting as the basic text of the Mahabharata itself, for anyone interested in those serious aspects of Indian aesthetics and narratology, where the drama of human suffering is narrated and close-examined under the scanner of societally-evolved dharma.
Five intriguing chapters with a conceptually and critically dense introductory chapter comprise the present book. The idea of Indian narratives is close-examined and the central concepts of dharma anddukha are highlighted. At the very outset, the significance of the Mahabharata as a most important source for the study of South Asian religious, social and political thought, and as a vehicle for transmitting dharma (moral religious and social duty or virtue) is hinted at, and the work approached as a document exposing the societal norms, regulations, ideology and the cardinal issues of a tragic sense of life.
The cardinal issue of the Mahabharata is human suffering seen against the social texture of dharma and thus the central aesthetic experience of the text lies in its epical preoccupations with death, destruction and ruin. In Emily Hudson’s words, this sensibility is the weight of human affliction, which is borne out in the narrative by the continuous line of travails that each character undergoes in the course of the narrative. Indeed, Ugrasravas, one of the principal narrators of the epic declares that after listening to the Mahabharata, one will never despair, even in dire situations. This is in direct line with Hudson’s thesis which goes on to argue that one of Mahabharata’s tasks is to refigure the reader’s understanding of suffering and her own professed engagement in her book is to de-center discussions of ethics in the text from the general topic of dharma and to re-center it on the issue of suffering and the intricacies of its relationship to dharma. Hudson initiates her reading of the Mahabharata through what she establishes as the lynchpin of its narrative: the game of dice and the consequent violation of Draupadi. In her reading she also invokes the characters of Yudhishtra, Dhrtarashtra and Duryodhana and interrogates them in their situational contexts vis-à-vis the plot. There is a certain sense of inevitability in the tale which is always foretold and the perspective constantly is shifting whenever the question of dharma is invoked at any point in the tale. It is as though the narrative is pushing the reader/listener away to a safe distance that affords a wider vision of the human situation. The disconcerting relationship between dharma and suffering is fore-grounded in the intimate aesthetic experience that the sahrdaya undergoes during the ill-fated moment of the dice game, the disrobing of Draupadi and the disastrous consequences thereon to all the characters. Everything that happens leads to the war. As Hudson points out the blind King Dhrtharashtra sees with insight but does not act with it. The purpose of the tale as it unfolds terror and fear in constant succession in the minds of the reader/listener is definitely cathartic. Time itself figures as a character definitive in the scheme of things.
Paul Ricoeur in his Time and Narrative had drawn a distinction between tales of time and tales about time. The Mahabharata is both a tale of time and a tale about time. For at the heart of this tale is its ethical project of refiguring our understanding of suffering.
Emily Hudson’s Disorienting Dharma is in line with other Euro-American scholarly pursuits into Indian ethical and religious ideas like those of Max Weber, Paul Wilmot, David Shulman, Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty and James Fitzgerald. What is generally outstanding is her sensitivity to issues that are culturally and geographically alien to her, and her willingness to take on a text that is absolutely reluctant to provide any straightforward answers to life’s riddles. It is seldom that one comes across genuine scholarship these days like what Emily T. Hudson has exhibited in these pages. Her concern for the larger questions of human life through probing the profounder strands of the narrative textures and her unrelenting commitment to inquire into what each character and each specific situation in the text means at any given time and also to refigure it in the overall order of things, is quite clearly evidenced in her erudite critical reading.
Regimes of Narcissism, Regimes of Despair Ashis Nandy; Oxford University Press,YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road,New Delhi-110001. Rs. 595.
That in our own times the fate of an individual lies in the politics of interest groups which could determine not only the general quality of his/her life but also the mode of termination of both individual and community — either self-willed or inflicted from without — is surprisingly a fact quite well-known. In India today, much like in the rest of Southern Asia — what he calls the South as opposed to the developed countries of North America and Europe — Ashis Nandy identifies in the prevailing political culture two predominant psychological states: narcissism and despair. To characterise their institutionalised forms and inner dynamics, he dubs them regimes of narcissism and regimes of despair. This book close-examines compelling socio-political issues in terms of mass ideologies and as vectors in the inner life of individuals.
The social flux and moral anomie we see around have condemned large sections of men and women to live on with a vague sense of loss, anxiety and repressed anger. When ethical and moral values are invalidated and abandoned, many are blind to the hand of any agencies in these, and learn to contain anger through forms of consumerism and immersion in the world of total entertainment — which often goes by the name of normality. Living in a hedonic, secularised world, quite unable to decipher the reason why its hedonism seems evil to others, the cultural sensitivities of the globalised middle class, as Nandy points out, have further narrowed in recent times. In the essay “Terror, Counter-Terror, and Self-Destruction”, Nandy underscores Jean Baudrillard’s observation that “evil is there, everywhere as an obscure object of desire.” As suicide bombers have made their presence felt in over 12 countries now, their act appears as wanton terrorism declared by the death-defying on the death-denying. The former as he points out, thrives on a theology of martyrdom, the latter on a psychology of this-worldly individualism and narcissism. In some contexts the idea of despair too has become central to our understanding of contemporary subjectivities much in line with the early hard-hitting modernist writers and artists like Kafka, Camus and Van Gogh. Even Nietzsche and Dostoevsky cannot be understood without this corollary of despair.
Eight essays ranging from issues of nationalism through terrorism and counter-terrorism, ideologies of humiliation and happiness, notions of the sacred in religion, ideas of tradition and modernity — wrought together in terms of a common interrogative stance relating to the individual and the nation constitute Ashish Nandy’s book. The range and reach of these interrogatives is indeed massive and for readers used to Nandy’s earlier works, proffer prolific views on an equally broad socio-political and intellectual span. In “Nationalism, Genuine and Spurious”, he engages with the political position of Tagore and Gandhi vis-a-vis nationalism in the early part of the 20th century. Obviously not having access to a vast array of socio-political terminology available today both Tagore and Gandhi have phrased out their positions in different ways, and Nationalism, in their eyes, as Nandy proposes, is an ideology while patriotism, as he distinguishes the term, is a sentiment and thus an emotional state. Tagore used something like 12 to 15 expressions to denote one’s love for one’s country, ranging fromdeshabhiman and swadesiprem to deshbahakti and swadesh chetana. But he used none of these as an equivalent of nationalism. Gandhi too appears to have recognised in the version of nationalism a touch of the shadow of Europe. However, despite these visionaries, versions of nationalism became part of the social evolutionist baggage exported to and internalised by a defeated civilisation veritably open to globalisation and exploitation.
In two essays “ The Demonic and Seductive in Religious Nationalism” and “Coming Home” Nandy resorts to the biographies of two controversial political figures — Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Madanlal Pahwa — in order to explore the deeper psychological reaches of violence and religious nationalism. Both Savarkar and Pahwa were victims of a perverted social order. “Savarkar is the name of a blown-up, grotesque temptation inherent in the Southern world’s encounter with the global nation state system and with religious traditions that facilitate internalisation of the core principles of western nationalism.”Pahwa’s life history on the other hand is read as “the story of a person battling memories of loss and exile through violence”; “and an unapologetic killer…who also was a victim of the ethnic cleansing in Punjab during 1946-48, seething with anger at what had befallen him and the Hindus in Punjab.” The process of dehumanisation is deliberately effected through hate-propaganda, and benumbing the victims as dangerous and contaminating. In many ways humiliation achieves the pathological substitute for dominance and genocide. The essay “Humiliation” explores among other things the consequence of colonial burden and shame and their impact on the political culture; it bespeaks of rape victims, blacks, dalits and the spectrum of dehumanisation in political history. This technique of pathologisation is fast becoming a post-colonial version of the colonial technique of infantilisation.
“Happiness,”likewise is a unique exploration of the contexts of this psychological state that holds tremendous implications for the present consumer culture. “The presently dominant idea of happiness,” Nandy writes, “being subject to individual volition and effort, ensures that the search for happiness has a linear trajectory… Perfect happiness comes when one eliminates all unhappiness.” Nandy’s essay focuses on the emerging idea of happiness as an autonomous manageable psychological variable in the global middle-class culture.
“Return of the Sacred” and “Modernity and the Sense of Loss” enquire into the political geography of religion, and dwell on the process of how the modernity of traditions has become a source of cultural pride, a prop for cultural nationalism. In a time when religions have apparently regained their popularity, and the compatibility between Vedanta and quantum Physics, Zen and psychotherapy are now subjects of bestsellers, “few dare to reverse the process and justify or criticise nuclear power or stem cell research from within the frame of Islamic ethics or Shaiva Siddhanta”.
The book is well produced and indexed in handy format no doubt, but one hopes that the proof-reading could have been a little more meticulous, taking care to avoid silly spelling errors and omissions in an important document by a senior academic. Regimes of Narcissism, Regimes of Despair, is not Nandy at his best, though, but the eight essays would serve to transfer the incessant critical spirit and irresistible inquiry of a socio-political intellectual attempting to interrogate a fast changing present, looking at politics and society through the prism of persons and their selves in order to ensure that the intelligent human is not overwhelmed by impersonal institutional structures and invisible movements of history. As Nandy himself notes: “these essays are about an India that is no longer the country on which I have written for something like four decades.” The critical minded reader is in the end left questing for more.
(Murali Sivarama-krishnan is Professor of English in Pondicherry Central University)
If there is one major aspect of writing the self then it is located between seeking independence and experiencing interdependence . The entire history of Anglo-American Modernism has been the formulation of the work of art and literature as an autotelic object, or an independent being initself , quite distinct from the interdependency that constitutes raw life. Writers like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Marcel Proust desired independence from all and everything — including culture, family, and language — and the great illusion of the irreplaceable uniqueness of the individual — one of Europe’s finest illusions — blossomed forth. The aesthetic of the Modern was conceived in such a desire to be independent. Nevertheless in the contexts of writing that has changed over the years, multicultural issues and pluralistic perceptions in the fast lane of life in the present have altered the concerns of the evolving narrative self as fully evidenced in Gish Jen’s exploration of her own writing and the cultural phenomenon of literature in America. Gish Jen is a writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is the author of four novels including the acclaimed Typical American andWorld and Town .
Gish Jen’s Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self , is a three-part lecture she delivered as part of the Massey Lecture series in Harvard. The forum obviously offered for this second generation Chinese writer in English a specific reason to delve into herself and close-examine her own cultural and literary situation. The book is thus a testament and a manifesto for interrogating the closure of the self in the context of the West and the cultural necessity of opening up to the larger issues of interdependency in a globalising present.
In his essay Why I Write , George Orwell confidently gave “four great motives for writing” that he feels exists in every writer. The first of these is sheer egotism — to be talked about, to be remembered after death etc. The second is aesthetic enthusiasm — an investment “in the impact of one sound over another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story.” Then there is historical impulse — the “desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.” And finally, political purpose — a “desire to push the world in a certain direction,” which he finds in every person. For Gish Jen there is another motive: the fascination with the western narrative per se . She discovers that the novel is fundamentally a western form, and her fascination with the classics of modernist writing she had encountered even from her childhood helped her locate the narrative strands as drifting toward a sort of narcissistic solipsism, as quite distinct from her own Chinese roots that she soon identified.
Tiger Writing is a remarkable achievement on account of its sobriety and unique perception of difference between what Gish Jen considers as the West and Asian narratives. The novel needs to be located within the ambit of anguish and joy and not constrained in terms of a narrow self-exploration as she desires.
Growing up in America as the second daughter of a Chinese immigrant Engineer, Gish Jen was well exposed to the wealth of classical modernist writing. Eventually with her discerning critical eye she was able to discriminate the appalling casualness of pronouncements like Lionel Trilling’s about how Thomas Mann “said that all his work could be understood as an effort to free himself from the middle class, and this of course, will serve to describe the chief intention of all modern literature.” With a characteristic Chinese clarity recalling Confucian insight, she dismisses this as ever being true of all times despite the special evocation of the radical political agenda in both Mann and Trilling.
Further there is a distinction in the interior exploration of Mann and Kafka and eventually Milan Kundera as she discovers. Gish Jen cites Kundera: “For Proust, a man’s interior universe comprises a miracle, an infinity that never ceases to amaze us. But that is not what amazes Kafka.” It is the involvement with history that discriminates the Kafkaesque.
Gish Jen’s thesis is that there is a distinct trait to individualism in the aesthetic of the West, while its Asian counterpart is one that liberates the self from its own mundane-ness through its involvement with the everyday and the rest. Individualism intensifies from the East to West, as pointed out by Richard Nisbett, she says.
In the end, what is ultimately required is an integration of the individualist and the interdependentvisions — “a balance of independence and interdependence, I might say today.” “We need both interdependent and the independent self. But how interdependent of me to see them as two poles of human experience that cannot be disengaged!”
Gish Jen, we must remember, is a second generation Chinese American western writer — and she thinks critically and thinks at times in terms of even us and them . However her sensitivity to her own roots and the transparency with which she focuses on these textures is what makes Tiger Writingremarkably interesting.
The book as we have it now is divided into three sections, and the first section is entirely devoted to her father’s autobiography which he wrote when he was 85. Here the focus is entirely on non-episodic experiences and what we could term as personal history. The items described are external objects and the narrative reads like a map of external experience.
The second section is an exploration of art, culture and the self in western especially white middle class intellectual tradition. The third is suitably entitled “What Comes of All That”, and is a critical exploration of the integration of interdependence and independence. Gish Jen cites John Updike’s use of a “fervent relationship with the world” as a critical touchstone, Updike “affirming with this a nose-pressed-to-the-glass-ness that seemed to me the opposite of nose-pressed-to-the-mirror-ness .”
In conclusion the author resorts to an observation from Czeslaw Milosz on poetry which could be true for fiction as well and which lends the title to this book:
In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent;
A thing brought forth that
we didn’t know we had in us,
So we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out
And stood in the light, las ing his tail.
This element of surprise and discovery that takes place in a work of art that leaps straight at both the reader and the writer is in the end that which matters, and Gish Jen’s translucency as a novelist with an astute critical sense is that which leads us through the pages of this extremely interesting narrative. Tiger Writing is thus at once a text of critical exploration and a manifesto.
( Murali Sivaramakrishnan teaches English at the Pondicherry Central University )