My New Book— Strategies and Methods: Relocating Textual Meaning

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Sri Aurobindo and the aesthetics of transformation

Murali Sivaramakrishnan belongs to that rare breed of the vanishing (rather vanished) tribe of English teachers who are well-equipped with a strong foundation in the Indic spiritual tradition. Sturdily armed with a Sanskrit orientation, he approaches the territory of Indian aesthetics that angels dare not tread. It is common knowledge that the primary source of this discipline is thevedas and the upanisads. All great creations of art are the supreme emanation from the heart filled with rasanubhava. We do have a hoary tradition of aestheticians extending from Bharata of the fifth century BC down to Panditharaja Jagannatha of the 17th century who have thought long and thought deeply on what constitutes the nature and mode of existence of a work of art. The western critical tradition cannot pride itself of such unbroken continuity. There is a yawning unbridgeable gap of 10 centuries between the decline and fall of the Roman empire in the fourth century A.D. and the European renaissance of the 14th century, the interim medieval age relegating arts as unwanted baggage in its over-insistence on religion.

This book is an attempt, in the words of the author, “to reread the contribution of the mystic in the light of contemporary scholarship,” with an approach that is “holistic and integral, methodology not derivative but comparative, and poetically sensitive.” The work, a collection of articles previously published during 1993-2011 in various journals, is divided into four major sections in 11 chapters with an addition of two personal, contemplative musings — for me the best of the lot — and a select bibliography. Of these, the section ‘Aesthetics’ is of immediate concern to us. Murali is quick to realise the distinction between the aesthetics of the West and the East. Indian aesthetics centres on supra-sensual values since it is impossible to comprehend the finite without extending it to the infinite.Sri Aurobindo’s Aesthetics and Poetics (1)

For Sri Aurobindo, the object of human existence is brahmananda, the delight of being and hence progress in life lies not in rejecting beauty and delight or practising a life of denial but in rising from a lower to a higher plane in the realisation of the experience of beauty and delight. The aesthetic process lies in the soul becoming conscious of its pilgrimage towards God. He envisions the possibility of the human to enlarge his awareness to the ultimate stage of Divine Supraconsciousness.

Murali maintains that Sri Aurobindo’s aesthetics is integral in nature and spiritual in its conception. Life is viewed in its entirety and in its all-inclusiveness. He steers clear of two attitudes: the materialist’s rejection of anything behind the phenomenal appearance and the ascetic’s refusal to accept the material reality of the world. These two stand as the major obstacles to a comprehensive awareness which is possible only through an integration of Life and Spirit into a cosmic continuum. “To become complete in being, in consciousness of being, in force of being, in delight of being and to live in this integrated completeness is the divine living” says Sri Aurobindo in his The Life Divine. Murali coins the phrase ‘the aesthetics of transformation’ to denote this stage in the evolutionary process, in the Arnoldian sense of ‘a growing and a becoming, and not a being and a resting.’

Murali advises us that while approaching the works of Sri Aurobindo we should bear in mind the following: “his distinction of the subtler levels of spirituality from overt religion and its discourses; his foregrounding of the intensity and necessity of experiential yoga…; his constant involvement with poetry and the power of the Word — the mantra”. His concept of the efficacy of the mantra, the poetic expression of the deepest spiritual reality, which he formulates at great length in his magnum opus The Future Poetry is vital to the Aurobindonian spiritual aesthetics which is all about the wholesale transformation of the inner-self (body, mind and spirit) and not, not at all, of the tawdry fripperies of external existence.

Most of these essays deal with Sri Aurobindo’s search for enlightenment, his recovery of the significant principles of ancient aesthetics embedded in our scriptures. Ideas and illustrations get repeated time and again; hence there is a noticeable lack of progression in the elucidation of Sri Aurobindo’s aesthetics. It is none too easy to guide the reader through the labyrinth of the works of the great mystic. Murali draws heavily from the abundant source available in our scriptures. However there remain some nagging questions which an uninitiated reader is bound to raise. How does an aesthetic experience get immediately intuited? What is the locus of such an experience? Does it offer a terminal value? What is aesthetic judgment? Or aesthetic bliss? Probably such overt pragmatism is irrelevant and unwarranted in the context of Aurobindo’s synthetic vision. One searches for the ‘New Directions’ promised in the title of the book. Whither are they?

Book Review by MS Nagarajan in The Hindu July 1st 2014

Tiger Writing by Gish Jen
Tiger Writing by Gish Jen

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.

Individualism

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 )