Tagore's Total Vision - I

by Kenneth Champeon, May 8, 2005 | Destinations: India / West Bengal

Tell somebody that you are a poet nowadays and you are likely to be met with disbelief, scorn, or indifference. Poets are mostly seen as leeches on the body politic, which is geared to making citizens rich, not happy or civilized. Even if you can name one living poet, there is probably no poet that all citizens know, nor a poet that represents a country's multifarious ideals. Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, and Robert Frost are quintessentially American poets, but how many people know even one of their poems, still less by heart? Poetry makes no money. Therefore it is dispensable, like senior citizens.

While travelling through India, W. B. Yeats was startled to discover Indian peasants singing the songs and poems of Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), recipient of the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature and the first non-European to win. Rare is the versifier indeed that can appeal to both the lofty guardians of taste in Sweden and the laborers in Asian tea-fields. Certainly Yeats himself had no such universal fame, even though he hailed from Ireland, where peasants are supposed to have a larger working vocabulary than the average Harvard graduate.

Democracy has always had this problem: it discourages excellence, i.e. superiority. As every smart kid knows, if you try to be better than everybody else you will soon be accused of snobbery. Four-fifths of your energy, as Yeats notes, "is spent in the quarrel with bad taste." This is why American letters has produced many good artists, but few that can be called great; and those few have often had to live abroad where excellence is not subject to such leveling scrutiny. If they choose not to live abroad, they live alone. Some choose not to live at all.

India is a democracy in name, but its resilient caste system has made genuine democracy difficult. A great many Indians making a name for themselves abroad are Brahmins, uncomfortable with the principle that all men are created equal. In Kim, Kipling makes the glib remark that "India is the only democratic land in the world", which may be true insofar as every Indian has an atman and all Indians are brothers and sisters. But even today some brothers are better - or older - than others. As for the sisters, India maltreats them as few countries do. One indignant Indian writer referred to Indian women as "simpering, incubating machines."

Rabindranath Tagore, known simply as Rabindranath by Bengalis, came from a landed and wealthy family that took noblesse oblige for granted. A radical egalitarian would have everyone equal and identical; Tagore seemed to accept inequality as natural or inevitable. Treat the base and poor with respect and sympathy; celebrate them even; but labor to make them into you or you into them, and you may labor in vain.

But Tagore was not so much a reactionary as he was a staunch individualist, fearful of movements, organizations, and their ugly neologisms. He participated in the swadeshi or "self-rule" movement, but withdrew when the movement turned violent. He was a great friend to Gandhi, but abhorred Gandhi's tactics, particularly the incineration of British textiles and the so-called "spinning cult", which encouraged weaving one's own clothing from scratch. Tagore was willing to accept a British knighthood recognizing his literary accomplishments, but renounced the honor following the barbarous Amritsar massacre. His poem "Question" expresses Tagore's disgust with Indian radicalism and English persistence alike. Indeed, his ambivalent politics partially explain the general ambivalence toward Tagore's art. The novel The Home and the World is Tagore's best-known articulation of these politics. The home-rule movement is taking off. Nikhil, a magnanimous landowner, is reluctant to get involved because love of morality must take precedence over love of country. His rebellious friend Sandip plays Dionysus to Nikhil's Apollo. Indeed Sandip owes a great deal to Nietzsche, with his ideas of self-overcoming, sexual license, and the stupidity of otherworldly religions.

Tagore is plainly on Nikhil's side. The rebels are shown to depend on the "loyalists" for money, just as rustic Gandhi depended on certain well-placed Indian industrialists whose fortune depended upon English trade and law. Nikhil's main riposte to the impetuous Sandip is "reform thyself". Critics called this reactionary cowardice. Dyspeptic critic Georg Lukacs, for example, called the novel "a petit bourgeois yarn of the shoddiest kind," whatever that means. But latter-day Indian authors like Arundhati Roy, aghast at India's nascent militarism, would identify with Nikhil's rejection of violence.

The Bhagavad Gita remains troublesome in this connection. (What holy book does not?) Gandhi believed that the book's so-called pro-war stance was only allegorical. Perhaps to Gandhi, but: "Amulya fumbled in the pocket of his tunic and pulled out, first a small edition of the Gita, which he placed on the table - and then a little pistol." Tagore mentions the Gita's nihilistic cry, "Who kills the body kills naught!"

In keeping with "reform thyself", Tagore criticized Indian society, especially its misogyny. The story "Exercise Book" describes a young girl's change from an eager student into a muzzled wife: her husband seizes her exercise book containing dangerously uppity poems and thoughts. In the poem "Bride", a woman bemoans what feminists now call her "objectification": "They point at my body or face / They argue about how I look -- / I feel like a garland-seller / my wares examined, / Tested for quality, coldly." Some Indian intellectuals continue to place all of India's problems at the feet of the Raj, even 50-plus years since the Raj packed up its tea and crumpets. But the Raj did not bring gender inequality. If anything, the Raj tried to end it.

Tagore was opposed to militancy and nationalism on principle: if India became a militant nation then it would be no different from the British Empire. And unlike Gandhi, who wanted to make India into one big ashram, Tagore could appreciate what Europe had to offer, i.e. progress, a weak idea in India until the colonial era. Like Vivekananda, Tagore saw human redemption in a synthesis between Eastern spiritualism and Western materialism. In this respect, Gandhi was the reactionary, not Tagore.

This is not to say that Tagore ignored the West's follies. Well-traveled, he saw firsthand that Europeans are "addicted to work" and that their spirits are dead. The anti-materialism play "Red Oleander" takes place in the mythical Yakshapuri, or "demon-city." Led by a faceless Raja, Yakshapuri's citizens labor incessantly to extract gold from the earth. The poet is not long in rebelling against this barren life. In the play's fifth piece of dialogue, a "tunnel-excavator boy" tells the lovely and flighty girl Nandini, "All I do all day is dig up lumps of gold. I'd be relieved if I could take a little time off from it to find flowers for you." Tagore compares getting rich to getting drunk:

"There's an end to things of need. There is need to eat, it can be ended by filling the stomach; there is no need for intoxication, so no end to it either. Those piles of gold are wine, our Yaksha-raja's solidified wine.... With our cup of liquor we forget we are tied within the bounds of fate. We think we have unrestricted freedom. With the lump of gold in his hand the master of this place feels the same illusion. He thinks the gravitational pull that affects all common people doesn't reach him."

Tagore believed humans to develop a "tolerance" for wealth, just as they develop a tolerance for drugs: they need more and more to get the same euphoric effect that smaller doses once gave them. Progress is merely the cumulative effect of centuries of gold abuse. Thus greed has a multiplying effect. In the poem "A Half-acre of Land" Tagore writes, "Those want most, alas, who already have plenty."

Moreover, the pursuit of wealth distracts from our main goal, the pursuit of happiness. Money, Tagore writes, "stunts the mind. When the mind is in control, it creates its own pleasure; but when wealth takes up the pursuit of pleasure, there is nothing for the mind to do. Where formerly the mind's pleasure reigned, possessions now stake their claim. Instead of happiness, we acquire nothing but things." This is debatable in many ways, of course. Things last. Happiness perishes. And the mind has plenty to do in the pursuit of wealth; a mind dedicated solely to its own happiness will often discover only the misery of introspection. But that we too often put the cart of commodities before the horse of happiness is nevertheless true.

Above all Tagore was a poet, and like most poets he feels a visceral distaste for the surface ugliness of technology. With a nod to Blake's "satanic mills", Tagore calls the aeroplane a "satanic machine." And he predicts correctly that aeroplanes would permit guiltless killing on a grand scale. For twenty-seven lines, the poem "Bombshell" evokes a pacific and pastoral India; the closing lines are "A telegram comes: / 'Finland pounded by Soviet bombs.'" One feels that Tagore is just as angry about the swiftness and baldness of telegrams as about the 1939 Soviet invasion. A man suited by temperament to serene contemplation of nature finds modern life poisoned by a "mean and ugly clamor," which Tagore elsewhere connects to the decline of the aristocracy. "Everything today," he writes, "has been lowered, stunted, stripped...." This was 1898, mark. Tagore also doubted that science could know nature or man: each would always be more than the sum of its intellectualized parts, just as a book is more than pages, characters, an ISBN number, its cover.

Poets tend to be the least pessimistic of all writers. In Hamlet Shakespeare can kill off his main characters in a trice and the only ray of hope remaining is a tardy Fortinbras. But a poet can always turn to Nature for consolation when man is unendurable or doomed. Thus Tagore can say, "I feel the age we live in is drawing to a close...." But note the optimistic turn to the cheerless lines that follow:

"Upheavals threaten, gather the pace / Of a storm that nothing slows. / Hatred and envy swell to violent conflagration: / Panic spreads down from the skies, / From their growing devastation. / If nowhere in the sky is there left a space / For gods to be seated, then, Indra, / Thunderer, may you place / At the end of this history your direst instruction: / A last full stop written in the fire / Of furious total destruction. / Hear the prayer of an earth that is stricken with pain: / In the green woods, O may the birds / Sing supreme again."

May the world abide, in other words, even if its bumbling caretakers blow each other to bits. Tagore saw nature sentimentally, and he envied children and animals for their natural guilelessness and simplicity. He saw Nature primarily as a reservoir of peace to which frazzled humanity could repair for regeneration, and in its presence he often resembles the excitable windbag Whitman: "wheels turning, flags flying, earth trembling, clouds swirling, wind rushing, river flowing, boats sailing, songs rising" -- sentences running!

Tagore has often been called a "poet-saint." But he also famously renounced a saint-like renunciation. For only through enjoying and suffering existence can one arrive at a true vision of the world, at reconciliation with God. Not that suffering should be pursued; it happens, whether we pursue it or not. One should strive neither to avoid suffering nor to experience joy. One should not strive. It is no accident that the Hindu Tagore of Hindu-Muslim Bengal should be so fascinated with Buddhism. When Tagore asks, "Why do we aim so high only to weep when thwarted?" he is echoing a Buddhist weariness of extremes. "Only in the deepest silence of the night the stars smile and whisper among themselves - 'Vain is this seeking! Unbroken perfection is over all!'"

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Part II

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