Selections from the Upanishads

He knew that Brahman is bliss. For truly, beings here are born from bliss. When born, they live by bliss. And into bliss when departing, they enter.

-- Taittiriya Upanishad 3.6.1

The face of truth is covered with a golden disc. Unveil it, O Pushan, so that I, who love the truth, may see it.
O Pushan, the sole seer, O Controller, O Sun, off-spring of Prajapati, spread forth your rays & gather up your radiant light that I may behold you of loveliest form. Whosoever is that person (yonder) that also am I.

-- Isha Upanishad 15-16

I have overcome the whole world. I am brilliant like the Sun.
He who knows this, knows the secret wisdom.

-- Taittiriya Upanishad 3.10.5

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Man who Laughs by Victor Hugo - Part 2

Paul Cezanne - Boy with Skull

To continue.
In TMWL, Hugo’s unique and disturbing grasp of the nature of existence, life, & society – of human experience itself – is brought out precisely in the rich construction of paradoxes, and whelming use of antithesis.
Through this medium, Hugo effectively destroys the “rational” view of the universe which is fundamentally dualistic & separative.
According to a rational philosophy, the world can be understood properly only in terms of opposites: dark & light, night & day, beautiful & ugly, sublime & grotesque, high & low, rich & poor…
The very story of TMWL, its characterization, its plot-movement, and the inner meaning of all its elements serve this one crucial purpose: to show that dualities do not exist...
Human reality, or any part thereof, seen in its totality, seen in the context of the whole, eludes such convenient classification & definition.
It’s not that Hugo doesn’t have any notion of Good & Evil, or that “everything is permitted”, or that anything is as good as the other. The truth is the contrary: Hugo has a very definite view of what is Good & what is Bad.
But TMWL is not, primarily, an ethical novel (like “Les Miserables” or “Ninety Three”). It is primarily a metaphysical novel examining & portraying the truth about the way things are; the way things work.
And while there is Good and there is Evil – there is Light and there is Darkness – there is “Yin” and there is “Yang” – Life/Death - Presence/Absence - they are not found as such in their pure essence in this world.
In the same vein, at every step and at every turn, Hugo destroys the reader’s notion that God is an ultimately benevolent force & that Good finally triumphs. He sets up situations in which the cruelty & absurdity of things seems to have been swept away by the grace & love of Providence – but the very next moment, he dashes & shatters all our illusions as to a comfortable finale to pieces.
The moment the reader starts thinking that justice will prevail – from above – Hugo demolishes any safe, na├»ve, & illusory belief that God shall finally set things right.
But this doesn’t mean that Hugo did not believe in God or in the ultimate redemption of Man. He was a profound mystic and that must be kept in mind while examining the patent Godlessness of TMWL (or his other novels).
In the same way, it’s not as if Hugo did not clearly project a distinct notion of good & evil in the novel, or that one cannot think in terms of dualities: but, at the same time, he constantly shows how difficult it is (infact, impossible) to actually categorize, judge, & condemn our experience, the matrix in which we exist.

TMWL performs the highly “modern” task of demolishing any system of opposites which ensures certainty, and the security of certainty.
In the novel, the High is Low, the Low is High, the Small is Powerful, the Big is Weak, the Blind see, the Misanthrope loves, Wisdom shirks Life, the Beautiful is Grotesque, the Grotesque is Sublime…
In TMWL, Laughter is an expression, not of joy, but of cruelty… the image of Happiness & Mirth is a symbol of Pain… What Resurrects, brings Death… Death is a Liberation & a Union … the barrier between the Laugh & the Sob dissolves… and Laughter diabolically brings Death…
Vision comes, but not from (physical) sight (it comes from conscience)… the Base is an essential part of the Great… the Virgin may be a Whore… the blind can see Light...
By constantly merging all sorts of opposites, Hugo destroys the view that the world can be understood – clearly – in terms of precisely defined opposites… he shows that absolute contraries do not exist, -- and that every concept contains its opposite…
The most puissant symbol Hugo creates to project this idea is the nightmarish image of the rotting corpse of a malefactor dangling from a public gibbet: a malefactor whose deadbody has been preserved by Law as an “example” (deterrent) to other criminals: A thing can be, and yet not be … A man may be dead, and yet he may not be dead … Death may not be Annihilation… Justice maybe a crucial Injustice … being and non-being may co-exist in the one & same object...
One could consider statements Hugo makes in this context, such as: “He was on a plain, & on a hill, and he was not” … “He was palpable and yet vanished” … “this visible nothing”“it was naught, yet a remainder” “to exist no more; yet to persist; to be in the abyss, yet out of it; to reappear above death as if indissoluble. There is a certain amount of impossibility mixed with such reality. … This being – was it a being?
Hugo’s work destroys & subverts in a uniquely liberating & enlightening way.
It deals a violent blow to the half-truths of the ordinary, traditional, conventional view of life, and paves the way for more perceptive & truthful comprehension.
And thus, Laughter is not Joy … Beauty contains Deformity … Chastity is not Purity … Mutilation & deformity are not necessarily handicaps – they maybe an asset … Blindness is the root of true vision … To Rise is to Fall …
The very name Hugo gives to Ursus’s wolf: Homo – integrates several complex ideas bringing out a curious paradox: Man is an Animal … the Animal is Man… Given that Homo is a loving, gentle, tame creature, Hugo's scathing indictment of humankind by comparing Man to a wolf, and then explicitly symbolizing unreasoning hunger by the image of a wolf in Ursus' play "Chaos Vanquished" is yet another paradox …
Whom does Hugo vilify, what does he affirm? Does he make a final, definitive statement about the idea of the wolf? Does he establish an umambiguous, unequivocal idea relating to this symbol/image?
The Paradoxes keep multiplying; the stream of antithesis flows on in trembling fury -- the questions raised are innumerable; -- the perspectives, endless...

The All, as Hugo sees is, is a Gigantic Paradox. Existence itself is Paradoxical. God is a creator of Antithesis.
The crucial idea in religion & mysticism, that dualities are transcended only in the realm beyond the matrix of matter, of “binary oppositions” which characterizes our existence, is given a shattering blow in TMWL: here, in our very own human reality – there is nothing which is a pure opposite.
Everything runs into the other. Everything contains the other.
The realm beneath Transcendence can be now percieved in the same terms as the transcendental realm.
Everything in the universe is informed by both principles – No entity, no existent, no “concept” is free of inner paradox.
There are many, many other great ideas projected in this unsurpassable novel: but I have dealt, so far, and only cursorily, with only one element so far: the element of paradox.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

THE MAN WHO LAUGHS by Victor Hugo - Part 1

An idea is a guide; he had no idea.
They had brought him there, and left him there.
They and There.
These two enigmas represented his doom.
They were Humankind.
There was the Universe.
For him in all creation there was absolutely no other basis to rest on but the little piece of ground where he placed his heel, ground hard & cold to his naked feet.
In the great twilight world, open on all sides, what was there for the child?
He walked towards this Nothing.
Around him was the vastness of human desertion.

- From "The Man who Laughs" by Victor Hugo

I have always wondered why critics have held that the genre of literature represented by Victor Hugo projected a pretty, sweet, romantic, tidy view of life. A false view of life which ought to be destroyed. That the world of Hugo – and all that he represented & stood for – was hypocritical, that it drew a veil over the harsh truths of life, and pulled down a blind on the horror & ugliness of reality.
When they read “Les Miserables” and “Notre-Dame de Paris” – novels which present human pain & suffering with more poignancy than most novels – they realize how pathetically wrong they are – how groundless their constant derision has been, so they catch on to other bromides: excessive sentimentality, oversimplified characterization, “contrived” plot structure, useless digressions, improbable situations & stunts, MELODRAMA (the worst & most common criticism of Hugo), an overdose of coincidences … etc etc etc.
But a careful reading by an unprejudiced, intelligent reader will reveal that there’s NOTHING of the sort.
Once in a while, one finds them reluctantly admitting that he is “nevertheless” a “genius” – that nobody can deny his “genius” – but, in all contradiction, keep on repeating debasing bromide over bromide, baseless denigration over denigration.
Honestly, there is NOTHING of the sort.
The usual academic-literary-critical view of Hugo has been so bad, that the man who was undoubtedly the greatest man of letters in the 19th century, has been relegated to the background of great literature as one of “great Romantic French poets”.
Three steppings-downs: he is JUST a Romantic, he is FRENCH, he is a POET.
In other words if you consider him as an author with a more universal aesthetics, if you start comparing him with authors outside France, and if you focus away from his specific stature as a poet, Hugo fares pretty poorly.

The most powerful indicator of this bias is the dark sea of total oblivion into which his novel “The Man who Laughs” has been sunk into.
The fact that people go on endlessly debating novels like those of Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry James, Hermann Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Gustave Flaubert, Emily Bronte, & Honore Balzac – without even mentioning Hugo, what to speak of “TMWL”, is a sufficient indicator to a reader of that novel, of the conscious, deliberate hostility (& prejudice) towards Hugo. Or of enormous stupidity.
Ayn Rand, perhaps the most famous & most eloquent & assertive of all of Hugo’s admirers in the 20th century, considered TMWL to be his best novel.
I would occasionally question Rand's grasp of Hugo's method, philosophy, & psychology - she did make some errors in judging him - but she also offered several very startling insights into his novels, the deeper meaning of his literary vision, and her glowing tributes to him DID propel a particular section of serious readers to (re-)discover Hugo’s dazzling universe.
She noted that TMWL was not merely a historical novel - but a symbolic fantasy of vast metaphysical dimensions.
Though she did not explicitly identify the theme in her introductory note to the novel, she said – very perceptively & correctly – that, transcending the mundane & the commonplace, the trivial & the boring, – Hugo had presented his view on man's existence itself in the form of a suspenseful, violent story.
I may disagree as often as I agree with Ayn Rand, but here, she is perfectly correct. (I doubt, though, if TMWL is really violent). One ought to salute her for stating this truth.

Victor Hugo had a penchant to present his novels as mere socio-political dramas. That is, works serving some republican, socialist, democratic, reformatory, & didactic idea. As such, he is right – unlike most indifferent men of genius, he played the role of acting as the conscience of his society & time – something which, again, bafflingly, – irritates many people; but his own wording gave the handle to the critics to dismiss his work as lacking philosophical depth & significant meaning.
The Man who Laughs” is indeed a profoundly METAPHYSICAL novel.
It is a novel about the debasement of Man, the obscuration of the Truth about Man, the loss of his vision & perspective, his descent into the lower realm of existence, and his quest & struggle to realize his own highest truth.
Gwynplaine’s defacement is not just a symbolic representation of “Man’s cruelty to Man” (a dismissive interpretation of the novel’s essence); nor about the aristocracy’s suppression of the poor, i.e. social injustice (another over-simplification, albeit correct in itself).
His defacement is a symbolic representation of the Soul’s obscuration in the frame of Matter (the “Flesh”). It images the loss of the inner & highest truth about Man whose soul is couched by & hidden deep within the Body.
It is from such a perspective that one ought to view this novel, and only then can one grasp its immense profundity.

If PARADOX is one of the most exalted literary values of modern thought, then I doubt if there is any other novel which can be called “a novel of paradox”, if not TMWL.
Hugo deftly & seamlessly weaves several ideas into one coherent, comprehensive symbol. Every symbol, thus, becomes a veritable tapestry, intricate, made of several harmoniously interlaced strands.
The image of pain - Gwynplaine's deformed face with its eternal laugh - is, paradoxically, at the same time, an image of laughter.
This image of obscuration (of the truth) is, paradoxically, at the same time, a revelation of the truth.
It hides the truth about Gwynplaine, & yet it also speaks the truth about his condition.
The symbol of the injustice, cruelty & suppression in society – which ought to evoke horror – is, at the same time, the symbol of the apparent prosperity & happiness of society – which evokes mirth.
It represents the surface, not the depth - and yet, it also represents the deep, dark, stark truth of the human condition.
What more complex symbol? What, more profound?
A Mask is a Face. And yet, the Mask is not the Face.
Gwynplaine’s mask is a truth. And yet, it is an untruth.
Hugo was FULLY CONSCIOUS of his use of paradox: That eternal and fatal law by which the grotesque is linked with the sublime—by which the laugh re-echoes the groan, parody rides behind despair, and seeming is opposed to being—had never found more terrible expression.”
Contrary to enforced perception that Hugo’s view of life was oversimplified, and cast in black & white, & hence, is not “modern”, TMWL comes across as a powerfully modern work.
With all the profound premises of modernism & post-modernism without any of their abounding half-truths & untruths.
Hugo's use of paradox has been criticized as an overuse of "antithesis" -- a completely useless, unprofound, & derogatory criticism, which merely amounts to criticism for the sake of criticism.
The extensive, constant use of antithesis is a logical consequence of all-pervasive paradox-construction in the novel.

Through paradox and antithesis, Hugo achieves something which is attempted, in a way, by Zen Buddhism too: to absolutely destroy a strictly "rational" view of society, life, & existence.
The absurdity of things, the absence of strict logic, the inherent contradiction that pervades All: these are projected through Hugo's paradox construction & use of antithesis.
Existence, God, Man, Life defy all rational analysis at every step - what is, isn't & what isn't, is - an unmistakably ambiguous, almost sinister, projection of God's benevolence & power - indeed, at every step Hugo destroy's Man's faith in God - these are just some of the philosophical implications of TMWL.
Do we call this irrelevant, unmodern, and unprofound?
I do not wish to categorize Hugo as Romantic or Absurdist or Existentialist or Modernist or Post-Modernist or Masonic or Rosicrucian or Hermetic: Hugo is simply Hugo.
(Even though he called himself a Romanticist, I seriously doubt if Hugo can be called a Romanticist in the conventional sense of the term. His vision is too complex for such simplification).
Comparison with Modernist & Post-Modernist literary thought is merely to show that he cannot be dismissed as "unmodern", that his works stand the test of contemporary literary criticism (though that itself is irrelevant) - and that one could only be baffled at why he is not hailed as one of the most profound of all the predecessors of our "modernists".

Sunday, May 13, 2007


1 In the beginning rose Hiranyagarbha, born Only Lord of all created beings. He fixed and holdeth up this earth and heaven.
What God shall we adore with our oblation?

2 Giver of vital breath, of power and vigour, he whose commandments all the Gods acknowledge. The Lord of death, whose shade is Life Immortal - and death.
What God shall we adore with our oblation?

3 Who by his grandeur hath become Sole Ruler of all the moving world that breathes and slumbers; He who is the Lord of men and the Lord of cattle.
What God shall we adore with our oblation?

4 His, through his might, are these snow-covered mountains, and men call sea and Rasa his possession: His arms are these, his are these heavenly regions.
What God shall we adore with our oblation?

5 By him the heavens are strong and earth is steadfast, by him light's realm and sky-vault are supported: By him the regions in mid-air were measured.
What God shall we adore with our oblation?

6 To him, supported by his help, two armies embattled look while trembling in their spirit, When over them the risen Sun is shining.
What God shall we adore with our oblation?

7 What time the mighty waters came, containing the universal germ, producing Agni, Thence sprang the Gods' one spirit into being.
What God shall we adore with our oblation?

8 He in his might surveyed the floods containing productive force and generating Worship. He is the God of gods, and none beside him.
What God shall we adore with our oblation?

9 Never may he harm us who is earth's Begetter, nor he whose laws are sure, the heavens' Creator, He who brought forth the great and lucid waters.
What God shall we adore with our oblation?

10 Prajapati! thou only comprehendest all these created things, and none beside thee. Grant us our hearts' desire when we invoke thee: may we have store of riches in possession.

- Hymn 121, Mandala 10, Rig Veda