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

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Few personal thoughts on literature from a Tolstoyan point of view

Leo Tolstoy names Friedrich Schiller's "The Robbers" ("Die Raubers"); Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" & "Les Pauvres Gens"; the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, especially "Notes from the House of the Dead"; the novels & stories of Charles Dickens, especially "A Tale of Two Cities" & "The Chimes"; "Adam Bede" by George Eliot & "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe - as supreme examples of the greatest works of art - specifically, religious art which flows from man's love of God & of man.
I haven't read "Adam Bede" & "Uncle Tom's Cabin", but I must agree with him as to the others.
I would, however, add "Quo Vadis?" by Henryk Sienkiewicz, "Don Carlos" by Schiller, "Ninety Three" by Hugo, & "The Prophet" by Khalil Gibran.
I would also add "Gitanjali" by Rabindranath Tagore & "Savitri" by Aurobindo Ghosh - but they are poems (or collection of poems).
I don't think "Gitanjali" has the kind of inner, purposeful unity of, say, Gibran's "The Prophet" - though thematic integrity is perfectly maintained.
Tagore's play "The Waterfall" is a gem of a work, and I am irresistibly drawn to his "The Post Office", another short play, which seems to be a work of tremendous promise.
"Savitri" is not a very accessible work of universal appeal. It is too sophisticated, too cerebral, too difficult - and the best quality of all the works extolled by Tolstoy is that they are accessible by the simplest of people, and have an immediate & tremendous emotional impact. They are truly soul-changing without being cerebral (which often means 'pretentious' & 'artificial').
It is true that overly cerebral works - especially an unnecessary obsession with manipulation of style & verbal expression - is merely a cover for scarcity of content, the poverty of imagination, & a desire to stun & awe the reader, a basically unhealthy motivation.
Above all, excess sophistication of technique (& even content) is distracting, and reduces the emotional impact of a work of art, which Tolstoy correctly recognizes, is the PRIMARY point of art: the feeling it evokes in the reader.

I'd also add "The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
It is the epitome of concentratedness of plot, profound symbolism, and thematic & artistic integrity, besides being a psychological-philosophical novel of the highest order.
However, it had a far, far less PERSONAL, emotional impact on me, than any of Hugo's novels (my personal favorite perhaps, is "Toilers of the Sea"), or those of Dostoevsky & Dickens.
I remember falling in love with some of the fairy-tale like stories of Oscar Wilde, though I really can't quite remember the stories themselves! (Like "The Rose & the Nightingale", "The Happy Prince" etc.)
And then, though not of the order of Schiller, Hugo, or Dostoevsky - the novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee was an absolute delight.
"To Kill...", & the tales of Wilde actually fall into the second category of good, true art according to Tolstoy: universal art which unites people through evoking deep emotions which men have felt in all ages & places. I'm not too sure if Tolstoy approved of the works of Wilde: apparently, he didn't like Wilde. (Wilde was one of the Decadents, who, according to Tolstoy represented one of the innumerable groups which were degenerating art.)
But I like them as very touching works with tremendous depth of emotion.
One might also add in this category some of the stories of O. Henry, an extraordinarily brilliant & imaginative genius.

If I haven't mentioned Shakespeare till now, it's because I've read (only) 3 of his plays (King Lear, Macbeth, Julius Caesar) - & I've read them all only once, and haven't been too deep into Shakespeare till now, as such.
Moreover, I think the enormous profundity of his plays - the mind-boggling philosophical sophistication - seems to warrant a greater medium than drama.
Nevertheless, Shakespeare surpasses ALL in artistic expression - in the use of words & language & poetry - and is truly the "Papa" of all.
I don't reject Shakespeare as Tolstoy does, just because his characters don't speak an everyday language. Art is not a literal imitation of life.
I do think that Shakespeare - when READ - does not make the necessary impact on the reader.
Perhaps, one must actually witness a well-made play of his, to appreciate his true worth as a playwright - than just READ it.

But the three plays of Shakespeare, or say, "Faust" by Goethe (of which I've read only the 1st part, and affirm as one of the greatest works of literature) - do not fall into the category of "Les Miserables" or "The Robbers" or "A Tale of Two Cities" or even "Quo Vadis?"
They are too cerebral - and really don't emotionally impact the reader's soul (at least that of yours truly) as a Hugo can.
They do not lack sincerity - far from it - but (perhaps) are too compressed, too A-MORAL, primarily dissecting reality & grasping out for its great hidden truths, than a revelation of the ultimate "ought to"; I don't think they achieved the task of upholding a new, shining IDEAL vision to mankind.
They were essentially REALISTS, while men like Hugo & Dostoevsky were fundamentally IDEALISTS, i.e., passionately & primarily concerned with the transformation & illumination of consciousness, of the regeneration & resurrection of the erring individual, of establishing the highest moral ideal which humanity ought to strive for.

I cannot be too sure of my views, since it's been a long time since I've read most of these books.
I read Schiller's masterpiece "Wallenstein" only once in 2002, and I hardly remember it. So I'm really not in a position to declare unequivocally if it is or isn't a profoundly Christian work of art.
Tolstoy searches for a more openly, directly, powerfully CHRISTIAN vision in his choice of art.
(Not "Roman Catholic" or "Protestant" or "Lutheran" - but pure, authentic, fundamental Christian spiritual values). The expression of - & passionate concern with - man's love for God & for Man.
The primary focus being a MORAL struggle at the heart of the work: choice between a lesser life & higher being.
A work like "Gone with the Wind" (by Margaret Mitchelle) does NOT fall into this category, neither does "Moby Dick" by Hermann Melville.
Nor do the plethore of other novels which I personally (& otherwise) summarily reject as great works of art: "The Great Gatsby" by Fitzgerald, "The Wuthering Heights" by Emily Bronte, "Vanity Fair" by William Makepeace Thackeray, etc etc.
(I admire both Mitchelle & Melville, though not as much as the ones mentioned before. "Moby Dick" suffers from the lack of a proper story & a plot-structure. Thackeray is a brilliant satirist.
A related but not similar case is that of Edgar Allan Poe - a towering genius - but whose works do not have the passionate religious, ethical content of a Hugo or Dostoevsky or Dickens or Schiller.)

Not that these works do not have aesthetic value. Not that they can't be powerful, or "infect" the reader with a certain emotion the author has felt. Infact, they are all novels of ideas.
But do offer to man a vision of the ideal?
Do they reveal the meaning of God to man, and clarify man's relationship with God & his neighbor?
Do they REVEAL to man the meaning, essence, power, & importance of love?
Do they deal with immortality & infinity which is the ultimate metaphysical truth of man?
Is their focus the transformation & birth of a new world of peace & harmony?
Do they express man's deepest & highest religion?
Do they care about man's desperate quest for self-realization in an ever-growing expansion of self in intellectual, creative, moral & spiritual achievement?
Have they opened man's consciousness to a whole new universe of spiritual grandeur?
Can they play any significant role in establishing a universal brotherhood of men in this world, and show men the path to spiritual purification & perfection?
No. Not according to me! Certainly not as yet.
That's why, I too wouldn't consider them to be specimen of the highest works of art.
If the reader of this post seeks to know what I mean by a truly great works of art, read the mystic poems of Aurobindo Ghosh, or "Les Miserables", or "The Brothers Karamazov", or the incomparable Book of Job.

I'm basically on my way towards a deeper understanding of things. That's the whole purpose right now: to understand. To grow with greater comprehension.
I give myself the space to change my views with the growth of my store of information, and my own knowledge.
So while these are my views - and enthusiastically so - I won't say I am absolutely, unchangeably certain of keeping them just as they are.
I've tried to look at some literary works from Tolstoy's point of view - which I am compelled to agree with, to a great extent - and this is just a first attempt to simply state my thoughts on what I've read.
I've really not analyzed any of these works carefully, and am not in a position to do so right now, so what I've written above should be considered keeping in mind this condition.

No comments: