O ma peo
Ple le yo ear
He yo Mo
In fro of you
Read to si our sto
On this year of fo ni
On this time of fu mo
Fo this time of too tho three hun fif too
Yo mo go si our sto.
Yo mo be ble by Wa
Le yo Mo feel Wa
O Wa hear our sto.
E e e a
Our God Wa fo wi much to do.
That he who fo us from go se
That he who pro us from far se
Pro us from dam
Pro us from fam
Pro us from death
Pro us from dark eth
Pro us from age
Pro us from forage
Gave us knowl
Gave us lan
Gave us lan
Gave us house
Gave us us
Gave us Air
Gave us more
Hap that we were
Strong that we were
Cheer that we were
Peese that we were
Eve that we were
Bri star sho
Took us and God a.
Sniv Sniv Sniv
O ma Peo Sniv
Yo cant know la
Sniv nou for last chance
Sniv Sniv Sniv
Day may com
Re ri so may com
We peo may goeth.
But wa wi com
We wi com
We wi throgh rerisoooooooo.
With that sooo going for over a minute, the crowd cheered and cried without knowing what to do.
Origin of the word Vocation: Late Middle English: from Old French, or from Latin Vocatio(n-), from Vocare to “To Call”.
From BBC radio:
He loved the countryside so much he wrote an entire symphony dedicated to it. This first movement to Beethoven’s Sixth ‘Pastoral’ Symphony is titled: Pleasant, cheerful feelings which awaken in one on arrival in the countryside. The composer loved to go for long walks among the hills and woods surrounding Vienna and often holidayed in countryside villages in the summertime.
I will come to these later, as to why I am quoting an etymology of the word vocation and description of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony by BBC.
Maugham before coming to the main theme and chunk of the story prepares the readers’ mind for a short time with sort of an impressionist temper with various details about an artist life, his personal opinion on Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, and poets of those times, about artist’s immortality, about history devious and unpredictable path on it and various other related subject to the book.
Before I come to the plot, let me ask a question through which the theme of the book will become clear.
What does it take to be a genius?
what is meant by the word genius?
Before I even say a word on this, I should add a caveat. I am not the right person to talk or write on this subject. If I even start to answer the second question, it will at best be a matter of speculation. I don’t want that to happen, it’s blasphemy for me, personally, to meddle unnecessarily with heavy and inexplicable themes as these. I don’t want to be an object of ridicule.
Still, it is on my part, safe to answer or at least try to answer what one has to sacrifice for one to even think of achieving this quality level or nature (if I may be allowed to use those words here).
We may very well know how personal lives of each of those geniuses we pour over passionately with wonder are nothing but failure, with few exceptions.
With that said, let me go to the story by Maugham.
We are introduced to a family in London, where our writer- being a writer is invited regularly by the wife of the protagonist, as is always the case with the upper and middle-class people of those times.
Charles Strickland aged 40, is introduced by his wife as a man who is a stockbroker, philistine, yet a good ideal husband.
One fine day, we are informed that he has abandoned his wife, children and has fled to Paris to pursue painting.
Our writer( Maugham in the first person narrative features as himself) is handed the job of pursuing Strickland.
Strickland, as we read, doesn’t at even one point arouse our sympathy by his abject poverty. He is portrayed as a creature who can’t be expected to have slight regard for any humans around him.
With a sort of primitive vitality, barbarity, and vigor he goes about his work and life.
At best his only reply could be a short derisive one.
Added to this, he doesn’t care what others thought about his work. This indifference, intellectual isolation coupled with extreme stoicism is the characteristic nature of Strickland.
This primitiveness, this ideal primeval sensitivity, pastorality is what is reflected in his work.
This story by Maugham was partly inspired by the painter Paul Gauguin’s life and primitive, pastoralist themes in his later works.
If I say any further, it would amount to spoilers.
So, to come back to Vocation. It’s difficult for mortals like us to understand the mind of a genius and Vocare that constantly propels him. It is even difficult for those geniuses to explain their works. I am not undermining the hours they had put behind the making of their works or hard work, intellection, and all such humanly understandable aspects that are needed, but it’s not just talent that they need but something that we can’t come to understand that they possess which we gape our mouth with wonder.
PS: It reminded me of the conversation I had with my friend 8 or 9 years ago, when we were walking on the roads of Mylapore, after having our supper. I have no shame to share this with you.
It was more like a wittering than a focussed one. When the topic turned to polymaths and geniuses, I made an observation that If one finds a vocation and he/she becomes obsessed about it consequently he/she can very well be a single without marrying anyone. Now, I can only laugh at my remark, though this has a veneer of possibility and truth to it, with much exaggeration as expected, I was making this on account of myself and that’s what hilarious about it. My friend, being more matured than I was, chuckled on this naivete remark, yet contemplated with me and came with examples of Einstein and various others who have had relations in the past.
It is not so easy to generalize this small community, and my remark was exactly doing that.
I will leave you with Quotes from the book:
Who now, for example,
thinks of George Crabbe? He was a famous poet
in his day, and the world recognised his genius
with a unanimity which the greater complexity
of modern life has rendered infrequent. He had
learnt his craft at the school of Alexander Pope,
and he wrote moral stories in rhymed couplets.
Then came the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, and the poets sang new songs. Mr.
Crabbe continued to write moral stories in
rhymed couplets. I think he must have read the
verse of these young men who were making so
great a stir in the world, and I fancy he found it
poor stuff. Of course, much of it was. But the
odes of Keats and of Wordsworth, a poem or two
by Coleridge, a few more by Shelley, discovered
vast realms of the spirit that none had explored
before. Mr. Crabbe was as dead as mutton, but
Mr. Crabbe continued to write moral stories in
rhymed couplets. I have read desultorily the
writings of the younger generation. It may be
that among them a more fervid Keats, a more ethereal Shelley, has already published numbers
the world will willingly remember. I cannot tell.
I admire their polish — their youth is already so
accomplished that it seems absurd to speak of
promise — I marvel at the felicity of their style;
but with all their copiousness (their vocabulary
suggests that they fingered Roget’s Thesaurus
in their cradles) they say nothing to me: to my
mind they know too much and feel too obviously;
I cannot stomach the heartiness with which they
slap me on the back or the emotion with which
they hurl themselves on my bosom; their passion seems to me a little anaemic and their
dreams a trifle dull. I do not like them. I am on
the shelf. I will continue to write moral stories
in rhymed couplets. But I should be thrice a fool
if I did it for aught but my own entertainment.
And once I sought to be satirical.
“You evidently don’t believe in the maxim: Act so that every one of your actions is capable of
being made into a universal rule.”
“I never heard it before, but it’s rotten nonsense.”
“Well, it was Kant who said it.”
“I don’t care; it’s rotten nonsense.
“Why should you think that beauty, which is
the most precious thing in the world, lies like a
stone on the beach for the careless passer-by to
pick up idly? Beauty is something wonderful and
strange that the artist fashions out of the chaos
of the world in the torment of his soul. And when
he has made it, it is not given to all to know it.
To recognize it you must repeat the adventure
of the artist. It is a melody that he sings to you,
and to hear it again in your own heart you want
knowledge and sensitiveness and imagination.”
We seek pitifully to convey to others the treasures
of our heart, but they have not the power to accept them, and so we go lonely, side by side but
not together, unable to know our fellows and unknown by them. We are like people living in a country whose language they know so little that, with
all manner of beautiful and profound things to
say, they are condemned to the banalities of the
conversation manual. Their brain is seething with
ideas, and they can only tell you that the umbrella
of the gardener’s aunt is in the house.
I fancied that here he
must have said all that he knew of life and all
that he divined. And I fancied that perhaps here
he had at last found peace. The demon which
possessed him was exorcised at last, and with
the completion of the work, for which all his life
had been a painful preparation, rest descended
on his remote and tortured soul. He was willing
to die, for he had fulfilled his purpose.
It was a pile of mangoes, bananas, oranges, and
I know not what. and at first sight it was an innocent picture enough. It would have been
passed in an exhibition of the Post-Impressionists by a careless person as an excellent but not
very remarkable example of the school; but perhaps afterwards it would come back to his recollection, and he would wonder why. I do not think
then he could ever entirely forget it.
The colours were so strange that words can
hardly tell what a troubling emotion they gave.
They were sombre blues, opaque like a delicately
carved bowl in lapis lazuli, and yet with a quivering lustre that suggested the palpitation of mysterious life; there were purples, horrible like raw
and putrid flesh, and yet with a glowing, sensual passion that called up vague memories of
the Roman Empire of Heliogabalus; there were
reds, shrill like the berries of holly — one thought
of Christmas in England, and the snow, the good
cheer, and the pleasure of children — and yet by
some magic softened till they had the swooning
tenderness of a dove’s breast; there were deep
yellows that died with an unnatural passion into
a green as fragrant as the spring and as pure as
the sparkling water of a mountain brook. Who
can tell what anguished fancy made these fruits?
They belonged to a Polynesian garden of the
Until long habit has blunted the sensibility,
there is something disconcerting to the writer
in the instinct which causes him to take an interest in the singularities of human nature so absorbing that his moral sense is powerless against
it. He recognises in himself an artistic satisfaction in the contemplation of evil which a little
startles him; but sincerity forces him to confess
that the disapproval he feels for certain actions
is not nearly so strong as his curiosity in their
reasons. The character of a scoundrel, logical and
complete, has a fascination for his creator which
is an outrage to law and order. I expect that
Shakespeare devised Iago with a gusto which he
never knew when, weaving moonbeams with his
fancy, he imagined Desdemona. It may be that
in his rogues the writer gratifies instincts deep-rooted in him, which the manners and customs
of a civilised world have forced back to the mysterious recesses of the subconscious. In giving to the character of his invention flesh and bones
he is giving life to that part of himself which finds
no other means of expression. His satisfaction is
a sense of liberation.
The writer is more concerned to know than to judge.
He looked like some splendid bull, and she like
some splendid cow, grazing. I envied them their eupeptic calm. I
surmised that ten thousand Braxtons would not have prevented THEM from
sleeping soundly by night and grazing steadily by day. Perhaps their
stolidity infected me a little.
A mixed baggage. The best of all was the first story “Enoch Soames”. We have our narrator(Beerbohm himself) being a friend to a writer called Enoch Soames, who for all reasons unknown and best, neglected by all. He is introduced as a measured, reserved, a man of some social outlook yet despised and belittled by all. We get a glimpse of his works through the narrator and of the only book he has published. One day, when Enoch Soames discloses his eagerness for fame to the narrator and by “chance”, the devil had happened to eavesdrop the conversation, wish to offer a hand for remedy. A Faustian play ensues, except that instead of a fame, our author is given a chance to fly past to the future-by 100 years to check whether he has been posthumously acknowledged of his literary talent.
The surprising thing about Beerbohm writing was his underplayed description or treatment of supernatural or otherworldly bent.
Even when we are introduced to the devil, he is a pretty man-like figure.
Devil, in the words of Beerbohm:
On one side sat a tall, flashy, rather Mephistophelian man. His nose was predatory, and the points of his moustache, waxed up beyond his nostrils, gave a fixity to his
smile. Decidedly, he was sinister. And my sense of discomfort
in his presence was intensified by the scarlet waistcoat which
tightly, and so unseasonably in June, sheathed his ample chest.
This waistcoat wasn’t wrong merely because of the heat, either.
It was somehow all wrong in itself. It wouldn’t have done on
Christmas morning. It would have struck a jarring note at the
first night of `Hernani.
I was sure he was not an Englishman, but
what WAS his nationality? Though his jet-black hair was en
brosse, I did not think he was French. To Berthe, who waited
on him, he spoke French fluently, but with a hardly native idiom
The unknown, other-worldliness comes only from his un-British qualities or social status at best, not out of his devilish quality.
There are five stories along with this, except one story almost all had in variant degrees a touch of the supernatural or fantastic element to it.
I was wondering as to how the same stories might have been treated by a writer like E.T.A Hoffman.
It would have been filled with strange, terrifying and frightful characters. One just needs to read one short story of Hoffman and read Beerbohm to see the contrast of styles.
Even the humor, except few places, are very much toned down.
The second story “Hilary Maltby and Stephen Braxton” was a very good one too. It was about jealousy and envy between two writers with a touch of supernatural again. Even though the element of supernatural is explicit here, like the first story, the writer still treats it with more of a psychological rather than created by an extraneous element. There is a middle ground stroke between psychological crisis and supernatural occurrence. We also get a good glimpse of the aristocratic haughtiness and snobbery of the late 19th century England in this story.
James Pethel is the third story. Reading it, I was reminded of the main character from the French film Bob Le Flameur, directed by Melville. Both of them valued passion over prudence. The character tends, frequently towards his capriciousness. Anyway, It was the most underwhelming story of the book.
The fourth story is ” A.V Laider”. This story had the same theme which piqued my interest in the third story, yet this was handled very beautifully by the writer. What starts out as a normal discussion between the narrator and the main character on the subject of metaphysics, drifts to palmistry and then propels completely off the chart towards a murderous story and finishes with a touch of ambiguity. I am pleased! I still haven’t disclosed anything substantial.
The fifth story is ” ‘Savonarola’ Brown”. Another story which didn’t interest apart from few eccentricity and indulgence of my own. It has a play attached to it as the part of the story, which has a language of middle English and I was enjoying myself with its flowing verses.
His writing is as if it kisses the surface, even when keeping an eye on details it wasn’t directionless except for two stories. His language was as if he was caressing over our body with a feather than a regular thump and since almost all the stories were tending towards something suspenseful it was a reaping read. His language and narration flow so smoothly that one forgives for a lack of vitality here and there.
I yet to read his most famous Zuleika Dobson, considered one of the bests of British humor stories. I also haven’t read any of his essays(he is considered foremost as an essayist than a novelist). I hope I can enjoy his brilliance in one whole work as a novel than sparks of magic spattered in bits and pieces like here.
Before I leave you, I will share a few good quotes from the book:
I was glad when, on my second evening, I found seated at the table opposite to mine another guest. I was the gladder because he was just the right kind of guest. He was enigmatic. By this I mean that he did not look soldierly or financial or artistic or anything definite at all. He offered a clean slate for speculation. And, thank heaven! he evidently wasn’t going to spoil the fun by engaging me in conversation later on. A decently unsociable man, anxious to be left alone.
I was glad to do so. It flashed across my mind that yonder on the terrace he might suddenly blurt out: “I say, look here, don’t think me awfully impertinent, but this money’s no earthly use to me. I do wish you’d accept it as a very small return for all the pleasure your work has given me, and– There, please! Not another word!”–all with such candor, delicacy, and genuine zeal that I should be unable to refuse. But I must not raise false hopes in my reader. Nothing of the sort happened. Nothing of that sort ever does happen.
Then are parrots rational
When they regurgitate the thing they hear!
This fool is but an unit of the crowd,
And crowds are senseless as the vasty deep
That sinks or surges as the moon dictates.
I know these crowds, and know that any man
That hath a glib tongue and a rolling eye
Can as he willeth with them.
I rose again when the wife drifted to my table, followed by
the husband with two steaming plates. She asked me if it wasn’t a
heavenly morning, and I replied with nervous enthusiasm that it was.
She then ate kedgeree in silence. “You just finishing, what?” the
husband asked, looking at my plate. “Oh, no–no–only just
beginning,” I assured him, and helped myself to butter. He then ate
kedgeree in silence. He looked like some splendid bull, and she like
some splendid cow, grazing. I envied them their eupeptic calm. I
surmised that ten thousand Braxtons would not have prevented THEM from
sleeping soundly by night and grazing steadily by day. Perhaps their
stolidity infected me a little. Or perhaps what braced me was the
great quantity of strong tea that I consumed. Anyhow I had begun to
feel that if Braxton came in now I shouldn’t blench nor falter.
I did not think that in this cloister’d spot
There would be so much doing. I had look’d
To find Savonarola all alone
And tempt him in his uneventful cell.
Instead o’ which–Spurn’d am I? I am I.
There was a time, Sir, look to ‘t! O damnation!
What is ‘t? Anon then! These my toys, my gauds,
That in the cradle–aye, ‘t my mother’s breast–
I puled and lisped at,–‘Tis impossible,
Tho’, faith, ’tis not so, forasmuch as ’tis.
And I a daughter of the Borgias!–
Or so they told me. Liars! Flatterers!
Currying lick-spoons! Where’s the Hell of ‘t then?
‘Tis time that I were going. Farewell, Monk,
But I’ll avenge me ere the sun has sunk.
From p. 234 of `Inglish Littracher 1890-1900′ bi T. K. Nupton,
publishd bi th Stait, 1992:
`Fr egzarmpl, a riter ov th time, naimd Max Beerbohm, hoo woz
stil alive in th twentieth senchri, rote a stauri in wich e pautraid
an immajnari karrakter kauld “Enoch Soames”–a thurd-rait poit
hoo beleevz imself a grate jeneus an maix a bargin with th
Devvl in auder ter no wot posterriti thinx ov im! It iz a sumwot
labud sattire but not without vallu az showing hou seriusli the
yung men ov th aiteen-ninetiz took themselvz. Nou that the
littreri profeshn haz bin auganized az a departmnt of publik
servis, our riters hav found their levvl an hav lernt ter doo their
duti without thort ov th morro. “Th laibrer iz werthi ov hiz
hire,” an that iz aul. Thank hevvn we hav no Enoch Soameses
amung us to-dai!’
And the last quote is one of my favorites for reasons beyond the book. Lately, there are many simpletons posing themselves as an authority in politics, films, medicine and what not. My country or the state may be a singular case of this, but nevertheless, it is there and that is a cause for worry. I don’t understand when did this ultracrepidarianism became a vogue. So to quote from the book:
He said he had looked into it, `but,’ he added
crisply, `I don’t profess to know anything about writing.’ A
reservation very characteristic of the period! Painters would not
then allow that any one outside their own order had a right to
any opinion about painting. This law (graven on the tablets
brought down by Whistler from the summit of Fujiyama)
imposed certain limitations. If other arts than painting were not
utterly unintelligible to all but the men who practised them, the
law tottered–the Monroe Doctrine, as it were, did not hold
good. Therefore no painter would offer an opinion of a book
without warning you at any rate that his opinion was worthless.
No one is a better judge of literature than Rothenstein; but it
wouldn’t have done to tell him so in those days; and I knew that
I must form an unaided judgment on `Negations.’
An alternative continuation to the ending, a fateful closure to the perfect novel or an ode to the great writer Krasznahorkai :
As soon as they rounded the bend and lost sight of the people waving and hanging around by the bar, the spiders that have assembled at strategic points, displaced by calculated proximity could finally let out a sigh of relief, that after all these dramas that were unraveling in front of them from the moment the bell had tolled, had now come to a point of a classic denouement- Irimias’s plan was laid out bare in his mind!
It wasn’t the doctor who, though even had qualms to blink for a second that he might miss out the movements of his community. No! It was these spiders which were occupying the bar that was carrying out the duty of an angelic archivist of these wretched souls.
There was no hint of vanity at the moment when the spiders had found out what was lurking beneath Irimias. It was as if God had covered the whole earth with his black cloak and there is nothing to do other than carry out the meaningful end of this meaningless duty assigned to these creatures towards those creatures.
“These are different beings, as we already know” thought the spiders, we aren’t whining and crying over this doom. It’s all planned out and there is no escape.
The spiders now joined together in a secluded corner at the back side of the bar, after deciding the separate route( they knew each path and way in the town) each has to carry to reach the station on time, All thought- “If it doesn’t rain for a day we will get there by the time they reach very easily”. Then each spider or pairs of spiders were thinking about their targets.
Apart from themselves, only Futaki will realize Irimias’s plan first, they could hold on to his stick, a safe spot at his handicapped leg or even announce their arrival by knocking on the door in the shed later. He will open it and find them as he had guessed, ask them to sit with him and ask whether they would like to drink. Knowing that they can’t drink he will reach his hands to hold the glass for himself, but his hand would freeze in the mid-air, his face would droop and he would start sobbing. He would look out for the spiders to hug them, share his crisis and they would oblige.
The Headmaster will be sitting inside the Ipar, waiting for Irimias.
He is walking on the muddy road towards his house when on the distance, he sees a horrific sight: A thick spider web, of huge length, spread out in the middle of the road, stretching across the full expanse from the Horgos house to the Schmidt house. The headmaster could see a small human figure stuck in the middle of this entanglement, this big Gordian knot!. It was little Esti who, like Christ, has spread her arms and was clutching her cat in her left arm. He wakes up terrified, looks around the dark room, not even a single ray of light is visible. Then suddenly, a speck of light becomes visible and he is able to identify in this dim glow that it is the spider which has arrived, for a second he starts to shiver and he wants to pee as he is reminded of the fresh Dream. A minute later, when it had come close to him working its ambidextrous arms through its magical web, he calms down. He sighs, nods and confesses that he knew this would be the end after all and that he is old now, he feels indifferent to all that had unfolded. The post-world war II gave a bright hope of a communist utopia and when it started to wane, some other guys pop up to promise a similar utopia as a messiah. Duh! I am happy to die finally here, he utters and closes his eyes.
For others, the arrival of spiders should exactly coincide when they finally understand the ploy neatly executed by Irimias. Mr and Mrs.Halics will let out a cry when they see the spider, but the spot the spider has chosen is Mrs.Halics’s Bible and her Christian compassion will save them from the terror of realization.
Schmidt- Mrs.Schmidt would be the first to sense the situation, but she won’t open her mouth fearing her husband and when the spider arrives after being turned down by the said people at Elek, they both will be frightened. They may go mad perhaps.
Kraners- Mr.Kraner is the most short-tempered guy of the whole lot, but at the same time he might say to himself not to lose his temper and spoil the whole plan. So, he might be the last for us to reach, thought the spiders on their way towards the station.
When the spider shows their imminent presence, Kraner might beat his head that he could have escaped with the money if not for the dumb head Futaki.
We should be on our guard with both Kraners and Schmidt, thought the spiders.
As these thoughts went in each spider’s mind about their targets, Two spiders were lagging behind the crowd, since they have to deal with the most cunning of this whole lot- The scheming Irimias.
Within seconds each started to cast its web in ever-expanding space and by the process called ballooning, they zoomed through their target in a flash.
A week or two later:
All people had departed from this godforsaken land except for the doctor, landlord, and Horgos. The place has become even more silent and dark. Adding more to this ghostly environ, the wind started to blow heavily and abnormally. It became so heavy and noisy that all the remaining people in the place thought the whole earth is shaking to the music played by nature, that the mighty earth itself doesn’t have strength in front of this impending disaster. The sound level became unbearable, it was as if thousand times the regular orchestral setting, as if thousands of violins, cellos, organs, pianos, trumpets and many other instruments played Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor at the same time. People started to clench their teeth, the landlord had hurt his tongue in the process, blood was dripping out of his mouth. Blood inside all their bodies boiled to the saturating point, the hearts were losing its limits- throbbing uncontrollably, nerves wanted to protrude out and they all went crazy running amok in all direction accompanied by a maddening cry.
On the next day, the rain begins again, while to the east, swift as memory, the sky brightens, scarlet and pale-blue and leans against the undulating horizon, to be followed by the sun, like a beggar daily panting up to his spot on the temple steps, full of heartbreak and misery, ready to establish the world of shadows, to separate the trees one from the other, to raise, out of the freezing, confusing homogeneity of night in which they seem to have been trapped like flies in a web, a clearly defined earth and sky with distinct animals and men, the darkness still in flight at the edge of things, somewhere on the far side on the western horizon, where its countless terrors vanish one by one like a desperate, confused, defeated army.
P.S: Its a small tribute to the writer and I love Bach’s Toccata.
where we read this so-called bourgeois etiquette or invention was already in its crude form(for us civilized people) among Indians, if at all we have only taken the real meaning of it by becoming self-centric and snobbish.
This is a more of an anthropological and cultural study.
Guy Davenport is a genius. He is one of those rare breeds of intellectuals who can straddle between being a literary critic and an art critic. With deep knowledge of classics, keen taste in poems to an acute sense of observation and sensibility to art, Guy Davenport traverses each of these and more diverse subjects effortlessly.
He surprises the reader with the very first chapter “The Champollion of Table manners”, which is about Claude Levi Strauss’s book “The origin of Table manners”, where we read the so-called bourgeois etiquette(an invention of it’s class) was already in its crude form(for us civilized people) among Indians, if at all we have only taken the real meaning out of it by becoming self-centric and snobbish.
This is a more of an anthropological and cultural study.
Next chapter is perhaps my most favorite and it shows davenport’s keen eye for art and history of it.
It’s about Henri Rosseau-titled “what are those Monkeys doing?”. The title centers on the painting “Les Joyeux Farceurs”. I don’t want to give any spoilers, so I will refrain from adding any further about it.
Here the genius of Davenport at his full shine. We see he is referring and quoting Rimbaud, Flaubert, Apollinaire and how they are so close to paintings and settings of Rosseau!
There is a chapter on Joyce and the circularity of his full oeuvre. A Terrific essay. A deep study of Joycean wordplay.
The middle section is a triptych- The Artist as Critic, The Scholar as Artist, The Critic as Artist. He takes an investigative mode through literary history and shows us as to how at various points these three professions had crossed boundaries, gave and took from each other, which has enriched each’s sphere.
There is a chapter on Montaigne (he asserts that it’s Plutarch who invented essay, not Montaigne), E.E Cummings ( was a delight to acquaint more on this witty and smart poet), Beckett, Webster, Balthus(Where again davenport’s sensibility to art history is clearly visible), Don Quixote, Walt Whitman and Poe ( one of my favorites for it’s format- as a loosely joint journal entries; as well a close study of Poe’s Raven and generally Birds as a form of divine creature in literature).
Before I end this review, I will leave you with a few quotes from the book:
Obliquity is the structuralist trademark. There is always something to be explained before something else can be explained. We begin with many versions of a myth about a clinging woman, “The Hunter Monmancki and His
Wives,” from the Tucuna of South America. We don’t know it yet, but the essence of the book is all here in this strange and apparently pointless tale.
The hero gets a frog pregnant by pointing his penis at her, they marry, go hunting together, and straightway bump into the fact that they dine on wholly different things, and the hunter’s mother has a sharp word for a
daughter-in-law who serves cockroaches as a delicacy. Our hero marries four more wives, with indifferent success. One of them breaks in half at the waist. When he tries to abandon her, the top half clings to his back and appropriates his food. Indian myths tend to be Bosch-like, nightmarish,
Some fifty transmutations and variants of this myth later, we move to
North America to hear another set. These also have to do with marrying frogs.
Sun and Moon, looking down on the earth one day, decided to choose wives from the creatures below. Moon chose a maiden, but Sun, who did not like the squint on human faces when they looked at him, chose a frog. The
mother of Sun and Moon was willing to be charmed by both her daughters-
in-law, though Frog Wife came under suspicion immediately, because she peed at every hop. The test, however, was table manners. The wedding feast was a nice mess of buffalo chitterlings. The Indian wife crunched hers with a fine loud smacking noise and was much admired. Poor Frog Wife did not even know which was the food and which the fire beneath. She fished out a
piece of charcoal, sucked on it, and let black spit run down her chin. This made everybody sick. Moon was derisive. Frog Wife jumped on his face and stayed there, like the clinging woman in the South American myth.
In the chapter about Montaigne :
Thus we can trace Leonardo’s “obstinate rigor of attention” (the phrase is
Paul ValCry’s) to one fine detail of nature as it caught the sharp eye of Montaigne. Just as we have to be alerted age after age by our own new concerns
to go back to Leonardo to see if he wasn’t there first, so must we reread Montaigne, the travel journal along with the inexhaustible Essays, with fresh eyes
This quote is about Montaigne recording in his essays, after hearing from a craftsman that rings in the structure of the trees point to their age. We learn it isn’t Montaigne but the foremost polymath Leonardo who found out that first. But to how it reached the ears of a craftsman in the city of pisa is a story best read from the book.
If good reads is any indication of readership, it’s a pity that many haven’t read this guy.
This small fact made me remember an incident. Once, when an another genius of an essayist by the name of Eliot weinberger (who mentions Davenport as the best essayist working in present times) came to India, he was interviewed by The Hindu newspaper. In which we see a journalist puts forth as a matter of fact question that he is less read in his own country(america), while having many fans in this side of world (which was an exaggeration or a lie of worst form).
I hope many people will discover and read more of Davenport’s works.
Guy Davenport photographed by Jonathan Williams and another taken from Goodreads.
The book had one of the most provocative, intriguing as well as mildly sarcastic beginning. I was planning to quote certain beautiful sentences from the book. But due to some technical reasons ( due to the format of the book I read I guess), I couldn’t copy those sentences and paragraphs.
The author captures what it is to be an exile in pre and post-Berlin wall destruction. The earlier parts to me, were brilliant. There is a chapter on Russian artist exhibiting his art to mimic exactly what it was to be a Soviet citizen. The constant themes were of memory. One of the other central connecting themes was of photographs and family albums. History of a nation or community isn’t shaped by an individual but one that is shared by the people who make it. Perhaps, that was the weaker point for the book. In capturing the shared trauma of east Europeans we are presented a sea of stories of various characters popping here and there, for 3 lines, a para or a short story. Though there is the guiding hand of the narrator throughout the book, in the middle, we feel lost in this torrent of other stories only to be pulled back into the main character’s story later.
The narration is highly experimental, it was a pleasure to read chapters which are nothing but journal entries, short chapters containing fragments of stories, 3 line stories, chapter primarily based on quotes by past figures revolving around the central theme of memory, Berlin or being an exile.
Perhaps the book is similar to one of its recurrent motif i.e “A Photographic album”.
Perhaps that serves as a better analogy here. Consider this, you are browsing your marriage album. What starts out as a sweet recollection of yourself and your people, ends up as an inquisitive exercise into the unknown strange faces that fills the albums. You are not sure who they are, you ask your spouse, they are equally ignorant. You ask your parents, who are themselves ignorant about those people. The people are out of your family tree, a tangential point that brushed your marriage only to never reappear. You wonder along with their identity; how are they now etc etc.
But later feel that you have been lost in thoughts and the purpose. You, instead of recollecting about you and your people have beaten your head about strange people.
You open the book, get acquainted with the main character and the setting, then a sea of strangers occupy the book who rather than focussing your interest and attention, divert you. You close the book in a similar fashion the above person closes the album.
PS: Still 4, yes I feel this book’s language and subtlety in capturing some of finest philosophical points of Art, Photography, memory, History are great. The digression was a minor point in an otherwise very good book.
A bit of knowledge about post-ww2 Europe would help a lot. It’s sad that I couldn’t share few beautiful quotes from the book.
While reading this book I was constantly reminded of how India deeply lacks more people like Guha these days. While strongly critical of the right-wing politics and politicians, he has been very vocal about his stance on left and the Congress wherever they deserved it. This attitude of calling spade a spade, traveling a thin line of an unbiased commentary is becoming rare if not absent altogether.
The book is divided into two parts: 1. Politics and Society 2.Ideologies and Intellectuals. The first part deals with varied issues like Freedom of expression and its threats in India, discussions of Chinese policy towards minorities, Pakistan and Indian tie (not the government, but a common folk perspective), the present dismal status of Indian National Congress etc.
In the middle, we have a chapter on exchanges between Nehru and Jayaprakash Narayan (called j.p by many) on the road forward for Indian polity, on non-lapping, separate roles of prime minister and president of the ruling party. Reading it, one is reminded of the current day politics, when not between politicians, but even in grave urgent matters affecting the livelihood of people, we have our leaders being mute rather than responding like our forefathers.
The one chapter which drew my interest more was on tribals’ status in India. One can only feel a deep pity for those from tribes. Guha categorically puts the blame on the government for not keeping up with its word on the tribal welfare.
I see many readers have had an issue with the second part. Their reasoning is as follows: The place for discussing the topmost ( or let’s say credible as well favored by Guha ) intellects and Ideologues in a book pertaining to Democrats and dissenters is uncalled for. I agree with them, but for me personally, the second part was equally if not more enriching. If not for this book I wouldn’t have known about Andre Beteille (important sociologist from the country).
Take these quotes from the book on Beteille :
Thus, in an essay published in the Economic and Political Weekly in July 2011, he wrote, with detachment but also some despair, of the decline of Parliament as an institution for debate, discussion and policy formation. Noting the resort to abuse instead of argument, the frequent walkouts and boycotts, this scholar and citizen observed that ‘the long-term effect of continuous discord and disorder within Parliament is an erosion of public trust in the institution itself’. The only real beneficiaries are the media, as ‘the television channels seize their opportunity for breaking news, and lure members of Parliament into their studios where the debates reproduce the disorder of the debates in Parliament’.
In another place :
This society had ‘made a terrible mistake in the past in believing that merit was an attribute not of individuals but groups, that being born a Brahmin was in itself a mark of merit. We shall make the same kind of mistake if we act on the belief that need too is always, and not just in special cases, an attribute of groups rather than of individuals.’
He was also critical about the right-wing, there are more of it in the book, but this small sentence captures essentially the exact philosophy of Hindutva ( which I should add as a very un-Indian or dare say an un-Hindu temperament) :
A civilization that cannot accommodate a variety of traditions, seeking to maintain a jealous hold on only one single tradition, can hardly be called a civilization.
I was also surprised to find that the father of the Marxist historian (a polymath, mathematician) D.D Kosambi was himself a great intellect of a rare kind. The title itself is interesting- The life and death of a Gandhian Buddhist.
Reading about Acharya Dharmananda Damodar Kosambi (not much difference between the father and son’s name), I was reaffirmed of my feeling of our generation’s complicity when it comes to knowledge. We live in a world of excess data, easy accessibilty of resources brought about by technological boom. Even while we sense the bane of excess, speculative information flows we still couldn’t escape the cushion the technology provides thereby disregarding the knowledge we take for granted. For instance, read this :
Dharmanand Kosambi felt the urge to learn Sanskrit; finding this urge irresistible, he left his wife and small children in Goa to go to Puné, and study with R.G. Bhandarkar. His studies with this great Sanskritist inculcated further desires and ambitions, among them to make a deeper acquaintance with Buddhism. He travelled around the country, spending time in Bodh Gaya and in Sarnath.
In search of a living Buddhist tradition, Dharmanand Kosambi also spent several years in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and Burma, learning Pali from scholars of the Buddhist canon. By now, Kosambi was a world authority on the language and culture of early Buddhism.
Apparently, in his years in Ceylon and Burma, those compulsively carnivorous countries, Dharmanand Kosambi was compelled to eat meat, and repeatedly fell sick. Had he a tougher stomach or a more broad-minded approach to food, he might have stayed in those lands much longer.
On his return to India, Kosambi travelled in the garb and manner of a mendicant, begging for food and railway tickets. He visited Banaras, Madras, Ujjain, Gwalior, and Calcutta, seeking scholars to debate with and learn from. He also toured through Gorakhpur district where the Buddha spent his last days. Here, as Kosambi later told his student, ‘he often passed his days and nights in open verandahs or under trees or in cemeteries and practiced meditation, sometimes he practiced the meditation of love for all beings, including animals’.
P.V. Bapat ends his tribute to his mentor in these words: ‘His life is thus a source of great inspiration to many a young man. It is a splendid example of what a young man with no more education than what can be secured in a village school and with no material resources at all to help him, can achieve, provided he has a dogged perseverance to pursue his ideal, in spite of all obstacles that may come in his way.’
Now read this :
Reading this account, sitting in my home with piped water and round-the-clock electricity in Bangalore, with my laptop, and Google a click away, thinking of my own next journey (by aircraft) to Delhi to work in the archives while staying in the comfortably air-conditioned rooms of the India International Centre, was both embarrassing and uplifting. For, here was a scholar who knew what the search for knowledge really meant.
Indeed, our times are better, one should be an idiot to complain about it. But along the way have we become complicit in appreciating the information and knowledge we are served. I hope to be proved wrong here.
There also a chapter on the celebrated historian Hobsbawm( nothing new, if you are already acquainted with his works and ideology), there is a chapter on Amartya Sen’s book “Argumentative Indian”
Here, Guha is all guns blazing on sen’s appeal to the public for looking to the past for continuing the democratic character of future India. I haven’t read the book, but if I have to believe Guha. The book apart from Tagore doesn’t include any stalwarts like Gandhi(except featuring in letters of Tagore)Nehru and host of other colonial and post-independent times. Going as back as Yajnavalkya, Lokayata scholars, Buddha, Ashoka and till Akbar but not to have included Gandhi (imo, the most argumentative not in the pejorative sense) is indeed a mistake. Guha is of opinion, that though sympathetic to sen for not including Nehru and Gandhi, he has scored a same side goal benefitting the forces he is writing against. I wholly agree, but read this :
The choice of which Indian to pick and celebrate from the past is here directly linked to the kind of Indian who one thinks best represents India in the present. Homo Indicus, in one reading, is rational, reasonable, secular, curious about and respectful of other people and cultures—like Ashoka or Akbar, indeed much like Amartya Sen himself. Homo Indicus, in the other and perhaps no less legitimate reading, is deeply religious, but also passionate and combative, anxious to reclaim the land for the faith and the faithful—a little like Adi Sankara and Shivaji, perhaps, and much like Lal Krishna Advani and (at a pinch) Praveen Togadia as well.
I understand and share the feeling, but Adi Sankara? (wasn’t he one of the most argumentative Indian as well). He before noting this, at one place said that with some places to criticize Sen could have very well included Gandhi and Nehru. Doesn’t the same parameter include Adi Sankara too?. Wouldn’t the Right Wingers use this vacuum to provide a rosy picture of Sankara if neglected?.
Guha’s central criticizing point is on the hypothesis that reevaluating the ancient or medieval India is an important part for the growth of Indian republic’s future. Though Indian past has to be read, discussed and looked with the critical aptitude I feel emphasizing more importance for its importance in future of Indian democracy is a far reach and exactly what Hindutvadis want.
Other chapters were on other intellectuals from India and sometimes other worlds like U.R Ananthamurthy, an Indian economist Dharma Kumar and an Irish Indonesian scholar Benedict Anderson.
Apart from Anathamurthy, I wasn’t aware of others’ works. So it was refreshing to know about their work as well their social commentaries of their times.
To give a taste of the rare mix of literary as well a sharp social critic of Ananthamurthy, read this :
In Modi’s enthusiasm for development, the atmosphere is further filled with factory smoke. Tribals who live close to nature have nowhere to go. In the hubris of extreme progress, man, suffering revulsion from excessive consumption, may see the need for change. If not, the Earth will speak.’
But he(Guha) immediately adds a caveat :
These are powerful and moving words, but I must enter a caveat. For, well before Narendra Modi became prime minister, successive Congress governments (and prime ministers) had displayed a callous disregard for both environmental sustainability and the rights of tribal communities. Personifying the problem may be a case of literary licence, perhaps, but the issue goes well beyond a particular individual (or, indeed, political party).
How can one forget about Guha’s Favorite politician, freedom fighter, and scholar Rajagopalachari(Rajaji)?
It was very interesting to read about the praise Guha has for Rajaji’s prophesizing words on the free market and his take on Hindu Muslim unity, Kashmir issue, Jan Sangh.
My own personal appreciation for Rajaji has increased reading these.
But, I have never understood Guha’s fascination for this man to the level that he has never even mentioned about the controversial Kula Kalvi Thittam (“Hereditary Education Policy”).
Why doesn’t he even in a single place has explained about it or criticized it. Not this book, for long I have noticed this one Glitch in Guha’s otherwise unbiased writings.
His final chapter is my most favorite-“Where are the Conservative Intellectuals in India?”
This has been my thoughts for well over 2 years. Why doesn’t the country possess a strong or even a mild conservative intellectual climate? He answers for that to achieve any credibility they have to remove their tainted spectacles of communal hatred and bigotry. He provides examples of the ideal conservative of this type from Roger Scruton’s How to be a Conservative.
So, the question that begs is: Given that there is a conservative government at the centre and whose fortunes are still shiny considering that the opposition is beyond weak at the present, can there be host of scholars if not institutions which can come for the defense of the Goverment of the day and it’s ideology or if not for the Hindu issues?
It seems very unlikely, reason being, for one to remove his hatred for the Muslims and Christians is to move away from the Rss’s philosophy, which in turn is cheek by jowl associated with Bjp. To remove oneself associating with one is to gain the antipathy of the other.
But, Guha does give three example from the past of being conservative intellectuals they are: Romesh Chandra Majumdar, Radhakumud Mookerjee and G.s.Ghurye.
Apart from the Majumdar I haven’t heard about the other two. Guha after putting forth each one’s version of history ends with a reasoning that their times could have made them to write so. The 1940s was the bloodiest of Hindu Muslim Riots.
But, My own search has led me in the past to identify two contemporary scholars of some credibility. One is R.Nagaswamy and Prof. Michel Danino. The latter is a french who lives in Pondicherry ashram and his talks and books should be of some interest to people seeking contrarian narratives of India’s past.
To read Guha’s live and lucid writing was a treat unto itself. Was reminded of my own childhood days when I thought Guha was a cricket historian (which he is and more).