Consolations of Reading

Urizen by William Blake
Reading burns the soul and increasingly, we have fewer readers since everyone wants to become writers. I was once told by a Sanskrit scholar that some of us are born only with the faculty of appreciation, which is distinct from the creative faculty. This is codified within Sanskrit poetics. This post is for those like I, who only have the ‘appreciative faculty’. Because everyone believes they are born writers, poets and are akin to the Tallis Scholars, we have ad nauseam literary fests everywhere and meaningless roundtables which make literature seem as drab as when one hears Beethoven in a mediocre music school. In passing, I must say that mediocrity is defined by compulsive obsessive technical accuracy and is bad for the soul; mediocrity being a by word for lukewarmness. It is another matter whether anyone is bothered with the soul in a school or a university. Ironically, literature and music speak only to the soul, unlike philosophy which only targets the mind. In short, literature fashions our souls and philosophical enquiry is dependent on brain chemicals because the mind, as any self- respecting neuro-psychiatrist will tell us, is an accretion of neurotransmitters. Not for nothing did William Blake show Newton in chains. Our reason, Urizen is oppressive within Blake’s understanding of the world. Here are a few means to escape the death clasp of Urizen:

a) Read Ian McEwan’s The Children Act . McEwan ponders in this novel how in one’s late fifties a man can have an affair with a younger woman leaving his wife of thirty-five years. The novel’s online hoopla rests on Jehovah’s Witnesses refusing blood transfusion for a seventeen year old leukemic. That the Jehovah’s Witnesses forbid blood transfusion absolutely is well known. But it is the other aspect of being abandoned by someone whom you loved for aeons is what caught my interest in this novel. Like McEwan, I find it strange that when two people are together for decades they still can philander. In this case a pampered history professor, the husband, finds solace in waking up in the arms of another. The mind boggles at this treachery. Does not two people over the decades become like one unto the other? The Children Act is also a feminist novel, a fact that professional critics have not latched on to. But first and foremost, it is a love story and as W.B. Yeats points out, often love dies. Then everything becomes pointless and purposeless. McEwan like Haruki Murakami weaves music throughout his works. In McEwan’s Amsterdam, music plays a huge role in the lives of the main characters. Incidentally, Amsterdam too is a great novel to read slowly, in bits, as if enacting sonatas. I love McEwan’s novels because McEwan forces me to encounter sublime music: for example, after reading both Murakami and McEwan I cannot stop listening to Mozart’s ‘Clarinet Concerto in A Major’. After experiencing McEwan’s symphonies in prose, I am tempted to look down on the popular, the reductionist bestseller which I also love reading. At least, in music, I would have to agree with McEwan’s characters that anything less than the classical now nauseates me.  I have not given away the devilishly gothic plot. Read McEwan. 


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Anything less than the classical nauseates me. The pic’s of Mozart’s. 

b) In Down by the Sally Gardens by Yeats, which is about death by hanging and not love, there are these lines:

Down by the salley gardens                                    
   my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens
   with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy,
   as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish,
   with her would not agree.
In a field by the river
   my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder
   she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy,
   as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish,
   and now am full of tears.

Meena Kandasamy in her autobiography When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife speaks of when she, instead of the ‘he’ of Yeats’ poem, “was young and foolish” and chose to take life seriously. This is a powerful commentary on the condition of women in today’s India. One hardly understands the uprooting that a woman has to face in South East Asia when she marries. The first injustice done to her is that she has to stay apart from her parents while the groom carries on being mamma’s boy in his own home. The woman’s life is turned upside down and often, Indian women have to give up their own careers for the sake of their husband’s egos. Kandasamy had to give up writing because her phenomenal husband wanted his wife to make a holocaust of herself to his non-existent intellectual career. It is a kind of uprooting that African slaves had to face in the hands of their white abductors in colonial times. Today I am here at my parents’ house, independent and listening to boombox music. Tomorrow I have to play the marriage-game: say ‘namaste’ to my in-laws, bow down in front of my husband and may be, touch his sacrosanct feet. Kandasamy, of course, had a more harrowing experience with first her lover and then later, with her husband. These are two separate tyrants. But we will come to these two Indian gems of masculine robustness later. There are two other important aspects to this violent autobiographical novel. First, Kandasamy points out the need to be on social media to freelance. I am not as of now on FaceBook, but only use Twitter and Instagram and WhatsApp. But Kandasamy has nearly convinced me to get on to FaceBook because cutting off FB was her ideologue Leftist husband’s way of punishing her from earning her own money. And what, or who is a woman without money of her own? Contrast this need in Kandasamy with her husband’s classes and students who could not think beyond jargon laden dumbed-down philosophy which goes by the name of literary theory throughout the third and fourth worlds. Literature, I guess, is too tough for literary satraps to handle. It is easy to while away one’s time mulling on Derrida’s grammatology without knowing anything about Pāṇini’s Mahābhāṣya or the Gospel of Glory. Derrida knew both. It is weird that thousands of Indian students of literatures in English spew jargon in wrong English and waste their time understanding what Lacan had to say on the Möbius strip, than mastering Middle English or Beowulf. Kandasamy had to beg her husband to take adjunct classes for students who were frankly not worth her time. Kandasamy’s husband one understands, taught because he could not bear the burden of being a self-proclaimed revolutionary.  Now, we come to Kandasamy’s first love: a pompous political leader who is not named in the book. This gentleman just used her and threw her out of his life when one presumes, she had become a liability for him. Finally, this scoundrel surrounded himself with a coterie of sycophants to keep her off. Manly robustness be darned. It is not for nothing that I quoted Yeats at the beginning of this reading recommendation. When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife is a warning to both young women and their parents that the old adage, marry in haste and then, repent at leisure still holds true. And as the Dubliners warn: don’t get married girl, marriage is a curse (unless you earn tonnes upon tonnes and definitely, more than your husband). Here’s the lyric from the Dubliners:

Don’t get married girls
You’ll sign away your life
You may start off as a woman
But you’ll end up as the wife
You could be a vestal virgin
Take the veil and be a nun
But don’t get married girls
For marriage isn’t fun
Oh it’s fine when you’re romancing
And he plays the lover’s part
You’re the roses in his garden
You’re the flame that warms his heart
And his love will last forever
And he’ll promise you the moon
But just wait until you’re wedded
Then he’ll sing a different tune
You’re his tapioca pudding
You’re the dumplings in his stew
But he’ll soon begin to wonder
What he ever saw in you
Still he takes without complaining
All the dishes you provide
For you see he’s got to have
His bit of jam tart on the side
So don’t get married girls
It’s very badly paid
You may start off as the mistress
But you’ll end up as the maid
Be a daring deep sea diver
Be a polished polyglot
But don’t get married girls
For marriage is a plot
Have you seen him in the morning
With a face that looks like death
With dandruff on his pillow
And tobacco on his breath
And he needs some reassurance
With his cup of tea in bed
For he’s worried by the mortgage
And the bald patch on his head
And he’s sure that you’re his mother
Lays his head upon your breast
So you try to boost his ego
Iron his shirt and warm his vest
Then you get him off to work
The mighty hunter is restored
And he leaves you there with nothing
But the dreams you can’t afford
So don’t get married girls
Men are all the same
They just use you when you need you
You’d do better on the game
Be a call girl, be a stripper
Be a hostess, be a whore
But don’t get married girls
For marriage is a bore
When he comes home in the morning
He can hardly spare a look
All he says is “What’s for dinner?”
After all you’re just the cook
But when he takes you to a party
Well he eyes you with a frown
For you know you’ve got to look your best
You mustn’t let him down
All he’ll clutch you with that
“Look what I’ve got” twinkle in his eyes
Like he’s entered for a raffle
And he’s won you for the prize
Oh but when the party’s over
You’ll be slogging through the sludge
Half the time a decoration
And the other half a drudge
So don’t get married
It’ll drive you round the bend
It’s the lane without a turning
It’s the end without an end
Take a lover every Friday
Take up tennis, be a nurse
But don’t get married girls
For marriage is a curse
Then you get him off to work
The mighty hunter is restored
And he leaves you there with nothing
But the dreams you can’t afford.

You can listen to the song here

c) Make it a point to read poetry. Here are a few poems to begin with and you need be no English or American literature honcho to appreciate these poems on your own. Like good music and food, poetry makes life worth living: 

  1. Prometheus Unbound. This is a long meditation on poetry and philosophy by that arch-rebel, P.B. Shelley. The following lines will serve as a sampler: 

                            On a poet’s lips I slept
                            Dreaming like a love-adept
                            In the sound his breathing kept;
                            Nor seeks nor finds he mortal blisses,
                            But feeds on the aerial kisses
                            Of shapes that haunt thought’s wildernesses.
                            He will watch from dawn to gloom
                            The lake-reflected sun illume
                            The yellow bees in the ivy-bloom,
                            Nor heed nor see what things they be;
                            But from these create he can
                            Forms more real than living man,
                            Nurslings of immortality!

Peter Paul Rubens and Frans Snyders - Prometheus Bound


2. I have always wondered why when we have our own parents we call others Fathers, Mothers, Sisters or Babas! I suppose this is because our own parents fall short of our expectations as we grow up. A kid finds out that her parents have only clay feet and are all too human. Or is it something more insidious now that we know that child abuse is rampant in all demographics and especially in religions which fixate on the primacy of celibacy over the married state? Geoffrey Chaucer is your poet to understand why it is always good to be wary of women and men who demand hero-worshipping. Chaucer’s celibates have cackled through the centuries with their gargoyle laughter shattering all our mental images of what makes for the holiness-game . Do not be put off by Chaucer’s (Middle) English. Just buy a book which has the poem in contemporary English prose in facing pages. As you read Chaucer in original, slowly Middle English will become easy for you. Here is the description of a corrupt cleric from Chaucer. This description is timeless and applies to anyone who has/had set himself up as God’s henchman. God does NOT need anyone to proclaim God because we are to be like unto lilies in the field (vide Jesus Christ), and not be like unto intellectual vultures soaring high in the sky looking down at dump yards (vide Sri Ramakrishna). Recently, a Hindu monk told me that another Hindu (American) novice was heard boasting in Hindu monastic circles that the latter is first and foremost a scholar and a professor and eagerly waits to hear academic gossip. An Indian Roman Catholic diocesan priest once told me that he was put down by a Jesuit priest (there are Jesuit Brothers!) for having less qualifications than the latter. Before reading Chaucer it will do well to first read The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and then watch that novel’s movie adaptation. Dry scholarship is a morbid passion. Here is Chaucer at his best, describing a lecherous and ambitious monk: 

With hym ther rood a gentil pardoner
Of Rouncivale, his freend and his compeer,
That streight was comen fro the court of Rome.
Ful loude he soong “Com hider, love, to me!”
This Somonour bar to hym a stif burdoun;
Was nevere trompe of half so greet a soun.
This Pardoner hadde heer as yelow as wex,
But smothe it heeng as dooth a strike of flex;
By ounces henge his lokkes that he hadde,
And therwith he hise shuldres overspradde;
But thynne it lay by colpons oon and oon.
But hood, for jolitee, wered he noon,
For it was trussed up in his walet.
Hym thoughte he rood al of the newe jet;
Dischevelee, save his cappe, he rood al bare.
Swiche glarynge eyen hadde he as an hare.
A vernycle hadde he sowed upon his cappe.
His walet lay biforn hym in his lappe
Bretful of pardoun come from Rome al hoot.
A voys he hadde as smal as hath a goot,
No berd hadde he, ne nevere sholde have;
As smothe it was as it were late shave,
I trowe he were a geldyng or a mare…

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Chaucer’s celibates are gargoyles whose devilish cackle should warn us from trusting ourselves or our children to their munificence.

3. We are starved of love and hence in most normatively love poetry one does not find true love but an unending cry for understanding from someone who will sweep us off our feet. Four More Shots Please is symptomatic of this zeitgeist. It is another matter that other than God none can ever understand us truly and completely. God is who is within us. God is the antaryāmin. And to connect with God, reading no amount of love poetry will help. The injunctions of the Yoga Sūtras of Patanjali and such other exhortations can alone connect us with the Effulgent Self within us all, or, the antaryāmin. But as far as human love goes with its rainbow like variegations: sapiosexuality, polyamory, asexuality and bisexuality, not to speak of monogamy, the clichéd tryst and the ménage à trois, we will do well to immerse ourselves in the Sonnets of Shakespeare. Nothing better has been written on the subject of love in English, and I doubt anyone will write any better in the next half millennia. Here are some samplers from Shakespeare:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. (Sonnet 18)

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d. (Sonnet 116)

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Read McEwan and you will know why I chose Yeats’ poem. All, as I pointed out above, is only gothic.