Tagorean Thoughts on Iain Banks

On 15 June The Guardian published the ‘Final Interview’ with writer Iain Banks, which took place a few weeks before his death from cancer on 9 June (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/15/iain-banks-the-final-interview?INTCMP=SRCH). The interview was full of good stuff on Banks’s politics, which would have appealed to the people keen on setting up a Left Unity party, whose meeting in Exeter I wrote up recently. Readers who sent in comments online picked out the choice bits, and these came up in the full page write-up on page 3 of the main paper:

‘[Banks’] political zeal burns equally ardently. He confesses that “for half a second”, as he and Adele travelled across the Alps from Venice to Paris on honeymoon, he was “elated” when he heard that Thatcher had died. “Then I realised I was celebrating the death of a human being, no matter how vile she was. And there was nothing symbolic about her death, because her baleful influence on British politics remains undiminished. Squeeze practically any Tory, any Blairite and any Lib Dem of the Orange Book persuasion, and it’s the same poisonous Thatcherite pus that comes oozing out of all of them.” He didn’t watch the funeral on TV – “It was just like a royal wedding.”

‘We reminisce about other significant turning points. Blair entering Downing Street: [Banks says] “Watching the helicopter shots of his car journeying from Islington to Buck House was like witnessing the liberation of a city … yet almost immediately he was having tea with Thatcher. My injured self-respect can at least fall back on the fact that I never voted for New Labour – Labour yes, and nothing but Labour for as long as it existed and I could vote, but not for a party that embraced privatisation and refused to scrap nuclear weapons; not for a party slightly to the right of Ted Heath’s government.”

‘As for the war on terror, there is palpable fury when [Banks] discusses “the great lie that our boys are fighting, killing and dying in Afghanistan to keep us safe. It’s 180 degrees off the truth. They’re dying worse than needlessly; they’re dying to save political face, and for every grieving or just aggrieved Afghan family we create the conditions for further atrocities to be visited on us.”

‘[Banks says:] I won’t miss waiting for the next financial disaster because we haven’t dealt with the underlying causes of the last one. Nor will I be disappointed not to experience the results of the proto-fascism that’s rearing its grisly head right now. It’s the utter idiocy, the sheer wrong-headedness of the response that beggars belief. I mean, your society’s broken, so who should we blame? Should we blame the rich, powerful people who caused it? No let’s blame the people with no power and no money and these immigrants who don’t even have the vote, yeah it must be their fucking fault. So I might escape having to witness even greater catastrophe.’

Great stuff! Banks identifies with and speaks for The Left. We enjoy his cynicism because it is what we say too, and to have a famous writer speak for us publicly is very satisfying. The gist of what Banks says is repeated over and over in my report of the Exeter Left Unity (ELU) meeting on 12 June.

I come now to the ‘Tagorean thoughts’ arising from the ‘Final Interview’ with Banks, which shows that he sees [adopting the present tense to write of a writer] through the nonsense of current propaganda and misinformation in this country, agrees that there is ‘no alternative’ since the Labour Party turned ‘New’, and also – we assume – is as concerned as we are about austerity and the privatisation of the NHS.

‘Tagorean thoughts’ is about what Tagore might have thought about all this. I can tell you that he disapproves of welfare provision by the state (‘Society and State’ (swadeshi samaj), 1904). He says this makes people unable to help themselves. He sees the alternative as cooperative self-help, relocalisation, re-building local communities, not a political party of the Left. The criticism of the Green Party (not being consistent, not supporting the workers) at the ELU meeting, because of a mistake by the Green Party-led Brighton Council, shows that getting elected to authority in a flawed system risks having to make compromises with Party principles – surely the reason for the ‘New Labour’ phenomenon. Tagore favours participative democracy, where local people decide on how to meet their needs locally. It’s interesting that people at the ELU meeting who had been involved in Exeter Occupy spoke about the good feeling of getting together to make decisions.

Banks spoke of Thatcherism being on-going. We all remember the famous statement ‘There’s no such thing as Society, just individuals and their families’. Nothing wrong with families, of course – perhaps she mentioned them to soften her declaration. But we should be concerned about what has been called ‘decadent individualism’, decadence being where the part flourishes at the expense of the whole (Regenia Gagnier, 2010). But by Tagore’s thinking, to rebuild a society of local communities does not mean everyone being altruistic, denying one’s own freedom to choose according to one’s particular needs and desires. There is a passage in one of Tagore’s essays which puts this very well: ‘The will, which is free, must seek for the realization of its harmony other wills which are also free, and in this is the experience of spiritual life. The infinite centre of personality, which radiates its joy by giving itself out in freedom, must create other centres of freedom to unite with it in harmony. Beauty is the harmony realized in things which are bound by law. Love is the harmony realized in wills which are free.’[1]

There is an interesting connection with part of the Banks interview:

‘Banks may have displayed a lack of anger at his diagnosis, but that does not mean that his righteous ire is extinguished. As we chat, he frequently loops off into hilarious denunciations. “I can understand that people want to feel special and important and so on, but that self-obsession seems a bit pathetic somehow. Not being able to accept that you’re just this collection of cells, intelligent to whatever degree, capable of feeling emotion to whatever degree, for a limited amount of time and so on, on this tiny little rock orbiting this not particularly important sun in one of just 400m galaxies, and whatever other levels of reality there might be via something like brane-theory [of multiple dimensions] … really, it’s not about you. It’s what religion does with this drive for acknowledgement of self-importance that really gets up my nose. ‘Yeah, yeah, your individual consciousness is so important to the universe that it must be preserved at all costs’ – oh, please. Do try to get a grip of something other than your self-obsession. How Californian. The idea that at all costs, no matter what, it always has to be all about you. Well, I think not.”’

One could say that Tagore’s sympathies are with the self-obsessed Californian. That’s because he sees the individual self as of central importance. Tagore is not at all self-effacing himself, as we can see from descriptions of his school and university, where he is the centre of attention, without excluding or offending anyone else. He sees the individual self as identical to the universal self, and understands that there is no loss through death: ‘I have had so many experiences of loved ones who have died, that I think I have come to know something about death, something perhaps of its deeper meaning. Every moment that I have spent at the death bed of some dear friend, I have known this, yet it is very difficult to describe how for me that great ocean of truth, of existence, of life, from which life itself springs and to which all life returns, can never suffer diminution by death.’[2]

Curiously enough, Banks knows this too; it comes out in his fiction, especially in his science fiction. He is not the hard-nosed atheist materialist there.

‘Banks freely admits that he enjoys writing his SF novels more than his “literary” novels, and the Culture novels more than his other SF. The hedonistic, anarchistic, post-scarcity series is “a hoot. It’s my train set. I adore the freedom and the size of the canvas,” even though writing them “requires a greater degree of concentration. And there’s so much baggage with the Culture now that I have to get each new novel aligned with earlier Culture history. I don’t have the same leeway to make things up compared with when I started.” [… T]he Culture itself is determined to keep on going, refusing to sublimate or disappear off stage, so I think it would be too easy for me to lob in a series-ender. To that extent, ‘destroying the whole universe’ – an always tempting scenario when you realise in SF you can do anything – just seems too easy.”

‘That sense of stretching and twisting conventions and confuting the expectations of the reader applies just as much to Banks’s “literary” novels, from the macabre fantasia of The Wasp Factory to the gothic profusion of The Crow Road to the baroque bildungsroman of Stonemouth. Again, though, narrative drive has to be balanced with plausibility: “It’s a writerly truism – probably best illustrated by William Goldman in Adventures in the Screen Trade – that only real life can get away with the really outrageous stuff. The trouble with writing fiction is that it has to make sense, whereas real life doesn’t. It’s incredibly annoying for us scribblers. A lot of the time you’re simply deciding how far down the path of unlikeliness you can go while still retaining the willing suspension of disbelief in the reader. You can’t go too far – ‘With one mighty bound he was free!’ – because it just becomes ridiculous. Readers will start to feel that it’s all too coincidental, too easy, too contrived and convenient for the writer’s purposes. You’re trying to decide how much you can get away with.” […] Transition, a wild splurge of fantasy, sci-fi and mad reality frothed up together … now that would have been the kind of book to go out on.’

three worlds

Next time I’ll explore Tagore’s ‘one world’ idea, contrasting that with the three worlds idea of mathematic physicist, Roger Penrose.


[1] ‘Second Birth’ in Personality, p. 101.

[2] Tagore, ‘On Death’ (The Dartington Hall Trust Archive, Papers of Leonard Knight Elmhirst, LKE India.)

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