Tagore and Gelernter – and the way we respond to poetry

The Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), and the Jewish thinker and professor of computer science at Yale, David Gelernter (born 1955), might have had an interesting discussion had their lifetimes overlapped. The small potential overlap in Venn diagrams of their interests would concern how children and poets think. Tagore would have been intrigued by the ‘low-focus’ end of Gelernter’s cognitive spectrum, and the role of emotion in human thought, as discussed in the latter’s book The Muse in the Machine – see review below.[1] Gelernter’s terminology seems biased in favour of ‘high-focus’ cognition for the way grown-ups think in rational, reasonable ways, over ‘low-focus’ for the way the thoughts and memories of children and poets are connected through their emotional experiences. Gelernter admits that his theory is speculative, and would require a great deal of work ‘merely to make the argument […] rigorous and complete, much less unavoidable’ (190). I will only go so far as to suggest that the idea of the cognitive spectrum feels right, and could explain a mystery about how people respond to poetry.

It is well known that for all his life Tagore was very fascinated by childhood, his own in particular, with his boyhood experiences the foundation of his ideas on the best way to teach young children: outdoors, in touch with nature, free to move about, climb trees, explore, do gardening and crafts, sing, dance and playact. Most crucially, children need to be taught in their birth language. With Gelernter’s theory in mind, this could be because people are more creative in the language they knew from birth because it was through their feelings that they learned the meanings of and connections between words. One consequence of this is that people of whatever age will be moved by poetry written in their birth language, but will tend to be more analytical and critical reading or hearing poetry written in a second language, however proficient they may be in that language.

I have wondered if Gelernter’s theory provides an explanation for critics whose first language is Bengali making derogatory remarks about the work of English translators from Bengali to English, work which is appreciated by readers whose first language is English. The story which follows is a case in point.

‘Sisir Kumar Das (1936-2003) was a poet, playwright, translator, comparatist and a prolific scholar of Indian literature’ (Wikipedia). I know him best for his valuable introductions as editor of three volumes of Tagore’s writings in English, but I have come across him in other works, such as Rabindranath Tagore and the Challenges of Today, (Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1988). This book is a conference proceedings volume and Das made the keynote address at the week-long event in 1986 to mark Tagore’s 125th birth anniversary. Towards the end of his talk, Das observed:

‘[T]he present seminar is devoted more to Tagore’s thoughts on various seminal issues than to his creative works. Yet I have preferred to talk about Tagore the artist more than about Tagore the thinker, for the simple reason that his thoughts cannot be properly understood without reference to his poetry, music and paintings. Outstanding though his essays are, always profound and perceptive, free from jargon and conceit, they become meaningful only when studied together with his other creative work.’ (21-2).

Das’s subject is the relevance of Tagore as a great poet, and he plunges into various issues concerning Tagore’s reception and popularity amongst Bengalis and in the West. At one point he mentions a ‘British translator of Tagore’ who ‘made a clever use of a line from an Upanisad: he is far he is near, in respect of Tagore’ (20). At that time this ‘young admirer of Tagore’ had only recently published a collection of Tagore’s poems which he had translated into English. He has since published other translations of Tagore’s poetry and his short stories. Since I cannot read Bengali – I have tried to learn but in difficult circumstances and I had to give up – I am extremely grateful to this translator for making Tagore’s poetry and stories available to me. There are many other translators, but I value the work of this particular ‘British translator of Tagore’ very highly. In particular, I find the poems he has produced from Tagore’s originals very affecting.

That word ‘affecting’ is crucial. The poems move me, sometimes to tears, especially if I read them aloud. I am moved by the poems because they are written in my birth language, which is English.

There is a very disturbing story about this brilliant translator, told to me by a friend and colleague of his. Apparently he has been subjected to cruel and persistent derogatory criticism by Bengali Tagore scholars, to such an extent that he suffered depression and a nervous breakdown, which may have contributed to a street accident in which he was gravely injured, and can no longer work. I have not been witness to any of the hostile disputes, and I do not know the details, but I have a theory (I should say ‘a pet theory’, an intuition, not a testable hypothesis) about the possible cause of what may be an innocent misunderstanding on the part of the Bengali critics. Again, the word ‘affecting’ is key.

The connection with Gelernter’s cognitive spectrum is probably obvious. I am suggesting that the Bengali critics are fluent in grown-up English, not a child’s English-from-birth. They never had that particular experience of learning language for the first time in English – even if they learnt English as soon as they went to school aged five, and their use of English seems impeccable. So the affective cognition Gelernter suggests poets have, and which makes their poetry affecting, will leave the Bengali critics cold. They will simply not ‘get’ the English versions, and will judge their translator accordingly. An entirely innocent misunderstanding on their part, and the translator will feel unjustly and unreasonably attacked. No wonder he became depressed.

It occurs to me that something similar may have happened when the English poet and scholar Edward John Thompson translated and criticised Tagore’s poetry in his two books Rabindranath Tagore: His Life and Work (Calcutta: Associated, 1921) and Rabindranath Tagore: Poet and Dramatist (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991) [first pub. 1926, 2nd edn 1948, 1991 edn as 2nd with Introduction by Harish Trivedi]. In this case it was Tagore himself who criticised the work of his English translator and critic, causing serious difficulties with their friendship (Uma Das Gupta, A Difficult Friendship: Letters of Edward Thompson and Rabindranath Tagore 1913-1940 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003)).

[1] This review below by Caitlin Kelly, Nov. 1996 sets out Gelernter’s theory:

The premise of David Gelernter’s The Muse in the Machine is that artificial intelligence research is incomplete, in that it fails to address traditionally non-scientific forms of human thought like emotion, metaphoric imagination and hallucination.

Human thought, asserts Gelernter, exists along a continuum, spanning from high-focus thinking — in-depth analytical problem solving — to low-focus thoughts, consisting of the daydreams and hallucinations that occur when one’s mind is wandering. Artificial intelligence research has historically focused on the logical, goal-driven thoughts at the high-end of the spectrum. Gelernter argues that, if the goal truly is to create a computer that can solve problems in a way similar to that of the human mind, then study of unfocused, emotional, low-end thinking must be incorporated into artificial intelligence research, for it is as central to human cognition as logic.

Gelernter compares his thought spectrum to the types of thinking that people do daily. High-focused thought is employed when someone is alert and focusing on a problem. Low-focus thinking takes over when we are tired or falling asleep and appear to have no control over the pattern our thoughts take. It is at the latter point that we are at our most creative. Gelernter defends his assertion in a gripping passage (p.24-26) where he cites the ideas of romantic poets on the role of emotion in human thought. He draws further analogies between his thought spectrum and human cognitive development. Children are more creative than analytical, but develop logical problem-solving skills as they grow to adulthood. (p. 13) His third, and most debatable, analogy likens the intellectual development of mankind as a journey from the dream-like thinking apparent in some passages of the Bible, what Gelernter calls, “prelogical antiquity” (p.15) to the logical thought valued today.

The Muse in the Machine was intended for a nonscientific audience. “Virtually everybody is interested in the mind, has wondered about their own thought processes, but the problem is the topic has been hijacked by scientists,” Gelernter told the New York Times. (Weaver, Jacqueline, Connecticut Q & A: David Gelernter; NYT, 7/31/94) The author succeeds in composing a beautifully written work that could be of interest to anyone with curiosity about artificial intelligence and the human mind, but the book should not be viewed as an introduction to the topic. Muse is highly critical of the field of AI, and does not attempt to offer balanced scholarly discussion of the criticisms it asserts. The book is visionary and thought-provoking, however, and a pleasure to read.

David Gelernter is a professor of Computer Science at Yale University and is the developer of Linda, a computer language designed to help facilitate communication between computers for parallel processing.


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