Tagore and the Gunny Bags

It has been a relief to me to know that I have not been alone in suffering painful, deep and prolonged depression brought on by the new populist politics from 2016. Carol Ann Duffy puts it well in an interview in The Guardian Review: ‘I think the past couple of years, with the evil twins of Trump and Brexit … I don’t remember ever having felt such a kind of lowering abstract stress coming from the political aura. It’s just so demoralising. You feel powerless’. Duffy was unable to resist writing about it, revelling in words and phrases like combover, twitter-rat, tweet-twat, tripe-gob, muckspout in her poem ‘Swearing In’ in her new collection Sincerity. But I struggled to write, managing only a handful of blog posts in two years and even gave up my occasional journal altogether. I was in despair from the new hopelessness around beneficial world change. Even the big wake-up call to herald a turning point could not happen with a public so ignorant, divided and nasty.

This politics is personal at every level. It seems to have begun with people left bereft by deindustrialisation and globalisation, feeling resentful towards ‘the powers that be’ and seizing on voting as a way to hurl grenades at Westminster or Washington, whence the double whammy in the UK referendum result on leaving the European Union and the US election of Donald Trump. The hostile environment against refugees and other perceived foreigners may have begun before 2016 but the two events gave it an insidious legitimacy, and the targets of racism and xenophobia felt the abuse personally and suffered in practical ways from poverty, insecurity, verbal and physical abuse, detention and deportation. People like me, political activists, campaigners and protesters, who were not victims ourselves were depressed by the stupidity of it all, and by the utter failure of a democratic process we had little faith in, but clung to nevertheless. I had a further setback which was deeply personal to me. Following eight years devoted to studying Rabindranath Tagore, I published my book Tagore Speaks just after the referendum and it was a failure, so for me 2016 was a bad year three times over, and it has been two years before the glooms lifted, due to a glimmer of light rather than a new dawn.

My glooms from 2016 lifted a few days ago when I had a message from someone new to me who is a Tagore scholar in Texas who loves permaculture and apparently enjoyed my blog. This made me wonder if it is time to get back to Tagore? I had more-or-less given up on trying to interest people in his form of social change ‘one village at a time’. Then a connection came to my mind between something that’s gone badly wrong in today’s world and an early manifestation of the same kind of thing in Tagore’s. The connection is between the ruinous effect of plastic in our world and gunny-bag factories in Tagore’s day.

The plastics/gunny-bags connection came to me after watching Hotel Salvation, a moving and charming film set in India about a son whose father goes to Varanasi to die. The Extras on the DVD include a short film entitled ‘Panorama of Calcutta (1899)’ (available on youtube). According to the Extras the title is wrong as ‘it clearly shows the famous ghats of Varanasi’, but in 1899 surely Calcutta had ghats – before factories were built on banks of Ganges at Calcutta. Tagore mentions this in an essay called ‘The Modern Age’:

Some years ago, when I set out from Calcutta on my voyage to Japan, the first thing that shocked me, with a sense of personal injury, was the ruthless intrusion of the factories for making gunny-bags on both banks of the Ganges. The blow it gave to me was owing to the precious memory of the days of my boyhood, when the scenery of this river was the only great thing near my birthplace reminding me of the existence of a world which had its direct communication with our innermost spirit.

The plastics/gunny-bags connection is just one example of the overall theme I want to focus in my new work on Tagore, which is making connections between different problems. To take a recent example, everyone is horrified at the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul, Turkey, probably on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The leaders of UK and US cannot take action against the Saudis because of their dependence on Saudi oil and arms sales. There are presumably contractual obligations, and there is the excuse that Saudi Arabia could switch to buying arms from Russia and China. But if we make connections between that dilemma and the problem of climate change, Saudi oil wealth disappears because the oil must be left in the ground, as with all fossil fuels including coal, shale oil and fracked natural gas. It is important for that connection to be voiced, even if it is not expedient at present for the oil to be declared worthless. Making connections of that kind, putting them into words and sharing them, is similar to Tagore saying: ‘If we could free even one village from the shackles of helplessness and ignorance, an ideal for the whole of India would be established.’ Tagore voiced his aspiration, despite knowing that he did not have the power or resources to replicate his model throughout India, because he could see that it was ‘the way to discover the true India’. (Tagore, ‘City and Village’ (Palli-prakriti), in Towards Universal Man (London: Asia Publishing House, 1961, pp. 302-22 (p. 322).)

Talking about making connections between problems, and talking about replicating alternative models, is essential preparation for bringing about one world, the Hindu world for which is ‘advaitam’ or non-dualism.

I mentioned advaitam recently when I attended a local U3A meeting of our discussion group on ‘Great Lives’. George, the convenor of the group, led our discussion this time, his choice being two Victorian hymnwriters, Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-95) and Frances Ridley Havergal (1836-79). He also suggested we discuss what we understand by a great life, and if perhaps another name for our group would convey the idea better. My contributions to the group have been on Tagore, Patrick Geddes and Alexander von Humboldt. Introducing my talk on Humboldt I said this:

Today I am going to look critically at my subject, Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), with a particular judgement in mind, one which applied to my earlier subjects: Rabindranath Tagore and Patrick Geddes. Those two were great men in my terms because they had great ideas and put them into action, as best they were able to in their lifetimes – a century ago. Furthermore, they were great because their ideas and what they tried to do could be revived today – and I believe they need to be. The same applies to Humboldt, two centuries ago, and my aim is to bring out his relevance for today’s world.

By those criteria I might question George’s choice of subjects, because I regard Christianity as dubious, divisive and dangerous, the last thing we need to heal today’s world in crisis. Andrea Wulf in her biography writes that Humboldt ‘saw the earth as one living organism where everything was connected’, in contrast to the dualistic conception of God having created the ‘great and complicated Machine of the Universe’ which humankind was called upon to dominate and exploit. We had a lively and intense discussion, with reminiscences of hymn singing at school and Sunday school, then varieties and pros and cons of Christianity – Alexander was Anglo-Catholic, Havergal Evangelical – with two of us who are atheists saying how awesome and mysterious is the world according to serious science, and my chipping in about John Allegro’s theory about the Eucharist ritual being the vestiges of the practice of an ancient fertility cult. Before we parted, George uttered a plaintive cry saying he still longs for there to be a spiritual dimension. Afterwards I wished I had said that George is asking for too little in longing only for a spiritual dimension, given that Tagore and Humboldt, in their contrasting ways, make the whole cosmos spiritual.

If I put these musings on my blog to add to the meagre collection from 2016 onwards, I would need to be unapologetic about rambling around various topics in an unscholarly fashion. This is a way into allowing myself to make vague and tentative connections in the interests of connecting everything, escaping the dualism of an exploitable and expendable material world with only a strand of spirituality.

I will conclude with an extract from Antonio Damasio’s book Looking for Spinoza. Spinoza (1632-1677) had a conception of God and nature which was advaitam, non-dual.

Spinoza’s Solution

Spinoza’s system does have a God but not a provident God conceived in the image of humans. God is the origin of all there is before our senses, and it is all there is, an uncaused and eternal substance with infinite attributes. For practical purposes God is nature and is most clearly manifest in living creatures. This is captured in an often quoted Spinozism, the expression Deus sive Natura—God or Nature. God has not revealed himself to humans in the ways portrayed in the Bible. You cannot pray to Spinoza’s God.

You need not be in fear of this God because he will never punish you. Nor should you work hard in the hope of getting rewards from him because none will come. The only thing you may fear is your own behavior. When you fail to be less than kind to others, you punish yourself, there and then, and deny yourself the opportunity to achieve inner peace and happiness, there and then. When you are loving to others there is a good chance of achieving inner peace and happiness, there and then. Thus a person’s actions should not be aimed at pleasing God, but rather at acting in conformity with the nature of God. When you do so, some kind of happiness results and some kind of salvation is achieved. Now. Spinoza’s salvation—salus—is about repeated occasions of a kind of happiness that cumulatively make for a healthy mental condition.

Spinoza rejected the notion that the prospect of after-death rewards or punishments was a proper incentive for ethical behavior. In a telling letter he lamented the man whose behavior is so guided: “He is one of those who would follow after his own lusts, if he were not restrained by the fear of hell. He abstains from evil actions and fulfills God’s commands like a slave against his will, and for his bondage he expects to be rewarded by God with gifts [273] far more to his taste than Divine love, and great in proportion to his original dislike of virtue.”

Spinoza makes room for two different roads to salvation: one accessible to all, the other more arduous and accessible only to those with disciplined and educated intellects. The accessible road requires a virtuous life in a virtuous civitas, obedient to the rules of a democratic state and mindful of God’s nature, somewhat indirectly, with the help of some of the Bible’s wisdom. The second road requires all that is needed by the first and, in addition, intuitive access to understanding that Spinoza prized above all other intellectual instruments, and which is itself based on abundant knowledge and sustained reflection. (Spinoza regards intuition as the most sophisticated means of achieving knowledge—intuition is Spinoza’s knowledge of the third kind. But intuition occurs only after we accumulate knowledge and use reason to analyse it.) Predictably, Spinoza thought nothing of the effort required to achieve the desired results: “How could it be that if salvation was ready at hand and within reach without much effort, it would be neglected by almost all? All that is excellent is as difficult to obtain as it is rare.” [The Ethics, Part V notes to Proposition 42.]

For the first kind of salvation, Spinoza rejects biblical narratives as God’s revelation, but endorses the wisdom embodied in the historical figures of Moses and Christ. Spinoza saw the Bible as a repository of valuable knowledge regarding human conduct and civil organization.

The second road to salvation assumes that the requirements of the first are properly met—a virtuous life assisted by a socio- political system whose laws help the individual with the task of being fair and charitable to others—but then it goes further. Spinoza asks for an acceptance of natural events as necessary, in keeping with scientific understanding. For example, death and [274] the ensuing loss cannot be prevented; we should acquiesce. The Spinoza solution also asks the individual to attempt a break between the emotionally competent stimuli that can trigger negative emotions—passions such as fear, anger, jealousy, sadness—and the very mechanisms that enact emotion. Instead, the individual should substitute emotionally competent stimuli capable of triggering positive, nourishing emotions. To facilitate this goal Spinoza recommends the mental rehearsing of negative emotional stimuli as a way to build a tolerance for negative emotions and gradually acquire a knack for generating positive ones. This is, in effect, Spinoza as mental immunologist developing a vaccine capable of creating antipassion antibodies. There is a Stoic color to the entire exercise, although it must be noted that Spinoza criticized the Stoics for assuming that the control of the emotions could ever be complete. (He criticized Descartes, too, for the same reason.) Spinoza was tough enough for my taste but not Stoic enough, it appears.

Spinoza’s solution hinges on the mind’s power over the emotional process, which in turn depends on a discovery of the causes of negative emotions, and on knowledge of the mechanics of emotion. The individual must be aware of the fundamental separation between emotionally competent stimuli and the trigger mechanism of emotion so that he can substitute reasoned emotionally competent stimuli capable of producing the most positive feeling states. (To some extent, Freud’s psychoanalytical project shared these objectives.) Today, the new understanding of the machinery of emotion and feeling makes Spinoza’s goal all the more achievable. Finally, Spinoza’s solution asks the individual to reflect on life, guided by knowledge and reason, in the perspective of eternity—of God or Nature—rather than in the perspective of the individual’s immortality. [275]

The results of this effort are complicated and difficult to tease apart. Freedom is one of the results, not of the kind usually contemplated in discussions of free will, but something far more radical: a reduction of dependencies on the object-emotional needs that enslave us. Another result is that we intuit the essences of the human condition. That intuition is comingled with a serene feeling whose ingredients include pleasure, joy, delight, but for which the words “blessedness” and “beatitude” seem the most appropriate given the transparent texture of the feeling (The Ethics, Part V, Proposition s 32 and 36, and their notes). This “intellectual” feeling is synonymous with an intellectual form of love for God—amor intellectualis Dei.

Goethe noted that this process offers love without asking for love back, and wondered about what could be more generous and less disinterested than this attitude. But Goethe was not quite accurate. The individual does get something back in the form of the most desirable kind of human freedom—Spinoza believed that an entity is free only when it exists solely by the lights of its nature and when it acts solely by its own determination. The individual also achieves the most desirable kind of joy in Spinoza’s canon, a joy that is perhaps best conceived as pure feeling almost liberated for once, from its obligate body twin.

Not everyone has been as kind as Goethe in their assessment of Spinoza’s solution, and some consider it a hopeless muddle. But neither the sincerity of the effort nor the pains and struggles that provided the incentive for it are in question. The Malamud character I invoked in chapter 1 captured the very least that can be said about these passages of the The Ethics: “…he was out to make a free man of himself.” Nor is it in doubt that Spinoza managed to bring together reason and affect in a modern way. Spinoza’s strategy to arrive at the intuited freedom and beatitude requires factual knowledge and reason. It also is curious that [276] someone who thought demonstrations were the eyes of the mind spent a good part of his life creating the best possible lenses, instruments that helped the mind see so many new facts. Spinoza embraced discovery of nature and knowledge as part of the diet of a thinking person. How intriguing to think that the lenses he so skillfully polished and the microscopes into which they went were means of seeing clearly and were thus, in a way, instruments of salvation. And how fitting for the time: Spinoza’s was the age in which numerous optical and mechanical devices were developed both to permit scientific discovery and to make the discovery process a source of pleasure.

The Effectiveness of a Solution

How true does Spinoza’s solution ring today and how effective does it appear to be? The verdict, now and in Spinoza’s time, seems mixed.

For some, Spinoza’s solution is a superior means to render life meaningful and to make human society tolerable. The aim of Spinoza’s solution is to return us to the relative independence humans lost after we gained extended consciousness and autobiographical memory. His route is through the use of reason and feeling. Reason lets us see the way, while feeling is the enforcer of our determination to see. What I find attractive in Spinoza’s solution is the recognition of the advantages of joy and the rejection of sorrow and fear, and the determination to seek the former and obliterate the latter. Spinoza affirms life and turns emotion and feeling into the means for its nourishing, a nice mixture of wisdom and scientific foresight. On the way to the horizon of life it is up to the individual to live in such a manner that the perfection of joy can be achieved frequently and thus render life worth living. And because the process is grounded in nature Spinoza’s solution is immediately compatible with the view of the universe [277] that science has been constructing for the past four hundred years.

(Antonio Damasio, ‘Spinoza’s Solution’, in Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain (London: Heinemann, 2003), pp. 273-78.)

 

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