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Gems of Literature

Introduction:

In his “Preface to Shakespeare”, Samuel Johnson has praised the bard, as above “all writers”, and, as one who “holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life” (Johnson, 1765).  Indeed, any classic work of modern literature or poetry is, but reflection of life itself.

Though, what sets the unique ones apart from others it that, they have integrated the innermost self with that of the outer world, in the most harmonious way, leaving behind, an indelible impression. As Jane Hirshfield puts it, “What a good poem hears, sees, and speaks is what can only become perceptible when inner and outer intertwine.” (Hirshfield, 1996). Her works focus on subjects like, desire and loss, impermanence and beauty, the different dimensions of human mind’s connection to others and to the creatures and objects which co-exist with human beings in this perceptible world. The objects thus perceived are in the end, seamlessly integrated within the mind, “to disappear into and become us, and so allow us also to become them—animal, vegetable, mineral, word, all thoroughly mysterious and known.” (Hirshfield, 1996) Hirshfield defines “three stances as the subjective, reflective, and objective modes”, corresponding to the immature, slightly wiser, and ripe stages of consciousness. Within these constructs, she has created classics which uncover the silent subtleties of everyday life, ranging from the metaphysical and passionate to the political and scientific.

What is power, if it is indeed, incapable of influence?

Through the constructs of Jane Hirshfield, this dissertation shall delineate the power of literature to reveal the influences of memory and the structures of history. Two contemporary works of authors Anne Michaels, and Gao Xingjian, “Fugitive Pieces”, and “Soul Mountain” respectively, are briefly discussed here, which illustrate the theory of Hirshfield that also find convergence in the thoughts of other authors like Azar Nafisi (“ Reading Lolita in Tehran”).

Anne Michaels’s “Fugitive Pieces” is the story of a young, Polish boy, Jakob Beer who loses his parents and sister to the war, to escape which he hides himself in the “bog” or mud until he is rescued by a Greek geologist, Athos. Athos then becomes his foster father who educates him and gives Jakob a second lease of life. Herein one finds how everyday moments of life, the ordinary things like his mother straightening Jakob’s jacket, sewing a button, stirring a pan in the kitchen, become powerful images that stir uninvited memories of a tragic past. To the extent that, the protagonist, they become precious little moments – moments of life to be cherished in the innermost chambers of darkness, as if throwing light on the magnitude of its deprivation.

“so close I can feel her powerful hand on my own, feel her gentle fingers on my back, so close I can smell Mrs. Alperstein’s lotion, so close I feel my father’s hand and Athos’s hand on my head and my mother’s hands pulling down my jacket to straighten me out, so close I can feel Alex’s arms reaching around me from behind” (Michaels, 1996, p 170).

“I felt this was my truth. That my life could not be stored in any language but only in silence; the moment I looked into the room and took in only what was visible, not vanished. The moment I failed to see Bella had disappeared. But I did not know how to seek by way of silence…Bella and I inches apart, the wall between us ..” (Michaels, 1996, p 111).

Here he painfully remembers the beauty of his sister Bella, and the anguish he suffers at being left behind. He wished he too were dead so that, he could raise his spirit to with that of his other dead family members. He pines their absence and almost sub-consciously lives with them always, despite realizing that through Athos’s love he has had a second stint of life. Not surprisingly, he remains faithful to Athos and his memory after the latter’s death to the extent that his wife Alex leaves him.

“On Athos’s desk the night he died: a wooden box full of Meccano, the same set of metal wheels and hinges he had as a boy. … A cup with coffee grounds trailing the last incline of the cup to his lips. In his desk, I found a packet of letters. . . . The intimacy, that death forces on us. At first I did not want to look at them. I recognized Athos’s elegant Greek script. …The silence of the empty flat pressed in on me..” (Michaels, 1996; p 115).

Here it is noteworthy, that to Jakob, whatever stories that Athos has told him has been made a part of his own personal memory too. For example, the narration of the Antarctica expedition was internalized by Jakob, and the associated objects left behind, acutely makes him aware of his absence, now. This is very similar to what Hirsfield has quoted in her works of things “disappearing into and becoming us”. The same aspect finds resonance in Nafisi’s work too, when she recounts the experiences share by “all her girls” had become a part of her personal memory too, long after she left Tehran.

Gao Xingjian’s work/novel, “Soul Mountain”, can be said as sort of traveling or wandering of the soul inhabiting in the human form. It is about a person who tries to rediscover the gift of life; almost has a re-birth after initially being sentenced to die because of lung cancer; only to be told later that it was wrong-diagnosis! Under the pretext of an intellectual, a writer, an anthropologist, wanting to study and collect folk culture, he passes on from place to place , through the deep, snow-clad, “original” forests of Tibet/China, traveling wherever fate directs him. He tries to discover some answer, some mythical place which he calls “Soul Mountain.” Actually, knowing fully well, that it doesn’t exist, other than within himself, he continues his search.

“the pulsating sounds becomes stronger, and stronger, lifts you up, pushes you towards a high  tide, a high tide of pure spirituality. Before your eyes, in your heart, in your body oblivious to time and space, in the continual surge of sustained noise, of reflected images in the dark sun within the dark moon, is a blast exploding, exploding, exploding, exploding, explo- explo- explo—explo-ding -ding -ding -ding — then again absolute silence(Xingjian, 2001; p 504).

In the above lines his search to become on with the elements of the world, of incorporating all the outside within your inner-self, to become so purely merged with the outer self that life is hardly felt.  The identity of the human body seems almost transparent, almost weightless to the external element from outside the sound; in reality we find that all this is in the protagonist’s mind and he is only with in his room. “What is essential is whether it is perceived and not whether it exists. To exist and yet not to be perceived is the same as not to exist” (Xingjian, 2001; p 481). There is almost a mystic desire to become one with nature. But as all other things in this novel, this is also short-lived.  He moves on as the typical wanderer he is. There is a deep symbolism. The river is symbolized as a woman, in her “enticing” manner; she is also abused and one finds many an episode of female sexuality assaulted, explicitly and metaphorically as in the following lines,

“feminine intelligence, feminine sensuality. Women who fall deeply in love really suffer — men want women for pleasure, husbands want their wives to manage the home and cook, and parents want the son’s wife to continue the family line. None of these, are for love” (Xingjian, 2001; p 55).

This assault of sexuality finds echo in Nafisi’s work also. At the center of the story is the reading of a book by a Russian author Nabokov, “Lolita” which was banned by the religious fundamentalist regime. A “hand-picked” set of students (including one male student, every now and then), gathered in Dr. Nafisi’s drawing room every Thursday, for a period of two years, to discuss western English Literature, some of which were banned by the Islam fundamentalists, “ Pride and Prejudice”, “Lolita” etc. A seemingly simple, harmless and ordinary act of having scholarly discussions, had become a heroic act to be shrouded in secrecy, to be shared by a private few and held precious in the hearts of those gathered. It seemed, to Dr. Nafisi, due to the very deprivation of opportunities to carry on such normal activities, the defiance to subjugation grew. Thus, while in the “Fugitive Pieces” it was the defiance of the body and the memory it held to accept deprivation of the loved ones, here in “Reading Lolita in Tehran” it is the defiance of religious fundamentalism and the repression of female sexuality it entailed. Thus the story of the books that the girls read, helped them in their own identification and analysis of their status vis-à-vis the new codes of dressing, restrictions on movement, sexual relationship etc., which until then, they had not been prepared to consider.

“This generation had no past. Their memory was of a half-articulated desire, something they had never had. It was this lack, their sense of longing for the ordinary, taken-for-granted aspects of life that gave their words, a certain luminous quality akin to poetry.”

(Nafisi,  p 76).

A string of pathos alternated by anger, defiance; the irony of cowardice and cruelty in the deception of strength, the acute sense of loss, derivation, exploitation leading to revenge  are intricately connected and hold relevance in life.

“We were all victims of the arbitrary nature of a totalitarian regime that constantly intruded into the most private corners of our lives and imposed its relentless fictions on us. .. a strange distance informed our relation to these daily experiences of brutality and humiliation. There, we spoke as if the events did not belong to us; like schizophrenic patients, we tried to keep ourselves away from that other self, at once intimate and alien.”

(Nafisi, p 74).

This string runs subtlely through all the above discussed works, uniting them as if they were gems of an elegant necklace. Literature powerfully reinforces these subtle but important balances, acknowledge the little pleasures of life, interpret them in our own personal, subjective, reflective, and objective perspectives, and help us understand that even our normal daily life, is indeed, a blessing.

Bibliography

Austin, Jane (1767), “Pride and Prejudice”, Originally Published in 1813, Modern Library Paperback Edition, (2000), Random Hous Inc, New York.

Hirshfield, Jane (1996), “Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry”,

Johnson, Samuel (1765), “Preface to Shakespeare”, (ed. Enright . D. J. & Ernst De Chickera), Oxford University Press, Delhi.

Michaels, Anne (1996 )  “ Fugitive Pieces”, Vintage Books, New York (Published date. 1998)

Nabakov, Vladamir (1955), “Lolita”, Vintage Books, New York.

Nafisi, Azar (2003), “Reading Lolita in Tehran” Random Book House, New York.

Xingjian, Gao (2001), “Soul Mountain”, Harper Collins Publishers, USA/Canada.

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