Tagore’s Nobel and the Notes of Forever

This year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Bob Dylan, is not the first lyricist to receive the award.  In 1913, it was given to Bengali poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, who also became the first non-European awarded a Nobel.

Some of you may be aware that the title of this blog, The Endless Further, is borrowed from Tagore (see About).

rtagore3According to the Nobel website, Tagore received the prize “because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West”.

Wikipedia tells us that “the Swedish Academy appreciated the idealistic—and for Westerners—accessible nature of a small body of his translated material focused on the 1912 Gitanjali: Song Offerings.”

I’ve published a number of posts on Tagore so I won’t go into details on the man’s life.  For that, you can read the previous posts or visit the Wikipedia link above.

I will tell you that Tagore remains a towering figure in Indian literature, but today in the West he is largely forgotten and his poetry unknown.  Tagore’s poems are songs, chants.  In English, they become prose poems.  His work is lyrical, moving, graceful, and subtle in self-knowledge.  He composed hymns both sad and joyous, universal songs that touch on an experience ultimately personal.  With his meditative rhythm and evocative lyrics, Tagore gave the world something more than poetry or literature.  They touch our heart, inspirit our mind, cause us to cry or shudder or want to float up and dance among the stars.

The songs of Gitanjali (which literally means “an offering of songs”) are love songs; love for something divine, love between human beings, and love of life itself.  Like Whitman, Tagore did not shy away from the sensual.  He made the sensual beautiful.

In his introduction to the 1913 edition of Gitanjali, W.B. Yeats wrote that “Mr. Tagore, like the Indian civilization itself, has been content to discover the soul and surrender himself to its spontaneity.”

Here, then, are two poems from Gitanjali:

C

I dive down into the depth of the ocean of forms, hoping to gain the perfect pearl of the formless.

No more sailing from harbour to harbour with this my weather-beaten boat. The days are long passed when my sport was to be tossed on waves.

And now I am eager to die into the deathless.

Into the audience hall by the fathomless abyss where swells up the music of toneless strings I shall take this harp of my life.

I shall tune it to the notes of forever, and when it has sobbed out its last utterance, lay down my silent harp at the feet of the silent.

CI

Ever in my life have I sought thee with my songs. It was they who led me from door to door, and with them have I felt about me, searching and touching my world.

It was my songs that taught me all the lessons I ever learnt; they showed me secret paths, they brought before my sight many a star on the horizon of my heart.

They guided me all the day long to the mysteries of the country of pleasure and pain, and, at last, to what palace gate have the brought me in the evening at the end of my journey?

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Poets to Come or Stuck Inside of Vegas with the Nobel Blues Again

Bob Dylan getting this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature has been a hot topic on the internet and this week I’ve seen more than the usual number of Whitman comparisons reeling in the air.

A critic for the NY Times opined that “Mr. Dylan is among the most authentic voices America has produced, a maker of images as audacious and resonant as anything in Walt Whitman . . .” From the Desert Trip stage, Mick Jagger said, “I want to thank Bob Dylan for an amazing set.  We have never shared the stage with a Nobel Prize winner before.  Bob is like our own Walt Whitman.”  One guy even had the audacity to write “Bob Dylan has surpassed Walt Whitman as the defining American artist, celebrating the capacity for self-invention as the highest form of freedom.”

whitman-dylan2c Bob has put his changeling persona to good use, but the reason he has been given the prize is, according to the Nobel committee, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”  Just as Whitman did with the American poetry tradition in the 19th century.

Comparisons are odious is an old expression dating from the 15th century, and it’s true that usually it is unhelpful and unfair to compare two different things or persons.  Nonetheless there are some interesting similarities between Mr. W and Mr. D.

Iconoclasts, controversial.  Their writings celebrate freedom and individuality.  There is some mysticism in common and shared themes of war, death and democracy.  And the stand on public nudity: “Nakedness in Nature!  There come moods when these clothes of ours are not only too irksome to wear, but are themselves indecent,” Whitman proclaimed (A Sun-bathed Nakedness), while Dylan has murmured, “I run naked when I can” (11 Outlined Epitaphs).

One difference between them, is that unlike Bob, I’m pretty sure Walt Whitman did not receive any awards in his lifetime.  When Leaves of Grass was first published in 1855, it was labeled “obscene” and literally banned in Boston.  Whitman was not a rich man either, for he died in what we call today relative poverty.

Dogging the announcement of Bob’s prize has been the question of whether or not he deserves it, do his lyrics qualify as literature.  I think that can be answered with another question: If the Nobel Prize had existed during Whitman’s time, would Whitman be deserving of it?

By the way, Bob has not commented publicly about winning the prize (evidently, he has not even returned the Nobel committee’s calls).  He’s currently on the road.  The same night as the announcement, he and his band performed in Las Vegas where he played guitar for the first time in four years (on Simple Twist of Fate), and of course, he played at Desert Trip on Friday.

I know Bob admires Walt Whitman and thinks of him as an influence, and I can’t help but wonder what Whitman would think of Dylan’s writing.  Would he consider it poetry, literature?  I think he would.  But that’s just my opinion.

In the poem below, Whitman speaks to the future, and he speaks of his identity and role as an artist, and who knows, perhaps in an moment of mystical prescience, he is also describing a poet to come, a poet who has written surreal, complex, and sometimes beautiful and tender songs from Desolation Row, and has explained them away saying, “It’s all math . . . There’s a definite number of Colt .45s that make up Marlene Dietrich, and you can find that out if you want to.”

Poets to Come

POETS to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!    
Not to-day is to justify me, and answer what I am for;    
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known,    
Arouse! Arouse—for you must justify me—you must answer.    
 
I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,             
I but advance a moment, only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.    
 
I am a man who, sauntering along, without fully stopping, turns a casual look upon you, and then averts his face,    
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,    
Expecting the main things from you.

– Walt Whitman

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Mentioned By Name

It has been exactly 156 days since I last mentioned Bob Dylan on this blog. By mentioning him today, I have corrected that horrible omission. I had to do it, it was haunting me.

But don’t ask me what I think about his latest album of “standards,” Shadows in the Night, because I really don’t know how I feel about it. Mixed feelings, says it best . . . and with that, ’nuff said about it.

In a Bob Dylan related mention, today is 105th birthday of Howlin’ Wolf (1910-1976) born Chester Arthur Burnett, who was the great Chicago blues singer, guitarist and harmonica player from White Station Mississippi. One of the true giants and pioneers of blues music. Lord knows Bob stole a lot from was heavily influenced by the man. Howlin’ Wolf’s drummer, Sam Lay, even played on Bob’s Highway 61 Revisited.

I’d also like to mention something that is totally unrelated to Bob Dylan or Howlin’ Wolf: today is the 125th anniversary of the birth of Sessue Hayakawa (1889-1973). If you recognize that name at all, it is probably from the film Bridge on River Kwai (1957), in which he played the commandant of the prison camp, Colonel Saito. That performance earned him a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Early Hayakawa and as Col. Saito
Early Hayakawa and as Col. Saito

Hayakawa was a prolific actor, appearing in over 100 films, many of them silent, many of them Japanese productions. No doubt you have seen him in his other English language movies, such as Swiss Family Robinson, Tokyo Joe, The Geisha Boy, House of Bamboo, and Hell to Eternity.

Several years ago, when Turner Classic Movies had a month long Asian film festival, I watched some of his early work, including a couple of silents. According to Stephen Gong, Executive Director of the Center for Asian American Media, “Hayakawa’s acting inspiration, his unique approach, which he attributed to Zen Buddhism, brought to the silent screen an acting style characterized by intuition, naturalness and the eradication of conscious effort. In Zen this is termed the state of muga—an absence of self-awareness. Contemporary critics hailed it as a “repressed” method of acting (and as such suitably ‘Oriental’).”

IMBD says, “The popularity of Hayakawa rivaled that of Caucausian male movie stars in the decade of the 1910s, and he became one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood.”

zen-hayakawaHayakawa was also a producer, author, martial artist and ordained Zen priest. He lived much of his life in Los Angeles, but after his wife, Tsuru Aoki, died in 1961, he went back to Japan, and wrote his autobiography Zen Showed Me the Way: To Peace, Happiness and Tranquility, and that’s when he became a Zen priest.

I tried to find his book on the Internet so that I could share a pithy or inspiring quote from it with you. The only thing I found (besides a pic of the cover) was this: “All my life has been a journey. But my journey differs from the journeys of most men.”

Well, everyone’s life is a journey and each journey is different, unique to each individual. So here’s something truly profound from that great WWII film Bridge on River Kwai directed by David Lean and in addition to Hayakawa staring William Holden, Alec Guinness, and Jack Hawkins. In the movie, Colonel Saito forces the British POWs to construct a railway bridge for the Japanese to use. At one point, the Colonel tells the prisoners “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.”

Today’s post has been a bit of play, but I hope also informative. Another piece of information: You’ve probably heard the words spoken by Colonel Saito many times before. It’s an old proverb that first appeared in James Howell’s Proverbs in English, Italian, French and Spanish way back in 1659.

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Watch the Pawking Metaws

At a recent conference in India, the Dalai Lama said, “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parkin’ meters.”

leaders3bNo, wait. Bob Dylan said that, or wrote it rather, in Subterranean Homesick Blues. But what the Dalai Lama did say at the International Conference on Secular Ethics in Nashik, India on Saturday was very similar. According to reports he urged those attending the conference, not to follow any religious leader blindly. “Question,” he said,

Buddha said investigate a thought thoroughly. Study the qualifications of a guru or a leader, meet them, observe till you develop a conviction that what the leader says can be followed.

Know the qualities of a disciple, and as a disciple conduct unbiased investigation; use your intellect and develop enthusiasm to practice what you have accepted and believed. This is the Nalanda tradition and time has come to follow it.”

This is consistent with what the Dalai Lama has been advising for a long time. In my transcript of his teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland at UCLA in 1997, he told students that when choosing a teacher you should “sniff around so that you can see from both the front and the back,” adding

Then the question is how do we determine what is being taught by a particular teacher is valid of not? And you can only do so by comparing it and relating it to your own understanding of the overview of Buddhist teachings.

It is vitally important for the practitioner to always examine whether what is being taught really accords with the cardinal line set in the basic teachings of Buddhism. If it does not accord with that cardinal line, then it is something to be rejected. This is always the bottom line to be constantly checked against the fundamental tenets of Buddhism.”

Seems like a common sense approach, and yet many people in this world routinely follow leaders blindly. They do and think what they are told without question, without reason, without using any sense at all. I know something about this. I was in a Buddhist organization where unwavering allegiance to and near fanatical devotion for the fearless leader, the President of the organization, was expected on the part of all followers. To question the President’s words or actions was, in my experience, to invite questions about your motives and provoke doubts about your understanding of Buddhism and the quality of your practice.

Once when I did question, I was told by a higher up that I should regard myself as a “disciple of a master, a cub of a lion.” Often the President referred to himself “our father.” But I already have a father.  That wasn’t what I was looking for. To be fair, this organization was attached to a Buddhist sect that maintained that if a person even though the High Priest (of the sect) “is capable of making an error, that person is committing heresy.”

One of the aims of Buddhist practice is the death of the ego, but not in the degree that one becomes so depersonalized, they will give themselves over to a spiritual leader or authority figure and cease thinking for themselves. That stems from looking for something or someone outside our own lives as a source for happiness or enlightenment.

Actually, it is good to have leaders and to follow them, however, in doing so we need to exercise critical judgment, as we have already noted. Good leaders are to be valued highly, for leadership is a crucial function in our society; only we should not put them on too high a pedestal. Now, although we are primarily discussing spiritual leadership here, I feel the guiding principles for all leaders are essentially the same.

Some years ago, I shared some guidelines for leaders taken from the Tao Te Ching and perhaps it would be useful, and of interest, to repost:

Lao Tzu’s Principles for Leadership

The best leaders are those whose presence is barely known by others.

Leaders value their words highly and use them sparingly.

Because a leader has faith in others, then others have faith in his or her leadership.

When a leader’s work is done, others will say: we did it ourselves.

Govern a great nation as you would cook a small fish. Do not overdo it.

To lead people, walk beside them.

Love people and lead without cunning or manipulation.

The ancient leaders who followed the Tao did not give people elaborate strategies, but held to a simple practice. It is hard to lead while trying to be clever. Too much cleverness undermines the people’s harmony. Those who lead without such strategies bring benefit to all.

By being lower, rivers and seas are able to receive the homage and tribute of all the valley streams, thus they rule over them all. Therefore, it is a wise leader, wishing to be above the people, who by his words puts himself below them, and, wishing to be before them, follows them.

Leaders go first by putting themselves last. It is from their selflessness that they are able to fulfill themselves.

It is good to empower people, so that no one is wasted.

The best leaders are effective because they do not try to seize power. They are effective because they are not conceited, proud or arrogant.

And, don’t forget: watch the pawking metaws.

The video from D.A. Pennebaker’s 1965 Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back. That’s poet Allen Ginsberg in the background chatting animatedly with Dylan road manager Bob Neuwirth.

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Einstein and the Mysterians

Today is the 135th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s birth. He is, as they like to say in show business, a man who needs no introduction. It’s thought that Einstein was generally sympathetic to Buddhism, and you may be familiar with this popular quote attributed to him:

Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: It transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural and the spiritual, and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity.  If there is any religion that could respond to the needs of modern science, it would be Buddhism.”

However, as far as I know, these words cannot be traced to a legitimate source, suggesting that it is probably not a genuine Einstein quote.

There are conflicting views about Einstein’s position on religion and spirituality. For instance, another quote attributed to him, “God does not play dice with the universe,” is used to bolster the notion that Einstein believed in a personal God, or at the very least a creator god. Yet, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Atheists like to claim him as one of them, but he quite often described himself as agnostic. On one occasion, he said he was a believer in “Spinoza’s God.” Spinoza maintained that God is the only substance of the universe: God is the universe, is nature, is everything.  But I feel Einstein thought of God as a metaphor, and perhaps Spinoza did as well, I am not an expert in his philosophy.

In a speech he gave in Berlin during the 1920’s, Einstein said,

The most beautiful and deepest that man can experience is the feeling of the mysterious. It is the foundation of religion as well as of all deeper striving of art and science.

Who never experienced that seems to me if not a dead person but then a blind person.

To feel that behind the experience of things there is something hidden and unreachable for our spirit, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirect and as a weak reflection, that is religiousness.

In this sense, I am religious. It is sufficient for me to have a presentiment in amazement of these mysteries, and to try with humility to comprehend intellectually a weak reflection of this sublime structure of being.”

It does seem that late in life, according to a recently discovered 1954 letter, Einstein had concluded that God was an expression of human weakness and that religion was childish.

Now, when I think of Albert Einstein these subjects do not usually come to mind, but rather his theory of relativity (e=mc2), and of course, Bob Dylan’s take on the great physicist in “Desolation Row”:

Einstein on Desolation RowEinstein, disguised as Robin Hood
With his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago
With his friend, a jealous monk
He looked so immaculately frightful
As he bummed a cigarette
Then he went off sniffing drainpipes
And reciting the alphabet
Now you would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row

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