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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Reverence for Life

He may not be so well known today, but at one time in the not too distant past, Albert Schweitzer was one of the most famous individuals in the world and his name was practically synonymous with the word “humanitarian.” He was a German-born theologian, philosopher, physician, musician, and medical missionary in Africa, who is also remembered for his work that challenged both the secular and traditional Christian views of the historical Jesus. He received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize for the philosophy of ethics he called “reverence for life, and he was born on this day in 1875.

According to Dr. David L. Dungan, who teaches in the department of religious studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, “Schweitzer read the great Asian religious texts not as a historian only, but as one whose profound sense of the failure of Christianity led him into a genuine religious quest. In fact, the concept of “reverence for life” occurred to him at a moment when, as he later told a friend, he was meditating not upon Jesus Christ but upon the Buddha.”

Regarding Buddha, Schweitzer is rather famously quoted as saying,

He gave expression to truths of everlasting value and advanced the ethics not of India alone but of humanity. Buddha was one of the greatest ethical men of genius ever bestowed upon the world.”

Yousuf Karsh portrait of Schweitzer
Yousuf Karsh portrait of Schweitzer

When I was very young and Schweitzer was still alive, he was perhaps best known for his role as a medical missionary. But early in his life, Schweitzer enjoyed a somewhat distinguished musical career and also studied theology, planning to become a pastor. In 1905, at age thirty, he changed his mind and decided to go to Africa instead. He began to study medicine at the University of Strasbourg, and in 1913, obtained his M.D. degree. Soon afterward, he founded his hospital at Lambaréné in French Equatorial Africa. In 1917 he and his wife became prisoners of war and spent a year in a French internment camp. In 1918, Schweitzer returned to Europe where he spent the next six years, preaching, giving lectures, musical concerts, and writing essays. He did not return to Lambaréné until 1924, and except for a few short periods of time, spent the remainder of his life there. Schweitzer died in 1965.

In a 1936 article, The Ethics of Reverence for Life, Schweitzer wrote,

If I am a thinking being, I must regard other life than my own with equal reverence. For I shall know that it longs for fulness and development as deeply as I do myself. Therefore, I see that evil is what annihilates, hampers, or hinders life. And this holds good whether I regard it physically or spiritually. Goodness, by the same token, is the saving or helping of life, the enabling of whatever life I can to attain its highest development.”

The idea of “reverence for life” had occurred to Schweitzer as early as 1915. The basic thrust of his philosophy can be summed in a few words that are often used in Buddhism, “do no harm.” Schweitzer was deeply influenced by Indian philosophy and in particular the concept of ahimsa or non-violence, which he acknowledged in his book Indian Thought and Its Development. In the chapter of that book devoted to the teaching of Buddha, he demonstrates that he had grasped the spirit of Buddha’s teachings, commenting on an aspect often misunderstood:

Thus in the world and life negation to which he was devoted, the Buddha kept some measure of naturalness. This is what was great in him. Whilst he mitigated the severity of world renunciation, he made a fresh and great concession to world and life affirmation.”

Although today is the 140th anniversary of Albert Schweitzer’s birth, any day is a good day to recall the lives of those who have contributed to the greater good of humankind by demonstrating a profound reverence for life.

Learn more about Albert Schweitzer at Schweitzerfellowship.org

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Alternative Nobels and Republics with a small r.

In Monday’s post I mentioned the wonderful Malala Yousafzai who last week became the youngest person (17) ever awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, but have you heard of the “Alternative Nobel”? This is also known as the Right Livelihood Award, established by a Swedish charity and presented annually in the Swedish Parliament.

On September 24, the 2014 awardees of the Right Livelihood Award were announced and they are NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger (The Guardian is a British national daily newspaper founded in 1821).

Snowden is being recognized for “courage and skill in revealing the unprecedented extent of state surveillance violating basic democratic processes and constitutional rights” and Rusbridger for his role in “building a global media organisation dedicated to responsible journalism in the public interest, undaunted by the challenges of exposing corporate and government malpractices.”

Earlier in September, the 1995 recipient of this award, Buddhist activist and social critic Sulak Sivaraksa spoke at the University of Wisconsin in commemoration of 9/11. The eighty-one year old delivered what was described as a “fiery lecture.” He cited the need to create new economic systems as a path to peace, and discussed the individualism of Western economic systems in contradistinction to the more collective Buddhist philosophy:

The capitalist myth of individual emancipation is not equal to the we. The community is made of the individual and the people around the person. Only through realizing the suffering of others can peace arrive . . .”

According to The Progressive, he also expressed his hope that young Americans will less hesitant to question the lifestyles of their elders than past generations:

Young people will save the world from the American empire and make it into an American republic with a small r.”

I must admit that I am not wild about first part of that sentence.  “Empire” sounds so evil, but I suppose someone needs to be saved from us, probably us most of all. That aside, I very much like the idea of a republic with a “small r.”

Sulak Sivaraksa likes small letters. So do I. Lower case is cool.* I have written about Sivaraksa several times. Included in those posts are his thoughts about Buddhism with a small b. He says,

Buddhism with a small “b” means concentrating on the message of the Buddha and paying less attention to myth, culture, and ceremony.

I think having a small “r” republic is much the same thing.  The question, however, is what is meant by message. Many people seem to think that Republic means patriotism, flag-waving, parade-holding, adopting a sort of us or them mentality, nationalism.  All that is message, all right, but it is usually of little real substance.  What I think Sivaraksa means is something less symbolic and more significant, more liberating.  In a republic with a small “r” patriotism is not as important as people and upholding the principle that the supreme power rests with the people and that all people in the republic are equal.

The people in Sivaraksa’s country of Thailand do not have much power at the present time.  It is a country going through a great deal of unrest. The current issue of National Geographic has an article from New York Times ‘ Asia correspondent Seth Mydans that explores the roots of the situation, “Thailand in Crisis.” Accompanying the article are photographs by James Nachtwey and I thought there was one in particular you might enjoy seeing:

13-robot-aide-buddhist-monk-670The caption reads, “Icons of different eras meet as Dinsow, a robotic home health aide, attends to a Buddhist monk. Not all changes sweeping Thailand are so benign.”

* Re: small letters – see this

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