Even Here We Are

Rabindranath Tagore and Why Art Anyway?

by Weston Cutter

Okay so the big picture of which I’m going to only focus on a very small part of is that Rabindranath Tagore, Bengali poet and songwriter and philosopher and teacher and father and Nobel Laureate (the first Indian), is about as much of a literary genius as anybody, nerdy grad students with glasses pinching off their olfactory nerves and frying their eyesight looking for that unfindable advance reader copy of The Recognitions included, could hope for. For a man who was buddies with Einstein, who was phenomenally instrumental regarding India’s future independence, who was vital in getting schools built and students inside those freshly built structures, who was as popular with tea farmers who sang songs among the fields and hills as with the Indian 1890’s-1940’s equivalent of the nerdy grad students, Tagore was also a brilliant writer of beautiful words, the most beautiful of his brilliance coming in poetry, specifically in one little perfect book called Fireflies.

He was primarily awarded the Nobel (in 1913) for a poetry collection Gitanjali, an offering that covers life and death and love and god in pretty much the same way the word water covers rain, baths, oceans and bodies—that is to say somehow both grandly mystically and perfectly Quixotically, and with a totality that certainly leads one to think of the word stuffed. He wrote big, untangleable poems that fill your entire body, mind and soul and body, even though they’re only fourteen or twenty-two lines, more or less. He wrote with an accuracy that was captivating and simultaneously with a depth that leads, similar to reading House of Leaves or G.G.Marquez, to a sort of literary bends—there’s a reentry process after reading all these words, and it’s best to watch how you breathe when you come back to this world.

This essay may seem to be starting down a familiar biographical path, I see that, and in the interests of keeping you clear of just what’s happening, here are some details that are, even as you read this, becoming important:

In The Interests of Full Disclosure Point #1: There are some really fine Tagore bios out there.

ITIoFD #1.1 (Best (and easiest to find) bio: Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man by Krishna Dutta, South Asia Books, 2000)

ITIoFD #2: I’m not a big biography guy, myself.

ITIoFD #3: You know those really beguilingly rad things you end up carrying in your life without ever being able to perfectly recall just where or from whom you picked said radnesses up? This is an essay, very happily, of the obverse of that, the beneficiaries of which have been, so far, me, my friends who I’ve given the book I’m going to talk about to, and now: you. If you want.

Sometime in 1998 I was reading Utne and found an article about this strange old dude with the white flowing robes and the long wiry beard we all imagine real wisdom to demand the wizened wear, and the caption beneath this very austere and formal portrait (the photo from 1920-something, by the way, which would make the robe-wearing-bearded man in his sixties though he looked stupendously young by any era’s standards), about how Rabindranath Tagore, sort of forgotten Indian Nobel Laureate, was enjoying a smallish comeback. (If it just about kills you, as it did me at the time, that we forget any Nobel Laureates—this is The literary prize, right? Right?!—just try and name, oh, ten. And crossed, right from the start of that list, are the well known United States ones. Go for it. Or name just one from each decade. Scary, huh?)

Okay, but so anyway, Tagore’s story really, internationally, starts with Yeats, good old Irishman doing some Indian time, wandering through the hillsides and villages and hearing, over and over again, these intoxicating songs. Finally, with whatever was the Fodor’s equivalent back then, he figured out how to ask in Bengali “Who penned these elegant songs you all sing all day long under this unbearable sun?” He was told, of course, no drum roll necessary: Rabindranath Tagore.

Who, already at that time (1912), was famous all over India for his great great songs and poems and stories. He was politically and philosophically active as well , and he painted too. And wrote plays. And was a dad. And and and. Yeats found the guy, somehow communicated with him, and went back to the stuffy old UK with some of the great, as-yet-un-internationally-known poet’s work (presumably, just imagine, in some briefcase next to some famous poems of his (Yeats’) own).

A publishing miracle of the sort still transpiring happened. Gitanjali was released. Soon thereafter an annual medal originating in Stockholm was awarded to the man who wrote the book that came out. That’s the stage.

Tagore, after the prize, kept on with his hyper-prodigious life, founding a school and writing more and more of everything—essays and poems and stories and novels and plays and songs—and traveled more, too, befriending several of the guys (it was all guys who ran the world then) we’d later admit were geniuses. He traveled and saw things, wrote dispatches to himself and his family about what he was seeing and smelling and experiencing, wrote to his recently-made genius friends about these places he was seeing, these things he was tasting and touching and hearing.

He traveled through China and Japan and, at some point during his visit in both countries, wrote a collection of little poems, though that term seems much too tidy for what he actually wrote. Tagore wrote at the beginning of the book, “Fireflies had their origin in China and Japan where thoughts were very often claimed from me in my handwriting on fans and pieces of silk.” And then, for the next 274 pages, his own translation of himself into English results is this mesmeric little book called Fireflies, a book that came out in 1928 from the Macmillan Company and which was recently released but is still as (sadly) arduous to find as, for example, Master Powers’ Three Farmers On Their Way To A Dance.

Okay, so: Fireflies. There are four roughly equal sections in the book and one or two or (rarely) three sentences per page. I can think of no more pertinent details and the verbal arm-flailing I so enjoy falling back on really can’t help with this so I’ll just shut up after saying: each sentence is a new sort of wrench to fit into your gut. Think I’m at all kidding? A completely random sampling:

“The world suffers most from the disinterested / tyranny / of its well-wisher.”

“We gain freedom when we have paid the full / price / for our right to live.”

“History slowly smothers its truth, / but hastily struggles to revive it / in the terrible penance of pain.”

“Light accepts darkness for his spouse / for the sake of creation.”

“Between the shores of Me and Thee / there is the loud and ocean, my own surging / self, / which I long to cross.”

“Mistakes live in the neighborhood of truth / and therefore delude us.”

The quick and easy reason for why I (and why you should) return over and over to Fireflies is exactly that: the book is, in terms of mental firepower necessary to plow through it, quick and easy. The sentences are short and without much in the coy way of cleverness. There’s not one moment of snarkiness, not a trace of satire or irony, nor any of the gooey dopiness you’d expect if a book were to come out today with one sentence on each of its 276 pages (Jabez, anyone? Four fucking Agreements, Mr. Ruiz, yes—you’re in our sights). And I mean come on: one or two sentences per page. I read it twice through the first hour or so I ever had the book.

Fireflies, from its exotic tug at the introduction, has the feel of fairy tale, almost, a near fable-like beauty. It, like Gatsby or something even like 1984 or Alice in Wonderland or Citizen Kane, operates simultaneously on a level that’s apprehensible to a child and elders, something easily perplexing enough to devote dissertations to. Fireflies seems perfectly infused with Tagore’s sense of wonder with the world—and remember this is the sort of wonder a Nobel Laureate finds worthy of consideration and ink at the age of 67. But the wonder and exoticism of this book are not the elements that make it so worthy of our deep love and admiration and patience and consideration right this moment.

If a (now legalized) gun were put to my head and the question “What is art” was posed as the only stopper to the forthcoming shot, I think a decent argument could be made based on the notion that art is fundamentally about connection. We read and write and paint and sing and build out of some deep, DNA-level compulsion to bridge that barbaric element of self that clings to the first person singular, that wonders while walking along sipping tea if everyone experiences the color green the same (sorry for these asides, but I end up feeling bad if I’m just blatantly lifting from someone, like right now: I’m lifting parts of this argument from a DFWallace interview on Bookworm (a program on KCRW well worth downloading whatever copies there are online)). We create because we’re alone and we want to say that—to someone.

Think about it: art that actually works and survives and matters does so through some connective power, some umbilical weave from person to person to society to nature to divine. Catcher in the Rye works its charm over and over, year after year (astounding figure: that book sells, roughly, 100,000 copies a year, still, fifty years later. I’m not kidding you in the least), because it’s one of the most profoundly respectful treatments of youthful confusion and alienation and disenchantment that’s ever been written—and the country gets pushed toward feeling more confused and alienated and disenchanted every day. Of course it’s ridiculous that a) some kid feels alone and so b) reads a book that’ll attempt to c) connect with him through d) exactly that solitude s/he felt to begin with. I know. I know.

But this isn’t about ridiculousness.

I started this essay with the hope of simply putting Rabindranath Tagore’s name in print one more place, putting one more small breath into his still quite seaworthy sails. This book will neither wash nor dry your clothes, it will not give you answers nor the riches to buy any answers that are for sale. I don’t know if I’d even say that the book will comfort: there are dark moments in here, and dark simply by virtue of the fact that Tagore writes with an understanding that life has a beginning and end and to deny either fact is to marginalize the other.

But you will find yourself connected when you read this book. Perhaps only in the dimmest of quiet ways on the skin deepest inside you, but it’ll be there, a connection that won’t let you forget: here we all are. Here’s life. Still. Over and over. All the time. Even here we are.

Copyright 2003 by Weston Cutter. All rights reserved.