The Twentieth Century—Edvard Munch, TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf, A Need for Empathy

I like to tell my students in conversations at coffee shops that the twentieth century can be best encapsulated between the Scream, that famous painting, by Edvard Munch (1863-1944) and the painful cries of Sylvia Plath. This is just a symbolic way of putting things and a century cannot be covered in an article, even if it tries to be insightful enough. You can watch a short, insightful film on Munch and The Scream here.

In fact, Munch made a series of four paintings, all depicting the scream. The agonized expression against the tumultuous orange sky in the painting says it all. There is so much of noise all around us, so much of screech, so much of what must hurt our inner beings and the natural world at large doesn’t offer us any refuge either. And in the midst of all this, our fellow beings must hurt us constantly. This is the story of the twentieth century as it appears to me.

The Scream by Edvard Munch
The Scream by Edvard Munch

The painting has been rightly called an icon of the modern age, a painting of our times. It is the long-suppressed cry that is trying to emanate from within us.

The disturbance, the stress, the anxiety, the depression of our daily lives far outweighs anything else around us.  In the words of the Norwegian painter, Edvard Munch:

For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art.

Munch also says:

Disease, insanity, and death were the angels that attended my cradle, and since then have followed me throughout my life.

In 1908, at the age of forty five, Munch was full of anxiety and he suffered a breakdown. He sought medical treatment and was able to recover. It took him eight months to fully recover. That is when his paintings became more vibrant and less pessimistic.

The Scream has been used as a symbol of facial pain and it has also been used for trigeminal neuralgia, which is known as one of the most painful conditions known to humans.

I’m not trying to connect personal, autobiographical, lived-life pain to literary or artistic manifestations of pain in any direct or simplistically vulgar way. However, the point that I am trying to reiterate is the fact that the last century has been the most troublesome for us as humans and we have been singularly unsuccessful to remedy its difficulties. The cumulative effects of the pain do linger on.

T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) had troubled personal life, which led to a personal breakdown, from which was born The Wasteland (1922), one of the engaging works of the twentieth century. Eliot became lifelong friends with the American novelist, Conrad Aiken.

Thomas Stearns Eliot
T. S. Eliot

In 1914, as a 26-year old, Eliot wrote to Aiken:

I am very dependent upon women (I mean female society).

Within four months, he was married to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a marriage that failed from the start. The couple formally separated in 1933 and Vivienne remained in a lunatic asylum, against her will, till 1947, when she died of heart disease. Maybe, Eliot was cruel to Vivienne or perhaps, he wasn’t. Vivienne’s life itself should be the subject of an enriching biography. The fact that she was kept against her will in a lunatic asylum is also very similar to the fate of Antoinette, who is later called Bertha and kept in an attic in Jean Rhys’s acclaimed novel, Wide Sargasso Sea.  The implications and the treatment of mental health are scary.

Eliot accepted in a private paper:

“I came to persuade myself that I was in love with Vivienne simply because I wanted to burn my boats and commit myself to staying in England. And she persuaded herself (also under the influence of [Ezra] Pound) that she would save the poet by keeping him in England. To her, the marriage brought no happiness. To me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land.”

However, what is important is that Eliot and Vivienne should have received counseling, true friendship and warmth. What they needed was empathy. Eliot was lucky that the personal breakdown, which he suffered, got him to write The Waste Land, but there’s no guarantee that a major literary or artistic work may emanate from such deeply life-changing circumstances.

TS Eliot signature
TS Eliot signature

The Waste Land is a complex work but it can also be termed expressionistic in nature, much as Edvard Munch’s The Scream is an expressionistic work. The structure of the poem, its jagged lines and ideas clearly point to the intense stress, the psychological derangement:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. 

———

What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London
Unreal

I have often wondered, pondered, and ruminated greatly on the intense stress, the psychological derangement, the lack of empathy which has markedly governed twentieth century lives. And I know the effects have clearly lingered on in the twenty first century as well.

Look at Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), someone who again underwent intense personal trauma and who was singularly unlucky enough not to get empathy, warmth and love in good measure.

Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf

I have often thought of Virginia Woolf as one of the most impressive women of the century, impressive in every possible way. At the age of twenty two, she suffered a major breakdown due to the death of her father. She suffered many breakdowns and depressive periods and it has been suggested by scholars that it was perhaps due to the sexual abuse that she and her sister received at the hands of their half-brothers. All her life, she was plagued by intense mood swings and associated illnesses. There is no room for pity or sympathy here, much less shaming or insulting. What is required here is boundless love, warmth and empathy. Imagine, if we experienced something similar, what we might have gone through.

Virginia Woolf last letter before suicide to her husband
Virginia Woolf last letter before suicide to her husband

We teach Virginia Woolf’s novels. For instance, we teach Mrs Dalloway and speak about the psychological scarring of Septimus Smith and the almost-lunatic obsession of Clarissa Dalloway with the perfection of partying. This is akin to writing out a summary of the novel. But what we need to be doing is to uncover the social as well as historical reasons behind such trauma.

It is my considered view that the twentieth century has dehumanized people so much that they have become singularly narrow, petty, self-seeking, hurting to other fellow beings for no rhyme, nor reason, and forget that the pain that they inflict on other fellow beings would necessarily come back to haunt them in their lives. I sincerely believe that we should be full of empathy for our fellow beings around us, even those with whom we strongly disagree or have strong personal or professional differences and at the first signal in a crisis in a fellow being around us, we must rush to their aid with all the empathy and warmth at our disposal. I have known from personal experience as a university teacher for twenty years and also as a private citizen —aged forty four today—that such selfless empathy toward our fellow beings is often misconstrued in a variety of ways. If one is lucky enough not to be imputed darker or selfish motives, one will most certainly be ridiculed as a ‘soft’ person. However, the persons who ridicule others with empathy often fail to appreciate the fact that the intense stress around us, in our times, would come back to haunt them too. I have seen it invariably with a number of people in this short life.

Even highly educated people could suffer from these qualities of pettiness too. Often at workplaces or in our neighbourhoods, we lose no opportunity to publicly shame or insult some individual who is younger than us, who is powerless than us, who cannot harm us (and who has never harmed us) to show to ourselves and – to the world around us—how strong and powerful we are. However, much as we publicly try to insult others at workplaces or neighbourhoods, what we fail to appreciate is that we are actually insulting ourselves, the fact of our being human. In the process, we constantly alienate ourselves from everyone around us, thus, making us more insecure. So, the sense of power that we exhibit over others, to put them down, actually comes back to us and leaves us much weaker.  We live in these false ivory towers, thinking that if we do insult others, we become much more powerful. But only deeply insecure people do so.

For over a hundred years, all over the world, each one of us has suffered from trauma all our lives. All we need is not to belittle it but to empathize with it. I have not said anything – nor did I intend to—speak anything from a religious or a moralizing perspective. I just had a deeply human standpoint. As Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980), one of the greatest thinkers of the century said:

Hell is—the other people.

And I would like to add, “the other people” should realize not to give “hell” to the ones around themselves. I even wanted to talk about Sylvia Plath but would do it another time.

Looking at mental health, stress, depression and the traumas we undergo, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) has a clinical approach, presupposing that the “patients” suffer from maladies and maladjustments. T. S. Eliot, in one of his plays, Cocktail Party, suggests something much more interesting for a litterateur. He talks about the need to change, correct, if not transform, the social causes that lead to such stress and trauma. I also wanted to talk about another great name of the twentieth century, whose contributions were immense: Viktor Frankl (1905-1997). But there is no hurry. There’s a lot more to be explored in other future posts as this website keeps on growing from thought to thought. Amen.

I was named after the great Rumi. I would be like a sufi, a dervish. Just smiling, in the comic mode of life, and accepting various foibles around us. Whenever I have been insulted by anyone ever, I have only found it extremely funny. I often look at the other person’s facial expressions, their eyes, the psychological reasons for their unduly unwelcoming behaviour. And I have invariably realized how utterly insecure such people are, how they suffer from tremendously low self-esteem, even while they tom-tom high esteem in public. I have only had empathy for all such people that I have ever encountered all my life. I think we must remain humans, above everything else, deeply human, because else we, too, should suffer the same risks these artistic, literary figures did and as so many others suffered too.

Most Misunderstood, Still Enduring—Samuel Taylor Coleridge

My love affair began with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” in 1992 as an MA student. In my class, there was just another friend who appreciated the poem. Our professor spoke about opium, fragments and also spoke about the river Alph, referring to the English language. In 1995, I wrote a term paper in M.Phil. on “Kubla Khan”, talking about how all this idea of opium was Coleridge’s way of pulling wool over people’s eyes. In twenty years of teaching—from an adjunct position to a full time tenure—I have never been fortunate enough to teach one of my first loves in life, “Kubla Khan”. But then, there is always peace about how systems and structures go. While talking to my students at coffee shops on campus, over the last five years or so, I sensed that not much had changed. They were still on an overdose of ‘opium’ and ‘fragment’ when I chatted about “Kubla Khan” with them.

This is not an academic paper but just to arrive at a sense of the poet. It is my belief that Coleridge was one of the most original minds among English poets and the one who was most misunderstood.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

What this “Kubla Khan” episode throughout history tells me is that if you are much ahead of your time, you are likely to face intense ridicule. Coleridge first published the poem in 1816 with a Preface, which talked about his taking laudanum, getting into ‘a sound sleep of over three hours’ and on waking up, he wrote these lines, whilst he was called away by a person. So, stood the account of the poem. The poem was also subtitled ‘Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment. ’ This immediately led to a number of attacks on the poet. The poet’s persona took over, critics talked about how the poem was written under the influence of opium and for around a century, no one really looked at the poem carefully.

It was later found out that the young Coleridge gave personal recitals of the poem and a manuscript from 1797 survives at the British Library, London. The poem, in my view, shows an exceptionally intelligent and competent, twenty-five year old, Coleridge, who is much ahead of his time and writes a poem, a masterpiece that talks about the creative process. It is also my belief that, at this young age, Coleridge was trying to develop a new romantic poetic sub-genre called ‘fragment’ and he was apprehensive about publishing the poem so early, as he feared ridicule.

“Kubla Khan”: Manuscript.
“Kubla Khan”: Manuscript.

Coleridge took a full twenty years before he published his poem and that too appending it with a poor defense. And everyone just jumped at him. William Hazlitt, a reputed critic and contemporary of Coleridge, had an unsavoury and an uncritical remark to make. In 1816, he said:

“Mr Coleridge can write better nonsense verse than any man in English”.

There were a number of negative reviews and all of them took cue from the Preface that Coleridge had appended to the poem. But in 1821, the respected Leigh Hunt did write a positive review of the poem. In January 1830, writing in Westminster Review, John Bowring had this to say about the poem:

“The tale is extraordinary, but ‘Kubla Khan’ is much more valuable on another account, which is, that of its melodious versification. It is perfect music. The effect could scarcely have been more satisfactory to the ear had every syllable been selected merely for the sake of its sound. And yet there is throughout a close correspondence between the metre, the march of the verse, and the imagery which the words describe.”

Of course, much later, in the twentieth century, there were a number of critics who did put the opium controversy at rest. One such important critic was John Livingston Lowes, who wrote a book length work, Road to Xanadu (1927), on the two poems, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan”. Also, in 1953, Elisabeth Schneider wrote glowingly of the poem:

The poem is the soul of ambivalence, oscillation’s very self; and that is probably its deepest meaning. In creating this effect, form and matter are intricately woven.

But what often beats me is the fact that, even in my time, young students have often believed that Coleridge took opium and wrote the poem as a kind of an outpouring. So, this also brings me to the role of the teacher in the classroom, the uncritical nature of the student fraternity, or to put it better still, the failure of the academia to inculcate critical modes of thinking into the minds of young students.

Here is the poem in its entirety for you:

Kubla Khan
BY SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE
Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.


One way to look at the poem is to look at Coleridge’s theories about the Secondary Imagination in The Biographia Literaria and analyze the poem in that context. I would do a fine textual analysis of the poem another time. It remains one of my favourite poems and I would certainly return to it in a later post. But I wanted to write this blog post to clarify that one should not just look at a Preface or what the author says about the text as gospel truth and relegate the text to the dustbin of history. If we do that, then as William Hazlitt, history will come to haunt us and show us as utter fools.

Sensitive Thoughts, Sensitive Words: Agha Shahid Ali

I was barely twenty four years old in 1995 and I had gone looking to meet a poet who had impressed me a lot. I went to the flat his father had. This was Zakir Bagh, right opposite Surya Hotel, New Delhi. The poet: Agha Shahid Ali. But I was unfortunate. Sometimes, we are. Shahid was in the United States. I missed him. I knew him from his poems, from what he translated, from what he wrote—words in different registers, all imbued with magic. Each word of his was drenched with sensitivity.

Agha Shahid Ali
Agha Shahid Ali

I also knew Shahid from a couple of people I knew who were so fortunate to have met him. Abir Bashir Bazaz was my student in 1995. Abir now teaches at the University of Minnesota. He had Shahid’s books endearingly autographed by the great poet.

Amitav Ghosh has written an endearing essay on Shahid and of his impending death:

Shahid had a sorcerer’s ability to transmute the mundane into the magical. Once I accompanied Iqbal, his brother, and Hena, his sister, on a trip to fetch him home from hospital. This was on May 21st: by that time he had already been through several unsuccessful operations. Now he was back in hospital to undergo a surgical procedure that was intended to relieve the pressure on his brain. His head was shaved and the shape of the tumour was visible upon his bare scalp, its edges outlined by metal sutures. When it was time to leave the ward a blue-uniformed hospital escort arrived with a wheelchair. Shahid waved him away, declaring that he was strong enough to walk out of the hospital on his own. But he was groggier than he had thought and his knees buckled after no more than a few steps. Iqbal went running off to bring back the wheelchair while the rest of us stood in the corridor, holding him upright. At that moment, leaning against the cheerless hospital wall, a kind of rapture descended on Shahid. When the hospital orderly returned with the wheelchair Shahid gave him a beaming smile and asked where he was from. Ecuador, the man said and Shahid clapped his hands gleefully together. “Spanish!” he cried, at the top of his voice. “I always wanted to learn Spanish. Just to read Lorca.”

At this the tired, slack-shouldered orderly came suddenly to life. “Lorca? Did you say Lorca?” He quoted a few lines, to Shahid’s great delight. “Ah! ‘La Cinque de la Tarde’,” Shahid cried, rolling the syllables gleefully around his tongue. “How I love those words. ‘La Cinque de la Tarde’!” That was how we made our way through the hospital’s crowded lobby: with Shahid and the orderly in the vanguard, one quoting snatches of Spanish poetry and the other breaking in from time to time with exultant cries of, ‘‘La Cinque de la Tarde, La Cinque de la Tarde…”

Only Shahid could transform the mundane into the sublime. I have always been excited by the moments of sublimity which we experience. As I read and re-read Shahid, I do get insights into the world around me, while being transported into another realm too.

My first exposure to Shahid was through his enchanting book of poems, The Half-Inch Himalayas. “Postcard from Kashmir” passed through my eyes and into my heart:

Kashmir shrinks into my mailbox,
my home a neat four by six inches.

I always loved neatness. Now I hold
the half-inch Himalayas in my hand.

But as if this wasn’t enough and yes, with Shahid, if you read as many of his poems, you would find more poems that enchanted you, that transported you into another world, that left such an imprint on you all your life. In the same book, I discovered a love that has stayed with me all these years. “Stationery”, such a short poem, the worlds so deceptively simple and yet so powerful:

The moon did not become the sun.
It just fell on the desert
in great sheets, reams
of silver handmade by you.
The night is your cottage industry now,
the day is your brisk emporium.
The world is full of paper.

Write to me.

And in his book of poems, A Nostalgist’s Map of America, there’s another beautiful love poem “A Rehearsal of Loss”.

Shahid made a number of contributions but perhaps, his greatest should be his ghazals in English. He also got a number of poets to write ghazals in English and got them into a fascinating book, Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English. He has received unmitigated praise for everything in the poetic realm. Years ago, at a Katha Workshop, Shahid had read a paper, where he spoke about the ‘biryanization of English’. In one of his ghazals, Shahid says:

The only language of loss left in the world is Arabic.
These words were said to me in a language not Arabic.

Ancestors–you’ve left me a plot in the family graveyard–
Why must I look, in your eyes, for prayers in Arabic?


From exile Mahmoud Darwish writes to the world:
You’ll all pass between the fleeting words of Arabic.
….
I too, O Amichai, saw the dresses of beautiful women
And everything else, just like you, in Death, Hebrew, and Arabic.

They ask me to tell them what Shahid means–
Listen: it means “The Beloved” in Persian, “witness” in Arabic.

Agha Shahid Ali was exceptionally proficient in the craft of poetry. He has written villanelles, sestinas and canzones, which are exceptionally tough to write. Shahid has written three canzones, more than any other poet.

Once Shahid wrote:

I wish all this had not happened. This dividing of the country, the divisions between people – Hindu, Muslim, Muslim, Hindu – you can’t imagine how much I hate it. It makes me sick. What I say is: why can’t you be happy with the cuisines and the clothes and the music and all these wonderful things?

The message that Agha Shahid Ali gives me is that of nostalgia, of love, of loss, of living with it and of celebrating one’s own self.