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.

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.