Listening to these lectures on critical theory and reasoning by Marianne Talbot has been so much more enjoyable and enlightening than any of the standard textbooks on the subject that I have read.
The site contains the podcasts of a number of other lecture series by Professor Talbot including philosophy for beginners, formal logic, causation, and ethics. I have only gone through the critical theory lectures so far, and recommend it to anyone who wishes to get a clear understanding of the basics of the subject. I wish someone had pointed me to this page much earlier.
Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. I repeat this to myself whenever I fall sick. Which is worse, a physical malady like a painfully sore throat or a bout of food poisoning that renders one unable to speak and function normally, or the darkness that descends upon the mind and shuts everything else out, rendering it cold and numb? It is easy to say that physical illness is easier to manage compared to clinical depression but when I fall sick, I find that unpleasant, long-forgotten memories tend to return to the mind, which then makes it susceptible once again to the chilling darkness. Somewhat like the sentiments that Rupert Brooke expresses in this poem on seasickness.
The damned ship lurched and slithered. Quiet and quick
My cold gorge rose; the long sea rolled; I knew
I must think hard of something, or be sick;
And could think hard of only one thing—you!
You, you alone could hold my fancy ever!
And with you memories come, sharp pain, and dole.
Now there’s a choice—heartache or tortured liver!
A sea-sick body, or a you-sick soul!
Do I forget you? Retchings twist and tie me,
Old meat, good meals, brown gobbets, up I throw.
Do I remember? Acrid return and slimy,
The sobs and slobber of a last years woe.
And still the sick ship rolls. ’Tis hard, I tell ye,
To choose ’twixt love and nausea, heart and belly.
Rupert Brooke, A Channel Passage
Out of the many ways to heal, literature is the best of all, perhaps; to write, and to read good fiction.
I was talking to an elderly lady whose late father had been an officer in the British Raj. In his library, she had come across a book about a certain Indian politician of the past century. She spoke highly of this man and assumed that he was still regarded as someone on a pedestal in India. Now I had grown up listening to several school speeches on his many virtues. The teachers composed and sang songs about his greatness. As idealistic undergraduates, we had once celebrated his birthday in the hostel. Roads around the country are named after him. My great-uncles named their houses after him. I had been repulsed reading the vitriol spewed on him by a foul-mouthed leftist poet who sang the praises of his contemporary leftist politician in the same breath. Then I had chanced upon the truth about both of these politicians who had been hailed as leaders in their time and wasn’t sure who was the worse of the two.
Naturally I did not mention any of this to the lady. I merely said that notwithstanding the ideals that fake historians had attached to his name and his many statues, everyone now knew who and what he really was and the chap who once had something of a halo about the very mention of his name, had very few fans left in the country. At which she looked nonplussed.
Reminded me of a poet who had been one of my heroes in a past life. I never cared much for his pedestrian prose, but his poetry had once connected to me like nothing else had. Through the influence of my Professors and classmates, I had come to see this poetry too for what it was. A few years ago, I used to attend literary festivals across the country just to hear him speak, though I stopped after the third one, having found that his interviews focused more on personal anecdotes rather than literary discussion, besides being tediously repetitive. Recently I was sitting in a pub with friends and someone mentioned that this poet was speaking at a venue a few hundred metres away. It didn’t seem relevant anymore, after being exposed to the work of a hundred other writers, better and greater than him.
It appears that there can be no heroes in the age of the internet.
Recently I found myself explaining the meaning of the word crore (Indian term for ten million) more than once in course of conversation, which reminded me of a classic Tamil poem from primary-school days, by the poet Avvaiyar whose quote:
‘What we have learned is as much a handful of earth
What we are yet to learn is as much the entire world‘
is exhibited at NASA.
Avvaiyar was an enigmatic poet who is said to have lived a thousand, two thousand, or three thousand years ago, no one knows for sure. Very little is known about her, including her real name. Like the name Lao-Tse (who is alleged to be an ancient Tamil mystic) implies ‘Old Master’, Avvai is a generic term for a woman with the suffix ‘yar’ indicating respect. She is believed to have been a wandering minstrel who travelled by foot through the realms of Tamil Kings of yore and blessed, praised, counselled, and even saved them through her poetry. What has survived of Avvaiyar over the millennia is her poetry, among the most famous of it being a set of alphabetical aphorisms for young children that impart moral lessons through terse phrases. And some interesting stories about her trysts with the Kings of the age, fellow poets and citizens, all of whom celebrated her erudition and wisdom.
One of these stories is about a competition in which all the poets of the land were called forth to submit four crores of poems. As an impoverished poet who was desperate to win the prize struggled to write as many poems, it is said that Avvaiyar composed these stanzas in a few moments and gave it to him. I have attempted to translate from the Tamil, but the beauty of the original verse is elusive to translate, as is the rhythm of the words and the way they blend together to create meaning at multiple levels.
Them who do not respect you –
To never set your foot
upon their threshold
Now that is worth a crore
Those who do not urge you
to dine beneath their roof –
To avoid eating at their home
Now that is worth a crore
To expend a crore, and more
to be in the company of
those who are noble-born
Now that is worth a crore
Even when offered crores,
To sway from the truth –
To stand firm by your word
Now that is worth a crore
Avvaiyar (Ancient Tamil Poet)
Metapoems are almost as alluring as metafiction. Perhaps even more, considering that poetry is said to be the purest of all art-forms.
“I think you exist only
To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you aren’t there
Or have adopted a different attitude. And the poem
Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.”
John Ashbery, Paradoxes and Oxymorons
“Bloody men are like bloody buses —
You wait for about a year
And as soon as one approaches your stop
Two or three others appear.”
― Wendy Cope, Serious Concerns
The world needs more poets like Wendy Cope. While I am all for the avant-garde experimentalists who write in obscure paragraphs of footnotes reflecting morosely on the ideas that weigh down their verse, many of my favourite poets tend to rhyme, at least most of the time. But I love reading Wendy Cope more for the humour that bubbles above her rhymes, that often masks sad and wise observations on life.
This link came up in my twitter feed in honour of her birthday:
One of the many joys of being single is the ability to empathise with and laugh at her poems on the single life like A Christmas Poem. The brisk, dismissive tone is both funny and poignant, far more than the sentimentality in Flowers or The Orange. And yet, the ‘head does its best but the heart is the boss’, says Cope (Waterloo Bridge).
“Someone to stay home with was all my desire
And, now that I’ve found a safe mooring,
I’ve just one ambition in life: I aspire
To go on and on being boring.”
― Wendy Cope, Being Boring
Her poems are anything but.
More than once I have tried to record the sounds of birds singing on a spring dawn. Most often I have tried this while sitting in a tiny college room behind my beloved Banbury road. But each time, the recording comes out as but a frail echo of the original sounds, reiterating yet again that something as pure as birdsong can only be experienced in the moment.
In the spring I had the pleasure of listening to Liz Berry reading her poems in the characteristic Black Country accent. It was as soothing as listening to birdsong on an early spring morning. Poetry that touches the audience’s heart and connects them with the pure and pristine part of their minds, which is the pinnacle of all great art.
This poem that popped into my mailbox today suited the season (late summer – early autumn) and the weather.
If space and time, as sages say,
Are things which cannot be,
The fly that lives a single day
Has lived as long as we.
But let us live while yet we may,
While love and life are free,
For time is time, and runs away,
Though sages disagree.
The flowers I sent thee when the dew
Was trembling on the vine,
Were withered ere the wild bee flew
To suck the eglantine.
But let us haste to pluck anew
Nor mourn to see them pine,
And though the flowers of love be few
Yet let them be divine.
My night shall be remembered for a star
That outshone all the suns of all men’s days
Last weekend I went to Cambridge again and remembered two writers associated with the place who are very close to my heart. Samuel Butler whose novel The Way of all Flesh soothed my soul like nothing else could when I first read it. And Rupert Brooke, my forever crush and the love of my life.
I dreaded turning twenty-eight because I never wanted to be older than Rupert who was lucky in a way to have died young and thus remained forever twenty-seven – his poetry was one of the things that kept me alive during the years of depression. I am not sure anymore if I want to visit his grave at Skyros as I had planned to, once – I would rather remember him as a young man full of life, sitting on the grass beside Byron’s pool, throwing his head back and laughing, reading and writing in the shade of the Old Vicarage. Why did I write ‘remember him’ when I ought to have, when I meant to have written ‘imagined him’? Because Rupert comes across as more alive, more full of life than most people I see around me.
In The Way of All Flesh, young Ernest Pontifex reflects gloomily about death – he hates his overbearing family and equally dreads encountering his unpleasant grandparents in the afterlife. But methinks even the afterlife would be a delightful place if one could see Rupert there with a song on his lips and a twinkle in his spring-blue eyes, tossing his ‘brown delightful head / Amusedly, among the ancient Dead.’
Thank God for immortal poets.
Oh! Death will find me, long before I tire
Of watching you; and swing me suddenly
Into the shade and loneliness and mire
Of the last land! There, waiting patiently,
One day, I think, I’ll feel a cool wind blowing,
See a slow light across the Stygian tide,
And hear the Dead about me stir, unknowing,
And tremble. And I shall know that you have died,
And watch you, a broad-browed and smiling dream,
Pass, light as ever, through the lightless host,
Quietly ponder, start, and sway, and gleam —
Most individual and bewildering ghost! —
And turn, and toss your brown delightful head
Amusedly, among the ancient Dead.
Though the ancient sage Ved Vyas was a virtuoso scholar who compiled the Vedas and who is supposed to have written a number of treatises on philosophy among other things, I like to think of him above all as the world’s first writer of metafiction. In the epic Mahabharata, Vyasa not only narrates the story of himself narrating the story to his divine scribe but also steps in and out of the narrative to advise his characters and even procreates some of them. This labyrinth of stories within stories within stories, the longest epic recorded in the history of humankind, is surely the epitome of metafiction.
Salutations to Vyasa on his birthday which is celebrated by students across India as a day of honouring their Gurus.
A Guru is much more than a mere tutor or instructor. The Sanskrit word Guru means one who dispels the darkness of ignorance. A Guru is one who shows the student the path to know themselves.
While I have been privileged to study from a number of excellent tutors, I have been blessed to learn from as many Gurus including venerable Professors and authors who illuminated my life from the pages of their books, starting from Vyasa to the Bard, the Poet, Nabokov, Barnes, Spark, Salinger, Coover, Barthelme, Gass, Scholes, Waugh… My Pranams to all of them.