7 Apr 2009

About Immersed Attention and Revelatory Speech

The biographer of Sri Aurobindo applies contemporary standards to judge the past. Even if we grant such a stand to be valid, how can the past ever measure up to the present? But perhaps this conflict of two regimes of time has to be resolved elsewhere, particularly when the spirit’s expression comes from the timeless freedom and felicity of speech. If the whole approach is to pander to the demands of the quick audience,—and that would mean to become dishonest—then it is the case of misapplication of literary criticism to another mode of writing.

At Sri Aurobindo’s Prose Style we’ve a detailed discussion of the seven modes of his writings. There is also a comment about the maturing up of his writings with experience. But nowhere do we notice the aspect of Philip Davis’s “immersed attention” in its critical appraisal, a thing which is perfectly understandable because a spiritual person must be seen with some degree of spiritual perception, particularly a Yogi par excellence. Otherwise we simply trivialise all his work, as is done by the biographer of the Lives of Sri Aurobindo .

Let us look into it from a few points of view. Firstly, if Philip Davis is a present-day writer-critic, then we fail to understand how we can apply his criteria to what Sri Aurobindo wrote several decades ago—unless we decide to scrutinise and check the entire past from the perspective of present formulations. There is also the doubt if the theory of "immersed attention" has credibility at all in the literary circles, if it is taken seriously by the present-day authors-critics. Might be the non-cognisance of such theories of criticism by the upstarts and the tyros will not be respected by the professionals and the academics, but that could as well amount to mixing up of the issues which belong to different domains of expression—speech promoting human comprehension and speech entering into it with another power of knowledge and revelation. We cannot compare, for instance, the statement-speech of a business executive with the speech of a hero-general or that of a prophet of nationalism, of human values promoting freedom and self-determination. On the literary side, the author’s identity in the Formalistic style is generally kept aside and what counts are the contents in his writings; the intuitive-creative element is shortened or gets subdued in comparison with the discursive; here the mysterious subjectivity aspect no longer wearies the critics. But it is not necessarily or primarily the style which marks Sri Aurobindo as one coming from Cambridge, if there is the Cantabrigian stamp on it—note that Sri Aurobindo has been listed as one of the alumni of the Cambridge University. What counts is the whole approach towards things and matters; it is the approach of a well-prepared well-developed personality that must be seen. Sri Aurobindo enters into the field of life with a distinct individuality of his own, and it is that which really is important.

Surely we do understand and also somewhat admire the commitment of the academics to their line of approach, their faithfulness to the avowed profession. But that leaves a problem. How does one cognise and appreciate, in fact more than that, benefit from the style and language of a yogi who brings things from the "pure realms of gold" that are not accessible to us, the utterance of a yogi with its authority of expression, one who has the power to make things invisible visible to our developed faculty of seeing? It must be borne in mind that the dignity and profundity of certain writings have the mark of the unfading, the eternal style,—witness the Veda, the Upanishad, the Gita or for that matter King James Bible. Do we dismiss them by saying 'dated'? And then, as Sri Aurobindo had written apropos of Savitri, one has to wait for the arrival of the right type of a readership. I suppose there is also a deep connection between depth of thought and the wideness of expression. If we are not in tune with the substance, the contents, then the mould of the language looks clumsy. Intuitive writings have both together, fused in a most harmonious manner. If we have to put it differently, the problem is between spiritual writings and secular writings, they operating in different domains.

The biographer of Sri Aurobindo applies contemporary standards to judge the past. Even if we grant such a stand to be valid, how can the past ever measure up to the present? But perhaps this conflict of two regimes of time has to be resolved elsewhere, particularly when the spirit’s expression comes from the timeless freedom and felicity of speech. If the whole approach is to pander to the demands of the quick audience,—and that would mean to become dishonest—then it is the case of misapplication of literary criticism to another mode of writing.

The basic issue is perhaps connected with two modes of expression: academic-literary and spiritual-revelatory. Their styles have to be different and the criteria of one will not apply to the other. One is human potential perhaps going towards the other, the higher; the other is a possibility of expression that can enter into ours and enrich it in several ways. How does one convey this difference to the academia? Is it possible at all? If the answer is "No", then no dialogue can be held between the two. But, finally, it is not the question of convincing the one or the other; it is a question of feeling—if a piece of writing elevates our spirit, promotes our truer deeper aesthetic enjoyment, creates around us and within us an atmosphere of beauty and joy. These might be subjective criteria, but if there is the evolutionary urge to step into the supra-rational mode of living and progress, to go beyond the small and the puny and the immediate, to exceed ourselves is the greatness of the aspiring spirit and the invitation is to accept it.

On one occasion, when KD Sethna was living at the rue Frans├žois Martin, Goutam Ghosal told him that he disliked the shorter biography by Hees, especially his literary observations; he asked Sethna what he thought about it. Sethna said, and he distinctly remembers it, "I asked Peter not to comment on the literary merits or demerits of Sri Aurobindo's work... he is no expert there." Goutam Ghosal concurs fully with Sethna.

Let me add a comment apropos of this. Sethna (Amal Kiran) gave me his copy of Peter Heehs’s book Sri Aurobindo: A Brief Biography and I’m thankful to him for this. I value it very much both as a present from him and for some of the important footnotes written by him in pencil. I’ll refer to just one, pertaining to a remark by Heehs on p. 109. He says, Sri Aurobindo “found Aristotle ‘exceedingly dry’ but admires Plato, whose Symposium he used as a model for his Harmony of Virtue. Amal’s footnote has the following: “The Harmony of Virtue, though archetypally based on the Platonic system of dialogue, seems actually to be more an independent exercise in the dialogue made brilliant by Oscar Wilde. There is even a reference to Wilde in it.” But all that we can say is, wild are the ways of the author of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo!

This comment presenting Sri Aurobindo’s prose style appeared originally at the Mirror of Tomorrow. It is preceded by several other comments in the context of the article entitled This Author must have been from Cambridge.

~ RYD

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