This column is called Literature DIY for a reason, it suggests that teaching oneself for a lifetime is the best method of learning and excelling at the lonely art of reading, thinking or analyzing or writing, where there seem to be no rules.
“Cannon to left of them,
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d”
Tennyson, Charge of the Light Brigade
“D. The Chaotic Age: A Canonical Prophecy
I am not as confident about this list as the first three. Cultural prophecy is always a mug’s game. Not all of the works here can prove to be canonical; literary overpopulation is a hazard to many among them. But I have neither excluded nor included on the basis of cultural politics of any kind.”
(Harold Bloom, Western Canon, p. 548)
“India (in English)
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Heat and Dust”
(Bloom, Western Canon)
With these three quotes, I want to start out on my new column that will hopefully become a rival to what Wordsworth or Coleridge or Eliot was writing long ago, in some strange sense, if I manage to dig deep enough. As this is the first one in the series, it will be a long one and become a classic but bear with me about its length. I have come across two Indian groups on Facebook that have the spirit of Bloom, that believe in the idea of canonical literature and make canons for the present time in a loose manner and fashion, thereby revelling in an amusing- to- me feeling of elitism. They do this both knowingly and unknowingly, but it is amusing because they also try to wedge themselves into the canon not knowing that canon makers, in both senses of the word, are seldom the ones who are good enough to be considered part of the canon later.
The idea of ‘canon’ is not just Western but scriptural, based on how a race or religion chooses certain books as being divinely inspired and rejects others as not pure enough or worthy enough to form its authoritative texts or grand narrative on the Transcendent Signifier. Thus we have Jewish Scripture, the New Testament, the nine Gurus and the Guru Granth and even the Hindu Scriptures, the Dhammapada and the Koran all decided canonically, as the Nicene council did for Christians or Time did for Hindus etc.
How this idea became important for literature is itself a gradual process. This includes seminal figures like Thomas Arnold who spoke of ‘cultural’ education, and earlier attempts of a group of scholars authorized by King James to translate the Bible satisfactorily into English, taking into consideration the desire to leave behind not just its scriptural equivalent, but also its literary merit. The positive aspect was the highlighting of Shakespeare along with this, and the negative aspect was the colonial dumping on Indians and others of many mediocre texts, along with a few that were really worth reading in the form of education that was part of the “white man’s burden” to civilize ‘us.’ What was lost to us in this ruthless dumping was many of our own texts which were without doubt as valuable or more so than what was gained. The end result can be seen even in the so-called Yale deconstructionist Bloom’s list that includes only Narayan, Rushdie and Ruth Prawer Jhabwalla from the twentieth century as being part of his international canon, Jew that he is by default, the pale shadow of which is the silly aping of this in many of the literary groups in India. These groups look upon America and the West, or in other words, UK or other English-speaking places as centres and also to other centres that have become feeble, enervated, corrupt and degenerate like the Sahitya Akademis and National Book Trust and so on, to dictate to them/us what literature is or what it isn’t.
At the layman’s level, the subculture of Facebook once gave me a list of books which I was supposed to have read, to state as to whether I had or not, which I did dutifully, again rather astounded by the absence of challenge in it. The list catered to the idea of success which is itself actually created by many factors and not just aesthetics, whereas my own approach was totally bizarre, new, that of the autodidact, that of one who had come to joust with traditions and lists, I being one who had come from nowhere, especially not from the hallowed precincts of Cambridge or Oxford, or from those of any Ivy League institution including Yale, or the big universities of India, but from a place no one had heard of much, (being a nobody, going nowhere in particular, with no ‘great’ aim or goal or purpose in life except to love Art for Its own Sake,) except perhaps for a bilingual poet whom many make much of these days, namely K.S. Satchidanandan. The place, Thiruvananthapuram, is also connected, incidentally, to Madhavikutty(Kamala Das/Suraiyya) and Shashi Tharoor now.
And my measuring rod was not success or popularity or where a writer came from or whether he was lauded or not, or who s/he was published by, but it was a cross between formalism, structuralism, post- structuralism, deconstruction, modernism and post-modernism, not to mention my desire that art should be psychological and psychoanalytical, philosophical, political, sociological, economically incisive, advanced, progressive, futuristic, culturally valid, post-colonial, aesthetic, ontological etc. Added to this was my dream of ‘poesie/poesy’ in which a poet had to be a master. Also, to complete my potent brew of disregard for all that others were talking of was my desire to step out of all the accepted and validated circles of today, whether in the groves of academe or of art and literature in the search of authentic voices that wrote what I could recognize as voices that would be part of the significant discourses of today and tomorrow.
In this search I came across the works of, for example, a Reena Prasad. I came across the works of an Atindriyo Chakraborty, I came across the works of a Naseer Ahmed Nasir (in Dr Bina Biswas’s translation) and looking backwards, that of a more well-known Michael Madhusudhan Dutt (trans. by Dr Bina Biswas & Dr Sayantan Gupta and in the process of being published). I came across my own critical skills again that I had honed to a diabolically sharp edge by doing research on none other than the elusive Samuel Beckett and in doing both: trying to write a poetry of lasting value or creating a literature of lasting value and reading only the best, I decided that I had to break through the hustings not to declare that the idols had clay feet, which is immaterial to me as coteries will always go on with their empty praise of those they want to make great or those who stand out amongst themselves, but to bring back the understanding about good or great writing (I no longer use the term literature), of what exactly it consisted or should consist of, and that wherever its spirit appears it should be celebrated.
This column is called Literature DIY for a reason. It suggests that teaching oneself for a lifetime is the best method of learning and excelling at the lonely art of reading, thinking or analysing or writing, where there seem to be no rules. Yet we recognise the golden flashes in the pan when they appear sooner or later as we have no choice but to. In that spirit, I have named boldly some names here, more than Bloom did, and to make this fun each person should make their own list of contemporary writers they think may be worth ‘canonizing.’ It should volley and thunder, to make use of my beginning pun.
Who would I start by quoting?
Strangely enough, two poets who are both Marathi, one in translation and one not.
If I have to canonize let me only choose the best, as anything else would be a disservice to the art I serve passionately to the point where it is a matter of life or death to me.
- “An Old Woman” – Poem by Arun Kolatkar from the collection Jejuri.(1976)
An old woman grabs
hold of your sleeve
and tags along.
She wants a ﬁfty paise coin.
She says she will take you
to the horseshoe shrine.
You’ve seen it already.
She hobbles along anyway
and tightens her grip on your shirt.
She won’t let you go.
You know how old women are.
They stick to you like a burr.
You turn around and face her
with an air of ﬁnality.
You want to end the farce.
When you hear her say,
‘What else can an old woman do
on hills as wretched as these?’
You look right at the sky.
Clear through the bullet holes
she has for her eyes.
And as you look on
the cracks that begin around her eyes
spread beyond her skin.
And the hills crack.
And the temples crack.
And the sky falls
with a plate-glass clatter
around the shatter-proof crone
who stands alone.
And you are reduced
to so much small change
in her hand.”
“From Dilip Chitre’s translations of Namdeo Dhasal’s poems published by Navayana: Namdeo Dhasal—Poet of the Underworld, Poems 1972-2006. A new edition of this book is available at Navayana: A Current of Blood
From Golpitha, 1972
There are neither flowers
All this is mimicry by mercy of His grace:
Sealed fragrance of musk.
Thus the chains on one’s legs are transformed
O revealed friend! O gardener!
What shall I recall?
Tears flood the soil of your sensibility.
In the morning and in the evening,
On your sterile field of silence,
Home Guards perform their drill.
On some festive day, a pederast politician
A Councillor preaches here.
The dancing water-pot of goddess Yellamma.
And an all-India women’s conference…
To a study group of streetwalkers.
Politicized crows listening to the proceedings.
Charas smokers, ganja smokers;
Pickpockets and thieves.
A mortal forest in the hurt heart.
O Arsefuckers Park!
What a sad hour you’ve chosen
To strike at my roots.
Praise and curse;
Arousal and ears.
An eternity of darkness
Lined by a golden shore.
The deluge and all hell breaking loose;
The stigma of concealed love and
The harried soul;
The Inferno of lovers’ separation and the graveyard of compassion;
Extreme loneliness and the magic of the frightened;
Behind every word,
There’s a naked face hidden.
How can I yoke these slaves of the bed to my plough?
Your city of insatiable angels.
I bear a crown of agony on my head;
A luminous fountain of African anguish;
A wound has found its home in my heart—
Even words cannot open its doors.
A bear made of sunbeams is walking around with a banner.
No complaint can be registered here.
A wretched derelict of a poet like me
Starts dancing to corrupted words in a saint’s festival.
There are neither slogans nor shrieks of pain.
Every face of compassion wears a black veil.
You are allowing your downtrodden life to swim
In the hell-water of self-alienation.
What more can even the trees do now
Except scratch the armpits of bygone times?
Let me fill into my eyes
The darkness in the womb of the soil.
Allow me to listen to the counterfeit jingle of the coin
Of my distraught, sleek-necked dreams.
Allow me just once
To plaster the cracks in the sky of contemporary anguish.
Wearing a white shroud,
A formless silence sleeps in your courtyard.
And the sarcastic scrawl of the bleeding piles in the alphabetical chart swells up;
A mottled piglet tries to fondle grass…
The impotence inherent in good and evil;
The supernatural fingers caressing tresses of hair;
Female buffaloes of a high-yielding breed go on a rampage
In midnight’s outburst of ejaculations.
The master physicians handling them find themselves paralyzed.
In a hall of mirrors there’s a chaos of mocking reflections…
How many images of oneself can one see?
Horses are being tattooed on my arms.
The creeping plant of my penis is about to flower.
Ibsen’s Doll is about to get married.
All this pining is to get out
Of this circular battle-trap.
The black truth seeks to ride the tortoise.
I see you on your moral path with the cataracts and the tear-peals in your anguished eyes.
After that, I remember your silent lips;
The distressed insect of your distorted body
Getting its wings painted.
The owl in the hollow of a tree intones its drone.
And you, you refuse to open the door of your perception.
Shall I now put on the boot of amazement on my lame foot?
Shall I now bell the cat?
Or shall I scrape off this intolerable grotesquery?
Shall I put out the flame
That glows between the beginning and the end?”
Why do I quote these two poems as being worthy of being included in a canon? If one is to have a canon at all, which is a debatable idea but worth playing with from inside and outside as I am doing here, a glass-bead game for me, even as others play it meanwhile for gain, and even as this is my Freudian, Lacanian and Derridean countermove, these two poems belong there. It is for the simple reason that whether I look at them as poetry or as works to be analysed and ‘framed’ for discussion or dissection, they pass my test. They pass my test in terms of the hundred things I teach my students poems should do, like accurately using figures of speech, imagery, music and sense, and that poets should know how to do. They pass my test in being ideal fodder for what these same students should do as critics in being able to apply any theory to any text, as these poems offer them the needed gaps whereby they actually can apply various tools of explication. These may include narratology, stylistics, feminism, LGBT criticism, Dalit theory, ecocriticism, Marxism, Sanskrit and Dravidian aesthetics, Roman and Grecian or Britsh and French aesthetics, and new historicism. Finally, they pass my test as a reader, which many of the poems – except for a few- touted by the so-called canon makers of today or writers who are trying to make the canon or enter the canon or are in today’s so-called canon, do not. Dhasal’s is the Indian ‘Howl’ and Kolatkar’s has a finesse sans easy comparison.
And this is where the edge remains- the edge between the best and the most excellent. The most excellent writer is the one who can be read in ways that go beyond his intentions and motives and the text or even the references in his works to the world to a significance that is unbound and cannot be confined even by the best critics or theoreticians, in speaking for and from and to his time and place and to the future.
I am sure and do know that these poets I quoted are award winners and already considered great, but the truth is, my knowledge of them is not connected to this, except indirectly, in that this is why they probably crossed my sphere of reading. But social media offers me an even more unfettered space to go hunting for canon makers and to be the critic and poet or creative writer who can be the one to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them in ensuring that we get our due.
Thus, in this spirit, my challenge to the reader who is hopefully also a writer is to make your own canon, something we already tried out on Facebook once, and to try to enter the canon, which for me would mean English writing presently, even if in translation. To try to enter the canon not by following the dictates of others as to who is in or who is out, but by striving for the broad outlines of what I spoke of in terms of content and form, the hundred and one things that can and should be found therein, so that one’s writing is explosive and cannot be ignored by the readers of today and tomorrow in its impact.
Try it. It is fun. Try to name for yourself the ten best works or writers you read recently that the world does not yet think of as great but you know that they are, based on these time-tested guidelines and then see the enjoyment there is in being ambassadors for them as Bloom was for the Western Canon and include your own work only if it really is of such high standards. All the best.
References taken from:
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