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Tuesday, 3 May 2011
JIBANANANDA’S UNQUESTIONABLE AFFINITY WITH TRAGEDY IS NOT BEYOND QUESTIONS
[ Jibanananda Das was an acclaimed Bengali poet who is considered to be one of the precursors who introduced ‘Modernist Poetry’ to Bengali literature at a period when it was heavily burdened by the influence of Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Romantic’ and ‘Mystic’ poetry. He is so far the most important Bengali poet of the post-Tagore era. The literal meaning of his name, ironically enough, is — ‘Joy ( ananda ) of Life’ ( jiban ). ]
A POET WHO MEASURED OUT LIFE WITH COFFEE SPOONS
was there with his lyre
and his stick, cut in the mountains
from a fragrant tree,
and the more he suffered,
the more he knew,
the more he sang.”
[ Pablo Neruda : Revolutions ]
Jibanananda was born on 18th February of 1899 ( 6th Falgun, 1305 of the Bengali calendar year ) in a Brahmo family at Barishal in the present
Bangladesh which was East Bengal at that time. His grandfather, Sarbananda Das, and his schoolteacher father, Satyananda Das were both part-time preachers in the Brahmo Samaj. His mother, Kusumkumari Das, started writing poems when she was very young, and some were even published in magazines while she was still a school-student.
Jibanananda studied at
in Barishal from where he passed his I.A. examination. He then passed his B.A. examination with Honours in English language and literature from Braja Mohan College Calcutta’s and became a graduate. From that very college he further completed his Masters’ degree ( M.A. ) in English in 1921. Presidency College
After completion of post-graduation, he started his career as a lecturer of English at
City College in . This was a happy period indeed of his youth when he first started publishing his poems. His first collection of poems entitled ‘Jhara Palak’ ( Fallen Feathers ) was published in 1927. Later, in early 1930s, he had to remain unemployed for several years, earning a meagre amount as a private tutor of school-students. His uncles got him jobs, successively in Calcutta Assam and Punjab; but he refused to leave Bengal as the pursuit of literature was far more important to him even than economic stability. Later, in January 1947, he also worked in the editorial department of the daily newspaper ‘Swaraj’, for some time. He also briefly held teaching posts in Bagerhat and before returning to Barishal. In 1935, he joined Delhi Braja Mohan College in Barishal and continued to teach there till the partition of India in 1947 when he left for . This was probably the most productive period of his literary life, during which ‘Dhusar Pandulipi’ ( Grey Manuscript ), ‘Banolata Sen’ and ‘Mahaprithibi’ ( Great Universe ) — all volumes of his poems — were published respectively in 1936, 1942 and 1945. Another collection entitled ‘Ruposi Bangla’ ( Beautiful Bengal ) which was posthumously published in 1957, was written in1934, also during this very period. The particular poem, ‘Aat Bachhor Aager Ekdin’ ( A Day Eight Years Back ), which I shall be discussing shortly in the third segment of this very critique, was also composed during that most fertile period of Jibanananda’s literary life; as it remains the 10th poem of the volume — ‘Mahaprithibi’. After the partition of Calcutta India in 1947, when his home-district fell within the new Pakistan, he migrated to . Here in Calcutta again he had to face unemployment for several years before being appointed to the post of lecturer in English at Howrah Girls’ College in 1953. By that time, his another collection of poems, ‘Saat-ti Tarar Timir’ ( Darkness of the Seven Stars ) was published in 1949. Jibanananda passed away on 22nd October of 1954 ( 6th Kartik, 1361 of the Bengali calendar year ) being hit by a tram in a road accident. His best poems won the “Indian Sahitya Academy Award” in 1955. Calcutta
Here follows a brief of the poet’s biographical annals :—
Jan 1908 : Admitted at
in class five. Barishal Braja Mohan School
1915 : Passed his Matriculation examination in first division.
1917 : Passed his I.A. (Intermediate of Arts) examinations in first division with English, Bengali and Chemistry, from
Barishal Braja Mohan College; and admitted at Presidency College in with Honours in English. Calcutta
1919 : Passed his B.A. (Bachelor of Arts) with second class; and admitted at the
in M.A. (Master of Arts) in English and also in Law. University of Calcutta
1921-22 : Passed his M.A. with second class; and gave up studying Law. Joined City College of Calcutta as a lecturer in English.
Sep-Oct 1927 : His first volume of poems ‘Jhara Palak’ was published; and since now he shortened his surname from ‘Dasgupta’ to ‘Das’.
Jul-Aug 1928 : Sacked from his job at
. As a chaos was initiated due to the Saraswati Puja (worship of the goddess of education) by a group of students of the Ram Mohan Roy Hostel, the number of students in the college was reduced at an alarming rate. Consequently an economic crisis propped up in the college administrative fund, and being the juniormost faculty in his department, he was victimized. City College
Jul-Aug 1929 : Joined as an English lecturer in the newly established
. Bagerhat Prafulla Chandra College
Oct-Nov 1929 : Resigned from his job just after three months.
Nov-Dec 1929 : Started practising private tuition for livelihood.
9 May 1930 : His marriage to Labonya, the second daughter of Rohini Kumar Gupta and Sarajubala at the Ram Mohan Library,
Dhaka was solemnized by Mano Mohan Chakraborty as the ‘Acharya’ (priest) in the presence of friends like Buddhadeb Bosu, Ajit Kumar Dutta etc.
Aug 1936 :
in the English department as faculty. Joins Barishal Braja Mohan College
Dec-Jan 1942-43 : His volume of poems ‘Banolata Sen’ was published.
Jul-Aug 1945 : His another volume of poems ‘Mahaprithibi’ was published.
Jul 1947 : Returns to
Calcutta taking a two months’ leave from . Barishal B. M. College
Sep 1947 :
. Rejoins B. M. College
Apr-May 1948 : Shifts permanently from Barishal to
with his entire family. Calcutta
May-Jun 1948 : Resigns from his job at
. Barishal B. M. College
Sep-Oct 1948 : Resigns from ‘Swaraj’ due to financial crisis of the daily.
Nov-Dec 1949 : His volume of poems ‘Saat-ti Tarar Timir’ was published. He received as royalty Rs.100/- in advance for this book. Perhaps this is the first occasion when he earns by writing.
Jul-Aug 1951 : Applies for faculty position in the English department in
Dum-Dum Motijheel College, which was not considered by the then-Principal Narendranath Ganguly who was his colleague earlier in . Barishal B. M. College
Sep-Oct 1952 : New edition of ‘Banolata Sen’ was published, this time also including in it two poems from ‘Mahaprithibi’ and sixteen more poems.
Oct-Nov 1952 : Joins in leave-vacancy for four months in
Barisha College (presently ). Barisha Bibekananda College
Apr 1953 : Refuses to join in
Fakirchand College at where he himself applied, as it was distant and he had to shift and settle there. Diamond Harbour
May 1953 : He was felicitated in a function at Mahajati Sadan and awarded the prize-money.
Jun-Jul 1953 : Joins
Girls’ College with Rs.15/- added allowance alongwith his Rs.150/- remuneration. Howrah
Sep-Oct 1953 : Visits Delhi with family in puja-recess and meeting Humayun Kabir and Ata-ur Rahman requests for a job. Humayun Kabir, at that time the Secretary of Abul Kalam Azad, the minister in the education department of the central government, arranges for him a job in a college at
. But he refuses the offer as he did not want to reside outside Delhi . Calcutta
Nov-Dec 1953 : Humayun Kabir once again arranges for him a job in
Krishnanagar Government College by requesting Parimal Ray, the then-Education Director of West Bengal; but this time also he refuses it for being distant. Humayun Kabir further requests Parimal Ray for a job in Presidency College according to Jibanananda’s preference; but as there was no vacancy in the English department in at that time, nothing could be arranged. Presidency College
Apr-May 1954 : ‘Jibanananda Das-er Shreshtho Kobita’ (The Best Poems of Jibanananda Das) was published.
Sep 1954 : On the occasion of his first anniversary of joining the college, the Managing Committee of Howrah Girls’ College decides to increase his remuneration by Rs.25/- and to promote him to the post of the Head of the Department of English due to which he was also to be given a special allowance of additional Rs.25/-.
NO ONE EXPECTS MEDIOCRITY FROM GOD, DEVIL AND JIBANANANDA
“This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants of God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty . . . what you will.”
[ Henry Miller : Tropic of Cancer ]
It is true that all poets are philosophers though all philosophers are not poets. But it is all the more true that Jibanananda was not merely a poet who was elementarily a philosopher, rather apart from that he was also a philosopher of even all those philosophers who were his predecessors. All his signatory watermark poems witness the typically Jibananandesque dialectic of prosaic poetry and poetic prose, alongwith the poet’s philosophy of relative truth. Here we happen to encounter a poet who himself is always in the guise of a mirror. The more we venture to see his face, the more we peep from diverse angles to recognize his true identity, the more we try to expose his real self; eventually we always end up discovering our own good, bad and ugly faces. He is a poet who deliberately defies ‘poetic justice’. He is a poet who teaches us that a true genius must have a heart in his brain as well as a brain in his heart. He is a poet who fuels our grey cells upto such an extent that we learn to re-interpret the clichéd Keatsian maxim, “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty.” After reading him we begin to feel that Keats might have left some words untold here, in-between the words; and if read properly, it should be :—
“Beauty is Truth, ( and if it is so, only then ) Truth Beauty.”
In fact, we cannot read his poems; rather his poems read us exposing our psychic genitals, making us ashamed of our futile hypocritic existence, of our hollow and superficial entities.
The basic claim of poetry from a poet is eternally one; and that is, wringing out everything from the subject-matter by means of ‘diction’ and ‘diction only’. This is why poetry is one of the greatest art forms; and the poets who so far have remained capable to do so with effortless ease, are considered as ‘language-authorities’. But here we must not confuse ourselves and should get it clear that ‘linguists’ or ‘language-scholars’ and ‘language-authorities’ are not identical. The former can neither ‘save’ nor ‘rear up’ ‘language’, rather they issue ‘death certificates’ of ‘language’. The latter only are the true ‘language-martyrs’. They intrude into the maze of foreign thinkers’ and writers’ influence, fight with that very influence, and eventually, unrobe them. In fact, this is how ‘language’ survives. If we travel through the history of the Bengali poetry, what we see is a retreat from this ‘language-authorities’ — an escape from them by ignoring and neglecting the most promising genii of the contemporary literary world. Though unfortunate, this is the gospel truth of history. In the entire history of Bengali poetry, we never come across such a period, when ‘language’ has thus gradually retreated from the printed words. Jibanananda Das, Bishnu Dey, Sudhindranath Dutta, Amiya Chakraborty, Buddhadeb Basu, Samar Sen — if they were the ‘light-houses’, the ‘ocean’ had continually moved away from them, farther and farther. Thus day by day, everyday, losing and losing the ‘language’ gradually, the race of Bengali poets today has been metamorphosed into the French ‘Noble-Savage’ of the eighteenth century. Throughout the last ( more or less ) fifty years, escaping from the ‘language-authorities’, the Bengali poets have lowered the ‘diction’ at such a degrading plight, where each and every word written simply conveys a sound similar to that produced by the languageless primitive men. No line or sentence can either ‘catch’ or ‘throw’ any meaning or sense.
During the thirties, Bengali poetry explored a new ‘poetic diction’ which, at that time, since was unforeseen after Rabindranath, was identified to be the ‘modern poetry’. Apart from others, especially Jibanananda, composed his verses in an entirely ‘unexpected language’ — ‘unexpected’, in respect of the ‘language’ Bengali poetry had produced till then. He first showed us that ‘language’ can surpass the intended sense of the written words. On one hand, there is the apparently expressed literal interpretation; on the other, the underlying implied meaning that is far from the literal one. He thus first suggested this ‘exposure of language’ — the endless process of interchange between the ‘language of thinking’ and the ‘language of writing’; one overlapping the other, therby venturing to discover a ‘third language’, as well as simultaneously the fourth one, fifth one, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth . . . to infinity; two levels exposing a significant third one, and fourth and fifth and . . . so on and so forth. Thus he created his own ‘diction’, an invention — a ‘new language’ for the ‘neo-poetry’. His form is essentially imbued with experimentation. But, so far as the subject-matter is concerned, this experimentation, quite unexpectedly, is perfectly counter-balanced by a certain central conventionalism. Had it not been so, if the plot-oriented actions had been over-emphasized, his ‘diction of poetry’ certainly would have seemed to be entirely futile. This lack of balance spoils the literary ‘quality’ as well as ‘value’ of both good prose and good poetry. It makes a literary piece too tiring to be read. Jibanananda’s writings — at least his verses, if not prose — are free from any such drawbacks. In his poems, ‘diction’ and ‘subject-matter’ face each other supplementarily, like negative and positive forces, radiating sparks of intellect, creativity, originality, and thus keeping intact a perfect balance.
Jibanananda belonged to the group of poets who tried to shake off Rabindranath Tagore’s poetic influence. Inspired ( though not influenced ) by western modernism and the intellectual outlook of the Bengali middle class, he wrote about the realities of the urban present and of the lonely self even while he drew upon the rural traditions of Bengal. He shares Tagore’s deep feeling for Nature, eloquently describing the beauty of rural
Bengal in his ‘Ruposi Bangla’ and earning the appellation of ‘Ruposi Banglar Kobi’ ( Poet of Beautiful Bengal ). Unlike Tagore, however, he portrays distressed humanity as well as the depression, frustration and loneliness of modern civilised life in his poems. Introspection is also an important characteristic of his poetic genius. His poems merge a sense of concern for the crisis of the present, and an awareness regarding the responsibilities of the historical past. His poems also played a significant role in the political and cultural perspectives of . His poems inspired a pride in Bengali nationhood, especially in the 1960s and during the war of liberation in 1971. Jibanananda’s most favourite season is Autumn and his poetry is eminently suffused by autumnal shadows. He is a poet of Autumn, as well as of its greyness, somberness and desolation; and perhaps this is why, the seventh Bengali calendar-month ‘Kaartik’ ( mid-October to mid-November ) is a recurring element in his poems. Bangladesh
If we consider Jibanananda’s poems in perspective of his contemporary time, we can see that during the ‘Banga-Vanga’ ( partition of Bengal ) in1905, he was merely a six year old kid; at the expiry of Rabindranath in 1941, he was forty-two — the father of two children; then during the riot in 1946, he was at the budding youth of his oldhood; and eventually the partition of India and independence in 1947 — from which his death was just seven years away. No one, with at least a minimal awareness of the socio-historic paradigm-shift of that particular period of time, can ever deny the fact that no other poet in the entire history of Bengali poetry has never sketched ‘death’, ‘decadence’, ‘fatigue’ and ‘monotony’ of the contemporary time with such dazzling sunshine glare before Jibanananda. His psycho-penetration into the absurdity of the protagonist’s character, his carefully prepared counter-statements against preceding statements through an ordered movement of thoughts pregnant with insight — all these attribute multifarious dimensions to his poems which in turn inevitably create the inescapable matrix of the typically Jibananandesque dialectic of prosaic poetry and poetic prose. Amidst that, remains awake and alive the clash of words — written and unwrit, the polygamy of meanings — conceived apparent meaning, apparently non-conceivable meanings, to seek meanings neutralizing all and every meaning. He snapshots time with an entirely relative psychological standing, not from any so-called historical or literary perspective — rather making today happen with tomorrow, tomorrow with yesterday, yesterday with today — all overlapping, merging into one another, becoming timeless, as well as temporal, simultaneously; as if a primitive game of group-sex, among the tenses. In his poems, time appears to be a prodigious Gulliver, all else fast fading pale into insignificance in front of it, as mere liliputs. Each and every single work of Jibanananda is thus not merely a reflection of his contemporary time, rather all the more, a token of time, that establishes the poet’s unique as well as individualistic philosophy of relative truth.
Now before we proceed into more analytical details of ‘A Day Eight Years Back’ in the next segment of this critique, let us once go through the translated version of the poem first :—
A DAY EIGHT YEARS BACK
News spread that in the post-mortem room
He had been taken away;
Yesternight — amidst the dark of the Falgun night
When the Panchami-moon had sunk
He longed to die!
His bride was lying beside — the baby too was there;
There was love, there was hope — in the moonlight — yet he saw
What ghost? Why his sleep was awakened?
Or had he not slept for years — now sleeps lying in the post-mortem room.
Wanted he such a sleep!
His mouth smeared with blood and foam, the neck bent like a rat died in plague
He sleeps now in the bosom of dark alleys;
Never shall he wake up again.
‘Never shall he wake up again
The intense sufferings of being awakened
Ceaseless — ceaseless burden of it
No more shall he bear with — ’
So was he told
When the moon sank away — in the queer darkling
As if beside his window
A silence like a camel’s throat came and told.
Yet stays awake the owl;
The toad, decomposed, paralysed, begs a couple of moments more
For the signal of another dawn — with an inferable warm affection.
I can feel in the dense aimlessness of gregarious darkness
The pardonless hostility of the gnat-net all around;
The gnat stays awake in its black battle, loves the flow of life.
Flies fly away again in the sunbeams from blood and filth and pus;
So many times I have watched the flying insects playing in the waves of the golden sun.
As if the intimate sky — as if some dispersed life
Have possessed their minds;
The grasshopper’s eager shiver in the hands of a naughty child
Has battled against death;
The moon being set, in the prime dark, to the Peepul you
Approached with a single rope in your hands, yet, alone — all alone;
Knowing that the life of a grasshopper , a magpie-robin — is never to be met with that
of a humankind.
Didn’t the branches of Peepul
Protest? Hadn’t the swarm of glow-worms crowded in for hobnobbing with the tender
bunch of golden flowers?
Hadn’t the ageless blind owl come
And asked : ‘Drifted away the old moon by the floodwaves?
Let me hunt a few rats now!’
Hadn’t the owl come to convey this tumultuous profound message?
This taste of life — the well-ripened barley’s scent in the late-autumn afternoon —
seemed intolerable to you; —
At morgue has your heart soothed
At morgue — suffocating
With bleeding lips like a trampled rat!
Yet to this deadman’s tale; — in no
Lady’s love had he failed;
Hankerings of conjugal life
Left no breach anywhere,
Ascending ahead of time, the bride offered
Sweet home — and fancy’s sweetness
For him to learn :
By the crisis-cold of a proletariet’s languor or languishment
Never was shuddered this life;
In the post-mortem room
Lying flat on his back he is on the table.
Know — yet I know
Feminine heart — love — kids — home — are not everything;
Not wealth, nor glory, neither affluence —
One more endangered exclamation
Within our internal blood
It fatigues us
Fatigued — makes fatigued;
In the post-mortem room
That fatigue is absent;
In the post-mortem room
Lying flat on his back he is on the table.
Yet every night I see, aah,
The ageless blind owl arrives and sits at the Peepul’s twig,
With winking eyes asks : ‘Drifted away the old moon in the floodwaves?
Let me hunt a few rats now — ’
O’ omniscient ancestress, is it excellent today too?
Me too shall grow old like you — I shall ferry the old moon across the floodwaves
We two shall pass away emptying the affluent treasure of life.
[ translated by myself ]
JIBANANANDESQUE GENRE : EVEN MORE REAL SANS ABSURD SANS ABSURDITY
“I don’t recommend it for others.”
[ Vladimir Mayakovsky : Suicide-Note ]
‘A Day Eight Years Back’ by Jibanananda Das is a poem where the protagonist commits suicide. The poet himself never tried to do so. Nor did Franz Kafka who once wrote, “My life is a hesitation before birth.” If Kafka is to be taken for granted, then only after this hesitation (i.e.- life) is over, true birth (i.e.- death) can be possible. Here, Jibanananda’s protagonist also has an identical outlook towards life. Eugene Ionesco, the Romanian Absurdist, observes in an essay on Kafka, “This theme of man lost in a labyrinth, without a guiding thread, is basic . . . in Kafka’s work.” The same is true for Jibanananda’s works too, though they do have their dissimilarities just like their individualities. In the opening scene of ‘The Gurdian of the Crypt’, the only existing fragment of Kafka’s unfinished play, we see a young prince summoning the old guardian of the mausoleum where his ancestors are buried, and is told by the old man about the terrifying fight he has each night with the spirits of the departed, who want to leave the prison of their tomb and to invade the world of the living. Interestingly enough, here we see that Jibanananda’s protagonist wants to opt for just the opposite, i.e.― to leave the prison of his life, as if, in order to invade the world of the deads. In fact, both Jibanananda’s and Kafka’s protagonists who are prone to commit suicide, seem to have been trapped in their subconscious matrices of thought; whereas these two creators themselves venture to psycho-penetrate into their created characters’ indigenous absurdity. Here, suicide is a tendency, a phenomenon to which the characters are preys. Martin Esslin opines in his landmark book ‘The Theatre of the Absurd’, “ . . . writers like Dostoevsky, Strindberg, and Joyce, by delving into their own subconscious, discovered the universal, collective significance of their own private obsessions.” This is also true of Jibanananda as well as his ‘A Day Eight Years Back’, in which the protagonist’s entity bespeaks the anxieties of a hyper-sensitive human being lost in a world of convention and routine. The images of Jibanananda’s own sense of loss of contact with reality, and his feelings of guilt at being unable to regain it — the restlessness of the protagonist in this particular poem, his perceptability of his own ‘alter ego’ whose existence he fails to penetrate, whose very presence makes him feel that his own being is at stake, and to whose endless quaries he can find no legitimate answers — have all become the inevitable expression of the helpless plight of the modern man.
The poem itself opens abruptly with a ominous news, without providing any formal sentimental preparation for the readers. Words like ‘post-mortem’, ‘dark’, ‘night’, ‘sunk’ etc. implicitly denoting “death” in the very first stanza, are immediately paradoxically counter-balanced by the single word ‘moonlight’ in the second stanza, this time denoting “life” explicitly. And then in the very next line, the phrase ‘What ghost’ followed by an inevitable question mark ( ? ) identifies itself with the ‘alter ego’ of the protagonist. The poet asks, “Why his sleep was awakened?” to which one of the more than one untold answers perhaps is — ‘he wakes up from sleep only to sleep forever’. But this one is neither the only nor the final question that ceaselessly goes on haunting the poet and with which the poet, in turn, haunts his readers throughout the entire poem. The answer is repeatedly hinted at several times here and there in the poem, but before the very first hint is thrown at the reader, the poet poses two riddling statements in the two culminating lines of the third stanza. First he says, “He sleeps now in the bosom of dark alleys”, which at once draws our attention to the labyrinth of Daedalus where one’s inevitable fate is to be got lost. Here, Jibanananda’s protagonist is also lost in the labyrinth of the absurdity of life; he is confused — he is hung afloat; he can’t decide — what to do and not to do, he doesn’t know — whether to be or not to be. In this particular respect, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is certainly not the only character who is identifiable to Jibanananda’s protagonist; rather Camus’s Meursault (The Outsider), Kafka’s Gregor (Metamorphosis), Sartre’s Roquentin (Nausea), Ionesco’s Berenger (Rhinoceros), Joyce’s Leopold (Ulysses), Beckett’s Malone (Malone Dies), Michaux’s Plume, Dostoevsky’s Underground-Man (Notes from Underground) — all are one. They all share the same feeling of getting trapped in the mysterious flux of their individual ‘being’. The second statement of the poet says, “Never shall he wake up again” which he immediately repeats once again in the very next line — now the opening line of the fourth stanza. It reminds us without fail, the opening and culminating lines of the second section (East Coker) of T.S.Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’, which respectively are — “In my beginning is my end” and “In my end is my beginning”. This end of the protagonist’s life, then, certainly signifies the beginning of a new life for him. Truly, each exit is an entry from the other side. Here, the poet exhibits this very ‘exit’ with the symbol of the ‘window’ through which “a silence like a camel’s throat came and told” his protagonist that from now onwards he is free; he shall no more need to tolerate the endless burden of “the intense sufferings of being awakened”. As ‘silence’ itself is eternal and endless, so is the ‘camel’s throat’ that manifests endlessness.
Jibanananda introduces the owl not until the fifth stanza. It is the typical nightwatcher that tirelessly efforts to awaken the sleeping conscience of the hollow, superficial modern men who are but merely barren in all respects. The decomposed, paralysed toad is symbolic of the ‘impasse’ — the deadlock of the modern human existence who are in fact no more than ‘living deads’. It also manifests the ‘dead conscience’ of modern men that desires to continue this ‘impasse’; whereas the owl, as the killer of the toad, takes the initiative to blast open this deadlock. The profound darkness is ‘gregarious’ and its ‘aimlessness’ signifies that human existence itself is aimless — sans goals, sans missions. The “hostility of the gnat-net” refers to the alienation of the soul; the individual is entrapped in its own trick that it plays to safeguard itself, and consequently gets alienated. This individual is in fact the representative of the bourgeois mediocres who are the opportunist in-betweens, who now feel so helpless that they can neither join the rebels (i.e.- the proletariets), nor can convince the aristocrats or the feudals to earn their favour. The gnat staying “awake in its black battle” is actually the rebel proletariets continuing to fight their battle with all their love and passion for liberty. ‘Flies’ are these opportunists who have no true political identities, and who, due to their hankerings after materialistic pleasures (i.e.- ‘sunbeams’), seek to exploit the social malsystems and try to gain profits out of it. These opportunists’ greed and wish for life is as endless as the limitless sky — they fight against death with as much vivacity and spirit of life as is found in “a naughty child” or in a “grasshopper”.
In the last three lines of the eighth stanza, which can be called the pre-climax of the poem, the poet begins to weave the web of words as well as senses, in order to provide his readers a few threads of thoughts so that they can fabricate their individual and respective inferences, on their own psyche. This is essential as these lines are immediately followed by the ninth stanza — itself the climax of the poem. In the pre-climax, when the poet proclaims how his protagonist meets his fate, he emphasizes especially on the phrase “alone — all alone”. This deadly solitude, in fact, is born out of the aforesaid alienation of the soul; and this very solitude makes him realize that such stagnant, immobile life of a mediocre is in no way identical to that of a rebel. This very realization leads him to suicide. The climax of the poem, a six-line stanza, is schemed with six sentences (certainly not a sentence per line), out of which four are interrogations; and two, exclamations. Interestingly enough, we can mark that as the entire poem contains altogether eighty lines, almost one-tenth of the poem is in interrogatives. Eight questions are thrown by the poet with an effortless ease to fatally trouble the already troubled psyche of his readers. The first two are in the third line of the second stanza; the seventh one, which actually is a repetition of the fifth, is the third line of the thirteenth stanza; and the final one opens the culminating triplet of the poem, the rest four being here in the climax. As I have already stated earlier, the answers to all these quaries are provided by the poet himself very cunningly in an extremely implied manner; they are spread all around here and there in disguise. “The branches of Peepul”, in the very first question of the climax is symbolic of the rebellious spirit within the protagonist himself, i.e. — his ‘alter ego’ (referred earlier in line three of the second stanza as ‘ghost’) which is the only voice of protest. The “swarm of glow-worms” and their “hobnobbing with the tender bunch of golden flowers” stand for the sentimental bondings of mortal human existence — the eternal ‘maya’, from which the rebel must free itself. The owl and the rats form an imagery of the hunter and the hunted. The nightwatcher owl who sincerely ventures to save humankind from the ‘impasse’ they are trapped into due to their own consciencelessness, is itself a symbol of the ‘dead conscience’ of the modern men whose urge to retain this deadlock is indomitable; and in its own subconscious self, it also cherishes a dark desire to kill the only existing conscience alive — that is of the “old moon”, the eternal witness of history — of the course of time. That is reflected in his selfish wish to “hunt a few rats” after the old moon is “drifted away” “by the floodwaves”; as it indicates the opportunists’ going for their own business to fulfill their self-interests unheeded by the social crisis. This is how the entire world gradually moves on the way to chaos, driving itself as if drunkenly, in a self-destructing frenzy along the edge of the abyss; as if singing in intoxication, just as Dmitri Karamazov, in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky, sang. A similar kind of sketch of the modern civilization has also been portrayed by Hermann Hesse in his ‘A Glimpse into Chaos’; as well as by T. S. Eliot in his ‘The Hollow Men’ which ends with such a quatrain :—
“This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.”
Thus, here Jibanananda satirises this attitude of the modern men by psycho-penetrating into his protagonist’s mind, and establishes his philosophy of relative truth, which makes his readers realize that each of their individual existence is at stake.
The climax being reached, the poet now concentrates on laying bare the probable pros and cons that might have compelled his protagonist to take such a drastic decision of committing suicide. Neither the poet, nor his protagonist knows certainly the answer of this question. All was balanced perfectly, so far as the materialistic hankerings of a common man is concerned. He was in no way amidst any earthly crisis. Yet, he was “fatigued”, the cause of which even the poet himself fails to determine, as he says :—
“One more endangered exclamation
Within our internal blood
And when the readers, very much like the poet himself, as well as his protagonist, fail to find out the answer; the poet arranges for them an encounter with ‘the owl and the rats’ imagery once again. The ‘impasse’ continues. This indecisiveness, the uncertainty go on beguiling us, befooling us — the incurable fatigue of life envelops our individual entities; we feel our existence being engulfed by ‘tedium vitae’, which reminds us what Baudelaire once uttered in the concluding stanza of his ‘Au Lecteur’, the prefatory poem of ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ :—
“It is boredom, tedium vitae, who with an unwilling tear in his eyes dreams of gibbets as he smokes his pipe. You know him, reader, you know that fastidious monster — o hypocritical reader, my fellow man and brother!”
In the opening line of the culminating triplet, the poet addresses the ageless owl as the “omniscient ancestress” who failed to save the protagonist from committing suicide, only because of the psychic conflict of its own two alternatingly interchanging personas as the ‘saviour of conscience’, as well as, at the same time, as the ‘dead conscience’ itself. The poet feels himself to be in the same dilemma, and henceforth, feels an unification of his troubled identity with that of the owl. They both are equally helpless as none of them can find the way out to rescue their respective poor entities from this inescapable trap; and eventually the poet confesses his sense of guilty consciousness for being an equally willing accomplice to the owl in its dark desire to assassin the ‘old moon’ — the only existing conscience alive, the eternal witness of history, who might have saved the life of the protagonist. Eventually, after all these realizations, the poet yields to accept his due punishment which is the extinction of his being, of his existence without having been able to leave any lasting mark of his entity — to create any eternal identity of his self that he will leave behind for his succeeding race for which he shall be remembered by them. His passing away shall in no way affect “the affluent treasure of life” in respect of which he remains merely a ‘nobody’. The final line of the poem traces its identicalness to the opening line of T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, which also bespeaks of an equal sense of relinquishment :—
“Let us go then, you and I”
My citing all such several similar references in respect of Jibanananda, should in no way be interpreted as an attempt to prove as the poet’s being influenced by either his predecessors or his contemporaries, consciously or unconsciously. Rather, what we may safely deduce from here is that all great men think alike, irrespective of time, place, race, language, nation and culture. Perhaps this is why we can find the echo of Jibanananda in the writings of even his next generation poets who have never ever read a single line of Jibanananda, nor has it been probable for them to read him. As an ideal instance of this, an excerpt from the Nigerian poet Wole Soyinka’s poem ‘And What of It if Thus He Died?’ can be betrayed :—
“Nor deaf nor blind lived he
To beauty’s promise, to laughter
In light hours, but these he sought
To seal and to perpetuate
Upon the face of dearth.”
Now let us venture to sum up the entire discussion considering the centripetal question inherent in the poem as its axis, i.e. — why does the protagonist commit suicide? In one of his early works, ‘Either / Or, A Fragment of Life’, Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, tells the story of an ordinary young man who lives for pleasure, but although he experiences the various forms of enjoyment, sensual and aesthetic, which are available to him, he keeps falling into depression. But he pulls himself together, and decides to make something of himself, to give up the hedonic life for the life of duty and responsibility. He gets ahead in his career, makes friends, and soon acquires a wife and family, and social status in his community. But then the old forgotten depression comes back, more dreadful than ever. Kierkegaard says that this man has become something of himself, but he is a stranger to himself. The same is the case here with Jibanananda’s protagonist. He does not know how to overcome despair. He sinks so deep into despair that he gives up all the satisfactions and comforts of life; loses all commitment to family, friends, community; surrenders reason and all belief in the truth of science and philosophy and all moral principles. When all these are lost, with nothing left, he is in total crisis at the edge of the abyss. Now the question that arises is, what can be traced as the cause of this sense of meaninglessness of one’s own existence — this sense of anxiety and hopeless despair of the solitary individuals of the modern world.
German philosopher Hegel’s ‘theory of alienation’ says that when one cannot identify with one’s society, when one is not reconciled to the ideals and institutions of one’s society, then one exists in a state of alienation. In case of Jibanananda’s protagonist, his alienation can be interpreted as his sense of being self-estranged, shut out of the common life, his sense of being an outsider cut off from his own feelings or identity, his feelings of normlessness, meaninglessness, powerlessness. He feels that he has lost the capacity for love or for any other strong emotion — his life is pointless and empty having no future. From this very point of realization, his struggle unto death with his ‘alter ego’ begins. In his masterpiece, ‘The Phenomenology of Spirit’, Hegel explains the development of human self-consciousness. Hegel says, it is the principle of negation, at work in all human thought, which produces an opposite, negating ‘antithesis’ to every ‘thesis’ and produces also a ‘synthesis’ which negates every negating ‘antithesis’. In case of Jibanananda’s protagonist, the same principle of negation and death is at work in the self’s characteristic relation to the ‘alter ego’, in its desire to negate that, to destroy that, to cancel that out of existence; and henceforth he commits suicide. The cause of his such an irrational act may also be clarified in the light of ‘the instinct of self-preservation’ theory by Thomas Hobbes, the political philosopher, according to whom, reality consists always in the motion of bodies which is transmitted through the sense-organs to the central nervous system, where it appears as sensation; and such transmitted motion always aids or retards the vital motion, the organ for which is the heart rather than the brain. Now as the vital motion is heightened or repressed, two primitive types of feelings appear — desire and aversion; the first being an endeavour towards that which is favourable to the vital processes, and the second being a retraction from that which has the opposite effect. From these primitive reactions of advance or retreat, Hobbes proceeds to derive all the more complex or remote emotions or motives. The novel element in Hobbes’s psychology is not the rather cynical assumption of human selfishness which it implies, it is rather the psychological theory by which he tries to make egoism a scientifically grounded account of behaviour. Thus Jibanananda’s protagonist also realizes that life affords no breathing space or moment of repose in which the end can be once for all achieved, but is a restless pursuit of the means of continued existence; and moreover, the means of security being precarious, no moderation of desire can place a limit to the struggle for existence. He feels that his own desire for security, the really fundamental need of human nature, is always at stake, because every degree of security requires to be still further secured. In fact he understands that the apparently modest need for security is equivalent to an endless need for some unknown ‘X’ factor, i.e.—
“One more endangered exclamation”
that may forfend the inevitable destruction which must in the end overtake all men; and as he fails to supply himself with that requirement, he gets fatigued and yields to that inevitable doom.
Interestingly enough, Jibanananda’s protagonist is an absurd example of an absurd man, who is a prey to his truths; as once he has admitted them, he cannot free himself from them, he has to pay something — here, his own life. Since, he is a man who has become conscious of the absurd, i.e.—
“Knowing that the life of a grasshopper, a magpie-robin — is never to be met with that of a humankind.”
he is forever bound to it; and since he is a man devoid of hope, and conscious of being, he has ceased to belong to the future :—
“Never shall he wake up again.”
Albert Camus, the pioneer existentialist –novelist and philosopher, cites the example of such an absurd man in his reputed work ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’; and in this context he distinguishes between two kinds of suicide — ‘philosophical suicide’ and ‘plain suicide’. Camus states, “It is that divorce between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints, my nostalgia for unity, this fragmented universe and the contradiction that binds them together. Kierkegaard suppresses my nostalgia and Husserl gathers together that universe.” He further adds, “It was a matter of living and thinking with those dislocations, of knowing whether one had to accept or refuse. There can be no question of masking the evidence, of suppressing the absurd by denying one of the terms of its equation. It is essential to know whether one can live with it or whether, on the other hand, logic commands one to die of it. I am not interested in philosophical suicide, but rather in plain suicide.” Camus shows as example, Dostoevsky’s hero of ‘The Possessed’ — Kirilov, who is an advocate of logical suicide. Kirilov finds it humiliating for him to play the roles of both the plaintiff and the defendant, the accused and the judge at the same time, as this entire comedy is perpetrated by nature; and henceforth he condemns that nature, which brings him into being in order to suffer, to be annihilated with him. Thus by killing himself, he is actually taking his revenge, as it is for an idea, a thought, that he is taking his own life. This, in fact, is the superior suicide, a pedagogical suicide, as he wants to commit suicide because it “is his idea”. So is the case with Jibanananda’s protagonist, too.
Now the final questions which remain are that, whether this logical and pedagogical killing of the self can be called a ‘tragedy’ or not; and whether Jibanananda’s protagonist, hence, can or cannot be regarded as a true ‘tragic hero’. In this regard, we may best rely upon the Nietzschean antithesis between the Dionysiac or tragic mood, and the theoretical, rationalistic spirit of Socrates. The question of tragedy, indeed, has always remained extremely important for Nietzsche, the German philosopher, since he equates the Dionysiac mode of being — both in his early, romantic conception of it, and in his later, heroic conception of it — specifically with the tragic attitude to life. In ‘Ecce Homo’, Nietzsche claims that, with the possible exception of Heraclitus, no other philosopher before him has understood what the terms ‘Dionysiac’ or ‘tragic’ mean. No philosopher, therefore, has been able to grasp the tragic character of human life, before him, i.e.— to have discovered and embodied the ‘truth’. Nietzsche’s theory of tragedy is rooted in his Schopenhauerian metaphysics. The distinction which Schopenhauer drew between the world of appearance — the spatio-temporal realm of objects and real things, and the sphere of the will, is the basis which Nietzsche’s theory stands upon. Schopenhauer’s metaphysical subordination of man to the will remains an essential feature of Nietzsche’s scheme. This has significant consequences for Nietzsche’s view of tragic downfall. Like Schopenhauer, and in contrast to Aristotle, Nietzsche sees the tragic hero as destroyed by supra-personal cosmic forces. That is not to say that man is merely a victim for Nietzsche — he recognizes that the hero commits sacrilege by overstepping the limits of individual action; but the final cause of the hero’s destruction, that with which the heroic individual comes into conflict, is a supra-personal, metaphysical force behind the actions of men. The ‘tragic hero’ in fact suffers in his own person the primordial contradiction that is concealed in things. In his ‘Twilight of the Idols’, Nietzsche says, “Affirmation of life even in its strangest and sternest problems, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustibility through the sacrifice of its highest types — that is what I called Dionysiac.” According to him, the tragic spirit combines heroic effort and heroic wholeness or self-possession; it is a spirit which confronts the inevitability of destruction, and vehemently affirms that destruction as the means to further heroic creativity. In this respect, Jibanananda’s protagonist fails to confront and affirm the most detested and notorious sides of existence, and also to joyfully affirm the suffering and the sacrifice of his personality which that philosophical heroism entails. That Jibanananda is essentially identified as a ‘tragic poet’ is an unquestionable truth; yet even this very ‘truth’ too must never be taken for granted to be beyond all and every questions; because ‘tragedy’ itself too is relative, very much like the poet’s own philosophy of relative truth.