Human Kind Cannot Bear Very Much Reality

A drama is being played out in these lines, and I suspect that Eliot is thinking of another text as he recasts the latter’s drama in his own terms. The text is the Bhagavad Gita, which I had read at the age of 17 or 18 in Juan Mascaró’s translation but forgotten by the time I met Gay Clifford. The Gita’s paradoxical thesis about “detached action”—a kind of work that is undertaken for its own sake.

Footnotes #1

A garden with statue and topiary.
Image via Library of Congress.

In a new ongoing column, Amit Chaudhuri teases out personal memory, cultural history, and meaning from a word, phrase, or line.

I went to London in 1983 for an undergraduate degree in English and found myself in a damp, hostile city. Margaret Thatcher, as Prime Minister, had already destroyed the last traces of socialism that had partly made England—even Southern England—so dour, but the fairy dust of post-globalization gentrification that would change London was some years away.

I was in London not because I was from the “margins” and it was a “center”: I found it duller and less modern—with its primeval rain, its semi-detached houses, its austere food—than Bombay and Calcutta. I was there because I wrote, through no fault of mine, in the English language. A Bengali, I had grown up in Bombay, which meant I had no language to write in except the one I’d learned in school: English. I was among the last of the generation that felt this to be an ontological flaw. I admired those who wrote in Bengali and felt concerned that my lack of mastery of my parents’ mother tongue implied I could never be a true writer. English still hadn’t become language, as it would after globalization. The world contained a multiplicity of languages, experiences, histories, and London was just another city in a world full of cities, many of them more astonishing than London. Nevertheless, I loved writing (that is, other people’s writing: what is generally called “literature”) and poetry, which I primarily knew through the English language. I also wrote poetry myself. I was in London because I wanted my poetry to be published. But in those days, before the explosion of creative writing programs, loving writing (as opposed to feeling that you had something important to say) was what led you to write, and then to the study of writing itself, which was done via a discipline called “literature” rather than a workshop preceded by the adjective “creative writing.” Our attempts at writing were our own affair; our love of writing expressed itself not through our preoccupations with our own work, but through our readings of literature.

I soon made up my mind that neither of these projects—writing; studying literature—were going to be helped by attending lectures. So I didn’t go. I investigated daytime (mostly children’s) television, whose content—because it presumably had such small budgets to work with—was artful and imaginative; I made sporadic forays into pornographic outlets; and I deepened my interest in religion as a realm of poetic experience. I would say that I was among the last of those whose idea of the literary and the modern emerged from a confluence that occurred in many parts of the world, by the middle of the nineteenth century, between poetry and religion: I was a late offspring of a history that didn’t believe as much as adored, and whatever people like myself adored—a Shyama sangeet to Kali, or an image of Kali herself, or the glimpse of a double-decker bus, or the interior of a church—was situated in the interchangeability of the poetic with the sacred. So it didn’t matter to me that T.S. Eliot had formally joined the Anglo-Catholic church by the time he wrote “Burnt Norton” in 1936, and nor should it have mattered to Eliot that non-Christians or non-religious people, like myself, were reading his poem.

I didn’t take his poem to be an expression of Christian belief; nor did I assume the poem was unrelated to his investment in Christianity. Eliot himself, in his 1927 essay “A Note On Poetry and Belief,” had attempted to address these contradictions, claiming that “I cannot say that poetry can ever be separated from something which I should call belief,” without disowning the assertions he’d made in 1919 in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: “It is not in his personal emotions, the emotions provoked by particular events in his life, that the poet is in any way remarkable or interesting.” The meaning of that sentence would remain intact if you replaced the word “emotions” with “beliefs.” In the 1927 “note,” he revises the sentences that come toward the end of the earlier essay (“Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”) thus:

It takes application, and a kind of genius, to believe anything, and to believe anything (I do not mean merely to believe in some “religion”) will probably become more and more difficult as time goes on.

But it was the freedom these contradictions provided that allowed Eliot himself to continue to read and refer to the Gita and the Upanishads in his work in a way that was neither historical, ethnographic, anthropological, nor devotional. In the early 1980s, I was the among the last to still be at large in this domain of contradictory experience that, for about two centuries by then (Charles Wilkins’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita was published in 1785), had shaped literature and its recasting of the religious experience.

Though I gave lectures a miss, I attended seminars—they had a roll-call of attendance—and I certainly had to see my tutor for one-to-one fortnightly tutorials. My tutor was Gay Clifford, a gifted medievalist, feminist, poet, and literary theorist (admired, I later discovered, by many, including Germaine Greer). At the time I met her in 1983, she seemed to possess the vividness of the immediately preceding decades, and yet had all the arcaneness of the contemporary. “This is a wonderful book,” she said to me, lifting Kristeva’s Desire in Language from the shelf. She was also occasionally ill, and had trouble with her vision, although I wasn’t yet aware of the severity of her illness, and it’s possible she wasn’t either. Among the things we discussed were headaches: I had them, and she did too. Mine were an excuse not to go to the seminar on Anglo-Saxon; hers were related to a brain tumor. She died eventually, in 1998, at the age of 55. I can’t say we got on. Once the tutorial essay was out of the way, we had intense and slightly competitive discussions on literature and—because I would persistently move the conversation in that direction—spirituality and religion. The entirety of the Chaucerians and medievalists at UCL, including her, had taken it upon themselves to detoxify first-years of the “romantic misconception” of literature. We were talking once during a tutorial, and I began to expand on the resistance people had to acknowledging the transcendental that ran through everything. “You know,” I said, turning to Eliot and “Burnt Norton” to back me up, “human kind cannot bear very much reality.”

“That’s interesting,” she said, not looking at me partly because of problems developing with her sight, partly because she found me exasperating. “You see, Mr. Chaudhuri”—she didn’t start addressing me as “young Amit” until a few months later—“most people would say this is ‘reality.’” And she knocked twice, firmly, on the table next to her.

When I think back to her words and to Eliot’s line, I wonder what lay behind her literalist, materialist, unambiguous response. Its intent may have been purely deflationary—to break the irritating transcendental spell and emphasize the physicality of the universe. But, from her tone, it sounded like the empiricist in her was speaking. Also, in retrospect, I remind myself that she was one of the first British academics to engage with “theory”—so “reality,” for her, would necessarily have had quotation marks around it. Was she, then, a theorist intellectually, but an empiricist in her personal life, one who simply navigated “reality” and fact as any human being had to? Besides, her occluded eyesight would have given an added materiality to the tables and chairs in her room. Is that what she was drawing my attention to? It was also a time when the socialist realist reproach toward “escapism” (even though the word was falling out of use) was still in play—so that commercial cinema and bestselling fiction, and sometimes art itself, were accused of not facing up to reality’s harshness. Was it this that she was alerting me to by knocking on the table twice?

Looking now at the first section in “Burnt Norton,” toward the end of which the line I’d quoted to Gay Clifford occurs, I find that it doesn’t make clear what “reality” is. After the opening reflections on time (“Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past”), the poem’s speaker invites us into a garden—possibly the rose garden at the manor at Burnt Norton in Gloucestershire which Eliot visited in 1934. “My words echo / . . . in your mind,” says the speaker, and then asks, “Other echoes / Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?” We are urged in, by a bird in the first instance (“Quick, said the bird, find them, find them . . .”), without being sure if the bird should be trusted: “. . . shall we follow / The deception of the thrush?” The experience that follows promises to be palpable and illusory at once. In the garden, we encounter beings only referred to as “they”: “There they were, dignified, invisible, / Moving without pressure.” The “they” turn out to be our guests,” though it’s surely “we” who are visitors: they are dancing, or at least moving “in a formal pattern, . . . To look down into the drained pool.” We join them in this movement at the pool’s edge: “Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged, / And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight, / And the lotos rose quietly, quietly, / The surface glittered out of heart of light.” At this point, the bird says “Go,” and then, again, “Go, go, go,” though we aren’t certain whether it means we should go away, leaving this scene, or go towards it, entering further. Someone—either the speaker or the bird—adds that “human kind cannot bear very much reality”: “Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.” What “reality” is hasn’t, by this point, become evident: are we being told to escape it, into the garden, or do we need to exit the garden in order to return to reality?

A drama is being played out in these lines, and I suspect that Eliot is thinking of another text as he recasts the latter’s drama in his own terms. The text is the Bhagavad Gita, which I had read at the age of 17 or 18 in Juan Mascaró’s translation but forgotten by the time I met Gay Clifford. The Gita’s paradoxical thesis about “detached action”—a kind of work that is undertaken for its own sake, separate from the achievement of a goal or outcomes arrived at in an exchange between Krishna and Arjuna during an interruption, a moment of stasis, within the unfolding narrative and momentum of the epic, the Mahabharata. The brothers Pandavas had lost their kingdom to their cousins, the Kauravas, in an ill-advised game of dice. They were banished for fourteen years, the agreement being that their kingdom would be returned to them after that period. The agreement isn’t honored, and the cousins meet each other on the battlefield with their armies. “When Arjuna thus saw his kinsmen face to face in both lines of battle, he was overcome with grief and despair.” It’s now that the god Krishna speaks with the warrior and hero Arjuna about how he should proceed, leading to the strange poetic interlude we call the Gita. Among the counterintuitive paradoxes he articulates are these: “Be in peace in pleasure and pain, in gain and in loss, in victory and in the loss of a battle”; and, just as oddly, “Set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward.” This is advice not about strategies of war but tropes related to strategies of equanimity and, simultaneously, commitment and detachment. I think these tropes preoccupied a series of European thinkers from Kant onwards, and helped them reshape their idea of the aesthetic or literary as an anti-Enlightenment, anti-instrumentalist force: “purposeful purposelessness” for Kant (who arrived at this formulation five years after the Gita had been put into circulation in Europe in Charles Wilkins’s English translation, and subsequently in other versions); “disinterested action,” Matthew Arnold’s conception of criticism, where “disinterested” means a sense of detachment from the pursuit of a concrete, instrumental outcome rather than objective judgement; and “impersonality” (the rejection of the idea of poetry as self-expression) for Eliot. (Arnold and Eliot had studied the Gita closely.) The penultimate sentence of “Tradition and the Individual Talent” is a rephrasing of, and (very much in the manner that Eliot was developing in his poetry) almost a direct quotation from, the Gita: “And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done.”

In 1934, the year Eliot visited Burnt Norton, he was again reworking lines from the Gita in his play The Rock: “I say to you: Make perfect your will. / I say: take no thought of the harvest, / But only of proper sowing.” In the first section of “Burnt Norton,” lines I have quoted above—”And the lotos rose quietly, quietly, / The surface glittered out of heart of light”—take us to the Gita, chapter 5, verse 10: “brahmanyadhaya karmani sangam tyaktva karoti yah / lipyate na sa papena padma-patram ivambhasa.” That is: “Those who direct their work towards brahman, giving up attachment / remain untouched by sin as the lotus-leaf is untouched by water.” There is no exact word in English for brahman. It’s neither God nor spirit—Eliot’s “impersonality” could well serve as an approximation.

But what is the drama in the Gita that section I of “Burnt Norton” returns us to? After all, the Gita is not a dramatic text. It comprises, as I said, a moment of stasis. As with any work (and the Gita is probably the first instance of such a work) that deals with what comes in between events, its manner is poetic. The Gita comprises the birth of a definition of poetry not as image, myth, metaphor, or paradox (though it may have elements of these), but as an unfolding that’s resistant to movement. This is in keeping with its central trope: Krishna urging Arjuna to act, to go to battle, but to put aside the thought of outcome. The notion of movement without outcome is strange, and Kant, Arnold, and Eliot would have seen its significance for an emerging modern idea, or rethinking, of the literary. What dramatic element, in the midst of this stasis, does “Burnt Norton” pick up on, then?

It has to do with Arjuna wishing to see Krishna is his unbounded form. In the first three books of the Gita, Krishna is busy with conceptual arguments and with introducing Arjuna to paradoxes (“He is never born, and he never dies”). It’s at the beginning of Book 4 that he asks Arjuna to get his head around his divinity. Arjuna knows Krishna is divine, but also that he has an earthly biography. So, when Krishna says about the conceptual statements he’s made until that point, “I revealed this everlasting Yoga to Vivasvan, the sun, the father of light,” Arjuna is confused by this detail and the chronology it implies, and points out: “Thy birth was after the birth of the sun: the birth of the sun was before thine. What is the meaning of thy words: ‘I revealed this Yoga to Vivasvan?’” Krishna replies: “I have been born many times. . . . Although I am unborn, everlasting, and I am the Lord of all, I come to my realm of nature and through my wondrous power I am born.” So here’s a contradiction: how can someone who’s evidently been born, insofar they’re standing before you, also be “unborn”? In what way can we be in conversation with someone who has had no birth?

Then, famously, Krishna proclaims why he took human form. This conundrum and its relevance to us all (why do we bother to take human form and arrive into earthly existence, when we know life is a mixed blessing?) has preoccupied certain poets and artists—Tagore, Jibanananda Das, the filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami—with greater intensity than, for instance, the question of why we continue living when suicide is always an option. The Gita shows us that God must grapple with this perplexing question too: why go to the trouble of taking on human form, given the finitude and vagaries of being human? Krishna’s explanation to Arjuna is simple: “When righteousness is weak and faints and unrighteousness exults in pride, then my Spirit arises on earth.”

One assumes Arjuna isn’t entirely satisfied with these replies, because Krishna has to return, in Book 7, to accounting for who he is: “Hear now, Arjuna, how thou shalt have full vision of me, if thy heart is set on me.” He offers axioms that can’t, strictly speaking, be termed “visual”: “I am the taste of living waters and the light of the sun. . . . I am the pure fragrance that comes from the earth and the brightness of fire I am.” Krishna is undermining, here, the empiricism on which we base our understanding of the visible world.

Now Arjuna begins to want, from Krishna’s self-description, something less inexplicable and slippery, and more concrete. In the words of creative writing classes, he wants to be “shown, not told” (although he has not really been told anything, either, in any recognizable sense). In Book 10, he asks, “[H]ow shall I ever know thee? And in what manifestations shall I think of thee, my Lord? Speak to me again in full of thy power and of thy glory.” Krishna submits, and gives Arjuna a long, arresting list of analogies: “Among the sons of light I am Vishnu, and of luminaries the radiant sun. . . . of the lights in the night I am the moon. . . . Of horses I am the horse of Indra, and of elephants his elephant Airavata. . . . Of weapons I am the thunderbolt. . . . Among the snakes of mystery I am Ananta. . . . among all the rivers the holy Ganges. . . . I am death that carries off all things. . . . I am the cleverness of the gambler’s dice.”

Lists are unlike the building blocks of realism. Each element in a list is a fresh beginning; it demands a new engagement from the imagination. Perhaps this frustrates Arjuna. In Book 11, he says: “I have heard thy words of truth, but my soul is yearning to see: to see thy form as God of this all. If thou thinkest, O my Lord, that it can be seen by me, show me, O God of Yoga, the glory of thine own Supreme Being.” This low-key, insistent nagging on Arjuna’s part, in response to Krishna’s stubborn attempts to make Arjuna “see” conceptually rather than retinally, contribute to the one dramatic—possibly comic—element running through the Gita. At last, Krishna relents: “By hundreds and then by thousands, behold, Arjuna, my manifold celestial forms of innumerable shapes and colors. . . . But thou never canst see me with these thy mortal eyes: I will give thee divine sight. Behold my wonder and glory.”

Sanjaya, the narrator of this conversation, observes: “When Krishna, the God of Yoga, had thus spoken, O king, he appeared then to Arjuna in his supreme divine form. And Arjuna saw in that form countless visions of wonder . . .” What is revealed by Krishna is not one terrible form, as in the Burkean sublime, but a cosmology: “the radiance [of] the whole universe in its variety.” Arjuna responds: “How difficult thou art to see! But I see thee: as fire, as the sun, blinding, incomprehensible . . . my heart shakes in terror.” A little later, he says: “If in careless presumption, or even in friendliness, I said, ‘Krishna! Son of Yadu! My friend!’ this I did unconscious of thy greatness. . . . In a vision I have seen what no man has seen before: I rejoice in exultation, and yet my heart trembles with fear.” He begs Krishna to return to the incarnation he’s familiar with, and Krishna complies: “Thou hast seen the tremendous form of my greatness, but fear not, and be not bewildered. Free from fear and with a glad heart see my friendly form again.” To which Arjuna says: “When I see thy gentle human face, Krishna, I return to my own nature, and my heart has peace.”

This is neither the conclusion of the Gita, nor its core. It’s a dramatic development to do with terrible revelation and then deflation, a moment meant to be forgotten after it’s registered with awe, unlike the other passages, whose meaning sinks in later. “My words echo / Thus, in your mind”: this is less Eliot, who would hardly presume to speak to us with such intimacy, than Krishna speaking to Arjuna. Section I of “Burnt Norton” echoes the Gita in its direct second-person address; in it urgings to action that have no clear outcome (“Shall we follow? / Quick . . . find them, find them”; “Go, go, go”); and in its admonition, to do with a moment of spectacular drama and terrible revelation: “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” (That Eliot had been rereading the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna in the decade he composed Four Quartets is evident, as well, in the third poem in the Quartets, “The Dry Salvages” (1941), where he is still wondering, at the beginning of section III, about “what Krishna meant.”)

From the Gita, Eliot had picked up a poetic-critical mode that impelled him to dispense with the binaries of post-Enlightenment thought and attempt a new vocabulary to suggest how poetry might best challenge those binaries. But he also learned from it not to desire a full-frontal view of “reality”; not only because “[h]uman kind cannot bear very much” of it, but because he wanted to remain a poet—that is, a kind of writer who both chooses to grasp things incompletely and also has a longing for “reality” as the commonplace: “When I see thy gentle human face, Krishna, I return to my own nature, and my heart has peace.” Towards the end of “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” too, Eliot rehearses the receding of that dramatic moment in the Gita, when Krishna returns to his familiar form: “This essay proposes to halt at the frontier of metaphysics or mysticism, and confine itself to such practical conclusions as can be applied by the responsible person interested in poetry.” “Human kind cannot bear very much reality,” yes; but “reality” is also the “practicality” of what we know and what comprises our world—the two sharp knocks on the table.

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