Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta
The Nobel Prize for Literature has an air of imperious idiosyncrasy about it. There is often an evident, willed parochialism about the history and human experience, genre and geography, from which great literature emerges. The Committee will often stretch its imagination to discover some new avant garde in Europe, a choice so niche and strange that it only underscores the Committee’s provincialism. There is always the philosophical canard that any citation carries: Great literature must have universal appeal or relate to themes of universal significance. But just what is that universal, and how is it constituted? What gets confined to the category of the particular?
These questions hang like a shadow over many of the Nobel choices. In the choices for poetry, itself an increasingly marginalised genre, some choices, like Seamus Heaney or Wislawa Szymborska stand out for a self-evident luminosity, intelligence, precision and the power to move. The winner this year, Louise Gluck, is supremely worthy of the honour. But acknowledging that fact is not incompatible with recognising that she is not an obvious choice. She has been more recognised through awards than read. Heaney or Szymborska were global names before the Prize. And even Gluck’s most ardent defenders will acknowledge, she does not turn too many memorable phrases that stick in your mind; the effect of her poems is not in that flash of illumination, it is in the slow build-up of a disconcerting experience.
I had not heard of Gluck till a friend gifted a copy of her collection A Village Life. A lot of contemporary poetry invites scepticism, where the effort to reward ratio seems not quite right. I was sceptical. But the first paragraph was inviting. “There should be more time like this, to sit and dream/ It’s as his cousin says: Living — living takes you away from sitting.” The next five poems all had the figure of “sitting.” Nothing especially poetic about “sitting,” except the suggestion of a hard won pause, a slowing down, an injunction to observe.
At the level of affect, this sitting and looking out of windows, the refuge from living, also seemed to speak to a kind of freedom that is attractive precisely because it is so sedentary. It appeals to those of us with sedentary natures. But this turned out to be a monumental deception. The act of slowing down, of looking out from a window, slowly but surely, unleashes an avalanche that makes living look easier. The cosmic joke is that if you think sitting and contemplating is a refuge from life, you are mistaken: Living is needed to save us from what observing ourselves might unleash.
The Village is a late composition in a career that spans almost half a century. It does not have the directness of her earlier work, but you could see that she was a great poet of disillusionment. One of the features of her work was that she invoked “Nature,” rain, trees, seasons, plants, mountains, as a kind of homology with emotional life. But she does it in a completely unsettling way. Unlike her New England predecessors, from Emerson to Robert Frost, Nature does not console, nor is it the source of order. Landscape has a certain permanence, but it heightens our turbulence, does not calm it. There is no solace.
The Israeli novelist, David Grossman, once said the most epic dramas of our lives are not in public deeds, they are in the most intimate sphere. The family is the site of the most epic battles. It, not the sphere of great public deeds, is what unleashes the full range of human emotions, and exposes the elusive quest for self-mastery. Every reader of any ancient text knows this. But in modernity, there is a peculiar burden that the sphere of family and intimacy carry. This is, in one sense, the sphere of freedom, the site where love and meaning are constructed. But this is a burden it cannot bear.
In Gluck, this has two motifs. One is a familiar feminist one: That structures of power make this sphere even more cruelly reproduce power than provide a refuge from it. It is done with an expansive poignancy in her retelling the story of Abishag from the Old Testament to her musing on marriage through the recreation of Penelope from the Odysseus. In the “Parable of the Swans” from Meadowlands she writes: “So it came to light that the male and female/flew under different banners: whereas the male believed that love was what one felt in one’s heart/the female believed love was what one did.”
But it is harder to shake off a deeper darker motif: In a world that has liberated us from the constraints of objective meaning, we are supposed to pursue our passions. But what if these passions are mysterious, perverse, often torturous and not quite under control? Gluck’s talent is to show that the manifestation of this darkness is not in the public acts of evil, it flows through ordinary relationships. Or the always ambiguous character of any striving. In “Descending Figure” she writes, “It is the same need to perfect/of which death is the mere by product”.
She is often described as the poet of relationships: Marriage, sibling rivalry, friendship, betrayal, the body, familial conflict, and more profoundly, death. But how much of the appreciation of her work depends on sharing her unsparing disillusionment? She can profoundly illuminate human experience. But the claim that this is of universal significance depends on sharing the end point of most of her poems: The controlled articulation of a turbulent disenchantment. Put aside the technicalities of the craft of poetry, but there was a time when a WB Yeats or a Rabindranath Tagore would be considered universal, because of what they offered: A possibility of re-enchantment.
That re-enchantment, in the mood of our age, now appears as a form of sentimentalism. In selecting Gluck, we are not just honouring a craft; we are privileging a literature whose job is to resist redemption or enchantment. It is not to save us, but to expose the fact (as her best collections, Ararat, Meadowlands, and The Wild Iris, remind us) that we are entirely at the mercy of our own passions; even a God would give up ordering them.
In “Parados”, she writes, “I was born to a vocation/to bear witness to the great mysteries. Now that I have seen both birth and death, I know to the dark nature these are proofs, not mysteries.” She gives proof of a disillusioned existence.
The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express