In Conversation with Jared Carter

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all 
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." 
Ode to a Grecian Urn, John Keats, 1819 

It was a challenge to interview a poet who does not want to talk of his work or of himself. And yet, here was a person whose poetry moved me and from who, I was sure, we had much to learn. I am talking of an acclaimed poet from America, Jared Carter. He permitted me to introduce him with this: “Jared Carter is an American poet who has published seven books of poetry. His volume of new and selected poems, Darkened Rooms of Summer, was issued in 2014 by the University of Nebraska Press. He lives in Indianapolis, Indiana.” If you are more curious about him, his achievements, education and awards, visit his Wiki Page.

Jared Carter

Carter’s poetry is remarkable in giving us glimpses of American life and thoughts, especially as he talks of the wind, the snow and cicadas, as he wrenches poignancy in the hearts of readers bringing out the cruelty in the slaughter of cattle. He draws from the life of common people and their work. At times, he could write of  changing a lightbulb and yet create a sense of wonder with his crafting. Despite his obvious Western outlook, he has written of the elusive Yeti – a most beautiful composition. He does tell us in the interview how he wrote it. One would also wonder why he selected to represent ephemerality with such a mythical creature from the East when most of his poems reflect life in America. The poem strangely captures the quality of elusiveness perfectly with extensive crafting.

For him, poetry is more than the first part of the Wordsworthian concept , “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. It is about working on the concept further “in tranquillity” and making it exquisite, like an artifact. We started this interview by reflecting on artifacts that impacted him. Despite his reluctance to speak of himself, Carter does tell us much about his Victorian upbringing and the impact it has had in making him who he is and writing as beautifully as he does.  And perhaps, we can also get a glimpse of why he wrote of the “Yeti”. Let us now step into the world of Jared Carter.

You are fascinated by certain artifacts from India and China. Tell us the story around those. Why do they move you?

I mentioned those two heirlooms — a chess set made of ivory, from China, and a carved wooden box, from India — because they provided my first introduction to those two great cultures, when I was a boy growing up in a small town in Indiana, a state near the center of the United States.

My father had purchased the chess set in September of 1945, in a pawnshop in Chicago, when he was on the last leg of his journey home from serving three years in the war in the Pacific. It was a set of delicate white and red figures, in elaborate costumes, the white side in Victorian dress, the red side in traditional Chinese robes, and on both sides, horses rearing and elephants carrying castles.

If my memory is correct, the attire of the pieces was the very embodiment of colonialism. I was told much later that the set was among several that had been made for the export trade in the nineteenth century.

As a child, of course, I had heard the word “China” and the country was mentioned in school, which I was just beginning at the age of six. But in those days, I had no strong impression of China, nor even much interest in it. In contrast, my father’s ivory chess set was a tangible object that I could look at and admire, and sometimes even be allowed to touch. It had traveled many thousands of miles, from the other side of the world, to be in our home, and was held in great esteem by my father and my older brother, who were both avid chess players.

Once a year, on my father’s birthday, as I recall, they would take down the set from the glass case they had built to display it and play a game of chess with those fantastic pieces. This was always a solemn occasion in our household, and a memorable one. In my young mind, it was an almost ceremonial way of being in touch with a mysterious land that lay far across the seas.

If today, almost eighty years later, I try to think back to my first awareness of China — what it was, where it is, what it might be like — I return to my memory of that chess set. I return to the sight of those delicately carved pieces, in their remarkable formality and fragility, arranged in rows on a chequered board. That image is suspended now, and outside of time, and yet in my mind’s eye, the figures are still waiting to be moved, in ways that will begin once more that most ancient and traditional of games. In this way I was first introduced to the very idea of China’s existence.

By our best estimates, chess was originally invented in India, although I did not know this at the time. In a way, as I look back now, perhaps my memory of the ivory chess set puts me in touch, even now, with something great and lasting about the contributions of both of those cultures.

The elaborately carved box from India had a similar effect on my young imagination. It was a box in which my father’s mother kept her few items of simple jewelry. Sometimes she would let me and my two cousins take it down from her dresser and examine it more closely. There were already a few books in my grandfather’s library about India. We were familiar with the name of that country, and we knew it was quite distant. But the box was an actual object that had come all the way from India, we were told, and that made it special.

The box had been given to my grandmother by her only brother, who was an artist, and who had purchased it sometime in the 1930s, along with a great many other art objects and artifacts with which I would become familiar as I grew older. But this box — again, something made in the nineteenth century — spurred my first awareness of India. I could peer into its carvings of elephants and monkeys and exotic plants and imagine that I was seeing into the heart of that mysterious, far-off place.

India and China of course constitute much, much more than what was suggested by those two objects.  But we are speaking of first impressions here, which are precious to a child, and which, in my case, have proved to be lasting.
You had an interesting story about your aunt being in India. Can you tell us about that?

The artist mentioned, my grandmother’s only brother, took as his second wife, in the 1930s, after the death of his first wife, a teacher of English literature, who taught for the Baltimore school system. She had been brought up in India and was evidently the child of missionary parents. 

She may actually have been born in India, and most likely left it in about 1923, to attend an American university.  She lived until 1959, and I was taken to visit her on several occasions, and when I was old enough to drive, I would ferry my grandmother down to visit her, in a summer studio located in southern Indiana. She spoke with a British accent — perhaps the first I had ever heard — and preferred tea rather than coffee. After the artist’s death, in 1946, she would speak knowingly of his own works of art, and of the various items and artifacts he had collected during his lifetime. 

Those things were from many cultures, many eras — a handsome 15th-century refectory table from Italy, a pair of large, nineteenth-century ceramic jars from China, an unglazed wine vessel that may have been Etruscan, a variety of pieces in English pewter, and so on.  The spacious, high-ceilinged, two-story building had been a lodge hall before it was converted into the artist’s studio by my father and grandfather. It was utterly chock-a-block with beautiful objects and gorgeous paintings.

On a number of occasions I was allowed to wander through those rooms on my own, and to consider those different objects. There was no teacher, no guidebook, except for the widow’s occasional comment about where this or that artifact had come from, or when he had acquired it. I simply looked at what was there. This was a part of my informal introduction to art, and exotic places, a tutelage that had begun with the chess set and the carved box.  If nothing else, the experience may have made me into a lifelong museum goer, especially when museums of art are available.

But you asked about my Aunt Carolyn, as we called her, and her origins in India. She sometimes referred to that Indian childhood, although unfortunately I remember little of what she said. I do recall her speaking of a time in the early 1920s when she witnessed a crowd of Indian nationalists demonstrating in a non-violent manner. Raj policemen carrying lead-weighted wooden cudgels waded into the crowd, shattering the kneecaps of the demonstrators with their clubs. The authorities knew, she said, that a broken kneecap was not a mortal injury, but that it would render a demonstrator unable to walk for months on end, thus preventing that person, for a time, from joining future demonstrations. To say nothing of discouraging him from joining any demonstrations at all. Aunt Carolyn seemed to have a very low opinion of the British.

Are you familiar with Indian and Chinese literature?

Only as a reader and an amateur. In about 1961 a younger sister brought home from college, as a houseguest, an Indian student she had met. He was very polite and serious, and generously gave me a copy of a translation of the Gita, which I still have, and which was my first introduction to the classic literature of India. I’ve been sampling that literature ever since, reading essays and an occasional book, attending a lecture or two, taking in a traveling exhibition. So, I have a layman’s understanding of subcontinent history and culture, but it is no more than that, and I am far from being well-versed.

My introduction to the history, art, and culture of China came slightly earlier and has been a bit more extensive. As an undergraduate at Yale, I studied history of art with the scholar Nelson Ikon Wu. It was an introductory course, but he placed special emphasis on landscape paintings of the Southern Song, and with that influence, in later years, I seem to have gone on to develop an interest in many things Chinese, especially art of the T’ang dynasty.

Also while an upperclassman at Yale, I had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of a young graduate student from Clare College, Cambridge, named Jonathan Spence, who subsequently became a well-known scholar of Chinese history and culture. Over the years, my conversations with Jonathan, and my having read his numerous books, have formed an important part of my informal education.

For two semesters in the 1980s I served as a visiting writer at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, where I met and talked with Professor Sanford Goldstein, the eminent Japanese scholar and specialist in tanka, who for many years now, following his retirement, has resided in Japan. Thanks to Professor Goldstein, and one of his students with whom I am still in touch, and not immediately, but gradually, my awareness of Japanese literature in translation has increased, along with my curiosity about haiku and tanka in English.
I have published a few haiku and tanka, and have corresponded with other scholars in that field, such as Professor Bryce Christensen, who is only recently back from a year of lecturing in Taiwan. By virtue of my acquaintance with these talented individuals, I hope I have developed a better understanding of both Japanese and Chinese literature — especially the poetry of the T’ang dynasty, in translation, for which I have a great liking.

Do you read translations? What is your opinion on the role of translations?

Without translators and translations, we would be utterly lost. For example, whatever I am privileged to know about the poetry of Li Bai (701-762) and Du Fu (712-770, also spelt as Tu Fu) and all of their marvelous contemporaries, I know their poetry only because they reach me through various translations. So, I have accumulated a small library of translated works by the major world poets — Sophocles through Dante, Basho to Neruda. Every serious poet does this. I would like to think we are perhaps the wiser for it.

Any poet writing in English is immeasurably indebted to Arthur Waley for his masterful translations. Another translator I might mention is the American, Kenneth Rexroth, who happens to have been a fellow Hoosier — which means he was born in the state of Indiana. Rexroth emigrated eventually to California, where after World War Two he became an eminent poet, scholar, and translator of poetry from both the Chinese and Japanese traditions.

Du Fu.
Courtesy:Creative Commons

I possess a number of Rexroth’s books, and thanks to them, and to other translations by many different hands, I have come to have a great admiration for the T’ang poet Du Fu. He is my favourite, perhaps the poet that I return to, most frequently, in my own reading. In the following quotes, Rexroth, in a book published in 1971, employs a transliteration of the poet’s name different from the one in general use today. Rexroth alleges that Du Fu is

in my opinion, and in the opinion of a majority of those qualified to speak, the greatest non-epic, non-dramatic poet who has survived in any language. Sappho, for instance, can hardly be said to have survived. He shares with her, Catullus, and Baudelaire, his only possible competitors, a sensibility acute past belief.

I agree with that, except the part about his competitors, since there are a few more who might be mentioned. But the remark about Du Fu having “sensibility acute past belief” — surely that is apt. And for me, as for Rexroth, there is even more to Du Fu. It is something almost personal. Rexroth attempts to sum it up:

Tu Fu comes from a saner, older, more secular culture than Homer and it is not a new discovery with him that the gods, the abstractions and forces of nature, are frivolous, lewd, vicious, quarrelsome, and cruel, and only man's steadfastness, love, magnanimity, calm, and compassion redeem the night bound world.  It is not a discovery, culturally or historically, but it is the essence of his being as a poet.

Rexroth goes on to say how Du Fu’s writing has affected him as a person, an admission with which I happen to agree, and have found to be true in my own life:

I am sure he has made me a better man, as a moral agent and as a perceiving organism. I say that because I feel that . . . the greatest poetry answers out of hand the problems of the critic and the esthetician. Poetry like Tu Fu's is the answer to the question, "What is the purpose of Art?"

What writers do you read? Why?

 As a young person, in university and later, dreaming of becoming a writer, I read a great many novels and short stories, and was initially drawn to the work of the American novelist, William Faulkner.. The world he created seemed recognizable to me, and authentic. I hoped to create a similar world. Other American authors I have admired, and tried to learn from, have been Sara Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, and Sherwood Anderson. But there are dozens more, and dozens more European and world writers whom I admire.  

I have been fortunate, too, in having known Joseph Love, a  prominent historian of Brazilian history, and author of a splendid study of a remarkable  moment in Brazilian history, The Revolt of the Whip.  He and I were undergraduates together (he was at Harvard), and I have known him ever since, and through his many gifts and thoughtful recommendations, I have been introduced to a great deal of the literature and culture of Central and South America.

In the last few years most of my reading has been in history. I am a great admirer of the British historian Richard J. Evans, whose history of the Third Reich is unrivaled. Another of my favorites is John Julius Norwich and his history of the Byzantine Empire. I am extremely fond of Shelby Foote’s history of the American Civil War. And at the moment I am reading the late Tony Judt’s Postwar, a history of Europe from 1945 to the near present and am finding out how little I knew about that period, even though I lived through it.

These days I spend much more time reading history than either fiction or poetry. I have a large bookcase full of nothing but books about classic Egyptian history and art, and I have a smaller group of books about Meso-American prehistory and culture, and particularly Mayan art. I am simply curious about such matters.

Which are your favourite poets? Why?

I would have difficulty naming even a few. I have attempted to read them all, which of course is impossible, since new ones appear every day, and one is constantly discovering earlier ones. It has never seemed acceptable to me to list the names of poets who “influenced” me or the way I write. There are a few poets whose work I keep at my bedside, and whose books I still read. Two in particular are poets writing primarily in German, Rilke and Hölderlin. Among Americans, Frost. Among the English, Hardy and Larkin.

What do you learn from these writers? Do they impact you in any way?

I really don’t know. They’re just writers that I particularly like, and find myself re-reading, over the years. Kafka is another. So is Flaubert. I continue to read Henry James and Turgenev — all of those persons on whom, as James pointed out, “nothing is lost.”

Why is it you are reticent to talk of your work and poetic sensibilities?

I seem to be naturally reticent, even introverted. As a child I spent a certain amount of time with my grandmother and with a great-great aunt, both of whom were born in the 1870s. Both were thoroughgoing Victorians who exemplified the traditional virtues — thrift, honesty, industry, steadfastness. And perish the thought of anything vainglorious. I think a bit of that rubbed off on me.

I’ve done a little talking about myself in this interview, but only because you asked. My parents, too, taught me that one should avoid talking about oneself to others. It is also a professional attribute — physicians and attorneys traditionally do not advertise or promote themselves — and although I do not consider myself a professional in that sense, I can understand the reasoning. Professionalism in any undertaking is not a matter of office, title, or entitlement; it is a standard to be lived up to.

At university, it was explained to me that in polite society one does not discuss politics, religion, or how one earns a living. Ezra Pound says somewhere that you can always spot the bad critic if he focuses on the poet and not the poems. Add all of that up, and I seem to have little to say about myself or what I do.

I really loved your poem “Yeti”. You had said that while writing “Yeti” you disposed of a number of lines and picked a few. Would it be possible to share this part of your poetic process with us?

Well, again, “poetic sensibilities,” “poetic process” — I am not a critic, scholar, or professor, and I have no insights to offer about such matters. It is not my business to do so. Instead, I make poems, and I have been privileged to have published a few of them. So that our readers will know what we’re referring to, here is my poem “Yeti,” which your journal kindly published, for the first time, in its May 2021 issue. The poem conjures up the mysterious creature of the Himalayas, whose existence has never been verified, but which continues to haunt the imagination:


Tell me again that nothing’s there,
          that never was
At all, except in places where 
          things slip, or pause,

Yet register, on some high ridge
          where something moves
And then is gone. As though a bridge
          of snow should lose

Its grip, and drop away, but leave
          a shadow where
Such vanishing might still deceive
          in that thin air.

The first thing one notices about this poem, which is in a relatively new form called an Alexandroid, are its formal aspects — its lines end with rhymes, and it has repetitive stanzas and lines of a predictable length. A second thing one notices is its brevity — twelve lines in all, and a total number of syllables amounting to half of those in a typical sonnet in English. It is a small poem, then, in a range of length favoured by the American poet, Emily Dickinson. Longer than a haiku or tanka, but still very brief.

A third characteristic, perhaps not immediately apparent, is the way in which the “sh” sound in the closing lines — should, shadow, vanishing —  suggests the texture of something slipping away. Or the sound of a bridge of snow suddenly collapsing into a crevasse. In certain cultures, it is the same sound we make when we put a forefinger to our lips to signal for silence — shhhh.  

That sound is followed by the stark, icy i’s and e’s, at the poem’s very end, of might, deceive, thin, and air. The trail has gone cold, the Yeti has disappeared. That poetry can suggest strange moments like this, with such minimal input, is one reason why I like it so much.

In the making of such a poem there is, literally, no place to hide. Whoever reads it will be affected, consciously or not, by the smallest detail. It goes almost without saying that to make a poem within these parameters, the writer must, to borrow your phrase, “dispose of a number of lines and pick a few”. This is inescapable. There is simply no room in which to say whatever one likes, or to run on interminably. No room for the vainglorious.

Somewhere there may be a poet who can write a similar poem without hesitation, as though copying it out, not pausing to substitute or change a single word.

I suppose I do the opposite. I experiment and try out many different words, many lines, many drafts, in order to arrive at what I believe to be a poem. In doing this I don’t think I am any different from most other poets.

It has been pointed out that one interesting thing about poems is the way they can talk about one thing while implying something entirely different. “Yeti” is presumably about an elusive, folkloric creature, but at the same time it is talking about poetry, and how it disappears even while you are reading it, and sometimes you are not sure about what you have just read. Something still seems to be there, even while it vanishes into thin air.

What is it you look forward to?

I look forward to making more poems, and more books of poems. There’s an old American saying, from the days of vaudeville, which holds that “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”   

But clearly I am an old man of the forest now, and I think the best claim from an aging artist, about what can still be accomplished in the years ahead, is by the Japanese painter and printmaker, Hokusai. Since we’re discussing art and culture of the East, I’ll suggest that his marvelous statement, in his colophon to One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, is a perfect way to end this interview:

From the age of six, I had a passion for copying the form of things and since the age of fifty I have published many drawings, yet of all I drew by my seventieth year there is nothing worth taking into account. At seventy-three years I partly understood the structure of animals, birds, insects and fishes, and the life of grasses and plants. And so, at eighty-six I shall progress further; at ninety I shall even further penetrate their secret meaning, and by one hundred I shall perhaps truly have reached the level of the marvelous and divine. When I am one hundred and ten, each dot, each line will possess a life of its own.

In some translations, Hokusai adds, at the very end, with reference to what he has just affirmed, this invitation: “I beg those who live as long as I to see if I do not keep my word.”

Hokusai lasted until he was 88. That final sentence has always seemed to me to be a blessing he is bestowing on readers and admirers — a wish, for whoever might be listening, that those persons too might have long and fruitful lives.

I would hope Hokusai’s spirit still lingers, and that I might join him in wishing that for you, Madame Chakravarty, and for all of your journal’s most admirable readers, there on the other side of the planet Earth. Thanks to all of you for allowing me to come into your world.

Thank you very much Mr Carter for your kind words.

Click here to read the more from Jared Carter in Borderless Journal.

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)



The Literary Fictionist

Forgeries, Don Quixote & Epistemes

Sunil Sharma unravels the mystique of the Spanish ingénue, the man who fights windmills and has claimed much much literary attention post Quichotte

Don Quixote attacking the Windmill by John Doyle. Courtesy: Wiki

While learning Spanish in Mumbai recently, I came to enjoy Don Quixote immensely. And I also came to discover a unique tutor who came from the same enchanting land once traversed by the great philosophical Don on his poor steed Rocinante and in the company of his trusted fellow-adventurer, Sancho Panza. The shared links to Spain and her present and past culture made my wiry tall tutor a valuable guide. His observations vastly added to the pleasure of understanding the more than four-hundred-year-old sacrosanct text. He proved to be a skillful navigator, guiding me through the thick maze of the interesting book, generally considered to be the first modern novel of the West.

Spanish language is called the language of Cervantes — so rich is the effect and contribution of this artist on the overall national language and culture of Spain, and, on Western cultural life, by extension. The bulky rambling novel has inspired a host of great writers like Flaubert and Dostoevsky, among others. Picasso was said to be inspired by the adventures of this loveable simple man seeking beauty and romance in the most prosaic age of commerce and overseas conquest for colonies.

The Don’s creator can be called the precursor of magical Marquez and Isabel Allende and other experimental fictionists of the last century. The way even the mundane in Spain is fantastically transformed in the pages of this novel is an astonishing feat of unmatched artistic skill. It is a charming but lost place you come to see; a strange country that is conjured up for you. It is like catching a fleeting historical moment and preserving that elusive moment forever, for the succeeding generations of mind-travelers who want to revisit a famous literary site and be a participant in the unfolding seductive landscape marked by the surprising visual contraries.

The sheer magnitude, the solidity, the hugeness of the windmills can be experienced afresh by the reader through the eyes of the Don questing for the extraordinary in an ordinary age. The banal becomes the marvelous.

Don Quixote celebrates the creative difference in human perceptions — very much like the artistic genius of a Picasso or Dali who see things differently from the rest. This can disorient and yield a new insight. The windmills are not the ordinary windmills but are perceived to be giants. With the Don, the conventional view is drastically changed, and you get radicalised by a totally alien view. The usual appears unusual.

The artistic inversion and the radical reversal produce a startling breakthrough — the kind experienced in Kafka or Grass. There are other dramatic modifications. Deep transformations occurring in the text and within the reader. The world gets topsy-turvy. Don destabilizes stale perspectives and blasé viewpoints and manufactures refreshing realities, far removed from his current context and location.

The gentle sheep become an army of marauding mercenaries, a shocking opposite: the commonplace taverns and non-descript inns shed their dull features and turn into mysterious dark castles housing the secrets and weaponry of the ideal knights; the scheming magicians, it is claimed, make the precious libraries vanish. It is a continual collision of the real and the unreal, fact and fiction, heroic past and pedestrian present. In short, lands miraculous where things appear to be their reverse: everything appears to be what it is not.

For example, Dulcinea is a fair princess for the smitten fifty-year-something Don; in reality, she is an ordinary farm girl. Cervantes has upturned the existing conventions of romance by describing ordinary real people of his country in a most favourable light and this bold gesture inaugurates the process of democratisation of literature that deepens further in succeeding centuries. A working farm girl serving as the original for an ideal princess itself is a remarkable advance, a literary breakthrough, a literary coup.

These ideas did not come naturally to me in my readings of Don Quixote but were a result of my constant interaction with my tutor. He was, incidentally, from Madrid and had a strong resemblance to Don. He went by a long name of Juan Rodriguez de Silva but preferred to be called Amando. Once, during a break in the long afternoon lessons, the 45-year-old Mumbai-based freelance writer and part-time Spanish tutor — in the country for a year for some research on the early proselytizing of the Spanish Catholic priests in Goa, Mumbai, Cochin and Chennai, among other coastal cities of the South India — told me that the father of my favourite author, Don Rodrigo de Cervantes, was a very interesting figure, largely ignored by the later scholarship.

He said: “I found him, Cervantes senior, quite fascinating. He was a surgeon who wandered from one place to another in search of work. The family led a difficult and unsettled life due to this reason. In those days, in sixteenth-century Spain, the job of a surgeon was not high-paying and considered lowly. It did not enjoy any social prestige. The poor family suffered many financial problems on account of this vagrant lifestyle.”

I listened attentively to this family history that was like opening a window on the hoary past of a different era and nation. “Spain was feudal. Aristocracy prevailed. Finding acceptability, honour and respect was difficult for the disinherited and dispossessed. The senior Cervantes was a man of ingenuity, very much like Don Quixote of La Mancha. I have this feeling that the immortal Don Quixote was modeled to some extent on Rodrigo. A few parallels can be seen,” said Amando.

“How?” I asked.

“Well, the guy was like to-day’s harmless imposter, not willing to violate the law or break rules but willing to twist facts and invent a bit of illustrious history or lineage to make him look grand. You can call such desperate persons as simple pretenders who mean no harm. Cervantes’ father thought what he was actually not. He was very inventive. The wandering barber-surgeon claimed he was descended from a noble family. An aristocratic past, I would say, for his impoverished family. But, in the long run, this fiction did not help, and he landed up in the debtors’ prison for unpaid arrears, very much like John, the unfortunate overspending dad of Dickens, who served as a model for Mr. Micawber. In fact, both the writers were much haunted by the imprisonment of their failed fathers and the misfortunes that attend such a situation. Poverty and inequalities of an unjust system are sympathetically described by both chroniclers of two great societies, most poignantly by Dickens and satirically, by Cervantes.”

This sounded exciting.

Amando continued, “You can call them forgeries. Innocent ones, of course. Who does not want to have a duke or duchess in their blood? People invent an interesting past for themselves for different reasons.”

I agreed. I know of a young man who had created a Christian past to woo a European woman in a multinational corporation in Mumbai and was successful in this deception. In America, many Indians have adopted Anglican names to blend well in their society and avoid hostility.

“You see, we all are like that. We all fictionalise, invent and re-create things for ourselves, at one point or other, in our unremarkable lives. Don is an avid reader of books that talk of romance and chivalry and wants to re-create that lapsed order of things in an age hostile to such revival and the entire project is doomed from the beginning.” I nodded.

Amando went on: “I know many poor young men who say they are from wealthy families, but the lies get exposed. The truth is to be confronted. Rodrigo lived in a dual world of lies and bitter truths. He was escaping from bitter facts into the comforts of fiction. Don was also like him. The imaginative man wanted to revive an entire age that was gone forever. Naturally, such an attempt was going to be farcical and ultimately tragic, simply because history can never be reversed. You cannot run away from your present and reality catches up—finally.”

He was right. Fiction does not last forever. They do not help, either. One has to return — to a normal sane world or die dubbed insane. This dramatic tension between the past and the present, between romance and grim reality, between an imagined past and an impoverished stark present, continually informs the life and the optimistic but hopeless quest of the man from La Mancha.

“Rodrigo was using a language no longer understood in a cynical age of greed. Like Don Quixote, he was caught up in a cusp of crucial change. A new world order was starting and the older solid one was dying. Folks like Don could see things others could not. Don is a visionary or a mad prophet—take your pick. A genius or a phony. In fact, forgeries, deceptions, self-deceptions, thefts are all common in art world. All art, if you permit, is itself, a great forgery. It may scandalize the establishment, but it is a truth that cannot be denied. The Bard is a known literary thief. Many painters did forgeries and were never caught. Forgery proves one point: No art can claim to be original except the precocious Greeks. Everything else is a mere re-telling or mere re-working of the original. That is why geniuses like Shakespeare or Picasso never bothered about originality but, ironically, could produce some of the most original works that were commentaries on the preceding ones, kind of meta-fiction or meta-work or meta-criticism. Borges did that through his short fiction called ‘Pierre Menard, the Author of the Quixote’ raises the question of continued relevance of an artwork for the coming generations. It tells us how we re-create the classics and fashion them in our own image. A text is never static but an open and dynamic series. Borges himself did successful literary forgeries to prove the point that search for originality of vision is futile exercise and need not be undertaken by the modern artists. It also undermined the seriousness of art.”

Talking of Cervantes, the insightful Spanish tutor said somberly, “Even Miguel Cervantes did forgery of a different sort by inventing an exotic authorship for the fictional Don Quixote and his adventures that defy common sense. He attributed authorship of this long text to one Arab Benegeli. He said it was originally written by the Moor, translated by another and edited by him. But then, it was a common practice for many writers to do like that only. Stevenson did that. Authorship, originality and artistic vision were not exclusive preserves of the narrating voice but were diffused in the wider culture of the day.”

 I nodded.

He was quiet for long and then said, “In fact, this desire to recreate and represent the given facts is an act of forgery but since we are aesthetically conditioned or trained to view these as art objects, we miss the obvious and call it as a creation.” Now, this was revelation. “Don Quixote is an exquisite example of this human creative desire to recreate older realities or traditions in newer ways that can be shockingly, startlingly, daringly different from the older ones. They call them these days as revisions. In fact, every new voice is a renewed older voice. If you acknowledge the source, it becomes a tribute. Otherwise, it is plagiarism. Then there are other issues as well.”

I looked at him. A fine but unknown reader and critic, Amando said after a long pause, “The value of popular traditions, the value of books and the fictional truth and the outcome of a desire to implement these literary truths in the altered context of the contemporary reader of that text or tradition are all discussed by the writer. Rodrigo changes his pedigree, Don Quixote wants to re-create an imagined past in the romantic tradition of an era yet to come. Cervantes creates an Arab author for this history of an individual that reflects the seventeenth-century Spain and in the process, mocks that tradition and anticipates the emergence of another world that is no longer feudal. All these acts are forgeries of the prevalent facts. They challenge and change the facts and are changed by the subsequent facts of the succeeding generations.”

Yes, he was right.

He continued: “It is — great art — both local and universal. It is both temporal and eternal. It is both present and future. Now, the question is, can the great art of last century or much earlier, speak to us directly? Borges raises the same query in the Pierre Menard fiction and says a creative engagement with great texts like Don can be historically productive as we try to interpret these texts in the light of our own times. We try to refashion these multi-layered rich texts pregnant with multiple meanings and try to extricate valuable insights into the nature of time, humanity, life and society. Both creation and critical reading is a continual process of re-inventing, recreating, altering historical facts with imagination and then trying to make it give some historically true conclusions that can be called progressive at a later stage of its evolution. In a way, a great artist is able to transcend the limits of his social condition and rise above his historical moment and see the dawn of another moment. The past, present and future are all sedimented in great art that belongs to all the centuries and not to its century of creation. It is the great paradox of art. You commit artistic forgeries and produce genuine serious art out of this act of self-conscious tampering. Old knowledge being made contemporary and relevant by reading the present into the text of the old and making it yield new truths whose echoes can be found distinctly in that of the old text. Postmodern fiction does perform only this task for us. The only difference is they call it parody and avoid the term forgery.” That was brilliant.

“In our life ordinary, we all tend to fictionalise to some extent but have to return to bitter realities of the human existence. Fictionalised worlds are delightful ad hoc realms but fail to provide permanent sanctuaries. The real for a previous era or eras is unreal for us; the unreal for us was the real for our ancestors and out of the dramatic tension of the two, emerges newer dimensions and newer texts in a ceaseless manner.  As the wise, not mad, Don says to Sancho, in chapter sixty-six, that each person is a forger of his own destiny and he, of his own but without necessary prudence. This results in one disaster after another. This view marks a radical juncture between the ideologies of the feudal and the emerging world and shows the inevitability of the decay and death of the former and the birth of the latter.”

After another long pause, he said, this somber Spaniard, a look-alike of Miguel Cervantes, “Last consideration on Don. Last three centuries, the imaginary Don has shed his fictional character and become real — like Mephistopheles, Hamlet, Wilhelm Meister or Young Werther, Raskolnikov and Madame Bovary. These characters have become super real and cultural figures of eminence and reached cult status. It is amazing transformation within art. They speak to the curious and the willing. The Don could see backwards and forwards, Janus-like. The historically well-located Cervantes could witness the dialectics of change vividly. He announced the total eclipse of a dominant world order and the arrival of another world order.  In painting, the same was achieved by another brilliant Spanish genius. Velazquez achieves the same prophecy in his painting, Las Meninas, whereby he foresees the fading of monarchy and signals the end of the monolithic worldview of feudalism by splintering the single unified view into multiple perspectives. By rupturing the old and inaugurating the novel, serious art becomes prophetic and consecrates the new point of view that may look scandalous to many but gradually becomes accepted as the official version — till a new voice terminates the outdated and heralds the new beginnings for a changed age. Don does all this for us and by the inherent dualism of artistic projection and artistic cognition, renews and revitalizes the narrative traditions and their continuities. By constant re-engagement with the classics, we fulfill deeper needs for epistemologies and gain bold insights into the past, our present and dim future based on this temporal cycle. Great artists explain the world present past and future and tell us that nothing is eternal but subject to historical change. As long as they perform this task, they will never be irrelevant to us or others after us.”

Amando had just unfolded so many dimensions that others could not perceive in Don. But then, that is the art of reading and critically explaining to us through a consecrated cultural text of the yore. Is it not? All of us write our own Don Quixotes in our own way as close collaborators and gain rare insights, epistemes by this joint process. And feel educated or enlightened. ‘Epiphanies’ is what Joyce called these lucid moments.

Reading Don was such a moment for me in the company of my imagined Spanish tutor…

Sunil Sharma
 is the editor of SETU. He is a senior academic, critic, literary editor and author with 21 published books, seven collections of poetry, three of short fiction, one novel, a critical study of the novel, and, eight joint anthologies on prose, poetry and criticism, and, one joint poetry collection.