Categories
Essay

T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land: Finding Hope in Darkness

By Dan Meloche

One hundred years ago, T.S Eliot wrote ‘The Waste Land’ to find meaning in troubled times. As we wrestle with trouble in our own times, an examination of Eliot’s paean to chaos can prove instructive. Horrified by the return of war in Europe, disturbed by the looming threat of environmental collapse, and fatigued by over two years of a resilient pandemic, we crave relief and inklings of hope. In Eliot’s poem, relief does not come without tarrying with the darkness. In his 433-line poem, slivers of hope are crowded by the ubiquitous memento mori, the constant reminders of death. With his own hope compromised by a series of personal crises, Eliot’s fractured self mirrored a Europe fractured by the incomprehensibility of the millions sacrificed on European battlefields. To heal the fracturing, the poem represents a therapeutic exercise not only for the poet, but also a generation. After the questionably named Great War, cultural revisions produced modernism, representing a significant departure from traditional poetic sensibilities. 

Before World War I, war retained a nobility exemplified in the “six hundred” of Tennyson’s ‘Light Brigade‘ (1854). After World War I, Tennyson’s sentiment of “Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die” no longer reflected the misery and absurdity of millions sacrificed for a few acres of mud. As the world changes, so does its art. To restore both a fractured mind and a fractured generation, ‘The Waste Land’ assembles meaning from ruins and conflated mythologies to spring hope. Rife with allusions, sometimes obvious, often obscure, Eliot’s poem aligns with modernist principles as multiple narrative voices range freely across landscapes of time and memory.

In the poem’s opening section, hope does not sing forth as in a Dickinson (1830-1886) poem, but lays disassembled in the ruins of desolate imagery. A spark of hope is initiated by a female narrative voice recalling an idyllic childhood tobogganing episode: “In the mountains, there you feel free.” The pleasant recollection shifts dramatically into the middle of a land of “stony rubbish,” “broken images,” and a “dead tree (that) gives no shelter, the cricket no relief”. In a parenthetical note, a whispering narrator offers a hint to relief: “Only there is shadow under this red rock, (Come in under the shadow of this red rock).” The secret told in that shadow comes in the following four lines:

"And I will show you something different from either 
Your shadow at morning striding behind you 
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you: 
I will show your fear in a handful of dust."

What you leave behind is the past and what rises to meet you is the future. The “something different” is what lies between: the eternal present. In ‘The Waste Land’, our reckoning with death produces a despair that can only be relieved by moving meditatively out of time.

In 1922, the war has ended, yet trauma echoes within the workers who return to re-ignite the engine of economic growth. In the final stanza of the opening section, the poet gives us London’s financial district (The City) and a crowd flowing over London Bridge. Emotionally wrought automatons, the men carry a despair that manifests their drudgery: “Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled, / And each man fixed his eyes before his feet”. Within this crowd, the narrator recognises his comrade and calls to him: “Stetson! / You were with me in the ships at Mylae!” He does not recognise him from Passchendaele or the Somme, but from the first Punic War between Rome and Carthage in 330 B.C. Whether in modern Europe or ancient Rome, war is inevitable, and solace is often elusive. The dead, “planted” and sustained in our collective memory, can serve to assuage our despondency: “That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?” April is indeed “the cruellest month” as the lilacs bred “out of the dead land” are fertilised by dead soldiers. Such is the dubious shape of hope in the aftermath of industrial scale war.

To conjure further hope, Eliot assembles mythologies and merges fragments with references to the Hindu Upanishads, Shakespeare, and the myth of the Fisher King. In the poem’s final section, reference to the Upanishads serves as an incantation to “controlling hands” of a governing Thunder that gives, sympathizes, and controls. Like a “broken Coriolanus”, we are compelled to surrender on the path of cruel iniquities that lead to our “obituaries”. Without surrender, we may suffer the same fate as Coriolanus, whose excess pride cost him his life. As Thunder exhorts humility, Eliot, as narrator, assumes the place of the Fisher King, the wounded sovereign who governs his barren lands: “I sat upon the shore / Fishing, with the arid plain behind me”.  In ‘The Waste Land’, will a hero fulfill the myth of the Fisher King by arriving to restore both the wounded king and the “arid plain”? Eliot’s answer comes with the rhetorical question, “Shall I at least set my lands in order?” A hero will not come, and the fracturing of both Eliot and his generation endures as aridity persists. In the worst times, the only way to elicit hope comes with adjusting our expectations. For Eliot, his “fishing” is the resumption of his creative endeavours despite the prevailing aridity. To carry on, we must make peace with the circumstances of our time. Eliot invokes this in his final line with the chant that ends each Upanishad: “Shantih     shantih     shantih.”

In his notes on the poem, Eliot equates this final line with Philippians 4:7 and the “peace that passeth all understanding”. Sifting through the ashes of a destroyed Europe or diagnosing the causes of psychological fracture will not yield peace. Peace comes not from understanding why the trauma happened, but from reaching outside the chaos to a higher order. Eliot’s final allusion marks a harbinger to his conversion to Anglicanism in 1927, wherein he found community and peace for the rest of his life.

As the war continues in the Ukraine, memories of the dead live on in the trauma of the living. To cope with that trauma, hope sustains those huddled in the Kyiv metro stations. Below the missile bursts above, Ukrainians singing traditional songs and the national anthem will not bring back the dead, but it will limit the fracturing: “The glory and freedom of Ukraine has not yet perished.”

.

Dan Meloche is a full-time professor at Algonquin College in Ottawa. When he isn’t teaching English, social psychology, and economics, he reads widely and writes reviews and personal account essays.

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Interview

 When a Hobo in a Fedora Hat Breathes Tolkien…

In Conversation with Strider Marcus Jones

Strider Marcus Jones
i'm come home again
in your Lothlorien

Strider Marcus Jones wrote these lines about an idyllic utopia that was named Lothlorien by JRR Tolkien in Lord of the Rings. Jones writes beautiful poetry that touches the heart with its music and lyricality and recreates a world that hums with peace, beauty, acceptance and tolerance – values that have become more precious than gems in the current world of war, strife and distress. He has created his own Lothlorien in the form of a journal which he has named after the elfin utopia of Tolkien. An avid reader and connoisseur of arts, for him all his appreciation congeals in the form of poetry which draws from music, art and he says, perhaps even his legal training! Let us stride into his poetic universe to uncover more about a man who seems to be reclusive and shy about facing fame and says he learns from not just greats but every poet he publishes.

What started you out as a writer? What got your muse going and when?

In my childhood, I sought ways to escape the poverty of the slums in Salford. My escape, while gathering floorboards from condemned houses every winter and carrying them through back entries in crunching snow to our flat, above two shops for my dad to chop up and burn on the fire was to live in my imagination. I was an explorer and archaeologist discovering lost civilisations and portals to new dimensions our mind’s had lost the ability to see and travel between since the time of the druids. Indoors I devoured books on ancient history, artists, and poetry from the library. I was fascinated by the works of Picasso, Gauguin, Bruegel and many others and sketched some of their paintings. Then one day, my pencil stopped sketching and started to compose words into lines that became “raw” poems.  My first mentor was Anne Ryan, who taught me English Literature at High School when I was fourteen. Before this, I had never told anyone I was writing poetry. My parents, siblings and friends only found out when I was in my twenties and comfortable in myself with being a ranger, a maverick in reality and imagination.

When I read your poetry, I am left wondering… Do you see yourself in the tradition of a gypsy/mendicant singing verses or more as a courtly troubadour or something else?

I don’t have the legs to be a courtly troubadour in tights and my voice sounds like a blacksmith pounding a lump of metal on his anvil.

I feel and relate to being gypsy and am proud of my Celtic roots passed down to me from my Irish Gypsy grandmother on my Father’s side who read the tea leaves, keys, rings, and other items telling people’s fortunes for years with scary accuracy. I seem to have inherited some of her seer abilities for premonition.

Like my evening single malt whiskey, age has matured the idealism of my youth and hardened my resolve to give something back to the world and society for giving me this longevity in it. The knocks from the rough and tumble of life have hardened my edges, but my inner core still glows like Aragorn’s calm courage and determination in the quest to bring about a more just and fairer world that protects its innocent people and polluted environment. Since Woody Guthrie, Tom Waits and Bukowski are influences I identify with deeply, I suppose I am a mendicant in some of my poetry but a romantic and revolutionary too, influenced by Neruda, Rumi, Byron, and Shelley shielded by The Tree of Life in Tolkien’s Lothlorien:

THE HEAD IN HIS FEDORA HAT

a lonely man,
cigarette,
rain
and music
in a strange wind blowing

moving,
not knowing,
a gypsy caravan
whose journey doesn't expect
to go back
and explain
why everyone's ruts have the same
blood and vein.

the head in his fedora hat
bows to no one's grip
brim tilted inwards
concealing his vineyards
of lyrical prose
in a chaos composed
to be exposed,
go, git
awed
and jawed
perfect and flawed,
songs from the borderless
plain
where no one has domain
and his outlaw wit
must confess
to remain

a storyteller
that hobo fella

a listening barfly
for a while,
the word-winged butterfly
whose style
they can't close the shutters on
or stop talking about
when he walks out
and is gone.

whiskey and tequila
with a woman who can feel ya
inside her, and know she's not Ophelia
as ya move as one,
to a closer and simplistic,
unmaterialistic
tribal Babylon,

becomes so,
when she stands, spread
all arms and legs
in her Eskimo
Galadriel glow,
sharing mithril breath,
no more suburban settlements
and tortured tenements
of death,
just a fenceless forest
and mountain quests
with a place to rest
on her suckled breasts,
hanging high, swinging slow.

war clouds HARP
through stripped leaves and bark,
where bodies sleeping in houseboat bones
reflect and creak in cobbled stones:
smokey sparks from smoked cigars
drop like meteorites from streetlight stars,
as cordons crush civil rights
under Faust's fascist Fahrenheit’s.
 
one more whiskey for the road.
another story lived and told

under that
fedora hat
inhaling smoke
as he sang and spoke
stranger fella
storyteller.

You seem to have a fascination for JRR Tolkien. You have a poem and a journal by the name of Lothlorien. Why this fascination? Do you think that JRR Tolkien is relevant in the current context? We are after all, reverting to a situation similar to a hundred years ago.

Yes, on all counts. Tolkien and his Lord of The Rings trilogy have been part of my life since I first read one summer when I was twelve years old.  My young mind, starved of adventure and elevenses in Salford’s slums, willingly absorbed the myths and magic, lore’s and legends beguiling me to enter the ‘Age of Man’. This living in a time of relative peace alongside other, more ancient races with musical-poetic languages reflected part of my own reality in living through the Cold War decades under the impending doom of nuclear annihilation where daily life often felt the shadows cast by the Cuban Missile Crisis, war in Vietnam, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and famine in Biafra.

Sauron’s evil eye and invading armies echo an outgoing President Eisenhower’s ominous warning to curtail the influence and corruption of the banking-military-industrial-complex. Instead, Martin Luther King and President John F Kennedy were assassinated and a surveillance state and gilded slavery ideology is being imposed globally using artificial intelligence. Ancient civilisations in Iraq and Libya have been destroyed for control of oil and to maintain global Petro dollar power. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings is just as relevant today in Ukraine, Yemen, and Syria and as it was through the slaughters of Verdun, the Somme and Flanders Fields. It is a warning that good must prevail over evil and this burden is borne by those with courage and conviction who cannot be corrupted.  

What is your Lothlorien? What does poetry mean to you and your existence?

My Lothlorien is a more peaceful world, with more tolerance of other individuals and cultures. Not perfect by any stretch but a place where people laugh, have their neighbours back and work with each other. A place of social justice and equality, music, poetry and art. It is no place for racism, sexism, ageism, corruption, or war. A kind of homestead with birdsong, forest, mountains and rivers, preferably in the French Pyrenees or Alaskan Bush. A place of words composed into poems and stories read and spoken, passed down and added to by each inspired generation in the Native American tradition. Poetry is all about communication and community in my existence. We are caretakers of our words and the world.

You have used Orwell, Gaugin and many more references in your poetry. Which are the writers and artists that influence you the most? What do you find fascinating about them?

Individuality of expression through fiction, poetry, art and music fascinates me. Now, at 62 years of age so many have influenced my poetry with or without me knowing or realising it. These include:

From the past – Chaucer, Tennyson, Shelley, Keats, Blake, W.B. Yeats, Auden, Langston Hughes, Hart Crane, Sexton, Plath, Kerouac, Heaney, Lorca, Orwell, Dickens, Dylan Thomas, Tolkien, Steinbeck, Heller, Donaldson, P.D. James, Ian Rankin, Vonnegut, Dostoyevsky, Rilke, Rumi, E.E.Cummings, Neruda, Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Miles Davis, Thelonious  Monk, John Coltrane, Dylan, Tom Waits. So many.

From now – They know who they are. I have published their work in Lothlorien Poetry Journal.

You play instruments — saxophone and clarinet? Does that impact your poetry?

Saying I play instruments is a huge stretch of the imagination. I get strange notes out of my saxophone and clarinet that must sound like a hurricane blowing in anyone’s ears. My black Labrador, Mysty, covers her ears with her paws but I enjoy trying to play. I love jazz music, anything from the 1920s to early 70s, but Miles Davis, Monk, Coltrane, Mingus, and Ornette Coleman took jazz music to a level that transcends mortality.

Jazz music continues to be a profound influence in my poetry. I will explain how.     

Does any kind of music impact your writing?

In some way, unbeknown to me, jazz music, particularly that of Davis, Monk and Coltrane runs parallel to and interweaves with the rhythms of how I think when I write poetry. It closes my mind to the distractions of the outside world. The sound of those perfect and imperfect notes opens a door in my mind, I close my eyes, float into this dark room and my senses fill with images and words, which hover in the air like musical notes where I conduct them into rhythms and phrases bonded to a theme. Some become poems, others disintegrate into specks of dust, the moment gone. Sometimes, the idea and train of thought sleeps in my subconscious for years. This happened with my poems “Visigoth Rover” and “Life is Flamenco” which come from   my sojourns randomly wandering through Spain but were born years later listening to Paco playing Spanish guitar and Flamenco music which is another key influence in my poetry.

VISIGOTH ROVER

i went on the bus to Cordoba,
and tried to find the Moor's
left over
in their excavated floors
and mosaic courtyards,
with hanging flowers brightly chameleon
against whitewashed walls
carrying calls
behind gated iron bars-
but they were gone
leaving mosque arches
and carved stories
to God's doors.

in those ancient streets
where everybody meets-
i saw the old successful men
with their younger women again,
sat in chrome slat chairs,
drinking coffee to cover
their vain love affairs-
and every breast,
was like the crest
of a soft ridge
as i peeped over
the castle wall and Roman bridge
like a Visigoth rover.

soft hand tapping on shoulder,
heavy hair
and beauty older,
the gypsy lady gave her clover
to borrowed breath, 
embroidering it for death,
adding more to less
like the colours fading in her dress.
time and tune are too planned
to understand
her Trevi fountain of prediction,
or the dirty Bernini hand
shaping its description.

LIFE IS FLAMENCO

why can't i walk as far
and smoke more tobacco,
or play my Spanish guitar
like Paco,
putting rhythms and feelings
without old ceilings
you've never heard
before in a word.

life is flamenco,
to come and go
high and low
fast and slow-

she loves him,
he loves her
and their shades within
caress and spur
in a ride and dance
of tempestuous romance.

outback, in Andalucian ease,
i embrace you, like melted breeze
amongst ripe olive trees-
dark and different,
all manly scent
and mind unkempt.

like i do,
Picasso knew
everything about you
when he drew
your elongated arms and legs
around me, in this perpetual bed
of emotion
and motion
for these soft geometric angles
in my finger strokes
and exhaled smokes 
of rhythmic bangles
to circle colour your Celtic skin
with primitive phthalo blue
pigment in wiccan tattoo
before entering
vibrating wings
through thrumming strings
of wild lucid moments
in eternal components.

i can walk as far
and smoke more tobacco,
and play my Spanish guitar
like Paco.

Tell us about how music and language weaves into your poetry — “i’m come home again” — there is no effort at punctuation — and yet the poem is clear and lyrical. I really love this poem – Lothlorien. Can you tell me how you handle the basic tool of words and grammar in your poetry?

In my mind, music is poetry through sound instead of words. Like words, the combinations of notes and pauses have intricate rhythms and phrases. In many of my poems like “Lothlorien” and those above, I weave the rhythms and phrases of jazz music or Spanish guitar and words together with run on lines so there is no need for punctuation. This gives these poems, and many others a spontaneity and energy which feels more natural and real and has a potent, more immediate impact on the senses and emotions when combined with images and happenings. This whole process feels natural to me. It began in my early twenties, when I was listening to old Blues and the likes of Leadbelly and Robert Johnson alongside Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Tom Waits and Neil Young. These are the raw underbelly notes of my pain and anger at the world. Jazz is the mellow top notes. I hope this makes sense. It is hard to explain something that is natural to and part of who I am, so forgive any lack of clarity.

Sometimes, I just like to add a moment of mischievous fun to a serious poem as in these two:

REJECTING OVID

the fabulous beauty of your face-
so esoteric,
not always in this place-
beguiles me.

it's late, mesmeric
smile is but a base,
a film to interface
with the movements of the mind behind it.

my smile, me-
like Thomas O'Malley
the alley
cat reclining on a tin bin lid
with fishy whiskers-

turns the ink in the valley
of your quills
into script,
while i sit
and sip

your syllables
with fresh red sepals of hibiscus,
rejecting Ovid
and his Amores
for your stories.



OLD CAFE

a rest, from swinging bar
and animals in the abattoir-
to smoke in mental thinks
spoken holding cooling drinks.

counting out old coppers to be fed
in the set squares of blue and red
plastic tablecloth-
just enough to break up bread in thick barley broth.

Jesus is late
after saying he was coming
back to share the wealth and real estate
of capitalist cunning.

maybe. just maybe.
put another song on the jukebox baby:
no more heroes anymore.
what are we fighting for --

he's hiding in hymns and chants,
in those Monty Python underpants,
from this coalition of new McCarthy's
and it's institutions of Moriarty's.

some shepherds’ sheep will do this dance
in hypothermic trance,
for one pound an hour
like a shamed flower,

watched by sinister sentinels-
while scratched tubular bells,
summon all to Sunday service
where invisible myths exist-

to a shamed flower
with supernatural power
come the hour.  

How do you compose a poem? Is it spontaneous or is it something you do? Do you hear the lines or voices or is it in some other way?

Most poems come from life’s experiences and observations of people, places, nature, and events. These can be from the past, or present and sometimes premonitions of the future which often overlap depending on the theme/s and where I want it to go.

When it comes to composing a poem, I am not robotic, and neither is my Muse. I have no set time and never write for the sake of writing something each day which I find disrupts my subconscious process. A poem can begin at any time of day or night, but my preferred time to think and write is mid-evening going through to witching hour and beyond. I put some music on low, pour myself a slow whiskey and sit down in my favourite chair with pen and folded paper. I never try to force a poem. The urge to write just occurs. I don’t know how, or why. It just happens. My subconscious finds the thread, thinks it through and the poem begins to unravel on the page. I care about the poems since they care about the world and the people in it. So, I often agonise for days and in some cases years, over lines and words and structure, crossing out words and whole lines until they feel right. Editing, and redrafting is a crucial part of the writing process and requires courage and discipline. Butchering your own work feels barbaric in the moment but enhances your poetic voice and strengthens the impact of a poem on the reader.

You are a lawyer and in the Civil Service in UK. How does law blend with poetry?

I am a law graduate and retired legal adviser to the magistrates’ courts/civil servant who retired early. I have never practiced as a lawyer.

I never think about law when I write, but I am sure the discipline brings organisation to the orderly chaos of Spinoza’s universe that resembles the space inside my head.

Tell us about your journal. When and how did you start it?

I started Lothlorien Poetry Journal in January 2021. I publish the online rolling blog of poetry and fiction and printed book volumes — currently standing at eight issues featuring established and emerging poets and fiction writers published on the LPJ blog.

We are a friendly literary journal featuring free verse/rhyming/experimental poetry, short stories, flash fiction, and occasional interviews with poets.

We love poems about enchantment, fantasy, fairy tale, folklore, dreams, dystopian, flora and fauna, magical realism, romance, and anything hiding deep in-between the cracks.

I publish Lothlorien Poetry Journal periodically, 4-6 issues every year. Contributors to each issue (selected from the best work published on the Journal’s Blog) are notified prior to publication and receive a free PDF copy of the issue that features their work.

We nominate for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net.

 What do you look for in a poet as a publisher?

I look for a poet or writer’s distinct voice, that spark of originality in their theme/s, the rhythm and musicality in their language and phrasing.  I have no boundaries as to style, form, or subject – prose, rhyming, free verse, sonnets, haiku, experimental or mavericks who break the rules and write about the darker underbelly of society – if it is good and not offensive, racist or sexist Lothlorien Poetry Journal could be the natural home for your work. The best way to find out is to come to Lothlorien, have a read, and decide to submit.

LOTHLORIEN

i'm come home again
in your Lothlorien
to marinate my mind
in your words,
and stand behind
good tribes grown blind,
trapped in old absurd
regressive reasons
and selfish treasons.

in this cast of strife
the Tree of Life
embraces innocent ghosts,
slain by Sauron's hosts-
and their falling cries
make us wise
enough to rise
up in a fellowship of friends
to oppose Mordor's ends
and smote this evil stronger
and longer
for each one of us that dies.

i'm come home again
in your Lothlorien,
persuading
yellow snapdragons
to take wing
and un-fang serpent krakens-
while i bring
all the races
to resume
their bloom
as equals in equal spaces
by removing
and muting
the chorus of crickets
who cheat them from chambered thickets,
hiding corruptions older than long grass
that still fag for favours asked.

i'm come home again
in your Lothlorien
where corporate warfare
and workfare
on health
and welfare
infests our tribal bodies
and separate self
in political lobbies
so conscience can't care
or share
worth and wealth-

to rally drones
of walking bones,
too tired
and uninspired
to think things through
and the powerless who see it true.
red unites, blue divides,
which one are you
and what will you do
when reason decides.


IN THE TALK OF MY TOBACCO SMOKE

i have disconnected self
from the wire of the world
retreated to this unmade croft
of wild grass and savage stone
moored mountains
set in sea
blue black green grey
dyed all the colours of my mood
and liquid language-
to climb rocks
instead of rungs
living with them
moving around their settlements
of revolutionary random place
for simple solitary glory.
i am reduced again
to elements and matter
that barter her body for food
teasing and turning
her flesh to take words and plough.
rapid rain
slaps the skin
on honest hands
strongly gentle
while sowing seeds
the way i touch my lover
in the talk of my tobacco smoke:
now she knows
she tastes
like all the drops
of my dreams
falling on the forest
of our Lothlorien.

Thanks for your lovely poetry and time.

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

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Essay

Satyajit Ray’s Cinematic Universe: Can Isolation Create a New World?

 By Rebanta Gupta

The Hungarian Marxist philosopher György Lukács coined the term “transcendental homelessness” in his essay The Theory of the Novel, to explore the feeling of homesickness prevalent in the arena of modern philosophy. The ecosystem of the epic was governed by the cosmic laws of fate, the transcendental signified was ever-present to protect mankind, and the human soul found a transcendental home in that cosmic destiny. The celebrated Postcolonial scholar Edward Said, in his essay, ‘Reflections on Exile’ observes, “Classical epics, Lukács wrote, emanate from settled cultures in which the values are clear, identities stable, life unchanging.” Novel, the brainchild of modernity, is the site where this “transcendental homelessness” functions. The European novel emerged out of a changing society, where the omnipotent figure of God had been effaced, with the invasion of skepticism and rationality. Novels germinate from a societal structure, Said writes, “in which an itinerant and disinterested middle-class hero or heroine seeks to construct a new world, that somewhat resembles an old world left behind forever.” A sense of retrogression, an insatiable urge to return to that erstwhile home haunts the modern world, which suffers from an ontological homelessness. The shadow of this sense of homelessness and estrangement also haunts cinema, which has a novelistic structure. Cinema, which is engraved on celluloid, is written by an auteur, the director, who is analogous to the author of a novel. The characters of the celebrated Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s films suffer from a sense of perpetual homelessness; pangs of isolation and estrangement haunt their sinews and nerves, in the midst of a kaleidoscopic world. This essay would focus on two of Ray’s films: Kanchenjungha (1962) and Charulata (1964) and try to analyze how they create an atmosphere of isolation and estrangement.

Satyajit Ray. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Kanchenjungha (1962) narrates the saga of a wealthy aristocratic family, during the final lap of their vacation at Darjeeling. Inclement weather has shrouded the peak of Mount Kanchenjungha with mist, and a parallel mist of confusion, contradictions, unrequited desire, and unspoken words has enveloped the characters. The film describes the primacy of the father figure in the family ecosystem through the character of Indranath (played by Chhabi Biswas), who is a snooty, pompous, and authoritarian figure, who wants his daughter Manisha (played by Alokananda Roy), to marry a wealthy man whom he has hand-picked for her, but she seems to be reluctant to accept this unilateral decision of her father. William Wordsworth, in the poem Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey (1798), had instructed his sister Dorothy to believe in the ways of nature, which fills the mind “with quietness and beauty” and “lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues, rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men” can demotivate her. But Indranath, it seems, stands vertically opposite to the arena of Wordsworthian exhortations; he is completely alienated from nature, his materialistic drive has effaced his capacity to appreciate the beauteous aspects of Darjeeling and the Himalayan wildness. When the ornitho-enthusiast Jagadish, his brother-in-law (played by Pahari Sanyal) talks about his search for a bird, Indranath nonchalantly asks, “Roast hoy? (Could it be roasted?”). He is marooned in his sequestered island of materialism, and his desire to catch a glimpse of the snow-clad Kanchenjungha is basically a competitive desire to acquire a coveted product, real love of nature is not associated with that. He has high opinions about Banerjee (played by N. Viswanathan), the potential groom for Manisha, because he has a starting salary of twelve hundred rupees, which was indeed a handsome amount in the postcolonial context of the film. Indranath’s wife Labanya (played by Karuna Banerjee) is a subjugated woman, who has a feeble presence before the domineering existence of her husband, and her subjectivity finds no outlet. She, therefore, sits on a bench by the abyss, and at the hour of descending fog, sings the Tagore song E Parabase Rabe Ke Hay (“Alas, who will live in this forlorn and alien land”), set in the Hindustani Classical Raga Kafi, which uses the notes komal gandhar (E-Flat) and komal nishad (B-Flat). The raga creates a melancholic mood, as the song touches the somberness of gandhar and the solitary bohemianism of nishad (which is widely used in the mercurial and melancholic Bengali folk music), and it reflects the alienated state of a woman, who has not had her share of love from her husband. Fog dilutes the outlines of the horizon, as her hopes slowly get extinguished and desperation reigns supreme, and the last line, “Temon apon keho nahi e prantare hay re (There is no one dear and near in this alien world)” mingles with the fog to create an atmosphere of perennial loneliness. Jagadish’s comment, “You have sung after such a long time,” indicates that Labanya’s daily hectic life and Indranath’s iron fist have isolated her from her artistic persona. Rabindranath Tagore talks about the importance of aesthetics in his seminal work Japan Jatri (Travels through Japan, 1919) if humans become too much obsessed with the utilitarian domain, they become machine-like entities, whereas the domain of aesthetics is the area where they can actually realise the true nature of their existence, leading to the experience of the Lebenswelt (life-force)described by Edmund Husserl. The song not only translates Labanya’s melancholia into musical notes, but it also signifies her urge to rediscover her real self, as she expresses concern over the possibility of the smothering of Manisha’s artistic qualities and urges after the marriage. The golden Kanchenjunga, which appears in the last few frames of the film, signifies that cosmic home, the abode of hope, which has hitherto remained elusive to the characters. But in this journey to the cosmic abode, the rogue Indranath is left behind, as he frantically searches for his compatriots, and a terrifying wave of isolation hits him, along with a mocking, derisive tune of a hilly song.

Charulata (1964) is widely regarded as one of the premier achievements of Ray. The film, which is based on the 1901 novella Nashtaneer (The Broken Nest), written by Rabindranath Tagore, narrates the heart-wrenching saga of the eponymous heroine (played by Madhabi Mukherjee), who walks down the solitary passages of an aristocratic house like a spectre. Her husband, Bhupati (played by Shailen Mukherjee), the editor of a political newspaper, nurtures the dream of expanding his business, while Charu suffers from lovelessness; sexual and intellectual dissatisfaction simmers within her. The much-lauded opening scene sets the melancholic tone of the film. The scene where Charu is seen knitting the initials of Bhupati’s name on a handkerchief might remind the audience of Alfred Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott, who is imprisoned in an island castle. She weaves a colorful web in her solitary chamber under the shadow of an unknown curse, which will befall her, if she looks down at the city of Camelot. She can only catch glimpses of the “shadows of the world” in the mirror that hangs before her. Charu, like the Lady of Shalott, is imprisoned in an urban mansion, where household chores are managed by a fleet of servants. She watches the activities of the outside world through binoculars, in an effort to reconcile the differences between the home and the world. The images of the palanquin bearers, a man with monkeys, a fat man with an umbrella crossing the road- all these are reminiscent of the “shadows of the world” in Tennyson’s poem written in 1842, which have now appeared on the glasses of Charu’s binocular. But the Lady of Shalott had to pay the price for abandoning her loom and looking down at the blooming water lilies and the “helmet and the plume” of the gallant knight, as Tennyson writes,

Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
      The Lady of Shalott.

Similarly, the curse of infidelity and adultery hits Charu, with the arrival of Amal, her attractive brother-in-law (played by Soumitra Chatterjee). He enters her life in a tempestuous way, which echoes the knight’s entry into the lady’s life. Charu’s isolated state makes her desperate to efface the boundaries separating the home and the world, and the entry of Amal signifies the eruption of the outside world in Charu’s domestic discourse. Ray portrays the psychological gulf between Bhupati and Charu by making Charu stare at the fleeting image of Bhupati through the binocular. He is engrossed in his world of political journalism with no time to accompany his wife, while the latter tries to find solace in literature and other artistic works. But the binocular episode underscores the irreconcilable differences between them. The camera unprecedentedly backtracks, as she lowers the device and stares at her husband with a note of derision in her eyes. This derision anticipates the arrival of Amal, who will occupy the void left by Bhupati will emerge as his sexual and intellectual rival.

The last scene, which incorporates the freeze-frame technique, is reminiscent of the final scene of François Truffaut’s film The 400 Blows (1959) where the teenage protagonist Antoine Doinel stares at the audience by rupturing the fourth wall, and the camera zooms in on his face and refrigerates time, to show the signs of discontentment on his face. Charu and Bhupati face each-other, and the latter’s heart is exploding because of his wife’s supposed infidelity. Though a note of reconciliation is hinted at, when Charu invites Bhupati inside, the frame eventually freezes, the music halts, and Bhupati cannot hold Charu’s extended arm, underlining the impossibility of their conjugal bond. Antoine’s discontentment, along with a sense of guilt, now appears on the couple’s faces, as the word Nashtaneer or “Broken Nest” appears on the screen.

Tagore had celebrated the grandeur of a peaceful abode when he wrote the song “Ohe sundar mama griha aji paramatsaba rati, rekhechhi kanaka mandire kamalasana pati (Beauty, I have laid down the bed of lotus in the golden pagoda for you, on this auspicious night of festivity)”. But Charu and Bhupati fail to construct that resplendent home, since they are separated by circumstances. They could be inhabiting the same house, but with an abysmal gulf between them, they would be suffering from a sense of metaphorical homelessness. In this regard, Charu, Bhupati, and Amal anticipate the ménage à trois between Bimala, Nikhilesh, and Sandip in Ray’s Ghare Baire (1984). Bimala (played by Swatilekha Sengupta) too becomes a victim of the broken nest syndrome, as her nationalistic aspirations are at loggerheads with her conjugal fidelity.

These two films illustrate the urge to reach a cosmic abode of love, unity, and security, which is throttled by the constraints of worldly relationships and circumstances. Charu is searching for that elusive home, where she can find her true self, and fine-tune her soul with the ethereal harmony of the universe, but her failure to touch the perimeters of that utopian abode fills her hearts with pangs of isolation and estrangement. Labanya’s personal moments of discovery through the song by the abyss marks the intersection of solitude and loneliness; solitude has a personal dimension, when an individual can explore the hidden self away from the worldly bustles, but loneliness has an excruciating and universal dimension, that unravels her marooned condition, when materialist forces have encroached and decimated her subjectivity. Kanchenjungha and Charulata underscore the desire of these characters to travel from the world of loneliness and estrangement to the world of solitude, where they can re-explore and rediscover themselves to understand the divine mechanisms of the universe. It is an inward spiritual journey, which intersects with the journey of Christian, the protagonist of John Bunyan’s magnum opus The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678,1684) who had embarked on a quest for the Heavenly City.

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Rebanta Gupta has completed his Postgraduate studies in English Literature from Presidency University, Kolkata. He is interested in Literary Theory, Hindustani Classical Music, Hermeneutics of Film, Narrative of Bengal, and Cultural Studies.

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