Monday, July 20, 2009
AN INTERCULTURAL EXPLORATION OF A PASSAGE FROM THE UPANISHADS
IN THE LIGHT OF
VERBAL AND VISUAL METAPHORS
Exterior Spaces, Interior Spaces and Sonic Cartographies
One of the most enthralling passages I have ever encountered comes from the “Katha Upanishad”, a section of the Upanishads, one of the most ancient and seminal texts in the history of Indian thought . This work is forever entwined for me with memories of the National Library at Iyaro, in Benin-City, Nigeria, where I first read it, and with the images and emotions I associate with the location of the library close to the Iyaro Motor Park where vehicles took passengers to and from destinations all over Nigeria. The frenetic activity of the park, alive with human and vehicular motion, and the stillness of the library one had to pass through the motor park to reach, remain for me intimately interrelated, evocative of different but complementary forms of life in terms of relationships between gestation and silence and the arising of action and sound from the silence of incubation. The raison’detre of the inter-city terminus as a location from where vehicles could take one to faraway places in different parts of Nigeria became suggestive, for me, of unexperienced possibilities of being tantalisingly close by.
The motor park was a universe of its own, with a distinctive social structure related to the functions performed by different groups of people at the park. It was also recognisable by a characteristic sonic cartography, a sonic cartography being a map of patterns of sound shaped by the distinguishing acoustic forms associated with a geographical location. The activity within every setting creates a recurrent auditory configuration emerging from the repetition and distribution of particular sounds within that physical space. The sounds that defined the motor park were the shouts from the agberos, who solicited for customers for the vehicles, the calls of hawkers, the noises of cars and buses arriving and leaving. This universe of sonic activity was the expression of the dynamic space that was the motor park, the zone one had to pass through to get to the scholarly silence of the library.
The Katha Upanishad on the Transformative Fire
In that silence, inside another most memorable text, The Common Experience by Chohen and Phipps , I read a passage that has become central to my inner landscape, along with other entrancing lines from the Upanishads. My literal understanding of the passage is fundamental to my perception of the meaning of my life, that conception being a self instituted construct emerging from an interpretation of the influences creating my exposure to the possibilities of existence. That literal explanation of the Upanishadic passage, however, even though it remains inspirational, is beginning to mature into collaboration with another, figurative interpretation. This latter perspective enables an appreciation of a broader range of hermeneutic possibilities in the lines from the Upanishads, expanding my understanding of those lines even though the cognitive goals they promise have not been fully realised by me after decades of some degree of consistency in their pursuit. This more pragmatic orientation also facilitates the application of the synergistic possibilities suggested by those lines to more immediately accessible goals directed at achieving the cohesion between mind and cosmos, the pursuit of the broadest possibility of knowledge of self and the world, which the lines urge as an ultimate goal. My broadened understanding also sensitises me to the contradictions involved in such a quest and the challenges demonstrated by different efforts in different cultures across time to achieve such a goal.
In the passage from the Upanishads, a sage expounds on ultimate human possibility:
Count the links of the chain : worship the triple Fire : knowledge, meditation, practice; the triple process : evidence, inference, experience; the triple duty : study, concentration, renunciation; understand that everything comes from Spirit, that Spirit alone is sought and found; attain everlasting peace ; mount beyond birth and death.
When man understands himself, understands universal Self, the union of the two kindles the triple Fire, offers the sacrifice; then shall he, though still on earth, break the bonds of death, beyond sorrow, mount into heaven .
What continues to enchant me in the years after my first encounter with these lines, leading me to read them again and again, consists of the musical relationship between the lines, the diction through which the ideas are expressed and the total conception of cognitive possibility the lines generate. Perpetually resonant are the themes the paragraphs develop and the methods through which they achieve this: the imagery of fire as metaphorical for committed, consistent, cognitive and devotional activity and the cognitive transmutation of self achieved through that activity; the semantic parallelism between the actions described
and the use of stylistic parallelism in depicting these actions; the conception of a unified aspect of being running though all cognitive activity and realisation, culminating in knowledge of that which is most intimate to the human being, the individual self, and that within which the self exists, the world.
Stylistic Analysis of the Lines from the Katha Upanishad on the Transformative Fire
The distinctive stylistic form of this translation is due to the collaboration between the linguistic and ideational sensitivity of the Anglo-Irish poet W.B. Yeats, for whose work Asian and Western esoteric thought is central, and the more specialised knowledge of Purohit Swami on Indian philosophy. The passage is a wedding of words and ideas in terms of a rhythmic structure that dramatises the cognitive progression the passage so tantalisingly evokes. It encapsulates and reveals a quintessence of Upanishadic philosophy and much of global mystical thought and practice in a few lines.
The unique beauty of the Yeats-Swami translation is demonstrated in its foregrounding of musical cadences in the rhythmic form through which ideas are introduced, developed and repeated, opening up into new windows into the fundamental idea, the entire expression linked through artful use of punctuation, evocative of the sense of continual opening into new possibilities made possible by the image of the triple fire; the fire understood both as epistemic technique and as ontological possibility expressed in the conscious unity of self and cosmos. The two stanzas that make up the passage are unified through a rhetorical scheme consisting of opening-introduction, partial closure, further enumeration, opening, further disclosure, full opening and completion, unified by the image of the triple fire, culminating in a climax both musical and ideational.
Regardless of the stylistic individuality of this particular translation, however, the central ideas and their organisation recur in all the translations I have read of the text .
The Symbolism of Fire in Classical Indian Thought
It was only after buying a copy of the Upanishads through the impersonal, anonymous efficiency of the virtual information and economic marketplace that is Amazon while studying in England years later, did I learn that the sage speaking is Death, addressing Nachiketas, a boy who finds himself in the home of Death. As compensation for the inadequate hospitality demonstrated by Nachiketas not meeting him at home, Death offers the boy three gifts of the boy's own choice. Inflamed by desire for knowledge of ultimate realties, the boy asks for gifts of knowledge, even though Death tries to divert him to asking for materially derived satisfactions. The passage quoted above is Death’s answer to Nachiketas’ question about the fire that leads to heaven, where there is neither death, age, hunger nor sorrow.
I was later to learn, through my encounter with Surendranath Dasgupta’s inspiring work on the history of Indian philosophy and with the Mahabharata, the fictional epic that is central to the development of Indian philosophy and Hinduism, that the imagery of fire plays a multifaceted role in Indian thought . The development of this imagery demonstrates a fascination that extends from the sacrificial fires of the earliest Vedic rituals to the metaphorical conceptions of flame expressed in Death’s lines to Nachiketas. The reference to a fire that leads to heaven suggests the link between fire as a physical component of sacrificial rituals, where flame burns in honour of the divine or is used in consuming something sacrificed to a spiritual entity, and fire as a metaphoric expression of a transformative process in which the self is transformed by the reconfigurative capacities of knowledge . Within this metaphoric conception the intensity created by committed action leads to a remaking of the self in terms of a form of being that suggests the intensity and dynamism of flame. The process culminates in the transcendence of the mundane through the burning away of the limitations of the self , breaking “the bonds of death” and mounting “into heaven”.
Heaven is not understood as a location but in terms of a state of consciousness, an awareness emerging from the unity of self and cosmos: “When man understands himself, understands universal Self, the union of the two kindles the triple Fire” leading to the insight that “everything comes from Spirit...Spirit alone is sought and found”.
What more comprehensive scope of meaning can be suggested as a goal of human aspiration? All disciplines, all sciences and arts and their goals as described in all human cultures are represented by this conception of the possibility of grasping an ultimate conjunction between the self and the essence of existence .
Those lines can be understood as encapsulating the world's efforts to make meaning of existence. They can be perceived as integrating all possibilities of knowledge. They are a vantage point which facilitate an appreciation of the dialectical goals which can be seen as the summation of human understanding: to understand oneself and to understand phenomena in relation to oneself. This summation of cognitive possibility is an adaptation of what the English thinker Bertrand Russell describes as the two main goals of knowledge: to understand phenomena in themselves and to understand them in relation to each other . This adaptation of Russell’s summation of human cognitive goals is a conception related to Augustine of Hippo’s juxtaposition of attitudes towards knowledge of self and the world in his observation that people go to look at mountains and leave themselves behind , leading the North African to make the study of his own self and his mental operations central to his exploration of meaning, an epistemic and metaphysical orientation that might have later influenced the French scholar Rene Descartes’ influential deployment of self analysis as a starting point in his philosophical explorations .
Mazisi Kunene on the Fire of Knowledge in Classical Zulu Thought
In order to clarify and expand on the implications of this conception of cognitive development expressed in terms of the imagery of fire, it is helpful to do so through the use of a similar symbolic structure from a different culture. Mazisi Kunene expounds a conception of knowledge from classical Zulu thought in terms of the imagery of fire in a manner that enables a better appreciation of the Upanishadic text . The Upanishadic and the Kunene texts are correlative expressions of a structure of ideas emerging fortuitously as part of the same family of human characterisations of cognitive activity.
Kunene’s characterisation is also related to the subject of achieving a synthesis of knowledge. His focus is on the conception he attributes to Zulu thought on the human mind as operating in terms of two contrastive but ultimately correlative forms of knowing, the precision mind (ubuchopo) and the cosmic mind (ingqondo). “While the precision mind analyses and reorganises the details of the material environment, the cosmic mind synthesises fragments of information to create a universally significant body of knowledge” . The precision mind represents the ability to arrive at discrete forms of knowledge while the cosmic mind consists in the capacity of integrating these discrete forms in a manner that demonstrates their universal significance. “At the highest point of reasoning, significant units of information merge with universal concepts...” At its most penetrative, this synthesis enables an initiation into the convergence of past, present and future, of life and death, in a unified awareness. “When the cosmic mind grinds its elements of experience into a totality of knowledge, it acquires a discipline which ...erases the boundaries between the past and the present, the living and the dead, the physical and the non-physical. The individual initiate acquires, like a chameleon’s all-round vision, the power to conceptualise the totality of life at once.”
This synoptic scope is symbolised by the circularity and amplitude of a calabash. The circularity of the calabash could be understood as evocative of cognitive range as developed in terms of the cognitive integration of different aspects of existence into a unity that is expressive of unity of being. The amplitude of the calabash may be understood in relation to a cognitive depth that represents a penetrative grasp of particular aspects of being in terms of their central aspects as well as their constituents, and the relationships between these two units .
Kunene’s characterisation of a Zulu conception of the ideal wise person as one whom sees things in their balanced perception and in their totality resonates with a Western conception of wisdom, represented by its characterisation by Webster, itself resonant with the English poet and thinker Coleridge’s conception of the imagination as a cognitive activity.. This conceptualisation is itself expressive of a particular ideal of knowledge that emerges in various contexts as human beings try to grasp the interrelationships of various aspects of existence. These interrelationships could be ontological, emerging from characteristics intrinsic to the phenomenon described or they could be extrinsic, emerging through analogical correlations. The English archaeologist Christopher Tilley describes the process /cognitive process as central to metaphorical thought, in which knowledge is extended through the development of analogical relationships, so that one phenomenon is understood in terms of the characteristics of another phenomenon, thereby clarifying or even making explicit what might only be implicit in relation to the target phenomenon illuminated through comparison with a source phenomena.
Indicates discernment based not only on factual knowledge but on judgement and insight
The intelligent application of learning: ability to discern inner qualities and essential relationships; INSIGHT, SAGACITY
Wisdom grows out of the temper and heart of a man as well as out of his intellect-James Bryce
Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 1966
In Kunene’s characterisation of a conception from Zulu epistemology, the process of generating a relationship between discrete forms, understand particularly in relation to understanding relationships between the universal and the particular is arrived at through a process akin to the combustion of flame:
At its highest point, the faculty of knowing (ingqondo) corresponds in quality to the thick, mature, sour-sweet, butter-rich milk (izangqondo) whose water (whey-umzala) has been totally drained from it. Indeed, the two words share a common root. The similarity in the nature of the mind and the matured milk is more than superficial. It illustrates an intra-material principle in which the maturation of phenomena is an outcome of a slow burning process. Thus the mind and [ the ] milk are similar for both reach their desired potential through fire. The fire is essential for the changing of things from their raw inaccessible qualities to a ripe state of richness and healing. Fire in this sense is not heat but a process capable of positively affecting other phenomena and triggering in them their inner powers of inter-phenomenal nourishment. Thus a state of ripeness is a state of ultimate maturation both in the mind and in the milk yet it is not a state of burning. Ripeness (ukuvuthwa) is an outcome of slow burning characteristic of the cosmic process.
A fruit is ripened by the sun-fire. The body is ripened by the blood-fire. The mind is ripened by the life-fire. Fire matures things, changes them, translates them to a higher order which is the capacity to nourish phenomena other than themselves. This process demonstrates the highest cosmic ideal, that is, an interdependence within all living phenomena .
Kunene’s characterisation of the epistemology – theory of knowledge - of Classical Zulu thought and its relationship to metaphysics-theory of being-are very rich conceptually and stylistically and clarify most effectively what the Upanishadic texts suggest-the idea of transmutation as expressive of cognitive operations and this transmutation as indicative of a quality unifying phenomena, human and non-human.
The summative vision of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri in his metaphysical journey in the Divine Comedy operates in terms of an epistemic and metaphysical universe which is significantly distant from that of Mazisis Kunene’s exposition of Classical Zulu thought and the Upanishads. At the same time, however, Dante’s vision draws on a universal language of metaphors and concepts that provides an expansion for the calabash motif described by Kunene, and resonates, incidentally, with the conception of comprehensive knowledge depicted by the Upanishads. Dante evokes images of material depth, cognitive range, amplitude and integration in a manner that resonates, even from a remote cultural, spatial and temporal distance, with the unifying epistemic conception evoked by Kunene’s depiction of the calabash as a symbol of ultimate knowledge understood as a unification of the particulars of existence. Immense aquatic depth and great temporal distance emerge in Dante’s visualisation of an integrative mysticism in which the underlying principles of the cosmos are abstracted and unified:
substance [ things as existing in themselves] accident [all aspects or properties of being] and mode [all mutual relations] unite [in] one simple light [ a single concept ]
Neptune location at the sea bed from where he perceives and is dazed by the shadow of Jason’s ship the Argo becomes evocative of the depth of metaphysical vision which the poet penetrates to but which in penetrating to, dazes him by its ro tenses from his previous experience and knowledge and the cognitive range his mind can conventionally accommodate. The distance of centuries between the vent of Neptune dazed encounter with the Argo and the time Dante is writing his poem suggest the distance in character between his vision to which he gains access, its immediacy of perception at the moment of perception/engagement and then echoes of the vision that remains in his mind at the point of recollection. As he writes about it. Spatial depth evocative of vertical dimension. The aquatic region in which it occurs suggestive of volume. Temporal dimension evocative of a horizontal dimension. The horizontal dimension as evocative of an infinity rather than a possibility of termination evoked by Dante’s characterisation of the difference between the conventional raciocinative ability’s efforts to grasp ratiocinatively the being of God, who is the source of the unity he has just witnessed, as trying to square a circle. Images of infinity-the circle, evocations of paradox-trying to square the circle-are foregrounded and suggest, even though at some metaphorical remove, the circularity of the calabash and the pot, the associations of such circularity with infinity, and the correlation of the form of the pot with conceptions of paradox emerging from the ontological and cognitive conundrums it evokes.
Dante describes the effort to grasp the cognitively unreachable mystery in terms of an effort to measure the circle,that being impossible, since the circle cannot be measured, being a line that has no beginning or end, “struggling to understand the incomprehensible like a math student grappling with the quantity of π, or in terms of trying to square the circle, “the reckoning of a square that shall be equal in area to a given circle…an ancient and mathematically insoluble problem , “struggling to understand the incomprehensible like a math student grappling with the quantity of π ”
The Calabash and the Pot: Transmutation, Concavity, Circularity and the Dialectic of Exterior and Interior as Cognitive Models
The calabash being a ubiquitous form in sub-Saharan Africa, it is understood in different African cultures in terms of a range of symbolism. One of these symbolic attributions relates directly to the imagery of fire that correlates the Upanishadic and the Kunene texts. The other relates to the conception of the spatial amplitude of the calabash in relation to its solid exterior in terms of a dialectic of space and form that resonates with the symbolism of the yantra which is discussed below.
The calabash also demonstrates similarities of form and symbolism with pottery in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Europe. One of these symbolic correlations between the calabash and pottery relates directly to the imagery of fire that correlates the Upanishadic and the Kunene texts. Another emerges in terms of the associations between the concavity that constitutes the internal shape of the calabash and the pot and the swelling of the stomach of the pregnant woman, and thereby, the womb and the child within it which create that swelling, an imaginative correlation which is developed in terms of ideas of generative possibility, from the human to the cosmic. This line of thought may be expanded in linking the associations inspired by the human generative space of the womb with any empty space, empty space being understood in this context as evoking in its emptiness a potentiality for fecundation by activity which could be kinetic, auditory, static or mental. This activity could involve space as a medium traversed in kinetic activity. It could emerge in the actualisation of its acoustic possibilities through the presence of sound. The space could demonstrate functionality as a location for forms, living or non-living. Or it could simply be understood as a template inspiring imaginative activity which is motivated by the emptiness of that space to engage with it mentally, perhaps peopling it with activity, entities and meaning solely through the agency of the mind.
Other associations relate to the conception of the spatial amplitude of the calabash and pottery in relation to their solid form in terms of a dialectic of space and form that reinforces and amplifies the vision of integrative metaphysical knowledge their shapes are understood as symbolising. This dialectic also suggests the ambiguities and paradoxes possible in relation to this conjunction between a visual symbol and its correlative cognitive aspiration.
As the potter shapes the clay that will become the concrete form of the pot, and indirectly forms the contours of the interior space bounded by that concrete shape, natural processes shape the forms that constitute both the organs of the human body and the processes that animate this body, enabling its growth. The amplitude of the pot, shaped by human hands, possibly using natural materials like clay, and that of the calabash, shaped by arboreal nature, are continuous with the growth of the mind in the soft planet of brain, pulsing with thought, creating connections between synapses as neurons are fired as the potter fires the clay that becomes the pot .
The malleability of clay is related to the malleability of the mind as it grows to maturity, and even after that stage of life it can become emblematic of the malleability cultivated by the person, who, like the conception of the master in the Chinese adage as a person who knows how to learn, in the words of the Fulani narrative Kaidara becomes “the wise [person who ] seeks to learn rather than teach [never claiming] to have all knowledge [always seeing themselves] as ignorant [approaching] studies like a pupil [never] contradicting another’s truths][always admitting ] to [ one’s] own errors”.
The agency of the potter as they shape the clay that will become the pot, as they fire this material after moulding it into a container that can serve a variety of purposes, from the purely aesthetic, to the aesthetic and utilitarian, in eating, in drinking or as a storage place, resonates with the agency of the individual as they cultivate the attitudes and persist in the activities through which particular forms of understanding are cultivated and the cognitive permutations that constitute the mind are realised.
The concavity of the calabash and the pot become the womb of becoming, evocative of primary generative space, from the womb of the human female to the space of brain and mind, up to cosmic figurations in which the space of the human womb and the source of existence are conjoined in a symbolic unity.
Beyond conceptions of unity of being and of generative possibilities suggested by associations between the concavity of the calabash and the pot and the shape of the human womb in which the growing child is conceived and shaped, the forms of the pot and the calabash are also understood as suggesting ambiguities and paradoxes emerging in contrast to those more explicit associations. “Which comes first, the pot or the space inside it?” is a conundrum posed by Susanne Wenger. Its ontological implications, its provocation of enquiry about the distinctive being of the pot in relation to the character of the universal extension constituted by space is inspired, perhaps, by her conjunction of the paradoxes of the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu with Classical Yoruba thought. Lao Tzu writes of the necessity of emptiness of forms to their value, such as the empty spaces constituted by the rooms of a house or the centre of a bicycle wheel . Wenger is inspired by the iconography of the Yoruba Orisa or deity Iya Mopo, who, in Wenger’s words, is patroness of women’s arts, including their “erotic vocations of conception and child birth” and is also a potter who shapes forms around “pre-existent space” .
The mutuality of being shared by both concreteness and emptiness of form in the pot also resonate in the visual characterisation of the relationship between consciousness and the ground of being in a particular depiction of this relationship by a Buddhist thinker. On account of the transcendence of all human categories by ultimate being, ultimate being is understood in Buddhism as the Void. The French writer Daniel Odier describes his Indian teacher, Lolita Devi, who seems to combine both Buddhist and Hindu ideas, as describing the relationship between human consciousness, understood as an expression of and thereby as fundamentally identical with the ground of being, and the void, which is metaphoric for this ontological ground, in terms of the mutually of being between the empty space of the pot and its concrete form. To her, the potter’s hands ride the “clay around the void [fashioning] wonderful objects out of emptiness” . In becoming a potter, she
... began to make pots and jars, thinking all the time of the wonderful void that contained my consciousness and my wonderful consciousness that contained the void. I came to understand little by little that the void was full, that fullness was empty, that the void was rooted in the clay, and that if the clay did not recognise the void, it could never become a pot or a jar.
[ Is the inside of the jar empty or full?] ..it [ is] full of emptiness...the void is the bone and marrow of each being, of each thing. Without the void, nothing would be possible .
Levi’s correlations of the art of pottery and the art of cognition suggest a cognitive discipline that enables the self to reshape or discard the conceptual structures through which it relates with itself and the world through a contemplation of the relationships within and between these structures and the world . This recreative activity is symbolised by the symbolism of the pot, particularly the process of its shaping, a process which effects a mutuality between concreteness and formlessness.
The agency of the potter who may widen the pot or smash it to start afresh with the process of shaping becomes suggestive of the agency of the self in expanding its cognitive preoccupations to relate with a keener sensitivity to itself and the world to which it belongs. The reshaping or discarding of old conceptions is a kind of death, equatable with emptiness understood both as absence and as opportunity. Lao Tzu, the Chinese thinker, puts this dialectical relationship between possession of the concreteness represented by understanding and the continual recasting and discarding necessary for growth of knowledge in the following way:
The one who devotes himself to learning
acquires something daily.
The one who devotes himself to the Tao
divests of something daily .
The act of shaping the pot becomes correlative with the effort to shape the universe, as far as it can be shaped through individual thought and action,as described by Devi:
The universe is a great pot that we never stop shaping with our flesh, our hearts, our thought... .It’s like the air inside of a pot. The air inside says to itself, ‘The universe is tiny. I see only a small circle of sky around me. Around me, a wall of earth marks the boundaries of my life. What’s outside?’
On the other hand, one may regard the pot that represents the structures of thought that make apprehension of the world possible as well as evoking the social structures in terms of which one lives, not as unchangeable forms, but as malleable, in the spirit of the potter who is free to reshape the pot:
While the man thinks, the tantrika makes a pot. While the man confines his consciousness, the tantrika widens the opening of the pot and lets his consciousness experience the void. Distinguishing between what’s inside the pot and what’s outside is possible only if you forget that the pot needs an opening, without which there is seclusion, rot and decay .
Devi describes ultimate cognitive possibility in terms of the smashing of the pot, enabling the reintegration of the bounded space that constitutes the formless part of the pot’s interior with the boundless space outside the pot “Suddenly Shiva comes and smashes the pot. The air that was imprisoned by restrictive thought is instantly merged with the universal air mass” .
This metaphorical description of unity through the locational and ontological relationships between the air inside the pot and that outside it, and by implication, the space within and without it, is correlative with the cognitive and ontological unity evoked by the Upanishadic passage which prefigures the union of the individual self and the universal self. The Upanishad evokes an awareness of ontological identity arrived at through the transformation of the self by a cognitive intensity reminiscent of flame. Kunene, on the other hand, depicts the transcendence of boundaries which the metaphor of Levi’s smashed pot evokes in terms of a combustive process. In Kunene’s visualisation, the calabash of unified vision is shaped through the fashioning of the flame that fires the pot. All ontological and epistemic polarities are thereby fused into a seamless unity represented by the circularity of the calabash. The continuity of all aspects of the form of the calabash evokes the ontological convergence between self and supposed other which Levi suggests in the smashing of the calabash that actualises the unhindered flow of air.
This possibility of symbolic interpretation could be related to its interpretation by Kunene, in terms of traditional Zulu thought and to its depiction by Oguibe, in relation to the traditional Igbo cosmos67. On account of its circular shape and amplitude of depth, it is interpreted by Kunene as suggesting a sense of comprehensiveness of being and of vision. It also suggests, according to Oguibe, in its circularity and fragility, the wholeness characterized by integral human existence as well as its potential for fragmentation.
[The Ghanaian artist] El Anatsui found in clay the figurative resonances of both fragility and resilience…properties [he found ] very exciting and full of sculptural and conceptual possibilities, each speaking to significant aspects of nature and existence, and especially to the cyclicity of life [as suggested by] the susceptibility of [clay] to reductive transformation…[its] peculiar vulnerability …to destruction and recycling [connoting ] the absence of finality and the presence of infinite possibility.
As the poet and playwright Ossie Enekwe observed, "Although a broken [clay] pot does not return to its original shape, it is not negated. It passes on to other levels of existence.". Clay, as matter and figure, therefore connotes perenniality .
In the wholeness of a clay vessel there is an inherent fragmentarity, and in every shard is borne a history of wholeness. The paradox itself is inherent in Igbo philosophy and the election of dualism over absolutism, in the belief that wherever one thing stands, another stands by it, and not even fate is beyond mediation. There is no absolute reality and there are no fixities, and all truth is virtual. In popular West African parlance we find a neat formulation of this philosophy: No condition is permanent. In his clay pot sculpture “We de Patcham”. Anatsui brings these elements together and amplifies them through a whole vessel built of fragments.
A broken pot may never regain its wholeness in terms of its original form, but at the point of its fracture appears a new objectivity, a new entity. And since no form is absolute nor any condition final, no state is primary. Fate loses essentialist negativity and begins to denote the absence of the absolute. Only in the notion of unmediated perpetuity is futility shown to reside .
What is this country? It is the home of the sages who dwell at the meeting point of human mind and cosmic mind, the mind that enables the universe. The place where the depths of the cosmos meet the solidity of the earth. That country that is constituted by a structure of relationships that integrates the universe in terms of mental form, as a cognitive configuration. A configuration that represents an understanding of the essence, structure and progression of existence. An understanding that integrates a grasp of the relationships between the fundamental physical and metaphysical constitution of the universe.
Is such a comprehensive understanding of the universe possible?
I am also intrigued by the notion that such a comprehensive understanding of the universe is consummated, not by/in terms of an intellectual synthesis but in terms of a synthesis arrived at through/an experiential understanding of the ground of being, a point of unification of the intricate complexity of the cosmos. Would such a point be fundamentally a creation of the perceiving mind or a property of the cosmos itself, understood in various perspectives on the question terms of varying degrees of relationship to that mind?
Particularly intriguing is the notion that to arrive at such an experiential encounter one has to transcend or annihilate that synthesis so painstakingly arrived at. That synthesis is an intellectual construct, a mind created form that is framed by the cognitive parameters that structure the character of the mind. The understanding that is aspired towards is perceived as transcending or beyond the cognitive frames that constitute the mind. Those frames therefore must be transcended. The interpretation of whatever is gained through such a process, however, has to be interpreted by the mind. The eventual dependence on the interpretive capacity of the mind is what makes the initial process of intellectual synthesis necessary. The seeker/individual needs to clarify for themselves the process through which they arrive at knowledge, as well as the modes/methods of evaluating the knowledge they are dealing with. These preliminary processes are central to the interpretation of the expanded range of cognitive possibilities that emerges from an encounter with cognitive possibilities that transcend conventional mental functioning. The entry into such possibilities is best understood not as departure from critical thinking but as perception of possibilities that integrate and transcend but do not supersede critical thought.
Adinkra became expressive for me of the processes for arriving at a mental integration of the cosmos and a transcendence of that unity to arrive at the formless ground beyond the cosmos. It also suggests to me the structure of knowledge that results from this process. Kuntunkantan embodies for me the lines of the Hermetic philosopher that had long haunted me with their enigmatic beauty “The way is the goal and the goal is the way”.
The Correlation of Self Knowledge and Understanding of the Cosmos in the Symbolism of Sri Yantra
The Geometric Symbolism of the Yantra
The ideal of knowledge of self and knowledge of the world indicated by the lines from the Upanishads are summed up for me in terms of another discursive space, again from the philosophical and religious genius of India. This discursive form is the yantra, a geometric depiction of cosmic forces and cosmic form, used, among other goals, as a means of reflection upon the relationship between the metaphysical structure and development of the cosmos and the human being.
Evocative possibilities emerging from a foregrounding of formal values similar to those of the calabash and the pot are developed with greater explicitness in the symbolism of the yantra. The generative conceptions that are enabled by pot and calabash form are similar to those actualised in the geometric expansiveness of the yantra.
The yantra succeeds in projecting its own contribution to this continuum of symbolism in a much more explicit and visually elaborate manner than the pot and the calabash. The symbolism of the domestic paraphernalia is incidental rather than intrinsic to their forms. The yantra, however, is fundamentally a symbolic form rather than a natural or utilitarian form that acquires symbolic overtones with time, as the calabash and the pot.
The structure of the yantra is composed of a balance between invariable and variable elements. The actualisation of the relationship between these twin possibilities in particular examples defines the specific forms and the associated symbolism of the variety of yantras. A yantra is invariably composed of relationships between geometric forms. These forms are the central dot or bindu, concentric circles, triangles and squares arranged as moving outward from the centre of the total geometric form. All the geometric forms are arranged in a concentric formation around the bindu, which is at the centre.
The generative symbolism of the calabash and the pot are correlative with the symbolism of cosmic generation of the dot at the centre of the yantra, known as the bindu. The geometric forms arranged in a concentric formation around the bindu as expressions of the aspects of being emanating from the cosmic centre the bindu represents. This symbolism is correlative with the associations of the calabash and the pot in which a similar but less explicit symbolic universe emerges from their spatiality, circularity and intercourse with empty space.
The two dimensionality of the yantra implies that its capacity to suggest a deconstruction of its dialectic of wholeness in terms of relationships between centre and circumference, and thereby between cosmic centre and cosmic manifestation, between self and cosmos, between self and dialogues between the conception of a centre to the self and the expressions of such a centre emerges in terms of questions of the character of such interrelationships, their validity, their explicitness or ambiguity .
The particular yantra that most compellingly sums up for me the ideal of an integration of knowledge in terms of a correlative understanding of the self and the cosmos as depicted by the Upanishads is known as the Sri Yantra. Like all yantras, it is evocative of movement from the self to the cosmos and from the cosmos to the self, distinctive and correlative movements also depicted by the lines from the Upanishads. This centripetal and centrifugal motion is evoked by the relationship between the centre and the circumference in the circles that are a central feature of the yantra. The centre of the structure symbolises the primary point of manifestation of the cosmos, while the circumference evokes the range of manifestations emerging from that primal centre.
Adapting the basic idea from the classical sources, the centre could also suggest the self while the circumference could depict the manifestations of the self from that centre. In using the yantra as an aid to reflection on the cosmos and the self and the relationships between them, one could adapt one’s contemplation to this symbolic visual progression, moving from the centre to the circumference and from the circumference to the centre. One could also conjoin the conception of the yantra as symbolic of the cosmos and the yantra as symbolic of the self through reflection on the understanding of the self as part of the cosmos, and of the cosmos as realised through the self.
These conceptions of cognitive possibility project an immediacy of perception of ultimate ontological unity between the particulars of existence that cannot be purely ratiocinative because the ratiocinative implies a degree of distance between the object of perception and the perceiving subject. These conceptions are therefore suprarational in the sense that they refer to the use of ratiocination but indicate a cognitive possibility that goes beyond the capacities of ratiocinative cognition as conventionally understood. Although they are suprarational, however, they depict cognitive ideals that may be adapted to fundamentally ratiocinactive purposes. This adaptation benefits from the ideational scope of the suprarational conceptions while interpreting these primarily in terms of conceptions that can be arrived at through purely ratiocinative means. In referring to the rationcinative, I refer to structures of knowledge that can grasped by anyone who educates themselves in the logical conventions in terms of which the cognitive structures are organised. These cognitive forms could be developed through a correlation of logical thinking and associative thinking. The logical relations in terms of which they are organised may be linear or non-linear.
Upanishadic Epistemology and Metaphysics in the Development of a Conception of Ultimate Knowledge
A better appreciation of the Katha Upanishad on the results achieved through the pursuit of the cognitive activities evoked in terms of transformative intensity of fire may also be further advanced when this conception is correlated with other lines from the Upanishads. This time from the Upanishad. The central vision of the Upanishads is the unity of being, often expressed in terms of the convergence of this unity in the human self. The conception of the human being as cosmic axis is depicted in a variety of ways, developing a dialectical relationship between the vast and the small, between the constitution of the human being in terms of the structures of body and mind and the spirit that underlies the cosmos. The Upanishad invokes the various constituents of the human body, from breath to semen, and correlates each of these with a particular element in terms of an underlying metaphysical principle: “the immortal spirit that is in breath/the immortal spirit that is in air/ are one and the same...the immortal spirit that is in human seed,/the immortal spirit that is in water/ are one and the same”.
Correlations of Physical, Mental and Sonic Space
The opening imagistic and conceptual cartography of this chapter develops a relationship between various forms of space: between physical space as constituted by the Iyaro Motor Park and the National Library at Iyaro, between physical space and its associated sonic space as represented by the relationship between the motor park and the sounds that characterise it and between the library and the silence that defines the central activity taking place within it, and between all these spatial forms and the textual space actualised by the book I read in the library which opened a door into another textual space, the space created by the Upanishads, which the book quoted.
The opening paragraphs of this chapter create a structure of relationships between space as literally understood and space as metaphorically conceived. The literal spaces are made up of the motor park and the library. The metaphorical spaces consist of the sound and silence associated with the motor park and the library respectively. The book read in the library can also be understood literally as a space constituted by the extension of the book in terms of the dimensions of length, breadth and thickness. The encounter with the ideas evoked by reading the book, however, introduces us to another spatial dimension that is metaphorical: the world of ideas and the mind that engages with them. This culminating encounter in the progression from motor park to library demonstrates that the central spatial relationship at play in the
entire dynamic tableau is that of the relationship between the senses, engaged through the ambulatory motion from one point to another, and the mind of the person in motion between physical, sonic and ideational spaces.
All these spatial experiences are engaged with and interpreted by the space represented by the consciousness of the person who experienced them and tries to correlate them in order to facilitate the development of frameworks through which to make meaning of his own life. This consciousness is the mental space constituted by the individual’s perception, in both a visual and a cognitive sense, and is mediated through the space embodied by his own body, that being the primary spatial enablement, the primary context through which he is able to engage in the ambulatory motion that enables him to encounter the conjunction between physical, sonic and textual space that emerges from his movement through the motor park to the library.
A number of issues are foregrounded by these considerations. These are the image of embodiment as a primary means of encountering various spatial forms and the characterisation of space in literal and metaphorical terms. The literal conception of space is represented by the depiction of the physical spaces of the motor park and the library and the metaphorical is exemplified by the description of the sonic environments of the park and the library as well as the textual spaces constituted by the book and the ideational worlds it opens the mind to, as well as the perceptual and cognitive structure represented by that mind.
The relationship between sensate apprehension of phenomena-visual, sonic and tactile-and ideational configuration also emerges in the continuum of symbolic forms of which the yantra is one expression. The yantra is understood to represent a point in a scale of depiction of metaphysical conceptions. This scale is one of increasing abstraction. At the most basic level is the anthropomorphic, in which the conception at issue is presented in terms of a humanoid form, demonstrating characteristics related to the activity of human existence. Along those lines each yantra is associated with a deity who is a cosmic entity or force depicted in anthropomorphic terms. A deity associated with the Sri Yantra is Tripura Sundari, who is described as lush and buxom, her beauty so striking that one look from her can transform the most unattractive man into a person whom ladies would race after, regardless of the consequences.
At the next level of symbolism is the abstraction represented by the geometric form of the yantra. At this point the only remnant of the former feminine characterisation of the deity associated with the yantra is the understanding that the triangles facing upwards represent the male principle, Shiva, while the triangles facing downwards embody the female principle, Shakti. Their union creates and sustains the cosmos.
The third level of symbolism is the most abstract. At this point the anthropomorphic and the geometric, both being visual expressions, are transcended in terms of sound. At this utmost level of abstraction, the complex of symbolism that constitutes the Sri Yantra is represented by sonic form, the vowel and consonantal combinations of the Srividya mantra, which begins with the primal syllable OM, described as expressive of the sound through which the universe came into being and is sustained in being.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
RE: [WoleSoyinkaSociety] Fw: Re: [krazitivity] Re: Fw: Penguin Prize for African Writing
Thank you for your feedback on the prize criteria. Let me address your questions individually:
- We realise that some people have interpreted the exclusion of science fiction and fantasy to mean that books with fantastical elements will also be excluded from consideration – we wanted to exclude books that will only appeal to a science fiction/fantasy readership (and only be displayed in the sci fi/fantasy section of bookshops) in favour of books that will appeal to a broader readership. We will try to correct this impression in the next round of the prize.
- Children’s books – there are other prizes that address children’s writing and we do not want to judge works aimed at adults in the same competition as works aimed at children as the criteria should be very different for the two audiences.
- Non-fiction – we don’t deny the importance of non-Africans writing about Africa or Africans writing about non-African issues but would like to encourage works about Africa written by Africans through this prize, other prizes can reward excellence in other areas.
I hope this goes some way to explain our thinking behind these decisions.
Penguin Books South Africa
Tel: +27 11 327 3550 Ext. 320
Fax: 0865302546 or +27 11 327 6574
Sunday, July 05, 2009
ON SUBJECT MATTER IN AFRICAN WRITING: UNIVERSALITY VS PARTICULARITY: A Response to the Criteria in The Penguin Prize for African Writing
The Penguin Prize for African Writing
Worthy initiative but I wonder what the logic of the following criteria is:
Rules for the fiction prize
1.Submissions in the children’s literature, science fiction or fantasy genres will not be considered
I am really puzzled by this.
The iconic work of the following African writers challenges such a criterion.
Ben Okri is primarily a fantasist in his entry to and from the alternate world of the spirit children, the ogbanje, in The Famished Road, which opens with an endless road which is “always hungry”, and a king who is animal, human and spirit. The same goes for Amos Tutuola’s palm wine tapper pursuing his deceased palm wine “tapster” into the “Deads Town” and Daniel Fagunwa’s hunters who travel in forests in which mind boggling creatures abound, as well as Bessie Head’s A Question of Power, where the protagonist is in constant internal warfare with characters who are either God and/or the Devil or next door neighbours or evidence of hallucination or all these together, along with the novels of Helen Oyeyemi.
All these works are set in worlds that are largely not the realities that most humans are familiar with.
Penguin issued the works of the US writer H.P. Lovecraft, one of the greatest masters of metaphysical horror. They also issued the stories of the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges, distinctive for his metaphysical narrative riddles, most of which are gems of the improbable, like the story of God's dream visitation to the tiger and the poet.
Fantasy writing is one of the most powerful genres for exploring the deepest issues about the meaning of life and alternative conceptions of reality. One reason why I am not too enthusiastic about much African writing is the very limitation suggested by this Penguin prize criterion-a focus on realist writing that severely limits the range of possibilities available in the literature.
From the Italian Dante's journey across cosmic realms in the Divine Comedy, to Faust's bargain with the Devil in the German Goethe's Faust,from the interactions between human beings and deities in the Indian Mahabharata and Ramayana and the Greek Homer's Iliad and Odyssey,to the peregrinations between the forest, the worlds of spirits and those of animals and humans in African folktales and myths, fantasy is central to the life blood of any literature.
Some of the best writing of the twentieth century is in popular fantasy writing, particularly magical fantasy. The English writers’ Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Rowling's Harry Potter series, the Earthsea trilogy by the American Ursula le Guin, are immortal works, shaped by a unique imaginative exuberance, and, at times, as with Tolkien, an inimitable linguistic inventiveness. Tolkien is one of, if not the most successful, creator in modern fantasy, of a secondary universe, defined by elaborate maps, resonant place names, an extensive history stretching from the beginning of existence to the contemporary present of his narratives, and with clearly defined languages, one of which, Elvish, is so detailed that some of his readers can read, write and speak it.
As for science fiction, it is the distinctive genre of modern literature. Johannes Kepler used it as a vehicle for his astronomical imagination, complementing his ground breaking work in astronomy in the 17th century, Isaac Asimov’s exploration of forms of civilisation, mentalistic and psychic and technological in the Foundation series is fundamental for imaginative engagements with modernity, his Robot series is crucial for the question of relationships between the human and the technological, David Zindell's Neverness is sublime in integrating a comprehensive visualization of what it means to be human in a complex universe, Clifford Simak, among other themes, explores the tension between contrastive civilisations, whether human-past, present, future, or between the human and the non-human, among countless examples of a genre which defines the modern age.
Even non-fiction writers integrate fantasy and science fiction into their philosophical or scientific works, making them more memorable, as exemplified by Plato’s famous parable of the cave which depicts human life as a confinement in which people are chained facing the back of a cave, and mistake for reality the shadows cast by the sunlight outside the cave, or the science fiction scenario in Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature in which the reader is transported to a futuristic encounter between human and non-human civilisations in order to explore a question of ethics, and Albert Einstein’s thought experiments in physics, such as imagining what it is like to travel on a beam of light.
African science fiction writing is represented by Wilfred Feuser’s early anthology Jazz and Palm Wine and other more modern examples, from within Africa and the African Diaspora.
In relation to children’s literature,some of the greatest writing in the world is children’s literature. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Class have become a part of the Western imagination, as Alice follows the rabbit down the rabbit hole or walks through the mirror to encounter a world that has proven endlessly fascinating across the centuries; Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies resonates with childhood realities and imaginations as Tom endures a difficult but fascinating life as a chimney sweep ,undergoes liberation from that drudgery as a child living underwater to taking a great journey into manhood across various dimensions; Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty provokes inter-species empathy in being skilfully told from the perspective of a horse. Amadou Hampate Ba’s Kaidara, a Fulani story of spiritual initiation was also issued as a children’s story, superbly told, with striking illustrations. Ba also claims in his essay “The Living Tradition” that he is acquainted with an esoteric conception of the attributes of God depicted as a children’s game.
Criteria for entry and rules for the NON-fiction prize
2.Serious narrative non-fiction that examines and explores African
issues and experiences for both local and international audiences in an
engaging, thought provoking and enlightening way.
Must an African write about Africa?
So many non-Africans have made their names writing about Africa. I,for one, am an African who has a keen interest in comparative mysticism, African, Islamic Asian, European. In being assessed for such a prize, why should the non - location of the work in relation to Africa be an issue? Are we not observing a move here towards cultural ghettoisation? With such a restriction,should the prize not be titled instead as a prize for Africans writing about Africa, instead of simply being a prize for African writing?
Are Plato, Kant, Descartes, or the more recent Paul Davies, Martin Rees and Stephen Hawking , all scientists and philosophers who are great or impressive writers, writing about Europe, Germany, Greece or England per se? No. They are writing about the human condition from their backgrounds as Europeans, a background that is not definitive of the subject matter of their works.