Man the artist
Following is an excerpt from the1930 lecture delivered by Tagore at Baroda, first published in 1932 under the title 'Man the Artist' as 'Kirti Mandir Lectures Series No. 1' by the Department of Education, Baroda State, and printed at The Baroda State Press, Baroda
The development of civilization is not a gradual growth. On his path of experience man comes to sudden altitudes that startle his imagination with a wider view of things, claiming a larger synthesis. We find its parallel in the growth of science, when the theory of evolution or radioactivity bursts open a vista of knowledge which demands from us new adjustments of scientific vision, new groupings in the creative composition of our thoughts. When any addition or modification of human growth, which is not for information but realisation, comes to us as a mere pronouncement, it has very little effect upon our life, even if accepted by our intellect. It waits for our imagination to receive it, to harmonize it with our earlier visions which are not made up of mere thoughts, but are ideals, complete bodies of thought, alive with a dynamic force, like the food that has in it life-giving energy concentrated in organic form. Our imagination incarnates ideas into ideals, by which we not merely know them, but see them, feel them, have an intimate consciousness of their reality. The truth which we acknowledge and yet cannot assimilate, often seeks for the help of some personal voice, some living presence. And when it is transformed for us into an image identified with the person himself who has made it one with his life, it is admitted without question by our imagination, to its own vivid world of reality. And such also is the function of literature and the other arts; for they help in building perfect images of ideas, even as the crustaceans, which with the lime captured from the water, fashion their shells of wondrous designs.
I have already suggested that the growth of civilization has its abrupt chapters of spasmodic divergences. Nearly every new venture of its career begins with a cataclysm for its changes are not mere seasonal changes of ideas, naturally gliding through varied eras of flowers and fruits. They are changes provoking revolutionary adjustments, changes in the dynasty of living ideals, active in consolidating their possessions with strongholds of physical and mental habits, of symbols, ceremonials and adornments that arouse loyalty in our aesthetic mind. When archaeologists unearth the records of a past civilization from the closed pages of dust, we find one epoch establishing its dominion upon the devastation of another. Each of them shows signs of an endeavor to evolve its own special type, to create its individuality through some fundamental unity of expressions, some central motive dominating its features, and leaving its relics in pottery and ornaments, in temples, in pictures or inscriptions on bricks, stones and metals - pathetic efforts to make its memories continuous through the ages, like the effort of a child who sets adrift on a paper-boat, his dream of reaching the distant unknown. Wordsworth says:
We live by admiration, hope, and love;
And even as these are well and widely fixed,
In dignity of being we ascend.
There are countless facts of existence, which we pass by without heeding. Though dealt with by our intellect or the instinct of self-interest in some capacity or other, they slip off our attention, or hang loosely on some superficial recognition of our mind. But that which we admire and love and hope, we long to give to it permanent acknowledgment in the world which is our own; and as the poet has said, 'even as these are well and widely fixed, in dignity of being we ascend'. For our very being is dwarfed and shrunken when we are dragged by the mechanical routine of repetitions over colourless days, when we merely grow old in age but not in clarity of thought and maturity of wisdom, when we have no object of profound interest, for which the utmost sacrifice may not be counted as loss; when we have no prospect of heightened life, demanding heroic attention to maintain it; or when we make fire works of our animal passions for the enjoyment of our animal passions for the enjoyment of their meteoric flashes of sensations, recklessly reducing to ashes all that could have been saved for permanent illumination. And this happens not only to mediocre individuals, hungering for lurid unrealities, but to generations of insipid races that have lost all emphasis of significance in themselves. For their imagination flags either through dissipation or lethargy, finding no urgent incentive for the highest purpose of man, his purpose of self-creation.
When I use the word self-creation, I do not mean to restrict its sense to any positive modification or achievement within our nature itself. It includes our outer world, and also all that is represented in half-uttered suggestion, in the cry of our unfulfilled desires, thwarted by the rude contradiction of actuality. In fact, the unattained gives character to what is attained by us. Its wail of refusal to remain illegible, its clamour for a body which carries its credentials in its perfection, rises above the contented hum of our success. These ideas unborn, these unformed spirits tease our imagination with an insistence, which makes them more real to our mind than things around us that shout their identity with too plausible proofs. Poets and artists fondly build for these guests awaiting their welcome, pavilions in precious materials, to invoke them from out of the deep in a manifestation of unfading effulgence, in an indubitable self-corroboration, in a finality of form. These preparations represent the abiding reality of the people, something, which they aimed at, which they considered as worthy of their self-respect. While they themselves pass away one aman when he says:
We are the music-makers
We are the dreamers of dreams.
Each age reveals its personality as dreamer, in its great expressions that carry it across surging centuries to the continental plateau of permanent human history. These expressions are in plays, and poems, in the lives of heroes and saints, in the noble towns like Benares and Agra, Athens and Rome. In them, peoples have manifested their dignity of being, through majesty in ideals and beauty in performance. Do we not realise this in the ruins of ancient Rome, in its relics of human aspiration for the immense, the sight of which teases our mind out of thought? Does it not prove that the vision of a great Roman Empire had become intensely real to the imagination of the people, which sought its expression not only in military enterprises, but in magnanimous adventures of art? It was the idea of an empire which was not merely for opening an outlet to the pent-up pressure of over population, or widening its field of commercial profit and monstrous multiplication of products, but as a concrete representation of the majesty of Roman personality, the souls of the people which dreamed of a world-wide creation of its own, for its fit habitation. And this vivid consciousness of its titanic strength as a world-builder of human history, roused up the artist in the people to make manifest his dignity of being in an eternal present.
‘With wonderful deathless ditties
We build up the world's great cities,
And out of a fabulous story
We fashion an empire's glory.’
There are two disastrous enemies which tend to rob civilization of its creative personality. The first one is the incubus of petrified tradition, separated from the moving mind and growing life. Seated rigid in the centre of stagnation, it firmly ties the human spirit to the revolving wheels of habit, till faintness overwhelms her. Like a sluggish stream chocked by rotting weeds, it is divided into shallow slimy pools that shroud their dumbness in a narcotic [-induced] mist of stupor. This mechanical spirit of tradition is essentially materialistic, it drugs the soul of man into a dull drowsiness, it gives rise to phantoms of unreason that haunt feeble minds in the ghastly disguise of religion. Civilization in such a state of inertia, allows its foolish days to weave unmeaning meshes of bondage round all departments of life; while its past inheritance, hoarded in a dark cellar, grows rusty, crumbles away, and loses its original significance.
Another powerful enemy of our creative life is the too analytical tendency of mind, the superstitious faith in laboratory method, as the only means of solving the mysteries of existence, in all the variety of its aspects. One engaged in prying into the secrets of things by tearing them to shreds, easily loses his faith in wholeness as the ultimate meaning of reality. No doubt it is wonderful that music contains a fact which has been analyzed and measured by science, and which music has in common with the braying of an ass or of a motor-car horn. But it is still more wonderful that music has a truth, which cannot be analysed into fractions; and there the difference between it and the bellowing impertinence of a motor-car horn is infinite.
A highlight from what we left out
But man, having imagination, is ever at work blending all his acquisitions into a unity of creation, into that universe of personality named civilisation, which has a living growth and which always seeks a larger freedom in more and more comprehensive truth. With the expansion of their sphere, our visions of perfection develop new valuations new depths and delicacies of delight, and a sober dignity of expression through elimination of tawdriness, of frenzied emotions, of all violence in shape, colour, words or behavior; of the mentality of Ku-Klux-Klanism.
They have analyzed the human mind, its dreams, its spiritual aspirations, and found to their satisfaction that these are composed of elemental animalities, tangled into various knots. This may be an important discovery, but what is still more important to realize, is the fact that man infinitely transcends the component parts of his own character. Supposing that some psychological explorer suspects that man's devotion to his beloved has at bottom our primitive stomach's hankering for human flesh, we need not contradict him; for whatever may be its genealogy, its secret composition; the complete character of our love, in its perfect mingling of physical, mental and spiritual associations, is unique in its utter difference from cannibalism. A lotus has in common with a piece of rotten flesh the elements of carbon and hydrogen; in a state of dissolution there is no difference between them, but in a state of creation the difference is immense; and it is that very difference which really matters. We are told that some of our most sacred sentiments hold hidden in them instincts that are contrary to what these sentiments pretend to be. Such disclosures have the effect upon certain persons of the relief of a tension, even like the relaxation in death of the incessant strenuousness of life.
An analogy with this may be found in those students in our country, who once used to strain their utmost to attain a standard of culture, which they believed to be valuable. But directly it came to be preached in the name of patriotism that culture was superfluous, that it had an impure foreign taint, a large number of these same students felt relieved, and renounced their devotion to education that had taken long patient years for its growth. When their faith in the value of cultural perfection was taken away from them, their vision of an educated mentality was enfeebled, and along with it their ardour for intellectual self-creation.
We find in modern literature that something like a chuckle of an exultant disillusionment is becoming contagious, and the knights-errant of the cult of arson are abroad, setting fire to our time honored altars of worship, proclaiming that the images enshrined on them, even if beautiful, are made of mud. They say that it has been found out that the appearances in human idealism are deceptive, that the underlying mud is real. From such a point of view, the whole of creation may be said to be a gigantic illusion, and the billions of revolving electric specks that appear like a piece of lead or gold, like you or me, should be condemned as bearers of false evidence,-But whom do they seek to delude?– If it be beings like ourselves, who possess some inborn criterion of the real, then to them these appearances in their integrity must represent reality, and not their component electric specks;-for them the rose must be more satisfactory as an object, than its constituent gases which can be tortured to speak against the evident identity of the rose. The rose, even like the human sentiment of goodness, or ideal of beauty, belongs to the realm of creation, in which all its rebellious elements are reconciled in a perfect harmony. Because these elements yield themselves to our scrutiny, we are inclined to give them the best prizes as actors in that mystery-play,– the rose,– which is really only giving a prize to our own detective cleverness.
I repeat again, that the sentiments and ideals which man in his process of self-creation has built up, should be recognised in their wholeness. The animal, the savage, have been transformed into higher stages in civilized man, not through any elimination of the original materials, but through a magical grouping of them,-through the severe discipline of art, the discipline of curbing and stressing in proper places, establishing a balance of lights and shadows in the background and fore-ground, and thus imparting a unique value to our personality in its completeness. So long as we have faith in this value, our energy is steadily sustained in its creative activity. This faith is helped on all sides by religion, literature, the arts, legends, symbols, ceremonials and the remembrance of heroic souls, who have personified it in themselves. To keep alive our faith in the reality of the ideal perfection, is the function of civilization, which is mainly formed of sentiments and ideals, and the images that represent them. In other words, civilization is a creation of art, created for the objective realization of our vision of the socially perfect; it is the work of an imagination, which constantly builds the personality of the people, as well as its habitation. Imagination is the flow of our mind towards the unseen, the unrealised, setting up banks along its forward path, by which it continually goes on defining the infinite. We stop its course of conquest when we accept the cult of realism, and forget that realism is the worst form of untruth, because it contains a minimum of truth. It is like preaching that only in the morgue can we comprehend the reality of the human body, the body, which has its perfect truth when seen in life. This life is transcendental, it includes what is yet to come, the best aspect of which is in its ceaseless aspiration for strength, health and beauty. All great human facts are surrounded by an immense atmosphere of expectation. They are never complete if we leave out from them what might be, what should be, what is not yet proved but profoundly felt, what points towards the immortal. All human facts that are significant are for revealing the eternal, the universal spirit of Man in the lives of men. It dwells in a perpetual surplus in the individual that transcends all the facts about him. His physiological contents are mere fractions, but when his personality, which is in the unity of his self-expression, is revealed, then he is a complete image.
There is an immense strength of the surplus, the "ucchishto bal" in man, says the Atharva Veda, which is the source of his righteousness and truth, beauty and heroism; in this surplus are held in unity his past and his future. In this superfluity ever grows his wealth of existence, which is not limited to the immediate facts of his individual self. It gives us beauty in its rhythm of activity, which is true freedom,-greatness in its suggestion of the infinite. Ugliness dwells in death, which is a dead stop with nothing beyond it; and the revellers in realism of our modern literature are right when they prove by their writings, that what they take pride in, is ugly and rude. The realism in man is the animal in him, whose life is in a mere duration of time; the human in him is his reality, with his life ever lasting for its background. Rocks and crystals, being complete in what they are, can keep a kind of dumb dignity in their stolidly-limited realism; while human facts grow unseemly and diseased, breeding germs of death, when divested of their ideal truth. And therefore let the poet remind us:
'We are the music-makers
We are the dreamers of dreams.'
Photo source: My Pictures: A collection by Rabindranath Tagore, published by Viva Books Private Limited.