Europe has always been eager to welcome wise men from the East. Asia and Northern Africa for centuries were seen as the great Other, the mysterious but immensely attractive regions of The Thousand and One Night and Panchatantra tales. The most conspicuous result of East-West synthesis was Christianity. Yet it did not involve India and China—the two most outstanding ancient civilizations, which flourished almost simultaneously with Greece. More ancient cultures, even at the beginning of the nineteenth century, were still hidden behind the thick veil of oblivion.
The road towards East-West understanding and a sense of their cultural unity has been long and arduous despite the multitude of contacts. A lot of superstition and open animosity had to be overcome. Speaking of the last centuries, a new stage in man’s common intellectual pilgrimage to the unknown future in Europe was prepared by the Englightenment with its cosmopolitanism and conception of the “citizen of the world” and introduced by the epoch of the early Romanticism. The end of the eighteenth and the first years of the nineteenth century are marked by the beginning of the process as the result of which humanity’s immense joined family (Herder’s idea) began to split into more clearly defined national and ethnic compartments, according to the diverse languages people were speaking, diverse gods they were worshipping, and diverse habits, customs and rites they were observing.
There is little doubt, that at a time when Europe was at least theoretically ready to treat non-Christian Asia as a partner in building the huge temple of one civilization for all people, India acquired a privileged status as far as intellectual spheres, like literature, philosophy and religion, were concerned. It seems that this would not have been possible without the first British Indologists’ activities in Calcutta. William Jones’ discovery that Sanskrit was related to most European languages and that its literature was perhaps to most ancient in the world profoundly stirred many European minds, especially in Germany. This event contributed greatly to the birth of comparative literature, philosophy, religion, and mythology. The translation of Kalidasa’s Shakuntala showed that there existed a powerful tradition of dramaturgy, to which the Aristotelian principles could not be applied. The end of the eighteenth century Germany was so much preoccupied with Indian thought that it became a sort of catalyst, strengthening the positions of the first Romanticists, for it seemed that much of what the Schlegel brothers, Schelling, Novalis and others wanted to achieve in Europe was a reality in India. Dreams about the faraway country soon turned into a scholarly interest about its past, which in turn contributed to the birth of the view of history as developing according to regional and national peculiarities.
By the time Rabindranath Tagore came to London in 1912, India, at least in some countries, was still the object of special attraction. So, the poet’s triumphal reception was in a way prepared by his ancestors. Another, even more important, but by at not enough discussed factor was the closeness of his belles-letters to much of European poetry and playwriting before World War l. Rabindranath was called the “Bengali Shelley” by his compatriots from the time when his first mature works were published, that is, long before they reached Western shores. It appears that romanticism and symbolism became the main bridges connecting his poems and plays with European literature. Schelling, Friedrich Schlegel or Novalis, as far as we know, were not Rabindranath’s intellectual teachers. Yet his aesthetic views reveal a remarkable closeness to them in many aspects, despite the distance in time and space.
The initial great impact of Indian thought and literature on Europe during the age of early romanticism and its recurrence more than a century later due to Rabindranath’s extraordinary personality and creative genius are the two main interrelated themes of the present work. The reader will also find arguments in favour of the idea that ancient India offered answers to some of the most significant questions the romanticists were asking. Tagore’s attitude to the West and the fate of his works in some European countries, above all in the author’s native Latvia, will also be discussed.
This investigation belongs to the domain of comparative literature and comparative philosophy. I take it for granted that influences are possible only when there is a demand for a particular kind of foreign cultural import. France, unlike its neighbours Germany and England, could not be romanticized, using Novalis’ phrase, until the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Rousseau’s pre-romantic writing at first found enthusiastic readers outside his own country. One can presume that European romantic literature was read by educated people in all the provinces of India. Yet writing, which by the Bengalis is called “romantic” first appeared in their own languge due to specific historical conditions, which are also dealt with in the present work.
Tagore’s national background and his belonging first and foremost to India will be discussed in connection with other themes. His indebtedness to the Upanishads, his love of Buddha, Ashoka, Kalidasa, Kabir and other great men of the past, the frequent usage of vishnuistic and shivaistic imagery, profound interest in Bengali folk art, above all the baul songs and the jatra theatre, are the best testimonies that the poet was a true heir of the immensely rich and variegated Indian culture.
One might ask: why another book on Tagore, because there are hundreds of them in Bengali and dozens in European languages. Also, the poet’s ties with the West—the main subject of this work—are discussed to some extent nearly by everybody, since Bengali critics started writing extensively about him, beginning with Ajit Kumar Chakravartty’s small but worthy book “Rabindranath” in 1912. Still, from the point of view of literary theory, which, together with romanticism I have taught at my university for many years, it seems that some new stresses are possible. While reading literature on Tagore in the most widely used European languages, one can come to conclusions that do not always coincide with the widely accepted ones: for example, one can contend that the poet never really yielded his place to the prophet in the eyes of most Western readers, and his fame in the West did not decline everywhere in the 1930s, as many people believe.
Specifically the following will be stressed: 1) India’s influence on the West during the two periods under review has been very considerable, and, without serious references to this influence, romanticism and, without serious references to this influence, romanticism as a literary movement cannot be discussed; 2) When speaking of “Tagore’s phenomenon” in the West, the role the poet’s purely literary genius played should be given a greater prominence than has been so far done; 3) Tagore’s doubtless and striking Indianness should not prevent us from regarding his compositions as part and parcel of the world literary process: his sense of unity and harmony is rooted in the national tradition, but at the same time is romantic in nature; 4) the very original concept of “deity of life” still can be likened to what the Western romanticists were saying about the artist and art; 5) there are serious grounds to enable one to view some of the poet’s collections of poems and plays as being predominantly symbolic in the sense of European symbolism; 6) as the example of the Latvian language shows, Tagore’s popularity in the West sometimes reached its all-time highest point in the late 1920s and 1930.
A system of reference is adopted, which takes up less space and does not complicate reading. It is hoped that the author of the present book will be forgiven for not always quoting from primary sources. These sources are seldom available in Riga and often could not be found even in the best Moscow libraries in which I did research for about two years. For the same reason I had to try to translate from various languages passages of some works that are available in English elsewhere. I have to do it very often also because the literal meaning for me is most important, even if poetry is concerned. The effort to avoid the difficulties of translation explains the great attention I have given to Tagore’s publicist works written in English, although they, as it is well known, are not as informative as his similar brilliant writing in Bengali.
The present study was completed in 1989 and was waiting for the opportunity to be published. Since then I was fortunate enough to work in several excellent American and European libraries to meet more writers on Bengali literature, and above all—to come to the conclusion the censorship in Latvia has disappeared, which to some extent mutilated much of what I published earlier. When abroad, you were not supposed to read a lecture or to publish anything before you showed it to the censor at home. You also knew that there was some KGB agent reporting on you, whether you were staying in Calcutta or Santiniketan.
Rereading in the middle of 1995 my own pages written in 1988-89 strangely enough there was little to object to, except for a few sentences. Therefore the present work goes to the readers (it was meant for Western and non-Bengali readers for I cannot for a moment presume to teach in any way the poet’s compatriots) as it was completed a long time ago.
However, getting acquainted with the most recent literature, it becomes clear that one should try to reintroduce Tagore into the West, because the post-modernistic West needs his humanistic and soul-warning massage, his belief in the greatness of man.
The circle of those ethnic Westerners who work with Bengali literature during many years is extremely small. If I mention (in alphabetic order) France Bhattacharya (France), Yelena Brosalina (Russia), Martin Kampfchen (Germany), Alexander Gnatiuk-Danilchuk (Russia), Mary Lago (USA), William Radice (Great Britain), Sergey Serebryany (Russia), William Smith (Sweden) and Dushan Zbavitel (The Czech Republic) the list is almost complete.
Each of those indologists could tell an interesting story about how they have learned Bengali and what they do to improve it or at least not to forget it. I studied the language myself from old textbooks without ever hearing it, even on a tape-recorder. My indological work has never provided me with a living, except for the 5 years which I was given by the University to write my both doctoral theses.
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