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A Madman and Solid Objects

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(Refer Slide Time:14:05) And there are 2 kinds of fantasies that we find the protagonist indulging himself in, one is overtly political and the other is erotic. And we find that both are compensatory the political fantasy and the erotic fantasy. And both of them arise from the need to bolster his ego, Poprishchin’s ego which is in a very precarious condition when the story begins and he is humiliated by the drab realities of his everyday existence and there are rejections. He associates himself with a dignified world but when that fails he has to take resort in this imagined world, in this world of fantasy and he thinks that only if he proves himself sexually even if that’s in a fantasy he’s an entry into this world of authority and this world of superiority will be complete. So throughout the story this madman Poprishchin, he tends to alter between these 2 fantasy worlds one very political and deeply historical and the other personal and erotic. And the reality within which he is placed it is assiduously avoided as well. And that is one of the key features which also endears this text to us, this fierce need to move away from reality so that one would feel comfortable in the fantasy world that one had created for oneself and that is what Poprishchin does to himself. And this by extension one can say that these fantasy worlds, these timeslots that he gives himself in some unreal world they also seem to do a lot of good to him in terms of bolstering his ego. But on the other hand, it also takes him down this path of descent into complete madness which does not seem to bother him in any way because he does not realize that he is descending into insanity. And I would like to make a quick remark about the use of the first person narrative here. The use of the first-person narrative also in multiple ways it quarantines reality and by using the first-person narrative, the narrator and by extension the author figure is also direct through which the reader is supposed to traverse and there is no way in which we can get into the character except through how the character is taking us through. So here we find that we get a glimpse of Poprishchin’s life and the many emotions that he is going through is only through the diary entries but despite that, there are certain glimpses of reality that we are allowed to see for instance when he talks about the dog and the letters that the dog had written which is a figment of his imagination and the letter gets destroyed as well. It gives us a sense of the kind of reality that he is trying to grapple with and it also tries to convey a certain symbolic act. In the story, through this diary entries, we get to know that Poprishchin gets the dog’s letters and he has to destroy them and the destruction of the dog’s letters is a highly symbolic act and he associates the dog with a certain form of intelligence or a certain form of knowledge which is available to men. To read an excerpt from the short story “I have long suspected that dogs are far more intelligent than men. They are extremely politic, they notice everything, every step a man takes. Dogs are clever creatures they understand all diplomatic relations. So what Poprishchin in this process is trying to do, is to recover the knowledge that supposedly the dog has, this is a figment of imagination as we would get to know without any further guess. (Refer Slide Time:18:00) But ironically even though he always seems to get a hang of the real world out there, he seems to be interested in the world of politics, in the world of history, in the complicated world of bureaucracy out there even though he wants to be in authority in a position of authority which would also give him a sense of superiority. One begins to suspect whether he wants that world or not whether it’s a world that he needs. Which is why the destruction of the dog’s letters which is again something very very symbolic, the destruction of these letters it conveys a lot to us that in some way Poprishchin is completely blocking any of how he will be forced to go back to reality because the dog’s letters would also contain this sort of a which also can function as a bridge between this fantasy world and the real world of politics out there and by destroying that bridge Poprischin is also telling the reader that he is contented, he is happy to live in this world of fantasy, in this mad world rather than reaching out into the real world. So the letters that he claims to have got the dogs letters that are perhaps that last bit of connection that he had with reality and with the destruction of these letters we find that even that last bit of touch that he retained with reality is destroyed and that too wilfully destroyed. (Refer Slide Time:19:31) And there is another interesting thing in this narrative that we come across, through this descent into complete madness he continues to work in a very real setting there is a fantasy world where he is playing different roles including the role of the King of Spain, including this erotic adventurer but on the other hand, he continues to work in the office, he attends the theatre, he keeps track of the days and when he destroys the letters that are when we find the story taking a complete turn altogether. He destroys his one last bit of sanity I may read out this act of destruction which is also seen as an act of rebellion over here. It reads like this “it’s always a court chamberlain or a general. Everything that’s best in the world falls to the court chamberlains or the generals. If you find some poor treasure and think it is almost within your grasp, a court chamberlain or a general will snatch it from you. Goddammit! I would like to become a general myself, not to receive her hand and all the rest of it, no, I should like to be a general only to see how they would wriggle and display all their court manners and equivoques and then say them I spit on you both. Oh dammit! And this rebellion happens right after the destruction of those imaginary those fantasy letters and this rebellion one begins to wonder whether this is against the system altogether, about we also get to know that it’s not that Poprishchin is fantasizing to be a part of this imaginary world, he wants to be there, so that he can get a sense of that authority, he can get a sense of that superiority and then wilfully reject it which is what the last part of this excerpt also tells us. I spit on you both oh dammit. Of course,e there are 2 major reasons for this rebellion, one is that he perhaps just seeks a better station for himself within the existing order of things. And the 2nd was that maybe he is rebelling because he has lost Sophie’s hand to the court chamberlain and this in multiple ways it accelerates the kind of disgruntlement and the kind of paranoia that he had in the anything bureaucratic. And on the one hand in this excerpt where he is venting out his anger because he has lost Sophie’s favour, we begin to see that he loses perspective as well and of course it is a madman and we cannot expect too much of an act of rationality from his side but at the same time the resentment which began with the rejection of the object of his love. We begin to see that his protest very soon becomes one of the sour grapes because then he wants revenge and then he wants to wield power over the ones who are oppressing him. So we begin to suspect all the sincerity of the emotions that he has been trying to convey right from the beginning and we also see this intense desire within him to transform from being a victim towards being a victimizer and his interest in Sophie incidentally was never amorous. (Refer Slide Time:22:53) And his erotic desires as we noted from the beginning they were, those erotic desires very aroused by his feelings of humiliation and also a need to assert himself and from his need to prove his superiority to the others. So Sophie in his mind was his last chance to prove that he is a man, to prove that he can be superior to others, to prove that he can assert himself. So the descent into madness becomes quite complete with this event of him losing Sophie as well. And towards the end, the dividing line between reality and fantasy begins to fade and the madman no longer knows who he is. And then the stage is set for a sort of metamorphosis and that’s when he has this complete descent into madness where he begins to fantasize, he begins to imagine himself as the King of Spain. (Refer Slide Time:23:52) And here there is a replacement at the motive level as well, a sexual motive gets completely replaced by the political motive. (Refer Slide Time:24:02) So this story is also about a sense of identity, about concern for social image and self-image, we find that Poprishchin feels alienated socially as well as at a personal level and he feels alienated from the world within which he is placed, he also feels alienated from his being and his fantasy quest for power, for love all of these represent his search for the public as well as a private identity because there is no place where he feels at home, where he feels he is in control. Both in the public and private realms he feels that he is no longer in control, he feels that he never could assert himself. So through the political fantasies and the erotic fantasies what he is trying his best is to assert himself as a man, to assert himself as someone who is completely in control of the things around him and the sense of vengeance and the sense of paranoia and every single emotion that he begins to develop is all a result of this. So, of course, the starting point is the frustration with a bureaucratic system within which he is placed but we also begin to see that there could be other deep-rooted issues psychological issues which the text partially deals with and leaves it open for the reader’s imagination to a very large extent. (Refer Slide Time:25:19) And we also find that he is, it is very difficult for a reader to like his character to like Poprishchin, we do not feel much of sympathy for him, on the other hand, he comes across as this man, the madman is caught in his own self-centred and solipsistic world of diaries and his masturbation fantasies, his dreams of glory and everything is part of a fantasy for him. And even that little bridge the little connection that he has with reality, he doesn’t want to acknowledge them, he would rather destroy that bridge completely. And there is also this obsessive phrase that he keeps writing “I am a nobleman” and eventually we see that, that also becomes his death knell. So today we wrap up this lecture with these introductory notes. In the next session, we should also take a look at some of the other diary entries in detail to see how Gogol as use this technique of realism and how he has used the first-person narrative to convey something which could be later seen as quite universal as well. So with this, we wrap up this lecture, thank you for listening and I look forward to seeing you in the next session. Hello and welcome to today’s session of the NPTEL course entitled Introduction to World Literature. Today we are looking at a short story “Solid Objects” written by Virginia Woolf. Virginia Woolf is one of the foremost writers of the modernist period. She is a British writer and this is one short story which has received very little critical attention compared to her other works, especially her novels such as Mrs Dalloway, Orlando, and The Lighthouse, which has a towering status as far as literary acclaim is concerned. So compared to that her short stories were largely ignored, so I take this opportunity to present to you this short story “Solid objects” which I also considered as one of the finest works of the modernist period which also conveys to us the hollowness that was felt during the modernist period especially during the inter-war years during the First World War and right after that. So this story is set in London in 1920s, this is the post-war period after the First World War and it also signals several changes which had been happening in the society. Though there is no direct critique of anything of the society or the other contemporary politics that we can find in this short story, there is a way in which through just two characters and with very minimal action, a very minimal set of events happening we find Woolf very efficiently capturing the essence of modernism. s the story opens, we find two upper-class males at the beach. I will read out the first segment to you. (Refer Slide Time: 2:00) The only thing that moved upon the vast semicircle of the beach was one small black spot. As it came nearer to the ribs and spine of the stranded pilchard boat, it became apparent from a certain tenuity in its blackness that this spot possessed four legs; and moment by moment it became more unmistakable that it was composed of the persons of two young men. Events in outline against the sand that was an unmistakable vitality in them; an indescribable vigour in the approach and withdrawal of the bodies, slight though it was, which proclaimed some violent argument issuing from the tiny mouths of the little round heads. This was corroborated on closer view by the repeated lunging of a walking-stick on the right-hand side. “You mean to tell me… You believe…” thus the walking-stick on the right-hand side next to the waves seem to be asserting as it cut long straight stripes upon the sand. So here we find two upper-class males in conservation then we will get to know that it is largely about politics, and look at how the story begins. There is zooming in which happens. It is very graphic, very visual. And there is a way in which the story zooms into the two individuals and their lives and their nitty-gritty that become part of the story. The setting at the outset tells us hardly anything about the story; we get to know nothing at all about the characters or the action or about how the story is going to go forward. (Refer Slide Time: 3:40) And in the next segment “Politics be damned!” issued clearly from the body on the left-hand side, and as these words were uttered, the mouths, noses, chins, little moustaches, tweed caps, rough boots, shooting coats, and check stockings of the two speakers became clearer and clearer; the smoke of their pipes went up into the air; nothing was so solid, so living, so hard, red, hirsute and virile as these two bodies for miles and miles of sea and sandhill. Justifying the title ‘Solid Objects’, we find this short story right at the outset focusing on the material, focusing on the solid elements and focusing on the materiality of the body as well as the things that are surrounded over them. And it also talks about two people as two bodies, the body on the left-hand side and the body on the right-hand side and the details such as the tiny mouths on the round heads or the mouths, noses and chins, so there is a particularity that the story begins to focus on and we get a hang of the narration in that sense. So if you are familiar with this short story which is highly readable and a very short story, you will get to know that there are two major characters here: John and Charles, and John is currently a member of the parliament and he is also a candidate for an important office, an important party position, and Charles is a very close confidant and also one of his greatest friends. (Refer Slide Time: 5:26) And the story takes a turn when John, the one who is set to scale greater heights in this political career, he suddenly discovers this obsessive passion, his passion for solid objects, let us see how that is described here. So this is how Charles and John are introduced to us. So Charles whose stick had been slashing the beach for half a mile or so began skimming flat pieces of slate over the water; and John, who had exclaimed “Politics be damned!” began borrowing his fingers down, down, into the sand. As his hand went further and further beyond had to hitch his sleeve or little higher, his eyes lost their intensity, rather the background of thought and experience which gives an inscrutable depth to the eyes of grown people disappeared, leaving only the clear transparent surface, expressing nothing but wonder, which the eyes of young children display. (Refer Slide Time: 6:35) No doubt the act of burrowing in the sand had something to do with it. He remembered that, after digging for a little, the water oozes round your finger-tips; the hole then becomes a moat; a well, a spring, a secret channel to the sea. As he was choosing which of these things to make it, still working his fingers in the water, they curled around something hard –– a full drop of solid matter –– and gradually dislodged a large irregular lump and brought it to the surface. When the sand coating was wiped off, a green tint appeared. It was a lump of glass; so thick as to be almost opaque, the smoothing of the sea had completely worn off any edge or shape so that it was impossible to say whether it had been bottle, tumbler or windowpane; it was nothing but glass; it was almost a precious stone. You had only to enclose it in a rim of gold or pierce it with a wire and it became a jewel; part of a necklace, or a dull green light upon a finger. Thus it goes. So we find here that nothing dramatic happens but the twist itself is very very dramatic. John who is taking a stroll by the beach-side along with Charles, the two friends are discussing politics and suddenly we find John saying “dammed the politics!” and he gets obsessed with the solid object that he finds. He is digging for it and he is finding it and he finds it very-very precious. Before we continue with the discussion of the story, I want you to think about what modernism was and how that changed how literature began to be understood and how representations began to be changed. We all are familiar with the historical setting and many things which happen in the backdrop of modernism, all was running up to modernism from the late 19th century onwards. The Industrial Revolution is one of the important key events, and there were the revolutions of1848,1848 as we all know it was called the year of revolutions across Europe, not just in Britain it was called as the year of revolutions across Europe. And there was also the significant First World War in the early 20th century, so all of these events, these political-historical events, they had a significant role to play in the shaping of modernism. We shall not go into details of it but I just want to leave you with this thought. Dominik Head, one of the historians and one of the literary critics of the modernist period, he had argued that short story encapsulates the essence of Literary Modernism because there is a way in which the short story manages to capture the nature of 20th century episodic experience. So here what we get to know is not the larger picture, in this short story what we get to know is the episodic nature and the episodic details about the many events which can also be considered as the repercussion or the aftermath of the larger bigger events which were happening in history, in the society and at the national and international level. So we find Woolffocusing on ordinary solid items here and we find this description throughout the short story. And if you look far away in which we can summarise this short story, we will also get to know that there is hardly any story here. It is about a man, John, one who has an aspiring political career, one who has a promising political career, he is allowing solid objects, he is allowing an obsessive relation with solid objects to take over his passion, to take over his career and eventually take over his rational self itself. So what makes this story endearing, what makes this story representative one of the modernist periods is how it represents the child’s incomprehension of this fabric that is happening. So this story is about Charles as much as it is about John, John is the one who has discovered this insane passion for objects and he is obsessively going after them. And we find Charles completely unable to comprehend the nature of this passion, and we find him despite trying hard to reach out, we find him left with utter dismay and he has no other option but to just leave John at the end of it. So this is about that modernist crisis about the inability to communicate and also about the inability to comprehend things despite trying, despite trying to reach out and there is this elusive nature which we find in this short story throughout, much as we try to find a rationale for John’s obsession. Even if you read a very-very close reading of the story, it is very hard to get a background to it, it is very hard to get a flashback which will tell us clearly why this had happened. And this deference of the meaning-making process and this elusive nature of the meaning to most modernism writings, most literary modernist writings as we would know. I find the description of this object that Johngetshold of very very compelling, and look at how wool is also trying to tell us how this object can transform itself into something valuable the moment it becomes enclosed in a rim of gold or the moment it is pierced with wire, how the value addition becomes a very external thing, how it is possible to say that there is no inherent value but it is all about the value which is being attributed to the object which is in hand. And coming down we also see him getting obsessively attached to the object that he has found. (Refer Slide Time: 12:26) John turned it in his hands; he held it to the light; he held it so that its irregular mass blotted out the body and extended right arm of his friend. The green thinned and thickened slightly as it was held against the sky or the body. It pleased him; it puzzled him; it was so hard, so concentrated, so definite in an object compared with the vague sea and the hazy shore. And this is important, it is a different kind of realism also that Woolf is perhaps trying to perhaps attempt over here. Sheistryingtocompare the solidity of this object, the hardness of the object, the concrete nature of the object against the abstract things which one sees around here being a vague sea and the hazy shore. Of course, those are also material beings, but how Woolf is looking at objects, how Woolf is trying to approach the solidity of the object is very modernist. And we do not find her romanticising the beach, romanticising the sea or the sunset in any way. On the other hand, what is being romanticised here is that solid object which begins to acquire value only when it is looked at, only when it is seen through John’s eyes otherwise, it is just one forgettable thing, one among the many forgettable things which we see around and that materiality is something Woolf also draws your attention to. It also draws your attention to some of the controversial, at some of the hard-hitting things that modernist art itself had been trying to do, the art exhibit titled the Fountain, the inverted urinal getting converted into an object of art that itself is one of the most interesting cases in point. And we also realise that there is a way in which here Woolf also tries to subvert how the materiality of value becomes significant or insignificant in very relative terms.