Loading

Module 1: Poems from World Literature

Notes
Study Reminders
Support
Text Version

The Human Existence

Set your study reminders

We will email you at these times to remind you to study.
  • Monday

    -

    7am

    +

    Tuesday

    -

    7am

    +

    Wednesday

    -

    7am

    +

    Thursday

    -

    7am

    +

    Friday

    -

    7am

    +

    Saturday

    -

    7am

    +

    Sunday

    -

    7am

    +

Acoli songs, though this work, Song of Lawino is written in the traditional African Song culture, the Acoli songs themselves, they are just about 1 or 2 verses with musical accompaniment. There is no culture of writing, no tradition of producing a long poem or a long song. And the Acoli songs were also not written down under one person’s authorship. They are part of oral tradition, they continue to adapt themselves in various ways and it is sung and adapted by the singer after the singer and each singer is free to create in his own way or even change the song according to the setting, according to the context. So there is no single authorship which is attributed to the Acoli songs. We find p’Bitek for obvious reasons moving away from this tradition, appropriating the Western ideas of authorship, of rhyme, of Long poems, of rhyme, et cetera because, in Acoli songs, there is no rhyme scheme, there is no regular rhythm either and Song of Lawino in that sense cannot be seen as a written version of an Acoli song. On the other hand, Okot p’Bitek has aspired to do something bigger than that, not just to translation but an adaptation of a tradition to new conditions of performance and rather coming up with a new form itself. That is what Song of Lawino does in terms of looking at it in the context of world literature. (Refer Slide Time 10:38) There are certain instances which would also tell us about some difficulties int even certain kinds of the impossibility of translation. There is a refrain which keeps getting repeated in this poem. It is loosely translated as “The pumpkin in the old Homestead must not be uprooted”. This is an adaptation of a proverb in Acoli but when this is translated into English, some commentators argue that the original meaning is entirely lost, the original context is entirely lost. One of the commentators who has also written an introduction to Song of Lawino and the Song of Ocol, GA Heron, he points this out and this is how he tries to address a problem and try and interpret this poem for the non-African, non-Acoli speaking audience. “Pumpkins are a luxury food. They grow wild throughout Acoli land. To uproot pumpkins even when you are moving to a new Homestead is simple wanton destruction. In this proverb, then Lawino is not asking Ocol to cling to everything in his past but rather not to destroy things for the sake of destroying them. Again the refrain is used to emphasize an important idea, the writer is putting across in the whole poem.” Given that this is a refrain which appears almost throughout the poem. The pumpkin in the old Homestead must not be uprooted and the intention here is to directly engage with the African person, the African reader who is familiar with the proverb and who is familiar with the context within which the proverb gets used and it also serves a dual purpose of trying to engage with the English reader but while trying to make him or her familiar with the many contexts within which Proverbs or usages are placed and also inviting the non-African reader to participate in this exchange of traditions, in this dialogue across traditions. (Refer Slide Time 12:44) There are certain sections throughout this poem where the vivid imagery is visible. For instance, look at this excerpt and this is a very non-European, a non-Western kind of description that Okot attempts to provide in Lawino’s words. Mad creature Her hair A burnt-out forest Her eyes Shooting out from the head A pair of rockets Serpent tongues Spitting poison Lashing crocodile tail… If you look at the imagery, those are taken from the native traditions, there are allusions that one could find as well and for the African reader, this is essentially very native and something more familiar. The pictures, the imagery is more familiar than it is perhaps to a Western audience. (Refer Slide Time 13:30) It also has a different kind of rhythm which is not really a part of the Western or European poetical scheme. It is a very lively bouncing rhythm, keeping in tune with the African languages and also with the traditional forms of art and culture that they have. And in this excerpt, You sister From Pokot Who grew in the open air, You are fresh… Ah! Come, Walk with me… So there is a rhythm but it is not in a conventional way. It is more like a bouncing lively rhythm. (Refer Slide Time 14:01) Lawino comes across as someone who represents the African traditions and she also comes across as someone who is not given to hypocritical ways of thinking and she chooses this instance of the colonialists often talking about the dance culture in Africa and how they looked down upon some of the dance forms especially where there is a lot of nakedness involved and she talks about how the colonialists gossip about the immorality of nakedness and she attempts, Lawino attempts a reasoned and balanced defence of dancing naked which is an inherent part of some of the traditional African dance cultures and this is how she talks about it. When the drums are throbbing And the black youths Have raised much dust You dance with vigour and health You dance naughtily with pride You dance with spirit, You compete, you insult, you provoke You to challenge all! And this is the kind of liberation that she attributes to that dance form which is seen as immoral, which is seen as something to be despised by the Westerners. (Refer Slide Time 15:11) And she also continues to attack the Western form of dance which is seen as more sophisticated compared to the traditional dance culture, dance forms of Africa and this is what she writes. Each man has a woman Although she is not his wife, They dance inside a house And there is no light. Shamelessly, they hold each other Tightly, tightly, They cannot breathe. And it may seem as, this may come across as an aberration that Lawino’s character is using the same kind of language to talk back against the colonial, she is also here trying to look down upon the forms of Western dance but one can also say that perhaps she is using this kind of language to talk back to the colonialists, to the Western audience who typically tries to look down upon the African traditions and she is exposing, she is trying to expose the inherent hypocrisy over here by drawing your attention to the skewed ideas of morality that are prevalent mostly in the west. (Refer Slide Time 16:11) And she also very directly exposes the hypocrisy oWest where she talks about how her own likes, the ones like Lawino, they are not the ones who despise others but it is the West who always tries to look down upon the Africans and also their ways of being and in the character of Clementine, she finds some kind of a personal provocation to begin talking about this entire tussle. In Lawino’s words, “I do not understand the ways of foreigners but I do not despise their customs”. And she goes on to say… “No white woman wishes to do her hair like mine because she is proud of the hair with which she was born.” She talks about how it is the West who always has this hierarchical way of understanding traditions and cultures, how it is always the West which looks down upon Africa as something to be despised and this sort of a negative move is never made by the African woman. There are multiple ways in which one can read this and there are many debates that we can engage with, in this context. But as I mentioned, the intent of this lecture is mostly to introduce this poem to you and to show you that there are alternate traditions, there are multiple ways in which one can talk about literature even from non-European and non-Western vantage points. (Refer Slide Time 17:30) And this is Lawino’s appeal to Ocol and other Africans. As mentioned before, Lawino ceases to be just one woman who is scorned. She ceases to be this wife of Ocol, who is upset that Ocol is now going after Clementine, a westernised woman. And Lawino becomes the spokesperson who is appealing not just to Ocol but to other African men and women as well. And this is how she articulates her appeal. “Listen Ocol, my old friend. The ways of her ancestors are good, their customs are solid and not hollow. They are not thin, not easily breakable. They cannot be blown away by the winds because their roots reach deep into the soil.” This is a statement which perhaps p’Bitek also is trying to make to his fellow Africans and also to his Western audience. This assumes more significance when we try to see how from a personal appeal Lawino can move towards a wider cultural appeal to address a wider social and historical problem and the possibility of placing this entire poem within the discourse of anti-colonial and postcolonial writings. Just like the song of Lawino attempts to address the cultural death of Ocol as well as other Africans who were westernised, the response, the song of Ocol, it tries to justify the cultural apostasy. When we read these 2 works together we also get a sense of the current forms of dialogues especially from the mid-20th century onwards, the kinds of dialogues which have been going on between the African voices and the non-African voices, predominantly the Western European voices. And this poem is perhaps can be seen as one of those works which have given entry point to how world literature can be read as a body of writing where different traditions and different traditions which perhaps do not see eye to eye in terms of history, in terms of culture, in terms of forms of writing, how they can also sit together to enable the emergence of a new way of looking at literature, interpreting literature and ultimately interpreting culture itself. I hope this introduction is interesting enough for you to go, take a look at different non-European traditions and cultural forms which are available and how the translations have also been made available to us to understand and appreciate and interpret and compare in today’s context. Thank you for listening and I look forward to seeing you in the next session. Hello everyone, I am happy to welcome you to a session where we discuss Wislawa Szymborska’s poetry and we particularly take a look at this poem titled “Tortures”. (Refer Slide Time: 0:25) Wislawa Szymborska is a Polish poet who lived from 1923 to 2012. Her fame rests largely in the kind of poetry that she produced, she is also renowned as an essayist and a translator. She won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1996 and this was “for the poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality”, in most of her writings we do find this getting reflected in very intense terms. Her work could be considered as truly world literature because from Polish it was translated into Arabic, Hebrew, Japanese, Persian, Chinese and of course English which is the language in which we access Szymborska’s poetry. And there is also a Wislawa Szymborska award which has been instituted in honour of her literary legacy. (Refer Slide Time: 1:13)
Some of you may be familiar with one of her poems published in 2005 which was titled “Photograph from September 11”, you may be familiar with this image of the image which was circulated in the aftermath of September 11 about a man an unnamed, unidentified person falling from the building from the top floor and going to hit the ground and this photograph was captured right in the middle with him in midair and falling with these buildings at the backdrop. So, this poem that she wrote “Photograph from September 11” it was extremely popular and it was considered as one of the most significant renditions of that event. So, before we get into this poem “Tortures” I will read out this very small poem “Photograph from September 11” which was translated by Clare Cavanagh, this was published in 2005, It is from a collection by Szymborska titled “Monologue of a dog”. So photograph from September 11 They jumped from the burning floors-one, two, a few more, higher, lower. The photograph halted them in life and now keeps them above the earth towards the earth. Each is still complete, with a particular face and blood well hidden. There is enough time for hair to come loose, for keys and coins to fall from pockets. They’re still within the air’s reach, within the compass of places that have just now opened. I can do only two things for them-describe this flight and not add the last line. So, this was a very fitting tribute to that iconic image of a man falling from the Two Towers and the picture taken before he hit the ground. Now, we come to look at the poem that we are discussing today “Tortures”. Szymborska has often been referred to as the Mozart of poetry and that is a way in which she could bring to life the many things that she saw around her regardless of whether she witnessed them or not, the intensity with which she felt the many things which were happening in the contemporary society was very remarkable. So if you look at this poem “Tortures” it’s divided into different stanzas and what we shall do today is going through this poem and try to look at the important elements and the important themes which are being conveyed over here. “Tortures” “Nothing has changed. The body is susceptible to pain, it must eat and breathe air and sleep, it has thin skin and blood right underneath, an adequate stock of teeth and nails, its bones are breakable, its joints are stretchable, in tortures, all this is taken into account”. This is a poem which refers to the materiality of the body of human existence, it is talking about tortures which is very very material and which affects the body in a physically direct way. And the fact that she begins with nothing has changed, it distinctly sets the tone for the entire poem. It clearly indicates that things might have changed, governments might have changed, regimes might have changed and how we live our daily life might have changed but there are certain things which remained unchanged. For instance, the body, how she describes body we can see this is certainly universal, certainly timeless things were always like this, the body is susceptible to pain, it was susceptible to pain and it will always be susceptible to pain and that is what makes torture pretty much timeless and also a constant thing in this world despite how modern it gets, how progressive it gets and how different and how entertaining it gets. She is deliberately drilling this point that irrespective of things whether it is prehistoric or modern it really does not make a difference. Whether it is urban or rural, whether it is archaic or modern it really does not make a difference because the human body has remained the same and nothing has changed for this same reason tortures how tortures are inflicted, that way in which tortures would continue to be inflicted politically, socially, historically, personally it would continue the same. And look at some of the very simple things is highlighting-It must eat, breathe air and sleep, regardless of what, regardless of within what framework you are placed unless the body gets these things-food, air and sleep the body will just decay and disintegrate and think about torture in this context as well, how torture could be the denial of good food, the denial of good air to breathe and even depriving one of sleep and here she begins with the simple point and as the poem progresses we will get to know that she’s actually talking about the violence which is part of the modern world, the violence which was always part of all kinds of civilization, how it was used, how torture was used as a tool to get things done politically, socially and even at a personal level. And by highlighting and by reinforcing, by underscoring the fragility of the human body at the outset, in the first stanza itself she is setting the tone for this that there is no way in which one can wish away the fact or get over the fact that the human body is very very fragile and any kind of lack, any kind of deprivation can affect the human body very very intensely and that as we know the violence inflicted on the human body it continues to be the most standard form, the epitome of torture then and now irrespective of the changes that have come about. And I also want you to pay attention to some of the words-bones are breakable, joints are stretchable. In Tortures, all this is taken into account. She is also drawing her attention to perhaps them violence in the battlefield as a poem progresses we will know that it is more about war, it is more about the battle, it’s more about these fights for territories which at the end of it we realize that in these fight, in these territorial conflicts, in these conflicts for superiority for conquering for gaining something which rightfully does not belong or not what gets affected at the end of the day is human bodies, human bodies of various ethnicities, of various nationalities it is never the territory which gets affected but the human bodies which are inhabiting those territories. She is drawing our attention to this ageless, this timeless fact which continues to remain, which refuses to change irrespective of the refinement and the sophistication and the progress that human civilization, the human society and the human mind itself seems to have achieved. And when she says it has thin skin and blood right underneath an adequate stock of teeth and nails, the reference to nails is very important even if a nail is broken we know that it will grow back. So, here packed in this one stanza is also this resilience that there is torture but also this continuing process of growth, you can continue to torture, you can continue to attack anyone, continue to annihilate but there is also this power this resilience which forces the body to grow back, the regenerating power of the human body despite everything, all of these things are being packed into the single stanza to set the tone for what has to follow. And come to think about nothing has changed and the thing about tortures in that sense. Whether it is from the prehistoric times onwards or even if you’re talking about the contemporary that today we know that the forms of torture didn’t have to evolve radically in radically different terms because the human body has remained the same. To attack the body, to slay the body, to mutilate the body the tools used in prehistoric times they are still handy. The methods used to completely rip a human body apart they continue to remain the same too. This is something which she is trying to communicate in this very very matter of fact tone that the fact that the human body has remained the same also aids the other supportive element that the means of tortures, the different kinds of tortures they also didn’t have to change they will remain pretty much the same. Coming to the second stanza, she begins this with the refrain “Nothing has changed. The body shudders as it shuddered before the founding of Rome and after, in the 20th century before and after Christ. Tortures are as they were, it’s just the earth that’s grown smaller, and whatever happens, seems right on the other side of the wall”. Whether it’s the Roman times or if it’s the times before Christ or we are talking about the contemporary it’s it is always been the same. And she’s also pointing our attention to this very well-known fact but little do we realize that, that many things have evolved in the last many centuries the human body has remained pretty much the same, maybe there is technology to aid how we take care of our own bodies, maybe newer things are happening in the field of medicine, in the field of technology which would prevent certain things, which would aid certain things but at the end of the day the body, the materiality of it, how it can engage with torture, how it can respond to pain to pleasure all of those remained pretty much standard. That has been no significant evolution in the way the human body responds to torture or in the way the human body can take and continue to engage and negotiate different forms of torture. And pay attention to this last line-Whatever happens seems right on the other side of the wall. Perhaps this is a very very direct reference to the Berlin Wall. This was the time when the, there was a time when the entire world considered communism to be the spawn of all evil and it was automatically assumed that life in East Germany was Horrid and for that reason whatever seems right would be practised on the other side of the wall which is West Berlin and this was particularly common for the ones who grow up in societies where they were taught about, they were introduced to the only the repressing and regressive nature of communism. And to them the capitalist philosophy was more liberating because communism seemed like the evil one because it was happening on the other side of the wall it was torturous, it was bad, it was something unacceptable and capitalist philosophy seems to be more about the well-being and now we know how things have changed, now the tables have turned and how we get to know especially after the Cold War that it’s pretty much the same everywhere that there is nothing inherently evil about ideology but it is also about the people who make these policies and how that can make a huge difference. And Wislawa perhaps carried these same sentiments because she lived in Communist Poland herself and maybe she is really talking about that divide that she grew up with, the capitalist communist divide and how those two worlds seemed very very different. But she is also trying to tell us that irrespective of that human body has remained the same and the tortures of really grave kinds or even of minor kinds they have also remained pretty much the same.