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Dec 10, 2018

Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau’s moral myopia.

By Kathryn Schulz (The New Yorker)

Copied from The New Yorker. For Original, click the link above.

Why, given his hypocrisy, sanctimony, and misanthropy, has Thoreau been so cherished?

On the evening of October 6, 1849, the hundred and twenty people aboard the brig St. John threw a party. The St. John was a so-called famine ship: Boston-bound from Galway, it was filled with passengers fleeing the mass starvation then devastating Ireland. They had been at sea for a month; now, with less than a day’s sail remaining, they celebrated the imminent end of their journey and, they hoped, the beginning of a better life in America. Early the next morning, the ship was caught in a northeaster, driven toward shore, and dashed upon the rocks just outside Cohasset Harbor. Those on deck were swept overboard. Those below deck drowned when the hull smashed open. Within an hour, the ship had broken up entirely. All but nine crew members and roughly a dozen passengers perished.

Two days later, a thirty-two-year-old Massachusetts native, en route from Concord to Cape Cod, got word of the disaster and detoured to Cohasset to see it for himself. When he arrived, fragments of the wreck were scattered across the strand. Those victims who had already washed ashore lay in rough wooden boxes on a nearby hillside. The living were trying to identify the dead—a difficult task, since some of the bodies were bloated from drowning, while others had struck repeatedly against the rocks. Out of sentiment or to save labor, the bodies of children were placed alongside their mothers in the same coffin.

The visitor from Concord, surveying all this, found himself unmoved. “On the whole,” he wrote, “it was not so impressive a scene as I might have expected. If I had found one body cast upon the beach in some lonely place, it would have affected me more. I sympathized rather with the winds and waves, as if to toss and mangle these poor human bodies was the order of the day. If this was the law of Nature, why waste any time in awe or pity?” This impassive witness also had stern words for those who, undone by the tragedy, could no longer enjoy strolling along the beach. Surely, he admonished, “its beauty was enhanced by wrecks like this, and it acquired thus a rarer and sublimer beauty still.”

Who was this cold-eyed man who saw in loss of life only aesthetic gain, who identified not with the drowned or the bereaved but with the storm? This was Henry David Thoreau, that great partisan of the pond, describing his visit to Cohasset in “Cape Cod.” That book is not particularly well known today, but if Thoreau’s chilly tone in it seems surprising, it is because, in a curious way, “Walden” is not well known, either. Like many canonized works, it is more revered than read, so it exists for most people only as a dim impression retained from adolescence or as the source of a few famous lines: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.” “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!”

Extracted from their contexts, such declarations read like the text on inspirational posters or quote-a-day calendars—purposes to which they are routinely put. Together with the bare facts of the retreat at Walden, those lines have become the ones by which we adumbrate Thoreau, so that our image of the man has also become simplified and inspirational. In that image, Thoreau is our national conscience: the voice in the American wilderness, urging us to be true to ourselves and to live in harmony with nature.

This vision cannot survive any serious reading of “Walden.” The real Thoreau was, in the fullest sense of the word, self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world. From that inward fixation flowed a social and political vision that is deeply unsettling. It is true that Thoreau was an excellent naturalist and an eloquent and prescient voice for the preservation of wild places. But “Walden” is less a cornerstone work of environmental literature than the original cabin porn: a fantasy about rustic life divorced from the reality of living in the woods, and, especially, a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people.

Henry David Thoreau was born David Henry Thoreau, in 1817, the third of four children of a pencil manufacturer in Concord, Massachusetts. In 1833, he went off to Harvard, which he did not particularly like and where he was not found particularly likable. (One classmate recalled his “look of smug satisfaction,” like a man “preparing to hold his future views with great setness and personal appreciation of their importance.”) After graduation, he worked as a schoolteacher, then helped run a school until its co-director, his older brother John, died of tetanus. That was the end of Thoreau’s experiments in pedagogy, except perhaps on the page. On and off from then until his own death (at forty-four, of tuberculosis), he worked as a surveyor and in the family pencil factory.

Meanwhile, however, Thoreau had met Ralph Waldo Emerson, a fellow Concord resident fourteen years his senior. Intellectually as well as practically, Emerson’s influence on Thoreau was enormous. He introduced the younger man to transcendentalism, steered him toward writing, employed him as a jack-of-all-trades and live-in tutor to his children, and lent him the pond-side land where Thoreau went to live on July 4, 1845. Thoreau spent two years at Walden but nearly ten years writing “Walden,” which was published, in 1854, to middling critical and popular acclaim; it took five more years for the initial print run, of two thousand copies, to sell out. Only after Thoreau’s death, in 1862, and thanks to vigorous championing by his family members, Emerson, and later readers, did “Walden” become a cornerstone work of American nonfiction and its author an American hero.

Thoreau went to Walden, he tells us, “to learn what are the gross necessaries of life”: whatever is so essential to survival “that few, if any, whether from savageness, or poverty, or philosophy, ever attempt to do without it.” Put differently, he wanted to try what we would today call subsistence living, a condition attractive chiefly to those not obliged to endure it. It attracted Thoreau because he “wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.” Tucked into that sentence is a strange distinction; apparently, some of the things we experience while alive count as life while others do not. In “Walden,” Thoreau made it his business to distinguish between them.

As it turns out, very little counted as life for Thoreau. Food, drink, friends, family, community, tradition, most work, most education, most conversation: all this he dismissed as outside the real business of living. Although Thoreau also found no place in life for organized religion, the criteria by which he drew such distinctions were, at base, religious. A dualist all the way down, he divided himself into soul and body, and never could accept the latter. “I love any other piece of nature, almost, better,” he confided to his journal. The physical realities of being human appalled him. “The wonder is how they, how you and I, can live this slimy, beastly life, eating and drinking,” he wrote in “Walden.” Only by denying such appetites could he feel that he was tending adequately to his soul.

“Walden,” in consequence, is not a paean to living simply; it is a paean to living purely, with all the moral judgment that the word implies. In its first chapter, “Economy,” Thoreau lays out a program of abstinence so thoroughgoing as to make the Dalai Lama look like a Kardashian. (That chapter must be one of the highest barriers to entry in the Western canon: dry, sententious, condescending, more than eighty pages long.) Thoreau, who never wed, regarded “sensuality” as a dangerous contaminant, by which we “stain and pollute one another.” He did not smoke and avoided eating meat. He shunned alcohol, although with scarcely more horror than he shunned every beverage except water: “Think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea! Ah, how low I fall when I am tempted by them!” Such temptations, along with the dangerous intoxicant that is music, had, he felt, caused the fall of Greece and Rome.

I cannot idolize anyone who opposes coffee (especially if the objection is that it erodes great civilizations; had the man not heard of the Enlightenment?), but Thoreau never met an appetite too innocuous to denounce. He condemned those who gathered cranberries for jam (“So butchers rake the tongues of bison out of the prairie grass”) and regarded salt as “that grossest of groceries”; if he did without it, he boasted, he could also drink less water. He advised his readers to eat just one meal a day, partly to avoid having to earn additional money for food but also because the act of eating bordered, for him, on an ethical transgression. “The fruits eaten temperately need not make us ashamed of our appetites,” he wrote, as if our appetites were otherwise disgraceful. No slouch at public shaming, Thoreau did his part to sustain that irrational equation, so robust in America, between eating habits and moral worth.

Food was bad, drink was bad, even shelter was suspect, and Thoreau advised keeping it to a minimum. “I used to see a large box by the railroad,” he wrote in “Walden,” “six feet long by three wide, in which the laborers locked up their tools at night”: drill a few airholes, he argued, and one of these would make a fine home. (“I am far from jesting,” he added, unnecessarily. Thoreau regarded humor as he regarded salt, and did without.) He chose to live in a somewhat larger box at Walden, but austerity prevailed there, too. He eschewed curtains and recoiled in dismay from the idea of a doormat: “As I had no room to spare within the house, nor time to spare within or without to shake it, I declined it, preferring to wipe my feet on the sod before my door. It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil.”

I am not aware of any theology which holds that the road to Hell is paved with doormats, but Thoreau, in fine Puritan fashion, saw the beginnings of evil everywhere. He contemplated gathering the wild herbs around Walden to sell in Concord but concluded that “I should probably be on my way to the devil.” He permitted himself to plant beans, but cautiously, calling it “a rare amusement, which, continued too long, might have become a dissipation.” Only those with no sense of balance must live in so much fear of the slippery slope. Robert Louis Stevenson, writing about Thoreau in 1880, pointed out that when a man must “abstain from nearly everything that his neighbours innocently and pleasurably use, and from the rubs and trials of human society itself into the bargain, we recognise that valetudinarian healthfulness which is more delicate than sickness itself.”

To abstain, Stevenson understood, is not necessarily to simplify; restrictions and repudiations can just as easily complicate one’s life. (Try going out to dinner with a vegan who is avoiding gluten.) But worse than Thoreau’s radical self-denial is his denial of others. The most telling thing he purports to abstain from while at Walden is companionship, which he regards as at best a time-consuming annoyance, at worst a threat to his mortal soul. For Thoreau, in other words, his fellow-humans had the same moral status as doormats.

No feature of the natural landscape is more humble than a pond, but, on the evidence of Thoreau, the quality is not contagious. He despised his admirers, toward whom, Emerson wrote, he “was never affectionate, but superior, didactic,—scorning their petty ways.” He disdained his ostensible friends, once responding to a social invitation with the words “such are my engagements to myself, that I dare not promise.” (The italics are his.) And he looked down on his entire town. “What does our Concord culture amount to?” he asked in “Walden.” “Our reading, our conversation and thinking, are all on a very low level, worthy only of pygmies and manikins.”

This comprehensive arrogance is captured in one of Thoreau’s most famous lines: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” It is a mystery to me how a claim so simultaneously insufferable and absurd ever entered the canon of popular quotations. Had Thoreau broadened it to include himself, it would be less obnoxious; had he broadened it to include everyone (à la Sartre), it would be more defensible. As it stands, however, Thoreau’s declaration is at once off-putting and empirically dubious. By what method, one wonders, could a man so disinclined to get to know other people substantiate an allegation about the majority of humanity?

By none, of course; Thoreau could not have been less interested in how the mass of men actually lived. On the contrary, he was as parochial as he was egotistical. (He once claimed that Massachusetts contained almost all the important plants in America, and, after reading the explorer Elisha Kane’s best-selling 1856 account of his Arctic journey, remarked that “most of the phenomena noted might be observed in Concord.”) His attitude toward Europe “almost reached contempt,” Emerson wrote, while “the other side of the globe” was, in Thoreau’s words, “barbarous and unhealthy.” Making a virtue of his incuriosity, he discouraged the reading of newspapers. “I am sure,” he wrote in “Walden,” “that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper,” not least because “nothing new does ever happen in foreign parts.” In that sweeping claim, he explicitly included the French Revolution.

Unsurprisingly, this thoroughgoing misanthrope did not care to help other people. “I confess that I have hitherto indulged very little in philanthropic enterprises,” Thoreau wrote in “Walden.” He had “tried it fairly” and was “satisfied that it does not agree with my constitution.” Nor did spontaneous generosity: “I require of a visitor that he be not actually starving, though he may have the very best appetite in the world, however he got it. Objects of charity are not guests.” In what is by now a grand American tradition, Thoreau justified his own parsimony by impugning the needy. “Often the poor man is not so cold and hungry as he is dirty and ragged and gross. It is partly his taste, and not merely his misfortune. If you give him money, he will perhaps buy more rags with it.” Thinking of that state of affairs, Thoreau writes, “I began to pity myself, and I saw that it would be a greater charity to bestow on me a flannel shirt than a whole slop-shop on him.”

The poor, the rich, his neighbors, his admirers, strangers: Thoreau’s antipathy toward humanity even encompassed the very idea of civilization. In his journals, he laments the archeological wealth of Great Britain and gives thanks that in New England “we have not to lay the foundation of our houses in the ashes of a former civilization.” That is patently untrue, but it is also telling: for Thoreau, civilization was a contaminant. “Deliver me from a city built on the site of a more ancient city, whose materials are ruins, whose gardens cemeteries,” he wrote in “Walden.” “The soil is blanched and accursed there.” Seen by these lights, Thoreau’s retreat at Walden was a desperate compromise. What he really wanted was to be Adam, before Eve—to be the first human, unsullied, utterly alone in his Eden.

There is a striking exception to Thoreau’s indifference to the rest of humanity, and he is rightly famous for it. An outspoken abolitionist, he condemned the Fugitive Slave Law, served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, championed John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, and refused to pay the poll tax in Massachusetts, partly on the ground that it sustained the institution of slavery. (One wonders how he would have learned about the law, the raid, or any of the rest without a newspaper, but never mind.) That institution was and remains the central moral and political crisis of American history, and much of Thoreau’s status stems from his absolute opposition to it.

But one may reach good ends by bad means, and Thoreau did. “Not a particle of respect had he to the opinions of any man or body of men, but homage solely to the truth itself,” Emerson wrote of Thoreau. He meant it as praise, but the trouble with that position—and the deepest of all the troubles disturbing the waters of “Walden”—is that it assumes that Thoreau had some better way of discerning the truth than other people did.

Thoreau, for one, did assume that. Like his fellow-transcendentalists, he was suspicious of tradition and institutions, and regarded personal intuition and direct revelation as superior foundations for both spiritual and secular beliefs. Unlike his fellow-transcendentalists, he also regarded his own particular intuitions and revelations as superior to those of other people. “Sometimes, when I compare myself with other men,” he wrote in “Walden,” “it seems as if I were more favored by the gods than they, beyond any deserts that I am conscious of; as if I had a warrant and surety at their hands which my fellows have not, and were especially guided and guarded.”

Claiming special guidance by the gods is the posture of the prophet: of one who believes himself in possession of revealed truth and therefore entitled—indeed, obliged—to enlighten others. Thoreau, comfortable with that posture, sneered at those who were not. (“They don’t want to have any prophets born into their families—damn them!”) But prophecy makes for poor political philosophy, for at least two reasons.

The first concerns the problem of fallibility. In “Resistance to Civil Government” (better known today as “Civil Disobedience”), Thoreau argued that his only political obligation was “to do at any time what I think right.” When constrained by its context, that line is compelling; it reads as a call to obey one’s conscience over and above unjust laws. But as a broader theory of governance, which it was, it is troubling. People routinely perpetrate wrongs out of obedience to their conscience, even in situations when the law mandates better behavior. (Consider the Kentucky county clerk currently refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.) Like public institutions, private moral compasses can err, and different ones frequently point in different directions. And, as the scholar Vincent Buranelli noted in a 1957 critique of Thoreau, “antagonism is never worse than when it involves two men each of whom is convinced that he speaks for goodness and rectitude.” It is the point of democracy to adjudicate among such conflicting claims through some means other than fiat or force, but Thoreau was not interested in that process.

Nor was he interested in subjecting his claims to logical scrutiny. And that is the second problem with basing one’s beliefs on personal intuition and direct revelation: it justifies the substitution of anecdote and authority for evidence and reason. The result, in “Walden,” is an unnavigable thicket of contradiction and caprice. At one moment, Thoreau fulminates against the railroad, “that devilish Iron Horse, whose ear-rending neigh is heard throughout the town”; in the next, he claims that he is “refreshed and expanded when the freight train rattles past me.” At one moment, he argues that earlier civilizations are worthless; in the next, he combines a kids-today crankiness with nostalgia for the imagined superiority of the past. (“Husbandry was once a sacred art; but it is pursued with irreverent haste and heedlessness by us.”) On the subject of employment, “Walden” reads sometimes like “The 4-Hour Workweek” and sometimes like the collected sermons of John Calvin. Thoreau denigrates labor, praises leisure, and claims that he can earn his living for the month in a matter of days, only to turn around and write that “from exertion come wisdom and purity; from sloth ignorance and sensuality.” So incoherent is his treatment of economics that E. B. White, otherwise a fan, wrote that Thoreau “rides into the subject at top speed, shooting in all directions.” No one and nothing emerges unscathed, least of all the author.

Emerson famously counselled against maintaining a foolish consistency, but Thoreau managed to get it wrong in both directions. His behavioral prescriptions are so foolishly inconsistent as to defy all attempts at reconciliation, while his moral sensibility is so foolishly consistent as to be naïve and cruel. (For one thing, Thoreau never understood that life itself is not consistent—that what worked for a well-off Harvard-educated man without dependents or obligations might not make an ideal universal code.) Those failings are ethical and intellectual, but they are also political. To reject all certainties but one’s own is the behavior of a zealot; to issue contradictory decrees based on private whim is that of a despot.

This is not the stuff of a democratic hero. Nor were Thoreau’s actual politics, which were libertarian verging on anarchist. Like today’s preppers, he valued self-sufficiency for reasons that were simultaneously self-aggrandizing and suspicious: he did not believe that he needed anything from other people, and he did not trust other people to provide it. “That government is best which governs least,” Jefferson supposedly said. Thoreau, revising him, wrote, “That government is best which governs not at all.”

Yet for a man who believed in governance solely by conscience, his own was frighteningly narrow. Thoreau had no understanding whatsoever of poverty and consistently romanticized it. (“Farmers are respectable and interesting to me in proportion as they are poor.”) His moral clarity about abolition stemmed less from compassion or a commitment to equality than from the fact that slavery so blatantly violated his belief in self-governance. Indeed, when abolition was pitted against rugged individualism, the latter proved his higher priority. “I sometimes wonder that we can be so frivolous, I may almost say,” he writes in “Walden,” “as to attend to the gross but somewhat foreign form of servitude called Negro Slavery, there are so many keen and subtle masters that enslave both North and South. It is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.”

A nation composed entirely of rugged individualists—so stinting that they had almost no needs, so solitary that those needs never conflicted with those of their compatriots—would not, it is true, need much governance. But such a nation has never existed, and even if nothing else militated against Thoreau’s political vision its impossibility alone would suffice. As the philosopher Avishai Margalit once put it (not apropos of Thoreau, though apropos of the similarly unachievable position of absolute stoicism), “I consider not being an option as being, in a way, enough of an argument.” So perhaps a sufficient argument against Thoreau is that, although he never admitted it, the life he prescribed was not an option even for him.

Only by elastic measures can “Walden” be regarded as nonfiction. Read charitably, it is a kind of semi-fictional extended meditation featuring a character named Henry David Thoreau. Read less charitably, it is akin to those recent best-selling memoirs whose authors turn out to have fabricated large portions of their stories. It is widely acknowledged that, to craft a tidier narrative, Thoreau condensed his twenty-six months at the cabin into a single calendar year. But that is the least of the liberties he takes with the facts, and the most forgivable of his manipulations of our experience as readers. The book is subtitled “Life in the Woods,” and, from those words onward, Thoreau insists that we read it as the story of a voluntary exile from society, an extended confrontation with wilderness and solitude.

In reality, Walden Pond in 1845 was scarcely more off the grid, relative to contemporaneous society, than Prospect Park is today. The commuter train to Boston ran along its southwest side; in summer the place swarmed with picnickers and swimmers, while in winter it was frequented by ice cutters and skaters. Thoreau could stroll from his cabin to his family home, in Concord, in twenty minutes, about as long as it takes to walk the fifteen blocks from Carnegie Hall to Grand Central Terminal. He made that walk several times a week, lured by his mother’s cookies or the chance to dine with friends. These facts he glosses over in “Walden,” despite detailing with otherwise skinflint precision his eating habits and expenditures. He also fails to mention weekly visits from his mother and sisters (who brought along more undocumented food) and downplays the fact that he routinely hosted other guests as well—sometimes as many as thirty at a time. This is the situation Thoreau summed up by saying, “For the most part it is as solitary where I live as on the prairies. It is as much Asia or Africa as New England. . . . At night there was never a traveller passed my house, or knocked at my door, more than if I were the first or last man.”

Does this disingenuousness matter? Countless Thoreau fans have argued that it does not, quoting by way of defense his own claim that “solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows.” But, as the science writer David Quammen pointed out in a 1988 essay on Thoreau (before going on to pardon him), many kinds of solitude are measured in miles. Only someone who had never experienced true remoteness could mistake Walden for the wilderness or compare life on the bustling pond to that on the mid-nineteenth-century prairies. Indeed, an excellent corrective to “Walden” is the work of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who grew up on those prairies, and in a genuine little house in the big woods. Wilder lived what Thoreau merely played at, and her books are not only more joyful and interesting than “Walden” but also, when reread, a thousand times more harrowing. Real isolation presents real risks, both emotional and mortal, and, had Thoreau truly lived at a remove from other people, he might have valued them more. Instead, his case against community rested on an ersatz experience of doing without it.

Begin with false premises and you risk reaching false conclusions. Begin with falsified premises and you forfeit your authority. Apologists for Thoreau often claim that he merely distorted some trivial facts in the service of a deeper truth. But how deep can a truth be—indeed, how true can it be—if it is not built from facts? Thoreau contends that he went to Walden to construct a life on the basis of ethical and existential first principles, and that what he achieved as a result was simple and worth emulating. (His claim that he doesn’t want others to imitate him can’t be taken seriously. For one thing, “Walden” is a guide to doing just that, down to the number of chairs a man should own. For another, having dismissed all other life styles as morally and spiritually desperate, he doesn’t leave his readers much choice.)

But Thoreau did not live as he described, and no ethical principle is emptier than one that does not apply to its author. The hypocrisy is not that Thoreau aspired to solitude and self-sufficiency but kept going home for cookies and company. That’s just the gap between aspiration and execution, plus the variability in our needs and moods from one moment to the next—eminently human experiences, which, had Thoreau engaged with them, would have made for a far more interesting and useful book. The hypocrisy is that Thoreau lived a complicated life but pretended to live a simple one. Worse, he preached at others to live as he did not, while berating them for their own compromises and complexities.

Why, given Thoreau’s hypocrisy, his sanctimony, his dour asceticism, and his scorn, do we continue to cherish “Walden”? One answer is that we read him early. “Walden” is a staple of the high-school curriculum, and you could scarcely write a book more appealing to teen-agers: Thoreau endorses rebellion against societal norms, champions idleness over work, and gives his readers permission to ignore their elders. (“Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures.”) “Walden” is also fundamentally adolescent in tone: Thoreau shares the conviction, far more developmentally appropriate and forgivable in teens, that everyone else’s certainties are wrong while one’s own are unassailable. Moreover, he presents adulthood not as it is but as kids wishfully imagine it: an idyll of autonomy, unfettered by any civic or familial responsibilities.

Another reason we cherish “Walden” is that we read it selectively. Although Thoreau is insufferable when fancying himself a seer, he is wonderful at actually seeing, and the passages he devotes to describing the natural world have an acuity and serenity that nothing else in the book approaches. It is a pleasure to read him on a battle between black and red ants; on the layers of ice that form as the pond freezes over in winter; on the breeze, birds, fish, waterbugs, and dust motes that differently disturb the surface of Walden. At one point, out in his boat, Thoreau paddles after a loon when it submerges, to try to be nearby when it resurfaces. “It was a pretty game, played on the smooth surface of the pond, a man against a loon,” he writes. “Suddenly your adversary’s checker disappears beneath the board, and the problem is to place yours nearest to where his will appear again.” That is first-rate nature writing. Thoreau, too, emerges in a surprising place—in a game of checkers, where a lesser writer would have reached for hide-and-seek—and captures not only the behavior of the loon but a very human pleasure in being outdoors.

It is also in contemplating the land that Thoreau got the big picture right. “We can never have enough of nature,” he wrote. “We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.” However sham his own retreat was, however pinched and selfish his motives in undertaking it, he understood why the wilderness matters, and he was right that there is something salutary, liberating, and exhilarating about living in it with as little as necessary.

But any reading of Thoreau that casts him as a champion of nature is guilty of cherry-picking his most admirable work while turning a blind eye on all the rest. The other and more damning answer to the question of why we admire him is not that we read him incompletely and inaccurately but that we read him exactly right. Although Thoreau is often regarded as a kind of cross between Emerson, John Muir, and William Lloyd Garrison, the man who emerges in “Walden” is far closer in spirit to Ayn Rand: suspicious of government, fanatical about individualism, egotistical, élitist, convinced that other people lead pathetic lives yet categorically opposed to helping them. It is not despite but because of these qualities that Thoreau makes such a convenient national hero.

Perhaps the strangest, saddest thing about “Walden” is that it is a book about how to live that says next to nothing about how to live with other people. Socrates, too, examined his life—in the middle of the agora. Montaigne obsessed over himself down to the corns on his toes, but he did so with camaraderie and mirth. Whitman, Thoreau’s contemporary and fellow-transcendentalist, joined him in singing a song of himself, striving to be untamed, encouraging us to resist much and obey little. But he was generous (“Give alms to everyone that asks”), empathetic (“Whoever degrades another degrades me”), and comfortable with multitudes, his and otherwise. He would have responded to a shipwreck as he did to the Civil War, tending the wounded and sitting with the grieving and the dying.

Poor Thoreau. He, too, was the victim of a kind of shipwreck—for reasons of his own psychology, a castaway from the rest of humanity. Ultimately, it is impossible not to feel sorry for the author of “Walden,” who dedicated himself to establishing the bare necessities of life without ever realizing that the necessary is a low, dull bar; whose account of how to live reads less like an existential reckoning than like a poor man’s budget, with its calculations of how much to eat and sleep crowding out questions of why we are here and how we should treat one another; who lived alongside a pond, chronicled a trip down the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and wrote about Cape Cod, all without recognizing that it is on watering holes and rivers and coastlines that human societies are built.

Granted, it is sometimes difficult to deal with society. Few things will thwart your plans to live deliberately faster than those messy, confounding surprises known as other people. Likewise, few things will thwart your absolute autonomy faster than governance, and not only when the government is unjust; every law is a parameter, a constraint on what we might otherwise do. Teen-agers, too, strain and squirm against any checks on their liberty. But the mature position, and the one at the heart of the American democracy, seeks a balance between the individual and the society. Thoreau lived out that complicated balance; the pity is that he forsook it, together with all fellow-feeling, in “Walden.” And yet we made a classic of the book, and a moral paragon of its author—a man whose deepest desire and signature act was to turn his back on the rest of us. ♦



Kathryn Schulz joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2015. In 2016, she won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing and a National Magazine Award for “The Really Big One,” her story on the seismic risk in the Pacific Northwest




Dec 1, 2018

The Ship of Death By D.H.Lawrence

By: Bijay Kant Dubey


I

Now it is autumn and the falling fruit
and the long journey towards oblivion.

The apples falling like great drops of dew
to bruise themselves an exit from themselves.

And it is time to go, to bid farewell
to one’s own self, and find an exit
from the fallen self.

II

Have you built your ship of death, O have you?
O build your ship of death, for you will need it.

The grim frost is at hand, when the apples will fall
thick, almost thundrous, on the hardened earth.

And death is on the air like a smell of ashes!
Ah! can’t you smell it?

And in the bruised body, the frightened soul
finds itself shrinking, wincing from the cold
that blows upon it through the orifices.

III

And can a man his own quietus make
with a bare bodkin?

With daggers, bodkins, bullets, man can make
a bruise or break of exit for his life;
but is that a quietus, O tell me, is it quietus?

Surely not so! for how could murder, even self-murder
ever a quietus make?

IV

O let us talk of quiet that we know,
that we can know, the deep and lovely quiet
of a strong heart at peace!

How can we this, our own quietus, make?

V

Build then the ship of death, for you must take
the longest journey, to oblivion.

And die the death, the long and painful death
that lies between the old self and the new.

Already our bodies are fallen, bruised, badly bruised,
already our souls are oozing through the exit
of the cruel bruise.

Already the dark and endless ocean of the end
is washing in through the breaches of our wounds,
already the flood is upon us.

Oh build your ship of death, your little ark
and furnish it with food, with little cakes, and wine
for the dark flight down oblivion.

VI

Piecemeal the body dies, and the timid soul
has her footing washed away, as the dark flood rises.

We are dying, we are dying, we are all of us dying
and nothing will stay the death-flood rising within us
and soon it will rise on the world, on the outside world.

We are dying, we are dying, piecemeal our bodies are dying
and our strength leaves us,
and our soul cowers naked in the dark rain over the flood,
cowering in the last branches of the tree of our life.

VII

We are dying, we are dying, so all we can do
is now to be willing to die, and to build the ship
of death to carry the soul on the longest journey.

A little ship, with oars and food
and little dishes, and all accoutrements
fitting and ready for the departing soul.

Now launch the small ship, now as the body dies
and life departs, launch out, the fragile soul
in the fragile ship of courage, the ark of faith
with its store of food and little cooking pans
and change of clothes,
upon the flood’s black waste
upon the waters of the end
upon the sea of death, where still we sail
darkly, for we cannot steer, and have no port.

There is no port, there is nowhere to go
only the deepening black darkening still
blacker upon the soundless, ungurgling flood
darkness at one with darkness, up and down
and sideways utterly dark, so there is no direction any more
and the little ship is there; yet she is gone.
She is not seen, for there is nothing to see her by.
She is gone! gone! and yet
somewhere she is there.
Nowhere!

VIII

And everything is gone, the body is gone
completely under, gone, entirely gone.
The upper darkness is heavy as the lower,
between them the little ship
is gone
she is gone.

It is the end, it is oblivion.

IX

And yet out of eternity a thread
separates itself on the blackness,
a horizontal thread
that fumes a little with pallor upon the dark.

Is it illusion? or does the pall or fume
A little higher?
Ah wait, wait, for there’s the dawn,
the cruel dawn of coming back to life
out of oblivion.

Wait, wait, the little ship
drifting, beneath the deathly ashy grey
of a flood-dawn.

Wait, wait! even so, a flush of yellow
and strangely, O chilled wan soul, a flush of rose.

A flush of rose, and the whole thing starts again.

X

The flood subsides, and the body, like a worn sea-shell
emerges strange and lovely.
And the little ship wings home, faltering and lapsing
on the pink flood,
and the frail soul steps out, into the house again
filling the heart with peace.

Swings the heart renewed with peace
even of oblivion.

Oh build your ship of death, oh build it!
for you will need it.
For the voyage of oblivion awaits you.


The Ship of Death taken from Last Poems is one of those longer poems of D.H.Lawrence wherein he asks us to get the ship of death built and to be ready as for the dark journey of oblivion to begin. The writer who is famous for endowing his novels with sexual mysticism and the dreams of love and beauty psychologically here mesmerizes with religious mysticism and a mythical base of own which we find it in his The Lost Girl and The Plumed Serpent and the travelogues. A Georgian, an imagist, Lawrence as a poet is very casual, apart from occasional, conversational, circumstantial, autobiographical and sketchy often, but sometimes serious too whose mark we can see it here in this poem. The poetical piece, The Ship of Death though full of repetitions is almost like W.B.Yeats’ Sailing To Byzantium. Endowed with a nice poetic genius which but we cannot deny it, he spoils it after taking  casually and switching over to novels for a poetic lucidity to impart with. Poetic tidbits, chit-chats disturb the readers in assessing them. But the present poem is like Donne’s Death, Be Not Proud, Keats’ The Terror of Death, Tennyson’s Crossing The Bar, Rossetti’s Up-hill, Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. The Ship of Death is but the dark journey of oblivion he speaks of as it has come down to us during his last stage of life when he was but a dying man afflicted with tuberculosis.
Now it is the autumn time and the apples have started falling down. So it is time to get ready for to set out on the final journey of life which to begin and to be prepared for going. It is time to bid farewell, to bid goodbye forever. The ship will sail away floating on the waters.
The starting lines of the poem begin the poetic narrative against the backdrop of the autumn and falling fruits. Shrouded in mystery, mist, dew and gloom, the journey will start. And man has to go, go as a pilgrim, as a voyager, as a tourist, a traveler, a passenger, a pedestrian. The autumn time and the shipman, the mariner alighting on a travel and launching the ship into the waters add to the journey of the poem. It is time to bid farewell and to move away:
Now it is autumn and the falling fruit
and the long journey towards oblivion.

The apples falling like great drops of dew
to bruise themselves an exit from themselves.

And it is time to go, to bid farewell
to one’s own self, and find an exit
from the fallen self.

One man cannot end up one’s life so easily. It is really that quietude composes in, but the tumult takes over, how to relate it? This has invigorated him for so long, nourished the soul and the body.
O let us talk of quiet that we know,
that we can know, the deep and lovely quiet
of a strong heart at peace!

How can we this, our own quietus, make?

A peaceful life and its bounties are definitely blissful. But what is that to release him from? What it to give quietus?

But the ruffle saying it differently, the water in ripples is the panorama of the seascape. So there is no option left to confide in rather than sailing out and going on the journey:
Build then the ship of death, for you must take
the longest journey, to oblivion.

And die the death, the long and painful death
that lies between the old self and the new.

The transmigration of the soul has a process of own to undertake and the chasm between the old self and the new self is phantasmal. The Bhagavad-gita too speaks of the same as the poet keeps it narrating.


The below-quoted lines tell of a sick and ailing body with the soul lodged in:
And in the bruised body, the frightened soul
finds itself shrinking, wincing from the cold
that blows upon it through the orifices.

The bruised body and the frightened soul are the states through which he has tried to coax us into a make-believe imagery, but the reality of life too is the same when the body lies it frail and ailing.
Jerome K.Jerome’s Packing is humorous and all that he has to says he humouously with regard to packing and to be on the journey. But The Ship of Death is a sort of packing, Jerome’s Packing in a metaphysical strain, full of religious and spiritual overtones and undertones. Sometimes the description us to the Pharoahs and their burial rites, the pyramids and mummies.
A poet counting the last days of his life is the point of deliberation and his expression is one grappling with death, the fear of dying and passing into oblivion. There are a few Yama poems written by Tagore and included in Gitanjali.  What to do it now rather than sailing the ship, getting it built. Fraught with such an imagery which keeps him engaging the mindscape and mental plane, the poet thinks of death, opines about and struggles hard to move out of this siuation:
We are dying, we are dying, so all we can do
is now to be willing to die, and to build the ship
of death to carry the soul on the longest journey.

The below-referenced stanza brings to our memory the scenes and sites of Coleridge’s The Rime of The Ancient Mariner:
Now launch the small ship, now as the body dies
and life departs, launch out, the fragile soul
in the fragile ship of courage, the ark of faith
with its store of food and little cooking pans
and change of clothes,
upon the flood’s black waste
upon the waters of the end
upon the sea of death, where still we sail
darkly, for we cannot steer, and have no port.

The ark of faith with the sick body and the ailing soul and the goods loaded onto, where to go, where the ship to take it away? Where to drift into the sea of death? There is no lighthouse to show the beacon light. There is darkness all around the fathomless sea. No ports, no harbours, no seashores are visible to come to rescue out of it. In the Bible, Noah built a vessel to save his family and the animals to save them from the flood.

The lines hereunder our discussion tell of the change in situation, the shift in imagery as the poet is in a state of being transformed, metamorphosed: 

Wait, wait, the little ship
drifting, beneath the deathly ashy grey
of a flood-dawn.

Wait, wait! even so, a flush of yellow
and strangely, O chilled wan soul, a flush of rose.

A flush of rose, and the whole thing starts again.

The words, ‘ a flush of rose’ and ‘the whole thing starts again’ take us to the plane of creational time when after a tryst the whole reverses it again, to re-start.

The picture is like that of Look, Stranger of Auden and Dylan Thomas’ Poem in October, Auden describing the ships and cargoes going as does John Masefield in Sea Fever and Dylan writing about his birthday celebration near the harbor or sea-port town, but in a different context. Let us see how the ship keeps tumbling over, vanishing out of sight. What to say about the body, what about the soul, the body carrying the soul? The soul remains lodged in as long as the body is and when the body itself grows weak and pale, the clock gets it dismantled from the tower, dilapidates and totters to fall down.

The below-quoted lines themselves put it in words:
And everything is gone, the body is gone
completely under, gone, entirely gone.
The upper darkness is heavy as the lower,
between them the little ship
is gone
she is gone.

It is the end, it is oblivion.

The last stanza of the poem reiterates the same theme with a note of assertion to build it:
Oh build your ship of death, oh build it!
for you will need it.
For the voyage of oblivion awaits you.

There are several versions and texts of the poem, revisions and editions of it which the poem has undergone naturally and it speaks of the theme in volumes and similar is the case with Wordsworth’s Prelude and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The Ship of Death as a poem is one of a mythical base and imagery wherein the terror of death restrained to some extent with the tell-tale narrative. But we are not sure of it where this journey will end up, where the ship will take to finally. There is something of the Hindu view of life which we see it during the pinda-dana rituals, when the mantras for the solace of the bereaved and departed soul with a handful of  food grains and water is given, when dana, gifts and donations are made in forms of materials for the dead soul needed for his journey from earth to heaven, as for example, dish, cup, plate, bed sheet, pillow, slippers, umbrella, foodstuffs, etc. There is also something like that of the Buddhist content when he talks of the rose, the dawn or lotus-like observation. This samsara is of suffering as well as a way to be out of for the nirvana. But how to mitigate the element of pain? How to get relief after bhoga?  How to lessen it bhoga? The sun motif is very strong in him which we may find it in Wilfred Owen too. 
The Ship of Death as a poem is one from a dying man, a dying poet as Keats has Ode to a Nightingale. William Wordsworth too makes us speechless and spell-bound when he speaks of the death of Lucy Gray in A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal and Strange Fits of Passion. C.G.Rossetti’s Up-hill too speaks of the winding up-hill journey of life and the pilgrim exasperated with travel-sore and fatigue resting in an inn.


Nov 26, 2018

Socio-Poltical Concerns in Mulk Raj Anand

Source: http://www.yabaluri.org/CD%20&%20WEB/sociopoliticalconcernsapr76.htm

BY: SHYAM M. ASNANI

Dr K. R. S. Iyengar’s pioneering and perceptive study (Indian Writing in English) has firmly established the existence of the tradition of Indian Writing in English. Its achievements and a measure of significance can no longer be challenged. It is now possible, thanks largely to his efforts, to make further specialised studies in certain individual aspects in the field. An attempt here will be made to study the socio-political concerns in the first three novels (trilogy) of Dr Mulk Raj Anand.

The emergence of the pre-independence Indo-English novel out of its early romantic-idealistic arcadia into the expansive landscape of realism runs parallel to the gradual development of a national ideology from its early phase of reformist exuberance to the growth of a revolutionary consciousness among the common masses of India, that they had to struggle relentlessly for their emancipation from the steel frame of their politico-economic exploitation by a foreign imperialism as also from the colossal weight of old tradition, hide-bound casteism and the die-hard dogma of religious conformism.

The struggle for independence in India was not merely a political struggle, but an all-pervasive emotional experience for all sensitive and enlightened Indians in the twenties, thirties and forties of this century. It is a coincidence that the Indo-English fiction achieved a flowering maturity in the ’30s–a period during which the star of Gandhiji was on its apex on the Indian horizon.

Under Gandhiji’s moral-cum-spiritual leadership, the freedom movement percolated, for the first time, to the very grass-roots of Indian society. Parallel to the struggle for political freedom started another struggle for freedom on the social plane. That was a fight against superstition, the caste system and untouchability, poverty, illiteracy, the erosion of religious belief–that were sapping the very vitality of our society.

No writer, writing in those decades or writing about that period, could avoid reflecting this upsurge in his work. Fiction, of all literary forms, is intimately concerned with social conditions and values, and at this time, Indian society, “galvanized into a new social and political awareness, was bound to seek creative expression for its new consciousness and the novel has, in all ages, been a handy instrument for this purpose.l The socio-political movement, which had caught the imagination of the entire nation, inspired the Indo-English writers as well, who had an added advantage of Western liberal education. Among the significant works of fiction inspired by this struggle are the novels like, Kandan the Patriot by K. S. Venkataramani, Inqilab by K. A. Abbas, Waiting for the Mahatma by R. K. Narayan, Kanthapura by Raja Rao, Untouchable by M. R. Anand, Into the Sun by Frieda H. Das, Motherland by C. N. Zutsi, We Never Die by D. F. Karaka.

The aim of this study is to see how these political and social concerns are reflected in the first three significant works of Mulk Raj Anand.

Paradoxical as it may sound, the dynamics of Gandhian thought helped open the way for the influx of Marxism in the literary field in India. But at deeper level there is no paradox as the basic attraction of both the Gandhian and Marxian appeals was their idealism despite the wide difference in their ideological framework and the terminology employed. Gandhiji’s lifelong crusade against colonial exploitation of the weaker nations by the stronger, his no less vehement condemnation of any form of economic exploitation, his insistence that what is not shared with the dispossessed is stolen from them, and his passionate confession to talk of God to a people whose bellies were crying for bread–these rather than his exaltation of prayer and fast, of spinning and celibacy, of non-violence in thought, word and deed, had impressed the Indian intelligentsia. Between this aspect of Gandhian crusade and the almost parallel faith of Marxism the only difference was that Marxian dogma appeared to be more consistent in its ideology and more realistic in its interpretation of history. This explains the phenomenon of the thirties when many Indian writers and intellectuals who were first inspired by Gandhi later veered towards socialist or Marxist ideologies. Prem Chand who began as an ardent admirer of Gandhi, later on came to believe more and more in the desperate remedies advocated by Marxism.

Mulk Raj Anand, like Prem Chand, passionately concerned with the villages, with the ferocious poverty, squalor and backwardness coupled with gross ignorance and the cruelties of caste, with orphans, untouchables and urban labourers, took upon himself the task of attacking social snobbery and prejudice; urging for a larger outlook more tolerance, more intimate and benevolent understanding and more self-sacrifice. The Indian life that he depicts in his novels is that of outcastes, peasants, soldiers, the depressed and suppressed ones of the society. He has resurrected the outcastes, the labourers, the farmers and the bottom-dog of his country from the obscure lanes and alleys of the hamlets, villages and small towns. Like Prem Chand in Hindi, Anand is the first of the Indian novelists in English to have written of this motley crowd, which had hitherto been largely ignored by the then Indian writers.

Anand himself makes it clear in his preface to the second edition of the Two Leaves and a Bud: “In so far, however, as my work broke new ground and represented a departure from the tradition of previous Indian fiction, where the pariahs and the bottom-dogs had not been allowed to enter the sacred precincts of the novel, in all their reality, it seemed to become significant and drew the attention of the critics, particularly in Europe which only knew Omar Khayam, Li Po and Tagore but very little or nothing about the sordid or colourful lives of the millions of Asia.”

Anand, “a son of a copper-smith turned soldier, and of a peasant mother,” knew, saw and felt fully and intimately the rural life of the Punjab, the villagers, groaning under abject poverty, the village-life being sucked dry by the parasites and religious priests. He found himself propelled towards them and decided to write about those people who suffered continual indignation and despise at the hands of the white sahibs, the zamindars, the money- lenders, the priests, the landlords and the big business bugs. Thus, the sweeper, the peasant, the plantation labourer, the city drudge, the soldier, in spite of their thwarted purposings, became the heroes of his first two trilogies. In the same preface Anand claims:

All these heroes, as the other men and women who had emerged in my novels and short stories, were dear to me, because they were the reflections of the real people I had known during my childhood and youth. And I was only repaying the debt of gratitude lowed them for much of the inspiration they had given me to mature into manhood, when I began to interpret their lives in my writing. They were not mere phantoms...They were the flesh of my flesh and blood of my blood, and obsessed me in the way in which certain human beings obsess an artist’s soul. And I was doing no more than what a writer does when he seeks to interpret the truth from the realities of his life.

Anand, throughout his novels, has, by implication, been impressing on his readers to recognize fundamental principles of human living and exercise vigilance in regard to the real enemies of freedom and socialism. He has relentlessly been advocating the need to help raise the untouchables, the peasants, the serfs, the coolies, and the suppressed members of the society, to human dignity and self-awareness in view of the abjectness, ignorance, apathy and despair they are sunk in.

The first trilogy–Untouchable, Coolie and Two Leaves and a Bud–deals with the misery and the wretchedness of the crushed and poor and their struggle for a better life. His subsequent novels are almost a variation on the same theme and are intended to bring home to the reader the plight of the ever-burdened peasant who is powerless to fight superstition and social convention and who is baulked at every step in his aspirations for a better life.

Bakha, an eighteen year old boy, like his father Lakha, a sweeper, a cleaner of latrines, is regarded as an outcaste by the society. Anand, as has been suggested by Prof. H. M. Williams, “exemplifies the problem of ‘untouchability’, the treatment of the latrine-cleaning class condemned to isolation and deprivation as handlers of excrement; he exposes this as a social evil and suggests its remedy”.2 The method is to narrate the single day’s events in Bakha’s life. Sturdy, genial, easy-going, athletic Bakha lives and works in the army camp pathetically aspiring to be as much like the sahibs as possible and playing hockey with their children. But early on the fateful day, he touches a Brahmin by accident and is reviled as a disgusting creature who has made the Brahmin unclean. He then sustains the terrible shocks of indictment quite a number of times: he is abused and slapped for polluting a merchant, he is chased out of a temple by a priest who has been trying to molest his sister; he receives a shower of abuses for polluting an injured child in his attempt to help the wounded child. An anguished cry comes of his mouth:. “I only get abuse and derision wherever I go. Pollution, pollution, I do nothing else but pollute people...” For a moment he stands aghast possessed by his rebellious self. His whole countenance lights with fire, the strength, the power of his giant body glistens with the desire for revenge in his eyes, while horror, rage, indignation sweep over his frame. But this momentary rage and revolt, soon evaporate when he finds that he is still too much bound to his low-caste-status. His anger and fury can only make him painfully realize that his rebellion would lead him nowhere as there is a futility written large on his fate. So in the highest moment of his strength, the slave in him asserts itself, and he lapses back, “wild with torture, biting his lips, ruminating his grievances.” He walks out frustrated and highly disappointed. Colonel Hutchinson, the Salvationist, with his shield of casteless society and salvation for all; Gandhiji with his strong dislike for untouchability as the greatest blot on Hinduism and his views that untouchables are in fact the Harijans–“men of God”, and then Iqbal Nath Sarshar with his new machine (the flush) that “will clean dung without anyone having to handle it”–all these three encounters raise hopes in him for a while. But he returns home, to his wretched bed, smothered by the misery, the anguish of the morning’s memories, thinking intently of the Mahatma, the Christ and the Machine in turn, but preferring none of the three, which perhaps reflects the fundamental crisis in the mind of the writer himself and is responsible for the gloomy end of the novel.

Untouchable is thus a forthright condemnation of a system which has, for ages, killed human dignity and warped the man, the hideous monster called caste that has seized Indian life in its strangling grasp and we have come to accept the snobbery, the hypocrisy, insularity and stratification of society based on ideas of high and low, thus making a mockery of the great teachings of our holy scriptures that we chant on all auspicious occasions.

As has already been said by me in my paper on Anand’s Untouchable, 3 Bakha is a prototype of millions of untouchables in India, because he represents the agony and anguish, the misery and frustration of the innumerable low-caste people. “The problem of caste and poverty, squalor and backwardness, ignorance and superstition, admits of no easy solution”.4 Almost forty years after Anand’s novel was written (1933), and twenty-seven years after the attainment of independence, the problem still defies a firm and final solution. Despite the fact that the Indian Constitution has made it a crime to practise Untouchability, we still witness Anand’s Sohinis and Golabos, waiting at the village-well for a long time–some standing up, bending and joining their palms in beggary, others twisting their lips in various attitudes of servile appeal and abject humility as they remain seated. We still have the residential areas of the high-caste Hindus through which untouchables are forbidden to take their marriage processions, hotels where the “low-caste people” are not allowed the touch and use of utensils meant for other common customers. We still witness the shameful and ghastly scenes of the untouchables being shot dead by villagers for daring to grow their moustaches upwards (local tradition demands that they grow their moustaches downwards because of their low status in the caste hierarchy). 5 Solution is there, but it needs a planned and concerted action on behalf of the Government, the social workers and the under-privileged. First they are to be educated properly, their standard of living is to be raised, their miserable economic conditions are to be improved and then they are to come out in a defiant mood to break loose the chains of age-old traditions by breaking the ban on the use of public wells, schools, roads and public temples. Only then some semblance of hope can be visible.

Anand does not seem to be satisfied with an understanding of the society in its exterior aspects, its institutions, its problems. He seems to be possessed by a desire, although vague, to seize and express the deeper spiritual reality beneath the flux of bourgeois living. He, therefore, criticises social maladies, human hypocrisies, and individual idiosyncrasies.

In Coolie Anand shows his concern for the savagely neglected, despised and maltreated poor with an angry lack of resignation. Munoo, a poor orphan hill-boy, verdant and innocent, underfed and ill-treated by his aunt leaves the native village to find work and see the world. The very first encounter with reality shatters his dreams. Employed in the house of a bank clerk, Munoo with his inborn naive gaiety amuses and entertains the employer’s daughter by dancing like a monkey for her, but is interfered by he shrewish and vindictive housewife who ruthlessly destroys his happiness by making him realize his position in the world: “He had no right to join the laughter of his superiors. He was to be a slave, a servant who should do the work, all the odd jobs, someone to be abused, even beaten...”

Constant abuses and frenzied rage from his frightening and frowning mistress makes him flee to work in a primitive pickle factory in Daulatpur where the dispute between the two partners leaves him desolate, unshielded and helpless. Exasperated with the frantic competition and cunningness among the fellow-coolies, he finds himself an utter failure in the job of a market porter. The satire here becomes more general, directed not at one or two examples of vice and folly but at man’s inhumanity to man. The generous but feckless Prabha, Munoo’s protector and surrogate father, is betrayed by a cruel paranoiac foreman, harried by an absurd retired judge called Sir Todar Mal (a Dickensian grotesque who emerges with considerable comic power), and is finally nearly beaten to death by the police acting with absurd and habitual brutality”.6 This apparent and senseless deprivation and injustice drives Munoo to still another adventure. After working in vain as a market porter and sleeping on the road pavements, Munoo, with the help of an elephant-driver of a circus company is stowed away to Bombay. Before he is thrown into the vast sea of humanity, the elephant-driver tells him almost like a prophet: “The bigger a city is, the more cruel it is to the sons of Adam.” In Bombay he starts working in the British-owned Sir George White Cotton Mills and is brutally exploited along with other factory-workers and fellow-sufferers including Hari, with whom he lives in a slum. The miserable lives of the workers and their families, their squalor and victimization, the tormenting pictures of “an emaciated man, the bones of whose skeleton were locked up in a paralytic knot,” “a grey-haired black blind man leaning half on the arm of his daughter, half on a stick”–are vividly described. Wage-cut and hunger, exploitation and the retrenchment of workers lead to the eruption of the labour strike which ultimately turns into a Hindu-Muslim riot. Shocked and bewildered Munoo steals out of the clashing crowd but is dashed down to unconsciousness by Mrs. Mainwaring’s car and is transported to Simla to work as a page and rickshaw-puller to Mrs. Main-waring, a sort of an indolent and extremely neurotic, something of a nymphomaniac European mem-sahib. Over-work and under-nourishment gradually fret away his health until he dies of consumption.

Anand’s indictment is against the society as a whole, society that “breeds such prejudice and selfishness and cruelty.” Poverty diffused all over India and like a poison infecting all our society is the root cause of Munoo’s tragedy. The economic exploitation of the proletariat by a few egoistic, irrational, inhuman and cruel individuals very succinctly become the essence of Munoo’s misfortunes and is conveyed to us through one of the characters in the novel:

There are only two kinds of people in the world: the rich and the poor and between the two there is no connection. The rich and the powerful, the magnificent and the glorious, whose opulence is built on robbery and theft and open war-fare, are honoured and admired by the whole world and by themselves. You, the poor and the humble, you the meek and the gentle, wretched that you are swindled out of your rights, and broken in body and soul. You are respected by no one and you do not respect yourselves. (p. 55)

The charm of the book lies in Munoo’s innocence, “in his naive warm-heartedness, his love and comradeship, his irrepressible curiosity and zest for life”–the instinctive urge to live, to go on doing something in order to avoid starving. The Bombay scene with toiling, suffering, struggling, starving masses is at once vivid and realistic, where Munoo, an insignificant part of the millions of half-fed and half-clad workers is “no more than a speck in this tide of humanity”, and it is precisely for this reason that the story does not end here and the author transports him to the holiday-resort where he regains his identity. Coolie, to quote another critic, is a “cosmic painting of the lives of thousands of orphans, coolies, boy-servants, factory-workers and rickshaw-pullers, their health running down “through the hour-glass of Time.” The novel is a treatise on social evil at its sundry levels and phases”. 7

Deeply moved by the abject poverty and innocence of India’s toiling masses, Anand wanted to write an angry bitter book, a book to sear the conscience. It emerges as “an anguished cry, and indictment of the cruelty of the system, and a declaration of pity for the hero, the betrayal and the depraved Munoo. It is more than a social documentary, more than a tract for the times”.8

Two Leaves and a Bud describes the pathetic conditions of the labourers in tea-gardens where the poor Indian coolies work as slaves along with their wives and children. It is a sad and appalling tale of the crushed humanity, of their sighs and tears.

Gangu, a middle-aged farmer in the Punjab, tempted by false promises, is transported to Assam with his wife and daughter to work in a British-owned tea plantation concern. The coolies here are treated like beasts and their wives and daughters have to yield to the white sahibs like Reggie Hunt. These docile, gutless, spineless coolies never raise their voices and go about the plantation with masks of crass stupidity on their faces, whose habitual submission is never disturbed by an outrage of man or beast, by hunger, pestilence or slow disease (p. 198). Anand has successfully portrayed the lot of the Indian coolies–“exploited, starving, cheated, dirty, diseased” as the true heirs of one of the “world’s greatest civilizations.”

Coolies’ joint approach to the authorities for a fair deal is mistaken to be a rebellion. Army is summoned, aeroplanes machinegun the terror-striken coolies and grind them down into submission and order is restored. De la Havre, a sympathetic doctor, a “walking capsule of humanism, socialism, progressivism and left-wing idealism” has to miss his job and his love (Barabara) because according to the planter’s code, his sympathies were wasted on the wrong people.

Gangu feels bewildered, lonely and lost when his wife Sajani dies of malaria. He makes frantic efforts to borrow money for the funeral expenses and is kicked out, beaten and abused. He comes back almost broken to Buta, the Garden Sardar, who had brought him here on fabulous promises:

“The Sahib will not give me a loan,” Gangu said, “I have just been. He beat me for coming out of quarantine. Oh, friend Buta Ram, if only I had known things were going to turn out this way, I wouldn’t have come here.” And he took his hand to his eyes to wipe the tears that had welled up in them with the reproach against the Sardar that he had suppressed into self-pity.

These natural, unforced and unpretentious words successfully convey the genuine “pathos, the suffering and the anguish of the hero”.9

Gangu with his cold passivity, his tender loyalties, his compassion and depth of suffering, symbolic of the Indian peasantry, is by now adept to watch the violent play of God, the storm and the rain washing away the meagre harvest of paddy with an almost imperturbable calm, as if in the moment of his uttermost anguish and despair, he had been purged of his fear of the inevitable. Hopelessly embedded in the toils of a system that can only throttle the life, Gangu has learnt to accept the rigours of life with complete resignation and stoical serenity:

And, as in the old days in his village, so now he plodded on like an ox all day, knowing all in his crude bovine way, grasping the distinction between himself and his masters, conscious even of the days when he was young and had kicked against the pricks and the proddings of the rod, of the hate, the fear and the sorrow he had known, but detached and forgetful in the Nirvanic bliss of emptiness where the good and evil of fortune seemed the equally just retributions, Omniscient Providence, of whom Siva and Vishnu and Krishna were the supreme incarnations...(p. 237).

The novel ends with the murder of Gangu in his attempt to rescue his daughter from the enticing trap of the sexy and lustful Reggie Hunt. The white jury that tries the case finds Hunt “not guilty” of murder by one vote and not guilty to culpable homicide by a majority of vote. Evil is thus shown triumphing and leaving no room for goodness in life.

De la Havre, Anand’s “spokesman character”, with his idealist dream of a “Communist type revolution and recognizes imperialism as an egregious form of capitalist exploitation”.l0 The him the socio-political revolution is the only way to emancipate the vast masses, prisoners of so many chains, bearing the physical signs of grief, of lassitude, even of death. He does protect the coolies and encourage them to resist the onslaughts of gross injustices, insults, and indignities they are destined to suffer at the hands of the British planters and rich Indian exploiters, but Anand through Dr Havre can easily be seen to be ventilating his anger and pity at these swarming, under-nourished, bleary, worm-eaten millions of India suffer so. He surmises:

 Is it because the festering swamps of the tropics breed disease and that they cannot check the tribulations of destiny? Certainly it seemed to me so, at first–that fate had here conspired with the seasons to obliterate everything capriciously...But why didn’t it occur to anyone the simple, obvious thing that people don’t need Marx to realize here. The black coolies clear the forests, plant the fields, toil and garner the harvest, while all the money-grubbing, slave-driving, soulless managers and directors draw their salaries and dividends and build up monopolies. Therein lies the necessity of revolution in this country...(p. 122/123).

Anand has been blamed for his partisan views of the Britishers. The novel, according to Professor H. M. Williams, is on one level a crude piece of propaganda portraying the British as vicious and absurd. Admitting that the novel is not as best as his early ones, Anand himself offers his defence in the introduction to the 1951 edition of the book:

I do not think that it is one of the best of my early novels. It is perhaps better written, and technically, it is more complex than Untouchable or Coolie because I tried to evoke in it in varying moods of the beautiful Eastern Indian landscape and felt the passions with an intensity which owed not a little to the fact that it was a real story which I was writing in thinly veiled fiction. But I confess, that, as I got into the book, I was biased in favour of my Indian characters and tended to caricature the Englishmen and English women who play such a vital part in this book ... And the truth has to be told about the relations of the blacks and whites, unpalatable as it might be, even as the disease of serfdom had to be analysed in Russia before it could be eradicated. And if in so doing, one’s art spills over into an amorphous passion then, well, that should be forgiven in an age which so often excuses cynicism and contempt and even violence on the other side...” (Introduction, p. vii)

Able, spirited and bold as this defence is, it does not answer all the doubts and questionings. In his over-enthusiastic defiance of the exploitation, Anand makes Gangu brood in an intellectual manner which never seeming true to his character, sounds a crude piece of propaganda inartistically thrust over through the protagonist’s mouth:

I have always said it and I say it now again that, though the earth is bought and sold and confiscated, God never meant that to happen, for He does not like some persons to have a comfortable living and the others to suffer from dire poverty. He has created land enough to maintain all men and yet many die of hunger, and most live under a heavy burden of poverty all their lives, as if the earth were made for a few and not for all men! (p. 247/248):

Lapses such as these are there, but they never infiltrate the total artistic beauty and effect, for the crude part of overt propaganda is made subservient to the human content by telling the unvarnished tale of plantation life in the thirties. Anand has therefore ably withstood the attack of the critics whom he would like to remind that “the catharsis of a book lies ultimately in the pity, the compassion and understanding of an artist and not in his partiality.”

A study of the trilogy gives an unmistakable feeling, that Anand is a serious and committed novelist with definite axe to grind. What he is committed to and what he grinds with his axe is obviously the wishful eradication of the prevalent prejudice and indignation against the under-privileged and under-dog of the society and pleads for the bettering of their lot.

A wishful thinking for the removal of all artificial barriers between classes and masses prompts the author to insist on the innate humanity of man. He is almost baffled by age-long social inertia, and pins his faith not on any future rational re-organization of the society, but on elemental human goodness and sincerity.

The indirect criticism in his novels of the emotional regidity and self-centredness of the superior castes gives place to a more frontal attack on the illogicalities and injustices of society. But this does not mean that his novels are a dissertation on socia-ethical problem, rather an illuminating document of human interest. He has pointed out social conflicts and ills, not because he champions any abstract social theory, but because he has seen and experienced and felt them intimately in his own surroundings.

Anand in his novels, attacking social snobbery and prejudice, urges for a larger outlook, more tolerance, more intimate and benevolent understanding and more self-sacrifice. He seems to stress one thing to be sure–that intolerance and egoistic feelings are at the root of all our social and personal troubles.

Anand, through his creative writing, as he expresses in his Apology for Heroism (p. 139), has been able to live through the experience of other people and realise what silent passions burst, in their minds, what immediate and ultimate sorrows possess them where they want to go and how they grapple in their own ways, with their destinies. He has tried in this sense to express his passionate love for the suffering people without caring for the misunderstanding and the ridicule of those who are better situated in social life and call his pre-occupation with the outcastes, the disinherited peasants, and the eternally wronged women as a morbid, sentimentalist pre-occupation with these “ignorant people.”

Through his pleadings for an unquenchable and unshakable faith in the elemental goodness of man and power of love, a faith which has had all falsity and sentimentality purged of by the fires of intense suffering, what Anand wanted to achieve has been achieved. And that in itself is a unique contribution to the Indian novel in English.


References

1. Dr M. K. Naik’s essay on Gandhiji and the Indian Writing in English. Banasthali Patrika, special issue on Mahatma Gandhi. July 1970. p. 55.

2 Prof. H. M. Williams: Studies in Modern Indian Novel in English. Writers Workshop, Calcutta. 1973. Vol. I, p. 31.

3 Shyam M. Asnani: Untouchable and Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable. Published in the Banasthali Patrika. Jan. ’71.

4 Dr K. R. S. Iyengar: Indian Writing in English. Asia Pub. House, Bombay (1973). p. 338.

5 The Times of India, December 26, 1976, reports that according to the Chairman of the Untouchability Committee appointed by the Union Government, three untouchables in a village in Madhya Pradesh were shot dead.

6 Studies in Modern Indian Novel in English.

7 Prof. K. Kurmanadham: The Novels of Dr M. R. Anand. Triveni (Machilipatnam), Oct. ’67.

8 Studies in Modern Indian Fiction in English.

9 Dr Saros Cowasjee : Anand’s Two Leaves and a Bud. Published in the Indian Literature (Q). Vol. XVI, No. 3 and 4, July, Dec. ’73.

l0 Studies in Modern Indian Fiction in English.

* References to the texts are from the Kutub Popular (Bombay) editions unless otherwise specified.

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