13 July 2006

Diderot and the Vedas

More notes as I await Hejinian’s “The Fatalist”:

The rediscovery of Diderot’s fiction for the 20th Century coincided with the discovery of Sanskrit philosophy by the West. Shortly after J.J. Mayoux said “For Diderot’s philosophical mind literature is a subtle game, an Indian magic, a means of throwing ropes into the air and holding them there,” (1936), Rene Daumal wrote “To Approach the Hindu Poetic Art,” in which he noted the three levels of meaning in the sacred text: literal, derived (metaphoric), and suggestive (irreducible by logical inference).

As discursive prose can only meander before the enigma of fate, so narrative form has taken to a picaresque worldly incarnation of this meandering before fate: Gargantua and Pantagruel, Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, Zadig, Candide, Jacque the Fatalist and His Master, A Hero of Our Time, Maldorer, Nadja, Ulysses. The artistry of these texts are by nature retreated from by their successors rather than built upon, with Charles Olson’s insistence that Ulysses not be discussed at Black Mountain a classic illustration.

The development of literary symbolism in the West was independent of its Eastern equivalents but responded to the same human imperatives. Baudelaire’s “Correspondences” sought a synathesia of literal and figurative symbols that represented the unity of matter and spirit sought in Hindu practice. Lukács in his Marxist period believed that Realism presented a totality of human experience but believed it succeeded when it represented the different walks of life in a prehistory rather than in reflection, as is the case in Diderot rather than the Naturalists.

In Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” the symbolic bird of the title is sacrificed to the melancholy of the romantic protagonist and interpreted by the dramatis personae that resemble the caste identities of the Vedas: desire, duty, materialism, and deliverance. The play within a play, which is a version of “Correspondences,” portrays the reception of symbolist decadence within the narrative convention of the time and is, like the seagull, interpreted by the incarnations of the Vedas including the novelist, which can be an aspect of Chekhov. Chekhov’s appreciation for the innovations of decadence was notably lacking in Tolstoy.

So Jacque the Fatalist and His Master addresses the concept of fate through the prism of caste, as the servant is content with not knowing fate’s determination of his future and the master is undone by fixation on unattainable self-determination. Jacques has been called the first working class protagonist in modern fiction, and Marx and Engels were dedicated readers of Diderot, giving rise to his adaptation by Soviet theorists whose primary criticism of him was his 'lack' of scientific methods of analysis.

OK the book’s here finally…


david raphael israel said...

A fascinating reading, and thumbnail tour through, a rather arcane but notable intellectual history. Makes me want to revisit The Seagull (among other things). Also reminds of a tome of essays by a linguist whose name I thought was Strabinsky -- but this seems in error. (My books of those days were lost, alas.) But that was one of the few places I got some glancing exposure to Sanskrit literary theory.

Is the Rene Daumal essay in the collection published by New Directions, I wonder? -- the book titled Rasa (1982).

Ian Keenan said...

David, yes, I have that ‘82 ND edition edited by Louise Landes Levi but there’s a new edition of the same translation out from Ekstasis Editions. Daumal is one of the top dozen 20th Century poets imho.

I may write some more about ‘The Seagull;’ I’m currently watching for the 2nd time Claude Miller’s version ‘La Petite Lili’ which I had mixed feelings about before.

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