Rabindranath Tagore’s Literary, Multicultural Upbringing

English literature academic Mary McClelland Lago remarked on the literary, multicultural household in which Rabindranath Tagore was raised in her biography, Rabindranath Tagore: Perspectives in Time:

Goethe was read in German and de Maupassant in French, Sakuntala in Sanskrit, and Macbeth in English; poetry was written, upon models supplied by Keats, Shelley, and the Vaishnava lyrics then being compiled and appearing in Bengali periodicals; plays and songs were composed and performed. There were experiments in the writing of Bengali novels that drew on Bengali history as Scott had drawn on the history of England and Scotland; the French short story writers of the nineteenth century were the models for experiments in writing short fiction in Bengali. Journals were edited and secret patriotic societies organized. Friends, associates, and tutors came and went, all against a background of traditional Bengali life; the inner rooms were the women’s world; the boys were invested at the proper age with the sacred thread of the Brahmins, the spiritual life of the household was grounded in the Upanishads.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Characters

Fyodor Dostoevsky‘s central characters are marked by a significance of “spiritual and mental self-division and self-contradiction,” wherein the offender turns out to be an prototype of a curiously modern psychological condition of alienation and self-destruction. American literary critic and essayist Philip Rahv wrote,

Dostoevsky is the first novelist to have fully accepted and dramatized the principle of uncertainty or indeterminacy in the presentation of character. In terms of novelistic technique this principle manifests itself as a kind of hyperbolic suspense-suspense no longer generated merely by the traditional means and devices of fiction, though these are skillfully brought into play, but as it were by the very structure of human reality. To take this hyperbolic suspense as a literary invention pure and simple is to fail in comprehending it; it originates rather in Dostoevsky’s acute awareness (self-awareness at bottom) of the problematic nature of the modern personality and of its tortuous efforts to stem the disintegration threatening it.

Source: Varieties of Literary Experience: 18 Eminent Critics Discuss World Literature

Avoid Snobbery and Misanthropy

Christopher Hitchens writes in Letters to a Young Contrarian:

One must avoid snobbery and misanthropy. But one must also be unafraid to criticise those who reach for the lowest common denominator, and who sometimes succeed in finding it. This criticism would be effortless if there were no “people” waiting for just such an appeal. Any fool can lampoon a king or a bishop or a billionaire. A trifle more grit is required to face down a mob, or even a studio audience that has decided it knows what it wants and is entitled to get it. And the fact that kings and bishops and billionaires often have more say than most in forming appetites and emotions of the crowd is not irrelevant, either.

The Craving of the Separate Self

Stephen Batchelor writes in Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening:

Moods dictate my behavior. If something makes me feel good, I want to have it; if it makes me feel bad, I want to get rid of it; if it leaves me indifferent, I ignore it. I find myself in a perpetual state of conflict: emotionally pulled one way and pushed the other. Yet underpinning both attraction and aversion is craving: the childish and utopian thirst for a situation in which I finally possess everything I desire and have repelled everything I dislike. Deep down I insist that a permanent, separate self is entitled to a life removed from the contingencies and uncertainties of existence.

Learning to Listen

Soto Zen Roshi Gerry Shishin Wick of Great Mountain Zen Center in Berthoud, Colorado, writes in Zen in the Workplace:

To hear every sound as the dharma means to just pay attention. Listen to what people are saying when somebody is talking to you. We are usually so busy trying to say something that will impress them that we don’t really listen to what they are saying. It is easy to give and appropriate response if we are really listening.

American Skier Lindsey Vonn on Competition, Grit, and Failures

Lindsey Vonn, the greatest female skier of all time, converses about sportsmanship in this Esquire interview:

Competition is what I find joy in as well. I like pushing myself. I like setting those goals. I like knowing that I’ve executed the plan I have set forth. All those things feel good. I don’t mind the mistakes. Failures are new challenges—they make me more excited to go back out there because I did something wrong and I know I can fix it.

Thought as a Thought and a Word as a Word

American poet, writer, and Soto Zen priest Norman Fischer writes in the Summer 2011 issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review,

In his discussion of right speech the Buddha also demonstrated the subtle and nuanced understanding that words do not have fixed meanings and ought never to be taken at face value. The meaning of a word depends on the context: who is speaking and listening, the tone of voice employed, the underlying attitude, and the situation in which the words are spoken. The very fact that the Buddha did not recommend that his words be written down and that he allowed others to explain the teachings in their own words, insisting that ordinary language, not special holy language, be used, shows that he understood language to be a process—essentially a dialogue, a dynamic experience—rather than a tool of exact description or explanation. The Buddha saw that far from being a neutral conduit for the conveying of preexisting meanings, language is an ever-shifting vehicle for the self, and that the way to clarify the self and the world is to hold language in an accurate and sensitive way.

Oscar Wilde’s Achievements

For Oscar Wilde, “Truth in Art is the unity of a thing with itself—the outward rendered expressive of the inward: the soul made incarnate: the body instinct with spirit.” In De Profundis, he provides his own concise precis of his literary achievement:

The gods had given me almost everything. I had genius, a distinguished name, high social position, brilliancy, intellectual daring: I made art a philosophy, and philosophy an art: I altered the minds of men and the colours of things: there was nothing I said or did that did not make people wonder: I took the drama, the most objective form known to art, and made it as personal a mode of expression as the lyric or the sonnet, at the same time that I widened its range and enriched its characterisation: drama, novel, poem in rhyme, poem in prose, subtle or fantastic dialogue, whatever I touched I made beautiful in a new mode of beauty: to truth itself I gave what is false no less than what is true as its rightful province, and showed that the false and the true are merely forms of intellectual existence. I treated Art as the supreme reality, and life as a mere mode of fiction: I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me: I summed up all systems in a phrase, and all existence in an epigram.

Wilde’s spectacular climb to disrepute also included his heartbreaking fall from grace. He famously acknowledged, “I have put my genius into my life; I have put only my talent into my works.”

What Inspired Murasaki Shikibu

Edward George Seidensticker writes in his introduction to the vintage edition of The Tale of Genji,

When romancers of the tenth century attempt characterization, and it is of a rudimental sort, they write fairy stories, and when they write of such matters as court intrigues, the characterization is so flat that it can hardly be called characterization at all. The diaries of the tenth century may perhaps have been something of an inspiration for Murasaki Shikibu, but the awareness that an imagined predicament can be made more real than a real one required a great leap of the imagination, and Murasaki Shikibu made it herself.

Seidensticker was a renowned intellectual, historian, and superlative translator of classical and contemporary Japanese literature.

Formula for Becoming a Good Novelist

Interviewer Jean Babette Stein (later herself a notable American author and editor) asked the American writer and Nobel Laureate William Faulkner “Is there any possible formula to follow in order to be a good novelist?” he replied,

Ninety-nine percent talent … ninety-nine percent discipline … ninety-nine percent work. He must never be satisfied with what he does. It never is as good as it can be done. Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself. An artist is a creature driven by demons. He don’t know why they choose him and he’s usually too busy to wonder why. He is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.

Source: The Paris Review, Issue 12, Spring 1956