Mar 012015



Title of the Book: The Shadow Lines
Author: Amitav Ghosh
Year of Publication: 1988
Place of Publication: Great Britain
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd.

Reviewed By:

Khan Touseef Osman
PhD Research Scholar
University of Kashmir


Imaginary Boundaries and Post-Partition Nation-State

The Shadow Lines came out in 1988, after the success of his first novel The Circle of Reason, consolidating Amitav Ghosh’s reputation as a novelist in the English language. Written in the tradition of magical realism, The Circle of Reason went much to the same direction as most popular novels from the new frontiers of English literature did—Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie were his literary predecessors. Ghosh restrains the exuberant show of color and energy in the narrative of The Shadow Lines, attempting to depict the real world in unpretentious exploration. The novel gives off an impression of profundity of perception rather than unfettered imagination. 

The Shadow Lines selects a considerable section of world history across the globe where it places the characters so as to develop as individuals born out of the conditions of time and space. People, in other words, are shown to be products of their specific temporal and social environment. Agency and deliberation, in a way, are reduced to a minimum. This, however, does not mean that characters are mere inanimate objects, responding to and floating on the waves of culture and history. Tridib, for instance, stubbornly resists the material pressures and refuses to join the educated bourgeoisie—he chooses to occupy an old family apartment in Kolkata pursuing his PhD in Archaeology (where is money in that!) when the world offered a seemingly better opportunity for material comfort.

The story is told by an unnamed narrator, Tridib’s nephew, who grows up in a corner of Kolkata city, yet with stories about other places, other times from Tridib, Ila and the Grandma. Tridib’s influence on him is so deep that it is almost as if his life is a re-enactment of the experiences of his uncle. This parallel growth in different points of history takes an obsessive form when the narrator tries to have sex with the same girl, May Price, with whom Tridib was supposed to be in love. The narrator admits that Tridib has given him a novel way of discovering the world—not only by experiencing with senses but with the precise use of imagination as well. Tridib’s stories give him an imaginative world to roam in, a world that has precise dimensions, albeit in his head. He has a mental map of the geography of pre-World War London, which is at odds with that of the present.

The novel is characterized by its portrayal of strong female characters, such as the Grandma and Ila. It is with the character of Grandma that Amitav Ghosh deals with the idea of human beings’ belonging to their respective times and places. The fact that her ancestral home is not the same as the country of nationality poses a crucial problem for her: with the artificial boundaries Partition necessitated, she is somewhat split between emotion and geopolitics. Indeed, the partition trope defines her existence: the partitioned house in Dhaka and imagining the other part as characterized by difference rather than similarity is allegorically insinuating the division of the subcontinent and its disturbing aftermath. 

Grandma’s militant nationalism stems from her deep sense of injustice at the British rule and allegiance to the Nehruvian grand narrative of unity in diversity. It grows to an extent verging on obsessive nationalism particularly after Tridib is killed by a mob in Dhaka: she donates the least bit of gold she had to the cause of war with Pakistan in 1965. Freedom is collective or national as far as she is concerned, while, for Ila, it is entirely individual. Ironically, Ila lives in England rather than India to be “free” though, in Grandma’s view, nation is inextricably associated with freedom. Their starkly different outlooks result in a generational gap as far as Indian female subjectivity is concerned.

The narrative of The Shadow Lines is not a very easy one considering it is a form of mnemonic text. The narrator is a polyglot in the sense that upon the surface on his consciousness, therefore in the narrative, various voices are intertwined. Recollection of his and others’ pasts appears in the novel as they are filtered through the narrator’s consciousness. And since multiple points of pasts are being talked about and one memory may lead to other memories of events that took place before or after, readers only find glimpses of several pasts as they page through, collecting broken images and stringing them together to have a comprehensive view. This is, at times, very confusing, since the narrative meanders back and forth and back again, and it is readers who have to gather the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together until the last page of the novel. The resulting confusion, however, succeeds in blurring the artificial boundaries (shadow lines) across times and spaces, confounding the neatly compartmentalized ideas of past and present as well as regions.

The novel gives an account of the imaginative construction of Indian nation-state; it explores the ways individuals conceive of a nation. And it is shown how the imagination of ideas of a nation is at odds with the ideas used for bureaucratic and diplomatic purposes. The border between India and East Bengal, for example, is not how it is marked in different colors in the school books. The Grandma wonders what there is to be at the border which distinguishes between the two places, and when she realizes that nothing distinctive is actually there, she wonders if all this partition bloodshed and misery meant anything after all.

The Shadow Lines is a fictional representation of the various ways human beings as individuals or as a society are connected with history and location. The upheavals of history are demonstrated to have profound impact on fashioning the post-colonial, post-partition subjectivity. The brilliance of the novel lies in Amitav Ghosh’s rendering of neatly defined ideas as protean and shapeless. It is a very important text in understanding the tensions regarding the ideas of nationalism at the individual and collective level.


Mar 012015



Title: The Book of Gold Leaves.

Writer: Mirza Waheed.

Publisher: Penguin / Viking Books.

Publication Year: 2014.

Number of Pages: 339.

Format: Hard-cover.

ISBN-No: 9780670087426.

Price: Rs.449.


Reviewed By:

Iram Shafi Allaie

M.Phil Scholar (2014)

Department of English

University of Kashmir


The Kashmir of 1990's witnessed a tumultuous period which by now has spanned decades and yet remains unresolved conflict. Mirza Waheed’s second novel The Book of Gold Leaves (2014) following his unforgettable The Collaborator (2011) owns this phase as its backdrop however with a twist of romance between a Shia boy and a Sunni girl. The main protagonists of the novel are Faiz, a papier mâché artist and Roohi, a young and beautiful lady.

Part first (Shadows by the river) of the novel opens up introducing us to Faiz — his Mir family of the downtown city called Khanqah, Roohi and her family and finally to the fervent relationship between Faiz and Roohi. Faiz a twenty year old boy, who has dropped his studies very early, supports his large family by painting hundreds of pencil boxes each month that are then to be shipped to Calgary in Canada.

[H]e paints deer, cypresses, tall rose bushes, chinar leaves, Mughal princes on hunting trips with their high elephants, on the pencil boxes … (p. 3)

Roohi, twenty one year old young woman, on the other hand, is well educated and always prays and begs for a love story to happen in her life.

Roohi is prostrate before her God. … to make her one wish come true, for the boy of her dreams to come and take her away. (p. 8)

Both of the protagonists meet at the holy shrine of  Khanqah- e-moula which is situated in the Srinagar city called Khanqah and their love story begins. But since Mirza Waheed is writing about a war-torn land, the love story of Faiz and Roohi gets affected by the brutal war. For that matter any story set in Kashmir under military occupation will contain enough tragedy and drama to merit engagement and so is the case with this novel. When on one hand the love between Faiz and Roohi is blossoming on the other side is Kashmir been immersed by the Indian occupational forces.

Part second (Echoes) of the novel takes the readers into the lives of  Major Sumit Kumar, the educationists like Professor Madan Koul — former principal at the Gandhi College and his daughter Principal Shanta Koul whose local girls’ school is taken by the army troops for setting up their barracks. The girl students eventually drop the school as violence, unrest, and torture become frequent. Indian soldiers are visible on every street and then follows the tragic event of a minibus full of schoolchildren getting caught in crossfire which kills Faiz’s  godmother — Fatima. This event disturbs his mental psyche terribly and he decides to join the uprising. Here some readers might lament that the union of Faiz and Roohi now don’t seem to be possible. But Faiz is sure that Roohi will wait for him. “I will be back soon and Roohi will surely wait for me”. Finally there is a ‘Zaal’, a vehicle/ kind of a truck with a "jaw like grip" that patrols the area, gobbles up innocents from the streets and “sort of swallows them”.

In Part third (In Another Country) as the violence had touched the lives of Kashmiris directly, we witness Faiz is determined to leave his home and follow his fate in the training camps across the border. In creating the trajectory of Faiz, Mirza Waheed explains that the reason some young Kashmiris took up arms due to personal tragedies. While in the Pakistani training camp thoughts of Roohi and his own family members often hit his mind. But none of them can stop him. “It’s my duty, too” Faiz says to the Engineer who himself has joined the struggle. Faiz is now known as the “artist-turned-militant”. And then once again the romantic tinge of the novel is poured forth through the love letters that Roohi and Faiz send to each other reflecting the pain of separation each undergoes.

Roohi to Faiz:

 You know what I miss the most? The waiting. … I miss you. When you   come back to me, I will tell you everything. (p.175)

Faiz to Roohi:

It’s the nights that are difficult here, Roohi. I do manage to sleep now but it takes time. … I am dying to see you. The silliest thing I have done is not to carry a photo of you.  (p. 182)

The concluding part (A Terrible Beauty is Born) of the story is about Faiz’s return to his home and later getting married to his sweetheart Roohi. The other details that Waheed gives us is the account of the daily tragedies, violence and shocks of the 90s turmoil — how Kashmir was turned to a highly militarized zone in the world and how the occupation seized every corner of it.  In one of the letters, Roohi writes to Faiz:

The city is a lightless prison now. No one can stir without the permission of the soldiers. I sometimes imagine we are in a vast coop with thousands of them circling around it, and they hit out at my hand if I try to get some air. (p. 211)

In the same letter, through Roohi, Waheed has shown that after the influx of the Indian soldiers the next step was to control the Kashmiris the way they wanted. Every day countless innocents lost their lives at the hands of the army. Violence was becoming a day-to-day matter.

People are being killed like flies. I mean, these are actual people killed on the streets every day. … they read out the toll on the evening news as if they were talking about the amount of rainfall during the day. (p. 210)

There is a mention of Kashmiri pundits fleeing the valley as Master Dinnath’s family and Prinicpal Shanta Koul leave Kashmir. And on the other hand, Waheed perfectly delineates the pain that Kashmiri Muslims underwent by the exodus of Kashmiri pundits. “Must you punish us all for the sins of few?” says Mir Zafar Ali to Dinnath while requesting him not to leave his home and Muslim brethren.

               Mirza Waheed is at his best when he delineates the historical and political facts especially considering the place it is written about. The novelist is a Kashmiri and this adds value to the narration of local truth and makes his characters and stories shine. The plot of the The Book of Gold Leaves is clear and the language is simple. Apart from tracing the resistance movement of Kashmir part of the brilliance lies in crafting the love story of Faiz and Roohi which is flagrantly romantic. The Book of Gold Leaves has been received very warmly by critics. The Guardian wrote that the Kashmir conflict has finally found its storyteller in this tense novel of love and war. 

Mar 012015



Knowledge Construction and identity Politics: A Review  of  Nandini Sahu’s Sita (2014), The  Poetry Society of  India ,Gurgaon  ( Hariyana ) ,India . PP – 129, R S 220/-, ISBN: 978-93-83888-19-1(PB).


Reviewed By:

Gagan Bihari Purohit

R.N. College, Dura,

Berhampur Odisha


Rendered as a “poetic memoir … in the first person narrative” about the trials and tribunals of a longstanding cultural outfit, Nandini Sahu’s fifth collection, Sita ferries across on several plains the idea of knowledge construction from the epic heroine’s point of view where the due  is denied to Her in a largely gender construed identity being interpolated by the patriarchal society. A long poem in twenty five cantos, it is waiting in the wings raring to go in the mould of popular epic form in the heart and mind of the poet where the main thrust is everyday reality being represented through a woman’s perspective. Both classical and folk elements go to describe her abiding agony without giving her due in no uncertain terms which Sahu attempts candidly in this rather long poem to glorify womanhood thereby assessing the identity of the women construed from different contemporary perspectives. Sahu is on her mission to discover and deliver the “Sitaness” representative of every Indian woman as she knows pretty clear that the tall claims and the actual achievement in the field of women empowerment is few and far between.

            She appears to be in search of an identity which has no less been problematized in the course of History that haunts Sahu time and again. In doing so, she aims at giving fresh impetus  both on the epic heroine and on everyday woman in a way Ramanujan did in his famous poem “River”. Moving further away from traditional Tamil eulogy on the river as a creator of the life source on the earth, Ramanujan reverts his attention on the destructive aspect of the river during flood. In the same token, Sahu is also searching for a novel identity in the contemporary mould in the mythic character’s epic endurance suffering at the hands of male chauvinism with remarkable precision. Sahu’s arduous task is in quest of searching an   uncomplicated and a single cogent identity for women in the modern world. The complex location and formation of identity in which Sahu forms a part highlights her personal and poetic life and identity. To restore her many layered identity in which she played Many-in-one roles, Sahu raged her voice against ideological and institutional amnesia in which the epic heroine becomes her mouth-piece. She also used this unique identity to rely on an indigenous trope to fight back the colonial legacy which had alienated her from her own culture and mythology. The two-fold poetic consciousness of Sahu is similar to Edward Said’s intellectual dispossession from his Palestinian background who quotes Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks frequently to describe it: “The starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory”. So Sahu has no qualms about emphasizing her critical knowledge of the contemporary world as a process of self reflexivity to unravel the ‘infinity of traces’ that would serve the cause of woman well in her epic endeavour. Of all the possessions that a woman can have and the loss about which she can be blind about would be loss of identity. Hers is voyage against a world where social space has problematized her individual identity immensely and the long poem seems to be an adequate answer. She tries to recollect the spirit of Sita with an amazing fiddle.

            For Nandini Sahu, Sita represents women in various forms “she is every woman, the propagated, interpolated role-model” in whom resides “the mass consciousness of the universe”. By giving complete freedom to women to operate from within independent spheres in the Indian context she makes the role of women both exemplary and accountable. That is, she has lead from the front to save the race of woman from the downslide and this mission would only be fulfilled when she assumes more accountability. The role of “new woman” is cut out to realize the progressive and pragmatic world view that would serve women well in the long run. Sahu focuses her attention on the Utarakanda where Sita gives birth to Lava and Kusa who are being recognized as “Sita-Putra” devoid of father’s care to assume the identity of “New woman” who can handle the pressure of child nurturing well. What is being considered as novice and insignificant is given due importance, an idea very much in keeping with the post colonial thrust of marginalized issues which aim to be free from the shackles of male hegemony from within as well as imperialism from outside. In a sense  becomes Sahu’s field of vision.

            Sita asserts her individual identity: “I am entwined in many a women of substance”. Apart from her three sisters- Urmila, Mandavi and Srutakriti – she also enjoys a hand and glove relationship with other women of reputation like Anasuya, Gargi, Maitreyi and Ahalya with Mandodari and Tara to grace her personality she seems to have completed a full circle of “female-bonding”. Sita, being cast in traditional role playing in the initial cantos creates a kind of platform from where she can launch an all-out assault on the male hegemony by grabbing the opportunity offered to her in both hands.  The lust for golden deer has accounted for her captivity in the hands of the demon king Ravan but without being repentant Sahu’s Sita accepts the challenge of life by becoming “the willingly-exiled women”. Here Sahu employs the poetic strategy of pun, playing upon words to emphasize the freedom of  New women. This stance of a dare devil woman is accentuated in the following canto when Sita lifted the giant Siva Dhanush  easily. But the events that followed led to Swaymbar, a hegemonic outfit for match-making that woman of Sita caliber would detest strongly. With an inquisitive mind she asks a series of probing questions to challenge her father’s decision: “how could the Swayambar be interrogated thus? The choice of husband be the women’s prerogative”. She is now “caught in the endless helix of the mortal adventure” and is left to lick the wounds of a female foeticide and adverse report of sex ratio. The concept of Ramarajya seems to be incomplete and halo idea in view of the ever increasing atrocities being inflicted upon women on routine basis. But she recovers from the state of apathy to assume the role being played by the innumerable women to challenge the male superiority in the face.

            Sita’s fallout for the golden deer is presented to show her in weak cast which has led to her down fall because the lure of gold had defied nature’s logic and thus creating a guile into which she has been trapped into in style. Ravan’s wisdom of a sage has been equally questioned when he does not heed to her repeated requests. He defies all logic of being better on moral plane because of his nonsense approach to Sita’s pleadings. What Sahu wants to project here is the fact that both man and woman are subject to limitation and the concept of man being superior to woman is being constantly castigated by the poet. Similarly her encounters in the abode of Ravana and her attempts to protect her chastity are being highlighted in the successive cantos to prove her courage and conviction against a sea of odds. The other episodes including the utrakanda give glimpses of “new woman” where she has stood up to the storms of life with the hope that she would be elevated by her husband, maryada purushatam  Rama. But his sentence of exile at the behest of an erratic washer man’s derogatory comments over a family dispute even after giving an acid test of proving her chastity beyond doubt has what galled her to the centre of her being.

             In putting Sita in the Indian cultural context, Nandini Sahu has scored two goals at one go. She has enough stuff to produce an engrossing encounter to challenge male chauvinism which is being increasingly biased by the imperialistic regime. On the second front, Sita seems to be very much in the making of the postcolonial strategy to unearth the rich store house of indigenous tropes of identity to pave the way for women through rough weather. She has tried to prove a point or two to the established order of the society that women could be on par with men in each and every front. It is high time women were well looked after, and they should be given their due as India used to do before the period of colonization. Sahu seems to be on her mission to revive and reconstruct the lost glory of Indian women who have proved their worth time and again.

Sahu’s Sita is a timely reminder to the ruthless parents who do not hesitate to put their daughters in their prime to be handed down death sentence in the name of honour killing which are being projected in the daily headlines and which pose imminent threat to freedom of women in our society. Hence it can be safely presumed that Nandini Sahu’s latest creative output Sita  would go a long way to serve the purpose of woman empowerment powered by a sound cultural platform and an urgent contemporary appeal. What adds value to the text is it does not fight shy of representing the cause of woman.

The cover page wields a brilliant look with focused eyes of knowledge construction with looming- large lips that takes  love as the only healing power over every odd thing in the whole world, the very characteristics of women of substance  who can boast of independent identity construction based on indigenous metaphors. Indeed, we are reminded of the urge of Parthasarathy to “scrap bottom of our past” for representation and revival of our culturally loaded past. With the Paper Back edition in the offing, the collection under review would definitely go a long way in solving our urgent need of cultural amnesia that has led to the contemporary apathy to look into the major concerns of Indian women. They have long been subject to open criticism and torture. So time has come to heed to their much needed calls. Doing so would be a well deserving tribute to Nandini Sahu’s gallant efforts to fight for the cause of women emancipation but not at the cost of the cosy collection. Sahu wins readers applause with every fiber of her being devoted to the cause of women emancipation.

Mar 012015



Book: The Mother I Never Knew                                                                             

Author: Sudha Murty                                                                                             

Publisher: Penguin Books India                                                                                 

Year of Publication: 2014                                                                                          

Number of Pages: 206                                                                                               

Price: 250 INR                                                                                                                       

ISBN – 9780143422259


Reviewed By:                                                                                                            

Dr. Divya Pandey                                                                                         

Department of English and MEL,                                                                             

University of Allahabad, Allahabad.


Sudha Kulkarni Murty, a Padma Shri awardee is an Indian Social worker and author. She is a passionate teacher, philanthropist and columnist, an all in one icon in the present day. She is also  the chairperson of the Infosys Foundation. She started her career as a development engineer with TELCO (now Tata Motors) and has also taught computer science to BSc and MCA students at a college affiliated with Bangalore University. She is a prolific writer in English and Kannada. This year I went through her new book The Mother I Never Knew. This book consists two novellas , both novellas explore quest by two men –each searching for a mother he never knew he had. Both novellasdivided into eleven chapters each.

            First novella is the story of a bank manager, Venkatesh, who lives in Bangalore. When the story begins, we come to know that he has been transferred to Hubli and because of that he is upset. One day Venkatesh sets out for Shiggaon to attend a function, where he is mistaken by a jeweller with someone else who looks like him. In that function again he is mistaken by someone. After that he is determined to find more information about his look-like. He starts investigation and find out that Shankar is a primary school teacher and works in Shishunal. There he searches out many things   about Shankar and his mother Bhagavva. He is surprised to know about his father’s hidden past which includes an abandoned wife and a son. Bhagavva was his father’s first wife and Shankar was his son. Venkatesh is determined to make amends to his impoverished step-mother. At last he decides to help  them with fifty lakhs to repay his father’s debt.

            I really enjoyed the story of Venkatesh as he was such a nice man of traditional values and morals. The way in which he searches  out his father’s  mystery, the way in which he goes about finding the truth was all very compelling and interesting. It was really very nice reading about his family.

            The second novella  is about Mukesh, a young man whois a programme executive at BBC in London, where he is responsible for covering India’s cultural and heritage section. One day, after his father’s death, he is shocked to know that he is an adopted son. He starts to find out his biological mother. He is so much confused about his loyalties with his mother. At last, he decides that his loyalties lie towards his mother who brought him up.

The Mother I Never Knew provides a short and sweet read and can be read in one go.The language and theme also relaxes the reader and let him relish the beauty of SudhaMurty’s writing. I loved the book for its simple writing and good content. In the plot SudhaMurty explores relationships in depth. The characters are what drives this book apart and add spice and colour to the simple plot.

Mar 012015



On The New Year

Stephen Gill



What then

if it is a New Year

This day is the same

as any other day of last week

even last year.

The wilful ghosts of sorrow

have not dissolved

nor have the fogs of ignorance

which float over the cold tombs.


they have grown in strength

in the gloom of violence.

If nights were replaced by days

just by thinking,

the corners of darkness

would have been lit by now.

Eaters of stale crumbs

in the mornings

should have been welcomed

by the appetizing smells

of fresh and warm foods.

The hours of suffering

would have been reduced,

joys lasted longer

and lives changed.

When this sun does not surge

it does not matter

what year or date it is

Just by the murmurs of the clock

history does not alter,

life will not wear

another mantle;

only calendars become new.

Some cards are traded

feasts are arranged.

This is not a change.



Mar 012015



Journey of the Soul

Neelam Chandra

While stationary remained the body

The soul detached itself

From the form

And high it soared…


The body it watched

From the roof,

Crossed the boundaries

Of the house,

Touchedthe clouds-

Crossed them

And then reached You

To blessings seek.


A white light

From You emanated

And found connections

To my soul

Transmitting enormous energy

To the deflated cha.


Once energised,

The soul crossed back

The clouds

The house

The roof

And reached back

The body

Revitalising and rejuvenating it

With a new ME.

Mar 012015



From Dust to Dust: A Voyage

Dr. Nandini Sahu

New Delhi, India



In the Air’s dirge and in its uncanny speech

In the symbolic inscape, towards an anonymousacreage to reach.

In the muted melancholy, winding round and round

In the deep scars of ages, sheltering words from their sound.

The ‘anatomy of love’ just glossed over the bracelet of the heart

The ruthless self-probing did create a mayhem and then an amendment.

In the cosmic plane and in the evolutionary destiny of man

On the sanctified invocation to the Muse, in aninterminablefusion.

Oh virgin air!! Please tell me, what is sacred and what is profane?

Death levels all, from dust to dust—to the five elementswe are prone.



And then the Air went on wandering upon blue Water.

Blue was the motif, pure blue, unguarded and blessed.

Why did their guilty tongues stagger without a purpose?

Was a thirsty yearning woman denied water amid all abundance?

Yes water is virtuous in myriad ways, not evil even when not good.

Water is reverie to nurturebeyond all achievement and disappointment.

Like Sophocles’, water soothed the  bereaved soul of my fiery being,

Like Everest, water stood tall amid sledgehammer and lute.

Of course my daily life is my temple, my faith and conviction.

With watermark I ascend  earthly heights, towards a quivering sun.



I had been cohesive with the woodlands, I being the Earth.

I blossomed on the blooms, and then flourished wateryfresh.

In the avocadosprouts, the vines were my attitudes.

My senses flowered on every bush, and in my vulnerable arms.

Whitecaps in the soaringpointedgrassland, and in the silvery murkiness

And the sea side respired with me, and the looping waves.

Trembled through the stomata of my own membrane

I had been cohesive with the woodlands, I being the Earth.

Our paradise was occupied with celebration of  light to rejoice the fusion

The green Earth was adorned with buds for  the invocation.



I said let there be Fire and Fire there was!

The wandering soul ascended naked and with pride unabashed.

I earned love, I deserved to drink to the lees, filling life’s cups numerous.

I have been just a giver, an instrument of giving,conquering all fire.

Life! You owe me a debt, you made me the eternal Socrates.

In the jeopardy of the abysmal, you have unsettled my winged feet.

I fear no fire now, all fire engulfed in me with time implicit

No fear of time-eternal,death or even any daintyunknotted route.

Love is the intermittent flux, a fiery‘me’ enters its mode of being

I powder a single essence into myriad forms, the blue firmamentis watching.



Oh! The sky is ablaze with gulmohur this sepia noon,

With champak and jasmine composed from the mellowing dawn.

New leaves sprouting on the banyan stems, yearning skyward

Honey-bees conduit, piping the budding figs; blooms call the bees homeward.

Coral and ivory lilies reveal their fragile gold

The insects and kingfishers perturb the plumy sedge.

Round the gloom of my lonesome nightfall,ululates a carnival of lights,

Like Plato, I trust justice is loftier than injustice, they deliberate it or not!!

Today’s Air is my god-self, to persist forever unblemished.

Much in it is my not-yet being, still today’s ether is bright-winged. 

Mar 012015



Missing Person


Vinita Agrawal

I don’t remember anything about the day we emptied mother's ashes in the river.

Just the overcast grey sky, dowelled like a Serengeti of gloom somewhere up above. 


The hospital had trussed her hermetically to prevent chemical bloating,

scaffolded her abdomen in particular…too much tumor there, they'd said blandly.

So, in the end, that's how she had lain on the pyre

and breathed in our hearts.


Her cork-soled slippers had waited patiently in the corner of her room

the way an old woman awaits the return of her son gone to war.

I'd hoarded in my cupboard her lemon sari – the one that she'd worn for the last time, 

like a chipmunk stashing acorns for a bleak winter.


Even now it's easy to see her –

the tiny scar on her brow, her satin eyes

one front harp-shaped tooth in a row of perfect others

her chiffon cheeks, those smiling lips,

the chemo ravaged hair and cuticles…


We'd lied to her everyday;

assured her that she'd recover.

What did she tell herself, I wonder.

When the stone cold moon paused at her window by night

and stars glimmered transparently over the darkness like sweat,

what demons did she confront?

Did she remember to pledge herself to us again for the next life?


On the third day, we emptied her ashes into the thick belly of a swiftly flowing river.

Lacing cold, turbulent foam with warm eternal peace…

our cheeks as pale as skeletons,

our grief as dark as the mountains in the far horizons

sprayed against grey skies, brutally pegging a day to the calendar. 

A day that had a date, a month, a year and one missing person.


Mar 012015



Seamus Heaney’s Door into the Dark Opens up Vertiginous Possibilities


Dr. Ruhul Amin Mandal

Jadavpur University,

Jadavpur,  Kolkata.

Seamus Heaney, one of the finest Irish poets and next to Yeats, is a Nobel laureate. He shows his genre right from the publication of his maiden anthology Death of a Naturalist in 1966. Door into the Dark (1969) is his second anthology of verse where we find a marked progression of his technique. In the book some poems present some specific semantic suggestions which have decisive and determinate significations which apparently reflect the socio- political and cultural representations of Irish people but there are many poems in the book which are steeped in multifarious semantic suggestions. The meanings are almost obliterated from this second group of poems as they represent the vertiginous possibilities of meanings. In these poems there are no specific, concrete and determinate destinations but through symbols, images, metaphors and binary oppositions, the poems reflect innumerable layers and nuances of meanings and suggestions.


The second collection of Seamus Heaney’s verse Door into the Dark (1969) is a surrealistic evocation of the physical and metaphysical world. Most of the poems of the anthology hang in between the two. Though most of the poems apparently represent nature with its landscape, seascape and the common people of the rustic world, there remain profound implications of a deeper idea relating to violent human history of Ireland. The poet feels and is drawn towards the mystery, fear, beauty, dread of the collective unconscious of his race. At the same time the horrible happenings of human world around him was too painful for him to give an account of it in detail. He is at a loss to get appropriate word to paint the picture of huge wastages and meaningless loss of human lives and human resources. He therefore, tries to evoke the darkness through subtle hints and suggestion, symbols and signs, images and allegories, myth and rituals of distant past. John Wilson Foster criticizes Heaney for this method of poetic voyage: “the dark remains unchallenged by the end of the book. Heaney has a marked reluctance to strike inwards, to cross the threshold, to explore the emotional and psychological sources of his fear.”1 Heaney thus opens up the door of ‘undecided possibilities’ of unnumbered implications through which his poetic imagination passes. It starts from nowhere and ends in an unending, impalpable labyrinth of ideas and images.

Heaney himself proclaims the strategy at this stage, I rhyme/ To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.’ (‘Personal Helicon’, Death of a Naturalist). Whatever may be Foster’s opinion, I think this strategy of Heaney helps him opening up innumerable avenues of semantic suggestions in poetry. He refuses to surrender either to any ‘ism’ or socio-political demand of the time. Moreover, the term ‘dark’ in the title of the book is steeped in multiplied suggestions. The ‘dark’ may hint at the mystery and horror of the unknown universe. It may also suggest the dark and distant archeological and anthropological past or the dark racial memory of the ancient fore-fathers. This may also imply the chaos and darkness of the disintegrated human psyche. The darkness may also be the spiritual darkness of the faithless modern man. The darkness may also assert the dark and bleak state of Irish political perspective which has met plethora of cold-blooded murders and pogroms throughout centuries. Instead of making any easy political conclusions, Heaney keeps numerous possibilities hovering over the threshold. Heaney dips down to the primordial past to excavate the universal state of existence. In the poems of Door into the Dark the distinction between past and present is blurred. Most of the poems of the anthology move with ease and spontaneity in between past and present, conscious and unconscious, physical and metaphysical.

Heaney’s idea of ‘darkness’ may have numerous religious and literary antecedents which shaped his idea to draw a unique paradigm of his own where pastoral background of simple life is presented to portray the collage of yet unexplored experiences. The ‘door into the dark’ echoes the Biblical pronouncement, “I am the door: by me if any man shall enter in, he shall be saved” (John, 10:9) where the Son of God promises salvation to all the sinners. Another Biblical connotation is found in St. John of the Cross’s meditation, The Dark Night, in which the soul passes through a door into the dark ‘store house of senses’. The souls’ venturous journey is explained by St. John:

When the house of the senses is stilled (that is, mortified), its passions quenched, and its appetites calmed and put to sleep through this happy night of the purgation of the senses, the so;ul went out in order to begin its journey along the road of the spirit, which is that of proficients and which by another terminology is referred to as the illuminative way or the way of infused contemplation…..2

Heaney’s translation of one of the kernels of St. John (“ Song of the Soul that Rejoices in Knowing God through Faith”) in Station Island that takes after the ‘dark’ of St. Patrick’s Purgatory on Lough Derg. The darkness in Heaney thus may be used as metaphor for imagination and meditation strongly illumined that is, ‘burning bright’, “in the forest of the night’ (“Tyger”, William Blake), the spiritual darkness of the binary opposition of creation and destruction. Heaney may have been influenced by Dante’s famous divine comedy where the portal of the Inferno was inscribed thus:

Through me the way to the eternal city

Through me the way to eternal sadness:

Through me the way to the lost people.

Justice moved my supreme maker:

                         (The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto III. ll.1-4)

Heaney’s metaphor of ‘door’ and ‘darkness’ may be imbued with Joseph Conrad’s “door of Darkness” and “door opening into a darkness”3 in Heart of Darkness. Eliot’s reference to ‘darkness’ in Four Quartets is a widely discussed episode which may support Heaney. In East Coker Eliot philosophically utters:

                      O dark dark dark . They all go into the dark,

                      The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,

                      The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters.

                      The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,

                      Distinguished civil servants, chairman of many committees,

                       Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,

                      And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha

                      And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the directory of directors,

                      And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.

                      And we all go with them into the silent funeral,

                      Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.

                                                          (‘East Coker’ – III, Four Quartets )

The idea presented here is aptly illustrated in The Times Literary Supplement:

“There is grandeur in the humility of the English religious poets, but there is a lack of their ecstasy in ‘East Coker’. Where Vaughan, whose days were as troubled as our own and little less violent, saw eternity the other night and bright shoots of everlastingness, Mr. Eliot sees only the dark. ‘They all go into the dark’, all the people in his vision of a world of bankers , men of letters, statesmen, committeemen, contractors, labourers, who eat and work and go to bed and get out of bed. All are for the dead, ‘And we all go with them, into the silent funeral/ Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury’. This is a hymn of humility, but a sad one, and somewhat incongruous. For in spite of the animation of his powerful incantations there is more satire than poetry in Mr. Eliot’s head-shaking over a terrible, bleak, meaningless world of hollow men, with smell of steaks in passage ways, and satire and humility go strangely together. This is the confession of a lost heart and a lost art.” 4

Benedict Kiely locates Heaney’s mysticism to Catholic Christian roots. According to him “the negative dark that presides in the Irish Christian consciousness…the gloom, the constriction, the sense of guilt, the self-abasement,” from what come his muse, he contends: “I think this notion of the dark centre, the blurred and irrational storehouse of insight and instincts, the hidden core of the self – this notion is the foundation of what viewpoint I might articulate for myself as a poet.”5

The idea of shutting the door of senses to experience precarious dark existence of spiritual self as well as God is the way of the medieval mystics, ancient Hindu ascetics as well as the Catholic saints. Heaney takes after the tradition to express his views and visions of ‘door’ into the ‘dark’ where both the terms are used as symbols and metaphors. His use of archetypes renders meaning into infinite possibilities. The poetics of Heaney thus ascends epical height and grandeur. He shows ocean in a drop of water and world in a grain of sand. Herein lays his uniqueness as a poet.

The first line of the poem “The Forge” is used as title of the anthology. The sonnet celebrates the simple, everyday hard work of a blacksmith who undertakes the strenuous task of turning the rough metals into fine work of artifices. Apparently, the poem is on a simple, common, theme of the works of a blacksmith. The blacksmith says, ‘All I know is a door into darkness’. Heaney says that he knows the door, but the darkness remains unseen and impalpable. The ‘anvil’ is turned into an ‘altar’ which is set at ‘somewhere in the centre’, ‘horned as a unicorn’. Here Heaney touches upon the God’s work, artist’s art and a blacksmith’s work and weaved them together as in a garland. But the term ‘altar’ attaches asceticism of saints and surrender of the artists for knowing the unknown beauty of knowledge beyond sense perceptions. Horn of unicorn alludes to the mythical creatures which evokes both beauty and dread after which the artist always hankers. Heaney thus highlights the binary oppositions of surrender and escape, working out and entering deep inside, the simple life of a blacksmith as well as the strenuous, difficult task of a devotee or an artist or a saint. This he does, as enunciated by him in The Makings of a Music, in terms of Wordsworth and Yeats’ poetry. In Wordsworth’s poetry, he says, “what we are presented with is a version of composition as listening, as a wise passiveness, a surrender to energies that spring within the centre of the mind.”6 Here Heaney and his persona remain passive and silent. But he follows Yeats too, to whom “ composition was no recollection in tranquility, not a delivery of the dark embryo, but mastery , a handling, a struggle towards maximum articulation…Thoughts do not ooze out and into one another, they are hammered into unity.” “All reality,” Yeats observes, “comes to us as the record of labour.”7

Blake Morrison asserts, “what links the various traders, labourers and craftsmen who fill his first two books is that, unlike him, they are lacking in speech”8 and that Heaney, often embarrassed by the linguistic sophistication of formal education, “found himself in the position of valuing silence above speech, o defending the shy and awkward against the confident and accomplished, of feeling language to be a kind of betrayal….”9But the community Heaney came from, and with which he wanted his poetry to express solidarity, was one on which the pressure of silence weighed heavily. This idea is finely matched with the idea expressed in another poem of Heaney’s North, “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing”

In “The Peninsula” too, Heaney does not specify anything, though apparently the emphasis is on the aspect of the binary opposition of speech and writing. And here, too, Heaney scores as a poet, philosopher, linguist and priest and may be many other. The poem recounts the experience of split Heaney – of which one is inarticulate, passive and silent surrendering to instinct, inner voice of soul and another one literate, vocal and vibrant. The clash continues between the two without resolution. The unmarked land is unnamed and therefore indeterminate destination is the journey’s course which the persona passes through. The voyager is mystified with the experience of ‘horizon’ drinking ‘down sea and hill’ and ‘ploughed field’ ‘swallows the whitewashed gable’ and yet reaching to the dark again. Initially, the landscape seems to be an open text that gradually vanishes. New landscape reappears with new words that replaces the past and will be replaced by the next, and new darkness would descend again. The process would continue.

His “The Plantation” upholds the historical cycle, the gyre where himself plays the destroyer as well as creator. In it he observes the eternal cycle of creation and destruction which at first bewilders him. As he withdraws from the dreadful present, but silent meditation of past draws him near to its own circularity. The poem represents the historical cycle of invasion and domination as recurrent phenomena. He thus invokes the archetypes of master and slave, colonizer and colonized and the ruler and the ruled. Here too, the meanings specific are erased and shows the vanishing entity of text.

One of Heaney’s famous poems in the second anthology is ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ which deals directly with a historical event of war and violence. The terrible battle of ‘Vinegar Hill’ (1798), fought between Irish rebels and the English colonial rulers is the subject of the poem. Although the poem upholds determinate political perspective, much against the obscurity and ambivalence enunciated elsewhere, it nevertheless has layers of meanings and suggestions. One cardinal theme, of course, is the barbarity, brutality and bloodshed of the meaningless and unwanted war and violence. One major achievement of the poem is that it craftily conjoins the centuries of Irish violence and political struggle and achieves an organic, indeed germinal resolution: And in August the barley grew up out of the grave’. Heaney himself gives an elaborate account of the composition of the poem, its historical and political relevance:

 “[It] was written in 1966 when most poets in Ireland were straining to celebrate the anniversary of the 1916 rising. That rising was the harvest of seeds sown in 1917, when revolutionary republican ideals and national feelings coalesced in the doctrines of Irish republicanism and in the rebellion of 1978 – itself unsuccessful and savagely put down. The poem was born of and ended with an image of resurrection based on the fact that sometime after the rebels were buried in common graves, these graves began to sprout with young barley, growing up with the barley corn that that the ‘ croppies’ had carried in their pockets to eat while on the march. The oblique implication was that the seeds of violent resistance sowed in the year of Liberty had flowered in what Yeats called ‘the right rose tree’ of 1916. I did not realize at the time that the original heraldic murderous encounter between protestant yeomen and Catholic rebel was to be initiated again in the summer of 1969, in Belfast, two months after the book was published.”10

At this point historical and political violence of Ireland is transacted into poetry. Heaney thus endeavours to present the ideological state of Ireland, then and now, coalesced into an organic whole. There is, of course, a complex interplay of voices and points of view in the poem which displaces the reader and introduces several levels of indeterminacy regarding context, identity of the personae and the poet and the complex relationship among them. The readers, while going through the poem are assimilated with the ‘requiem’. The deep attachment and bond between the soldiers (or the Irish republican patriots) and the readers is established immediately with the very close and intimate voice of agony, pathos and nausea of the butchered and buried rebels. The poem’s patriotic fervour, humanitarian zeal is noticeable. The first person narrator is a killed rebel who hails their uprising as resurrection. The rebels may be killed, but the struggle for justice and liberty would continue. The Jesus-like resurrection of the Irish struggle for independence from the divisive foreign force is heartily welcomed by the poet. Although, in many occasions he is accused of remaining passive and detached from the cause of Irish independence, this poem is a fitting reply to the unjust criticism of Heaney. Although the topicality of the poem reduces and restricts its poetic nuances, it shows amazing linguistic resourcefulness of plurality of ideas.

But in ‘Bogland’ Heaney just reverses his approach and method of presentation. He gives up monologue and refuses to refer to particular historical-political event. Instead he takes recourse to symbol, metaphor, allegory and myth. He enters deep into ‘the matter of Ireland’. ‘Bogland’ stands as metaphor for Ireland. Person, place and action are thus one step removed from direct history. The poet speaks of voyage ‘inwards’, ‘downwards’: ‘Our pioneers keep striking/ Inwards and downwards.’ (‘Bogland’, Door into the Dark). This journey may suggest many possibilities. The foremost, of course, is the strenuous receding back to the primordial Irish past, its folk history and myth, its hoary tradition, its honour and glory and its savage rituals and barbarity. The inward journey may indicate the psychic self-searching of person and people of Ireland. The psychic residue or the racial memory of a great people is excavated through the journey of the poet. This inward journey may also suggest a spiritual exploration of a plundered nation. It is noteworthy that the poet uses plural term for the great journey to ‘inwards’ and ‘downwards’. This subtle suggestion keeps us hovering over the indeterminate and inconclusive state of history and memory. The antithesis of first person ‘we’ and third person ‘they’ reveals the subversive state of a subdued nation. Through the allegory of ‘bogland’ the poet simultaneously lays bare the greatness and beauty as well as the suffering and agony of his motherland. Here text becomes an arena of expressing his anger and protest against foreign aggression and exploitation. The idea is manifested through the expression:

                               Everywhere the eye concedes to

                               Encroaching horizon,

                               Is wooed into the cyclops’ eye

                               Of a tarn.  

                        (‘Bogland’, Door into the Dark)

The ‘encroacher’ is definitely the alien colonial power who plunders, rapes, kills and makes slave of a free people. The allegory of ‘cyclop’s myth further intensifies the aggressor’s mindless, brutal and violent physical force. In Homer’s great epic the Odyssey ‘Cyclop’ is the giant son of the Greek god Poseidon whom Ulysses blinded inside his own cave. The suggestion hints at the imperialist aggression of England. The poet predicts that the predator nation will not excavate minerals for the prosperity of the country. On the contrary, the poet says:

                               They’ve taken the skeleton

                               Of the Great Irish Elk

                               Out of the peat, set it up

                               An astounding crate full of air.

                        (‘Bogland’, Door into the Dark)

‘Great Irish Elk’ is symbolically used. It implies beauty, innocence, purity and soul of Ireland. ‘They’ have killed the ‘Great’ deer and then stolen its skeleton. The ferocity and underlying violence is excavated out of the dark swamp. Through the metaphor of ‘bogland’ Heaney posits the binary opposition of nationalism and imperialism. His sympathy definitely goes with justice, liberty and humanism as he fondly speaks of the beauty and treasure of the bogland and makes a veiled attack on the imperialist aggressors. Here violence lies deep into the dark history of distant past as well as present and in the dark recesses of human psyche. As regard to the linguistic and textual usages, Heaney’s frequent use of native and Anglo-Saxon jargon gives his verse an exotic appeal. The syntax is compressed with the help of symbolic and imagistic shorthand. The lines have irregular metrical scheme within very short stanzas. The expressions are short, crisp but solid and suggestive. They bear the weight of serious and ponderous theme which Heaney excavates by roaming through the dark and unknown passages of history, myth and rituals.

Another technically accomplished poem in the series of Door into the Dark is ‘Relic of Memory’. Textual and linguistic application is a tour de force in the poem. The poem is like an ancient stone – solid, permanent, beautiful. Language itself is condensed in the text. Almost all superficial traditional linguistic tools have been shorn off to give language and the ideas it endeavours to bring within its purview, an original shape sans ornament, for its readers. The poem has very few punctuation marks. And it almost abandons the most important linguistic tool, verb too, to play any role at all. He uses only a few weak verbs. The poem looks like the naked shape of the most original state of art. Tough dictions are tightened together with diverse symbolic suggestions and nuances of meanings. ‘Relic of Memory’ is a metaphor for the ‘lough’, the bog peat and the storehouse of images which unearth the universal state of physical and metaphysical universe as well as human soul and psyche. Let us have a look at the concrete linguistic matrix of the poem:

                           The lough waters

                           Can petrify wood:

                           Old oars and posts

                           Over the years

                           Harden their grain,

                           Incarcerate ghosts

                           Of sap and season.

                        (‘Relic of Memory’, Door into the Dark)

Absolute abstraction leads to many undecided possibilities. Each noun in the extract is a prismatic symbol. ‘Lough’, ‘water’, ‘wood’, ‘oars’, ‘years’ render semantic suggestions into many undecided possibilities. The lake water, like the bog, preserves evolutionary history of creation and creatures.

In Heaney’s poem a single theme, idea or event is condensed and then transcended to the supreme form of art by the poet’s keen observation and thoughtful representation of dialectical representation of world around and within. ‘Relic of Memory’ is such a short poem comprising of four stanzas of six lines only but it has a tight, compelling, construction. The connecting link among ideas, events and themes are remote, impalpable and unintelligible. The symbols and images carry forward readers to grope into the treasure house of semantic suggestions but without any specific search result. The multifarious suggestions enrich the appeal of the poem. The poem is like a piece of diamond – solid, dazzling, bright and beautiful. A unique technique is employed in the poem to bind all four stanzas into a meaningful whole. Last line of each stanza runs into the next stanza to connect sense and thus all four stanzas form the rosary out of the bead as they are. Heaney dives deep into the mythical and cultural past and unearths the underlying violence and brutality of dark human psyche. He connects past atrocities and violence to the contemporary. The last five lines of third stanza uphold cosmic view of violence:

                            Dead lava,

                           The cooling star,

                           Coal and diamond

                           Or sudden birth

                           Of burnt meteor

                           Are too simple,

                         (‘Relic of Memory’, Door into the Dark)

The images of Heaney in the above extract are superb in his use of pure abstraction. The expression is solid, concrete, and condensed. In a sense, the lines express the maturity of the poetic craft of Heaney. Through these lines Heaney not only goes back to his cultural past but also reaches to the era of creation of our mother earth. His vision is here more symbolic and scientific than pure abstraction. He reveals the truth of how the wheels of time, beyond history, move forward and how life on earth survives by fighting against all sorts of oddities and adversities.

Door into the Dark is the superb creation of Heaney which keeps readers hovering over the threshold of darkness. The door is open and recognizable but the darkness remains mysterious and inaccessible. Now and then Heaney endeavours to look into it but his journey ends in the fathomless bottom of darkness. Both the door and darkness metaphorically present numerous aspects, ideas and elements of myth, religious texts and literature. And very often the ideas and apparent meanings remain impalpable and indeterminate. The texts remain open-ended and inconclusive.

Works Cited:

1. Foster, John Wilson .  “The Poetry of Seamus Heaney”. Critical Quarterly. Vol. 16 (1).Spring, 1974.

 2. St. John of the Cross, The Complete Works, trans. Kavanaugh, Kieran., Rodriguez, O.(Washington, D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1973.)

3. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness in The Oxford Anthology of English Literature, eds. Kermode, Frank. Hollander, John. London, O.U.P, 1973.

4. Times Literary Supplement, “Mr.T. S. Eliot’s Confession”. 14 September, 1940. T. S. Eliot,  Four Quartets, Ed. Bernard Bergonzi. London: Macmillan, 1969.

5. Kiely, Benedict. “A Raid into Dark Corners”, The Hollins Critic, Vol.VII, No. 4.

6. Heaney, Seamus. Preoccupations. London: Faber, 1980.

7. Ibid., p. 75.

8. Morrison, Blake. Seamus Heaney, U.S.A: Mithuen, 1982.


10. Heaney, Seamus . “Feeling into Words”, Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978. London: Faber, 1980.


Mar 012015



Individual Consciousness Versus Social Identity in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness

Labanya S. Unni

Assistant Professor

Mata Sundri College for Women

English Department

University of Delhi


Phenomenology as it is commonly understood is the process by which reality is apprehended by human perception but Sartre’s emphasis is on the subject’s interpretation of reality. This interpretation – the site of the subject’s agency in Sartre’s schema – is what constructs the subject’s reality in the first place. This paper attempts to examine some of Sartre’s key ideas in Being and Nothingness and how he attempts to tweak Phenomenology to include ‘agency’ and ‘free acts’, ideas that he used in his later Marxian phase. Through the ideas of Lukacs and Jameson we see how this reconciliation between Existentialism and Marxism cannot be effected theoretically, and how in Sartre’s philosophy the human condition is ontologized, while losing sight of its materialist/historical moorings. The last section of the paper looks at Sartre’s ‘free acts’ through a reading of Bergman’s Persona, a film that effectively complicates the structure of individual consciousness – the individual does not have the purposeful and meaningful structure of Sartre’s conception but is instead riven by circumstances forming his/her consciousness. In this manner, I argue that the film makes a case not only for an existentialist but also historical scheme.

Existentialism, broadly speaking, it is a philosophy that posits itself against metaphysics. It claims to shift the focus of philosophical enquiry from the abstract to the concrete – that is, from an unchanging essence to the concrete, contingent human arena. This has been seen as the red herring of existentialism – if it speaks against an essence or an unchanging principle and focuses on concrete particulars, how can it be consolidated into a branch of philosophy? Existence is that which is; and essence is what it is. Philosophy has hitherto been the mediating point to explain the what. The earliest example would be Plato’s Republic, where the Idea is the essence and phenomenon is merely the imitation of the idea.

Sartre’s existentialism however makes claims to the, now commonplace, ‘existence precedes essence’. This means that instead of explaining the idea behind the phenomenon, Existentialism draws attention to the phenomenon. The methodology behind studying existence as concrete phenomena, called Phenomenology, forms the crux of existentialism. Phenomenology, taking from the Greek word ‘phaenomenon’ which means ‘to appear or ‘to show’, is the study of matter as it is perceived by the subject. It has been talked about variously by theorists, notable among them being Kant and Husserl; but it suffices to say that the emphasis is on the subject’s apprehension of reality. This theory was mostly up against scholasticism, which, according to it, had not adequately effected the split between the particular and the universal but had instead replaced divinity with a secularized essentialism. The intent then is to make the study of ‘reality’ more scientific; to examine and theorize through inductive logic[i] the perceptive apparatus of the human being.

Sartre’s phenomenology is somewhat different.[ii] His theoretical focus is not simply on the indeterminate existence of man (like Camus), but on creating a philosophy whereby man could negotiate with this indeterminacy and make his life meaningful through a series of reflective actions. In other words, take ‘involuntary action[iii]’ out of existence. For this he is indebted to Heidegger’s concept of dasein. Dasein (being-there) is a state of man where he is thrown into a pre-structured world, and must slowly forge an ‘authentic life’ for himself. While for Heidegger an authentic life can be lived through the cognition of death, for Sartre it can be lived through the cognition of the ‘negative’ or the ‘lack’ in life.

 Phenomenology acts on the supposition that consciousness determines reality; whereas historical-materialism works on the belief that consciousness is reflective of socio-economic reality[iv].  Thus it is unsurprising that phenomenology is seen as antithetical to a historical-materialist philosophy due to the value it confers on the human cognitive apparatus. However, Sartre supposed his theory to be a viable (and appropriate) companion to a historical-materialist philosophy. The logic behind this belief was that existentialism focuses on the human and Marxism focuses on the social, and so they don’t really contradict each other. According to Jameson:

‘When Sartre describes the relationship of an ‘ideology’ (existentialism) to a ‘philosophy’ (Marxism); he implies thereby that a genuine contradiction could only take place between two entities of the same type – between two ‘philosophies’.’ (Jameson, 84)

This paper will examine this very contradiction using concepts extracted from Being and Nothingness and positing it against Lukacs and Jameson’s thoughts on Existentialism. It will culminate in a brief study of Bergman’s Persona and how the filmic medium explores ideas of consciousness and identity not merely theoretically but also experientially.

From Being to Social Being

It is true that Marxism does not focus on the human, except through labour. Even Marx’s originary idea of man as species-being is closely tied up with the self-realization of man through work on the ‘sensuous external world’ or nature. This kind of work is not a result of ‘need’ or sustenance on the part of man, but the realization of his ‘species-life’. In other words, in such a formation, work is an attribute of the species or community of man, and not an individuated activity.

There might be a romantic strain detectable in this, but the formulation of the concept of the species-man is primarily pitted against the Hobbesian ‘nasty and brutish’ individuated man. It is reclaiming the idea that matter in its natural state is not in a state of turbulence. It also recalls the fact that man is fundamentally tied up with the work he does, and that his consciousness of ‘being’ derives from it. The concept of the species-being is in direct opposition to Existential philosophy that claims that man has no unvarying essence, although the species-being is not an attempt to essentialize man’s nature. In fact, it is a reminder that there is nothing like ‘pure subjectivity’, but man-in-community.

While describing ‘free acts’, Sartre claims that the individual is ‘condemned to freedom’ and therefore must perform ‘free acts’ to determine his/her reality. The ‘free acts’ are performed on the basis of the perception of ‘negativity’ on the part of the individual. This is a highly subjectivized and particularized account of Being. 

Sartre extended the idea of ‘negativity’ in human perception to include the concept of ‘scarcity’ in matter. This he posed as an ontological condition. Since nature and matter are scarce, it produces in man the ‘need’ to work on it and produce for his own sustenance. While he might think that the concept of scarcity makes his formulations more ‘materialist’ the tenor of it remains abstract.

 ‘The idea of scarcity has struck many critics as being more Malthusian and Darwinian than Marxist.’ Jameson says this while also acknowledging that ‘Sartre’s initial negations, and the stress he lays on scarcity, have the advantage of restoring to primitive societies (no matter what their property system) that dimension of misery and toil, early death, misery and earth scraping desperation we know has been theirs, and of restoring to history its inhuman, nightmarish quality which myths only serve to distract us from.’

What one can glean from this is: Sartre might have begun with the intention of talking of ‘scarcity’ in materialist terms but he fails to locate his theories of reality adequately within the context of social relations. The result is that, contrary to his aims, Sartre’s theory of ‘scarcity’ and ‘need’ end up as abstractions.

Another problem is that the ideas of ‘negativity’ and ‘scarcity’ differ not in degree but in kind. In the human context of ‘negativity’, the human perception of negativity is primary, and in the social context of ‘scarcity’ social realty is primary. White talking of ‘scarcity’ Sartre aims at extending his idea of ‘negation’. The resulting connection is a tenuous one.

Lukacs in talking of existentialism in the section entitled ‘Method as Attitude’, says:

 ‘The phenomenological method believes it has discovered a way of knowing which exhibits the essence of objective reality without going beyond the human and even the individual consciousness.’ If the methodology is that of phenomenology or ‘intuition’, it is not possible to widen the scope of theory. To be fair, Sartre tries to talk of the individual in social terms. ‘Need’ deriving from scarcity could echo the fact of man being alienated from his work, making it a means of purely physical sustenance. But this would need excessive extrapolations as his theories do not clearly articulate the ‘species’ aspect of man’s ‘being’. (Lukacs, 84)

Individual Consciousness and ‘free acts’

As mentioned before, for Sartre, Being is defined though ‘lack’. Lack or ‘nothingness’ is an ontological fact. He makes clear that the nothingness referred to is not a pre-condition to Being, but is contained in the very heart of Being. Every object or action has its own lack-of-object and lack-of-action. In other words, the existence of the object/action that is cut off from its essence is just a series of empty variables that exist (or not). What is left is the expectation of the unavailable in the available. 

 The individual subject perceives reality through ‘intuition’. Intuition simply means that the subject uses his cognitive faculties to apprehend reality, and through this experience, comes to conclusions about the nature of that reality. As a theorist influenced by phenomenology, this is the epistemological basis for Sartre’s understanding of the individual consciousness, except for the additional clause of ‘negativity’. For Hegel, Being exists in a dialectical relationship with Essence, or as Sartre puts it ‘Being is surpassed in Essence’. The immediate presence is a manifestation of the Essence, so presence/absence are not cut-off and co-dependent variables as Sartre suggests. For Sartre, the individual intuits the presence/absence of an object, and then comes to conclusions about the nature of its essence. And since this is the case, the nature of the phenomena perceived is merely the sum of its properties. The presence of a phenomena and a perceiver of the phenomena is the sum total of the requirements for an object/action to reveal itself. There is no truth-content that preceded the action, no inherent value to it. Not only is there no essence, what we call ‘essence’ is the composite of all possible manifestations of the object. In other words, the essence is all appearance. The hecceity of an object does not exist.

On the one hand Sartre claims that the principle behind the object is the object; on the other he suggests that to understand the object we need to understand the ontology surrounding the object. Therefore the apprehension of the object requires the apprehension of the objects it is surrounded by; or the concepts that it operates by. Therefore we can see that he borrows from Hegel’s idea of the relationality of objects and phenomena, but the related-ness of objects does not point to meaning beyond it[v]. There is no teleology and therefore no dialectic involved in Sartre’s formulation of reality. The only dialectic that Sartre talks about is that between presence and absence, which he talks about in the essay entitled ‘The Dialectical Concept of Nothingness’. Presence and absence do not exist in a binary relationship with each other but are dialectically related. In other words, absence is contained in the heart of the presence. But this is a static explanation of phenomena and does not contain the dynamism of Hegelian dialectics.

Sartre and psychoanalysis

Sartre rejects the surface-depth model of psychoanalysis. According to him, consciousness or the ego is a knowable entity and psychoanalysis with its theories of the subconscious does not allow for a determinate and coherent ego. More importantly, psychoanalysis renders man un-free, since his actions and reactions are guided by his subconscious and hence the possibility of complete self-knowledge does not exist. One of important concepts of Sartre is the idea of ‘biography’ – according to him, man’s biography is something he decides on his own. The events and experience that are meaningful are those that are chosen by him – this way, man makes his own meaning and defines the teleology of his life. Furthermore, the experiences might be part-reality and part-invention, but it doesn’t matter since they don’t hold any significance except in man’s mind.

This brings us to a slight contradiction – if Sartre rejects the idea of unconscious as determining motivations as solipsistic, how then is this premium put on the consciousness not solipsistic? In fact, he rejects the idea of the unconscious and coins what he terms as ‘bad faith’ – something that sounds suspiciously like Freud’s repression. An individual is said to exist in ‘bad faith’ when his conscious mind believes in something that the sub-conscious mind rejects.

Contrary to Sartre’s belief, Freud’s unconsciousness is not by definition solipsistic. In Civilization and It’s Discontents, Freud clearly states that individual neurosis provides a basis for analysing collectives. The aim of the individual is happiness, that is, the ‘pleasure principle’ but this desire for pleasure has to be mediated by reality, or what Freud calls the ‘reality principle’. In its confrontation with objective reality, man’s desire for pleasure is often thwarted and frustrated, thus necessitating man to adapt their pleasure in accordance with reality. The repression that the conscious mind effects when confronted with a traumatic event leads to neurosis or an unhappy consciousness. Freud’s unhappy consciousness finds some parallels with Hegel’s unhappy consciousness. According to Hegel the unhappy consciousness of the individual comes from a confrontation of the individual with objective reality, which is essentially Freud’s ‘reality principle’. The essence of the individual is denied to him because his instincts are denied. Therefore he is in a state of ‘un-freedom’.  The two stages Scepticism and Stoicism that Hegel uses to illustrate his point are states of false-freedom, as it does not confront objective reality and will necessarily dissipate. Therefore, far from being solipsistic, the individual’s neurosis can point to social and collective neurosis. Neurosis/repression is not merely a biological category. The objectivity and clarity that Sartre seeks by eliminating the unconscious and its implications end up making his thesis more reductive.

The master-slave dialectic puts the individual in a historical context and describes the subject’s social-ontological position.  On the face of it, the master is the superior of the two; but his consciousness actually owes its existence to the identity of the slave. The master enslaves and objectifies the slave. This soon leads to a paradox – the initial feelings of mastery are replaced by uneasiness, and the master does not feel acknowledged by the ‘object’ that the slave has become. He needs a ‘subject’ to validate his position, once the confident ‘being-for-self’ that he experienced is reduced by reality to a dependent state. The stoic master’s sense of reality is, in the final instance, influenced by objective reality. Consciousness is disposed to think of itself as ‘essential’, especially if it can afford to (temporarily) lose sight of objective reality.

Sartre agreed with the master-slave dialectic, even attempting to build on it. His emphasis was on the power-struggle that existed between the master and slave and how in the end one attained mastery over the other. However, there are subtle points of difference in Hegel’s master-slave and Sartre’s appropriation of the master-slave. For him, the master and the slave situation arises when two ‘totalities’ or monads engage in a power struggle and one attains mastery over the other. The party that is overpowered is negated, and self-objectifies himself through the gaze of the master.

Through this it is clear that Sartre believes that man’s actions are determined by his social relations, and that within the master-slave scheme all acts are necessarily ‘un-free’. How then does he reconcile this with the idea of ‘free acts’ which he delineates in Being and Nothingness? The answer is: philosophical suicide[vi]. Man decides what the essence of his life is going to be and turning his back against the man-world split – which in existentialist terms is called the ‘absurd’. The absurd is when man experiences incongruity between his desires and what the world offers – something that plays out in the neurosis that is implicit in Freud’s repression, Lacan’s mirror stage, Hegel’s master-slave dynamic. The dissonance is made apparent in each of these formulations. The freedom of self-definition is merely the attribution of freedom by man. Yet one would not imagine Sartre agreeing with Hegel when the latter says, ‘Freedom in thought is only the notion of freedom, not the living reality of freedom itself.’

Even if one does not subscribe to the idea of ‘philosophical suicide’ in the sense that Camus meant it, it is tempting to accept it in the context of Sartre’s claim that the onus of determining reality is on the individual’s perception of reality. This is because when this happens, the risk of a reified view of reality is high. According to Lukacs the individual with his limited cognitive apparatus is not capable of perceiving things in totality but only a local aspect of available reality (unless he has trained himself to critically understand totality). In fact, this faith in the individual’s cognitive apparatus is an attribute of modern philosophy and empirical rationality.

According to Sartre, being is conditioned by social facts but consciousness can have intellectual freedom. But this is wrong since consciousness too can be conditioned by social facts.


The movie Persona begins with the image of the camera rolling and then a jump-cut into the next image, which is of a cartoon film strip in rapid motion. The obvious explanation of this is that the director is drawing attention to the artifice of his art but it is not merely that. This meta-technique is intrinsically connected with the idea of ‘persona’ or role playing. The director’s vision is not organically connected with either the content or form of the work of movie but is a series of artistic decisions he makes. Meta-art draws attention to art that is conscious of itself as a craft, but it is also an alienating device that prevents the audience from identifying with the actors and the events. This scene is followed by random images that evoke fear – a sheep being culled, a giant spider, body innards – and then a series of sleeping figures. The random horrific images can be seen as the phantasmagoria of the unconscious – repressed content which reveals itself willy-nilly in a sleep-state. The sleeping boy awakens to find an enlarged image of his mother projected against a wall at close-range. The image on the wall merges to form the features of another woman. The meaning of the scene is not explained, but the audience notes the significance of the boy; he is a retrospectively explainable figure. This forms the first section of the film.

The second section opens with a nurse, Alma, being assigned to take care of a patient and being informed of the nature of her malady. The patient, Elisabeth Vogler is an actress, who, while performing on stage suddenly stopped short, looked around and laughed. Since then, she has not spoken a word, nor is there any indication that she will speak. She is said to be of sound mind and body, and her actions are her own conscious doing. The psychoanalyst that interacts with her claims to know the nature of her decision. Elisabeth has realised that all of life is role-playing and that the way to be conscious and resist what Heidegger calls the ‘thrown-ness’ of the human being in the world is to play no role. This ‘thrown-ness’ into the world, is a world where social relationships and codes have already been defined and man is left to grapple with it. She makes the choice to become mute, and through this self-mastery achieve the self-reflexive state of true ‘being’. As noted before, for Sartre, this is the genuine recognition of the negative in the world; that the world is constituted as a lack. But lack is also self-annihilating, and this is where the paradox of Sartre’s formulation lies. When a person reappropriates his/her being from the world through negation how can he direct the course of his life through performing roles? One might say that he stops playing roles inadvertently but is conscious of his own performance as performance. If one identifies life as profoundly negative, it follows that to be an ‘authentic’ being one becomes a ‘negative’ too – by not speaking, Elisabeth Vogler becomes an absent presence.

In the third section, the nurse Alma and Elisabeth set off to a beach-side home that is not being used, ostensibly for the improvement of Elisabeth’s ‘condition’. What gradually happens is that the nurse confides in Elisabeth, talking incessantly of troubling instances from the past. Elisabeth gains her confidence by her understated affection and silence. Initially the nurse seems to be undergoing a talking-cure – their roles are reversed, the nurse is the patient and Elisabeth the doctor. Alma feels more and more under the influence of Elisabeth. Soon, however, there is a rupture, when Alma discovers a letter written by Elisabeth to her psychoanalyst, revealing Alma’s secrets and also saying that ‘it is fun to study her’. From this point onwards, the audience sees that unravelling of Alma, and she finds that she is completely in the power of Elisabeth. ‘It is fun to study her’ is a masterstroke in objectification and Alma finds herself slave to Elisabeth. They begin resembling the originary myth of the master-slave. Hegel’s master-slave is a reflection of social relations and the terms of the ‘unambitious nurse’ and the ‘great actress’ are bandied about, but this does not seem to be the emphasis of the movie. Persona psychologises the master-slave dialectic, showing both the slave and the master by turns as dependent and uneasy. There is even a physical scuffle that is a pretend fight-to-the-death. Sartre too talks about the master-slave in psychological terms. Popularised by the phrase ‘hell is the other person’ from No Exit, Sartre claims that dyadic relationships are designed for one to overpower the other, since its structure is that of two ‘freedoms’ trying to retain their autonomy. Autonomy for both is not possible due to the mutual ‘look’. Eventually, one person’s look objectifies the other, and the latter is under the influence of the former. In Persona there is a telling scene in which Alma imagines Elisabeth come into her room and look at her; while she had done no such thing.

The third section of the film is a confused medley of actions. Elisabeth’s husband visits them and seems to voluntarily mistake Alma for Elisabeth. This seems to suggest the merging of the master-slave; since after all they are in a dialectical relationship with each other. Another significant scene is one where Alma sits Elisabeth down and dictates to her that her anxiety vis-à-vis life and role-playing is because she has failed in the role of the mother. Alma goes on to say that this feeling has grown upon her over the years, ever since someone from long ago told her, ‘Elisabeth, like a woman and an artist you have it, practically under your belt, but you lack motherly feelings.’ It is important that Alma dictates to Elisabeth what she does not know and has no means of knowing. This episode connects to the earlier scene where her son sits faced by a giant digital picture of his mother. This is again a meta-comment on the movie, where the director as well as Elisabeth can claim any motivation and make it cinematically real. This invokes Sartre’s idea of the biography, where the individual creates his own life by imaginatively constructing his own significant moments; whether true or false. On the face of it many theoretical formulations of Sartre can be traced in the movie Persona. But in the end this question of the authorship is wrought with extreme uneasiness. Phenomenological content is not merely a negative or a positive but a complex contradiction in the midst of which the subject exists.

The question in conclusion is this: Why does Sartre seem to meet theories half-way? The phenomenological, the materialist, the psychoanalytical? Bourdieu, speaking from a very different field of vision, seems to hit upon the reason for this. Bourdieu says:

‘He (Sartre) tries, against Freud and Marx combined, to tear the ‘being’ or the ‘creator’ away from every kind of reduction in general – from genre, from class – and to assert the transcendence of the ego against the aggressions of genetic thought.’

The being or the creator here is the intellectual, who is his own organizing principle. This, Bourdieu calls the ‘hubris of the absolute thinker’.

Works Cited:

Bourdieu, Pierre. The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. California: Stanford University Press, 1996.

Jameson, Fredric. Marxism and Form: Twentieth Century Dialectical Theories of Literature. New Jersey: Prinston University Press, 1971.

Lukacs, Georg. Marxism and Human Liberation: Essays on History, Culture and Revolution. New York: Dell Publishing, 1949.

Persona. Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Perf. Liv Ullman, Bibi Andersson. AB Svensk Filmindustri, 1966. Film.

Sartre, Jean Paul. Being and Nothingness. New York: Washington Square Press, 1993.


[i] Inductive logic would involve generalizations and not abstractions and would therefore be a more organized study.

[ii] In fact, it would not be right to paint the all existentialist thinkers with the same brush. Understandably, they looked at each other as chief antagonists rather than thinkers whose theories they were rejecting wholesale. My paper will not go into the fine print of these differences (for example between Heidegger and Sartre and Camus) but in many particulars these differences, otherwise made much of, were but slight.


[iii] Another major focus on existentialism was the idea of ‘authentic living’. Involuntary or unreflective action was considered to be the opposite of authentic living.


[iv] In fact, according to Marx, Hegel’s dialectic was ‘standing on its head’ as Hegel gave the Idea primacy and all social and economic phenomena as just a manifestation of it.


[v] Sartre’s idea is also comparable to C.S. Peirce and Saussure’s theory of infinite semiosis, which also has its origins in Hegel’s ideas of relationality. This is significant, as these structuralists also claimed the individual perception to be the organizing principle behind the otherwise chaotic signs.


[vi] Philosophical Suicide was a concept developed by Camus in the Myth of Sisyphus to describe all the Existentialist thinkers (Sartre, Kierkegaard) who did not integrate the idea of man’s unhelmliche (homelessness) as an essential ontological fact but tried by different means (in Sartre’s case social responsibility and in Kierkegaard’s case theism) to overcome it.