Any individual with “ideals” is a potential murderer.
(Todo individuo con “ideales” es un asesino potencial.)
Nicolás Gómez Dávila
Unbeguiled by the oleaginous ease and smooth facility with which it winds its way down the paths of human discourse seemingly innocuous since frequently invoked and honored as the highest desideratum handle the concept of happiness with a wariness no less nimble than you would a serpent clothed in an undulant rainbow of colors from whose fangs still concealed from view a lethal venom flows.
Belles Lettres, Birth, Consciousness, Death, Delusion, Existence, Hinduism, Indian Philosophy, Life, Literture, Pain, Philosophy, Reality, Religion, Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana, Suffering, Wisdom, Writing
Before they can be investigated—before they can even be seen to exist—some things must be dredged up from the depths where they sleep; but aren’t those precisely the things nobody wishes to dredge up?—precisely the ones we would rather let sleep?
Three of our most fundamental and most harrowing experiences as conscious beings, inhering within three of the most essential stages of our existence, are lost to us—totally lost. It is as if they had been obliterated, blotted from our minds.
But these blank areas where our life should be don’t trouble us, and nor do we trouble ourselves about them. Content to declare irrecoverably lost what we fear to find, we forge ahead with our daily projects, rendered insensible to reality’s depths by the deadening force of routine, and the suffering we endured during the initial phases of our embodiment in a material form remains buried in darkness and silence.
Indeed, a man can live and die without ever once becoming aware certain essential parts of his experience have vanished and without ever once reflecting on the significance of this disappearance.
The remarkable passages from the Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana which follow could be interpreted as a valiant attempt to recover that lost knowledge we would all like to remain lost, to remember what eludes memory and what memory is glad eludes it.
Read them if you dare!
Deriving its nutrition from the food and drink taken by the mother, the fetus grows and remains in that abominable receptacle of feces and urine, the breeding-place of worms. Bitten again and again all over the body by the hungry worms in the abdomen itself, the creature suffers terrible agony on account of its tenderness and swoons away moment after moment. Nay, adversely affected by the bitter, pungent, hot, salt, dry, acid and other such irritating substances consumed by its mother, the fetus experiences a painful sensation in every part of its body. Enclosed by the amnion and covered outside by the intestines, it remains lying in one side of the abdomen with its head turned towards the belly and with its back and neck arched like a bow. Unable to move its own limbs like a bird which cannot freely move in a cage, the creature in the womb finds its memory awakened by the will of Providence and recollects its doings committed during hundreds of previous lives and feels suffocated for a long time. What peace of mind can it have under such circumstances?
The fetus, though endowed with consciousness from the seventh month of its conception, is tossed by the winds that press the embryo downwards during the weeks preceding delivery, and cannot remain at one place like the worm born of feces in the same abdominal cavity. Tied to the physical body, made up of the seven ingredients, which are like so many cords to bind it, the human soul, which regards the body as his own self, is much afraid of the process of gestation being repeated in other such births, and with joined palms he entreats and extols Him by whom he was cast into the womb, in a tone full of agony.
Pushed downwards all of a sudden by the wind, the child issues out of the womb with great trouble, head downward, breathless and deprived of memory out of agony. Fallen on earth in a pool of blood and urine, discharged by the mother, the new born babe tosses like a worm sprung from ordure, and having lost its wisdom acquired in the womb and reduced to a state of self-identification with the body which is just the reverse of wisdom, cries loudly.
Being nourished by people who do not know the mind of another, it is given something which was not intended; and the pity of it is that the child is unable to refuse it. Laid on a foul bed infested by sweat-born creatures the poor creature is incapable even of scratching its limbs to relieve itching, much less of sitting up, standing or moving itself. Just as smaller worms bite a big worm, even so gnats, mosquitoes, bugs and other creatures sting or bite the babe, who is most tender of skin and, deprived of its wisdom acquired in the womb, cries bitterly.
Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana
The third and final version of the epic poem whose composition had consumed over three decades of his life being at last complete, Ferdowsi, elated over his literary achievement, traveled to the imperial court, so that he could place the manuscript in the hands of Mahmud of Ghanzi, who had promised the poet a specific sum in reward for his work. But obloquy—that poison brewed by envy—had beat him there. Several prominent court poets’ whispered insinuations had the anticipated effect of rendering the ruler parsimonious. Ferdowsi, a man endowed with far greater gifts than his denigrators, was mortified. The few dinars that were offered him like an insult by this blind monarch contemptuous of his merit he flung away to a wine seller after departing from the palace in a state of high dudgeon. Later, the wound still rankling, he would avenge himself on the sultan in verse—the fate reserved for anyone who dares offend a poet.
Many years afterward, no longer able to repudiate the poem’s excellence and regretting the injury he had done its author, a repentant Mahmud sent a courier to Tusi with the full amount promised. But he had delayed too long: just as the courier was entering the city through one gate, a bier containing the corpse of Ferdowsi—who died in poverty—was being carried out through the other.
Here are a few of my favorite lines from the Shahnameh:
O you, who dwell in Youth’s inviting bowers,
Waste not, in useless joy, your fleeting hours,
But rather let the tears of sorrow roll,
And sad reflection fill the conscious soul.
For many a jocund spring has passed away,
And many a flower has blossomed, to decay;
And human life, still hastening to a close,
Finds in the worthless dust its last repose.
Still the vain world abounds in strife and hate,
And sire and son provoke each other’s fate;
And kindred blood by kindred hands is shed,
And vengeance sleeps not—dies not, with the dead.
All nature fades—the garden’s treasures fall,
Young bud, and citron ripe—all perish, all.
Confer on the evanescent darkness of a death that won’t last the privilege of mounting your immortal soul so that it may ride it beyond the sky to its doom at the appointed time in a ruinous blaze of paradisal bliss.
The upper districts are bare and ash-like and full of snow during the winter, whereas the lower are divided up by forests and plantations of every sort. The topmost parts of the mountain appear to undergo many changes because of the way the fire distributes itself, for at one time the fire concentrates in one crater, but at another time divides, while at one time the mountain sends forth lava, at another, flames and fiery smoke, and at still other times it also emits red-hot masses; and the inevitable result of these disturbances is that not only the underground passages, but also the orifices, sometimes rather numerous, which appear on the surface of the mountain all round, undergo changes at the same time. Be this as it may, those who recently made the ascent gave me the following account: They found at the top a level plain, about twenty stadia in circuit, enclosed by a rim of ashes the height of a house-wall, so that any who wished to proceed into the plain had to leap down from the wall; they saw in the centre of the plain a mound of the colour of ashes, in this respect being like the surface of the plain as seen from above, and above the mound a perpendicular cloud rising straight up to a height of about two hundred feet, motionless (for it was a windless day) and resembling smoke; and two of the men had the hardihood to proceed into the plain, but because the sand they were walking on got hotter and deeper, they turned back, and so were unable to tell those who were observing from a distance anything more than what was already apparent. But they believed, from such a view as they had, that many of the current stories are mythical, and particularly those which some tell about Empedocles, that he leaped down into the crater and left behind, as a trace of the fate he suffered, one of the brazen sandals which he wore; for it was found, they say, a short distance outside the rim of the crater, as though it had been thrown up by the force of the fire. Indeed, the place is neither to be approached nor to be seen, according to my informants; and further, they surmised that nothing could be thrown down into it either, owing to the contrary blasts of the winds arising from the depths, and also owing to the heat, which, it is reasonable to suppose, meets one long before one comes near the mouth of the crater; but even if something should be thrown down into it, it would be destroyed before it could be thrown up in anything like the shape it had when first received; and although it is not unreasonable to assume that at times the blasts of the fire die down when at times the fuel is deficient, yet surely this would not last long enough to make possible the approach of man against so great a force. Aetna dominates more especially the seaboard in the region of the Strait and the territory of Catana, but also that in the region of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Liparaean Islands. Now although by night a brilliant light shines from the summit, by day it is covered with smoke and haze.
(All of the remarks about Tolstoy that follow are Gorky’s; I have added only the descriptive summaries which precede each paragraph.)
At times he gives one the impression of having just arrived from some distant country, where people think and feel differently and their relations and language are different. He sits in a corner tired and gray, as though the dust of another earth were on him, and he looks attentively at everything with the look of a foreigner or of a dumb man.
I am deeply convinced that beyond all he speaks of, there is much which he is silent about, even in his diary; he is silent and probably will never tell it to anyone. That “something” only occasionally and in hints slipped through into his conversation and hints of it are also to be found in the two notebooks of his diary which he gave me and L. A. Sulerzhizky to read; it seems to me a kind of “negation of all affirmations,” the deepest and most evil nihilism which has sprung from the soil of an infinite and unrelieved despair, from a loneliness which probably no one but he has experienced with such terrifying clearness.
I remember his keen eyes—they saw everything through and through—and the movements of his fingers, as though they were perpetually modeling something out of the air, his talk, his jokes, his favorite peasant words, his elusive voice. And I see what a vast amount of life was embodied in the man, how inhumanly clever he was, how terrifying.
One must have heard him speak in order to understand the extraordinary, indefinable beauty of his speech; it was, in a sense, incorrect, abounding in repetitions of the same word, saturated with village simplicity. The effect of his words did not come only from the intonation and the expression of his face, but from the play and light in his eyes, the most eloquent eyes I have ever seen. In his two eyes Leo Nikolaevich possessed a thousand eyes.
He walked the roads and paths with the business-like, quick step of the skilled explorer of the earth; and with sharp eyes, from which neither a single pebble nor a single thought could hide itself, he looked, measured, tested, compared. And he scattered about him the living seeds of indomitable thoughts.
I have often thought him to be a man who in the depths of his soul is stubbornly indifferent to people; he is so much above and beyond them that they seem to him like midgets and their activities ridiculous and miserable. He has gone too far away from them into some desert; and there, solitary, with the highest effort of all the force of his spirit, he closely examines into “the most essential,” into death.
One never tires of speculating about him, but it is trying to meet him often. Personally I should find it impossible to live in the same house with him, not to mention in the same room. His surroundings become like a desert where everything is scorched by the sun and the sun itself is smoldering away, threatening a black and eternal night.
—Personally selected from Gorky’s Recollections