The reviewer is assistant professor, head of department of English, Vijaygarh Jyotish Ray College, Kolkata.
What is the truth? It is a ray of light travelling hither and thither, without refraction, into all mists and eternities, through rigid imperiled darkness, bouncing to and fro, shattering all conceptual imbalances, thinking and dreaming of time, framing immortality within the human soul, eliminating contradiction through paradox and humour, violating absurdity in its tearing of masks, encroaching on absurdity with Gnostic precision, liberating the fundamental libation of being. It is what it is —nothing more…nothing less. Does truth arrange itself structurally?
By shifting dynamics, does it change the meaning? The plan of this essay is to highlight some of the ways Kiriti Sengupta’s work poses this question. I begin with a broad discussion of the internal dynamics of his three works —The Earthen Flute, Reflections on Salvation and Rituals. While his approach in these works varies, his themes remain steady. As noted by the critic Sarbajit Sarkar in his recent essay, “Traces in Rituals,” Sengupta’s work is “Far removed from so-called divine seeking.”
What is the purpose of the questioning posed by his work if not a quest for the divine? Sengupta presents the reader with a paradigm of humanist materialism sometimes using the language of scriptures. Salvation is of the earth. Life itself is full of mysteries, so a quest for the immaterial unknown is not necessary. The writer is spirit and his oeuvre is always in the state of Becoming. Sengupta’s writing assumes many structural dynamics. From Cubism, Sengupta parallels the technique of restructuring reality according to definite patterns. For instance, the poetry in The Earthern Fluteis unified by its central metaphor. Sengupta’s use of cryptic idiom is frequently noted in criticism.
The discursive formation is defined by Foucault as the “relation between statements.” In Reflections on Salvation, breaks in continuity between idioms tell more of the statements than they do of themselves. Finally, in Rituals, the historical becomes natural. Sengupta’s poetry as memoir reflects the personal as distant yet deep within the historical. In what ways does historical humanity seek definition? This is the overarching theme of the work. Throughout these works, one theme is apparent —the quest for meaning and the elusiveness of such a quest. The writer is spirit projected into the world to lead the reader to self-actualisation in truth.
Recognising the role meaning plays in human evolution is essential to an understanding of Sengupta’s oeuvre. Viktor Frankl, the founder of logotherapy, reminds us in The Search for Meaning that meaning is not peripheral to our lives, but essential. When a patient appears before Frankl, he asks him why he does not commit suicide in order to prompt the patient to think on this primal question. In the introduction to Rituals, I refer to Anne Frank. Her diary is not only historical in nature; through it, she tells us what it is to be human. Through her search within her fears, loves, and experiences we see a young woman reveal the innermost depths of humanity.
This acutely painful era of history also becomes one of the most definitive eras for art. Dadaism, Cubism, and Surrealism emerged then. Cubism, as developed by Picasso and Apollinaire, is a distinct form employing “inner frames,” reconstruction of the world of nature using geometrical rules, and rigid yet spontaneous forms. Roger Shattuck explains in “Apollinaire, the Hero” that these rules intend to create “a fixed point of reality.” Cubism admits multiple views are possible within unity. Picasso’s paintings often showed models from multiple angles at once. After modernism, the post-modern critique denies the centrality of meaning.
Rather, it sees truth as a “relation between statements”. Postmodern analysis denies objectivity. It questions the perspective of the analysis, rather than defining reality through shape or rule-making. Foucault writes in The Archeology of Knowledge that “a variety of objects were named, circumscribed, analysed, then rectified, re-defined, challenged, erased.” In the postmodern analysis, the reality decentres prolifically, creating ruptures. These moments of discontinuity are gateways to categorisation and redefinition.
Knowledge is madness. Madness is multiplicity. A sound metaphor would be the faults created by plate tectonics. Such faults define the surface of the planet. Cubists perceive artistic truth as a strange attractor —the boundary is clearly defined by a characteristic point, but the shifts relocate each point in space within a limited range. Cubism thrives on paradox while postmodernism seeks to balance contradictions. The difference is apples to oranges, but in terms of defining reality Cubism seeks spontaneous emergent order, and postmodernism seeks discontinuity between shifting realities. Sengupta’s work in The Earthen Fluteis Cubist in approach while Reflections on Salvation is inherently postmodern.
Both collections offer aphorism and cryptic idioms. In the poem, “Experience Personified,” general experience is central and isolated sensations are peripheral. Apollinaire’s poem “Zone” personifies France through the experience of it. Apollinaire employs religious imagery and symbol iconoclastically and personifies his experience. For instance, these opening lines, “You are weary at last of this ancient world / Shepherdess O Eiffel tower whose flock of bridges bleats at the morning”. Also, these lines, “Now you are by the Mediterranean / under lemon trees that flower the year long.” Apollinaire defines France as his historical experience within its space.
Sengupta cryptically writes, “Putting off my shoes I stand barefooted / and I walk again.” Experience in the poem is Being itself, not sensation. Sengupta takes a double glance of this moment to experience it in its nakedness. Reality is defined in clear paradoxical categories. Another similarity between Sengupta and Apollinaire could be explored in the poem “Crocuses” and the magical realist masterpiece “Let the Flowers Bloom.” The flowers respectively symbolise France and India after the Raj. The first shows a France wilted and darkened postwar, and the other shows the subcontinent torn in two desiring unity. “School children noisily come / Wearing jackets playing the harmonicas / To pick crocuses that are like mothers,” writes Apollinaire. Action is carefully circumscribed. Sengupta writes, “Robi protests, “Hey, you give me a piece of copper while I asked for the sky?” The fakirurges enthusiastically, “Come on, it is filled with my prayers. I have given you a mountain, rather, and now you break through the roof you have.”
In both poems, the reality is composed of divergent but carefully defined angles. Many questions are posed without an answer in Reflections on Salvation. In “Salvation,” he writes, “Does one receive the gods?” He attempts to answer using the cryptic idiom that God is one and amorphous. This answer subsequently invites new questions. Truth is a process where answers become questions at the fault line. In “Fire,” the question of otherworldliness is posed by the answer of worldliness. How can the gods, existing in separate realities, prescribe rules that are sensible to humans of this world? Mystery engages with mystery. These questions are like the yarn in a labyrinth, yet instead of fleeing the Minotaur we never find him. Sengupta asks, “How can two give birth to one when they are poles apart?” This question is in the realm of contradiction.
In “Stagecraft”, Sengupta elaborates on his concept of salvation, “Pleasure of exploring and realising the unknown arrives only through the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, or skin.” Salvation is of the world, so how is it unknown? As written in “Salvation”, “They say, God dwells within; it is then the mortal exploration of the resort where salvation is largely seen!” Rituals consist primarily of memoir and observation of the contemporary world. Jagari Mukhergee writes, “Many of the poems in Rituals are related to spaces within and without, which take on a sacred tinge for the poet. Time, too, is inevitably related to space.” In this collection, we learn of human deviance, powerlessness before nature, the beauty of birth and marriage, and the behaviours we indulge to ritualise our lives. Life becomes holy, serious, and contemplative in Rituals.
Mukhergee refers to “(the observer) who is an intrinsic part of the historical time within which he finds himself.” We either integrate the shadow or it dominates us. We strive for harmony between the anima and animus. In The Diary of Anne Frank, for instance, her animus is described in the final entry, “I’ve got a happy nature within and why other people think I have a happy nature without.” Her Self from without she compares to a love film for deep thinkers. The frivolity and diversion of a love film is shallow compared to the realm of deep thought. “(Contradiction) can mean two things,” she writes, “contradiction from without and contradiction from within.” Contradiction from without she further defines as “getting the last word,” enfin.
Enfin is a French word that indicates summarising or synthesising. Her persona, as represented by enfin, is the frivolous self that always trumps her true inner worth. Her memoir tells us of that deeper inner being that she does not see actualised. It is in this sense that all writing is making a memoir. Ritualsshows the reader that perceiving reality is indeed participating, and structuring its discursive formations. In “Exhibition” Sengupta writes, “Nature made the nasal frame fragile. / How do they breathe the vain air?” Artefacts are objects within historical time. Sarkar discusses traces as defined by Derrida. Artefacts are absent of life, yet are present in space and time. “Memories are truncated beings.” Living humans become artefacts in such poems as “Sriveda”. Sengupta writes, “I wish you had taken away / all the venoms when you left.” This sense of being within reality defines Sengupta’s central mission as a writer.
As an observer, the poet resists deviance and destruction through moral and spiritual integrity. In the poem “Jesus”, it is written, “But then, it’s the world at large that believes / in sex and how it spices up life or love, to / be honest!” The poem’s title reveals a spiritual perspective that harps back to Reflections on Salvation. Anne Frank believed in humanity’s inherent goodness, yet she denies the Germans with the exclamation, “To think I was one!” Writing is humanity’s most lucid tool to develop meaning by structuring reality according to inner rules. Sengupta believes in truth and the ability to define it. He also recognises the right of dissent against consensus.
In this sense, truth is beyond consensus. Consensus, after all, is only gravity, and as living beings, we can defy gravity through resistance. Nietzsche writes that he is “an enemy” of gravity in characteristic humour. In other words, he defies universal structures because they are arbitrary. Even Sengupta has such humour as in the poem “Gravity”. He writes, “Relax! Bumps help us realize the earth!” The humour implies facetious wisdom. Madness is rare in individuals but is the rule in crowds. Trust not the mob and you shall be redeemed. If Sengupta is a dissident, he invites us all to his reality. In “Conduct” he suggests that “Understanding the objective of life, or the purpose of your worldly existence is your first step to reach the gods.” Casey Dorman writes that Sengupta “wrestles with the conflict between the strict scriptural interpretation of salvation and a more cosmopolitan, relativistic view of salvation that recognises that it may represent different things for different people.”
By paralleling Cubist and postmodernist ideas of truth, Sengupta develops a contemporary ethos of cultural relativism. By writing a memoir, he becomes an observer of life and a recorder of human frailty. As readers, we witness truth emerge on multiple levels through complex approaches. In this process, the author is defined as the spirit that brings the truth. Hegel recognised that Absolute Spirit cannot exist in itself, therefore, it concretises through the individual to realise itself. Sengupta writes in “Stagecraft”, “Yet what if you have no audience?” The author dies, then, only because the Spirit realises itself through him or her. The Spirit is within and it enters the world through work. When the work is established in the world, it belongs to the reader. Truth is a universal property of being.