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  • Literature:the "Mattering" and the Matter
  • Ranjan Ghosh (bio)

How empty and barren would life be if all our art and literature were taken away. What a calamity!

— Rabindranath Tagore1

Beyond the circle of the reading room are the world's greatest collection of books and the finest works of art from all places and times—sculpture from the Parthenon, Ming vases, Viking jewelry, great stone bulls and lions from Assyria, Egyptian mummies, medieval tapestries—brought together and taken out of context and time, like Keats's Grecian urn, because in themselves and in conjunction they create—they are—art. In the courtyard before the huge pillars of the classical front of a Greek temple, thousands of people waited in long lines, like pilgrims at a shrine, to be admitted to look for a few moments at the rare treasures of "hammered gold and gold enamelling" from the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen. This is not a bad image of what art and literature have come to mean in our society: the protected place where man can encounter what used to be crudely but aptly called "the finer things of life," the point at which he can at least glimpse and wonder at what remains of the sacred: genius, harmony, vision, craftsmanship, and those "voices of silence," as Malraux called them, whose beauty has allowed them to transcend the changes and chances of history. As has been often said, museums and libraries are the cathedrals of the modem age, for art is the place where man still seeks the soul and the special place in creation that he has lost elsewhere.

- Alvin B. Kernan, "The Idea of Literature" (37)

Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore describes a delightful experience on the river Padma.

It was a beautiful evening in autumn. The sun had just set: the silence of the sky was full to the brim with ineffable peace and beauty. The vast expanse of water was without a ripple, mirroring all the changing shades of the sunset glow. Miles and miles of a desolate sandbank lay like a huge amphibious reptile of some antediluvian age, with its scales glistening in shining colours. As our boat was silently gliding by the precipitous river-bank, riddled with the nest-holes of a colony of birds, suddenly a big fish leapt up to the surface of the water and then disappeared, displaying on its vanishing figure all the colours of the evening sky. It drew aside for a moment the many-coloured screen behind which there was a silent world full of the joy of life. It came up from the depth of its mysterious dwelling with a beautiful dancing motion and added its own music to the silent symphony of the dying day. I felt as if I had a friendly greeting from an alien world in its own [End Page 33] language, and it touched my heart with a flash of gladness. Then suddenly the man at the helm exclaimed with a distinct note of regret, "Ah, what a big fish!" It at once brought before his vision the picture of the fish caught and made ready for his supper. He could only look at the fish through his desire, and thus missed the whole truth.

(Sadhana, 322-23)

The poet was disappointed to see this disconnect with nature, where greed and "utility" eclipsed a glimpse of the "other" world. What is this "other" world? What world did the boatman miss seeing, but which the poet saw?

Another incident related to one of Chuang-tzu's "revealing" walks is interesting:

Chuang-tzu was walking on a mountain, when he saw a large tree with huge branches and luxuriant foliage. A wood-cutter was resting by its side, but he would not touch it. When he was asked about the reason, he said it was good for nothing. Then Chuang-tzu said: "This tree, because of its uselessness, is able to complete its natural term of existence." Having left the mountain, Chuang-tzu lodged in the house of his friend. The friend was glad and ordered his waiting lad to kill a goose and boil it. The lad said: "One of our geese...


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