On the Rasa

Up in Woodstock last weekend, murky weather notwithstanding, I wandered into an Indian import store run by a stocky guy named Shiv who aspired, it seemed, to resemble his Hindu namesake, wearing long dreadlocks coiled in a bun atop his head. He carried no trident nor wore no leopard pelt, but he didn’t really need to, as he projected so effectively the image of “Western sadhu.” I recognized him from having met him last summer at St. Mark’s on the occasion of Lee Ann and Tony’s wedding party. He was introduced to me by a woman to whom Drew had introduced me, one Louise Landes Levi. As I had expressed curiosity about the Indian concept of rasa, Drew informed me that Louise knew a great deal about the subject, and in fact was at work on a book about it.

It turns out that the book was a translation of Rene Daumal’s Rasa, or, Knowledge of the Self, and also that Shiv had some copies of it on hand at the import store, having just published it in Nepal replete with image of Sarasvati riding a swan on the cover, which is made of exquisitely roughly-textured mulberry paper. I bought one, and was thrilled to find within a very intriguing poetics that comes very close to describing my intuitive and constantly underarticulated sense of how poetry works, for me.

I had researched the rasa before, and had even gone so far as to begin a (abandoned … we got distracted) collaboration with Marianne based on the concept. At my favorite shop in Jackson Heights (run, I think, by Sai Baba devotees), which specializes in books, groovy painted furniture, tchotchkes, incense, and bangles, I’d bought some books on Indian music hoping to find out more about them. The information on rasa in them was interesting, but undeveloped — mere lists. This Daumal text, in part a translation of a translation (from Sanskrit via French), really illuminates the idea for me, particularly in regard to poetry.

Each rasa, in Levi’s translation of Daumal’s translation of a Sanskrit text entitled The Essence of Poetry, is a kind of “savor .. an emotion manifest through the means of art and consciously perceived ….They are distinguished as follows: erotic, comic, pathetic, furious, heroic, repugnant, and wondrous, in addition to, in certain authors, familial (maternal or paternal love) and tranquil (religious love).”

Earlier, the same text asks,

What, then, ultimately is poetry?

Poetry is a word whose essence is savor.

We will now explain the meaning of “savor”. Savor is “the essence” in terms of the substantial reality. That is to say, savor is the life itself of poetry, without which there is no poetry. “Savor” (rasa)is, etymologically, that which is “savored” (rasayate). The term includes savor-emotions and savor reflections….

The faults are that which veil it (poetry).

The faults, cacophony, superfluous words, are analogous to infirmities, e.g. blindness or lameness, which affect (the person) through (the medium) of his own body: they affect (the poem) through sounds and meanings….

The virtues, ornaments, and allures are called “agents of construction.”

(The corporeal analogy, described above, shows the way in which these agents “construct” the savor, and thus the poetry itself.)

Daumal comments on the text above in essay, “To Approach the Hindu Poetic Art”:

Savor is not the base emotion, related to personal life; it is a “supernatural” (lokottara representation, a moment of consciousness provoked by the mediums of art and colored with a particular pathos. Dare I say: an objective emotion? To our Occidental mentality, this would seem to be a strange notion, but if we recall the moments of intense aesthetic emotion that we have experienced, a certain “savor” will come to mind: and we will see how and why this gustative image asserts itself. The savor is essentially a cognition, “shining with its own evidence,” thus immediate. It is “conscious joy” (anandacinmaya)… even in the representation of painful things, it is not related to the ordinary “world”; it is a recreation of that “world” on another plane. It is animated by “supernatural admiration.” It is “the twin sister of the sacred gustation.” “He who is capable of perceiving it, savors it not like a separate thing, but in its essence.”….it compels an act of communion.” It is not an object existing before being perceived…. it exists to the degree that it has been savored. It is not the mechanical “effect” of the artistic means which merely manifest it….

I’m tempted, really, to type in huge quotations from various sections of this book here, but I’m certain that most of my readers will not have even got this far. Perhaps I will ration it out to this blogs, like syrup from a hummingbird fever, if, that is, the hummingbird nature of my own attentiveness allows me to hang out long enough on any one set of concepts.

But truly, this book tastes to me like a kind of nourishing syrup. Why so sweet? In part it is because the gustatory and corporeal analogies make a good deal of sense to me. Poetry is something I am hungry for, that once tasted becomes a part of me. And every poem is a body — WITH organs.

I appreciate the idea of a formalism of the emotions that highlights the inadequacy of a formalism of devices to explain how a poem, how language, plays upon consciousness.

As much as I am annoyed by taxonomies, I find the list of rasa fascinating, as indeed they are what motivates me to write, with an emphasis perhaps on the first four: “erotic, comic, pathetic, furious” — with a little bit of the wondrous mixed in now and then as well.

I love that these poetics emanate from one of the oldest, most reflective, and most expressive cultures on the planet, instead of being the latest, and perhaps most reactive, “thing.”

I love the enumeration of the faults of poetry, or dosha; this is where a total inversion of the theory becomes necessary and amusing. Cacophony, superfluous words, and overembellishment (discussed elsewhere in the text — a bit of syrup to be doled out later?) become not only sicknesses in the corporeal body of the poem but also fascinating illustrations of sicknesses in the mind and in words, and of the sickness of the hostile social context the poems must try to survive in. This is a twist, I know this is a twist, but I have never really believed in the purity of anything, particularly not a theory.

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