One of the conundrums of ancient epic poetry, both the Indian and the Greek varieties, is the question of how they came to assume their canonical form in the first millennium BCE. Not only literary criticism is at stake: a great deal of nationalist rhetoric depends on the origin of the great epics and the language used to compose them.

Both the Greek and Indian epic poems were both originally orally transmitted, since at the time of their composition there was no writing system in use1. The oral transmission of the epics creates a problem because we have no record of the development of the text. So instead, scholars turned to linguistic analysis and the archaeological record to try and separate the original core of the epics from later accretions. However neither of these methods proved effective.

Read the rest of this entry »

Kurt Vonnegut

April 22nd, 2007

Hearing that Kurt Vonnegut has died made me very sad. Since I’m on the move I don’t have any of his books to hand to quote from, which has made me late to his wake. However yesterday I read a passage in an essay by another great American writer which sums up far more eloquently than I am able to the significance of people like Kurt Vonnegut. In “Down at the Cross”, James Baldwin says:

“Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: it is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.” (The Fire Next Time, p123). Read the rest of this entry »

Tamil Nadu has always been a bit of a mystery to me. It has its own unique identity and cultural history quite separate from that of the rest of India. The Tamil language has a recorded history spanning over two millenia, and belongs to the Dravidian language group whose characteristics are quite distinct from those of the Indo-European Sanskrit-descended languages spoken by North Indians. The Dravidian people also have their own classical music (karnatak sangeet) and classical dance tradition (bharatnatyam). In the same way, politics in Tamil Nadu has its own unique and (to an outsider like me) bewildering history, resulting in regional Tamil parties having held power in the state since 1967. Cut-outs, Caste and Cine Stars promises to describe and explain the world of Tamil politics, including the stories of its larger-than-life leaders.
Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve just finished War and Peace, which has happily occupied my weekends and travels over the last three months. For me, some of the most interesting themes have been Tolstoy’s discussions around spirituality, which I’ll discuss in a later post, and his critique of historical analysis. It turns out Tolstoy had been interested for some time prior to writing War and Peace in “writing a historical novel which would contrast the real texture of historical experience, as lived by individuals and communities, with the distorted image of the past presented by historians” (Afterword by Orlando Figes). This agenda is especially clear in the second half of the book, in which five of the seven parts begin with a philosophical discussion of historical analysis with particular application to Napoleon’s 1812 campaign. What is especially fascinating to me though is the clear resonances between his discussion and contemporary philosophical thought on psychology and action. Read the rest of this entry »