Sea Battles on Land
In a podcast released last year, the Canadian writer, Malcolm Gladwell, explored the history of the legendary pop song called ‘Hallelujah’ which was written and composed by the great Canadian singer-writer Leonard Cohen. Gladwell tracked the song’s improbable journey — from an obscure melancholic ballad to an all purpose secular prayer for the West (“your faith was strong, but you needed proof”). The song, which was written after many drafts, met with little success early on. Even Cohen’s record producer found the song trite. Another described the song’s undergraduate gloom as “so hyperserious that it’s almost satire”. Perhaps that isn’t entirely untrue. Nevertheless, the song has the marks of Leonard Cohen’s self-referential weariness. A temperament that sees the world for what it is, without bitterness.
After ‘Hallelujah’ was released, it sank into the unfathomable abyss of 1980s pop music. Then, through an elaborate contrivance of fate, a young singer called Jeff Buckley ended up singing it. His aspirated voice sang slowly, more deliberately. His voice ached with the angst of a penitent who has lost his religion.
A few years later however, tragically, Buckley died in a swimming accident. He was 31 years old. Thanks to our fondness (at least since the poet Arthur Rimbaud) for artists with a sprinkling of genius who die young, Buckley’s version of ‘Hallelujah’ broke into popular consciousness with the force of a mid-life romance. By 2014, the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry added the song into its archives to commemorate the cultural life of the United States.
At the heart of Gladwell’s narrative about this song’s history was his thesis that there are two kinds of genius. Some acts of creative genius don’t burst into the open as singular, finished products — say, like Picasso’s works or Shakespeare’s tragedies. But rather, these works of art are often half-born, nearly asphyxiated by the umbilical cord that is still attached to the frenzies of its creator’s imagination. To fill this newborn with a life-giving force requires the continual work by many, the repeated cleansing and scrubbing by different minds, so that the underlying art eventually froths outwards, like butter from the milk of everyday living. Listening to Gladwell, I found myself nodding. It all made sense.
Then suddenly, I realised, his narrative didn’t tell me much about why the song stirred so many, or even me, when I had first heard it. Perhaps that was never his intention. What he did provide was a critic’s view of the melody, the history of a song. For many listeners of music — which is most of us — such analytical perspectives are one way to assert our association, or even devotion, to a song over a fellow listener. During the Margazhi festival, the sight of connoisseurs competing to identify ragas faster than the other has often made me wonder what is it they race to arrive at.
It was while thinking about all this that I stumbled upon an essay by the German author Hermann Hesse. In the early part of the 20th century, Hesse was among the most widely sought after German writers — despite being reviled by the establishment for failing to write “engaged” literature. As a magnificent new biography of Hesse by Gunnar Decker tells us, by the 1960s he was largely forgotten. It was the hippies of the late 1960s who brought Hesse back to life, nearly 20 years after his death, thanks to his novels like Siddhartha or The Glass Bead Game. In this particular essay, he writes to a reader who asked him about how to interpret Kafka’s novels: “This business of ‘interpretation’ is an intellectual game, a pretty enough game, suitable for people who are smart but who are strangers to art, who can read and write books about Negro sculpture or the twelve-tone scale but never find their way to the inside of a work of art because they stand at the gate fiddling at it with a hundred keys and never notice that the gate, in fact, is open.”
For much of our life we conduct ourselves like Hesse’s “smart” men — rarely looking up at the open gates ahead. This is all the more so in a society that scrambles to lift itself out of poverty. The appearance of thought is often more important than thought itself. Our music, literature, conversations, and even our sense of self — all are mediated by thought, arguments, and disputations. Our famous intellectuals celebrate the ‘argumentative Indian’, with the unspoken subtext that it is through argumentation that society can arrive at forms of self-description. This may be true of nations and other constructs, those vast assemblages of collective conceits, but as far individuals are concerned, I am increasingly unsure what are the consequences of becoming one of those ‘smart men’ is. Whereas tradition once privileged on circumspection, restraint, self-abnegation — often at the cost of individuality — there was an implicit agreement that society en masse didn’t need “smart” men. But by our times, when reason is enshrined as a means to self-improvement, it is little surprise that our societies reach for darker and discredited ideologies to break free from the ideologies brokered, bartered, securitized, and marketed by the ‘smart’ men. In turn, our schools and colleges work aggressively to teach young minds a set of vocabularies to situate themselves in society but rarely the abilities to think through the histories of the very same vocabulary far less history of their own presences. Much of adult life is spent unlearning these very vocabularies. Eventually, we wage battles in the name of thought, when the source of conflict often lies elsewhere. In our suspicion that all these smart words we mouth so freely betray what we truly feel. We’ve become experts in waging, as the great American author Harold Brodkey wrote, “sea battles on land”.