Monday, June 1, 2009

The relationship between Abhinava’s esthetics and politics, as seen through his philosophical theology

Abhinavan esthetics finds in art a momentary and isolated interval of freedom from ordinary life where we can experience the deeper truth and meaning of our emotions. True experience of art by one whose heart is in it (the sahrdaya) involves supra-worldly wonder (alaukika-camatkara, Anandabharati). Love, separation, the comedic, heroism, etc. can be “relished” (rasaniya, carvana, asvadana, etc.) in art because in it they do not touch the concerns of the ego (which would make them painful and incomplete), and can be seen sub specie eternitatis—in effect, can be seen to be experienced by purusa or Siva and not the ego. (It is emotional, affective essences that are relished in art, realized to belong to purusa (Siva), not just any perceptions or mental contents.) As in Samkhya and Yoga where the two interrelated purposes of prakrti are 1. to give pleasure to purusa and 2. to release purusa (achieve moksa), in esthetics there is a necessary connection between the relishing of rasa (higher pleasure or bhoga that art gives) and the isolation of the rasa experience from ego (ahamkara). Relishing is possible only in the absence of ego, and the ego can be transcended in art only because of the relish it gives.

How then to understand politics and art together as two parts of a unified culture? Is not art inherently political? Rilke said that art teaches us, “You must change your life.” Is this not felt on the level of social life, and so in politics as well? And yet, it would seem that politics is worldly (laukika) whereas art is alaukika, cut off from the world. I have tried in my Slumdog paper (posted earlier) to show that both the films discussed (Slumdog Millionaire and Salaam Bombay!) see their own esthetic function to include a political or quasi-political aim: to make us want to do something for the slum dwelling children of Bombay and to make Mumbai a more human city. I think it is necessary to reinterpret Abhinava’s view that art is unworldly (alaukika) in order to make it relevant to the contemporary world and contemporary art). I propose to do this by viewing Abhinavan esthetics from the viewpoint of Abhinava’s theology, which I will try to illuminate with psychoanalysis.

David Lawrence and I have independently found that some versions of psychoanalytic self theory are quite compatible (after necessary modifications) with Abhinava’s theology. (My paper was in Mankind Quarterly in 1992, Lawrence’s was presented at DANAM last year.) We both discuss Heinz Kohut in this regard, and I also find similar ideas in D. W. Winnicott. The basic idea in both authors is that we humans experience the outer world in terms of our selfhood, and that the social and cultural world in particular is a “transitional” realm that feels relevant to our sense of self, adequately mirroring and supporting it or failing to do so. There is a circular interplay between self and self-relevant world that can be viewed as parallel to the emission and re-absorption of Siva’s world in the unmesa/nimesa process described by Abhinavagupta. In the transitional experience in psychoanalysis the concerns of the self are not walled off (as they may seem to be in the alaukika theory of art) from what we might call an esthetic preserve or “national park,” and instead involve expansion of the self out into the world where it interpenetrates the environment, and a complementary movement back into the interior self.

But the esthetic theory and the theology are not that far apart. An analogous transformation of the self happens in the two cases, a shift of self reference from “ahamkara” towards “purusa” selfhood. In esthetic experience, as in spiritual development, there is a move from ego to consciousness as the true spectator or owner (svamin) of the experience. Similarly, in the transitional experience when it develops into culture there is a move away from ego and toward a more “cosmic” or universal sense of selfhood that begins with renunciation. In Abhinavan esthetic culture an egoless moment is walled off so that it can shine in purusa “space,” while in transitional culture the moment becomes more egoless through the transformation from crude claiming that something in the world must be “mine” to self denial in the present moment coupled with a faith that what I really need is inherently mine and will come to me (in some sense of “me”) in some way, in time. The sense of what “I” am shifts from a drive to assert itself or claim ownership to a standpoint that has eternal value and certainty. At the same time, its location shifts from inside the walls of the body and mind outward into the realm of culture, and even the cosmos. (This can be understood partly in terms of the vasanas or “latent impressions” from one’s past lives which move the self far beyond the skin of the present personality, if still far from the recognition that “I am Siva.” Recall Duhsanta’s past life intimations in Sakuntala V.)

In the two movies I discussed, the selves of the characters Krisna and Jamal are esthetic for the viewer (we see them from the outside, individuated across childhood, the flashbacks in Slumdog constituting a kind of time-lapse photography revealing a single personality) but transitional (possessing hope of deep fulfillment within their worlds) for the characters themselves. By putting these two facets of the films together in this way it is possible to suggest a way to transcend Abhinava’s assertion that rasa cannot refer to the world. As discussed, both films call on us to change our political lives, to care for the homeless children of Bombay and build a better Mumbai. The sahrdaya is also a citizen because art implies a way of life in the world. In spite of the sharp division Abhinava draws between life and art, it is clear in the famous image we have of him as a living man that the two were in fact one. The verses, and painting, of Abhinava sitting with his two yoginis and his disciples, playing the lute while sipping wine in the fragrant Kashmiri garden unmistakably constitute both a work of art and an idealized vision of a social order that may never have existed fully but was conceived as ultimately desirable by Abhinava and his followers. What if life in Mumbai were like that?