John David Ebert recently did some videos on Aurobindo’s “The Life Divine”. We discuss below:
Adam to John David Ebert:
I am really happy to see you reading Life Divine so enthusiastically. Reading it changed my life back in the day. It is probably my favorite book, though Seth Speaks by Jane Roberts is a close second.
Seth Speaks often gets ignored by intellectuals since it is written for a general audience, but I think that era of the “New Age” was important to carry on and popularize the impulse moving through the Romantics and working to find a new metaphysics for the scientific age as Bergson and Deleuze called it.
The “New Age” Naturphilosophie of the late 20th century definitely seems like a fall from the late Modernist era, but there are other forces at work and Seth Speaks is worth checking out as an important precursor to what is coming.
A few notes on Aurobindo:
He considered “Savitri” his magnum opus. Unlike the two major prose works you mentioned, which he wrote pretty early on, Savitri he worked on for decades, even after he could no longer see and had to have his disciples transcribe for him. I understand it probably should be considered apart from the prose works, but it was the culmination of his entire vision, with the philosophical ideas turned into myth, but unlike Steiner, done with an aesthetic brilliance that can actually give the impression of the levels of the universe he is describing.
Savitri was an experiment though, which is why he kept rewriting it over and over, each time getting a line closer to a mantric vibration that could induce the experience. His experimental attitude towards yoga sets him apart. He even had a diary that reads like a lab notebook for developing and testing various siddhis.
My friend Debashish Banerji wrote a great book on Aurobindo’s diary where he puts his experiments in a context of a Deleuzian vitalistic-pragmatics if you are interested. I also think you would really like Aurobindo’s Essays on the Gita and the Future Poetry. His aesthetic sense really balances out Steiner’s philosophical and scientific literacy well. I agree with you that these two guys and the other greats of the time were avatars of sort. Which is why I don’t see the contemporary scene as a fall.
As I pointed out in the essay of mine you read, later stages of processes (as Arthur Young and any good astrologer knows) always involve a process of distribution and universalization. This may take the form of a dilution on one level, but there are always levels of consolidation going on somewhere. The multi-dimensional aspect of cosmic evolution is precisely what Seth addresses and what has taken humanity a while to understand after the disorientating effect that two world wars and a confusing quantum epistemology had on the project of Naturphilosophie.
Even though Aurobindo didn’t care too much for German philosophy, he did read Nietzsche, no doubt to distinguish their concepts of the superman, as he does here: https://www.aurobindo.ru/workings/sa/16/0025_e.htm
Thanks for that Adam. My only hesitation with Savitri is that all the passages that I have read from it that have been quoted by commentators, frankly, aren’t very good poetry. This is a common problem with mystics, even with Steiner, whose mystery plays just aren’t very good. They’re brilliant with their ideas but not so hot with their poetic and literary writing.
I think it takes a different mindset to appreciate his poetry. It is similar to your response to his prose. It takes a bit to get used to the rhythm. And rhythm is central to his conception of poetry as well. It is an attempt at turning English into mantric speech, so if you look at it as modern poetry it comes off quite dry and repetitive, just as his prose does. But the whole point is to surrender to the rhythm, to read with the silent mind and let the dense imagery work on you through the rhythms. I mean you don’t write an 800 page poem hoping to have nice little quotable lines abstracted out for analysis. It takes another kind of reading.
I do suggest reading the “Future Poetry” as I mentioned, (which is his work of literary criticism) to see where he is coming from. He had a different vision for where poetry needed to go that is decisively different than where it went.
Like so much in the early 20th century, poetry got off track because it caught up in the spatialization of the intellect, always trying to progress through a mutation in outward form. I think Gebser made that same mistake when he identified the integral with the path physics was taking which went from the spatialization of time that Gebser got from Einstein, to the fractured topology of Bohr’s anti-epistemology. It was destined to fall apart. The path not taken was left behind when Bergson supposedly lost the debate with Einstein. Bergson’s knew the problems with spatializing time, but it wasn’t until Deleuze that this theme got picked up again in philosophy and made central. But it has been developing nonetheless in the counterculture with people like Jane Roberts and her Seth books, and with Castaneda who I argue was no small influence on Deleuze. Much of the New Age is indeed a caricature of Roberts, Castenada and Steiner, but as I argue in my essays, the mythological imagination has been progressing nonetheless through science fiction and UFOlogy, trying to come to terms with multidimensional time and the rhythm of virtual/spiritual topologies.
In any case, sometimes there is no accounting for taste. I seem to have similar taste as you in movies, but many “intellectual” people think some of our favorite “visionary” films are Hollywood garbage. I do agree with you that Steiner had little aesthetic sense, but he had the mind of a scientist. His formative years were spent studying math and science, whereas as Aurobindo spoke half a dozen languages fluently, spent much time retranslating the inner sense of vedic words, and was sensitive to the subtle energies, the “vibrational frequency” as you put it, of language and meaning. Though I do admit, as William Irwin Thompson used to say about him, his chaste Victorian manner can indeed be a little dry. But his sense of sensuality is not the dry formalism of a desexualized intellect or airy effeminate mystic like Steiner, but a vivid, though perhaps, as you say, “impersonal” rendering of the sensual imagery of visionary experience and an attempt to invoke it in others. I at least recommend you start reading the beginning and pick it up from time to time when you are in the mood.
I’m very well read in poetry from Baudelaire and Rimbaud down through Mallarme and Eliot to Rilke Trakle and Celan. I know it very, very well. His poetry sucks, sorry.
Aurobindo’s poetry lacks freshness … I think John David Ebert is too hard on Aurobindo’s poetry, but he’s not altogether wrong.
I agree his poetry has an austere quality that may be described as clunky or not fresh, but I think he was trying to do something different than the way modern people think about poetry. The whole quality of condensed language that is often considered essential to what makes something poetry is difficult to apply to Savitri. It is dense but it is purposely long and repetitive. I think he was trying to bring down a rather non-sensual level of consciousness into english words, so the blocky-choppy feel was hard to break down into the sensual flow of vital poetry. That was the challenge he set for himself. He knew some of the most elevated spiritual inspiration did not often make for the best poetry because of the difficulty of the translation process. his poetry, like his yoga was an experiment, not a performance. he constantly rewrote Savitri, just as he constantly reworked his own nature through yoga, always trying to bring the higher levels down into the instrument and medium of embodiment and expression
But I argue the issue isn’t really a matter of being too austere. Rather that the poetry feels at times juvenile and hackneyed… this in spite of his intentions. His modifiers together with nouns strike us as the stuff of doggerel.
And so my reaction is at first to recoil a bit… i remember when you read some of Savitri to me this was my response.. But I also had the thought “This is radical sincerity, and I am open to it.”
The problem with sincerity is that it often lacks depth. irony is one way of opposing this flatness; spiritualization is another; in each case a word becomes more than the word through other words, but in the spiritual form, juxtapositions create not a fresh surprise and humor but a disruption of normal consciousness and deeper insight
Aurobindo’s modifiers often feel trite because despite the regality implied when modifiers are in heavy use, the pairing of modifier and noun comes off as sentimental. One sort of doggerel tends toward sentimentality and excessive inflation. A serious reader of poetry will immediately feel that Aurobindo is violating decorum. Passages like this one just feel juvenile, almost as Aurobindo is a young person imitating poetry itself:
“Out of a timeless barrier she must break,
Penetrate with her thinking depths the Void’s monstrous hush,
Look into the lonely eyes of immortal Death
And with her nude spirit measure the Infinite’s night. “
Keep in mind that he knew what he was doing. he was not some naive spiritualist. he was an avid reader of literary criticism. he knew how he would be perceived.
Of course I knew he was an incredibly serious reader of poetry!I am articulating, however, what happens on the page from the perspective of probably JDE and most people. I am not reading his intentions but rather the text.
I am willing to keep reading him, and will, since I have much faith in him, although I cannot help but raise an eyebrow at what I often see in his verse. But poetry readers are snobs, and they perceive continuity from one poet to another, despite major differences. Offenses as great as Aurobindo’s are unprecedented. His stylistic eccentricity is Miltonian almost.
Milton is definitely the closest precursor I can think of. And I know the quality you are talking about. I can read that passage the way you do. By itself it is certainly not impressive even if you don’t hate it. but it is part of an 800 page poem telling a story through imagery. the language is not novel in many places, but the point is the experience of surrendering to the rhythm of the language and the pattern of the imagery. maybe i will get debashish banerji to weigh in on this matter, haha
Yes yes yes.One slight quibble is that the passage I noted isn’t merely unimpressive, it strikes one as embarrassing.
But as we both know, Milton is now a classic; perhaps we must refrain from premature judgment with Aurobindo. And also you say “the language is not novel in many places,” but for me novelty is not a criterion of good; instead I just want something sharp and distinctive.
hi adam et al, this is an interesting thread. john ebert’s summary dismissal of sri aurobindo’s poetry on the grounds of his own reading – “I’m very well read in poetry from Baudelaire and Rimbaud down through Mallarme and Eliot to Rilke Trakle and Celan. I know it very, very well. His poetry sucks, sorry” – and mike’s characterization of his verse as “juvenile and hackneyed” are both due to the imposition of conventions of language taste onto something they’re taking on its own terms.
firstly, baudelaire, rimbaud, mallarme, eliot, rilke, trakl and celan are all modernist poets (all of whom sri auorbindo had read and appreciated) who write in the modernist lyric mode while sri aurobindo writes in the epic mode. it has been repeatedly noted in modern literary criticism that our age has not fostered epic poetry as a result of the collapse of grand visions and narratives in our times of the defeat of the human spirit. a chronic skepticism besets us from which we can only struggle or emerge in short bursts. sri aurobindo’s savitri on the other hand is a cosmic poem. there are very few others in our age who have attempted anything like this. perhaps nikos kazantzakis with his odyssey a modern sequel. one has to put oneself in another frame to appreciate a cosmic vision and it isn’t easy to one who hugs a norm which restricts itself to the lyric.
secondly, modernist european and british poetry (eliot and pound traced their lineage to baudelaire, mallarme and valerie) reacted against the emphasis on the spoken bardic voice (meter, rhythm) in favor of the image, spawning imagism.
for the lyric mode this centering on the image has granted a concreteness to modernist poetry but devalued the suggestive cadences of rhythm, that sri auorbindo privileges in his literary text the future poetry as well as in his practice of poetry. american poetry, on the other hand, has not entirely gone this way. from whitman to alan ginsberg the bardic voice has been given prominence. it takes an opening of the inner ear to awake to the power of this poetry, something most modernist poets and readers have lost or attenuated. thirdly, this is not just speculative epic poetry like that of milton but written from cosmic experience and hence bringing a cultural and experiential component that needs some openness to its alterity. perhaps he could have been more sensitive to the tastes of modernist readers or perhaps the “future” aspect of future poetry demands a future culture to which these uses of abstract words are more concrete than they are to our generations particularly in the west. but to keep an opening to the living power of these seemingly abstract terms and not treat them as speculative abstractions needs some access to inner experience.
It is not as though there ever was thoroughgoing consensus among modernists. Pound thought Rilke’s work was effeminate. And it isn’t as though modernists privileged the image over the bardic voice replete with pronounced meter and rhythm. Modernists were obsessed with these things, but yes they did reject the monotonous iambic pentameter. Yeats, however, never abandoned traditional forms. Pound is responsible for transitioning away from the metronome of iambic pentameter in favor of a free verse that would “approximate the quantitative meters of Greek and Roman poetry.” Pound and Eliot looked to Greek models, such as Catullus and Sappho, and to the troubadours of Provence. Yes, they looked to the French Symbolists, but let us not oversimplify. Yeats looked to ancient models as well.
In the end Eliot and Pound hoped one day that a new fixed meter would be established, and the experiments in free verse were but a bridge that would lead the poets of the future there…Eliot did say this.
and whatever Aurobindo’s intentions, it’s the poets job to give the serious poetry reader something in line with convention, and not too aberant
All great poets stick to the living language, and I hear you and Debashish explaining that it’s on the reader to rise to Aurobindo’s spiritual level; that’s not how poetry has ever worked
If you listen to Pound and Yeats read their work, you will see that they themselves had some very eccentric ideas about the bardic qualities of rhythm and meter
In my view, though, Yeats and Eliot are two modernists who were eminently successful in updating rhythm for a Prosaic World
I don’t think you have to be on Aurobindo’s level. But it does depend on the person’s sensitivity and most modern people are so far removed from the kind of sensitivity required to appreciate him
But do tell Debashsish that I read one of his poems, and I really thought it was very invigorating and strange
I was like, “Wow, what was that.”
that one I reposted, “Vocation”? yeah it is very much up my alley with the blend of physics with ancient and contemporary metaphysics.
Aurobindo wasn’t updating rhythm to a prosaic world, but creating a mythic poetry for a new world that I think Yeats would have appreciated. I think savitri is light years beyond Eliot, though I appreciate him.
I’m willing to take Savitri seriously
I’d love a recording of it
it really benefits from being read aloud.
yeah , But for me, the adjectives are really annoying; they don’t add a lot; i have a sense that he was trying to do something Homeric, using these adj/noun combinations as epithets. it’s really not something you can find anywhere except in the poetry of angsty teens
no one in antiquity did this. Homer didn’t do it, but he would have these phrases he’d repeat such as “wine dark sea”…wine dark sea is beautiful though; it’s just not seemly to pointlessly modify nouns, but perhaps it will grow on me and i will see the purpose of it
i’m very careful in general not to reject poetry out of hand
I have intense visions reading savitri. the adjectives are crucial
i get transported to a visionary space that would not be detailed without those adjectives
i think savitri is a kind of technology; it is poetry for the late stages I write about. it is technological and utopian, very 11th house
Mike: it is very interesting
most poetry readers these days are looking for poetry to be a mere personal expression. aurobindo was moving in a space where all the world’s thought was laid bare to him.
he could enter the mind of anyone on the planet and many other planes. One needs to come at savitri with different expectations
I still think my assessment of the obstacles to appreciating it is worth taking seriously, because it will help his readers get over the initial shock…the problem is not about personal expression,
the problem is akin to a person raised on the French New Wave cinema being shown a film whose director may or may not have a sense of balance and proportion, so the problem is of manner rather than substance, I’d say. It’s a superficial revulsion Ebert had,I guarantee it
which is why i brought up film to ebert. we both like mythic films that tend to be trashed by intellectual critics, but we are interested in the epic mode which is always out of proportion to the tastes of modern intellectuals. Everything epic seems adolescent to intellectuals, but as I discuss in my essays, it is epic cinema that is working out the metaphysics of our culture.
Last night Megan and I had an impulse to drive out to a remote beach. We built a giant fire, chanted and I read savitri out loud in a bardic style in front of the roaring elements. Nothing like it….I admit reading it takes stamina though. A kind of stamina you can only build through meditation. The payoffs in savitri come when you can sustain a kind of inward attention for long periods that is different than mere contemplative reading attention or the occasional flash of poetic insight.
The one drawback for me is that the myth he is creating is still a bit too old fashioned, a kind of romanticized version of his own personal narrative and that of his female partner, that he perhaps took a bit too literally and melodramatically. And like so many thinkers of the late modernist period, such a thing was already out of date by the time they completed it.
Any new myth has to take up the language of the future which must come to terms with the “Ahrimanic” forces of biotechnics. I think Aurobindo could have benefited from a little more openness to occult mythology and Theosophy to understand better what he was up against, rather than reading his own personal myth into an ancient story. He was quite romantic framing two people’s love saving the world. But that is also what gives what would otherwise be a rather austere 11th/12th house style universal poem, a sweet grounding in the personal and sensual, but which perhaps he knew too little about.
there’s no rule that poets have to write to prevailing taste. a poet writes for an invisible audience of his or her own making. a poet creates his/her own community which may not exist at the time of writing but comes to exist as people open to its internal life. if all poets wrote to existing poetry readers there would be no new currents in the history of poetics. you and I who have opened to this life of savitri know its power irrespective of the fact that those whose expectations prevent them from penetrating to this life keep passing universal judgements on why the poetry is bad or juvenile. at some point there is an adequate body of those who are moved by it and can explain why. in other words a body of adequate criticism. and by the way, mike should read sri aurobindo’s essay on quantitative meter where he parses eliot and whitman. savitri is written in his quantitative meter. I still feel a major problem is the unfamiliarity with the epic spirit and mode in our time. all the examples being discussed are lyric.