By Dustin Pickering
In our world’s most recent years, postmodernism has lost its pungency as social criticism. When politicians hijack its premises for their own ends, its role as criticism is subverted. After the ascension of the unpopular Brexit move and Trump, the Western world is called to accept “post-truth” rhetoric. Kellyanne Conway, one of President Trump’s key counselors, spoke about “alternative facts” to the press after being questioned on the numbers present at the presidential inauguration. This echoes the sentiment expressed by the godfather of postmodernism, Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote, “There are no facts, only interpretations.”
As we begin a new century, social and economic forces have pooled to create the ripest confusion to date. We are encouraged to adopt identity politics, while being exposed to run-of-the-mill bipartisan propaganda by mainstream media. Exposure to information is broad and frequent through technology, and the variety paralyzes the mind unprepared with principle. The general nastiness of what is called post-truth reveals itself as a means to confuse civil discourse. What is fact or consensus to a post-truth age? Does postmodern critique offer anything further?
As our quest for kernels of wisdom becomes full of treacherous political appeasement, each proposition fearfully eyes the other. Whose job is it to educate noble, curious citizenry? Contemporary spectacles multiply their images and only subvert our energies to appearances of truth rather than looking behind misleading narratives.
Enter Kiriti Sengupta. His books, authored in solitude, invite an exploration of ideals and encourage experimental engagement with them. His trilogy, Dreams of the Sacred and Ephemeral, is a fresh study of the democratic ideal. The collection contains both prose and poetry that grant a fresh perspective of human nature. An example from the collection is Sengupta’s meeting with a transgender woman. Although the story is told honestly as a self-critical approach, Sengupta embraces a positive acceptance of the strangeness of the situation and even finds something to admire in the woman. His prose is candid, touching, and lucid. Throughout his body of work, Sengupta maintains this same standpoint. As in “(Re) Formation” from Solitary Stillness where he writes: “A deviation from normalcy is not necessarily pathology! You never know when your body accepts the changes and makes them a parcel of your constitution.” This statement is only superficially concerned with the regularity of a pulse. What is actually being said is that each person has a purpose. Those who suffer rejection will one day face the light. “The stone that the builder refuses will one day become the head cornerstone.” Those who deviate are like soldiers of the Word, revitalizing and examining the past and making it new. “Thinking men do not give up,” Bob Marley once sung. In a conquest to renew the Light, it becomes brighter for contemporaries and reveals the shape and form of life for modern audiences.
It might be said that such a self-taught Indian experimenter in prose would be the least likely to confront postmodernism’s due eclipse. However, India is the motherland of the sacred impulse to create and has birthed the finest religions and sentiments over time. Perhaps we are not seeing an eclipse so much as a return to the origins that constructed postmodernism. Modernism’s motto, “make it new”, comes to the front again but with an entirely new face. Rather than a complete combustion of the past, we envision it differently to improve the understanding of it. Spinoza writes in On the Improvement of the Understanding, “We have now to investigate the doubtful idea—that is, to inquire what can cause us to doubt, and how doubt may be removed.” This is how Sengupta approaches literary technique. His body of work is impressive in the sense that its progress is distinctly traceable. In the years I have reviewed and written essays on Sengupta, I have seen his work follow the democratic ideal of universal human rights until finally sinking into solitary reflection. It may be said that he bridges the two opposite situations through juxtaposition. His most recent effort, Solitary Stillness, portrays enigmas of truth in a classical light: “Fire is clearly not the cause, / however their flight, the pilgrimage!” (“The Pilgrimage”). Fire is classically conceived as the primal essence of life with its continuous flux and all-consuming liquidation. Heraclitus wrote: “Fire of all things / is the judge and ravisher” (Fragment 26). In “The Pilgrimage,” rendered almost in prose, ants cause their own deaths by flooding into a fire. Here it is implied that the search for truth is one of revealing essence, which is both annihilation and regeneration. In a pilgrimage, one returns to a symbolic place of birth. The origin of sacredness draws believers. In an odd twist of paradox, the piece invites the understanding that the sacred space is also the source of death. As primal essence, fire both tempts to truth and destroys before we mentally reach it. Recall Babel, the origin of civilization’s divisions through language. Fire calls for a universal language yet obfuscates the need for it. In “Quietude and Loneliness”, Sengupta cries out: “And then you can see the resurrected spirit / approaching your stillness/ and challenging the world / to leave you alone!” If truth is not a private affair that engages the solitary mind, then nothing in belief can be worth pursuit. Sengupta appears to remember an old melody from the golden age of the world. Perhaps his ability to be man of the world and in the world makes his ears more attuned.
One instance of Sengupta’s questionings leading to improved understandings is in the piece “Paradise” from Reflections on Salvation. He puts the teaching of Bhabapagla, the great philosopher, that beauty is duty on its head in order that the reader better understand the true nature of the teaching. He does this through a trick. By pretending to assume a possible misunderstanding of the teaching, he confounds the reader who may actually believe such a misunderstanding. He opens the mystery of appearance again and pries into its inner workings. Heraclitus wrote in Fragment 10: “Things keep their secrets.” Appearance is only a function of time. As the piece closes in its second paragraph, Sengupta’s anecdote reveals its relationship with the opening line of inquiry. “I therefore ask of Bhagapagla, is Roma headed for heaven because of duty or because of beauty?” The final question is not only intended for Bhabapagla, but also for the general reader familiar with his teachings. Roma neglected herself for her family and students, and her health declined as she developed psoriasis. She could not walk in the sun and her physical beauty was lost. Was she beautiful because of her appearance or because she made sacrifices for others?
The need for consensus amongst battlers for truth is a prerequisite for order and sublimity. For a pursuer of truth to stand firmly on a rock, certain facts and thoughts should be taken a priori. The great American historian, Samuel Eliot Morison, spoke of the difference between “point of view” and concrete facts. He indicates that the liberal interpretation of history generally rests on “point of view” which he acknowledges as acceptable under the condition it be supported by fact. He allows for a measure of “subjectivity” but denies it as the empirical source of interpretation. He indicates that facts stack up to favor certain viewpoints.
I do not intend to condemn either the liberal or the conservative voice. I bring Morison into the conversation to support the concept of consensus. A scientific conception of reality is based on hypotheses supported by varied evidence, which are then peer-reviewed for validity. Truth cannot be conveyed without agreement on terms: “A seed slept in dark, clueless; no viable chant…what if awakened by a mantra? A syllable to prefix and suffix, and thus was my pride and prejudice!” (“Clues to Name,” The Earthen Flute). This piece engages with a fatalistic sense. The title is revealing also. Each mantra, as the source of desire, is a “clue” into the unfathomable mystery of life. Sengupta works out an entirely new basis for consensus. Rather than through democratic questionings, consensus is derived from the entirety of life – each piece is a clue to the whole, which remains hidden. The seed is awakened by a mantra, which reveals its essence and purpose. In this poem, the mantra is the Word’s equivalent. “Following some cunning way I was keen to taste some greatness.” Later, it is written that “Mantra bears lust…petty you, you blame the luster!” We see here a unity in both Western and Eastern traditions. Sengupta again circumambulates our contemporary reality of “post-truth” to uncover a depth of secrecy sworn within Nature and human life. Sengupta says of lust, “Inevitable it is”.
Clearly, this is a poet of imagination and breadth. His vision is beyond the measure of countless poets across the world that comes up short in their writing because they lack proper scope. Sengupta catches the Spirit as it drifts. Like monarch butterflies tacked to a sheet, he fixes on the Spirit and studies it. Whether it is called the “Holy Spirit,” the “Zeitgeist,” the “Apocalypse,” or many countless names, the power of the Universal Spirit changes lives and brings them to fruition. To become a poet, it takes not only imagination and dedication, but also vision and wisdom. Only revelations from the Muse can provide such vision and wisdom as makes for immortal poetry.
Sengupta’s years following his bestselling trilogy have opened ground for literature. Even in Reflections on Salvation, the rebellion and validity of postmodern critique is solidified. These poetic works sustain the right to challenge central narration and unveil the paradox of foundational texts within a contemporary framework, and question conceptions of “voice”. For instance, in “Fire” Sengupta writes: “I wonder, Vedic scriptures have been written by a group of wise men who never lived on this earth!” The concept of holiness is called into question as it pertains to voice and central narration. If The Vedas were composed by spirits or otherworldly wise men, what exactly can they know of the world they don’t live in? What sort of foolish wisdom is that? Thus even our ancient texts, so central to the development of worldly culture, are asked a fundamental question: where do you come from? The agreed upon narrator does not seem trustworthy. Therefore, in spite of the need and expectation of consensus Sengupta grants the democratic right to question authority in the methods of peer review.
Throughout this Indian author’s popular work, there are enigmas and expressions of compassion as well as a distinct vocabulary of postmodern criticism. As the political world is in flight of truth and invites ignorance and misperception, personal pursuit is extant within literary revelation. Authors throughout the world are seeking to convey the right of one’s own, the right to be left alone to decide, the right to express and signify one’s quest, and the natural enjoyment of knowledge for personal (not political) satisfaction. Agendas are inescapable in influence and are not certain enough to bring mental peace. Why not seek to attain the Universal through meditation, instead of the confusion argument invites? Kiriti Sengupta’s work invites you, the reader, on such a pursuit.
Dustin Pickering is founder of Transcendent Zero Press and editor-in-chief of Harbinger Asylum. He featured for Houston’s popular reading series Public Poetry in 2013 and was a Special Guest Poet for Austin International Poetry Festival that same year. He was shortlisted at Adelaide Literary Journal’s short story competition in 2017.
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