The lure of dark literature

Why are we attracted to dark literature?

The art of living, as the wise gurus tell us is to be thankful, to enjoy every moment of it, every breath we take. To the practical mind this translates to finding happiness in every moment and the mind concedes the futility of this search. However, it sees the logic in the search for a less ephemeral and less insignificant happiness, one that transcends concepts like moments and breathing. This practical and average mind, average because of the number of beings it rides on is far more than the other types therefore makes people live in the search of happiness.

With the platitude elegantly established, we will attempt to address the question in the first line which must feel misplaced in the paragraph that it finds itself in. We might even modify the question, now that it feels happy to be back in focus and therefore amenable to changes, and ask what is the happiness that people derive from reading dark literature. For, if reading the material is not making them feel good, then they wont belong to the club of averages. And if that was true, there would only be a few lovers of the dark writings, the irrational being the minority. On the contrary, tragedies over the ages have held a greater veneration than any comedy or writing of the type that justifies why we should be thankful for the gods, for mankind, for our existence and such things as world peace. Contemporary literature is also mostly dystopian, it reeks of suffering of the individual, a pain that one must live with, in every moment and every breath. A darkness pervades every word that comes out of the melancholic souls of these writers. It is overdone to such an extent that to a discerning reader, discerning being a euphemism for the cynic, this blatant display of darkness starts to seem pretentious.

Discerning or not, we all enjoy the books we read, and that takes us back to where we started this ramble. The question remains unanswered. Instead of jumping into the arena and proffering an answer let us remain on the sidelines for a little while longer and examine the nature of the contradicting states of happiness and sorrow.

Happiness compels us to seek company. It makes us look outwards, mostly because everything looks good when we are feeling so. It induces the urge to spread it around. Happiness demands dissipation of the inadvertent answers it conjures up.

Suffering and pain on the other hand makes us look within. It makes us introspect as we are flooded with questions. Everything we believed in, we loved, we thought of ourself, lies shattered to pieces rendering us incapable of expressing the gruesome reality that lies within to others. Suffering is inherently implosive, it leaves us stranded on the island with a heavy backpack of these debilitating questions.

Given these definitions, and being forced to accept the definitions as they are offered, we might re-establish the platitude that no sane person would like to indulge in anything that leads to the island. At this juncture, one might feel like giving up on the answer out of frustration with the author or one might persevere and delve further as one does while reading dark literature. The reader and connoisseur, or even the sceptic of the dark must understand that though the author has been striving to apply the question in the purview of grand schemes and ubiquitous definitions, the question is not pertinent to darkness in life, it is about dark literature.

Reading is an exclusively private activity. Even though some might cite book clubs and public reading, those same members of the clubs and the audience would understand the frustration of expounding the inexplicable more than the outsiders and the non participants. Reading, as we all know and which we in our personal spaces are doing right now with this post, is a private affair, but so is suffering. The subject matter resonates with the verb when we take up writings of the darker shades. It also seems promising because it relates and joins us in the search for the answers to our suffering. As a result, we tend to immerse ourselves in the work instead of the detached, flippant attitude we wear while reading something comical or something uplifting.

The reason we love dark literature is also because of the fact that we all suffer, unless we are the smiling gurus making others aware of their suffering and then providing ecstatic vacuous solutions. Dark literature provides us with perspective that might equip us not only in answering the questions that fester, but also prepare us in coping with life as it would unfold, both on the introspective and the emphatic grounds. The art of living is not about finding or acquiring the state of happiness in every moment, but in accepting the nature of the contradicting constructs that life is made of and reading till you drop dead.


The irresistible charm of music

There is just one thing that philosophers from various schools of thought and inclinations agree upon. It is the questions that they collectively ask, questions that arise from philosophical ruminations. The topic of these questions range from life, universe, God, existence, behavior, dreams and cover just about everything a human mind is capable of inquiring about. The nature of such questions are universal in nature, in the sense that they don’t discriminate between instances. Questions about existence, for example, applies to all individuals equally. The same goes for enquiry into the metaphysical aspects of an emotion, say love between two individuals, the same question applies to both the parties involved, or the whole population.

This plethora of questions has kept on piling up, forcing mankind, starving for answers to take refuge in science, faith, religion and such systems of well structured beliefs. The reason why we have failed to address these questions in a satisfactory way lies in the conflicting premises of these questions and their probable answers. The questions may be universal, but the answers as it is more or less established are existential in nature. Philosophers who have attempted to create an universal model have usually failed. This unique combination, however; brings to the arena the human endeavor of art. Art fits so well in this situation that the lines between art and philosophy have been flimsy since the earliest known civilizations.

Art, in its various forms attempts to answer the philosophical questions but it does that by taking a path that is not straightforward. The artist tenders the answers for mass consumption but stops short from getting down to the details, the intention and thesis is neither defined nor defended. This indirect approach makes art susceptible to attack from the philistines and fundamentalists, alike. On the other hand, this circuitous nature of the presentation allows the individual to investigate further without external aid, it acts as a guidance on the path to discovery of the answers to the posed questions, paradoxes and dilemma. The individualistic aspect of art might explain our fascination for it, a fascination that has pervaded time and space. To further elaborate on the idea, let’s take a painting and its import on the individual. It might evoke a feeling of longing, act as an exposition of love for one, while another person may derive a sense of peace, or an answer to the question on the apparent futility of existence.

Comprehension is essentially a sensory phenomenon, or at least it is stimulated by the senses. The wise men and seers may advocate detachment from senses and urge us to inculcate a method of understanding that comes from insulated meditation. What they also say, which is usually found in subtext is you need to envisage the world with enough lucidity as presented to you through the senses to appreciate the inadequacy of the sensory perception.

Art in its attempt to come up with answers to the eternal questions appeals to the senses, at least at the first glance. The purpose is half fulfilled in this appeal, as it triggers the latent sensibilities and inchoate profundity present in every human. What follows then is the path taken by the individual beyond the realms of physiological limitations of the senses and psychological limitations of a cognitive mind. This realm is visceral, a personal space that obliterates the existence of everything else, one that transcends the conditioning received over ages, it is that world within that defines the essence of the individual or soul as the romantics and poets would prefer to call.

Most forms of art are about visualization, they are meant for the eyes and even if it is not the case, they would require one to keep the eyes open. The intended transport to the surreal world happens with intermittent closing of the external eyes and opening of inner ones. But it is still intermittent, one can’t get away without the visuals and in this process one is inadvertently aware of the external world thereby impeding one in the unobstructed flight, the dive into the soul.

Music may be the only art that doesn’t rely on eyes for perception, it actually demands the listener to close the eyes and feel the art. As soon as we do that, we are cutting off the rest of the world, people around us, emotions we struggle with and the questions that confound us. The quest is expedited by the prerequisite. It’s easy to critique or discuss a painting, a book, a poem, dance, sculpture and almost about every possible form of art, because the critic visualizes the piece in juxtaposition to the external or peripheral reality. Thus the criticism is understood by masses since they also perceive it in similar circumstances, similarly a discussion on a piece of art remains pertinent. When it comes to music, and here we might leave out the lyrics which might require a rephrase. So, when it comes to pure music it’s almost impossible to critique, discuss, analyze or do anything that might require others to be in the same plane as you, or having the same perception as yours. At the best, one may only give the verdict, that the piece of music is good or it is not. Equally impossible it is to find a person who doesn’t enjoy music.


Guilt and persecution

There is water everywhere, imparting a sense of panic within. It is not that I am scared of water; on the contrary, I have always liked the sight, sound and even the feel of water on my body. Swimming in my opinion is the most exhilarating thing one can do when alone and want to be alone, erasing everything else around. The presence of a water body enhances the beauty of any place, I can spend hours watching the ocean play with the winds, lakes undulating under the morning breeze, even the muddy pools, those leftovers from a recent bout of rain makes me long for paper boats, splashing it on an unsuspecting passerby and such insipid, innocent fun.

But the water that surrounds me now is different, it’s unbearably blue almost as if I am looking at a summer sky, or maybe it is the sky. There is only so much that delineates the ocean and the sky at the horizon, here though I feel like I am standing in the middle of the world on a rock projecting from the tranquil pristine water pervading all tangible dimensions as if I am finally able to see eternity. This vision though calming when juxtaposed with my presence makes me feel like a blemish and the asphalt rock my darkened soul that is holding me steady. I turn my head to find the unchanging waters stare back at me from every direction and with such serenity that it blinds my eyes. I squint and peer at it for some deviation, some distraction in this aquatic perfection, only to discover that it is shallow. The limpid water even lets me see the bed of sand so clearly that I can make out it’s not sand, the surface is polished and possesses the same color as the vitrified tiles in my room. This realization strikes me hard, I could just get off the rock and start walking, these are not dangerous waters and there is no reason why I must get this feeling of extreme unrest, why must I accept I am some deformation in the perfect creation and scheme of things. But try as I may my legs won’t budge. Any movement or change from the state I am seems fraught with an ineffable danger, a danger of crossing the thin line that separates uncertainty and futility.

Thus I am left with no choice but to ruminate, not just on this particular situation and the internal dilemma but about everything that my mind with its limited abilities would allow me to ponder about. As soon as you do that, giving your mind a free rein to analyze a disagreeable situation the first thing it brings up is guilt. If guilt had a face it won’t be able to wipe out the smirk, or at least mine wouldn’t be able to. Is this some kind of retribution, guilt suggests, the smirk getting a chuckle for company. I have never committed any crime in the purview of the laws that qualify crime and decide the fate of criminals. But my guilt feeds on the many moral and ethical transgressions, I have; for instance, been cruel to the point of harming people who loved and cared for me. There were and always will be reasons and justifications for my actions, not of the usual namesake or the superficial kind either. I truly believe in them. This is what my guilt smirks at maybe, but do I care or do I act snobbish with my educated reasoning for the most disconcerting actions. I say disconcerting because it affected others in a way I cannot really understand, behavior of people who get close to you invariably end up baffling you.

Once you handle guilt with such high-handed dismissal, the next thing your mind throws at you is the feeling of helplessness, an enquiry into what is fair and what is not. Why am I being persecuted I start thinking. Why should I be in this absurd place, who decides the course of my life, is there any logic that drives our existence, is there a free will. If I was selfish and in the process hurt people, or to be more specific two people and probably a few more, and a dog, then somewhere in the grand vision of this arbitrary arbiter they would be found equally responsible. I don’t so much remember the details of why I broke up with the girls but I vividly remember the dog and the incident in the dark of the night. It barked for no apparent reason, I did what it takes to get it silenced. Also, I am not even sure if it was much hurt because it ran back to his compatriots, who looked at me in synchronized vision making me take flight. As for the people, they were much better off without me as I was without them in my life, so in a way in the bigger picture I did the right thing and for everyone’s good. So why am I stuck here; why do I still feel guilt; why am I helpless; unable to move.

The answers dawned upon me with a shock; an alarming shock to be precise, originating from the inconsiderate phone lying hidden among the folds of the bed sheet, or probably lying on the floor next to the bed kicked out during one of my usual subconscious acts that dramatically end in my waking up with a bad hangover. Dramatic I say because more often than not, after the nights when I ingest more poison that I know I am capable of digesting, I find myself waking up diagonally opposite and in complete disarray that it takes a few seconds to register I was sleeping, and the world is still sane.


Thoughts on titles, pictures and the infamous tags

Writers have always struggled with titles.

Giving a title to your post is adding a finality to it, as soon as you do that you would find yourself treading the line between making a point and being preachy. No writer ever in the history of mankind wanted to be classified as preachy, they have always looked down upon the seers and godmen who claim to know the secrets to life, universe and everything. The closest any writer has come to answering was Douglas Adams, and it seems that he found the concept so odd that he chose an even number.

Writers, unlike what the readers would want to believe, are equally clueless about the topic at hand, but they are aware of this cluelessness, which makes them ask the relevant questions, research the plausible answers and toil hard with reasoning. Thus, this very awareness makes them sound insightful and intelligent. The fact that you couldn’t express your content; be it ideas, stories, perspectives, in few words is evident from your verbose post you have ended up with in the first place. You definitely cannot summarize it in fewer words without compromising on the essence of the post. So coming up with a title, which in a way is a compressed summary must be a daunting task, and yet every writer has to do it. For without a title, a post is no different than the abandoned children of a promiscuous knight, except here; the writer knight gave birth and left the words to fight their own war.

When it comes to tagging a picture with a post, it must be even more confusing. Not only are you trying to summarize your post, but you are choosing a medium that is beyond your abilities, and not just the genre. A picture is also one step towards guiding the reader’s imagination as they consume your words. Take it to the extreme and you have a movie with each scene pre-imagined for the audience, it’s only when you think of the movie in retrospective that you tend to get involved, in the characters, in the emotions, or say in the story.

The sole purpose of a title or a tagged picture is to make the post more accessible to the wandering audience, one which expects some kind of stimulus to get involved. There are millions of posts that one comes across everyday making it imperative that there is a way to screen out the unwanted and unworthy, except both the writers and the readers suffer from the ineptitude of these tags to describe or summarize a post.


The travails of writing…

Disclaimer: Unlike other posts about my thoughts on various subjects, this has a personal tone, so if you are interested in the not so curious case of ESP you may proceed to read further.

Writing is said to be therapeutic and nowhere is it as often asserted as by the blog writers, a good number of which seem to be suffering in the mind. I had never came across so many people claiming to be depressed, to be struggling with anxiety, to be struggling with unsolvable health problems, to be suspended in the permanent state of quitting the blog if not other things in their lives. So we may safely conclude; as a snobbish statistician might do, that the assertion holds true. Writing must be indeed therapeutic, or at least writing blogs must be. But is it because of its therapeutic takeaways that people write, or they are driven by creativity and the therapy is a side effect.

If we delve into the nature of therapy, it’s never a voluntary exercise; in the sense that one indulges in therapy out of compulsion or with the intention that if done it might have some constructive benefits, unlike activities like entertainment, sports, alcohol, drugs, or better reading, the non-prescriptive enterprises taken up for fun.

Structure and routine are integral part of therapy, there is always a formal or austere intonation. One could cite examples like morning runs, medically supervised therapy, yoga, diet all of which adhere to a formal definition, they demand perseverance and faith. Writing, even if not therapy does have similar traits. It requires one to be disciplined, to be diligent, to organize one’s thoughts, to toil hard so as to present the thoughts in a manner that will be understood by a person who most likely won’t agree with you.

It must be evident to you, the reader who was interested in ESP’s personal front that I have been rambling again; about other people, hoping it includes you. It’s not that I am introvert, rather I go about telling my friends that I might be a famous poet that they are spending time with. The humorous effect of such coming out of the closet talks on my friends doesn’t deter me either. From all I read and gather on the subject, I might actually be a stupid extrovert. On the other hand, even the most extroverted guys appear quite the opposite when seen from the feminine perspective, we tend to hold back. Guys need some form of insanity, intoxication to really talk, and in cases like mine a few rounds of beer does the trick. That’s one reason why we consider women to be possessing an intrinsic insanity, things like intuition is crazy talk and if it comes out right makes it more so.

Coming back to the subject at hand, what I intended to write in this forever digressing post was that my life is not well suited to the asks of writing. I am usually (pardon this post) very particular about giving shape and structure to anything I write. This characteristic is derived from the field of work that pays my bills, it requires me to be precise, to make sense, to make people understand the problems and the proposed solutions. It is also motivated by my idea of doing something good, for not wasting time of my readers on random nonsense that I came up with in my glorious excursions to the chaotic world of thoughts thriving in my not so humble brain.

This field of work requires much use of the same brain cells, add to that other distractions that come with a socially acceptable life, aspects like love, commitments, and the non therapeutic fun activities. In this setup, I get time to write in pauses, and what I write appears(at least to me) to be undertakings in interpreting these pauses. But I wonder, most of my writing time for that matter is invested in these wonderings. I wonder if I had a life devoid of these distractions would I have become a great writer, or would I be blank because all this intrusion that life is, that my work is, in a way provides the material, the thoughts that the plausible writer in me pens down in the pauses. Do I denounce and blame or should I be thankful for the distractions, for the obstacles, for the pauses. Life itself might be a pause for the soul, and the purpose of living(for most of us) might be to write something beautiful.


Thoughts on interpretation

of Paean to the grateful heart and Limerick of the defiant infidel.

These poems are my attempts to recreate magic of Sufi poetry, the essence of which lies in its mysticism. The common element in such poetry is the inherent abstruseness of apparently prosaic feelings like truth, doubt, love, passion, death and God(or religion). Poets thrive in the crevices of dilemma one goes through when trying to give a concrete shape to such metaphysical aspects of life and existence. The ineffability can either be deferentially respected or be made available for consumption in the obscure way the subject matter demands. The mystic poets armed with languages enhanced for such esoteric descriptions chose the latter and have written masterpieces that even though one can never be sure of comprehending, they are a delight to read every time one attempts to do so.

My attempts, on the other hand are anything but feeble, they lack the beauty and profound thinking(which, I strive to improve). The only excuse I may use is the limitations of English language.

Paean to the grateful heart is a continuation of Limerick of the defiant infidel, or vice versa depending on how you read them. The poems compare and contrast how we go through the various phases as we live our lives, love a person or love God. The underlying themes in these poems are the travails of doubt, of being blinded with adoration, of losing oneself to the extent of obliterating the rest of the world(in a way death), and of coming to the realization that everything lies within the self.

If you have read my other posts and my comments on poems written by others, you would realize the contradiction in what I say above. I have always been a champion of not guiding the reader, or confirming with the author the intent and the interpretation of a poem. In this case though, I felt upbeat with my limited understanding of the subject and indulge in guiding the readers to read more than what is immediately apparent.


On sufi poetry, Hafez in particular.


on translation, and reading Hafez…

A translator of poetry faces a daunting task, even if he is the most adept, one who is good at writing poetry and knows both the source and the destination languages. The challenge lies at the essence of poetry, in the distinction between poetry and prose. Poetry has content, just like prose but content in poetry is inseparable from form, which makes content incoherent to the reader interested in dissecting the poem. Prose on the other hand is devised around the author telling a story or trying to present a thesis defending his opinion. In other words content by itself dictates prose, aspects of flow, rhythm and structure do make prose beautiful but they undermine the powerful core, or to be precise distract the reader from the content which is the immediate goal. Thus we can read and still appreciate translated prose, most likely romantically wondering how much more beautiful it must be in the original form. On the other hand, translated poetry feels either too foreign or too uninspired. We inevitably come to questioning the validity of grandeur and wonder why those poets are so renowned in their home countries.

The motivation of this post is to highlight my struggle in reading the great Farsi poet Hafez. I searched for the best English translations to no avail, maybe none exists or ever will. (Rewriting Hafez)

But then there is the other great Farsi poet Rumi who is popular in the west, which would imply the translation of Rumi’s poetry didn’t compromise the beauty of original work. In Iran though, Hafez is considered the greatest poet, every household apparently has a copy of Quran and Divan-e-Hafez (The book in every Iranian home) . So what is about poetry of Hafez that makes it literally untranslatable whereas Rumi is not. It seems, Rumi’s style is minimal in the sense it lacks embellishment, it’s more like philosophy – soulful yet direct and honest. Hafez on the other hand had an immense grasp of the language, his choice of words brings contradiction, conflict, branches out in overlapping planes of love, god, soul and angst for hypocrisy. The rise of mysticism in Persia led to enhancement in the poetic vocabulary since the mystics believed that only poetry could describe the elusive phenomena like life and god. So they enriched the language in a way that poets could exploit, be ambiguous yet profound in the same way we see the mystical world around us. So Farsi gave poets like Hafez ammunition to develop a form so blatant and overwhelming that it enabled his poetry to contain multifarious content simultaneously for the reader to unravel and relish.

The task of a translator is to present the content as it is, preserving the form as much as his talents may allow. In case of poetry though, one fails on both fronts since the content is eclipsed or closely tied with form, and form usually relies on nuances, in the import of wordplay and metaphors firmly rooted in the original culture and humor.

Our understanding of the world, life and everything is no different from a translation in the sense that we are trying to express the inexpressible in a language of our choice when the original is either not understood by us or is part of our consciousness, the contents of which are ineffable. Even the simplest of feelings or a sensation is indescribable when we get down to writing a poem.

Further reading:

English translations of Hafez

Translating first ghazal of Hafez

One more translation, how it must be done!