The Death of Vishnu – Experience and Worldly Pleasure

Considering Manil Suri’s ‘The Death of Vishnu’ further, exploring the various characters inhabiting the apartment block on which stairs Vishnu lays feverish seeing out his final days, I find a lovely subtle emphasis on experience. As my last post illustrates, Mr Jalal is seeking a religious experience through his bare-foot wanderings in the park, quiet moments under a banyan tree and sleeping on the floor, while Vishnu reminisces past sensuous encounters with his lady of the night Padmini, and the widower Vinod on the top floor has accepted the transcience of his marriage experience, acutely aware that ‘he had already experienced whatever there was to be experienced between a husband and a wife, that he had shared a part of himself with another person in a way too profound to be duplicated’ (256).
         I suppose we find a host of characters at different points throughout life looking back fondly at experiences gone, ploughing forward in search of new half-known experiences, existing without experience, or in the case of the Asrani’s daughter on the cusp of experience hoping to run away with the boy she loves while also meeting suitable marriage candidates to satisfy her mother.

        I’m not really sure if I have a neat concise point to convey, but I’m sure there is something to be said about the way everyone in some way is experiencing or reacting to experience, especially in India where there is so much stimulus to be filtered and absorbed whether it’s customs, religion, love, relationships, family life or city life, essentially trying to deal with it all. It’s nothing like the simplicity of the West where in contrast to the heat in anything and everything there is a permeating coldness that disconnects people and isolates them to an extent, perhaps a more easily manageable extent.
        And so we come to a passage in ‘Vishnu’ where Vinod visits an Ashram [a kind of monastary, a holy place] to pass his time in retirement and takes in the words of a Swamiji [a religious figure]:

”How long can man live for himself?’ he would ask his audience. ‘How long can he allow the rule of the jungle to govern him? Plundering the pleasures he fancies, acting on every pinprick of desire, a slave to the promise of wealth, a puppet to the callings of the flesh?
        ‘And yet. If he doesn’t sate himself at this stage, he will never graduate to the next. He must drink from the pool of selfish gratification until he is sure he will be thirsty no more. Until he realises that his body and all it desires is just maya – no more real than the reflection that stares back from that very pool from which he is drinking. It can take many lifetimes, but I have seen it done in a single existence, or even half an existence.’
        ‘And there will come a day, when all attachment is relinquished, when there is no memory of desire, of hunger, of pain, and then, only then, will he know what true freedom is.’ – p.283

Experience and the negation of experience – we indulge so we no longer need to indulge, in fact indulgence ceases to exist – once again there’s something of Freud’s Death Instinct in these concepts. And like Mr Jalal’s religious journey and the short-lived elopement of the Asrani’s daughter and Vishnu’s life and death on the steps, there seems to be a poignant cyclical quality to it all.

Published in: on January 8, 2010 at 12:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

Women in Love – The Death Instinct, Love and Tennyson

For one of my final undergrad modules in English I did a course on Freud and Shakespeare, which was by far the most interesting of the special subjects talking of repressed desires and such things, during which time we touched on The Death Instinct or Death Wish.  To summarise, Dreams are a vehicle of wish fulfillment, but why then, as Freud observed, were patients reliving traumatic events through their dreams, especially those returning from the war with no physical injuries.  This prompted a revision of Dream Theory.  What followed determined that the repetition of events painful to the psyche were in fact an attempt at nullifying the trauma through a kind of desensitising, ie. the more you hear a funny joke the less funny it gets or the more you watch a horror film the less scary it becomes, therefore the more you relive a traumatic experience the less truamatic it becomes.  There are also elements of control attached to such an exercise so that subjects are perhaps seeking to impose control over the traumatic event.  Now, the death instint is actually manifested in this desire for negating stimulus, in effect to be completely desensitised, returning to a state of non-being.  Controversial.
The poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson is fantastically fruitful when it comes to applying these theories.  But first, Lawrence’s Women in Love, just after a young character is swept away by a flowing stream and lost forever:

'Do you think they are dead?' she cried in a high voice, to make
herself heard.

'Yes,' he replied.

'Isn't it horrible!'

He paid no heed. They walked up the hill, further and further away from
the noise.

'Do you mind very much?' she asked him.

'I don't mind about the dead,' he said, 'once they are dead. The worst
of it is, they cling on to the living, and won't let go.'

She pondered for a time.

'Yes,' she said. 'The FACT of death doesn't really seem to matter much,
does it?'

'No,' he said. 'What does it matter if Diana Crich is alive or dead?'

'Doesn't it?' she said, shocked.

'No, why should it? Better she were dead--she'll be much more real.
She'll be positive in death. In life she was a fretting, negated

'You are rather horrible,' murmured Ursula.

'No! I'd rather Diana Crich were dead. Her living somehow, was all
wrong. As for the young man, poor devil--he'll find his way out quickly
instead of slowly. Death is all right--nothing better.'

'Yet you don't want to die,' she challenged him.

He was silent for a time. Then he said, in a voice that was frightening
to her in its change:

'I should like to be through with it--I should like to be through with
the death process.'

'And aren't you?' asked Ursula nervously.

They walked on for some way in silence, under the trees. Then he said,
slowly, as if afraid:

'There is life which belongs to death, and there is life which isn't
death. One is tired of the life that belongs to death--our kind of
life. But whether it is finished, God knows. I want love that is like
sleep, like being born again, vulnerable as a baby that just comes into
the world.'

Ursula listened, half attentive, half avoiding what he said. She seemed
to catch the drift of his statement, and then she drew away. She wanted
to hear, but she did not want to be implicated. She was reluctant to
yield there, where he wanted her, to yield as it were her very

'Why should love be like sleep?' she asked sadly.

'I don't know. So that it is like death--I DO want to die from this
life--and yet it is more than life itself. One is delivered over like a
naked infant from the womb, all the old defences and the old body gone,
and new air around one, that has never been breathed before.' -p.160
For further illumination read Tennyson’s ‘The Kraken’:
Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides: above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon huge sea-worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.  
Read also, ‘Tears idle tears, I know not what they mean’:

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather in the eyes,
In looking on the happy autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.

   Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,
That brings our friends up from the underworld,
Sad as the last which reddens over one
That sinks with all we love below the verge;
So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more.

   Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half-awakened birds
To dying ears, when unto dying eyes
The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;
So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.

   Dear as remembered kisses after death,
And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feigned
On lips that are for others; deep as love,
Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;
O Death in Life, the days that are no more!

An excellent poem full of that confusion in longing for something greater which seems to lie before existence perhaps.

Now back to Lawrence’s Women in Love:

Ursula, now pining for the man she is in love with, Rupert Birkin the man who wants something more than love, like Birkin expresses a peculiar longing for the peace and tranquility afforded by death, employing a wonderful metaphor that seems to echo Tennyson’s marvellous poem ‘The Lotus-Eaters’:

The knowledge of the imminence of
death was like a drug…
She knew all she had to know,
she had experienced all she had to experience, she was fulfilled in a
kind of bitter ripeness, there remained only to fall from the tree into
After all, when one was fulfilled, one was happiest in falling into
death, as a bitter fruit plunges in its ripeness downwards. Death is a
great consummation, a consummating experience. – pp.164-5, DHLawrence, Women in Love

Compare to Tennyson’s ‘The Lotus-Eaters’ published almost 90 years before WIL:

The full-juiced apple, waxing over-mellow,
Drops in a silent autumn night.
All its allotted length of days,
The flower ripens in its place,
Ripens and fades, and falls, and hath no toil,

…All things have rest, and ripen toward the grave
In silence; ripen, fall and cease:
Give us long rest or death, dark death, or dreamful ease.