Last week I was part of a workshop for parents and teachers of Udhbhavaha school in Bangalore. The methodology (based on A.K. Saran’s ‘Illuminations’) was to read through some short passages, discuss them in small groups and then present it to the other participants. The passages are taken from the works of authors like Ananda Coomaraswamy, Franz Kafka, Simone Weil etc. who have written about modernity and its effects on us. The words are mostly not very complicated but a participant told me that she was having trouble understanding many passages and I asked her to give me a specific example. She pointed to:
“Association with human beings lures one into self-observation.” (This is from ‘Wedding Preparations in the Country’ by Franz Kafka)
I told her what I thought it meant and told her it was just my interpretation and she had to try to figure it out for herself. I also went through one or two more passages with her and when she got into her small group discussion she seemed to have an easier time with the passages. The first thing that you notice when you get into a group discussion is that everyone comes up with different, sometimes contradictory, interpretations and this opens us up to different ways of looking at things. Over the course of the discussions we realize that what we take to be the certain meaning is actually very tentative and the passages are open to many interpretations.
I was wondering why she was having trouble understanding passages written in simple language and talking to her I had a moment of insight. I realized that she was trying to get a clear, certain meaning out of the passages because her long educational training taught her to not tolerate any tentativeness. She needed to close the loop on each of the passages by fixing the meaning in her head and many of the passages were not allowing her to do so. It made me realize that there were two different paradigms involved here. The paradigm of the certain pushed hard by mainstream modern education and the paradigm of the tentative that is probably related to the older slower-moving world that had the unknowable mystery of life itself as its centre.
‘In Broken Images’ by Robert Graves seemed to put this whole experience in its proper context. The poet says:
He is quick, thinking in clear images;
I am slow, thinking in broken images.
He becomes dull, trusting to his clear images;
I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images.
Trusting his images, he assumes their relevance;
Mistrusting my images, I question their relevance.
Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact;
Questioning their relevance, I question the fact.
When the fact fails him, he questions his senses;
When the fact fails me, I approve my senses.
He continues quick and dull in his clear images;
I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.
He in a new confusion of his understanding;
I in a new understanding of my confusion.