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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Idealistic horrors

Ideals? Yes, it is important to have some ideals, especially in a world which is rapidly becoming gross, totally obsessed with the here and now, convinced that just about everything goes, and mindlessly materialistic, nowhere better illustrated than by the way caring for skin, hair, teeth and nails has become a multi-billion dollar industry, promising to keep you eternally young and appealing, utterly at odds with the ineluctable fact that no matter how much we try and spend, we are all going to grow old and fusty, and then die and be forgotten all too soon, all of us except the blessed few who leave valuable things behind, and not even they for very long… It is important to love living things rather than gadgets, it is important to dream (and not just about making money!), it is important to hold on to certain non-negotiable values simply because one is convinced that they are good in themselves, it is important to believe that there’s more to life than bestial, sensual existence, even if that is a five-star existence… that’s the sort of thing I mean. And so (see my post titled 'Skepticism and cynicism') I celebrate when I see young people who do have some ideals, and I take my hat off to elderly people who still retain a few.

I am, however, congenitally the kind of person who is wary of wild enthusiasms of any sort, especially idealistic ones. It is possible to be too idealistic. One can simply be bone-lazy all one’s life and pass it off as an effect of idealism – I have personally known far too many people of the sort. They do no good to themselves and remain burdens on their families and friends lifelong, myriad forever-just-about-to-become-great artists and philosophers among them. The type is not unique to any particular age or race, but I am ashamed that there’s a preponderance of such folks among my own people, the Bengalis. Then there are people who are truly idealistic, loving, caring, deeply spiritual, but such a one too can be a cross for others to bear. The great medieval Marathi saint Tukaram wrote a song in a moment of total candour that while he spent all his time praising the Lord, the cow ate up the vegetables from his stall, while his wife wept and cursed him for not feeding his own children. In today’s world the type has grown pretty uncommon, but not extinct.

What led me to write this essay, however,  was this article about how the very great romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was not, in real personal life, halfway as wonderful a man as he comes across through his poetry. One shudders to think of the dichotomy, really, and thanks heaven that he never got a chance to ‘remould the world nearer to heart’s desire’, in Omar Khayyam’s words. It is this type who, when they do get a chance to wield power over men’s bodies and minds, become Robespierres and Lenins: and millions rue the day they stopped writing poetry and started making and executing laws. No wonder Shelley’s long-suffering wife fiercely wanted her son to become just a normal, ordinary man!

As my dear old boy Abhirup says, quoting a line from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I only seem to have a ‘choice of nightmares’. What would I rather have: a world with more Shelleys in it, or one filled with dumb and crass teenagers (of all ages… see my post titled 'Juvenilia') living it up at the pubs and shopping malls as if there need be no tomorrow?

[P.S.: The results of the poll have been fixtured at the bottom of the right hand sidebar]


Debarshi Saha said...

Respected Sir,

Warm regards. I believe that most men of great creative genius and ability have this constant war with themselves in their own hearts..Which to give power over the other?..Their ideals,no matter how unrealistic,seem to be the secret keys to humanity's salvation or even freedom..as they like to think..On the other hand,is the common opinion,which is often very sound and logical..but,sharing that view makes them feel at one with the masses..sharing their view seems a crime to these great people..In this long-drawn out silent battle,the promise of greatness,not fleeting or transitory,but eternal..beckons them..while common sense,to them,masquerades as mediocrity...a thing to be shunned..In all of Shelley's actions,we see different personas..all of which imbibe the quality of a man shunning respected ideals..these gifted persons have the ability to empathize with all..but do they really feel?..Sometimes,it would seem not..All of the great authors I love to read..displayed a lack of feeling for their near and dear ones..their love is idealistic,and not realistic..I believe creative genius is best harnessed in solitude,in passion about dispassion..and without too many complicating factors..It is a winged angel of inspiration,which comes but rarely..and once aloft its wings..one can never touch down.

All the same,I would recount the very true lines from a song in the movie 'Aamir(2008)'...

"Chahe kitni shamayein raushan kar le,
Dhoop to jal jayegi,jal jayegi..."

Its a reminder about how ultimately all human actions prove insignificant,but to achieve significance to oneself..to prove worthy of oneself..that might be the greatest duty for us all..This is where Shelley wins.

Yours obediently,

shrestha pal said...

Dear sir,
In today's world people are so keen to look young and beautiful that they even go for a nail spa.I wonder how such a trivial part of the body can make people look drastically young.Even most of the cosmetic products which claim to make a 40 year old woman look like a girl of sweet sixteen are not available in the market after six months.Even after using them how many of them look like a girl of sweet sixteen?well,I haven't come across even one such person in my seventeen years of life.

Shilpi said...

I was hoping for a post of this sort. It took me awhile to figure out why you're talking about the 'Shelleys' and the crass teenagers, and your 'choice of nightmares'. I'm still not absolutely sure...

1. I don’t remember ever reading all of that about Shelley, but Ken Wilber talked a bit about those romantic poets (and actually also a faint bit about those useless romantic lazy-bums too, if I remember right). I'd thought then that it was indeed a very good thing that the temperamental Shelley stuck to writing, and not in trying to ‘mould the world nearer to heart’s desire’. And don’t they say that Hitler became the horrible man that he was only because he failed as an artist….?


2. I don’t see how Shelley did something horribly ruthless by writing on atheism. What was he supposed to have done to maintain the ‘peace of the family’? It wasn't as if his family was abused for his beliefs. He just got expelled.

3. He felt that the materialistic stuffy place was bad for his sisters and had wanted to take them away but didn’t kidnap them. He didn’t try to force anybody else to lead a bohemian lifestyle.

4. I do think he was horribly unkind with his first wife from what is given, and he most likely was a most unfit father.

5. He wasn't particularly good or honest since he was borrowing and not repaying money (that makes me wonder how idealistic he really was), but it seems Godwin swindled him more than a fair bit, maybe because Shelley himself was somewhat na├»ve and maybe a little empty headed? I was saddened to read about Leigh Hunt (and why did they go around buying pianos that they couldn’t pay for? – Why pianos?)

6. I didn't get why his family members were so frightened of him or jumped if they heard a dog barking. Did Shelley sound like a dog barking or what?

7. Maybe most other people couldn't live with him; couldn't bear him. He most likely was awfully temperamental, basically unbalanced, moody, frivolous and terribly careless, cruel too (in how he flippantly treated his first wife), dishonest, and maybe/maybe not a particularly nice man to know but I don’t see any instance of terrible violence or manhandling or brutality. But at least he stuck to writing no matter what else…and left behind writings and poems, a few of which even the likes of me can read and understand (what will the crass teenagers and juveniles leave behind?)

I certainly wouldn’t want a man like that having anything to do with the laws of a land. I wouldn't want any of the romantic poets or even some of the writers I genuinely like and admire to be engaged in lawmaking or in running a country, no matter how idealistic and fantastic they sound on paper. They should be allowed to write their 'ballads', not make laws. (And for the most part, writers are probably very different from their actual selves and in uninteresting ways, which is why I wouldn't want to meet very many writers whom I like reading, and can't/am not allowed to meet the ones I'd very much like to!). But this comment isn't over as yet...

Rajdeep said...

"I only seem to have a ‘choice of nightmares’ What would I rather have: a world with more Shelleys in it, or one filled with dumb and crass teenagers (of all ages…"

Well, previous conversations with you suggest that you do not have much respect for the likes of geniuses like Shelley and his ilk. Please correct me if I am wrong. I don't have much respect either. I found out (and still am finding out) that a lot of geniuses I had admired earlier due to my incomplete knowledge were mere scums in their private lives, often living off the benevolence of others and taking advantage of their unconditional devotion. It was probably sheer luck that they had such devoted people around! My conclusion was that most of the stories we hear about some geniuses are partisan views promoted by themselves or some fans that create this illusion.

But I am very unsure about this subject to talk much at length. Forgive my ignorance. At this stage, I have no answer to "a world with more Shelleys in it, or one filled with dumb and crass teenagers (of all ages." A very disturbing and difficult choice indeed.

To encourage more Shelley's would be a disrespect to the few brave geniuses who lived with far more dignity. While to have dumb teenagers and consumers who are very content to go shopping at shopping malls or buy the latest fads... well, it is very easy to govern such a country and manipulate whenever necessary! They will after all never know much, never question as long as the shopping malls are there...

Allow me to change the topic a bit and go to sports. I was once a big fan of Deigo Maradona, like I am now of Messi. Messi still hasn't messed up like Maradona did, as well as not won the world cup yet. But that is a different story.

What disturbed me then and continues to torment me even now is Maradona's (in)famous comment that if it was so easy to make a Maradona just by taking drugs, then give the other players drugs and prove how many Maradona's can be made! (Sorry, I forgot the exact quote so have not used quotation symbols).

A final question: Why do we have a world where we only have ‘choice of nightmares’ despite all the progress that we talk about? Does mankind believe only in self deception?

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thank you for commenting, Shilpi and Rajdeep. I was beginning to feel sad that this post caught nobody's attention at all.

I haven't really said that Shelley was a 'bad' man, Shilpi, only that in his own real life he failed to live up to the very lofty standards/ideals he preached in his poetry. And yes, while he was not guilty of overt violence, he was not, apparently, a good man to live with or grow up with ... things which I consider very important for a man to be, as you know, before he presumes to lecture the world on how to live better. And I do think it is dangerous for such men to get hold of the levers of political power, though there have been exceptions.

Rajdeep, it is not that I do not try to admire the Shelley type of genius, but that I feel sad that I cannot. I wish they were greater men, closer to their own ideals. As for your last question, while I do not entirely disbelieve in the idea of progress, I am quite sure that most of the 'progress' most people talk about is silly or fake. I mean, the abolition of slavery might indeed be called progress, but a TV in every household is not progress of any significant sort, that much I am sure about.

Abhirup said...

Dear Sir,

I agree entirely with you when you say that we must be "wary of wild enthusiasms of any sort, especially idealistic ones." Such "wild enthusiasms" have indeed been the driving factor behind some of the worst atrocities and mishaps in the history of human civilization, and yeah, they should be discouraged.

However, I must say that this particular article has failed to convince me that Shelley was not a good man, nor has it lessened my admiration for him significantly. I know about his financial misdemeanors, and I agree that he shouldn't have behaved thus. I agree, also, that his treatment of his first wife was inexcusable. But the other charges raised against him by Manas Das, the author of that article, certainly do not hold much water. I strongly support his refusal to retract his views on atheism: it requires guts to stick to one's convictions in the face of immense opposition. And I indict Shelley's father for his inability to respect his son's beliefs, and for failing to stand by his son during a difficult phase in the latter's life. I can also understand Shelley's desire to take his sisters away from the virulently materialistic atmosphere of his home. According to John Addington Symonds, who wrote a very comprehensive and well-researched biography of Shelley, Shelley's father and uncles were a thoroughly materialistic lot; they were the typical landed gentry, to whom their estate and property were virtually the only things that really mattered.

Abhirup said...


That Shelley--or any creative, sensitive person--would not be able to tolerate such people is all too understandable. And I am quite irritated by the phrase "rules of normal sexual behaviour" that Das has used. What exactly does he mean by "normal" sexual conduct? And why does he think that his definition of normal sexaulity should be accepted by everybody, including Shelley? Having relationships with multiple women doesn't necessarily tantamount to wickedness, just as being monogamous doesn't really make one a saint. And in any case, as the aforementioned biography of Shelley by Symonds, as well as the one written by James Bieri reveals, the actual details about Shelley's so-called affairs are sketchy at best; many are actually based on malicious rumours spread by people who were offended by his radical, unconventional views. The same applies to much of what Shelley's father said about him. Bieri writes, "Timothy Shelley's relation with his son soured forever after the 'Necessity of Atheism' scandal. He could never forgive his son for circulating a pamphlet so provocative and, in his opinion, scandalous. He felt that Percy Shelley has ruined the reputation of his family, and that a son who cares so little about the reputation of his father, who thinks not twice before spoiling it, has no place in his house. After Shelley refused to change his position on the issue of atheism, his father would never again speak of him with anything but derision." In the light of these facts, I doubt how far should we trust Timothy Shelley's claims about his son 'terrorizing' his mother and sisters.

Abhirup said...


As I said, I do criticize Shelley for the way he treated his first wife, Harriet, and for cheating others in monetary matters. But if we so desire, we can find shortcomings in almost all of those people whom we regard as great men. Harilal Gandhi, the eldest son of Mahatma Gandhi, always held that the Mahatma was a bad father. And if what has been said in the book 'Harilal Gandhi: A Life' by Chandulal Dalal is to be believed, Harilal had some genuine reasons for his grievance. Rabindranath Tagore, who so scathingly criticized the dowry system in his short story 'Denapaona', was guilty of paying dowry during his own daughter's marriage. I have read books and essays that are highly critical of Swami vivekananda, Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Paine, Nelson Mandela and Albert Einstein, as well as many other revered figures. And I am willing to concede that at least some of the charges against them are true. But does that mean that these were 'not very nice' men? Or that we should stop admiring them? Of course not. Great men aren't great because they are perfect, but because the positives in their character outweigh the negatives. So, I think, was the case with Shelley. Yeah, he was temperamental, and he could be deeply unpleasant to others, but at heart, he wasn't the "ruthless" and "brutal" man that Das alleges he was.

As for what Shelley would have done with political power, we can only speculate. He never demonstrated any desire to join politics and acquire the power to make and enforce rules. But even if he had, I somehow cannot imagine him as a bloodthirsty tyrant. A thoroughly incompetent statesman he could have been, I admit, but not a cruel mass-murderer. He was not fundamentally depraved. His contemporaries like Byron, Keats, Polidori and Thomas Love Peacock have described him as a man who is stubborn but not insensitive, moody but kind, prone to losing his temper but not violent by any means, and as someone who cared for others, be it the dog that had its ears cut off by the cruel kids of a nobleman or the Keats suffering from tuberculosis, the workers being exploited by their masters or Shelley's own family servants, whom he clandestinely helped with money stolen from his father. Above all, I do not think that any man who doesn't have a great deal of nobility in him can write something like 'To a Skylark', 'Ode to the West Wind', 'Ozymandias', 'The Cloud' or 'Promethues Unbound'. A malicious mind can only produce something like 'Mein Kampf'; it takes greatness of spirit to write any of the works I just mentioned.

Sorry for this rather long comment, and sorry if I have been rude in my disageerement. But I just cannot bring myself to dislike Shelley, at least not on the basis of what this particular article says.

Yours sincerely,
Abhirup Mascharak.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I hope you are right, Abhirup, yet I cannot get rid of this vague feeling of disquiet. At any rate, such thoughts will lurk disturbingly at the back of my mind any time I have to deal with one of Shelley's poems in class hereafter.

There must have been some mistake in my emphasis, though, because no one has yet taken any notice of the other two types of 'idealists' I happened to mention in this post...

Shilpi said...

Here's my second part....

As far as being idealistic goes, I think it’s best when people can act upon their values in their own lives, and (also) in connection to those real human beings whom they come across. Also, having some clear and firm values and being genuinely idealistic means, to me, putting one's money where one's mouth is…

But even here I’m sort of stumped on multiple counts because when a few people do that, they don’t come across as particularly sane or nice or normal or typical for one thing, and then for another, with all those myriad examples (I think you’d told me about Tukaram once when I was there one summer), I can't help thinking of what regular people would have to say about Meerabai, from one angle. I would say that she was infinitely greater than Shelley, but I don't know whether my word would count. And maybe now it might count for a bit more but what about in her time and space? - And other examples come to my mind as well. The Buddha, for one 'shimmers' in among other rare individuals.

- But this is one of the reasons that I wrote on Pupu's blog that the older I grow, my personal list of great people becomes an exceptionally mini list.

The ones who sit around - that is the lazy-bum romantics - I'm not so sure about this category, to be honest. Some of them might end up doing something 'useful' but it's a big 'might'. From the little I know of St.Francis, when he was in his early and late teens (although he wasn't exactly 'sitting around') - he didn't seem to have given anybody any reason to think that he would end up being who he became.

When one actually lives 'better' (or even tries earnestly), and lives up to one's ideals/values (because there is no other personal choice), it doesn't mean that it's 'easier' or always more interesting and exciting or that one is less lonely or absolutely certain or that the going is always smoother. And what do people who are observing from the outside see? - I honestly don't have any answers to this one but the one thing I keep going back to is that being idealistic in a genuine sense and in a way that matters means that one does end up being somewhat happier and/or gives happiness to some others, at some point.

I should probably end my comment here.

But as for that other bit - I am probably even more suspicious of those woo-hoo wild ‘idealistic enthusiasms’, which is why I’ve been raising my eyebrows at the Occupy Wall-Street thing that’s been going on. A bit about that maybe later.

I've got one specific question for now although there are other rumbling questions regarding those 'other idealistic types' - What would be the difference between 'ideals' and 'values'?

Suvro Chatterjee said...

'Values', in my book, are standards that I live by (e.g. punctuality, cleanliness, courtesy, and integrity of word and deed), while 'ideals' are men, standards, or goals I aspire to, as when I say the Buddha is my ideal...