When I lived in Observatory, a trendy yet slightly grotty old Anglo suburb in Cape Town, there was a jazz club called Tagore’s. It was a pokey little Victorian building with standing room only when bands were playing. Towards the end of my six-year sojourn in the Cape, it became increasingly popular to have poetry evenings centred on radical black nationalism and incarnadine feminist grievance exercise. This was in large part driven by the cultural revolution sparked in 2015 at the nearby University of Cape Town. Fallism became the scaffolding on which all artistic vines had to spout or else be careful to grow in the shade. My dogmatic attachment to a non-racialist idea of our nationhood put me at odds with just about everyone for those last ugly three years.
I knew vaguely that Tagore was some sophisticated writer, maybe North African, had something to do with spirituality and postcolonial politics, the sort any good postcolonial intellectual was supposed to know, but being obsessed with politics and history in Africa and the Anglosphere at the expense of literature, I never took time out of my day to read his works until a week ago, when I stumbled into an English bookstore in the Hague, and recognised his name on the orange spine of a Penguin Classic. I bought the book, drank my complimentary tea and biscuit, and set about it, reading through the introduction and preface with some increasing interest. Rabindranath Tagore turns out to be a fascinating individual, but quite aside from his person (whom I encourage any reading this to investigate), I was rather surprised to find that many of my experiences with revolutionaries in South Africa mirrored the spiritual dynamics of the novel I was reading, The Home and the World.
It’s a novel set during the rise of the swadeshi movement after Lord Curzon’s decision to partition Bengal. It began under the Sikh sect called the Namdharis, and became an anticolonial Bengali nationalist movement which centred on the use of boycotts: boycotts of British courts, British laws, British education, and British goods, even other imported goods. However, this often required highly oppressive and terroristic tactics, since much of the population benefited from trade in low-cost quality overseas goods, and the merchant class and their customers always prefer to operate without restraint. Production in India was generally very expensive due to the high degree of labour organisation and the low degree of acquaintance with modern manufacturing technology, caused by a Luddite unionist attitude.
Tagore’s novel focuses on three characters; the cosmopolitan maharaja and conditional follower of the movement, Nikhil, his devoted young wife Bimala, and his friend the firebrand revolutionary Sandip. Nikhil is bound by an attachment to principles, and wants to do good, without compromising on truth or righteousness. He invests in local Swadeshi enterprises even though they show no real profits, and purchases their goods. On the other hand, he stocks his house with modern, European goods, and dresses his wife in the latest English fashions. Bimala wishes only to give herself up to something. That something is at first her husband, to whom she shows such reverence and devotion that it occasionally unsettles him. But as Sandip arrives, she is encouraged by her husband to engage with people outside the house, and her first window to the world, which in all its aspects is alien to her sheltered eyes, is through the flame-tinted lenses of the revolutionary nationalist.
Where Nikhil is reserved and appropriate, Sandip is volatile and transgressive. He seduces Bimala in spirit, first to the cause of the nation, by draping her self-image with garlands of nation-worship, conflating her in every comparison with the goddess of the Bengali nationalists, Bande Mataram. Her sensitivity and self-consciousness of her less-than alabaster complexion transmutes into a violent pride, which drives her to wish for the destructive and even nihilistic dreams of glory Sandip weaves for her.
Sandip echoes so many characters of high literature, taking on the characteristics of Milton’s Lucifer and Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov. He sees the truth and righteousness as a petty inconvenience, the slavish trappings of weak men, and vacillates between strident declarations of principle, and nihilism, relativism, atavism and naked lust for power. Anything which serves his greed, hunger and ego is employed, inflating his slippery, yet potent and forceful will through the seduction and submission of others by any means.
At many points, the comparison to these two other characters is palpable – Sandip believes in the ability of specially endowed men to create their own morality through their command of others, much as Raskolnikov does, an imitation of the leading lights of Revolutionary Nationalists from Napoleon to Mussolini, and of wild ideologues in the universal mould such as Jan van Leiden or Joseph Stalin, and firebrands like Saint-Just or Adolph Hitler.
Sandip quotes a poem supposedly by a famous poet (generally thought to be of Tagore’s own composition):
Come, Sin, O Beautiful Sin,
Let thy stinging red kisses pour down fiery red wine into our blood.
Sound the trumpet of imperious evil
And cross our forehead with the wreath of exulting lawlessness,
O Deity of Desecration,
Smear our breasts with the blackest mud of disrepute, unashamed.
It bears an unmistakable spiritual resemblance to the quote from Satan in Paradise Lost,
Farewell remorse; all good to me is lost.
Evil, be thou my good.
Only, the picture of the sinful rebellion is augmented in Tagore beyond the mere spiteful inversion in Milton, and given colour through the erotic, the intoxicating, and the cruel. It is this Kali-esque, orgiastic element which Tagore seeks to bring out in his revolutionary characters. In the short story Purification, very similar in structure to The Home and the World, he even calls the firebrand wife of the politically moderate protagonist “Kalika”, a woman callously indifferent to the suffering of those targeted by the nationalists. What is expressed then, is a threefold path to evil, in which each aspect blurs together. The constant refrain of intoxication and wild abandon, the erotic greed and the constant intertwinement with gleeful destruction, recalls tastes of the Freudian death drive, a gleeful embrace of entropy.
It is appropriate then, that the goddess Kali herself is derived from the feminine personification of time. The Zoroastrians, who share an origin with Hinduism in the centuries of the writing of the Rig Veda, see the world as dualistic – torn between Asha (creation, order, goodness and truth), and Druj (destruction, chaos, evil and deception). In my mind, I have always connected the Zoroastrian spirit of druj with the thermodynamic law of entropy, the inexorable trend towards chaos and homogeneity in a closed system.
It seems to me that the hedonism and self-worship, as well as the spiteful egalitarianism and persecutory homogenisation of society under revolutionary movements bear an unmistakable similarity wherever they occur. Whether under Adolph Hitler, Vladimir Lenin, Mao, Robespierre and Saint-Just, Pol Pot or al-Baghdadi, the hallmarks are identical: the right to indulge as you please, vicious punishment against those who exercise moral judgment, and a celebration of destruction. The nation, the party, the state, is elevated to the sacred, and given a divine aspect which demands blood sacrifice.
The left tradition is quite clearly such a force. While the charitable instincts in ideologically associated, but not committed men can always be drawn to support the ideals of the revolutionary, and they may even share campaigns and podiums, they are ultimately doomed to betray one another. Tagore spotted this, but fell short of realising the tragic reality – that the promise of heaven on earth is a false one. As Peter Hitchens once said, utopia can only be approached over an ocean of blood, and you never get there. Tagore, like myself for most of my life, imagined that somehow we could find a shallow ford or bridge which would allow society to reach the other side while rising above the crimes of human destruction.
Unfortunately, it is our lot to make our homes in the desert of the real, or else risk ruin. I admit there is a risk in this sort of barren realism though too, one should not deny. A student of South African history may recall the debate between the United Party and the newly formed Nationalist party as Smuts was on his way out. Jan-Hendrik Hofmeyr, the nephew of the man who started the Afrikaanse Taalbeweging, was a committed universalist Christian, and believed that through gradual expansion of the old model of the Cape Franchise (which allowed access to the vote for any man who held property, regardless of colour), eventually, all South African could be peacefully united under a Western, Christian banner. Archetypical colonial naïvité, sure to be seen as patronising to all parties.
By seeking a gradual integration of the races, and opposing the removal of the Coloured and Indian franchise, Hofmeyr tested the patience of hardline Afrikaans nationalists, who had just achieved franchise for all white men and women, and could see there was no way within their racially defined interests to offer the same to the rest of the territory’s occupants. He was accused, for his principled attachment to a Christian “trusteeship”, of “flinging himself ineffectively at heaven”, a charge which could hardly be lain at the feet of the brutal, self-interested pragmatism of the Nationalists.
Tagore, modelling the second protagonist in the novel after himself, made him into a universalist Indian nationalist, who welcomed all castes, clans and creeds to melt together in one brilliant flourish of human colour.
Come, O Aryans, come, non-Aryans, Hindus and Mussulmans—
Come today, O Englishmen, come, Oh come, Christians!
Come, O Brahmin, cleansing your mind
Join hands with all—
Come, O Downtrodden, let the burden
Of every insult be forever dispelled.
Make haste and come to Mother’s coronation, the vessel auspicious
Is yet to be filled
With sacred water sanctified by the touch of all
By the shore of the sea of Bharat’s Great Humanity!
Unfortunately, there is a degree of mutual exclusivity in traditions, and it is rather hard for mankind to step off the continental shelf of their rooted tradition into the bottomless gulf of the rootless universal. It is for this reason that the West had to create its own new universal traditions, through Human Rights and Marxism. These petty substitutes for revealed religion have their own dogmas and catechisms, and draw the same kind of mad, faith based fervor seen in jihad or crusade, cementing their foundations in the world through massive bloodshed and terror.
Their constant appeal to “progress” demands a boycott of history, a burning of the looms of the oppressors, often with little notion of how to replace them, leaving society naked and unbound in its wake. It is easy to see how Marxism went wrong, how Nationalism turned to poison, blood and ashes, but how Liberalism and human rights have failed requires an appeal only certain political partisans are open to observing. It may well be that this fire of progress is as driven by material advance as by Luciferian ideologies, but in either case, it seems to dissolve almost every delicate and refined thing in the world, and sow destruction, temptation, intoxication and wrath wherever it steps foot. The trouble with the gentler progressivism, is that it is just as corrosive, only slower, and often fails to condemn revolutionary excess, often choosing to fend off conservatism and reaction as a first priority.
In his constant dreamlike interweaving of the images of revenge, justice and liberation in his firebrand speeches, and his willful assertion of his desires like royal decrees, Sandip drags the dust of the world into the hearth of the home, and sets fire to the moral fabric of the budding family. By manipulating Bimala to steal from and to resent her husband, to lust for another, and to desire, as he does, the wild abandon of destruction and command, he shows us something that all foolish tyrants and firebrands display, a disregard for the quality of consequence, so long as it is great in magnitude.
In his final days in the bunker, Adolph Hitler is reported to have declared that, by losing the war, the German people have shown themselves deserving of destruction, even annihilation. The feelings of suicidal shame were extended to the whole nation, just as his resentment burned through European Jewery, and his frustrations and hubris ground Europe into mincemeat and mud.
On his way up, the revolutionary leader will always embrace the creed of “by any means necessary”. While some mean this sincerely (e.g., Mandela, Gandhi), and restrict condoned behaviour to a proportional response, most prefer this phrase to mean “by any means available“. I recognised this in its full glory in the broken, anxious nihilism of the Fallists. They were winning at every stage, yet with their gains and their advances, they became angrier, more anxious, self-loathing and nihilistic. Debating with those who would talk to me, a repeating refrain was not merely a desire to wreak revenge on white South Africa, but a flagrant disregard for any potential costs to fellow Africans. With a kind of wild-eyed energy, or a grim-dark stonehearted affirmation, I was often told that the revolution would be bloody and dark, and many would die, but that it had to happen to free their souls.
Beyond that, the shape of their program revolved entirely around a reversal of the old apartheid order, rather than the comparably modest levelling of economic differences and promotion of native culture. In dark cafés, like the Observatorian Café Ginesha, I found myself surrounded by brooding young men debating in grim, consensual tones, the correct solution to the problem of whites. Should they be made into slaves, fish food or dog meat? It was all a matter of what felt most like the most poetic nemesis to the dead, reenacted in effigy upon the living.
The limbic taint in the eyes of the radicals as they pronounced endless contradictory, mendacious, distorted justifications for violence, historical revisionism, artistic destruction, and the necessity of homogeneity of thought was enough to settle in my mind once and for all, that the revolutionary spirit was a demon, and the spirit of progress which stoked the fires, was a slavish, useful accomplice. Nikhil gave shelter and succour to Sandip, and was betrayed by the fickle heart of a woman who felt her beauty was insufficient for her husband. Tagore gave support to the very movement he would end up denouncing for its ethnic cleansing. I gave my support to the Fallists, and needed to see the whites of their eyes before I saw the blackness of their souls.
Tagore’s jazz club closed down a year before I left. The owner, a Burmingham-born Jamaican-Brit with a pensive aspect and sanguine demeanour, tall, lean, and greying from beard to locks, was drawn back to England for the sake of ailing family. But in his last days managing the bar, he expressed a distaste with the classless hedonism, open spite and disrespect shown by the emerging class of radicals. He was getting sick of pinching pennies and borrowing rent to run the small club, and no longer felt he was drawing the kind of crowd he enjoyed spending time with. He would, when I first came to Cape Town, often be found upstairs, sharing a cigarette with his clientele, relaxing after a sneaky joint in the small outdoor space around the back, eager in his relaxed way, to discuss music and poetry, the occasional reflexion on politics and culture.
I never got to know him well. My instinct was, that as a minor, local celebrity, he did not want too much attention, especially from young, immature stoners with one too many beers in their tanks. But I get the feeling that while he was no conservative, he was perhaps more Nikhil than Sandip. From articles online, I glean that he was a journalist, part of the anti-apartheid movement. I feel that campaigning against that sort of injustice requires little more than a sense of humanity and a good flask of courage, though courage and humanity can often be in short supply when tyranny abounds. In those days, I found that while others were abandoning their humanity, I was finding myself dry of the courage to make any reply. Thus faded my years in Cape Town, little more than a spectator.