|Sunday, 9 January 2005|
An invitation to renewal
Sunday Essay by Ajith Samaranayake
Death it was which wrote the end note for the year 2004. Never before had such chilling finality inscribed itself on the face of Sri Lanka as the leit motif of a year. The pathetic little white flags which came up in town and bazaar (in solidarity with the Southern and North-Eastern dead) was the starkest personification of the national tragedy which coincided with the expiry of this fateful year. It was a nation in mourning which greeted the sad advent of 2005 over the horizon.
And a desperate nation turned for solace to religion. The Government itself organised a multi-religious prayer meeting styled the 'Adishtana Pooja' which was not without its poignant moments.
But living as we do in a complex society where the old certainties and certitudes have crumbled we find it difficult to establish a connection with religion in the pristine sense of that term. It would be easier if we could believe in God or some other supernatural force which has irrevocably ordered things and from which pattern there can be no deviation.
Then such natural phenomena as earthquakes, floods and Tsunamis could be described as Acts of God. But in our day and age our heads are too cluttered with other kinds of knowledge which makes it difficult for us to return to such simplicities. Science has replaced faith but in the face of the unexpected calamity, the sudden natural disaster man is left unguarded and unprotected, defenceless and orphaned.
The loss of religious belief under the impact of Darwin during the Victorian era constitutes the theme of Matthew Arnold's celebrated poem "Dover Beach" which interestingly enough takes the sea as its central figure.
Arnold (1822-1888) saw himself as expressing the doubts of an age 'wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born. 'These were the world of religious faith and the world of doubt engendered by science. The poem opens with an evocative image of the beach by moonlight.
The sea is calm to-night,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair upon the straits; on the French coast, the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffts of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
Then come the famous lines where the poet uses onomatopoeia to telling effect:
Only from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back and fling,
At their return up the high strand,
Begin and cease and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
The poet remembers that long ago Sophocles had heard the same sound on the Aegean and that it had brought to his mind the 'turbid ebb and flow of human misery'.
Then comes the poet's central testament, the voicing of his doubts and confusion about the loss of faith in a scientific age.
The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
In the culminating lines Arnold says that the world which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams has neither joy, nor love nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain and ends with the well-known lines,
'And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Mythical global village
But if modern man has lost his faith and finds it difficult to reconnect himself to religion there is nevertheless the need to return to our spiritual roots if we are not to lose our way in the contemporary wasteland.
Even if we do not believe in institutionalised religion there is nevertheless a corpus of basic spiritual values which act as a moral compass and a guide in our journey through a treacherous and hostile world. For it is more and more clear that economic advancement or higher standards of living, increased GDP or membership of a mythical Global Village are not everything in life.
Our shopping malls may be resplendent, our technology the most advanced in history and our age the most comfortable to live in but all this only serve to conceal a fundamental spiritual impoverishment.
The popular culture emanating from our television sets only underscores and underlines the hollowness of our day-to-day living. Only when we are faced with a natural disaster beyond our comprehension to use the words of President Bush do we realise the enormity of our spiritual emptiness.
For the point is that contemporary life has become more and more mechanical and routine-bound even while our economies thrive and our standards of living improve.
In the advanced capitalist economies of the west economic goals and objectives have eclipsed all other considerations so that man has become a slave to the machinery of money-making and the mechanism of personal aggrandizement.
To that extent his spiritual and emotional life becomes impoverished and whatever time he has left after his money-making is spent as a captive to the television or the internet. The same is true of the metropolitan centres of Third World countries like Sri Lanka where the imitative urban elite and their upstart cohorts take great delight in aping the lifestyles which they see on television.
The great mass of the poor in these countries have little time for such games caught up as they are in the daily grind of life. Once again this sense of ennui is revealed in all its stark and bare contours only when the people are confronted with a natural disaster which they are not equipped to understand with their stock of rational scientific knowledge. For the more the experts spout geological or meteorological jargon over the media the more the victims are struck by the irrationality and the arbitrariness of the tragedy which had overtaken them.
However some silver linings could be detected in the all-enclosing dark cloud which covered the horizon on December 26. This was seen in the readiness and willingness of most people and particularly of the young to take part in the rescue and relief efforts.
They even engaged in the task of disposing of the decomposing bodies. This was quite in contrast to the violence and intolerance manifested only weeks before during the Sharukh Khan show when a group of young men and bhikkhus protested against the staging of the show culminating in the grenade attack which left two persons dead.
Some of those who helped in the relief effort could well have been those who engaged in this very protest which shows that the pointless nihilism of a section of the marginalised urban youth can well be diverted to more fruitful channels if society is able to set worthwhile goals in front of them.
The destruction caused by the Tsunami wave has therefore had a chastening effect on the Sri Lankan sensibility. It has brutally underlined the fissures of a fragmented and fractured society-divisions of race, religion and class-even while signalling the need to close them by holding out the grim truth that all of us are the same in death.
It is an invitation to the political parties to sink their differences, a reminder to the rich that it is the poor who always suffer the most both from natural disasters as well as man-made inequalities and iniquities. Above all it is a warning that the degradation of the natural environment in the rapacious pursuit of profit can have the most terrible consequences.
From the perspectives of this disaster if the vista of a more simple way of life, centred on the satisfaction of a few minimal wants and eschewing the present ruling norms of conspicuous consumption, opens up for the generality of the people then the sacrifices made by all those innumerable victims of Nature's fury, all those faceless dead, would not have been in vain.
Christian Science Monitor on the 'Sunday Essay'
The 'Sunday Essay' appearing in the last 'Sunday Observer' has been quoted by 'The Christian Science Monitor' of January 4, in its lead story on the Telwatte train tragedy where the 'Samudra Devi' was swept away and dashed by the Tsunami waves.
Under the by-line of staff writer Robert Marquand the newspaper wrote: A local philosopher, Ajith Samaranayake, asked in the Sri Lankan Sunday Observer whether the tsunami would jolt local people into a far more sober appraisal of their personal and national shortcomings than before. He noted that Sri Lanka was the first British colony to be granted universal suffrage, but that the country has not lived up to its promise.
In a kind of metaphysical jeremiad, Mr. Samaranayake added that the tsunami may be a lesson in humility. "For a stark moment, man in the new millennium, armoured supposedly by his rational technological outlook and advanced political philosophies, has been rendered helpless by nature ... his cities ruined and laid low and all his inventions in disarray".
Note by Ajith Samaranayake: I am not a philosopher at all (either academic or amateur but no matter) but these days I suppose most of us are compelled to seek solace in our own private philosophies.
Produced by Lake House