How does art become universal? | Sunday Observer
Behind the Mask

How does art become universal?

1 August, 2021

How does art become universal? I believe that it is not so only by treating artistes as fetish. Then we have to question what is meant by universal.

The term universal exposes a significant aspect of Greek literature. Even Karl Marx was troubled by the question of, as Terry Eagleton (who is regarded as a Marxist critic) reveals in his book Literary Theory, why the ancient Greek literature retains an eternal charm, even though the social conditions which produced had long passed. Or rather the social background in which Greek literature was created is nowhere to be found, but no one can say that it is no longer eternal in a history which has not yet ended.

Being universal

Eagleton reveals the secret of how Homer or Shakespeare became so universal. For him, what we call Homer today is not a Homer in the middle Ages. In any other way, to us Shakespeare is not the Shakespeare that his contemporaries read. Eagleton writes that, “…We always interpret literary works to some extent in the light of our own concerns (indeed that in one sense of ‘our own concerns’ we are incapable of doing anything else ) might be one reason why certain works of literature seem to retain their value across the centuries.”

Eagleton further said that, “all literary works, in other words, are ‘rewritten’, by the societies which read them; indeed there is no reading of a work which is not also a‘re –writing’.” In that perspective, a different logical reading is needed of Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra, who has been turned into a fetish or an object of worship by the realist school of thought. I enter here for such a reading.

In prospect of realist school of thought psychoanalytical critique of art is not adored. But I think new definitions would emerge from a psychoanalytic reading of Sarachchandra’s two novels, ‘Malagiya Aththoo’ and ‘Malwunge Awurudu Da’. I would not be surprised if someone accused psychoanalysis of violating the basic elements of literary criticism. But what may surprise you is that psychoanalysis was first used by Martin Wickramasinghe for such a critique.

It is true that Martin Wickramasinghe wrote “Sinhala Nawa Kathawa Saha Japan Kaama Kathaa Hwanella” (Sinhala Novel and the Shadow of Japanese Erotic Narratives) to attack Peradeniya School. Still, he interprets the sexual behavior of the characters in Malagiya Aththo and Malawunge Awurudu Da as perverted sexual desires.

Realistic criticism

Martin Wickramasinghe questions the lack of details about the past of Devendora San, the protagonist of the novel Malagiya Aththo.

Wickramasinghe said it is unclear how Devendora San’s past affected his current existence as there is no information on that past. Providing all the details of the characters and events of the novel is a condition of realistic literary criticism. The failure to provide all the details of Devendora San’s past is a violation of that condition. Wickramasinghe suggests that Malagiya Aththo does not end up as an artistic novel because it does not have a portrayal of Devendora San’s entire life

But what I see as a sharpening feature of Srachchandra’s novel’s finesse is that Devendora San’s past is kept secret in a void. The novel begins with Devendora San’s arrival in Japan. He speaks of his childhood in one sentence. He says that he became a monk when he was a child and lived in a temple. As a result, he was incapable to familiarize with French painters.That’s all he says about his past. For me, Malagiya Aththo is written encircling this void of Devendora San’s childhood.

A well-known example of this void in the works of art is the famous statue of Venus. The statue of Venus has become an artistic creation because it was created without hands. In a nutshell, the artistry of the Venus statue lies in the fact that the mutilation of its limbs. Another illustration is Heathcliff, a character in the Wuthering Heights novel. The central void that the novel builds around is the gap between Heathcliff’s disappearance from the Wuthering Heights mansion and his return as a wealthy man after a while. We do not know what he was doing during that time, but the whole novel revolves around that ignorance (void).

Psychoanalytical perspective

The second part of the novel, Malwungee Awurudu Da, is written from Noriko’s point of view. In that episode, Devendora commits suicide. The novelist does not describe Devendora San’s past, but his fantasy about death and uncertain existence prevail on us to read his childhood in psychoanalytical perspective. The novelist tells us that Devendora San travelled to India, England, Austria and France and settled in Japan. He sees in Japanese society a beauty not seen in any other country.

He wants to identify with the Japanese society that is alien to him. There he finds a signifier that can be considered as a model. In the symbolic order he is guided by that ego ideal. It is a speculation of a secondary identification.

The mother is the object that the subject (subject= Devendhora San) first identified with. That is where the subject begins to build its ego. Now he is creating an ego ideal to be identified with in symbolic order as an adult male.

Martin Wickramasinghe regrets that the novel does not describe Devendora San’s past. At the same time, the disrobed artiste is accused of being a gallant man. However, Wickramasinghe failed to think that his early period could be read by inquiring into these perverted characteristics of the protagonist. How should we understand Devendora being a disrobed person and living an unstable life leaving his homeland and traveling abroad?

Where are the roots of his attachment to women? The answer to these questions can only be found by scrutinize the Sarachchandra’s narrative style. That is, by not acknowledging what he writes as it is, by rewriting every sentence he writes. We will rewrite the Malagiya Aththo there. What needs to be said here is that in a reading like this, we are measuring the philosophical and political significance of art.

Hans Gadamer, a theoretical interpreter, said that the philosophical significance of art is the attainment of truth through art that cannot be achieved in any other way. We can identify Prof. Sarachchandra as a great writer only by exploring that truth.