[Nazmul Sultan is a PhD student in Political Theory at the University of Chicago. He is also one of the editors of Itihashjan, a journal of politics and philosophy in Bengali.]
Mudradosh[i] evades the order of thought. Stealthily escaping the world of conscious authority, it recurs again and again, restlessly and relentlessly. At the first blush, the prime constituent of mudradosh appears to be the act of self-circling repetition. Mudradosh is that over which the subject has no real authority, for it does not rely on the sovereign decision of the subject. It is indeed a habit—a habit of both thought and action. And yet we understand little by reducing mudradosh to the category of habit. In some sense, everything is a form of habit. The all too well-known Humean argument that knowledge itself is a product of the custom and habit that govern our thought and action does not help much in understanding the singularity of mudradosh. For Hume, the source of knowledge is not any transcendental foundation of reason, but rather the fundamentally habitual nature of human thought and action that generates epistemic beliefs. Although Hume recognizes the centrality of the self in conceiving passions and emotions, these sensibilities remained grounded in the impressions that result from encounter with external objects and events. The self, as it were, is the medium that arranges the impression-produced beliefs in certain orders.
In contrast, mudradosh refers to the repetitive failure of the subject itself. Mudradosh is distinguished from the generality of habit by virtue of its peculiar constitution—the coming together of “mudra” and “dosh” (fault). It is not quite easy to define mudra, a highly polysemous word. In ancient Indian philosophy, mudra denoted the gesture which is both symbolic and ritualistic. It is a physical act above all, one that designates gestures of yoga, dance, and so on. Given the embodiment of an authorized symbol on its body, coin itself is called mudra in several Indian languages. When a particular mudra is not reproduced in the authentic form, the resultant imperfect action is categorized as mudradosh. For example, the constitutive limit of a dancer may lead her to perform a mudra that deviates from the standard norm. Mudradosh is thus different from mannerism in the sense that it is not simply a whimsical particularity of an action. It entails the failure to meet the requirements of a ritualized norm. Yet mudradosh is not a transgression per se—for the failure is involuntary and is often tolerated. In other words, mudradosh is neither fully accepted nor is it fully signified with the status of a taboo. Between permissibility and revocation, mudradosh exists as an ambivalent subjective failure which has no traceable cause.
The execution of an action that fits with the norm does not solicit any special attention. In the case of transgressing the boundary and committing a taboo, the action is readily identified as illegitimate and accordingly penalized. The one who commits mudradosh stands in between these two extremities. Mudradosh does get identified as a deviation from the norm, but the level of transgression is not so extreme as to delegitimize the action or to banish the accused. In the jungle of norm and ritual-constituted habits, mudradosh hangs like an insignificant shrub. The one who breaks the taboo gets no time for redemption, mediation, and dwelling with her deed—there is no scope for transcending the taboo from within (it can only be done from the outside). The one who is accused of mudradosh is allowed to dwell with her failure. Her way is therefore laid with tensions and contradictions amid the lingering pressure of repetitive failure.
Jibanananda Das—one of the most influential modern Bengali poets, one whose immense popularity unfortunately did not quite translate into an appreciation of his philosophical genius—problematized mudradosh in a way that knots it with the paradox of subjectivity. As long as the beings are one with the world, they are not yet subjects. And when they discern the non-identity and autonomy, they are not presented with the sovereign power over themselves, let alone over the world. The poem that catapulted Jibanananda onto the chaotic plane of modernist Bangla literature, Bodh (1929), is nothing less than an exploration of this paradox of subjectivity. Mudradosh is one of the central problems of Bodh, even as this word is used only once in the course of the poem. The poem begins with the torment of the self that has been split into two parts. The split-part that narrates the poem wants to recuperate the state of oneness with the world. Jibanananda calls the “subject” who wants to identify with the world as sahaj lok (unified and spontaneous folks). The concept of sahaja—a basic tenet of the Vaishnava tradition—describes the realization of the self in the truth of unity. This is a state where the lover and the loved—i.e., the subject and the object—dissolves into the truth of oneness.
As Ananda Coomaraswamy observed,“It [sahaja] is a release from the ego and from becoming: it is the realisation of self and of entity—when ‘nothing of ourself is left in us.’”[ii] Jibanananda deconstructs this idea of the sahaja, artfully collapsing the philosophical and the sociological by way of drawing a passage between sahaj lok (spontaneous and unified folks) and sakal lok (everyman). Neutralizing the drive of becoming, the sahaj lok spontaneously identifies itself with the nature. The narrator of the poem is disturbed, intrigued, and alarmed by the emergence of a cognizance that is forcing the self to become separated from itself and from the naturalized world. The observer I—the self that seeks to align with the sahaja—narrates its futile struggle to return to the world of oneness. Recounting that it too has performed everything that spontaneously unified folks do, it wonders why it is still not able to ward off the alienating cognizance. Introducing non-identity in the self, the very notion of “cognizance” forces the subject to move toward the negative and the incomplete. The narrator self struggles to understand why “cognizance” is plunging headlong into the negative instead of relishing the positive fullness of oneness. Worse still, the mode of action that this “cognizance” brings into being is not akin to a journey. It appears as repetitive and circular. Crucially, what Jibanananda Das calls sahaj lok is also constituted by a process of repetition. But therein the act of repetition is posited as the nature of the world itself i.e., the repetition is not posited as a lack. Jibanananda portrays the pre-split world as a e cyclical process, wherein the sahaj lok continually renews and revitalizes itself vis-à-vis the joyful cyclicality of the vitalistic world. This cyclicality of pre-split world is denoted even more forcefully when Das located the telos of unselfconscious human existence in the act of giving birth, as though the drive of reproduction is that which governs cyclicality of the pre-split world. This is a reflection that instantiates his abrupt transition from sahaj lok to sakal lok (everyman). The desireless fullness that spontaneously unified being aspires to is inevitably punctured by the incompleteness of existence. The drive of reproduction compensates for the suppressed lack of spontaneously unified being in the lived existence of everyman.
The difference between the repetition of sahaj lok and the split subject is that the former renders repetition as naturalized, while the latter posits repetitive failure in the subject itself. If the repetition is continually revitalized in the case of sahaj lok, then the same is posited as a negative drive internal to split subject. Precisely for this reason, it is quite difficult to read Bodh as a poem that explores the alienation of modernity, since it leaves no illusion about the unselfconscious repetition that marks supposed pre-modern world of the sahaj lok. The apparent lamentation of the narrator thus is not primarily about the lost world of sahaj lok, but more about the cognizance that cannot assert itself in a sovereign manner, lacking as it does full authority over itself. Deploying a remarkable metaphor, he wrote: “Why does it speak to itself alone, like churning waters.” Just as the churning water circle around itself, so does “cognizance” thinks and acts in a repetitive process. While this process results in an estrangement from the cyclicality of sahaj lok, the subjective action cannot readily posit itself in a positive, nay sovereign, foundation. What is the source of this restless repetition then? Jibanananda makes it amply clear that the cognizance is haunted by the negative. It has forsaken the wondrous path of galaxy exploration to tarry with the incompleteness of earth. To instantiate its fascination with negative, Jibanananda piles up rather disturbing metaphors. Every attempt to leave behind mudradosh thus remains mere attempt. Yet the struggle becomes possible precisely because of the ambivalent signification of mudradosh that I have specified above.
We are thus left with two drives. On the one hand, the desire of the friction-resisting split part that seeks to recuperate the world of oneness, where the self would identify with itself. On the other, the non-identity driven subject that draws toward the negative and cannot be domesticated. The oneness-seeking narrator seems to understand the banality of full identity, and yet its nostalgia for a vital world without the friction of negativity does not dissipate. It has imitated the actions of the sahaj lok, twisted itself, flung itself hard on the ground with the aim of destroying the insidious “cognizance”—but to no avail. The poem ends with the indication that the oneness-seeking part has succumbed to its other, i.e., the journey to the negative is irresistible. Jibanananda’s poetic explorations after Bodh are continuation of the problem. This “journey” after Bodh is too epic and too intricate to discuss through the problematic of mudradosh, although it can justifiably be said that the question of mudradosh is essential to understanding the paradox of subjectivity that haunts Jibanananda’s poetry.[iii]
The way through which a being becomes a subject is thus not constituted by subjective will. Nor does it follow from the agency of sovereign decision-making authority. It is a path ridden with pain and suffering, whereby the heteronomous mudradosh strikes the being again and again, and this is the friction that makes a singular subject out of the generic being. Nobody can embrace mudradosh without resistance. For such an act would have made it naturalized. As Jibanananda depicted it, what makes the being self-conscious is nothing but the split within, which, in turn, is introduced by the incessant force of mudradosh. Self-consciousness inevitably seeks to bring mudradosh under the pale of knowledge. The more the subjective knowledge seeks to assert its authority over mudradosh, the more it becomes evasive. What our sapience wants us to become is never identical to where our mudradosh leads us. This is however a productive tension, one that generates the drive of becoming, a drive that is not stymied, but rather facilitated, by the impossibility of full identity.
In understanding the constitution of the subject and the nature of subjective action, there is no escape from encountering the question of mudradosh. This is where the question of ethics comes into play as well. There was a time when philosophers conceived the regime of ethical action as a metaphysically-grounded enterprise, and thus foregoing the peculiarity of human existence in the constitution of ethical theories. When the attempt to bring mudradosh-ridden singular subjects under the pale of ethics was initiated, it became apparent that the question of ethics and aesthetics are not quite separated. If the task of ethical theories is no longer laying out objective laws of conduct, but the construction and accommodation of the modes of action that carve out space of freedom for the singular subjects, the central question becomes: what should be the mode of one’s relationship to oneself? Let us briefly consider two accounts that deal with the problem of how one should relate to oneself. The novelty and nuance of Jibanananda’s exploration of the split-subject—i.e., the struggle of the self to relate to itself— would appear in brighter light if we read him against the backdrop of thinkers who had dwelled with the similar problem, albeit from their own vantage points.
One of the first philosophers to formulate this question, Søren Kierkegaard, thought that the way to acquire freedom is the act of self-limitation. Only if the self is delimited, then it becomes possible to attain mastery over oneself. Kierkegaard argues that the more one limits oneself, the more resourceful one becomes. Just as a prisoner confined in a solitary form observes the slightest change in detail with care and excitement, so does an act of self-limitation equips one with the capability to seek relief intensively rather than extensively. Intensive relief also cultivates the self. The restless movement of extensive self—whereby the self is as desirous as it is empty— establishes no continuity among the objects of desire. The condition of limiting the self is the forsaking of hope. For hopefulness forecloses the possibility of forgetting. And forgetting, in turn, is the key to the act of self-limitation. Kierkegaard, however, does not pit forgetfulness against memory. He rather argues that forgetting and memory are identical, and the acquisition of that identity is precisely what enables us to assert our mastery over memory and forgetfulness.[iv] This is so because remembrance depends on our experience of the reality. Therefore, unless we learn how to shape our mode of experiencing the world by way of identifying memory and forgetfulness, we cannot immune ourselves against their involuntary processes. Just as the farmer who rotates soil without changing the method of cultivation, so does the immediate aesthete fail to have control over the way in which he experiences reality. The constant movement without any cultivation of the self, to put it in the Hegelian parlance, makes the actor unselfconscious. Clearly, for Kierkegaard, the condition of elevating one’s relationship to oneself is the assertion of mastery over the self. Such a strategy constitutively presupposes the possibility of splitting the self, albeit with the aim of undoing the friction and non-identity between the split parts.
The late works of Michel Foucault are partly devoted to this problematic. Foucault calls this problematic the “aesthetics of existence.” The singularity of existence, despite being caught up in the relations of heteronomy, can only carve out space of freedom by way of mastering one’s relationship to oneself. The first question to be asked then is: why does Foucault choose to call it the aesthetics of existence, and not the ethics of existence? The answer lies in Foucault’s resistance to any uniform way of describing the techniques of the self. To name the self’s relation to itself as an ethics would run the risk of merely shifting the emphasis from moral codes to the techniques of the self. The term “aesthetics,” on the other hand, captures the singular and indeterminate ways in which individuals produce the art of their existence. And more importantly, aesthetics of existence is more of a form of action than a set of rules.[v] Foucault describes these actions as being both voluntary and intentional. Crucially, the action-oriented form of the aesthetics of existence does not mean that it has no rule. The aesthetics of actions — by way of relating the self with itself — constructs its own singular rules. Now, what do this rules intend to accomplish? For Foucault, the rules that the subject set for itself are not so much about maintaining a static state, but rather about a form of action taken to accomplish a transformation of the self, keeping in mind the telos that one sets for oneself. In so doing, the aesthetics of existence makes life a “work of art.” However, the practices of the self are not the maintenance of a static state of being. It is fundamentally aimed at transformation and becoming. As Foucault notes, the telos of action (by the self on itself) “tends toward its own accomplishment.”[vi] By problematizing certain aspects of existence, the self is faced with the task of defining how should it regulate and indulge in pleasure. While ethical problematization specifies what part of the self is to be subjected to the techniques of the self, the subjectification (through chresis) seeks to construct a “position relative to the precept he will follow, and decides on a certain mode of being that will serve as his moral goal. And this requires him to act upon himself, to monitor, test, improve, and transform himself.”[vii] The indulgence in bodily pleasure is more than a mere satisfaction of need. Indeed, the crux of chresis resides in striking an individuated balance between need and moderation (and, as we know, Aristotle defined moderation as a conduct that maintains the need of pleasure without giving up laws and regulations). What the ancient Greeks called chresis, notes Foucault, is about making the proper use of aphrodisia in an individuated manner. In order to emphasize this point, Foucault rehearse the scandalous story of Diogenes who chose to indulge in masturbation at the agora, arguing that if foods can be taken at the public, why should one not indulge in sexual activity there, since both of them are equally natural bodily needs? Such a mechanical approach to satisfying the need misses the strategic kernel of regulating needs. Additionally, the techniques of the regulating needs are to be arranged in such a way as that need does not get decoupled from desire.[viii]Simultaneously, the strategic usage of pleasure needs to take into account timeliness of action or what the ancient Greeks had called kairos.
The strategy and timeliness of pleasure, however, are not objective precepts. The particularly situated self negotiates and produces a singular “economy” of regulating itself. In so doing, the concern of ethical procedure shifts from the simple act of conforming to an external norm to the act of stylistically regulating the self by itself through techniques. Ascesis, for example, is a disciplining of the self by the self with the aim of attaining mastery over habits and bodily proclivities. It is indeed a struggle with oneself. And yet, for Foucault, it is a productive struggle, for the self, by way of disciplining itself, acquires a zone of freedom. Freedom then is not so much an autonomy from externality, but rather a form of self-mastery that enables one to live a life of active freedom internally while negotiating with the limits and prohibitions of their world. However, Foucault simultaneously warns against reducing the practice of the self to an end-oriented process. The stylistics of the self is not constrained by what it is — its self-regulation also conditioned by what it seeks to become. To become free, one thus should construct singular modes of action that generate freedom in their particularity. Since the form of freedom is subject to change, the modes of action on the self cannot either be permanent. Foucault’s precursor in this regard, Friedrich Nietzsche, indeed argued that chosen life-affirming habits should not be permanent. They must rather be “brief habits.”For an enduring habit acquires upper hand over the subject, entrapping as it does the ethical actor.
Jibanananda’s exploration of mudradosh and the ways in which it figures the paradox of subjectivity have dragged us to consider this particular trend of ethical theory that runs from Kierkegaard to Foucault, via Nietzsche.In order to set the self free from the sovereignty of external moral rules, this particular tradition generates another sovereignty that resides in the supposed capability of the self to relate to itself with mastery and autonomy.A proper appreciation of the problematic of mudradosh invites us to delve deep into the relationship between the split selves, a moment that does not receive enough attention in the ethical theory that is ostensibly preoccupied with formulating self’s relationship to itself. In contrast, what Jibanananda’s concept of mudradosh forces us to consider is that the supposed autonomy of the split subjects is marked by drives and movements that exceed the conscious authority. The self is bound to desire an authority over itself, but the force of mudradosh means that such desire is doomed to incessant failure. Jibanananda’s account of the split-subject sheds light on the pre-condition of theorizing how the self relates to itself. Being bifurcated (and is not that bifurcation a prerequisite of positing the problematic: self’s relationship to itself? If that bifurcation is not accepted, the very distinction becomes a tautology), Jibanananda’s subject comes to realize that what is robbing its control over itself is the act of mudradosh. It is to be emphasized that Mudradosh is not a mere helpless process of repetition precisely because of the reason that it is driven by a relentless movement to the negative. The repetition, in other words, emanates from the restless desire to encounter that what is incomplete and negative (which, for Jibanananda, is the earth itself). That is, the self cannot relate with itself in full positivity, for there is a constitutive negativity in the very process of subjective wager. This relationship of the self to itself is thus less of reconciliation and deliberation. It is rather a relationship of collision, contradiction, and rupture. And these collisions and contradictions are that what give movement to the enactment of subjectivity.
Appendix: This is an English translation of the poem, Bodh. This poem has been translated into English before, most prominently by the noted Jibanananda scholar Clinton B. Seely. However, some important nuances of the original poem are missing from existing translations. And that is understandable—Jibanananda is a very difficult author to translate. This translation, needless to say, will have its own share of shortcomings. Bodh was first published in Progati in 1929, and eventually appeared in his second poetry collection, Dhusar Pandulipi (The Grey Manuscript).
To light and darkness I go— within my head
Not dream— some cognizance is at work
Not dream, not peace, not love,
A kind of cognizance takes birth in my heart
I cannot escape it
It places its hands over mine
All work seems meaningless— foiled
All thought— all that time for prayer
Who can traverse like spontaneous folk?
In this light and darkness who can halt
Like spontaneous folk! Who can speak anymore
Like spontaneous folk? With certainty
Who can know anymore? The carnal taste
Who seeks to understand it anymore? The joy of life
Who will get it again like everyman?
Sowing seeds like everyman
Where is that relish anymore?
Desiring the harvest,
Smearing the scent of earth in the body,
Smearing the scent of water in the body,
Gazing toward the light with ardour
Accepting the joyous life of peasant
Who would stay awake on this earth anymore?
Not dream, not peace, some cognizance is at work
Within my head.
Walking along the banks—across shore to shore
I want to disregard it
Holding it like a skull
I want to fling it on the ground. Yet it spins like a living head
Around my head!
Around my eyes!
Around my chest!
I stir, it follows my move
I stand still—
It stands still too
Sitting amid everyman
Is it just me who is estranged
By dint of my mudradosh?
Is it just my eyes that are bedazzled?
Is it just my path that is hurdled?
Those who were born into this world
Those who have bode long periods
Of giving birth
Or those who are giving birth to children today
Or those who are coming to the seedbed of the earth
To give birth—in order to give birth
Are their hearts and heads
Not like mine? Are their minds
Not like mine?
Yet why am I so alone?
Is it me who is so alone!
Did I not hold the ploughman’s plough in my hand?
Did I not draw water by the pail?
Did I not visit the field many a times with sickle in my hand?
Like fishermen, I have frequented many rivers and wharves
Algae from the pond—the fishy smell
Got affixed to my body.
—All these tastes
—I have had all of these.
Like unimpeded air, my life has flowed
My mind has drowsed beneath the stars
All these desires
I have known them—unimpeded—unfathomed
I have left them all behind
Women, I have tried loving
Women, I have tried ignoring
Women, I have tried hating
She has loved me
She has come near me
She has ignored me
When I entreated her again and again with love—
With aversion she has abandoned me
Yet love was a passion, an aspiration—this love
The tone of her disregard
The sting of her abhorrence
Ignoring I have gone my way
That star—its sinister impact
Its placing repeated obstacles on my path of love
That too I have learnt to overlook
Yet this love—dust and sludge
Within my head
Not dream, not love, some cognizance is at work
Casting aside every single god
I come close to my heart
And tell it:
Why does it have to speak to itself, like water churning?
Does it not know fatigue? No time for rest?
Will it never sleep? Will it never indulge
In the pleasures of gently lying down?
Will it not find the delight of
Gazing at the face of men
Gazing at the face of women
Gazing at the face of babies
This cognizance—just this taste
Does it not want to leave the world’s roadways
For the pathways of the starry sky? Has it vowed
To gaze at the face of men?
To gaze at the face of women?
To gaze at the face of babies?
Sick ulcerous veins on the eyes
The deafness that is in the ear,
That hunchback—the goiter that grew upon the flesh
Like blighted cucumber—in the mold of rotten winter melon
All that has grown in the heart
[i]Mudradosh is commonly translated as “mannerism,” a translation that I find inadequate in some crucial regards. As such, mudradosh is not merely a particular attribute that differs from the general norms. It also implies a defect of the particular attribute. Etymologically, mudradosh also denotes the breaching of ritualized symbolic norms. It thus has ontological and existential bearings that cannot be captured by mannerism. I will further clarify the specificity of the idea of mudradosh later in this essay.
[ii] Ananda Coomaraswamy, The Dance of Siva, (New York: Dover, 2011), 106.
[iii] It is not probably an exaggeration to say that Jibanananda’s works in 1930s are continuation of the problematic that Bodh set up. To take some of his more well-known poems:Oboshorer Gaan (The Ballad of Restfulness) is an exploration of the desire for rest that Bodh vividly manifested. Ondhokar (Darkness) explores that impossibility of such a restful state, and the struggle that ensues following that impossibility. Even Rupashi Bangla (one that he originally named as Banglar Trosto Neelima, or “The Frightened Blueness of Bengal”), the beloved text of Bengali nationalists, is more of a foray into anti-epistemology where sensuousness is taken to its extreme limit by way of decoupling it from the reason. Jibanananda’s poetry in 1940s, starting from Mahaprithibi, remains the most enigmatic and little understood stage of his works. In many sense, these works are more concerned with ontology than his earlier preoccupation with subjectivity. Nevertheless, his late-works, I would claim, foregrounds the question of subjectivity on a different plane instead of dispensing with it altogether.
[iv] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, (NY: Penguin, 1992), 235.
[v] Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality vol. 2, (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 10.
[vi] Ibid., 28
[vii] Ibid., 28.
[viii] Ibid., 56.
I thank Prasanta Chakravarty for persuading me to produce an English version from the original Bengali form of the essay. I also thank Pothik Ghosh and Ahmed Shamim for their comments on the Bengali draft.