Amit Majmudar on poetry and the incarnation of the divine.
Consider Punch. He wears jester’s red and carries a stick the size of his body, a stick he uses to hit everyone around him. He runs amok until the hangman finally catches up with him—but it’s the hangman, not Punch, who ends up with his neck in the noose.
Now consider Jesus. Wearing a plain robe, he carries two sticks in the form of a cross the size of his body. He walks slowly up a mountain until he arrives at the place of his execution. The Roman soldiers, after casting lots for his simple clothes, carry out their task. Jesus does not find a way to stop them or switch places with his executioners. He ends up nailed to the cross in the sun.
Everything in literature falls somewhere on the spectrum between these two form of storytelling: slapstick and scripture. The mouth opens, and a sound erupts from somewhere deep in the chest, almost reflexively. With slapstick, it is laughter; with scripture, a hosannah.
Slapstick and scripture demarcate the two extremes of the literary spectrum. Where a work falls on that spectrum depends on how real the suffering portrayed in it is. Bones don’t break in a Punch and Judy show. There are no scenes in the hospital, no leg casts, no months of rehab. Today, the descendants of slapstick are children’s cartoons. Wil E. Coyote realizes he is running on air; he turns to you, waves goodbye, and plummets thousands of feet to a puff of dust at the bottom of a canyon. But he isn’t falling to his death. We know that even before he shows up perfectly intact in the next scene. We laugh because that suffering is absolutely unreal.
The four Gospel writers, by contrast, believed they were writing nonfiction. Most of their readers believe they are reading nonfiction, in spite of manifestly supernatural story elements. These four writers weren’t the Nabokovs of their day; their Koine Greek was not an extravaganza of finely crafted sentences, lush descriptions of scene, and snappy, unexpected metaphors. This is the Plain Style, appropriate to a simple account of events. Not only did the Crucifixion really happen; that is really the Son of God on the cross, and he is really dying for your sins. Sentimental sniffles are out of place here. You are implicated in that suffering. And that suffering is absolutely real.
These two elements—a plain or transparent style, and the air of nonfiction—are critical when it comes to conveying absolute suffering. The few 20th century works that come closest to conveying absolute suffering are nonfiction stories: Elie Wiesel’s Night and John Hersey’s Hiroshima. We read these books differently. They hit us differently than the finest examples of narrative invention. Novels like Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum derive their power, in part, from historical settings (slavery, Nazism) that we know are real. The novelist’s magic must transfer the absolute suffering of the nonfictional dead to the fictionally alive.
Our stories and poems portray suffering with varying degrees of reality. Sometimes the suffering is just real enough to add excitement or a sense of danger. Most “romances” (in the archaic sense of the word) and adventure novels need this kind of suffering to achieve their overall effect, which is to keep a plot going without opening any abysses along the way. It isn’t meant to move you. If a detective gets grazed by a bullet in a noir novel, he barrels on after the crook. If a child were to get grazed by a bullet in a work of literary fiction, perhaps in a school shooting, the aftermath could take up the rest of the book.
Many literary forms blunt a character’s vulnerability to make the suffering less real. The mechanisms for a character’s superhuman indifference to pain are innumerable: Vampirism, lycanthropy, and zombie infection are only the most obvious. The Batman suit—or any form of body armor that serves as a bulletproof exoskeleton—is a lineal descendant of the magical suit of armor found in chivalric romances, and in turn of the “vulcanized” Shield of Achilles in Homer. Even when these outward shields against pain aren’t brought in, there may be some internal toughening that allows a hero to deliver the phrase “Don’t worry, it’s just a flesh wound” with perfect equanimity. The noir detective is hard-boiled because other people are eggs that crack easily; the hard-boiled detective looks like a regular human being, but he can take punishment in book after book and never “crack,” either psychologically (as in having a breakdown) or physically (as in breaking a bone).
Some perfunctory explanation is usually given for this superior tolerance to pain and suffering. Bulldog Drummond, whom Ian Fleming cited as the literary precursor of James Bond, was a World War I veteran; he had come through the most intense suffering known to that audience, and now anything was possible. Comic book superheroes wear their superpowers on their sleeves, or their capes. The semidivine warrior (Achilles) in a heroic epic does what others do, like throw a javelin, only way better. The “highly trained” agent of a contemporary thriller can shoot bad guys at five hundred feet while sliding on his back across the floor of a warehouse with his nondominant arm bleeding because Don’t worry, it’s just a flesh wound. A superior tolerance to pain is often paired with a superior ability to inflict it. This is why it’s so thrilling to identify with these heroes. From classical epics and bloody tragedies to modern-day thrillers and screenplays, storytellers seem to know that even the godless like to feel godlike.
The Gospels, by contrast, pursued the exact opposite tactic. They accessed unprecedented storytelling power by making the divine figure vulnerable. The violenced God had some forerunners in the cut-up bodies of Osiris or Dionysus. That cutting and resurrection mimicked the cutting and regeneration of the harvest or the vine. The emphasis there was on the regeneration.
In Christianity, the resurrection inspired far less art than the crucifixion. Jesus’s body was portrayed on the cross to command contemplation. The Gospels had inverted the customary Homeric device of having a God or Goddess fight alongside a warrior, making the human superhuman and impervious to javelins and sword-thrusts. (Enthusiasm, in its Greek etymology, means “entered by a God.”) The new religion’s artists sensed, perhaps instinctively, the source of the story’s uncanny power: This moment in which the superhuman, having become human, endured human pain. The suffering was absolute because the Absolute was suffering it.
So this is the spectrum of suffering: slapstick on one end, scripture on the other, with fiction and poetry (“high” or “low,” “genre” or “literary”) in the vastness between them.
Portrayals of suffering are perennially popular. Suffering itself, of course, is not. The Buddha designed an entire religion to escape it. No one wants to endure suffering themselves, but everyone is eager to watch or read about someone else enduring it, whether it’s Christ, King Lear, Harry Potter, or Punch’s wife. What is it we crave? Why seek out portrayals of suffering to read or watch? Why write them? Why suffer vicariously and move on, over and over?
No matter how much people claim to want heaven, the Paradiso remains stubbornly less interesting than the Inferno. It seems human beings prefer shipwrecks, slavery, corpses discovered in the woods, soldiers burning villages, mysteriously poisoned millionaires, and the occasional apocalypse. In the latest, technological form of fantasy fulfillment, men consistently opt for battlefield violence that would have them waking up screaming with PTSD in real life. Their lives and deaths are innumerable, and they pick up where they left off, endlessly reincarnated. If the fantasy they shell out for is set on a beach, it’s Normandy in 1945. What happens after the game’s last level is beaten? Nothing much: Winner’s circle, mission accomplished, the pose with the trophy.
Because that was never where the game’s creators focused. Heaven, the fulfillment of desire, has little intrinsic drama. Nirvana is a flatline. And they all lived happily ever after is how storytellers dismiss years of fulfilled desire; the bulk of any fairy tale is the riddle at the bridge, the imprisonment in the tower, the dragon-slaying, the rescue. We don’t like literary environments with no conflict. Politics springs eternal. We want to be happy, but we want to struggle and suffer for it.
Desire, the ancient yogis believed, is infinite. Its infinite appetite likes infinite variety. Happiness, safety, peace and prosperity: Do such things grow stale? Does freedom? A lukewarm monotony might be just as intolerable as hellfire.
Imagine a society, the most prosperous and safest in history, that maddens itself daily with lurid images and tales of trauma and atrocity beamed to a device they carry in their pockets. The next alert and the next, the next ginned-up emergency and the next, gets their attention with a ping. This is what people do when they are born into comfort. They make themselves a little uncomfortable in some way, morally, politically, spiritually.
Literature might do the same thing news does: stir the pot of the mind for the sake of stirring it. That clockwise sweep of the ladle is just enough agitation. The latest heartbreaking picture that makes the rounds of social media may well be on a spectrum with transient bestselling tearjerkers and half-a-millennium-old high tragedies. It is, all of it, storytelling: suffering aestheticized, a manageable dose of suffering that leaves no mark. We give this account of suffering five stars. We share it. The only way we could enjoy these portrayals of suffering is if they retained a measure of unreality. Slapstick is not something we entirely outgrow; it puts on sophisticated masks.
The giveaway is the unreal violence—a corollary, in storytelling, of unreal suffering—that thrills us onscreen or on the page. A paperback tearjerker, too, gets us shedding tears for a character in the “world” of the novel; that is why the crying stops a few moments later, and a new unreal story finds its way onto the nightstand. Another “world” is conjured, another character goes through three hundred or so pages of suffering for our entertainment.
Only rarely does literature push toward absolute suffering, to pierce the membrane between art and reality. When it strives to do so, we have poetry. The second most popular story on earth, after the Gospels, is an ancient Hindu epic that disseminated throughout Asia, the Ramayana.
In the Ramayana we, too, have an incarnation of the divine; here, too, we see Rama suffering like any human being, going temporarily insane with grief when his beloved wife, Sita, is kidnapped by the King of Lanka. Hindus experience this story, talking monkeys and all, as true history and poetic fantasy at the same time; the footprints on the rock where Hanuman landed, after jumping eight hundred miles from the tip of India, is a tourist destination in modern-day Sri Lanka. Hinduism is the last living mythological religion; Hindus experience their epics the way the ancient Greeks experienced Homer, which would explain Homer’s Bible-like role as a source of quotations and wisdom in Plato’s dialogues.
Many poems gain their power from our sense of their actually being nonfiction—specifically, autobiography. Sylvia Plath’s last poems benefit from this effect. Byron routinely traded on the confusion between Byron and the Byronic hero; Europe’s sense of Byron’s life-art interchangability inflated his fame for a century. To this day, no reading of Keats is entirely unaware of his tuberculosis. His most beautiful poems are at once what they are—an ode on a Grecian urn, or an ode to a nightingale—and dramatic monologues in a play about a poet dying young.
In the ancient Indian story of how poetry came to be, the first poet, Valmiki, who has not invented the art form yet, is just another holy man walking in the forest. He is thinking about the great tragic love story of his time, the story of Rama and Sita: Two lovers kept apart. First, by the demon-king Ravana, who kidnapped Sita and held her in his island fortress-city of Lanka. Then the second, utterly senseless separation that came when Rama exiled her again, when she was pregnant with twins, essentially to secure his reputation against the calumny of her potential infidelity. She ended up at Valmiki’s own ashram, and he heard the Queen’s suffering first hand.
He wants some way to express this story of suffering and struggle and resilience, but there is nothing in language, yet, that will do. To his surprise, he stumbles on two mating herons. The male has spread his wings, as though for privacy’s sake, and he has aligned himself with the female. The shuffle and rustle of feathers tells Valmiki, celibate ascetic though he is, what he is witnessing.
Just then, an arrow whistles through the trees to one side. The two mating birds, seemingly as lightweight as butterflies, are pinned together by the single arrow, efficiently gored, killed in the act of procreation. A tribal hunter, oblivious to Valmiki, oblivious to the horror of what he has done, runs to his accomplishment. He, too, will have a story to tell: Two kills with a single shot, marvelous. But Valmiki, who has seen this moment whole, feels a pain deep in his heart. It is referred pain, pain felt somewhere other than the site of injury; so Valmiki feels it in his throat.
The cry that erupts from his throat is the first metrical speech. The exact words, in Sanskrit, comprise a curse on that hunter for killing these two mating birds. All of poetry is there in embryo, an understanding of suffering unwitnessed even by those seeing it. Metaphor: For those herons are Rama and Sita, interrupted in their union, pierced and destroyed by time’s arrow, paradoxically reunited by love in death. It was a curse because poetry has a role in the world, however disregarded, to chastise violence and call out injustice. It was an elegy for the two birds and all the birds who might have come of their completed union. It was a beginning.
Amit Majmudar is a poet, novelist, essayist, and translator. His latest books include Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, with Commentary (Knopf, 2018) and the poetry collection What He Did in Solitary (Knopf, 2020). Recent novels published in India include Sitayana (Penguin Random House India, 2019) and Soar (Penguin Random House India, 2020). The former first Poet Laureate of Ohio, he is also a diagnostic nuclear radiologist in Westerville, Ohio, where he lives with his wife and three children.