WESTERN AND EASTERN GREAT LITERARY CREATIONS
Armando Martins Janeira
When we put in parallel Eastern and Western literary creations, we can see particular features differentiating them, as well as common traits and a fundamental relationship.
In the immense theory of literary figures created in the West a few ones stand at the peak, at the first sight, as they have become symbols of the predominant traits and essential inquietudes of Western man: Prometheus, Faust, Don Quixote. The first symbolizes an unquenchable thirst for liberty and a longing for the infinite; the second metaphysical inquietude, yearning for knowledge, including a tense desire for communion with God and for penetrating into the occult mysteries of nature; the third incarnates pure idealism, man’s tense anxiety to exceed his own nature, the impulse for altruism and kindness with complete oblivion of the individual limitations. These three symbols are essentially symbols of action and express dissatisfaction with man’s own nature and with man’s universe. Prometheus was born under the light of the solar world of Greece, in a universe governed by order and reason; that is why it was conceived like a protest against the limitations to the rational powers of the mind, like a rebellious attempt to bring further the powers of man to create in absolute liberty. Prometheus is chained to a rock in the Caucasus and vultures eat his liver; he will be chained for ever, because he will never submit: the rebellion of his spirit is as strong as the tyranny of the gods and his firm courage to endure and to suffer the cruellest pains in challenging eternity. Man was created by the gods to their size and dignity; man’s noble pride is in not submitting to the gods, his rebellion is the test of his spiritual strength and dignity, he will never be defeated, because he will never submit, even the perspective of eternal suffering does not break his will. Man is thus a unique alloy of weakness and strength, made, to last in pain, with a clear reason and perfect understanding of his vulnerable condition and an indomitable will for action.
In Faust the countenance of Western man becomes much greater, much waster his ambitions. Faust was generated through the dark terrors and mystic exaltations of the Middle Ages. Life, then, was the antechamber of death and man lived in a permanent feeling of bordering an occult world, full of mysterious signs and sinister forces he deeply wished to understand and dominate. He ignored the limits of his own powers, and thereby was frightened by them. Good and evil were the poles of his action, and he was obsessed by the fright of hell. The clear Hellenic reason and harmony had been replaced by emotion and mystic exaltations; intellectual lucidity was obscured by a florescence of instinct, shaded by a dark forest of primitive superstitions. Now man does not dare, because he has no confidence in reason, he fears his own world because he does not understand reality. And, instead of facing the world of reality and of taking hold of his own powers, man gives himself to the dark powers of the occult, sells his soul to the devil in exchange for the faculty of disposing of the unknown powers hidden in a world which continues to be for him a frightening mystery. He starves for knowledge. He wants to know everything, because he suffers from the limitations to his action; he feels his powers too limited and longs for expanding them. He intuitively feels that knowledge is destructive, that there is a rhythm in the universe which cannot be broken without the risk of annihilation. But his thirst and his longing demand to go beyond all limits, to take all risks, to dare all the tenebrous seas wherever they may bring his adventurous sails. He received from the gods a nature, in which, never satisfied, he reads the marks of his own limits; he will never rest, never compromise with his human condition, he will never stop to increase his powers in order to dominate the world and fashion it to his will.
Both Prometheus and Faust express a tenseness between Man and God, the first in the way of absolute freedom, the latter in the way of absolute knowledge.
In Don Quixote there is no duality, he is already himself one pole of the mind, on the opposite side of which is the plain realism and common sense represented by Sancho Panza. Don Quixote is the highest point of pure idealism. He was born from the spirit of adventure, he is the quintessence of Christian values in their mystical mediaeval expression. Don Quixote is the staunch defender of the pure values of the spirit, whether possible or impossible to attain, proudly hovering over reality, indomitable, always ready to risk his life without expecting any reward on earth nor heaven, for the salvation of the humiliated and the outraged, for the restoration of dignity in man, for the sake of a dream of beauty.
I think we can consider these three the main symbols the deepest and the richest in meaning created by Western culture. They are deeply rooted in Western values and they took form after a period of elaboration to which many generations have contributed. The meaning that everyone of them has today is the result of a process of evolution into which new ideas, denser meanings have been poured in through generations since their appearance.
To these three, many other great literary types could be added, coming from nearly every national literature of Europe and containing each one of them a universal content that impresses on them a perennial value. Probably as universal is Don Juan, marking by the same longing for the infinite, by a thirst of absolute in love which again defies the laws of God at the risk of his own salvation. We could quote also Hamlet, Othelo, Romeo and Juliette; Tartuffe and the Misanthrope; Anna Karenina, Raskolnikoff and all the tragic family of the Karamazov. One feels tempted to go further to mention many others, deeply lively and widely comprehensive of the forces and ambitions which move Western man, caught at their highest expression. A civilization which has produced such strongly marked personalities, like Socrates, Dante, Saint Therese of Avila and Joan of Arc, Vasco da Gama, Camões, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Rembrandt, Napoleon, Tolstoi, was bound to create the most powerful figures in the realm of art. It is easier to distinguish the greatness of these singular figures when we contemplate this large field from the East. The tragedies of the Greeks, the themes which in the Middle Ages have spread through Christian Europe - Cid, Rolland, King Arthur and the Sacred Graal, - the greatest poetry with the great painting and sculpture of the Renaissance, the plays of Shakespeare and the tragedies and the comedies of the eighteenth century France, the great writers and musicians of the German romanticism and the great novelists of the last century in England, France and Russia, have given the world such vast treasure of artistic creations that we are amazed when we consider it in its overwhelming ensemble.
When we turn to the East, we see, nearer to Europe, that little of the Arab literature entered into world literature. Thousand and one Nights, the anonymous collection of stories, from different origins (Persia, Bagdad and Cairo) and different times (from the X until the XII centuries) is the work which became more widely known since the French diplomat Antoine Gallant published the first free translation of it at the beginning of the eighteenth century. In all the arts and even folklore of Europe can we see traces of these Arab popular stories; some of them, like Aladdin, with his lamp, Ali Baba with his forty thieves and Simba the Sailor have been spread around the world by the cinema. From the classic Arabic literatures directly very little is known outside their own boundaries, excepting a great poet like Hafiz (dead in 1389) celebrated by Sir William Jones, and Omar Khayyam, also a Persian, from the eleventh century, who, in the translation of Edward Fritgerald, first obscure and ignored for some years, became a great fad to English-speaking countries. This ignorance of ours is very unfair, because they are great poets and philosophers we would gain much to know. The first time I came to read poems of Al-Mutanabbi, a great poet of the 10th century court of Baghdad, I felt with thrilled amazement, that they were one of the most eloquent, indignant protests of man against tyranny, a deep craving of human soul for the bliss of liberty. In the history of thought, the contribution of Arabic philosophers is valuable, especially Avicenna (Ibn Sina, born about 980 near Bukhara) and Averroes (Ibn Ruchd, born in Cordoba in 1126). Avicenna owes much to Greek philosophers, to Plato and Aristotle; some of his philosophical books being translated into Latin, he exerted a great influence on the thought of medieval Europe. Averroes was one of the deepest commentators of Aristotle, having cleared many obscure points of the Stazirite’s works. We owe to the Arabic philosophers having transmitted to Europe the treasure of Greek science and philosophy. This is why we remember them today in the West, more than for an independent, individual contribution to Western philosophy. The Koran is very little known and scarcely read, out of the Arab countries, except by specialist, but probably the same thing happens with the Bible beyond the Christian countries. From Arabic religious philosophy we know that Sufism has produced one of the finest and most subtle streams of mystic literature.
If we go further to the East we find, first India creating for many centuries a literature with myths, and legends, whose main characters are those of the gods - Krishna in the long poem Maha-Barata, and Rama in the Ramayana, later divinized. But these poetical characters have the traits vague and blurred by a dense cloud of mythological figures and multiple events and by a distance of fifteen centuries that passed since they received the form in which we read them today. The poetic legends of the Ramayana have spread through the whole of the South-East Asia, having inspired paintings, sculptures and plays. The play of Kalidasa, the Indian poet whom the erudites place uncertainly between the 2nd century B.B. and the 4th A.D., Shakuntala, had some renown in Europe, particularly after Goethe exclaimed in verse that it “charms, enraptures, feasts and feeds” the soul.
In China, we find impressive personalities of great poets. Chu Yuan, who was born in 340 B.C., author of the greatest Chinese poem, Li Sao; the four greatest poets from the Tang Dynasty, Wang Wei, Li Po, Tu Fu, Po Chu-i, left us great poetry, but none of them created poetic figures which we can put besides Ulysses, Aeneas, Beatrice or Orlando Furioso. Though the great novels of the Ming Dynasty became universally known by their titles, at least the names of their heroes do not go very far beyond the Chinese frontiers, with the exception may be of the Monkey Sun Wukong, the protagonist of the Pilgrimage to the West, written by Wu Cheng-en, made widely known by the translation of Arthur Waley (1). The heroes of the seventeenth century Ching Ping Mei (Gold Vase Plum) Golden Lotus and the Merchant Hsimen Ching, and the heroes of the greatest of all Chinese novels, and a world’s masterpiece, the eighteenth century, Hung Lou Mêng (The Dream of the Read Chamber), not to mention more, are very little known outside China. Among the moderns, Ah Q, the curious character of Lu Hsun’s story it the best known.
In Japan the dominant character of all her literature is obviously Prince Genji. The story of the 47 Ronins is widely known; but these heroes receive their human dimension, in the world of imagination, from tradition and legend, as there is no main literary work that has built them up with grandeur.
But I would like to add particularly here the protagonist of Basho’s bucolic travels, that is the poet himself. Here the creator of the most beautiful Japanese lyric chants is assimilated to the figures he has pictured of himself in the diaries describing his random pilgrimage to the beautiful sceneries of Japan, or to view the moon at Kashima or at Sarashina. Basho is an exceptional case in world poetry. It is a pity that this example is so little known in the West. Western poets from centuries have been longing for reaching the summit of poetic enlightenment, chanting their thirst for pure poetry in long, eloquent poems. Basho has condensed his poetic longing in short poems of 17 syllables and made of all his life a solitary quest for poetic enlightenment. When he was forty, in 1684, after his house in Fukagawa, the banana hermitage as he called it, was destroyed by fire and after the death of his mother, he started for the first of his long journeys. The account of this travel is given in Nozarashi Kikô (Record of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton). This little like all those of the seven Basho’s anthologies, shows already his humility and selflessness. We must note that Basho allied together poetry and travelling and that both writing poems and wandering are in the Orient ways of casting away earthly attachments and of attaining the full liberty of the mind, the liberation from selfness. Basho pursued his poetic wanderings through Japan in a state of mystic exaltation. He left his home after a long self-examination, a painful fight within his soul, with the feeling that it was inevitable, that to take the road was his destiny; as he says, he left “in a state of sheer ecstasy”. Poetry became his apostolate. He adopted the tonsure and put priestly robes, in order to sever his ties with the world and to become a priest of his pure religion, poetry. “Days and months are travellers of eternity, so are the years that pass by”. When he opens with these words his masterpiece, Oku no Hoso Michi (Narrow Roads to Far Away), he attained already the state of being one with the time and the universe: the state of grace or enlightenment. “My solitude is my company and my poverty my wealth”.
His haiku, at the moment of his death in 1694, transmits still this state of plenitude:
“My dreams wander round and round
ever the withered moors”.
Probably no other poet ever attained such a state of communion with the universe, of exalting humility and poetic enlightenment. There is not in the West, nowhere out of Japan, a similar example of purity, except in the mystics of God. Nobody ever attained such sheer state of poetic mysticism.
Travelling and wandering were also a usual intellectual entertainment for poets in China. Li Po and Tu Fu, the great poets of the Tang Dynasty, have travelled extensively in all parts of China. Tu Fu has been “around on a donkey for these thirteen years”. Yuan Mei, the eighteen century poet, travelled also, sometimes with the company of his young boy friends. But none of them felt the absolute, mystic dedication to poetry as Basho. Both Li Po and Tu Fu tried the imperial examinations and, though they failed, they satisfied for sometime their ambition of becoming civil servants; Yuan Mei wrote a cookery book, Shih Tan. Well, it is impossible to think of Basho as a bureaucrat or as a gourmet.
The personality of Basho presents the Westerner with one of the most baffling literary and human cases in history. If I am allowed to quote myself: “Basho preached poetry as the apostles preached religion.” “The everlasting self which is poetry filled his life, and the disciples who followed him showed deep reverence only accorded to saints and prophets in the West” (2) That is why Basho’s poems are pure poetry of a purity never attained in any western literature.
I wanted to refer to the figure of Basho more at length because I think it has an exceptional quality of universalism. We speak much in the West, since centuries, of pure poetry, “la poésie pure”. And still nobody ever attained the heights of pure poetry of Basho. His work and his personality as a poet are not universally known. Why? Its content is the most universal. But the language in which it is written is very difficult. Besides, Japan has not, like the West, sent her ships for centuries to spread or to impose her culture to the five continents. These considerations can evince the conditions to which universalism is strained.
We have been talking about literary creations marked by a quality of Universalism that made them human patterns and patrimony of all men. Because Oriental literary figures are more limited in space, more confined to their peculiar national features, does not mean that they do no possess the quality of universality, that are not deep.
It is enough to compare lady Rokujo, from the Tale of Genji or from the Noh play Aoi no Uye, with Othello, to see that the Japanese incarnation of the feeling of jealously in a woman reaches a most appalling degree of fierceness and depth. The incarnation of jealously in a man may be due to the weakening of modern European imagination. The indomitable forces of passion, fury, power for evil and destruction, have from ancient times been always incarnated in a woman, as the Greeks did in Medaea and Shakespeare in Lady Macbeth.
Besides, we have also to admit, universality grows a good part on publicity, specially today. The Western literary creations were made known all the world around; millions of readers, critics, historians lightened, deepened and precised their meaning and moral implications, in languages widely known, while some of the Oriental creations begin only now to be widely translated and divulged. The expansion of the English language is one of the prominent features of our century and an invaluable factor in the growth of a world civilization.
In a general way, though, we can affirm that Oriental creations do not contain and do not search for the same quality of universality of the Western ones. The tendency towards the universal is stronger in Western man. When we contemplate the vast panorama of Asia, we cannot see a single man in the history of the continent that has at a moment been the exponent of its multi-modus culture. This we can see in Europe: Dante producing in his work the synthesis of medieval Europe; Erasmus in his illuminated knowledge incarnating the spirit of the Renaissance; Voltaire, with his vast vision and critical acumen, embracing the whole world of ideas of the eighteenth century Enlightenment; Goethe, wise, ardent and olympic, master of a classic culture in which the light and serenity of Greece were lively rekindled, as well as the Faustian yearning and the vast conscience of the problems of Europe in the first third of nineteenth century - as the problems of the rest of that century were welded in the great mind of Tolstoy, another true European in his universalism and passionate love for life, lost on his last years by a fall into a nebulous slavic mysticism. All these men have lifted their spirit beyond the frontiers of their country and beyond their century. Their minds were nourished not only by their national culture and traditions, but also by the ideas, cultural traditions and even by the literary schools and fashions of Europe.
In Asia, Lao Tse and the Confucius could probably at a time be considered exponents of the moral ideals of China, Korea and Japan - but only on the field of ethics, while in Europe those men we have mentioned were exponents of an age, living symbols of a whole culture which they embraced and increased in its universal content.
The absence of a universal or even a continental outlook can be noticed in our times in one of the greatest Asians, Gandhi. In spite of his profound spirituality, which was revered in his country and respected all over the world, and of his wide Western education, Gandhi believed in some of the ancient Hindu narrower superstitions, like caste prohibitions, intermarriage taboos and the protection of the cow: he went as far as to write that “Cow protection is the gift of Hinduism to the World. The way to protect her is to die for her”. I doubt there is a single Westerner disposed to die for the cow.
In the vastness of Asia, the existence of three great religions made impossible the cultural unity reached in Europe. And this diversity prevented any writer or any artist to attain a continental projection. This became possible only when Asia adopted from the West those conditions on which universality depends: easy geographic and language communications and an ecumenical interest always thirsty for foreign, super-national values.
Western individualism and Eastern spirituality
A difference in the essential nature of the transcendence of Eastern and Western values is indicated by the emphasis of the first on spirituality and the latter on individualism. The fact that each act of every day life in Asia is impressed by a religious meaning - eating, bathing, sport etc. - shows that Asians are more attentive to the spiritual values than Westerners. The importance of action and material achievement in the Western world enhances the value of individualism. In the Western concept being and action are inter-connected, as in the East non-being and non-action are the expression of an ideal quietude, the summit of which is perfection and bliss.
This less emphasis on individuality in the Far-Eastern literature is not to surprise us, because it is reflected in all arts. The same philosophy inspired a theory of painting which abolishes the individuality of human figure, representing it simply as one of the various elements of the landscape, completely lost within the whole. And we know that painting, with its sister, calligraphy, has been the outstanding art in China and Japan, and its influence on literature, particularly on poetry, was heavily marked. This may explain why Japanese fiction does not tend to create strongly individualized characters.
In consequence of such disparity, we cannot find in Eastern literatures epic poetry or tragedy, which are the genres in which Western literature attained its summit. We find epic poems in India, like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, but the predominant lyricism, or religiosity of these poems give them a character very different from the Western epic poem, which is fundamentally not an expression of mysticism, but of action. In China and Japan, in spite of the great richness of their literatures we find no epic tragedy (3). I have developed this theme in a study on the Epic and the Tragic Sense of Life in Japanese Literature, which was included in my last book on Japanese and Western Literature, and therefore I do not want to go further on this subject now. But I would like to add here that in that book I did not consider, as I should, the heroic quality implicit in the Shinto mythology. There indeed the heroic spirit prevails in the fact that men came from the gods and can become gods; when men achieve great legendary deeds they conquer a place in Heaven. Some of the Shinto legends contain epic myths and express a true concept of heroism. It is not surprising that when modern Japanese discovered the Western epic and wanted to follow it, like Kyukin Susukida, in his poems Nijogogen (Twenty five strings) published in 1905, went to Shinto mythology and legend for subject and inspiration. Shintoism is a humanism, in its basic ideas of man and the world.
This, again, brings us to the point of predominance of spirituality. In Asia all great religions were born, and the same spirituality impregnates all forms of literature and art.
Common Ground of Humanism
These considerations are enough to show the great diversities that we can find when we examine both Western and Eastern literature. But under these differences we can still find that the fundamental scope of the great literary works is the same: to attain, through aesthetic enjoyment and the power of words, the true nature of man, to express his inner life, his deep emotions, his high ideals, the constellation of myths and symbols that nourish his imagination and give strength to his ambition. The role of poetry is the same in East and West, though the form of the poem may be different. Substantially, there is not much difference between love poetry of different countries, and frequently two love poems, though written far away in space and time, can show surprising similarities. The language of the heart is the same wherever under the sky, when passion and youth intone their enraptured song. Novel, and especially drama, being a reflection of the social conditions, present necessarily differences in the social types and ideals, in human atmosphere, quality of emotions, judgement, behaviour etc. These differences, though, in the literature of today, are not perhaps as great as those we can find in two different epochs in the same country, like for instance in Spanish novel one century before and after Cervantes.
It is known that certain symbols, myths and fables appear repeated in several literatures. Frequently rooted in religious beliefs or superstitions, in folklore and tradition and legend. This constancy expresses the common nature of poetic imagination and wisdom, even when no influence or connection existed.
Max Müller, Max Weber and H. G. Rawlinson have asserted that some of Aesop’s fables have their source in Indian fables. The similarity of the tales and the existence of animals like tigers, elephants, lions, monkeys, peacocks and others confirm their Indian origin. The European and Arab fables of Middle Ages were also influenced by Indian fables. The collection of Indian popular tales Panchatantra was translated into Persian in the sixth century and into Arabic in the eight and so were the fables of Pilpay. A German version of these fables was printed as early as 1481 and later an English version was printed by Caton. La Fontaine in the Preface to his Fables, published in 1678, says: “I do not need to say from where I took the subjects of these new fables. I shall only say for a reason of gratitude, that I owe the largest part of them to Pilpay, the Indian sage” (4). Many examples could be quoted. One of the most widely spread is the story of La Fontaine’s fable of the “Milk-woman and the milk-pot”. Its origin has been traced to the Panchatantra, from which it passed into the Pehlvi, Arabic, Persian, Greek, Latin, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French and English until the eighteenth century and then after into all the languages of Europe.
Taking another example from China: the story of a man who sees his future in a dream and learns thus the lesson of the brevity of life, put into poetry in China by Li Po, in the eight century, appears in Japan, in the Noh play Kantan by Motokiyo Zeami, six centuries later, reappears in Spain in the seventeenth century, in Calderon’s Life is a Dream, having left traces also in Scandinavian countries. Again, stories similar to some we read in the Japanese collection of 11th century Tsutsumi Chunagon Tales can be found two or three hundred years later in the Canterbury Tales and in the Decameron (5).
Fables are not lies, but pure poetry into which man concentrates his highest wisdom. This is what gives them a quality of universality.
In the main, Eastern and Western man are naturally alike and the wisdom that emerges from their separate experiences is ultimately the same. Thus, the same is also the light and deep truth that through poetry man has attained in the East and in the West, as well as the revelations on the nature of man and his destiny show to be concordant here and there.