The Play of Living Creation: Time and Finitude in Tagore's Humanism

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This article examines a selection of Rabindranath Tagore's essays with a view to demonstrating that the Indian Nobel Laureate was distressed about the fact that in the early twentieth century the modern historical sense was eclipsing the place of poetics in the colonial world. In place of the transcendental vision implied by a developmental process of world-history, Tagore proposed that literary language generates a notion of time that is radically finite because it is aligned with the human failure to achieve divine transcendence. More specifically, his essays stage truly secular, historical time as the effect of a notion of rhythm that is bound neither to the imperial authority of history nor to mathematical measures, but rather emerges in the variety and contradictoriness of traces that language impresses upon itself, through the play of shifting economies of meaning, changing image patterns, and the mobility and textile strangeness of syntactic and accentual imports. In order to elaborate the radically finite temporality of such a literary language, this essay draws on Tagore's formulation of jivalila, or the play of living creation, which he opposes to the Western conceptualization of life as a primal struggle against death. Tied to the notion of a joyful union with the Supreme Being as it unfolds in the scriptural Upanishads, jivalila may at first seem like the kernel of yet another transcendental vision of Totality. But in Tagore's hands it becomes instead a recognition of the enduring gap between man and his god, just as death for the radical secularist is the epistemological confrontation of the nothingness between mortality and redemption. It is this enduring gap - rather than a specific mechanics of meter and verse - that Tagore imagines as rhythm, and it is in this gap that the play of literary language as also the play of living creation comes to be, together creating a dense relationship between the human form and its poetic scripting. The essay argues that Tagore offers a different imagining of the modern human condition - one that employs literary thinking to give us a radically secular human unchained from the transcendental process of world-history and from redemption as the conceptual telos of that sovereign process.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)46-61
Number of pages16
JournalComparative Literature
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Literature and Literary Theory


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