George Lukács 1922

Tagore’s Gandhi Novel

Review of Rabindranath Tagore: The Home and the World

Source: George Lukács, Essays and Reviews, Merlin Press, London 1983;
First Published: in the Berlin periodical, Die rote Fahne, in 1922;

Transcribed: by Hasan.

Tagore’s enormous celebrity among Germany’s ‘intellectual elite’ is one of the cultural scandals occurring with ever greater intensity again and again — a typical sign of the total cultural dissolution facing this ‘intellectual elite’. For such celebrity indicates the complete loss of the old ability to distinguish between the genuine article and the fake.

Tagore himself is — as imaginative writer and as thinker — a wholly insignificant figure. His creative powers are non-existent; his characters pale stereotypes; his stories threadbare and uninteresting; and his sensibility is meagre, insubstantial. He survives by stirring scraps of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita into his works amid the sluggish flow of his own tediousness — and because the contemporary German reader’s instinct has become so unsure that he can no longer recognise the difference between the text and quotations. As a result these scanty leftovers from Indian philosophy do not annihilate the unworthy material which frames them; on the contrary, they give it an esoteric sanction of profundity and of wisdom from afar. That is not surprising. When Germany’s educated public is accommodating itself more and more to intellectual substitutes, when it is incapable of grasping the difference between Spangler and classical philosophy, between Ewers and Hoffmann or Poe and so forth, how is it to perceive this difference in the far remoter world of India? Tagore is the Indian Frenssen,[1] whom he faintly recalls in his unctuous tediousness, although his creative powers even fall short of Frenssen. All the same, his great success has some significance as a symptom of the German mentality today.

A possible response to this sharp rejection of Tagore is to invoke an international fame (or rather, fame in Britain). The English bourgeoisie has reasons of its own for rewarding Mr. Tagore with fame and riches (the Nobel Prize): it is repaying its intellectual agent in the struggle against the Indian freedom movement. For Britain, therefore, the scraps of ‘wisdom’ from ancient India, the doctrine of total acquiescence and of the wickedness of violence — only, of course, when it relates to the freedom movement — have a very concrete and palpable meaning. The greater Tagore’s fame and authority, the more effectively his pamphlet can combat the freedom struggle in his native country.

For a pamphlet — and one resorting to the lowest tools of libel — is what Tagore’s novel is, in spite of its tediousness and want of spirit. These libels seem all the more repugnant to the unprejudiced reader the more they are steeped in unctuous ‘wisdom’ and the more slyly Mr. Tagore attempts to conceal his impotent hatred of the Indian freedom fighters in a ‘profound’ philosophy of the ‘universally human’.

The intellectual conflict in the novel is concerned with the question of the use of violence. The author portrays the beginnings of the national movement: the struggle to boycott British goods, to squeeze them out of the Indian market and to replace them with native products. And Mr. Tagore broaches the weighty question: is the use of violence in this struggle morally admissible? The hypothesis is that India is an oppressed, enslaved country, yet Mr. Tagore shows no interest in this question. He is, after all, a philosopher, a moralist only concerned with the ‘eternal truths’. Let the British come to terms as they wish and in their own way with the damage done to their souls through their use of violence: Mr. Tagore’s task is to save the Indians spiritually and to protect their souls from the dangers posed by the violence, deceit etc. with which they are waging their struggle for freedom. He writes: “Men who die for the truth are immortal; and if a whole people dies for the truth it will achieve immortality in the history of mankind.’

This stance represents nothing less than the ideology of the eternal subjection of India. But Tagore’s attitude is even more blatantly manifest in the manner in which he shapes this demand in the action and the characters of his novel. The movement which he depicts is a romantic movement for intellectuals. It strongly reminds us — without taking the analogy too far, since the social circumstances are entirely different — of such movements as the Carbonari in Italy and indeed, in certain aspects (particularly the psychological aspects), the Narodniks in Russia. Romantic Utopianism, ideological exaggeration and the crusading spirit are an essential part of all these movements. But this is only the starting point for Mr. Tagore’s libellous pamphlet. He turns this crusading romanticism, whose typical representatives were without question motivated by the purest idealism and self-sacrifice, into a life of adventure and crime. His hero, a minor Indian noble who advocates the current doctrine, is destroyed both inwardly and outwardly by the rapacious excesses of such a ‘patriotic’ criminal band. His home is destroyed. He himself falls in a battle that was sparked off by the unscrupulousness of the ‘patriots’. He himself is supposed, according to Mr. Tagore, to be by no means hostile to the national movement; on the contrary, he even wants to promote the nation’s industry. He experiments with native inventions — provided, though, that he does not pay for them. He gives shelter to the patriots’ leader, a contemptible caricature of Gandhi! But when the affair becomes too hot for him, he protects everybody afflicted by the violence of the ‘patriots’ with his own instruments of power and with those of the British police.

This propagandistic, demagogically one-sided stance renders the novel completely worthless from the artistic angle. The hero’s adversary is not a real adversary but a base adventurer who, for instance, when he wheedles a large sum of money out of the hero’s wife for national ends and talks her into theft, does not hand the money over to the national movement but feasts on the sight of the gleaming pieces of gold. No wonder the men and women whom he has led astray turn away from him in disgust the moment they see through him.

But Tagore’s creative powers do not even stretch to a decent pamphlet. He lacks the imagination even to calumniate convincingly and effectively, as Dostoyevsky, say, partly succeeded in doing in his counter-revolutionary novel ‘Possessed’. The ‘spiritual’ aspect of his story, separated from the nuggets of Indian wisdom with which it is tricked out, is a petty bourgeois yarn of the shoddiest kind. Ultimately it boils down to the ‘problem’ of the standing of the ‘man of the house’: how the wife of a ‘good and honest’ man is seduced by a romantic adventurer, but then sees through him and returns to her husband in remorse.

This brief sample will suffice to give an impression of the ‘great man’ whom German intellectuals have treated like a prophet. To rebut such totally dismissive criticism, of course, his admirers will point to his other, ‘more universal’ writings. In our view, however, the significance of an intellectual trend is evident precisely from what it can say about the most burning contemporary questions _if it presumes to point the way in an age of confusion. Indeed the value or worthlessness of a theory or outlook (and of those who proclaim it) is evident precisely from what it has to say to the people of that age in their sufferings and their strivings. It is difficult to assess wisdom ‘in itself’ in the vacuum of pure theory (and within the walls of an elegant salon). But it will reveal itself the moment that it comes out with the claim to act as men’s guide. Mr. Tagore has come out with that claim in this novel. As we noted, his ‘wisdom’ was put at the intellectual service of the British police. Is it necessary, therefore, to pay any closer attention to the residue of this ‘wisdom'?

1. Gustav Frenssen (1863-1945), a regional writer and parson of Holstein.