The Animal in the Human: Tagore, Rilke, Borges and the Meaning of Art

Art or literature is a way of seeing, but a seeing that dismantles the essentialist tendencies of cultural knowledge.

A portrait of Indian poet and musician Rabindranath Tagore. Credit: Cherishsantosh/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

In the chapter titled, ‘The Artist’, from his famous work, The Religion of Man, Rabindranath Tagore narrates the story of how a Chinese friend taking a walk with him in Peking, got visibly excited upon sighting a donkey, and exclaimed, “Look, here is a donkey!” Tagore was amused. He felt the animal was, after all, an “utterly ordinary donkey”, and did not need any “special introduction”. The cultural taxonomy of a donkey was associated with unimpressive qualities. But on second thoughts, he found an element of artistic illumination in the Chinese friend’s exclamation. The man could see the donkey beyond the “cheap knowledge” associated with it and “see it afresh and recognize it as real.” Tagore goes ahead to provide a definition of art: “The only evidence of truth in art exists when it compels us to say ‘I see’.” Art or literature is a way of seeing, but a seeing that dismantles the essentialist tendencies of cultural knowledge. Artistic truth allows us to see something contrary to established norms, something that is alone capable of turning the experience of ‘seeing’ into a vision.

Rabindranath Tagore 
The Religion of Man

Tagore, for sure, presents an idea that is anti-platonic. To him, art and literature can represent truth. Literature, Tagore suggests, by helping us “see” our relationship with the world of nature, offers us a version of truth. This is in contrast to Plato’s theory in ‘Book 10’ of the Republic that art is “an imitation of appearance”, of nature. Poetic or artistic mimesis, for Plato, not only does not represent the truth, rather it holds up a lie. Plato’s severe conclusion is, poetic or story-telling narrations with a mimetic content are misleading and they corrupt the soul. It is not a true form of beauty, for beauty is inspiration and not imitation. The distinction between inspiration and imitation being that inspiration is real and it perceives beauty, whereas imitation falsifies it by going for appearance alone. For Plato, beauty is abstract and intelligible. Tagore’s description of art affirms all those qualities Plato denies art. He thinks art is capable of offering us a glimpse of what is both true and real, with added warmth of intimacy. Tagore, in fact, goes on to say something more in art’s favour: “A donkey we may pass by in Nature, but a donkey in art we must acknowledge even if it be a creature that disreputably ignores all its natural history responsibility, even if it resembles a mushroom in its head and a palm-leaf in its tail.” The natural qua natural can be ignored, but the moment nature is represented in art, it magically transforms nature into something else, thus holding our attention. This ‘something else’ is however not the platonic lie of art imitating appearance, but something that reminds us of nature.

In the essay, Tagore next narrates the story of a tiger as demanded by a child: “I tell her of a tiger which is disgusted with the black stripes on its body and comes to my frightened servant demanding a piece of soap. The story gives my little audience immense pleasure, the pleasure of a vision, and her mind cries out, ‘It is here, for I see!’ She knows a tiger in the book of natural history, but she can see the tiger in the story of mine.” The tiger of natural history is familiar, it exists in the matter-of-factly realm of knowledge. In the story, the tiger crosses its natural territory and enters the sphere of the human. By making the tiger behave humanly, the narrative opens up a space where the girl could find herself in the sphere of the tiger.

The alchemic element in the story transforms an impossible circumstance into something that extends beyond belief and moves into the realm of wonder. You can’t contradict the experience of wonder, of enchantment, by using reason. Wonder is stranger than reason. The emphasis on experiencing a vision of truth through an inward gaze is anti-Kantian. This idea of vision offers a sensuous glimpse of truth, where enchantment stuns reason into silence.

Tagore further explores the girl’s encounter with the figure of the tiger in the story: “A tiger must be like every other tiger in order that it may have its place in a book of Science; there it must be a commonplace tiger to be at all tolerated. But in the story it is uncommon, it can never be reduplicated. We know a thing because it belongs to a class; we see a thing because it belongs to itself.” Precisely because the tiger in the story does not resemble a tiger of natural history, it is possible to imagine it separately.

Rainer Maria Rilke. Credit: Wikipedia

Such an occasion for “seeing” occurs during the reading of Rainer Maria Rilke’s famous poem, ‘The Panther’. Rilke translates his intense observation of a panther inside bars into poetry. From the very first line, the reader is invited to take note of the panther’s body, struggling with its captivity. The panther’s tired vision is infinitely barred from the world. It is forced into a ritual of circular movements around an empty centre. Rilke makes the panther’s vision visible for the reader, as much as he follows the movements of its body. The poet’s gaze seems to have dissolved the interior-exterior binary, occupying a strange place where he can describe the panther in relation to its space. Animals recognise captivity and freedom as purely physical states of being. Animals and human beings live different worlds, but their limited condition of captivity and freedom is similar. The animal’s will is simply the will against captivity and the will to be free. In the last stanza, Rilke reaches the pinnacle of his observation, with a sensibility that transforms the artistry of “seeing” into a poetics of vision:

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly–. An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.

In a letter to a friend, Rilke explains the meaning of “in-seeing”, taking the illustration of a dog, as something that takes you “precisely into the dog’s centre, the point from which it begins to be a dog, the place in it where God, as it were, would have sat down for a moment when the dog was finished…” The “dog’s centre” is a hollow place, from where the being of a dog can be most completely visualised and contemplated. Rilke allows a while to be spent inside the dog, but warns that one needs to “be alert and jump out in time, before its environment has completely enclosed you, since otherwise you would simply remain the dog in the dog.” The experience of “in-seeing” depends on the timely retrieval of the intimate glimpse into another being.

John Berger

John Berger writes in his essay, ‘Why Look at Animals?’: “What were the secrets of the animal’s likeness with, and unlikeness from man? The secrets whose existence man recognised as soon as he intercepted an animal’s look. In one sense, the whole of anthropology, concerned with the passage from nature to culture, is an answer to that question.” The human and the animal have different worlds, but their territories may cross in reality or imagination. At such moments, the human and the animal confront the proximity and distance of each other’s beings. The infinite bars in the animal’s vision bar him from seeing its own world. The panther is no longer naturally alien from the human, but inhabits a double-alienation in the cage: from its own animal state as well as its relation to the human. The animal in a cage is a de-animalised animal.

Cave paintings are the earliest signs of the origin of art and human language that differentiates human beings from other species. It is perhaps the gradual distancing from the animal world after the advent of industrial civilisation that brought in a new sense of alienation. The diabolical pleasure Roman kings experienced in exposing animals and human beings to danger and raw violence, included a simulated space depicting the forest, the violence unleashed inside was a simulacrum, for it did not resemble the reality of the natural world. The arena was a fantasy, where nature was turned into a mass slaughterhouse. It was a violation of human law to uphold civilised barbarism. The Roman amphitheatre was an erasure of being animal and being human, forcing one to destroy the meaning of the other. The birth of the zoo, since ancient times in the form of menageries, excavated from Egypt, China, the kingdom of Israel, Assyria and Babylonia, worked on a different law, of humiliating the animal by animalising human gaze.

In The Animal That Therefore I Am, holding the poem over the philosopheme, Jacques Derrida questions philosophers and theoreticians who speak of animals. He claims “their gaze has never intersected with that of an animal directed at them” and that they have “taken no account of the fact that what they call animal could look at them and address them from down there, from a wholly other origin.” Derrida contrasts them with Charles Baudelaire’s language of familiarity regarding the animal gaze in The Cat, and Rilke’s “naming the gaze” in The Panther. The reader’s mental gaze upon the scene also shifts along with Rilke’s moves. There is a glance looking out, a glance looking in, and a glance caught in the movement of these glances. What to make of the “image” that enters the pupils of the panther? The image restores the ability of the animal to retain its ties with a certain trace of its free animality.

From an Upanishadic perspective, Tagore finds “vision” taking us close to an unseparated origin: “Men, in order to make this great human experience ever memorable, determined to do the impossible; they made rocks to speak, stones to sing, caves to remember; their cry of joy and hope took immortal forms along the hills and deserts, across barren solitudes and populous cities… “What is Art?” It is the response of man’s creative soul to the call of the Real.” If natural creation created the maya, or illusion, of difference, the task of human creativity is to transcend differences and recover the original unity of beings. Art is defined as a “response” to the task offered by the real world.

Jorge Luis Borges. Credit: Wikipedia

It is fascinating to introduce at this juncture, Jorge Luis Borges’ remarkable poem, The Other Tiger that promises a radical departure from Tagore and Rilke. Borges imagines a tiger from the banks of the Ganges, at the twilight hour, as the vast library in Buenos Aires basks in gloomy splendor. The innocent and ruthless tiger roams the forest in a world outside names, and a world where time has no past or future but is engulfed in a momentary presence. Despite the oceans and deserts between them, Borges is fascinated by his ability to dream the tiger from a far-off land. The afternoon spreads as Borges begins the second stanza, where the thought strikes him the tiger in his poem isn’t the real beast, but a shadow, a literary invention, a symbol, picked up from his various readings. Borges tries imagining a real, hot blooded tiger, tearing into a herd of buffaloes. In the last stanza, Borges goes in search for a “third tiger” but finds it equally structured by language, while the real tiger pacing the wild is not only beyond the reach of mythologies, but also poetry.

In an interview to Richard Burgin, Borges calls The Other Tiger a poem about “the futility of art”. “The moment I write about a tiger”, Borges says, “the tiger isn’t the tiger, he becomes a set of words in the poem.” Borges is clearly neither satisfied nor convinced by the use of literary tropes to depict beings of the natural world. His exasperation of art’s failure to depict nature, throws the question of truth back to nature: Borges is not interested in the moral conception of art. His critique of mimetic representation in art seems to be based on its lack of naturalism.

Regarding the animal, Nietzsche in The Genealogy of Morals, holds the process of civilisation as “violence directed against the animality of the human being.” So the animal nature of the human was tamed and corrected to suit moral and rational norms. This coercive forgetting of the animal resulted in the animal gradually residing in the human unconscious, in dreams. In Untimely Meditations, Nietzsche calls the human being a “remembering animal”. Yet this remembering has been distorted through civilisational history. The memory of the will is the forgetting of the animal, the animal out there and the animal in the human. Tagore’s locating the “truth” in art in the act of ‘seeing’ in the Nietzchean sense, is not what we call disciplinary truth but the other truth, where the truth of the other lies coiled, like a secret.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee teaches poetry at Ambedkar University, New Delhi. He is a frequent contributor to The Wire and has written for The Hindu, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, Outlook and other publications.

  • Avijit Pathak

    Rarely does one find an article of this kind with such great insight. If a civilization loses its poets and artists, it would fail to evolve the art of seeing needed for a sensitive and compassionate world. I congratulate the author for the article he has written with great care.