April showers. The days are cool, the nights lovely. A large yellow moon floats languidly in the sky, gilds the edges of the remnants of the clouds from the rainy afternoon and keeps me company on my way back home. And I wonder if the moon shines as serenely in unknown parts of the world, over war-ravaged nations, over huts and palaces and the ruins of great civilizations, if it elicits familiarity and faith in a traveller in a distant land, if it injects nostalgia like slow poison in one who has lost, if it breeds affection between strangers, however ephemeral, if it gives rise to poetry and soliloquies. And then I touch the boundary of my imagination, the glass walls of subjectivity. Much of our reaction and response to literature and art comes from recognition—either of similarity or of difference. Is then imagination always hemmed in by subjectivity as it is constructed by different levels and layers of external and internal conditioning? Is it then exhaustible because one can only have a limited repertoire of images and feelings, however diverse or huge in number they may be?
In a beautifully written section of Chander Pahar (Mountain of the Moon, 1937) by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, the narrator Shankar experiences an epiphany induced by a full-moon night in an African jungle, far away from his modest home in a rustic corner of Bengal. I partook in his epiphany when I read it for the first time and then again, and then every time I went back to those lines. That is how I would feel, I know, if I were Shankar or if I found myself in a similar situation. Incidentally, Bandyopadhyay had never visited the African jungles and had constructed the setting of his novel through extensive research and an exceptionally uninhibited imagination. Perhaps Shankar’s epiphany is a recounting of a similar personal experience of the author in the jungles of Bihar and what is now known as Jharkhand.
I know I could never see the moon dragging ‘the sea after it like a dark crime’, or its face ‘white as a knuckle and terribly upset’ like Sylvia Plath does in ‘The Moon and the Yew tree’. But the poem leaves an indelible impression by way of its vivid, violent metaphors and imagery. And being much more than the confessional poet that she was, Plath invests her personality into the poem, makes it breathe out the same carbon dioxide produced in her body and creates a vortex in the reader’s mind into which collapses the obvious and used-to-death rhetorical scaffoldings. I go back to Plath to see the same image but every time with a different eye.
On the collage-cover of War Diary (Ingeborg Bachmann’s diary entries in the last few months of the Second World War and Jack Hamesh’s letters to her, outlining the blossoming of an extraordinary bond between similar minds despite their rather diverse and antagonistic racial identity, upbringing and position within the power structure) designed by Sunandini Banerjee, there are two moons—one full, majestic, demanding immediate attention, the other a thin slice, paradoxically sharp and mild. That is how, I realize as soon as I see the cover, I would imagine the moon to shine upon nations where war plunders the last semblance of normalcy, decency, humanity. That is how stern and stark and austere and beautiful the moon looks in a night sky criscrossed by stars and falling shells. High above and alone, near the tops of leafless trees—in such troubled times, rarely does a poet or lover bask in its silver rays. The waning moon on the back cover, floating quietly in the unchanged sky, is to me a reminder of the unchanged human condition across changing frames of time. And all this, I know intuitively as I look at the book, though I haven’t experienced such war-ridden climes myself. An exceptional choice of image for a book named War Diary, I find it simultaneously imaginative and imagination inducing, mystifying and revelational.
Going back to my initial question about imagination and the clasp of subjectivity, I remember that even the Romantics, with their incomparable range of emotions and expressions, imagination and empathy, circled round their selves in solipsistic self-indulgence. But I also realize that though the impossibility of imagination without a prior image remains an incontrovertible truth, imagination is really like Koch’s snowflake, circumscribed by subjectivity but continuously growing by multiplying its facets. A constant interaction with the imagination of the other also increases the circumference of this circle of subjectivity, because sooner or later, consciously or otherwise, we assimilate the other into our selves. Hence the inexhaustibility of imagination.
Sohini Dey, Assistant Editor, Seagull Books.
With Letters From Jack Hamesh