On Nationalism: The Vague Incisiveness of Poets Waxing Political

Portrait of  Rabindranath Tagore. Photo by Cherishsantosh via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0

NationalismNationalism by Rabindranath Tagore

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I knew nothing of this Nobel Laureate and "discovered" his work while playing Sid Meier's Civilization VI . I first played this game to kill some time on my Artillery ROBC in Manly in 1994, and have played it occasionally ever since. The game is so well researched and I have learnt so much from it about art, music, literature, geography, history, theology, philosophy, science, technology that I am keen to find a way to incorporate it into my teaching. Now I have smaller classes, it may be possible to do so. I should probably be too proud to state I have learnt so much from a computer game but if that is how it happened, and I am an educator, then being a pedagogical snob is rather lacking in integrity. But I digress. Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 1913 for his poetry which, ironically, "made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West". This collection of essays on nationalism was written in 1917 at the height of the Great War. The essays cover nationalism in Japan, the West, and in India. It is perplexing to read, one hundred years later, a great thinker's prophecies on the likes of Japan (which went on to do what Tagore was most concerned about, at least morally), the rise of China and India, and the explosion of anti-globalisation and racism, when humanity is in the midst of the latter two issues once again. Tagore called for greater tolerance, greater freedom from restrictive class systems, and a less mechanical view of the world. He saw the "Nation" as a machine. Interestingly, Matthew Arnold (1869) in Culture and Anarchy (see my earlier review) referred to the problems of "machinery" in a similar sense. This makes me think of systems thinking, and Descartes, and how viewing the world as a machine or a clockwork is a first-principle mistake! The inter-connectedness of the Grand Ecosystem thwarts attempts at mechanical explanations for phenomena, yet it also has a moral dimension that Tagore explores in these essays. He made some interesting observations. First, he stated that Europe was one country divided into several, whereas India was many countries jammed into one. Second, he predicted Japan's moral decline through imitation of the West. Third, he noted how Europeans in America and Australia solved the problem of race:
...by almost exterminating the original population. Even in the present age this spirit of extermination is making itself manifest, by inhospitably shutting out aliens, through those who themselves were aliens in the lands they now occupy.
Yet we should not be too hasty to attribute all-seeing wisdom to Tagore. History defied his thesis in relation to India (as it was then) and what it would become after independence:
But India tolerated difference of races from the first, and that spirit of toleration has acted all through her history.
Writing at this point in history must have been depressing, and Tagore sees the worship of the "wonderful efficiency" of the West as a cause of the war:
The veil has been raised, and in this frightful war the West has stood face to face with her own creation, to which she had offered her soul. She must know what it truly is.
It is not difficult to feel the workings of a poet in these essays. Matthew Arnold was a Professor of Poetry, too, so the style is not unfamiliar to me. Indeed, it would seem that the vague incisiveness of poets waxing political has a style of its own. Tagore might not be pleased about being lumped together with Matthew Arnold! But as I read Nationalism immediately after Culture and Anarchy, I must beg forgiveness for sticking these two poets in the one inappropriate box! But there it is: The vague incisiveness of the political poet.

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