Angst and hope in the Poetry from Nagaland : Prof. A.J. Sebastian sdb
Poetry from Nagaland (2005) edited by the Department of English, Nagaland University is a unique collection of poems from 39 poets writing in English from Nagaland. While editing this volume I came across several themes running parellel to each other, thereby rendering it difficult to label them. However broadly I have attempted to classify them into poems of social issues, religious reflections, anguish and pain, violence and death, women issues, romantic in nature, folklore etc.
A friend of mine, perusing through the collection, pointed out that most of the poets are concerned with social criticism presenting a grim outlook. He asked me if I could short list a few optimistic poems with elements of hope in them. This paper is an attempt to trace the elements of angst and hope embodied in their poems. They have also positive contribution to make towards conflict resolution through literature.
Angst or anguish is a Germanic word for fear or anxiety. Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit could be rendered as Anxiety, uneasiness or malaise suggesting our daily anxieties. For Kierkegaard Angst meant dread while for Sartre anguish. However, the word Angst does not have the same meaning for every existentialist writer. ( Macquarrie 1972:164-5). Kierkegaard’s Angst (dread) describes an innate spiritual state of insecurity and despair centering on his conception of original sin. According to him, “anxiety is a qualification of dreaming spirit, and as such it has its place in psychology…. In anxiety it (innocence) is related to the forbidden and to the punishment. Innocence is not guilty, yet there is anxiety as though it were lost…” ( Kierkegaard 1980:41- 5).
The concept of anxiety further draws our attention to the origin and meaning of evil and temptation to sin. Virgilius Haufniensis’s interpretation throws further light on it. In his view the origin of sinfulness is sheer possibility as it is neither ‘absolute necessity’ or ‘arbitrary wilfulness.’ ‘Anxiety or apprehensiveness is an innocent sense of oneself as possibility rather than actuality.’ (Chamberlain et al 2001: 178).
The concept of dread is further analysed by Friedman in his interpretation of Kierkegaard: as he rightly remarks, “Dread is the dizziness of freedom which occurs when the spirit would posit the synthesis, and freedom then gazes down into its own possibility, grasping at finiteness to sustain itself. In this dizziness freedom succumbs.” (Friedman 1991:369).
Hope, on the other hand, is at the very core of every religion with its transforming role: Christians hope in the second coming of Christ; Vaishnava Hindus await in hope of another avatar of Vishnu; Jews hope in the messiah; Islam speaks of a hidden imam (leader or exemplar); Buddhists refer to Maitreya as the Buddha to come. Religious hope leads to liberation or salvation. This is expressed in different ways in various religions such as – belief in communion with God, resurrection of the dead, transmigration, reintegration, reincarnation, renunciation etc. Hope is an assurance of ultimate satisfaction. In recent times some have spoken in terms of revolution and reconstruction. In Christian thought hope is a theological virtue along with faith and love. (Slater 1987: 459-61).
Hope becomes meaningful in the context of anxiety, dread or despair. The concept has puzzled philosophers as it may be differentiated as intentional or dispositional. Thomas Hobbes viewed it as an ‘appetite with an opinion of attaining’ while Rene Descartes interpreted it in terms of ‘confidence’ or ‘assurance.’ For Immanuel Kant ultimate hope of man is to attain ‘summum Bonum (highest good), however in his moral philosophy, hope and love presuppose faith. Ernst Bloch subscribed to an anthropological view of hope of an ideal human kingdom. According to Gabriel Marcel hope enables one to overcome the various trials of life. ( Stratton-Lake 1998:507-8).
Since the poems in this discourse have been primarily analysed in the background of the Christian understanding of hope, it is important to keep in mind that “the motive or formal object of hope is the real and objective foundation of one’s hope… that one will be able to attain what is hoped for…. The chief motive and foundation of Christian hope is God, God alone…which is repeated throughout the Old and New Testaments.” (Ramirez 1967 : 136).
The concept of Christian hope is best developed in Pauline letters. It is through hope one is saved: “For in this hope we were saved…But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:24-25). And it is endurance that brings fulfilment in hope. The object of hope is most frequently eschatological with hope of glory in Christ (Colossians 1:27) and it is made real through faith (Hebrews 11:1) (McKenzie 1984: 368-9).
If we examine the best poetry of our age, we will find them pessimistic and optimistic; agnostic and theistic; absurd and rational – with elements of angst as well as hope found in them. In his forward to Anthology of Contemporary Poetry from the Northeast, Jayanta Mahapatra has observed how the poets have made ‘history and time’ their strength in their creative writing making the readers “touched by the poet’s treatment of the local and the personal, that moves toward an involvement in the collective longing for renewal and the search for a better world.” (ACPN xi).
While focusing on the sensibility of a few poets from Nagaland, one would find that they have expressed their concerns in manifold ways making existential reference to society as well as to their personal lives. Their creativity in ‘history and time’ is a reflection of their longing for a better world in spite of political and social instability. These poets have their contribution to make towards conflict resolution as the saying of Richelieu goes ‘the pen is mightier than the sword.’
Nini Lungalang has written some powerful poems on social themes. She makes an ordinary event into a very effective socio-philosophical reflection. She analyses the situation of crime and lawlessness in the region. In “Dust” like a romantic poet, she takes note of a daily occurrence during the dry spell in winter. Water scarcity in Kohima is presented in the poem when people have to go queuing day and night for a few trickles of water. The dry spell has led to the parching of the fields and withering of plants. Water is replaced by ‘crevices filling with dust.’ From nature’s fury, the poet turns our attention to escalation of violence.
It’s my turn at the water point:
The trickle is slower today
Each day, slower,
One day, it may stop;
And my field has withered,
Rusted-dry in the staring sun,
The crevices filling with dust. (ACPN 224)
From acute water scarcity, the poet moves on to analyse the situation of crime and lawlessness in society. Like the land that is barren, the life of the people have become barren and meaningless with gruesome murders. Reflecting on the two situations: one natural and the other man-made; one is urged to recollect what Wordsworth wrote ‘Have I not reason to lament / What man has made of man?’ She juxtaposes phrases to show symbolically the two worlds: ‘Tin buckets clash’ /Two thick thuds; ‘I mustn’t spill a precious drop’ / His blood laid the dust.’
I saw a young man gunned down
As I shopped in the market place.
Two thick thuds, and then he fell,
His blood laid the dust
In a scarlet little shower,
Scarlet little flowers. (Ibidem 225)
As she stumbles home through arid fields the poet weeps for the sin of Cain which continues with fratricide in her society. She contrasts nature and man in conflict and symbolically speaks of ‘the dust’ of sin and hatred rendering life barren. Nini is perplexed by the mystery of evil and her sense of ‘anxiety is is not a category of necessity but it is not a category of freedom either: it is entangled where freedom is not free in itself but entangled – and entangled not by necessity, but by itself.’ (Chamberlain et al 2001: 178).
I know your fear, your guilt, your pain –
I too have now a brother slain,
I too am sealed with the scarlet stain!
My ink has crusted in my pen,
And in my heart – the dust. (Ibidem 225)
From the experience of angst in “Dust,” the poet expresses her hope in “Going Home.” The poem has mystical and metaphysical overtones. The poet is tired of the city life – representative of life here on earth and longs to return to the land of her dream – the pristine Eden-like world of the mountains. She says, ‘I am going back to my mountain.’ She has left behind her beloved in the city with its cares, struggles and toils.
So I’m going back home, I’m terrified here,
I’m going to the sanctuary of my mountains-
So I return to where I began,
I go, because I must;
I return to the dust of which I was formed (Ibidem 228-9)
The status of man in society is calculated purely on the riches he hoards. The materialistic pursuit has left man ‘a stranger among his own’ and his home is built purely by the standard of wealth. Home is defined merely as ‘a space between walls.’ The poet wants to escape from such a city life to return to her ideal world, ‘the sanctuary of her mountains.’ Mystics and sanyasis live in the mountains in their quest for God through meditation and prayer. Tired of a city life steeped in consumerism and materialism, the poet is in quest of deeper spiritual values. The final lines give a religious significance to the poem when death engulfs life and one is turned to dust with the hope of eternal life. The poet speaks in familiar terms to dwell on a deeper spiritual motif.
Easterine Iralu in “Genesis” refers to the ideal warrior Keviselie who speaks of the utopian past until conflict and war brought death and destruction to his land. In the form of a folktale she takes the readers symbolically through the conflict and insurgency in Nagaland. Donning the garb of an ecocritic, the poet comments on the socio-political scenario of Nagaland. Everything was peaceful as people lived happily in the utopian world of Kelhoukevira (where life is good). Her seven daughters lived ‘with the mountain air in their breaths.’
They cultivated their fields and had their ‘baskets overflowing with the yield of the land.’ Their life was full of songs until one day a ‘sojourner’ called ‘plague’ came. ‘Plague’ is a symbol of invasion and warfare that brought death and decay.
Till one called Plague, a sojourner
Grudged them their plenty
and, wielding her terrible scythe
reaped premature harvests of fields and men
laying waste her young, her song, her hills. (Ibidem 219)
The warrior Keviselie knows best the predicament of Kelhoukevira and he longs for the moon which is a metaphor for peace and prosperity in the parched land and ‘the dead earth.’
He speaks of another moon
When she will be made whole
Restored to herself again
But until such a time
Yea, until winter comes
Stay, the songs of Kelhoukevira. (Ibidem 220)
Though the poet bemoans death and destruction in the utopian land, the winter, the poet speaks of is a future time of hope. There is hope like in Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” : ‘If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?’This genesis story continues as a central metaphor for Easterine in her yearning for freedom from insurgency and resolution of conflict.
The three poems of Anungla Longchari “The Road,” “Silent Death,” and “Life” examine intricacies of life ‘full of obstacles’ with many ‘turns and bends.’ Being herself a physically challenged person having no formal education, she struggled to become a self made personality. She has accomplished much through hard work and determination. Life has been very challenging for the poet who never gives up in the face of fresh daily obstacles. In the midst of such agonizing experiences of life, Longchari does not suffer defeat as she is able to see hope looming large. Her anxiety is perhaps psychological as she yearns to be accepted as a wholesome person despite her disability. For Longchari dread is not a ‘womanish debility in which freedom swoons.’ (Friedman 1991:369). Her poems turns from anguish to freedom and hope in God. In her hurdled life, trusting in God, she has hope of finding ‘the light,’ symbolizing divine grace.
The road of life is full of obstacles,
But with every fall, you learn something new.
This road, of so many turns and bends.
… ‘I must fight my own fight
Trust in Him alone to be my Guide.’
So you go on, stumbling on
He’ll be by your side,
Till you finally find, the light. (PFN 21)
“Silent Death” is dedicated to the unfortunate victims of rape. Longchari bemoans them who have died their silent death with the social stigma attached to it. She symbolically contrasts the joy of life in nature when they are ‘pretty and young.’ The vibrancy of their youth and beauty is all of a sudden shattered by machinations of evil men who rob them of their innocence. In the case of the innocent victims Kierkegaardian angst would mean that ‘the anxiety that is posited in innocence is in the first place no guilt, and the second place it is no troublesome burden, no suffering that cannot be brought into harmony with the blessedness of innocence.’( Kierkegaard 1980:41-45). The poem is evocative of Eliot’s expression in The Waste Land, ‘…I was neither/ Living nor dead, and I knew nothing.’
You are pretty and young.
And nothing ever goes wrong –
Oh! Isn’t life a song?
But soon a different tune life plays.
Hidden thorns and claws it displays.
Robbing you of all innocence as it slays;
They never hear you cry,
The thousand deaths you die! (Ibidem 21-2)
In “Life” Longchari pines for conflict resolution. She compares the joy of life experienced ‘then’ and the life ‘now’ entwined by by the ‘echo of gunshots.’ The poet in her existential approach asserts that life should go on. Her sense of hope and resolution comes from the sound of thunder that would dispel darkness which is evocative of “What the Thunder said” section of The Waste Land where T.S. Eliot refers to the fable of the Thunder in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad which ends with ‘da, da, da, calling one to practice self-control, giving and compassion. (Radhakrishnan 1953:290). The sound of Thunder brings hope in the midst of conflict and bloodshed.
Hopes and dreams
All but a distant dream;
Now there is only echo of gunshots
Ringing in our ears
And the sound of approaching thunder
In the distance that tell us…
Darkness is falling…
It is but life
As we know now.
In “Silent Hills I & II” Lhusi Haralu recounts reasons for the silence in the hills due to violence and blood- letting. Like Easterine Iralu’s “Genesis” the poet bemoans the loss of pristine glory in nature and man. The culture of violence has besmeared Haralu’s utopian world with blood. Her symbolic expressions and personification of nature makes her an ecocritic in expression as ‘society would be so involved in taking care of ‘it’ (environment) that it would no longer be a case of some ‘thing’ that surrounds us, that environs us, and differs from us.’ (Morton 2007: 706). From silence in nature, the poet goes on to speak of man who is silenced. Woe to the upright who speak out: they are silenced for ever and only silence remains. The play on the word ‘silence’ runs through both the poems, making the reader experience the very feelings of the poet, recollecting her own experience of personal pain and anguish. However, the experience of trauma makes her cry out in hope. The poems are excellent matter for trauma theorists as Roger Luckhurst would opine: “Trauma theory tries to turn criticism back towards being an ethical, responsible, purposive discourse, listening to the wounds of the other.” (Luckhurst 2006:506).
Silent now the distant tops
Silent upon the hills
Gone are the joys of harvest crops,
Silent the happy reels.
On and on he chops and kills
Them, those he could not bend;
Then a moan rose up from the hills
‘Sorrow’ – he could not end. (Ibidem 21)
Your wounded hills stripped bare;
Your slopes stained
With blood that’s drained
From sons you could ill spare.
Let there be no more pain.
Though it’s by hate they’re slain.
But ‘tis the love which with they loved
Which will with us remain; (Ibidem 22-3)
The analysis in the poems being very personal, she seeks to resolve the trauma of her life by imploring God’s mercy and protection in the sequel poem “The Prayer of the Meek.” Haralu calls for a life of faith, love and hope as a panacea of healing for her broken world seeking conflict resolution. Her thoughts are taken from biblical teachings on the beatitudes that call for meekness and forgiveness: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” (Matthew 5:5). The prayer she utters seeks mercy and reconciliation with God and man. It is a clarion call to end all strife and to live in accordance with the precepts of God.
Lord of Heaven and earth, look down in mercy
We ask not for the lives of those who wronged us
But that Thou might touch their soul and shown to them
The wrong they have done…
Cleanse the bloodstain from hands that killed,
Wipe the spot of hell from hearts that hate
Let no more blood be shed
Be it of friend or foe.
Teach us to forgive those who hate us
That we may be forgiven by Thee who loves us
May Thy Kingdom be established within our hearts and homes (Ibidem 76-7)
Athano Yhoshü in her poems“Awry” and “Immortality” repeats the thoughts of the other poets who have spoken on conflict and violence in their society. She recounts in “Awry” how people get used to live in a world of conflict. They intentionally suppress all feelings of anxiety in their love for life. The only hope the poet finds is in the promise of the Lord with its eschatological overtones: “I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:3).
How do we react
When we see what’s on air
Because the conflicts and violence
Are no news to us.
How do we pray
For the lost and the suffering
If not for HIS promises
And the better world ahead
If not for the Hope we have in HIM
Its cold and scary here. (Ibidem 25)
In “Immortality” the poet sings like Emily Dickinson of life to come. It is lyrical, romantic, and homiletic. It appears to be very simple but actually describes complicated moral and religious truths. Death accordinjg to Athano is not an awesome reality as eternity awaits. She presents the end-times in a naturalistic manner like the change of seasons and life in nature. In familiar terms she calls on the Lord as her spouse to love her unconditionally. The poet’s mystical thoughts resound like Tagore in Gitanjali : “I am only waiting for love to give myself up at last into his hands.” (Tagore 2002: 17).
and there’re no more songs to sing
When dust returns to dust
Will you still be there
to travel with
and to love
And you alone
The end of times. (Ibidem 25-6)
Anungla Imdong Phom brings out her frustration and hope in two untitled poems. In the first she recounts her sub-human existence. She is caught up in the ‘vicious circle’ of life experiencing continuous flow of the ‘feeling of worthlessness.’ Though the poet is engrossed in her thoughts, she cannot help but go confessional. “…the unmediated expression of the poet’s private feelings: it directly represents the poet’s mind and constitutes a confession, but a confession in the first place of self to self.” ( Bennett, 2006:51). Such soul searching only hastens her frustration and her anxiety leads to further anxiety as though ‘she who becomes guilty in dread becomes as ambiguously guilty as it is possible to be.’ (Friedman 1991:369).
Time is a vicious cycle
a repetitive screaming clock,
Feeling of worthlessness
emerge out of too much.
My bleeding soul
evaporates my purpose.
my name melts
into oblivion. (Ibidem 15)
In the sequel poem pondering over her scarred life she find comfort in God’s grace transforming her ‘scars into stars.’ Her thoughts are directed to the mystery of God who revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush saying “I AM WHO AM” (Exodus 3:14). Her hope eventually leads to faith in God in childlike submission.
I stopped to count my scars
you turned my scars into stars.
At the end of my journey
I will come running toward you.
Every part of my being is yours
for you are the great I AM.
I am yours
Always! Always! (Ibidem 18-19)
Temsula Ao’s “The Epitaph” is written on the epitaph found in the British war cemetery at Kohima. It is a memorial to the men of the allied forces who laid down their lives during World War II. The Japanese invasion was halted at Kohima. The epitaph reads:
When you go home
Tell them of us
And say for your tomorrow
We gave our today (ACPN 209)
It is not merely to ‘blood and tears’ that the memorial points to, but it also contains an element of future hope. The poet speaks of the British Imperialism which stretched out far and wide extending its colonial power. The poet’s hope on the other hand is a postcolonial dream of true freedom. She calls the epitaph ‘maudlin lines / To mark the end of lives,’; merely a sentimental ritual as the marble slabs remain silent on the reason for the memorial.
The neat little uniform
Cannot tell you why
Stuck on an alien hill-side
Inhabited by untamed tribes.
They cannot explain
Why their todays
Vanished in vain. (Ibidem 209)
The poet calls on the visitors not to be lost in the glory of the battle field. But reminds them to ‘think of the wasted tomorrows / buried beneath the stone slabs.’ There is irony in the words when the poet considers the epitaph purely ‘empty words’ and wants to put an end to all epitaphs. The reflection of the poet certainly brings to the reader’s mind the philosophy of life and death. Life must still go on with an ultimate hope ending all epitaph. The sentiment is metaphysical. She is like the metaphysical poets who churn out intensity of thought and feeling.
Go home then
And write an epitaph
To end all epitaphs,
Mindless mayhem.(Ibidem 210)
Monalisa Changkija is very vocal in expressing her thoughts about conflict and insurgency in the region. In poem after poem she stages her protests calling for peace and brotherhood. Her frustration and anguish in “Child of Cain” leads the readers to the biblical story of Cain and Abel with its proto-fratricidal killing in the book of Genesis. After Cain killed his brother Abel out of monstrous jealousy and anger the Lord questioned him, “Where is Abel your brother.” He said, “I do not know; and am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:9-10). The poet brings to focus the scenario of violence and fratricidal killings in her society.
… no one has this right to burn human flesh — body, mind and soul.
If anyone believes, for whatever warped reasons,
…he/she is a child of Cain,
and be prepared for exile in the East of Eden, forever.
Some of us consider life too precious
to live it under the shadow of fear,
Call us foolish, call us anything,
because no words can describe
our zest for of life
Or our contempt of death. (Ibidem 81-2)
Monalisa’s hope in life makes her challenge perpetrators of violence and death. Her conviction of the preciousness of life cannot keep her under the ‘shadow of fear.’ When a critic labelled her a ‘socialist’ while commenting on her recent collection of poems Monsoon Mourning, she showed her displeasure and sought my comment. I affirmed her as a ‘social critic’ which is evident in her poems striving to bring social issues to focus. “Stop this Nightmare” is a singular poem among all her protest poems written over the years, surrendering her frustration and angst to the Lord in prayer. The concept of angst rooted in original sin is the focal point in the poem. Her only hope in the resolution of conflict is salvation in the Lord through mercy and forgiveness.
Stop, please stop this endless nightmare
Wherein I read of another shot dead,
With our dreams and humble hopes.
Stop this nightmare, Lord
For salvation is out of sight
As we have turned our back on you,
And in shame I beg you, stop it Lord… (Changkija 2007: 34)
Abeno Lotha’s “Hope Remains” centres on the human predicament of handling ‘angst’ in a ‘suffocating world’ where man is literally walking on a razor’s edge. He lives apparently in a wasteland devoid of spiritual values with ‘visions blurred and razed.’ Recalling the adage of St. Ignatius of Loyola the poet muses on the futility of life when man is ‘destroyed or lost’ after having gained ‘the whole world.’
With each new day;
A journey into the dark
Of hope and faith lost!
Ah, well but what advantage is
To a man gaining the whole world;
But himself destroyed or lost? (Ibidem 8)
The poet is optimistic and reflects on the ‘awesome moment / Between day, daybreak’ which to her is the ‘sweet mysterious time / For release/ As hope remains.’ The ‘glow of white’ is indicative of the eschatological times which turns predicament into hope like the way Pope argues in “An Essay on Man,” ‘Hope springs eternal in the human breast.’
Oh, surely I feel
Part of the awesome moment
Between day, daybreak;
Which to me is
A sweet mysterious time;
For release –
As hope remains. (Ibidem 9)
Angst and hope are part and parcel of human existence. If life is to be lived purposefully, it calls for an integration of these two aspects in life. The sensibilities of the poets presented in this paper give the readers a peep into their society and its various concerns. Some have been very articulate in expressing their anguish, others more metaphorical; yet all of them have given realistic expression to their thoughts and feelings. Freud is said to have belittled creative writer comparing him/her to a child at play who creates a world of fantasy (Freud 1972:36). However one cannot deny to art its “therapeutic effect in releasing mental tension; it serves the cultural purpose of acting as a ‘substitute gratification’ to reconcile men to the sacrifices they have made for culture’s sake; it promotes the social sharing of highly valued emotional experiences; and it recalls men to their cultural ideals.” (Trilling 1972: 283). Poets from Nagaland will certainly have their due share of influence on society ushering in societal transformation and conflict resolution.
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