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Against Negation: Suicide, Self-Consciousness, and Jibanananda Das’s Poem, “One Day Eight Years Ago”

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 June 2015

Manas Ray*
Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta


Jibanananda Das (1899–1954) is widely revered as the preeminent poet of post-Tagore Bengali literature. His oeuvre is unremittingly autobiographical, narrating desultory journeys into a vulnerable yet stoic, companionless life. The poem that the paper analyses is one of his most well known. Two streaks of narrative run parallel in the poem: the protagonist’s act of suicide without any apparent reason and the ceaseless brutality of nature as a way of life. The poem has occasioned a large body of critical literature. As against the prevalent interpretation of the poem, which privileges self-consciousness and a dialectical scheme of interpretation, we set off a Foucauldian, archeo-genealogical reading. In our reading, the poem is a theater of many voices constituting a matrix of language, which, strictly speaking, is a nonlanguage—articulations that perfectly fold back against one another to implicate in a tautological bind the originary meaninglessness of living and of life’s constitutive cruelty. Here negation is uncontainable and illimitable, always spilling over, always open to possibilities of being otherwise, its trail running in negating—almost inevitably—negation itself and thus gesturing an aleatory renewal of a space for the political.

© Cambridge University Press 2015 

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Apart from the three anonymous reviewers, I have received helpful suggestions from Arnab Saha, Ian Hunter, John Frow, Kiran Kevasamurthi, Nandita Bagchi, Peter Fitzpatrick, Piya Srinivasan, Richa Gupta, Soumyabrata Choudhury, Sumanta Banerjee, Tanika Sarkar, and Uday Kumar. Debjani Ganguly was a source of inspiration and insight, as were Amit Chaudhuri, Anirban Mukhopadhyay, Biswajit Chattopadhyay, Franson Manjali, Rustom Bharucha, and Sharmila Ray. Dipesh Chakrabarty corrected a particular mistake in my translation. Joe Winter (and Anvil Press) kindly agreed to the reproduction of his translation of the poem, despite his deep suspicion of theoretical investigations into poetry. A long telephonic discussion on the paper with Ranajit Guha was of much help. Finally, special mention must be made of my two students, Debjyoti Mondal and Saurit Bhattacharyay, who read the poem with me and shared their valuable thoughts. The errors, however, belong to me as do the arguments.


2 Gul, Hasina, “Life and Time,Granta 112 (2010): 190 Google Scholar.

3 Rilke, Rainar Maria, “Closing Piece,” [Schlussstueck] The Book of Image (New York: Northpoint Press, 1994), 253 Google Scholar.

4 Chaudhuri, Amit, “Returning to Earth: the Poetry of Jibanananda Das,Clearing a Space. (London: Peter Lang, 2008), 266 Google Scholar.

5 Bose, Buddhadev, “Banalata Sen, Jibanananda Das,Jibanananda Das: Bikash Prothishar Itibritta, ed. Debiprasad Bandyapadhya (Calcutta: Dey’s Publishing, 2007), 196 Google Scholar. The expression “our most solitary poet, most singular” is my translation from Bengali. Among Jibanananda Das’s books of poems are Dhushor Pandulipi (Grey Manuscript), Bonolota Sen, Môhaprithibi (Great Earth), Rupôshi Bangla (Bengal, the Beautiful), Shaat-ti Tarar Timir (Darkness of Seven Stars), and Shreshtho Kobita (Best Poems).

6 The establishment of the Bengali literary periodical, Kallol (The Upheaval), in the mid-1920s provided the poets of its time with a platform to challenge Tagore’s variety of poetry. Poets like Achinta Kumar Sengupta and Bishnu Dey made loud announcements of their “liberation” from Tagore. Dey:

No merchandising of Tagore, anymore

For us, no tying up of the primal river
In hairy knots of performance; we keep
Open the Ganga of our souls,
Reach out to the sea in songs,
In new line and color, picture and poem
We open up in joyous new streams.—“25se Baishakh,” quoted in Dasgupta, 2. (See the end of this footnote.)

Jibanananda made no such prophecies. But early in his career, readers recognized a brooding, detached, melancholic style that quite often blended sexuality and the darker sides of life with an overwhelming presence of lustrous nature as his signature. Critics, though, feel obliged to read Jibanananda as one variant of post-Tagoreism. For instance, Chidananda Dasgupta:

Jibanananda’s strength lies in the way he carried the Tagore tradition forward into the spirit and idiom of a new era, rather than stand in opposition to it. He provides an excellent example of the relationship between tradition and the individual talent so precisely defined by T. S. Eliot in his essay by that name. Chidananda Dasgupta, The Makers of Modern Indian Literature: Jibanananda Das (Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2004), 50.

7 To Bengali readers, Jibanananda Das is known mostly by his first name—and rarely as Das; I seek the indulgence of international readership to allow me to follow the same custom.

8 The arrival on the scene of Krittibash was important in dispelling the sterile left-right divide from Bengali poetry appreciation. Apt is a recent observation by Sibaji Bandyopadhyay on Jibanananda’s pre-Krittibash appreciation:

Quickly a consensus emerged: Bengal’s loneliest poet was also a master-craftsman of imagery. The same consensus helped to draw a battle-line and configure two contending camps, one appreciative of Jibanananda and the other hostile to him. The first tended to privilege “aesthetics” over “politics” and the second to reverse the order. The net-result: Jibanananda was either championed as the epitome of angst-ridden, alienated, awkward “singularity” or denigrated as being fixated on dabbling in form, a rabble-despising, self-absorbed “escapist.” (See the Routledge Online Encyclopedia of Modernism, which is forthcoming.)

9 Chaudhuri, , “Returning to Earth: the Poetry of Jibanananda Das,” Clearing a Space, 266 Google Scholar.

10 Ibid., 268.

11 Seely, Clinton B., A Poet Apart (Calcutta: Rabindra Bharati University, 1990), 91 Google Scholar.

12 Mudradosh was a standard charge against his work by a long line of commentators from Tagore onward. That the word also recurs in a number of Jibanananda’s own poems is significant. I read it as a gesture of hyperbolic self-description and thus a rhetorical disavowal of the charge. Interestingly, apart from meaning idiosyncrasy and mannerism, the word mudradosh also has a hint of ideomotor action, which Webster’s Dictionary defines as: “involuntary motor activity caused by an idea.”

13 Bandyopadhyay, Sibaji, Prasanga Jibanananda (Kolkata: Gangchil, 2011)Google Scholar.

14 For a discussion of “bishmay” in Tagore, see Amit Chaudhuri’s “Foreword: Poetry as Polemic,” in The Essential Tagore. Defining the word as “a paean to coincidence,” Chaudhuri writes in the context of a Tagore song (“The sky full of the sun and stars, the world full of life,/ in the midst of this, I find myself—/ so, surprised, my song awakens,”): “The role of the naïve or nature poet, or even a certain kind of romantic, is to wonder at the real, at the universe, but the speaker in the song is not just transfixed by the beauty of the universe but by the happenstance that’s brought him to it: “in the midst of this, I find myself.” Chaudhuri, Amit, “Foreword: Poetry as Polemic,The Essential Tagore, eds. Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty (Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 2011), xvi Google Scholar.

15 Goyala means milkman in Bengali.

16 Poem translated by Clinton Seely in A Poet Apart, 133. The short patches of other poems are translated by me.

17 Diamantides, Marino, “The Subject May Have Disappeared But Its Sufferings Remain,Law and Critique 11 (2000): 137 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 Seely, A Poet Apart, 99.

19 Buci-Glucksmann, Christine, “The Work of the Gaze,Baroque New Worlds: Representative, Transculturation, Counterconquest, eds. In: Lois Parkinson Zamora and Monika Kaup (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2000), 144 Google Scholar.

20 The poem is one of Jibanananda’s most well known and has a crowded and somewhat tortuous history of translation, with about a dozen available versions. Excerpts of the poem used in the paper are translated by me, taking liberal help from earlier translations by Prabir Basu, Chidananda Dasgupta, and the English poet, Joe Winter. Winter’s translation of the entire poem is reproduced in the appendix.

21 Camus, Albert, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (New York: Vintage, 1991), 13 Google Scholar.

22 Bose called Jibanananda’s poems “purest poetry.” It is interesting to note the traits he thought went into the making of such “purity”: an incoherent series of pictures, a melancholic subdued tone, a layered, free-flowing, meandering composition, a strange diction, a Rabelesque atmosphere in the poem “Hawar Raat” (The Night of Wind), and an excessive self-consciousness verging on the grotesque. Bose, Buddhadev, “Jibanananda,Uttarparba, ed. Debiprasad Bandyapadhya (Calcutta: Pustak Bipani, 2000), 147153 Google Scholar.

23 Bandyopadhyay, Sibaji, Prasanga Jibanananda, 7475 Google Scholar.

24 “Jar o Ajar dialectic mile amader du-diker kaan/ Tane bole benche thaki.” (Literally, this means: Because the dialectics of the inert and the not inert pulls us on two sides by our two ears, we continue to live.) Sibaji Bandyopadhyay, Ibid., 75.

25 In “One Day Eight Years Ago,” says Buddhadev Bose, life is victorious and death defeated. The old owl wanted to instigate the protagonist to catch rats and thus help restore his desire for life but could not halt the project of consciousness. By bringing back the old owl at the end of the poem, Bose argues, the poet announces his faith in life. It is not the pessimistic poem that it would have been had it ended with the restfulness of the morgue. The owl’s announcement of its savage pleasure in killing its prey works as an elixir; the poet is inspired by the example of the ancient grand female of life. Bose, Buddhadev, “Jibanananda Das,Uttarparba, ed. Debiprasad Bandhyapadhyay (Calcutta: Pustak Bipani, 2000), 149151 Google Scholar. Debiprasad Bandhyapadhyay reads in the poem the planetary and celestial flow of life: the world that is beyond the pleasure of woman and domestic bliss is also the world of the dragonfly and doyel; the world beyond this world, the mahaprithibi (great earth, which is also the name of the book from which the poem has been taken), is tied up in the flow of the universe, of life or death as the last waves of the earth reach and spread into the still night. Bandhyapadhyay, Debiprasad, “Introduction,Jibanananda Daser Kabya Sangraha (Calcutta: Bharbi, 1993), 79 Google Scholar. And this is how Seely reads the last stanza of the poem: “The moon has set again. Again she will hunt a mouse or two, despite her blindness. Is exhausting, blinding life still so wonderful? Presumably she would answer yes. She has lived to a blind old age and now sits upon the hanging tree, the tree of enlightenment, or of samsara. And yet she reaffirms life. With that observation, the narrator rejects suicide and affirms (for the time anyway) a life like the owl’s. He will not commit suicide, but instead will feast on life, continuing to struggle, to fight against death.” He concludes with the aphoristic statement: “Unless one struggles, he (sic) dies like a rat.” Seely, A Poet Apart, 140–41.

26 See Malabou, chapter 4.

27 Agamben, Giorgio, Homo Sacer (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), 12 Google Scholar.

28 Deleuze, Jacque, Foucault (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 70 Google Scholar.

29 Foucault, Michel and Nazzaro, A. M., “History, Discourse and Discontinuity,Salmagundi 20 (1972): 227 Google Scholar.

30 Correspondence with Pravu Mazumder, email: May 1, 2011.

31 Here referring to the Marxist outcry that Jibanananda was an “escapist,” callous to the turbulence of his time, let us say that it is not that this poem is cocooned from history; rather, its historicality lies in its textuality: its peculiar ontic structure that problematizes any smooth to and fro movement between different spaces—the phenomenal text, the writer’s or reader’s private life, and the public sphere of social and political concerns, proving once again that any reading that assigns the text some meaning signified outside of textuality is illusory. (For a discussion of textuality from this standpoint, see Yates, Timothy, “Jacques Derrida: ‘There is nothing outside the text,’” ed. Christopher Tilley, Reading Material Culture: Structuralism, Hermeneutics and Poststructuralism 18.3 (Autumn 1991): 397404 Google Scholar.

32 Duttmann, Alexander Garcia, “Never Before, Always Already: Notes on Agamben and the Category of Relation,ANGELAKI: Journal of Theoretical Humanities 6.3 (2001): 3 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 Expression borrowed from Hunter, Ian, “The Morals of Metaphysics Kant’s Groundwork as Intellectual Paideia,Critical Inquiry 28.4 (2002): 916 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 Foucault, Michel and Blanchot, Maurice, Foucault Blanchot (New York: Zone, 1989), 1516 Google Scholar.

35 Malabou, Catherine, The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic (New York & London: Routledge, 2004)Google Scholar.

36 Here I take the liberty to quote in some detail from Peter Fitzpatrick’s very insightful reading of my paper:

(F)or me and I suspect for you, the focal intensity comes with the idea of a completely voluntary suicide. Such a suicide, it seems, constituently contrasts with the “norm” of being contained, trapped, of having “no way out.” The “entirely” voluntary suicide, in going utterly beyond constraint, opens onto what could be seen as something of an ultimate aporia. One half, as it were, of the aporia would be something like the negation “against negation” which, given your title and overall orientation in the piece, would be your own inclined reading of the poem. This ultimacy of the negative would perhaps resonate with religious traditions geographically closer to you but also with some varieties of European Christian mysticism and some varieties of negative theology—but perhaps the latter is pushing it too far. And, having regard to what is often put as a concreteness of poetry, the conjugal etc disregard in the poem could be matched to Christ’s injunction to completely set aside all such relation.

The other half, again as it were, of the aporia would see such suicide as an ultimate confinement—the confinement of self by self, a confinement itself caught in the rejection of relation, conjugal and otherwise—the affirmation, in terms borrowed from your subtitle, of a hyper-determinate “self-consciousness”—the attempt for “one’s self” to surpass “the perilous stream,” to counter or negate (also) life or “eros.” That is probably pushing your reading too far in another direction but the graphic grimness of the poem and its situated specificity (including “one” specific day) would push me in that direction. The invocation of “nature” could be seen as mediating the aporia but that invocation itself is grim, decrepit and terminal. Peter Fitzpatrick, email; October 3, 2011.

37 Letter to Jibanananda by Tagore (Bengali year 1322, later corrected as 1334).

38 Winter, Joe, Naked Lonely Hand: Selected Poems (London: Anvil Poetry Press, 2003), 6566 Google Scholar.

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