To Be is to Be towards Death: Tagore's Last Poems | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 19, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, August 19, 2017


To Be is to Be towards Death: Tagore's Last Poems

While reading some of Tagore's last poems from Shesh Lekha—translated by Kaiser Haq and  Fakrul Alam and printed in The Essential Tagore— I could not stop relating Tagore's views on death with the ontology of Being and nothingness. Tagore's last poems, as Aurobindo Bose once said, “came from the borderland of life and death.” They reflect his adherence to the Upanishads and his understanding of Brahma as the infinite symbol of perfection; they also express the desire of the individual soul to unite with the Supreme Soul. Tagore's understanding of Being and its utmost potentiality achieved through death reminds me, in turn, of Heidegger's declaration: “To be is to be towards death.” For Heidegger, Being towards death is the possibility par excellence. In death, Being loses its mastery as a subject and gets pulled into a future—of “not yet” and never to be.

Kierkegaard had once said, “Life is lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards.” Heidegger notes in his Being and Time that, in order to understand the Dasein, or Being as a whole, it is necessary to see it in the light of its end. The complete understanding and the backwards journey are not possible until the Being reaches the point of its departure. In his last poems, Tagore seems to have taken such a journey backwards in an effort to understand the kaleidoscope of his life and death. He presents himself as a poet in conversation and in convergence with the ultimate Other. 

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Take “On the Banks of Roop-Naran” for example.  Written on May 13, 1941, this poem is a rejection of Platonic idealism. The subject as a being-in-the world is awake and conscious. For the conscious subject, the world is not a dream. Haq translates the opening lines of the poem thus: 

“I woke up on the bank 

Of the Roop-Naran , 

I knew for sure

this world's no dream.” 

The Being (or Dasein, as Heidegger calls it) struggle all its life, trying to understand its true self through sufferings and afflictions, and hoping to find the meaning of life in and through death. In our pursuit of truth, Tagore makes us realize, “this life is a meditation on sorrow till death—/ to realize the terrible value of truth/and settle all debts with death.” 

Written on July 27, 1941, “The Sun of the First Day” is Tagore's masterpiece on the existentialist pondering on death. Comprising two short stanzas, this too is a poem on being and nothingness. The first stanza is about a subject's being in the world, and the second one, about its being towards death. Alam translates this stanza as follows: 

“On the new carnival of being

The sun of the first day asked:

Who are you?

But there was no reply.” 

We do not begin with the consciousness of ourselves as knowing subjects. That is why the first day's sun receives no answer from “the new carnival of being,” since it is not a knowing subject yet. Knowledge would come to it in fragments through its being in the world. At the point of its departure, the Being is still unable to answer—when “asked the final question again”/ Who are you?” The Being has no answer to give, because the authentic discourse of death is not interchangeable; the final answer is only comprehensible in the first person by the dying subject. 

Written two days after the above mentioned poem, “Dark Nights of Sorrow” (this time too in Alam's translation) represents the fearful game Death plays with its weapons of “Pain's distorted grimace and Fear's hideousness” with an intent to “delude one in the Darkness.” Our Being-in-the world is connected with anxiety. We are thrown into our world and wake up to find ourselves in a situation that we did not plan. We live our whole life in a state of uncanny anxiety, always falling short, and always deceived, and always fearing that our lives will run out of us any moment. We do not feel at home in this world. This uncanny anxiety—a Freudian 'unheimlich'—provokes us to seek the truth that is missing from our everyday world.  Just as we are thrown into life, we are also thrown towards death; and until we reach our death, we live in that state of anxiety. In death, the uncanny finally settles down, the unheimlich becomes familiar, and we finally feel at home. We learn to unmask life's sorcery as “a kaleidoscope of fears—/Directed deftly by Death in the diffused darkness.” 

In his last poem, “On the Way to Creation,” Tagore seems to have mastered his anxieties and fears. As Alam's translation records, the poet has successfully maneuvered through the “myriad nets of deception” spread “on Creation's path” and has gained the strength to see through all deceptions. He has “embraced truth/Cleansing his innermost being by its light.”  The poem confirms that one who knows how to withstand “deceptions effortlessly” and endure the uncanny anxiety will eventually earn the “unremitting right to peace.”

Dictated one week before his death, at 9:30 in the morning of July 30, Tagore's poem “On the Way to Creation,” comes to us like a declaration of his understanding of God's/Death's power. Tagore is said to have expressed his desire to edit and revise the poem later. Unfortunately, he did not regain consciousness after the surgery on that day and passed away on August 7, 1961. 

As Heidegger has explained, a Being in the world is actually a Being towards death, and it achieves 'wholeness' only by meeting its death. Death is an enigma that cannot be possessed or grasped by anticipation. The Being's journey is complete through the knowledge and/of union with the future. Tagore's inability to edit his last poem is not to be regretted; after all, he has already accepted death as the end of his term as a being in the world and has already foreseen the future that is not-yet, and will never be. What else was there to revise?

Fayeza Hasanat teaches English at the University of Central Florida and writes creatively.

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