Monday, December 23, 2013

Kundalini and Literary Criticism

Some folks may think we’re stretching it a bit to relate Kundalini and literary criticism. Please bear with us.

The following is a comment on a book review of Peggy Payne’s self-styled Kundalini novel, Cobalt Blue.

"Many thanks for this interesting review. Despite repeated searches, I’ve been unable to find recent fiction on the theme of kundalini – when I’ve looked for novels on ‘spiritual awakening’ they’ve seemed to be more general, and aimed at the spiritual seeker rather than the literary reader. Hats off to Peggy Payne for what appears to be a sexed-up, highly imaginative work of commercial fiction, [Cobalt Blue]. The only novel explicitly dealing with kundalini that I’d ever read, The Serpent Rising (1988) by Mary Garden – about a vulnerable young woman’s hellish exploitation by an unscrupulous guru in '70s India – has since been republished (2003) as the harrowing autobiographical account that it is.
"For some reason, anything kundalini-related seems to get grouped with new-age/spiritual or, conversely, mental illness titles, which as far as I can see, renders the phenomenon more or less invisible in any mainstream literary context. I suppose this is also somewhat true of the theme of out-of-body and/or near-death experiences (outside of the fantasy or horror genres); though with regard to films, Clint Eastwood’s excellent and perhaps covertly political Hereafter strikes me as an exception. One person indirectly involved in triggering my own journey of awakening, a teacher of yogic practices, used to read sci-fi & watch fantasy movies – to find, I assume, analogies for his own, atypical experience of reality. I wonder if you have any thoughts as to what might account for the seeming invisibility of kundalini-related fiction?"
My first reaction was to ask: Why read fictional accounts of Kundalini by persons who have never experienced it when there are so many excellent real life non-fiction accounts? But then I got to thinking about the nature of literature and literary criticism, and what it really consists of.

Where are Books Headed?
I projected myself back to high school and a term paper I wrote on Sinclair Lewis. My approach to this type of project left a lot to desire. If I read the book — many times I didn’t — I then went through a haphazard process of trying to figure out what the theme was and to build a credible case around what I decided it was, flavoring the whole with plot summaries and a few timely quotes from the text. We weren’t taught concepts like premise, character, and conflict. All we had was plot and theme. Not that our teachers weren’t intelligent; they were. They just didn’t know about those concepts, and either did I until I read Lajos Egri’s book, The Art of Dramatic Writing, well after graduation.

So how does Kundalini enter into literary criticism, or the understanding of human nature? Let’s take Sinclair Lewis’ novel, Dodsworth. It’s a story about a midwestern couple, set in the late 1920s. Rather than write my own summary, here’s Wikipedia’s excellent excerpted version:

"Samuel 'Sam' Dodsworth is an ambitious and innovative automobile designer, who builds his fortunes in Zenith, Winnemac. In addition to his success in the business world, he had also succeeded as a young man in winning the hand of Frances 'Fran' Voelker, a beautiful young socialite. While the book provides the courtship as a backstory, the real novel begins upon his retirement. At the age of fifty and facing retirement as a result of his selling of his successful automobile company (The Revelation Motor Company) to a far larger competitor, he sets out to do what he had always wanted to experience: a leisurely trip to Europe with his wife. His forty-one-year-old wife, however, motivated by her own vanity and fear of lost youth, is dissatisfied with married life and small town Zenith, wants to live in Europe permanently as an expatriate, not just visit for a few months to allow Dodsworth to visit some manufacturing plants looking for his next challenge. Passing up advancement in his recently sold company, Dodsworth leaves for Europe with Fran but her motivations to get to Europe become quickly known.

"On their extensive travels across Europe they are soon caught up in vastly different lifestyles. Fran falls in with a crowd of frivolous socialites, while Sam plays more of an independent tourist. 'With his red Baedeker guide book in hand, he visits such well-known tourist attractions as Westminster Abbey, Notre Dame Cathedral, Sans Souci Palace, and the Piazza San Marco. But the historic sites that he sees prove to be far less significant than the American expatriates that he meets on his extensive journeys across Great Britain and continental Europe. He eventually meets Edith Cortright, an expatriate American widow in Venice, who is everything his wife is not: self-assured, self-confident, and able to take care of herself. As they follow their own pursuits, their marriage is strained to the breaking point. Both Sam and Fran are forced to choose between marriage and the new lifestyles they have pursued. Fran is clearly Lewis' target here while Sam ambles along as a stranger in a strange land until the epiphany of getting on with his life hits him in the last act. Sam Dodsworth is a rare Lewis character: a man of true conviction and purpose. Purpose and conviction can be relied on significantly as the book (and film) concludes with the two main characters going in quite different directions.

"Set from late 1925 to late 1927, the novel includes detailed descriptions of Sam and Fran's tours across Europe. In the beginning they leave their mid-Western hometown of Zenith, board a steam liner in New York and cross the Atlantic Ocean. Their first stop is England. They visit the sights in London and are invited by Major Clyde Lockert to join a weekend trip to the countryside. Later on, when Lockert has made an indecent proposal to Fran, they depart for Paris, where she soon engages in a busy social life and he takes up sightseeing. When Sam decides to go back to America for his college reunion in New Haven, Fran spends the summer months on the lakes near Montreux and Stresa, where she has a romance with Arnold Israel. Once Sam has picked her up in Paris, they agree to continue their travels together, touring France, Italy, Spain, Austria, Hungary and Germany. Their marriage comes to an end, when she falls in love with Kurt von Obersdorf in Berlin. Whereas she stays on with her new love, he criss-crosses Europe in an attempt to cope with his new situation. When Sam happens to run into Edith in Venice, she persuades him to accompany her on a visit to a village in the vicinity of Naples. As Fran's fiancé calls off the wedding, Sam joins his former wife on her voyage back to New York. Only three days later he is back on the next ship to meet Edith in Paris."
My high school paper on Dodsworth was very primitive. I don’t recall much of it. I do recall reading it and other books and wondering where and how to begin my paper. Even with the books I liked, this was difficult. We were told plot and theme, but not to use too much plot because the book itself contained the plot and there was no use regurgitating it. So how was I supposed to analyze a book without summarizing plot points?

I didn’t understand that stories — whether in book, film, or theater form — were studies in human nature and you could get from character to conflict to premise by examining each character’s nature. And how each character's nature — his/her compulsions and desires — inevitably precipitated conflicts with other characters. And that the character's compulsions were emotions usually stirred by incoming chatter of the senses. Subliminally, perhaps I understood these dynamics, but I didn't have the fancy labels — conflict, character and premise — through which to examine them. 

What are the character issues in Dodsworth? Who are Sam, Fran, Edith? If you look for the character’s motives and desires, this leads you to the conflicts with others, within themselves, with the Gods, etc. Get the conflicts, and you come up with a premise: Vanity — especially in middle-aged individuals — leads to degradation.

No point in going through the conflicts and the cross purposes in this book. All books are pretty much the same: victims, persecutors, witnesses ever at each other, changing roles from time to time. No point in tallying the fatal character flaws that lead characters to their ultimate destruction — because they're basically the same: MacBeth, Othello, Raskolnikov, Sister Carrie, Anna Karenina, all prisoners of their senses and their compulsions.

We may learn about human nature by reading, attending plays, and viewing films, but the foibles usually amount to the same kind of triangular relationships detailed in Eric Berne's Games People Play. In fact, you can use his model to break down most personal relationships, if that's what you goal is. The problem is: Human nature isn't much improved since the first novel was written, since Shakespeare's King Lear, since FW Murnau's 1927 silent film masterpiece, Sunrise.

The question is not: when will we see an improvement in human nature? We won't; not anytime soon. The question is: If we were to somehow cast out all our devils, remake ourselves in God's image, what would that do to the literature, film, and theater industries? Which brings us back to the Kundalini novel, in which we are no longer trying to rectify human nature, but are attempting to enhance consciousness. Where is the conflict in spiritual novels? What might their premises be? Certainly not the same as various games characters have played in novels, plays, and films up to now. The Kundalini — or spiritual novel — would have to do away with the three-cornered persecutor, victim, witness relationships that mark most fiction. Or would they? If these types of novels don't yet exist, how can we determine what they will or will not consist of?

Nevertheless, it seems to me that great novels have already incorporated spiritual elements to a certain degree. The Russians are best at this: Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov. And Shakespeare, of course.

Is there a spiritual component to Dodsworth, an element of enhanced consciousness that takes the characters beyond their shortcomings to some sort of transcendence? Each of the principles goes through changes. Fran regresses from accepting housewife to vain social-ingratiator, acquiring very little self-awareness along the way. Edith is self-assured to begin with and doesn't want anyone in her life that would introduce problems. Sam is creative, yet his creative abilities have been affected by his attachment to Fran. Once he ends that relationship, he is free to explore new creative ideas. Let's hope that Sam and Edith won't get on each other's nerves at some point in the future and repeat the previous scenario. As for improved consciousness, perhaps not, even though they may attain a high level of material accomplishment.

Is there spiritual progress in Cobalt Blue? Although the main character is quite self-aware, the fact that the author misunderstands how Kundalini functions ultimately dilutes any significant spiritual growth. Had she applied Kundalini correctly, Andie Branson, the heroine might have been dealing with sexual sublimation rather than nymphomania. But that would have been a harder novel to write: sexed-up trumps doctrinaire adherence to fact every time. The theme? Writing about Kundalini without experiencing it produces mixed results.

Writing is an intellectual process, and therefore, perhaps, less susceptible to ecstasy. At least compared to music, which is an immediate, more "soulful" means of expression. Whether it be John Coltrane, Gustav Mahler, Mozart or Puccini, the transcendent themes of their music reverberate in your body; you feel them viscerally. The writing process makes it difficult to incorporate transcendental experience because it demands more intellectualizing — writing and rewriting. Is there a type of "soul" writing in our future? A style/process that communicates more directly — soul to soul — rather than filtering content through the mind?

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