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Hello everyone, and welcome to the month of April! My name is David and I’ll be your host for this monthly newsletter.
The winter session of online classes was supposed to end in late March but there’s been a delay because (and this is no April Fools’ Joke!) I’ve been called in for jury duty. I’ve spent my weekdays for the last two weeks hearing evidence at a criminal trial. As a result, I’ve had to postpone the conclusion of my daytime courses until early April.
The experience of sitting on a jury is fascinating, and also a weighty responsibility. Justice is obviously a central topic for philosophy—it’s the central theme of Plato’s Republic, and that’s just for starters—so participating in the administration of justice is fertile ground for philosophical reflection.
As we leave the winter courses behind, I’ve got a couple other philosophical tidbits to share. The first is that my lecture course, “Should We Fear Death?: The Philosophy of Mortality” is now available for free through Academia Courses. The course consists of five video lectures amounting to 76 minutes in total. It was first published last fall but you needed an Academia Premium account to access it. Now all you need is a regular (free) account with academia.edu.
The other is an upcoming lecture. I’ve been invited to deliver the twenty-seventh British Wittgenstein Society Lecture on April 26, which also happens to be Wittgenstein’s birthday. The title of my talk is “Was Wittgenstein an Existentialist?” (Spoiler alert: the answer is no.) This is an address to a scholarly audience so it won’t be for everyone. But if it sounds like your cup of tea, you can register for the talk here.
You might also get a mailing or two in the coming month about upcoming courses designed for the general public. Stay tuned!
It was a rainy and busy March so I didn’t get out of Vancouver. But one of the great things about this city is that there are forest walks within the city limits. I made many happy childhood visits to the University Endowment Lands. It turns out the forest retains its air of mystery and wonder even for grown-ups.
One of the pleasures of teaching philosophy classes online is the diversity of the participants. Our Zoom classes bring together people ranging in age from their twenties to their eighties and from all over the world. Although the majority of the participants hail from North America and Europe, our conversations have been enriched by voices from Brazil, Iran, Bangladesh, and Singapore, among other places.
In this most recent round of classes, the country with the third greatest representation, after Canada and the United States, was India. Because of the time difference, these Indian participants had to wake up very early or stay up very late to join a class. I was so touched by their commitment.
This enthusiasm is less surprising when you consider how philosophically rich India is. (Another explanation: several participants Zoomed in from the southern Indian city of Bangalore, whose primary language is Kannada. Maybe there’s some kind of Canada/Kannada synergy.) In my (admittedly limited) exposure to Indian philosophy, two features stand out. Indian philosophy tends to be rigorously systematic and it never loses sight of its ultimate spiritual aspirations. To give you some idea of what I mean, let me tell you a bit about the aesthetics of rasa.
My friend Charles is an accomplished stage director. Some years ago he mounted a production of the Sanskrit play Shakuntala by the playwright and poet Kālidāsa. Charles’s father was Bengali and Charles had studied drama at the prestigious Visva-Bharati University in Shantiniketan. He was eager to present one of the great works of Indian literature to a Toronto audience.
He also faced a conundrum. Western theatre has been shaped by its origins in Greek tragedy and by the Poetics, Aristotle’s influential treatise on tragedy. Aristotle says that plot is of paramount importance in tragic drama—as participants in my course on philosophy and literature already know. What’s central in classical Indian drama, by contrast, is the cultivation and savouring of aesthetically transformed emotional states, known as rasas. How could Charles train an audience conditioned to pay attention to plot to attend instead to the aesthetics of rasa?
Shakuntala has a plot—it tells a story of love found and lost and found again—but the plot itself isn’t what’s most important. Plot is one of several elements that evoke precisely crafted emotional experiences. Music and dance combine with plot to serve this end. Indian classical dance includes a range of stylized gestures, known as mudras, where precise movements of hands and fingers, as well whole-body movements and facial expressions, convey a wide range of emotions.
Greek tragedy has Aristotle’s Poetics and Indian drama has its own foundational theoretical treatise, the Natya Shastra. The Natya Shastra is attributed to the sage Bharata Muni and dates back about two thousand years. The treatise covers practical aspects of drama, from the composition of plays to make-up and costuming, but its distinctive philosophical interest is its formulation of rasa aesthetics.
Rasa literally means “taste” or “flavour”—and given the subtlety and sophistication of Indian cuisine, the metaphor is apt. Like a chef, a dramatist creates sophisticated emotional flavours by mixing ingredients together. As in a recipe, sequence, quantity, and timing are crucial.
The distinctive aesthetic experience of seeing a performance, according to Bharata, isn’t the emotions we feel (these are called bhāva). It’s rather the experience of contemplating and savouring those raw emotions. The dramatist’s art lies in assembling this recipe of emotions to be savoured.
Think of the difference between feeling angry and reflecting on anger and you get some sense of the difference between bhāva and rasa. But “reflecting” is too intellectual and abstract. The drama gives the spectators a direct experience of the feeling so that they can reflect on it with the taste of anger still on the tongue, as it were.
The contemplative aspect of rasa is important because it’s what takes us beyond ourselves. Without it, our emotional response would be merely self-indulgent. The spiritual import of this point receives particular emphasis in the Abhinavabharati of Abhinavagupta (c. 950–1016), an important later theorist of rasa. Cultivating these contemplative responses is a means to cultivating the highest rasa, shānta rasa or tranquility. This rasa gives the aesthete an intimation of moksha, or spiritual liberation. Shakuntala exemplifies this point: the love story of Shakuntala and King Dushyanta has deep spiritual resonance.
Abhinavagupta is careful to emphasize that shānta rasa is not moksha. The former is an aesthetic response and the latter is a spiritual attainment. But shānta rasa gives the viewer a foretaste of liberation, providing both motivation and guidance.
Let’s put this all together. The dramatic artist crafts distinctive emotional effects that allow the audience to savour those emotions; those emotional flavours, or rasas, culminate in a savouring of tranquility; and savouring tranquility offers a foretaste of the spiritual liberation that is our ultimate goal. Not at all bad for a night out at the theatre.
As I mentioned earlier, Bharata and Abhinavagupta work all this out with systematic rigour. Bharata classifies the various rasas. He also details the different aspects of emotion and how they combine to give rise to a rasa. Abhinavagupta lists the obstacles—both in the work and in the viewer—that inhibit the spiritual breakthrough rasa aesthetics aims at, as well as the qualities of character this breakthrough requires.
So how did Charles make a work of drama steeped in rasa aesthetics legible to a Western audience? He succeeded through an elegant cultural fusion. He directed the play so that the plot of Shakuntala was in the foreground for his plot-oriented audience. But he provided an opening for the experience of rasa through traditional music and dance as well as a simplified set of mudras that an untrained audience could grasp without difficulty. The result was a satisfying piece of drama on its own terms, and one that initiated its audience into a new—yet also ancient—way of responding to art.