Sunday, October 7, 2012

Infinitude, Variations, and Litost

On an unremarkable day last winter, I suddenly remembered that when I was little, my grandmother would narrate stories to me. Realising that I have forgotten all of them now, and curling in remorse, I decided to ask Thamma to narrate the stories to me once again, so that I could write them down and preserve them for the future. When I reminded her about the stories, she said, "But I don't remember which stories. It's been over twenty years." For  a long time I tried to enact snatches of a story I remembered, of a poor but happy farmer's family making pithe and hiding inside a bot gacchh or something along those lines. Thamma remembered the story, and we decided to fix a convenient time when she would narrate it to me.

However, the time didn't come. I remembered the bot gacchh and the pithe in dreary Delhi months later, and already consumed in litost, I kept blaming myself for not having heard the stories again when I had time. After I returned, I sat down with Thamma again and brought up the topic of the stories. This time she remembered three of them, I wrote down the titles, and we fixed proper dates when she would narrate them to me. A couple of days later, I went to her room to ask her to show me some of her pictures when she was young. Having seen them before, I knew that she kept them locked up in her cash baaksho. It was while talking about the photographs from seventy years ago that she confided in me intimate details from her adolescent years. I was surprised because despite having spent my entire life with her, and thinking that I knew every thing about her, that morning she shared experiences and anecdotes which I had no knowledge of. I could not forgive myself for asking so little about her, for knowing so little about her, and for being complacent and taking her for granted.

In a particular section of his The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera writes about the infinitude that is inside man. The self-reproach that I felt on both the occasions relating to Thamma apparently is understandable (if not entirely forgivable), according to Kundera. Most of us are awed by the infinitude of the universe. Looking up at the sky late at nights, I have simultaneously felt a thrill and an unbearable sadness at the vastness of the sky, the stars, the moon, and the sun which was elusive then, but at which I could never look directly even when it was bright in the sky. Quite the same thing happens when we listen to the intricate variations of Chopin's nocturnes. It is forgivable to be an amateur and find it difficult to embrace this infinitude of the universe and music. The realisation that we can never internalise the epic lies heavy in our hearts, but we easily learn to live with it. However the schwierigkeit becomes unbearable when we discover how we overlooked the infinitude of the interior world, within reach -- the world inside each of us; how we lacked the infinitude of the people we spent our lives with, or whom we loved.

One summer, I was in love with this man. We met every day, and every night I wrote letters and mails to him. I had only one tropical summer to spend with him, and I was thankful for its bountiful days. As the end neared, I gathered every little piece of paper I had received from him, and pasted them in a diary not wanting to open it again. And then, on the very last day, I didn't go to meet him, and when he left my city to travel half-way across the world, I had consciously moved to a faraway city simply because partir c'est mourir un peu. I had stopped writing to him, and hence when he wrote to me months later, saying how he thought about me in a bar so far away from my home, I remembered the infinitude of man that Kundera talks about. In a certain bar in the heart of Mexico City, a certain famous writer, then an adolescent, would play truant and drink beer. He would revisit it years later when he would return to his old country. I had written about it to LG once, and discovering that it was a few blocks from where he lived, he drew imaginary lines in the air the next morning to help me visualise the Spanish and French settlement plan along that block. Months later, after a day of writing, he would visit that bar and remember the story exchanged halfway across the world, and then he would open his laptop again and sit down to write a long mail about that day. When I would read it a few hours later, I would vacillate between self-reproach and litost.
The bar was called 'The Invincible'.

A symphony is a musical epic. We might say that it is like a voyage leading from one thing to another, farther and farther away through the infinitude of the exterior world. Variations are also like a voyage. But that voyage does not lead through the infinitude of the exterior world. In one of his pensees, Pascal says that man lives between the abyss of the infinitely large and the abyss of the infinitely small. The voyage of variations leads into that other infinitude, into the infinite diversity of the interior world lying hidden in all things.

Beethoven thus discovered in variations another area to be explored. His variations are a new "invitation to the voyage."

Variation form is the form in which concentration is brought to its maximum; it enables the composer to speak only of essentials, to go straight to the core of the matter. A theme of variations often consists of no more than sixteen measures. Beethoven goes inside those sixteen measures as if down a shaft leading into the interior of the earth.

The voyage into that other infinitude is no less adventurous than the voyage of the epic. It is how the physicist penetrates into the wondrous depth of the atom. With every variation Beethoven moves farther and farther away from the initial theme which resembles the last variation as little as a flower its image under a microscope.

Man knows he cannot embrace the universe with its suns and stars. Much more unbearable is for him to be condemned to lack the other infinitude, that infinitude near at hand, within reach. . . . All of us are lacking in our work because in pursuit of perfection we go toward the core of the matter but never quite get to it. 

That the infinitude of the exterior world escapes us we accept as natural. But we reproach ourselves until the end of our lives for lacking that other infinitude. We ponder the infinitude of the stars but are unconcerned about the infinitude our papa has within him.

It is not surprising that in his later years variations became the favourite form for Beethoven, who knew all too well that there is nothing more unbearable than lacking the being we loved, those sixteen measures and their interior world of their infinitude of possibilities. 



  1. The variations of the final movement of Beethoven's Eroica symphony in E maj. (no. 3) are characteristically stirring and humourous.

  2. Beautiful. Could relate to a lot of it.