East is East and West is……… similar?

Recently I found a passage in a book on Urdu poetry which illustrated an approach to literature which contrasts with the Western approach. I mentioned this in my recent Ramble (q.v.) and want now to expand on it and add something revealing from another source.
Annemarie Schimmel writes on p. viii in Three Mughal Poets:
There can be no doubt that the traditional material of Persian poetry has indeed been inherited by the Urdu-writing poets, many of whom write in Persian as well. But to criticise this fact means to misunderstand completely the character of classical Oriental poetry. It has often been said, and may be repeated, that the ideal of the Persian poets, especially of the ghazal writers, was not to sing their personal feelings and ideas in a new and very individualistic form, to invent unheard-of situations, or to pour out their hearts to what we used to call Erlebenslyric, but rather to express their feelings according to certain established intellectual structures, yet combining symbols and words in such an artificial and ingenious way that the resulting poem far surpasses the model. Classical Persian poetry is, as it were, comparable to the art of the goldsmith or jeweler, who uses a given pattern which he means to surpass in beauty. The poet thus handles words and symbols even more daringly and skillfully than his predecessor, adorning them with the golden thread of rhythm and rhyme, and setting them together according to the rules of harmonious expression. One may also compare the poet in classical style to the painter of miniatures or the calligraphy artist, who creates according to an accepted pattern of lines and colours, and yet seeks, by means of a slight movement of his brush or his pen, to give the whole picture a personal and new touch, even if he paints Majnun in the wilderness for the hundredth time. Such poems or single verses may, at first sight, look simple, but their true beauty is revealed only through careful analysis of the manifold elements hidden within them. The greatest works of this poetic art have the simplicity of the letter alif, the straight line emerging from the pen of the master calligrapher, or the harmony of a single sound produced by a tabla player on his instrument, both of which reveal not only the skill acquired in long years of untiring exercise but also the ago-old tradition which is necessary for perfection.
We turn now to The Mind Map Book by Tony Buzan, an introduction to graphic organizers and mind maps in which Buzan reminds us there are more than our tradition of learning on p. 92-3:
In many ancient Eastern cultures , master teachers traditionally gave new students only three basic instructions: ‘obey’, ‘cooperate’ and ‘diverge’. Each of these instructions characterised a specific learning stage.
‘Obey; indicated that the student was to imitate the master, only asking for clarification when necessary. Any other questions were to be noted and raised in the next stage.
‘Cooperate’ referred to the second stage in which the student, having learnt the basic techniques, began to consolidate and integrate the information by asking appropriate questions. At this stage the student would assist the master in analysis and creation.
‘Diverge’ meant that, having thoroughly learnt all that the master could teach, the student would honour the master by continuing the process of mental evolution. In this way the student could use the master’s knowledge as a platform from which to create new insights and paradigms, thus becoming a master of the next generation.
These two forays into Eastern techniques challenge us, to my mind, b/c our manner of learning and teaching is different. We bridle at the word “obey”. “Cooperate” is OK but we immediately look for ways to distinguish ourselves and our lore is replete with exhortations and examples to strike out, that is, to ‘diverge’ early, at the bloom of youth. The notion that we would imitate for years, making the stroke of the pen or the violin bow thousands of times before being able to play a tune or draw a dog……………… but wait! That’s exactly what we say: the old joke about the man trying to get to a concert in N.Y. and asking “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”, getting the response, “Practice. Practice. Practice.” Malcolm Gladwell invokes the 10,000 rule. So are we really so far from the Orient that we say East is East and West is……etc.?

One Comment

  1. Bathrobe says:

    The distinction is more recent than you might think. Personally, I suspect that our concept of the creative artist singing the emotions of his/her tortured, artistic soul mostly dates back to the cult of the artist in 19th century France, or perhaps a little further back to the era of Romanticism. Even in the West the artist was traditionally not so different from the artisan, creating works according to tradition under the patronage of the rich and powerful.

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