‘Experiments and Values’ – An interview with Sangharakshita

This interview first appeared in Urthona 14.

SangharakshitaIn June 2000 Shantigarbha visited Sangharakshita, founder of the Western Buddhist Order, at his home in Birmingham. As well as working on his own literary projects, Sangharakshita has often emphasised the importance of the arts in the spiritual life. In this interview he talks about the arts in the twentieth century, his likes among its artists and writers, and his new collection of poetry.

Shantigarbha: The 20th century was a time of great experimentation in art and culture. Which experiments do you think succeeded, and why?

Sangharakshita: I looked this word ‘experiment’ up in the dictionary. It says, ‘An attempt at something new or different. An effort to be original.’ Personally, I’m not in favour of an effort to be original, and I wonder why somebody should want to be original. That’s not to say that I’m against originality, by any means. If as a writer, painter, poet or whatever, you really do your best, you will be original. You don’t have to strain after originality. And you certainly don’t become a good writer or artist simply by being different, by being original, by doing something which hasn’t been done before.

But yes, it’s true that the 20th century was a time of great change and experimentation in art and culture. There are so many changes, so many experiments, that it’s very difficult to know where to start. And how does one judge success? We’re not so interested in commercial success. But an experiment could be regarded as successful if it results in the production of a genuine work of art. It could also be successful if it shows other artists or writers how to do things in a new way. It would have a sort of historical importance.

So, taking some examples from my area of interest, firstly there’s poetic drama. In the nineteenth century there were many attempts to resuscitate poetic drama – none of them completely successful. Then, near the middle of the 20th century, there was another attempt. Christopher Fry and T.S. Eliot did succeed in producing some good work, especially perhaps Eliot with Murder in the Cathedral and The Cocktail Party. But the experiment was not successful in that it did not spark off a revival in poetic drama in English literature.

Then there’s biography. It has been pointed out that the present age is, from a literary point of view, an age of biography. It’s not an age of great fiction, broadly speaking. But it is an age of great biographies. I think some of the biographies have been very successful. One thinks of Richard Holmes in this connection and Richard Ellmann, who wrote the biography of Oscar Wilde.

But then the real area of change and experimentation in arts in the 20th century was film. It’s obvious that a lot of creative energy has gone into film. Some very good films have been made; some of the old black and white films and some in colour. So I’m sure that a lot of creative energy that in previous centuries would have gone into painting or sculpture or perhaps even literature, in the last century went into film. Film is probably the major new genre in the field of the arts.

SG: Which experiments do you think failed?

SR: I think Ginsberg and the Beats represent an experiment that failed. I don’t think Ginsberg can be regarded as a great poet. I think it’s fairly doubtful whether he can be regarded as a good poet. There are a few good poems, but I think he represents a cul-de-sac. I don’t think anybody has followed in his footsteps in any really productive sort of way. So yes, he’s interesting, but I regard his work as an experiment that failed.

SG: Could you say which elements of his approach were responsible for its failure?

SR: It lacks discipline. Compare him with Walt Whitman – there’s only a very superficial similarity between Walt Whitman’s poetry and Ginsberg’s. Whitman has a wonderful sensitivity to language and to rhythmn, but Ginsberg just doesn’t have that. So yes, Ginsberg’s experiment with language and new poetic forms is interesting, but I don’t think it is successful. From a strictly poetic point of view he’s of very minor interest, however important he may have been from a social and more broadly cultural point of view.

SG: The 20th century saw a widespread loss of faith in humanity. Events such as the Holocaust and the threat of nuclear annihilation were said to make art and the arts irrelevant. Would you comment on this?

SR: That’s a very broad statement. I would say it should at least be limited to Europe and America. The most one could say is that the 20th century perhaps saw a loss in our former rather naive belief, on the part of many people, in the essential goodness of human beings. I think that naive belief suffered a severe shock, from which we haven’t recovered, and from which perhaps we shouldn’t recover.

Back in the Middle Ages people believed in original sin – orthodox Christians still do. But from the eighteenth century, the period of the Enlightenment, partly as a result of the influence of Rousseau, we began to think that human beings were fundamentally good, that they only became evil as a result of wrong social institutions. I think that sort of naive Rousseauistic view of human nature has been dissipated. I think we have a more balanced view, that human beings are capable of very great and very noble achievements. But they are also capable of behaving in a way that we can only describe as inhuman, and on a large scale.

I certainly don’t think that the Holocaust and the threat of nuclear annihilation make art and the arts irrelevant. I might even go as far as to say that it makes them, at least in the traditional sense, more relevant than ever. I see the arts as the bearers of values – in Buddhistic terms – and I think that values are more essential than ever.

SG: The process of abstraction was a significant feature in 20th-century art, particularly in the visual arts, in an attempt to ‘go beyond form’. Why do you regard some form of representation, rather than abstraction, as necessary to communicate values in the arts?

SR: I’m not sure that the visual arts can communicate values, purely by visual means. For instance you could say that religious paintings communicate values, but do they do it by purely visual means? If you go to any art gallery in the Western world, you will find that a very large proportion of paintings illustrate episodes from the Old Testament, the New Testament, the gospels, and so on. And you’ll find a lot of paintings which illustrate classical mythology. But do they communicate values by purely visual means? I’m very doubtful about that.

I’ve seen this with regard to friends of mine, when we go to art galleries. Since they don’t know their Bible or Greek and Roman mythology, they are bewildered, even depressed, because nothing is communicated – no values are communicated. Religious paintings seem able to communicate values only by using a non-visual language which is already familiar to the person looking at the painting. If you see a painting of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, you can just admire it as painting of a mother and child. But unless you are a Christian, or know about Christianity, you will not think that this is the virgin mother of God, and this is baby Jesus incarnated for the salvation of the world. The Christian message, the Christian values will not come across to you.

So it’s not just a question of abstraction not being able to communicate values. I don’t think that the visual arts as such communicate values independently of explicit or implied literary reference.

SG: Do you think music can communicate spiritual truths or values?

SR: Well obviously I don’t – at least not unaided! And sometimes of course music does call for aid to words. Now I was thinking about a couple of very good examples: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony

SG: The setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy

SR: It’s as though he wasn’t fully able to express what he wanted to express just by means of music. Then we have the example of Wagner and what he called the ‘complete artwork’. Apart from the overtures to his operas, he composed very very little purely instrumental music. It’s as though he is saying that music by itself cannot communicate values.

I looked up the word ‘values’ in the dictionary. Values are defined as ‘the moral principles and beliefs or accepted standards of a person or social group’. To communicate them one needs ideas, one needs concepts and therefore language. I don’t think they can be communicated by purely visual or auditory means. If the visual arts or music want to communicate values, they have to call for aid to literary or quasi-literary sources or associations.

SG: Modernism seemed to be one of the most significant movements of the century. T.S. Eliot saw it as a last-ditch attempt to protect high culture against commercialism and kitsch, by making it intentionally more difficult. Do you agree? Did it succeed?

SR: I’m not sure, because there are many Modernist writers, artists etc., and I just don’t know whether that was why they intentionally made high culture difficult. Certainly, I know that T.S. Eliot believed that contemporary poetry had to be difficult, had to be complex, because modern life was complex. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that, but I know that this was his view. Nonetheless, it is clear that much of the high culture of Modernism was difficult – Eliot himself is a good example.

Of course Modernism wasn’t able to stem the tide of commercialism and kitsch. They are so predominant nowadays it’s arguable that high culture just isn’t possible any longer. It’s possible that bad money has driven good money out, if you see what I mean. But I don’t really know enough about what is happening in contemporary art to be able to say.

SG: Is it more difficult for people to distinguish between high culture and commercialism or kitsch?

SR: Their prevalence has made it difficult for people to distinguish. Their taste has been blunted, their sensibility has been blunted. They can’t tell the difference any longer between good art and bad art, or what is art and what is just not art.

SG: Do you have any favourites among the century’s painters – for instance Monet, Cezanne or Matisse?

SR: There are some twentieth century painters whose work I definitely like, or at least I like some of their work. But they are not favourites in the sense that I go back to them again and again.

I like Klee’s and Kandinsky’s work. The year before last, when I was in Munich, I saw an enormous amount of Kandinsky’s work, and I was really quite impressed. Then, someone very different, Otto Dix. And of course George Grosz – the German impressionist. I like Magritte – remember the big Magritte exhibition at the Tate, years and years ago. I like Juan Miró’s work. So yes, there are some 20th-century painters whose works I like. In the field of sculpture, I like some of Epstein’s work, especially his portrait busts. I was very impressed by those years and years ago.

SG: And poets?

SR: Despite Eliot’s view about Modernism, there were some good poets who were not Modernist in the sense of being difficult. I won’t say that they were great poets, but they were good poets who wrote some good poetry. I would especially mention Philip Larkin in this connection. I think that his poetry is very good indeed.

If you look back to the earlier part of the century, there’s the later Yeats. Without being a modernist, he is as good or as great a poet as Eliot himself. Then we have Betjeman, who in defiance of Modernism wrote poetry which was very good and accessible, not difficult, but technically very accomplished. And there was Robert Graves, and I would say Robert Bridges, who in metrical terms was quite experimental, with quantitive measures. And of course Gerald Manley Hopkins – because the 20th century was when he was published. We mustn’t forget him. He was rather more difficult – not so accessible as some of the others.

And of course there was another poet I like quite a lot, who was certainly not Modernist, who was popular and 20th-century – Walter de la Mare. He produced some very fine poetry. I would also even include D.H. Lawrence as a poet. So we have here a whole galaxy of good poets, who were good despite not being Modernist. However, it’s very doubtful whether any of them, with the possible exception of Yeats and Eliot himself, could be regarded as great poets.

SG: What about novelists?

SR: I haven’t read many 20th-century novels. I’ve read mainly D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse. I know Mann is classified as one of the great novelists. I am not sure on what grounds, but I’ve certainly enjoyed his work. As regards D.H. Lawrence, my maturer judgement would be that I appreciate the best of his novellas better than his major novels. I think they are more successful as works of art. In the case of the novels, he wasn’t attempting to write a novel in the ordinary sense. He thought of his novels as thought-adventures, and perhaps they are that. So perhaps they are a different genre, but they don’t succeed as novels in the more ‘classical’ sense – as of course Thomas Mann’s do. Not that one can really compare the two. I’ve enjoyed E.M Forster and…

SG: Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano?

SR: Yes, I’ve enjoyed that. More recently I’ve enjoyed Truman Capote, Carson McCullers and Nathaniel West. I’ve enjoyed Ivan Klíma, the contemporary Czech novelist very much. But I don’t read much contemporary fiction. There’s an enormous amount of it, and the reviews, even when they are favourable, put me off!

SG: Your new collection of poems The Call of the Forest appears to be something of a departure. It is by turns humorous, provocative and preoccupied with death. What prompted this departure?

SR: I can only say, in a sense, that nothing prompted it. I didn’t set out to write a little collection of poems that would be rather different. All my poems come spontaneously – I don’t think about them beforehand. Usually, when I’m quiet or on my own or sometimes in the middle of the night a verse comes to me or a line comes to me, and a poem grows out of that. But I don’t think beforehand, I want to write about this or I want to write about that.

It isn’t as though I consciously decided to put together a collection of a certain kind. I’ve simply put together all the poems that came to me in this way during the five years following the publication of the Complete Poems. And it’s just that they happen to be rather different. But that’s not the result of any design or intention. Why I wrote this or that poem, I don’t know. It wasn’t a conscious departure.

Most of them, of course, haven’t been read at a poetry reading. Perhaps three or four, ‘The Call of the Forest’, ‘White Tara’ and ‘The Dance of Death’. But the others, no-one had heard.

SG: You seem to use a number of voices…

SR: Yes, an appropriate persona. Take the poem ‘Revenge’. I’m speaking in the voice of somebody else. I’m not advocating murder, personally.

SG: That was a curious poem. Was there a situation which prompted it?

SR: I remember it very clearly. I went for a walk in our little park. It was autumn time. I was looking at some trees and their red leaves. The sun was shining through the leaves, and I thought, that looks just like blood. The poem grew out of that, just as I was walking around.


Red were the leaves upon the beech

Between me and the setting sun,

But redder on the turf beneath

The heart’s blood of my brother’s son.

And that is why at break of day

The sun shall see upon my knife,

And on the castle steps, the blood

Of those who foully took his life.

O he was fair and she was fair,

Yet one was fairer, wealthier still,

And so the traitress and her man

Conspired my brother’s son to kill.

In shadow of the castle wall

I wait to see the sun uprise,

My hand upon my knife, a mist

Of blood, red blood, before my eyes.

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