In reading of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” I gain the perception that the text speaks not of the Nightingale but of the indeterminacies of experiences and contexts. To me it appears, that this impossibility to assert any certainties and Nagarjuna’s (the second century Mahayana Buddist teacher) doctrine of void’ has much in common. This may seem a wild claim and a far-fetched one and I will not be taken as a serious scholar but I seek to defend myself against such a charge
As a first attempt at this defense I would like to speak about the space in which I am placed that confronts and excites a provocative site for criticism in reading the text of Keats The Indian soci-historical-literary-cultural context that conditions my reading responses to Keats’s text is so different from the cultural space of Keats in which he has produced his writings Therefore it is very clear that I cannot think like Keats or have a feel of his sensibilities, which are a product of his im mediate socio-cultural support system It is also difficult and frustrating to adjust my critical thinking to the already expounded authoritative Euro-centric critical constructions on Keats. This is so because the criti cal authority to whom I have to adjust my thinking happens to be spaced in a different cultural context. If at all this is attempted, it debilitates the critical potentialities of a diverse and multifaceted critical space like that of the Indian context. This paper is an attempt in this direction of setting a mark, however small, for the Indian response, on the map of critical inquiry in the postcolonial and post-structuralist context The Reader Theories and the post-structuralist literary practice offers enough scope for this task.
The present study of Keats’s “Ode” and Nagarjuna’s ‘doctrine of void’ is limited only to the indeterminacies of concept and contexts As the Indian response, in an intertextual reading, reads into the text of “Ode to a Nightingale,” it seems to me that the text more than speaking of the Nightingale points to the impossibility of asserting a determinate reality for any experience-pain or pleasure All realities are alleged realities that turn out to be a falsity. This very condition throws up a space of void. A solution is constantly deferred as nothing is determinate. This knowledge of the void of Maya is difficult to apprehend or accept. The Indian philosophical tradition is steeped in such complexities. The knowledge of voidness does not lead to nihilism or meaninglessness but provides a pragmatic and practical strategy to confront the issues like pain/pleasure and loss/gain. For an Indian reader like me conditioned in such a cultural context, indeterminacy means only this. Such a perception as it reads into Keats’s Ode challenges the certainty of the notions of pleasure and pain and revises the assumption of the privileged position of the Nightingale in the text.
The title by referring to the Nightingale raises the expectations of the reader to find the text speaking of the Nightingale But the text with its textual strat of the opening remarks on the pain of the speaker be lies this expectation My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains/My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk Therefore the text is a text of the other. The speaker seems to be suffering from some pain. But the slide in the text to the experience of happiness revises this opinion “But being too happy in thine happiness “Does the text speak of a different experience or the same experience being labelled differently? The pain felt earlier might have caused the happiness or the happiness was the source of the pain. The bird could be the source of pain. The text seems to point to the bird’s happiness and not the bird being the source of the speaker’s happiness. If the bird could be happy it could also be unhappy.
The text suddenly shifts from talking about the bird to that of the desire of the speaker for a “draught of vintage “There is a further slide from this desire to the description of the Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth” of the people of the South It means that by and large people are happy in this world But the speaker expresses the wish “That I might drink, and leave the world unseen/ And with thee fade away into the forest dim” The wish is then to go from the context of the “sunburnt mirth” to that of forest dim
Though the text speaks of the desire to leave the world unseen.” the elaborate details of the world and its sorrows point towards the speaker’s obsession with the world. The speaker wants to forget as the text says: “to think is to be full of sorrow/ And leaden eyed despair But the speaker does the opposite by thinking on it and listing a number of experiences of the world. This may mean that the narrator loves to indulge in the painful experiences. But why then he wants to flee from here? The speaker’s attempt to expound in great detail such painful experiences and marginalize the bird by dubbing it as ignorant (What pain. The desire to leave the world unseen in this content would mean the speaker’s love for the people who suffer and not the I love for the bird. Yet the text speaks of the wish to fly to the
“Away! away! for I will fly to thee.” The repetition of the word away bird signals the desire of the speaker to be away from something than the desire to fly towards another thing The speaker seems to have landed with the bird perhaps too suddenly Though the dull brain perplexes and retards/ Already with thee” Maybe the speaker is not all that happy to end the flight too soon. Perhaps he loves the flight for its own sake. The speaker’s desire to fly to the bird seemed to have been achieved but curiously enough the text indulges in describing the new space in greater detail than the experience of being with the bird. The bird seems to have been marginalized in this different space and its experiences. But the narrator experiences difficulty in the darkness of the new space 1 cannot see what flowers are at my feet/ Nor what incense hangs upon the boughs” The speaker seems to find fault with this situation and he gets along fulfilling the task of knowing the colour and the smell But in embalmed darkness guess each sweet Though the physical senses are absent, through an intellectual process, the experience is completed The textual strategy of the elaborateness of such description points to the fact that the speaker never makes any serious attempt to locate the bird On the other hand, the experiences of guessing each sweet and murmurous haunt of flies’ is enjoyed
There is a sudden shift in the text as it speaks of the wish of the speaker to die It is curious because while the worldly space Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes” has inspired the flight to live with the bird, the already with thee” condition had brought the wish to die. So this raises the question-which experience the Nightingale typifies? Does the text pinpoint, in specific terms, the experience or the context for which the Nightingale stands? Perhaps not
The text seems to be silent about the bird. The speaker never seems to have located the bird. He could only listen, “Darkling I listen ” If the bird is in darkness, why does it then sing of summer in full-throated case”? Does the song speak of the bird’s desire to be in the sunshine” Maybe The prediction of the speaker is that the ecstatic song would become a high requiem and sod Is it the bird’s own sad experiences that make the song sad or does the speaker impose his own state of mind on the emotional quality of the song? The Tamil poet Bharathi while looking at the black crow does not see the colour of the bird but he sees there his Lord. The specificity of the bird disappears. Here in this context the speaker’s obsession with his notions and experiences seems to be enumerated more than any attempt on the part of the text to speak of the specific bird, Nightingale. The text nowhere except in the title mentions the name Nightingale. Therefore the Nightingale bird referred to in the title and the bird referred to by the text need not necessarily be the same Further the text speaking of the immortal voice heard by a variety of people the king, the Clown and Ruth-privileges the voice over the bird. The contexts and the experiences of the listeners to the voice are varied and defy fixedness. Therefore there is no Nightingale in this text. It is impossible to find a simple referent to the term What the term succeeds in referring to consists of traces of experiences and these traces are traces of traces
Further the question that the text poses. “Was it a vision, or a waking dream?” challenges the alleged reality of the Nightingale The speaker does not know whether he/she is awake or asleep but he/she has the knowledge that the state defies any certainty. The contexts of experiences are constituted with an infinite play of differences that defy a static definition of both, the experiences as well as the contexts. The text perhaps calls the language as the deceiving elf that defies a simple reference in determinate terms about any experience The text fails to fix the categories of pain/pleasure, sleeping/waking, darkness/light. loss/gain
This indeterminacy caused by the text, in my point of view, instead of leading to nihilism rather throws light upon the need to confront the consequences of such indeterminacy. The text does not speak of reality but the absence of it which is the case with life. The need for the knowledge about this voidness in order to confront the voidness itself is what the text speaks about It gives a knowledge to engage the issues of life rather than a theory of reality