Written and contributed by Larry D
Not too long ago a Muslim friend complained to me that her roti (bread) seller refused to sell her bread during Hari Raya and Deepavali. “He took those days off, even though he’s Chinese,” she said, miffed.
She forgot to add, of course, that many non-Chinese celebrate Chinese New Year as well. It has become part of our national mores — the various communities celebrating each other’s New Year festivities. Obviously, despite cultural differences, there are sufficient similarities and, equally important, goodwill, among the various communities to make their annual New Year festivals a common affair.
Still, it is understandable that each community would be more involved with their own festival. The rituals and traditions unique to each festival are especially meaningful to the community for whom the festival is held. They provide continuity from the past and add flavor to the present.
In many ways, a festival is like a work of art or literature: it is something that is repeated yet does not really exist on its own. This Chinese New Year or Spring Festival as it’s commonly known is meaningful only when located among all the previous years of New Year celebrations: the new resolutions, new prayers at temples, new ways of cooking traditional dishes, new kinds of paper on which the New Year couplets or Chun Lian are written, are all history-bound.
In “Tradition and the Individual Talent” Eliot opines that all new works of art are some versions of the old, and that when someone writes a new poem or novel, the new work will cause the past works to be judged differently. Similarly, the Chinese New Year celebrations next week will of course show influences of past celebrations. At the same time, how we celebrate this coming New Year will also affect our view of the ancient celebrations. Thus, our views of both past and present, in New Year celebrations as in art, are simultaneously modified.
Such an idea appears to indicate that works of art are to some extent culture-specific, which in turn suggests that they are best understood by people who share the same culture as the artist. Eliot seems to agree with Hans-Georg Gadamer on the important role of a common historical memory, for it is largely through the aid of such memory, which manifests itself in tradition, that the present work is understood and critiqued. This idea suggests possible barriers in cross-cultural understanding.
There is, however, another and more promising strand of thought that Eliot seems to share with Gadamer, and which might have a bearing on the celebration of festivals as well. This is the concept of depersonalisation. For Eliot, the poet serves merely as a catalyst in which past and present meet to create a new work of art. This means the poet should not allow his personality to block the sets of events, objects, or situations — what Eliot calls the “objective correlative” — that could be used to evoke emotions. Instead, the poet must practise “continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of (the poet’s) personality”.
Eliot’s idea of self-sacrifice has a bearing on Gadamer’s position that in order to truly appreciate art, we must let subjectivity subside and allow the artwork itself reach out to us. In his book Truth and Method, Gadamer sees interactions between the viewer and a work of art as play, as a game in which the player’s significance is de-emphasized, allowing the game to draw the player into itself. In short, the game itself “becomes the actual subjectum of playing”.
In other words, we should let the poem or painting work on us without the hindrance of our own preconceptions. It is only under such conditions that our feelings or intuitions about a work of art can gain free play and lead us to discover some truth.
That we must, so to speak, lose the self before we’re able to write good poetry or appreciate a work of art has social and religious analogies. Marx contends that true consciousness — his version of social enlightenment — cannot occur without the extinction of “false consciousness”, which to him means an ideology (an element of the “superstructure”) created by the prevailing socio-economic conditions (the “base”). Modern critical social science operates on a somewhat similar basis: the general assumption in this field continues to rest on the need to replace our old ways of thinking with a new, liberatory version.
In religion, submission to God or the negation of the Self in order to realize enlightenment is a well-known principle. The very meaning of “Islam” means the total submission of the Self to God. In Buddhism, non-attachment to material things ultimately means non-attachment to the Self as well, so that rebirth could end and Nirvana realized. In Christianity, the Ascension of Jesus would not have been possible without His material death which led to the subsequent Resurrection.
And so it is that the new year is possible only with the passing away of the old year, that the Year of the Snake can reign only when the Year of the Dragon is at an end. Spring cannot arrive without winter, as the cycle of life continues. Many Malaysians — Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and others — instinctively understand this, understand the similarities in their different religious and cultural traditions which facilitate their participation in each other’s New Year celebrations. Therefore we should not be surprised to find a Chinese roti seller celebrating Deepavali or Hari Raya. Or Ali and Samy joining in their Chinese neighbor’s joyous Spring Festival.*
Gong Xi Fa Cai to all.