The Reluctance to Talk on the Self: A Literary Device?

The sage is silent; the student awaits the word. This image has almost become a trope. A master could not be a true one, his knowledge cannot be so special, if it is one that can be spread without any sense of caution. And on the other side, the student of spirituality has started to learn patience and self-restraint, but his excitement still betrays his young maturity. Across the world, mystical or simply spiritual lineages are maintained through this kind of dynamics, this kind of imbalanced exchange in which the way the important piece of knowledge is given is as important as its content. A special knowledge requires a special delivery of that knowledge. But we could also argue that the resistance of the master to talk about the precious information, for instance knowledge of the self, is but one hidden provocation aimed at teasing the student a bit more, pushing him further to undertake the real search of his own self. This seems to be the claim presented by Jonardon Ganeri (2007), when he writes:

“…the sage’s reluctance is no ordinary reluctance. Rather, it is a feigned (perhaps even ironic) reluctance, designed to encourage and motivate the hearer or reader in the direction of a quest for the truth, a concealed truth about a hidden self. To borrow a term from Kierkegaard, the persona of the reluctant sage is a literary device for the ‘indirect communication’ of a truth about the soul” (19).

In other words, the reluctance to talk of the self would become not the sign of a refusal to share knowledge, but a “literary device,” that is, a trick to motivate the listener to indulge herself more deeply into the search. But is it so? Would not the label of “literary device” mislead the interpretation of this reluctance? This is the question we shall try to address in the present essay.

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Being reluctant, it is not refusing to say anything and it is not just worrying that the knowledge may be wrongly given and badly received. It is moving one step forward: resisting to provide the knowledge, having the strong intention to reject a process of knowledge exchange if it is not conducted properly.

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Of the various instances of “sages’ reluctance” mentioned by Ganeri in his The Concealed Art of the Soul, a few seem to repeat the dialectical dynamic mentioned above. Dadhyañc, Yama and Prajāpati have all in common to not provide the response to the question asked to them, even if their reaction is slightly different: respectively, silence, reserve and a sense of reluctance (19). The strongest reaction is certainly the latter: being reluctant, it is not refusing to say anything and it is not just worrying that the knowledge may be wrongly given and badly received. It is moving one step forward: resisting to provide the knowledge, having the strong intention to reject a process of knowledge exchange if it is not conducted properly. It is perhaps coincidentally that this resistance may be seen as one more source of wonder, of intrigue for the student: if the master keeps her knowledge so strongly, it must really be phenomenal. But claiming that the reluctance to talk on the self is but one “literary device” may be a slightly excessive statement. What is gained, and what is lost, through this expression?

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of this expression is the very specific domain in which it seems to be applicable. A “literary device” should logically be used in a “literary context,” that is, in any piece of literature written down or, if the sense is looser, in any communicated narrative, for instance orally. If the “reluctant sage” is only a literary device, as argued by Ganeri, following Kierkegaard, then it means that the sage is reluctant only for the sake of its role in the literary narrative. In other words, what matters is what the narrative can communicate to later listeners, and not the original scene of a reluctant sage facing her student. For that matter, there could just as well be no such historical scene at all. Talking of “literary device” would thus be denying the relevance of the master’s choice to be reluctant, simply in front of her student, irrespective of whether the story will be told to generations of listeners later. If conceived in this sense, the expression “literary device” may be misleading.

However, this expression can be understood in a larger sense. A “literary device” would then be any technique, pertaining to a dialogue, which would allow the speaker to convey more than the mere content of her claim. In this sense, being reluctant could indeed be seen as a “literary device.” The sage may decide to be reluctant not for the only reason of provoking the stamina of her student, but he would still be aware that this would ultimately be one of the consequences. After all, the master does not construe her knowledge to keep it for herself, but ultimately to share it to someone else, in turn. This way, the reluctance is a test for the student, permitting the double benefit of discouraging those whose strength is not enough, and of giving the determined one(s) the keys to the last part of the path. A path that they will ultimately have to explore on their own, as this particular knowledge, the knowledge of the self, is one that no master, no “registered” knowledge could properly cover. Only self-introspection brings self-knowledge.

References

Image courtesy: Michelle

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