Freud and Tagore: Understanding Life and Death in the Pandemic

Ms. Mahua Chatterjee
 

Today, as death surrounds us and we struggle to find light in the darkness, the writings of Sigmund Freud and Rabindranath Tagore soothe our minds.

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Despite misery, death and churning of the estranged heart,
Peace and bliss prevails, hopes galore

                                             Rabindranath Tagore, Geetabitan, 1903  [1]

The end of Civilization: this is how the pandemic is being perceived. People not only fear their own death but also the end of the world.  Physical distancing induces more panic leaving people with hopelessness. The most severe pandemic in history was the Spanish influenza (1918–1920) causing the tragic death of 20 million people.  A hundred years later with Covid-19, the fear of death, craving for life, striving to understand life under the shadow of a pandemic are still the same. 

In this atmosphere two persons from different parts of the globe continue to influence us, giving us a ray of hope – Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Indian poet/Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). Both experienced five pandemics – plague, cholera, small pox, influenza and Spanish flu. Both lost a child to a pandemic and this loss intensely influenced their philosophies. 

On January 25, 1920, Freud lost his fifth child, Sophie, to the Spanish flu that ravaged Europe. Two days later in a letter to Oskar Pfister, he wrote: 

This afternoon we received the news that our sweet Sophie in Hamburg had been snatched away by influenzal pneumonia, snatched away in the midst of glowing health, from a full and active life as a competent mother and loving wife, all in four or five days, as though she had never existed. Although we had been worried about her for a couple of days, we had nevertheless been hopeful; it is so difficult to judge from a distance. And this distance must remain distance; we were not able to travel at once, as we had intended, after the first alarming news; there was no train, not even for an emergency. The undisguised brutality of our time is weighing heavily upon us …  I work as much as I can, and am thankful for the diversion. The loss of a child seems to be a serious, narcissistic injury; what is known as mourning will probably follow only later … [2]

In 1907 Tagore lost his youngest son, Shamindranath, to cholera in India. Describing his loss Tagore wrote: 

When his last moment was about to come I was sitting alone in the dark in an adjoining room, praying intently for his passing away to his next stage of existence in perfect peace and well-being. At a particular point of time my mind seemed to float in a sky where there was neither darkness nor light, but a profound depth of calm, a boundless sea of consciousness without a ripple or murmur … I felt like a father who had sent his son across the sea, relieved to learn of his safe arrival and success in finding his place. I felt at once that the physical nearness of our dear ones to ourselves is not the final meaning of their protection. [3]

This experience of grief can be seen throughout Tagore’s literature. And scholars claim that it was the experience of grief that influenced the Freudian concept of the death impulse [4]. In explaining life and death instincts, Freud introduced a duality within the notion of instinct itself. In spite of being two different instincts, these are so melded together that one cannot find meaning outside of its relationship with the other.  He said the task of life instinct is to preserve life; the aim of Eros to ‘establish ever greater unities’. Opposed to life’s ‘binding together’, the aim of the death instinct was ‘to undo connections and so to destroy things’. Freud also said, ‘The goal of all life is death’, resonating our universal heritage to find a meaning in death from the beginning of human consciousness [5].

Across the world, Tagore concluded that ‘death has a meaning because of the existence of life’. He tried to find meaning in the ‘meeting and parting of life’. He experienced the meaning of death by accepting its presentation through imagination. Tagore transformed ‘thanatophilia’ into a dramatic and celebratory occasion through his literature [6]. Such as: 

Who says that I shall not remain in your mornings any more
The same me shall join with you in all fun and frolic,
You will call me by a new name and embrace me with fresh fervour
And I shall remain with you forever;
So, you need not remember me then
And look for me among the distant stars’ 
Tagore, Probasi, Geetabitan, 1916 [7]

Today, as death surrounds us and we struggle to find light in the darkness, the writings of these two thinkers soothe our minds. We feel somewhat healed when Tagore says: ‘Death is not extinguishing light, it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come’ [8]. Or when Freud tells us: ‘One day in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful’[9] 

Finally, life to death and death to life get fused, as 

Life and death dance together
Tagore, Arupratan, Geetabitan, 1910 [10]


[1] www.geetabitan.com
[2] Heinrich Meng and Ernst L. Freud, trans. Eric Mosbacher (1963). Psychoanalysis and Faith: The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Oskar Pfister. New York: Basic Books.
[3] Manabi  Katoch, 7 May 2018, 'Death, Grief, Wanderlust and Love : How Rabindranath Became "Gurudev Tagore"' https://www.thebetterindia.com/140394/gurudev-rabindranath-tagore-my-reminiscences/
[4] Grubrich-Simitis, Ilse. (1993). Back to Freud's Texts: Making Silent Documents Speak. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.
[5] Freud (1940a [1938]). An Outline of Psycho-analysis. S.E. 23, pp.139-207.
[6] Kakar Sudhir (2014). Death and Dying Boundaries of Consciousness. New Delhi: Penguin Books.
[7] www.geetabitan.com
[8] Rabindranath Tagore (n.d.). Quotes. BrainyQuote.com. Retrieved June 7, 2020 from BrainyQuote.com Web site: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/rabindranath_tagore_386459
[9] Sigmund Freud. (n.d.). AZQuotes.com. Retrieved June 07, 2020, from AZQuotes.com Web site: https://www.azquotes.com/quote/352898
[10] www.geetabitan.com