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a Giant’s Life; opera “Satyagraha,”

Music Review | 'Satyagraha'

Fanciful Visions on the Mahatma’s Road to Truth and Simplicity

Published: April 14, 2008

This is a fitting time to revisit Philip Glass’s opera “Satyagraha,” a landmark work of Minimalism. I take Mr. Glass at his word that when “Satyagraha” was introduced, in Rotterdam in 1980, he was following his own voice and vision, not firing a broadside against the complex, cerebral modernist composers who claimed the intellectual high ground while alienating mainstream classical music audiences. Happily, that divisive period is finally past.

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Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Richard Croft, in white, at the Met as Mohandas K. Gandhi in the Philip Glass opera "Satyagraha," which depicts Gandhi’s path to spirituality and political activism in South Africa.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

In a swirl of newsprint: Richard Croft as Gandhi, who relied on the news media in his agitation for civil rights, in the Philip Glass opera “Satyagraha,” at the Met.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

A scene from the Philip Glass opera "Satyagraha."

Metropolitan Opera patrons, mostly bound by tradition, might not seem a likely source of Glass fans. But when Mr. Glass appeared onstage after the Met’s first performance of “Satyagraha,” on Friday night, the audience erupted in a deafening ovation.

“Satyagraha” (a Sanskrit term that means truth force) is more a musical ritual than a traditional opera. Impressionistic and out of sequence, it relates the story of Mohandas K. Gandhi’s fight for the civil rights of the Indian minority in South Africa from 1893 to 1914. The staging — created by Phelim McDermott, director, and Julian Crouch, associate director and set designer, for the Met and the English National Opera, where it was seen last year — makes inventive use of fanciful imagery, aerialists, gargantuan puppets and theatrical spectacle to convey the essence of a self-consciously spiritual work.

Without knowing the events of Gandhi’s struggles in South Africa you would have little idea what is going on, starting from the opening scene. Gandhi, portrayed by the sweet-voiced tenor Richard Croft in a heroic performance, lies on the ground in a rumpled suit, his suitcase nearby. The moment depicts an incident when Gandhi, as a young lawyer en route to Pretoria and holding a proper first-class ticket, was ordered to take his place with the Indians on board and, when he resisted, was pushed from the train onto the platform.

But this abstract production takes its cues from Mr. Glass, who was not interested in fashioning a cogent narrative. What continues to make the opera seem radical comes less from the music, with its lulling repetitions of defiantly simple riffs, motifs and scale patterns, than from the complete separation of sung text from dramatic action, such as it is.

The libretto, assembled by the novelist Constance DeJong, consists of philosophical sayings from the Bhagavad-Gita, the sacred Hindu epic poem. Mr. Glass honors the text by keeping it in the original Sanskrit and setting every syllable clearly. This production dispenses with Met Titles on the theory that the audience would actually be distracted by paying attention to the words, which at best serve as commentary. Instead key phrases in English are projected on a semicircular corrugated wall that forms the backdrop of the production’s gritty and elemental set.

“Satyagraha” invites you to turn off the part of your brain that looks for linear narrative and literal meaning in a musical drama and enter a contemplative state — not hard to do during the most mesmerizing parts of the opera, especially in this sensitive performance. For example, in the hauntingly mystical opening scene when Gandhi reflects on a battle between two royal families depicted in the Bhagavad-Gita, Mr. Croft, in his plaintive voice, sang the closest the score comes to a wistful folk song while undulant riffs wound through the lower strings.

That the impressive young conductor Dante Anzolini, in his Met debut, kept the tempos on the slow side lent weight and power to the repetitive patterns. At times, though, during stretches in the opera when Mr. Glass pushes the repetitions to extremes, as in the wild conclusion to the final choral scene in Act I, the music became a gloriously frenzied din of spiraling woodwind and organ riffs.

Even in this breakthrough work Mr. Glass does not come across as a composer who sweats over details. He tends to rely on default repetitions of formulaic patterns, the only question being how often to repeat a phrase. Sometimes the daring simplicity just sounds simplistic. When he does work harder, fracturing the rhythmic flow or injecting some pungent dissonance into his harmonies, I am more drawn in.

In this regard Mr. Glass is different from another founding father of Minimalism, Steve Reich, whose music is just as repetitious as Mr. Glass’s. But Mr. Reich has always had an ear for ingenious, striking and intricate detail.

Sometimes, with its aerial feats and puppetry, the Met production relies too much on stage activity. Still, it’s quite a show. Mr. McDermott and Mr. Crouch have assembled a group of acrobats and aerialists called the Skills Ensemble, who produce magical effects. In once scene they form a huge puppet queen clothed in newspaper who goes to battle against a hulking puppet warrior assembled from wicker baskets. The use of simple materials is meant as homage to the poor, oppressed minorities for whom Gandhi gave his life.

Because Gandhi relied on the news media of his day to support his agitation for human rights and published his own journal, Indian Opinion, newspapers are a running image in the production. Actors fashion pages into symbolic barriers for protests. At one point, in despair, Gandhi disappears into a slithering mass of people and paper.

The cast entered into the ritualistic wonder of the work and the production despite solo and choral parts that are often formidably hard. It’s almost cruel to ask male choristers to sing foursquare, monotone repetitions of “ha, ha, ha, ha” for nearly 10 minutes, as Mr. Glass does. Yet the chorus sang with stamina and conviction.

Besides Mr. Croft, other standouts in the excellent cast included the soprano Rachelle Durkin as Gandhi’s secretary, Miss Schlesen; the mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak as his wife; the bass-baritone Alfred Walker as Parsi Rustomji, a co-worker; and the baritone Earle Patriarco as Mr. Kallenbach, a European co-worker and ally. You are not likely to hear the long, ethereal sextet in the last act sung with more calm intensity and vocal grace than it was here.

Ultimately, despite its formulaic elements, “Satyagraha” emerges here as a work of nobility, seriousness, even purity. In the final soliloquy, timeless and blithely simple, Gandhi hauntingly sings an ascending scale pattern in the Phrygian mode 30 times. To some degree the ovation at the end, after a 3-hour-45-minute evening, was necessary. The audience had to let loose after all that contemplation.

“Satyagraha” continues through May 1 at the Metropolitan Opera; (212) 362-6000, metopera.org.

The New York Review of Books

Volume 13, Number 9 · November 20, 1969


Gandhi: Non-Violence as Therapy

By Clifford Geertz

Gandhi's Truth, or the Origins of Militant Nonviolence
by Erik H. Erikson
Norton, 474 pp., $10.00

"Whence, however," the Mahabharata asks, "does Hope arise?" For twenty years, since his Childhood and Society announced the Freudian vocation to be the empowerment of the ego, Erik Erikson has been asking the same question. His whole career has proceeded from a settled determination to turn psychoanalysis away from fascination with weakness toward detection of strength, to dissolve its hospital odor and connect it up with the public aspirations of men. In modern India, where despair is more than an emotion—a quality of the landscape, a dimension of the weather—hope arose most eloquently with Gandhi. In addressing himself to the question of whence, in the convolutions of the Mahatma's life, that hope came, what it consisted in, and why, at least for a while, it caught most of India in its grasp, Erikson has found a most appropriate subject. But he has found as well a most refractory case.

A man who claims to be a saint, as Gandhi did, if not in so many words, certainly in almost every action he took after his return from South Africa in 1915 (he arrived at the banquet, with which Bombay high society greeted him, in peasant dress and announced that he would rather have been received by indentured servants), demands, above all, a moral response. Rather like the little girl who did not know whether she wished to see the dinosaur in the museum until she found out whether it was good or bad, we have to decide how to feel about him before we really understand him, and coming to understand him does not actually help very much in deciding how to feel about him.

Indeed, when it is a dinosaur like Gandhi one is going to see, coming to understand him only makes the problem worse. The deeper the labyrinth of his personality is penetrated the higher rises the tension between admiration and outrage, awe and disgust, trust and suspicion, until the encounter with him becomes as painful and disaccommodating as he wished to make it. It is the triumph of Erikson's book that in uncovering the inner sources of Gandhi's power it does not dissolve but deepens his inherent moral ambiguity, and in so doing extends the intent of his career: to make of himself an exemplary prophet, a man who recommends his character to the world as a saving revelation.

The more prominent features of Gandhi's character are only too well known. His sexual and dietary asceticism, his hatred of filth, his shyness, his restlessness, his penchant for self-inflicted suffering, his moralism, his romanticism, his vanity, have all been described over and over again in what is by now a fairly sizable hagiographic and anti-hagiographic literature both inside India and out. Erikson inspects these familiar traits and traces their roots in Gandhi's childhood and adolescence. But it is to a less noticed aspect of Gandhi's character that he turns as the psychological axis of his religious genius—his ironic, mocking, grating humor.

Erikson's Gandhi is an obsessive tease, a man with an extraordinary capacity to make others feel furious and foolish at the same time. At Benares, the arch symbol of Hindu humility, he dresses up as a pauper and offers a penny to the Well of Knowledge and is duly rewarded by having a custodian of orthodoxy (and, apparently, of the Well) inform him that he will land in hell for his stinginess. In South Africa, he organizes a boycott against the Black Act and then escorts Indians who wish to break it through the picket lines of his own followers. At a meeting with the Viceroy arranged to end his disobedience campaign against the salt tax he draws a packet of salt from his shawl and pours it ceremoniously into his tea. He praises anarchy to lawyers, patience to students, manual labor to civil servants, poverty to economists, simplicity to maharajas, Hindi to college professors, and violence to Annie Besant.

He is always taunting, testing limits, playing, up to some finely calculated point, with others' emotions. The essence of his spiritual gift is an edged gaiety, an Indic variety of kidding on the level, which keeps everyone—intimates, followers, rivals, officials, wisdom seekers from the West—psychologically off balance, unable to find their moral feet with him. Forged into a political instrument this becomes the famous Satyagraha, which literally means "truth force" or "perseverance in truth," is usually translated as "passive resistance" or (somewhat better) "militant non-violence," but which could perhaps be most informatively rendered as "mass taunting" or "collective needling." What in the end Gandhi did to colonial India was drive it to distraction.

Erikson centers his investigation of this intricate art around an incident—he calls it "The Event"—which, occurring at the very beginning of Gandhi's Indian career (though, as he was nearly fifty, well along in his life), demonstrates its workings in a parochial, highly personal, micro-context—a small, intense circle of intimates. Working into this "Event," the Ahmedabad textile strike of 1918, from Gandhi's youth and young manhood (Gujerat, London, South Africa), on the far side, and outward from it to the days of his Mahatmaship, when "all India would hold its breath while [he] fasted," on the near, he uses it, like a true clinician, to uncover the psychological materials out of which Satyagraha was made.

What made the Ahmedabad strike such a natural for Gandhi was the ingrown character of it all. The workers, many of whom were women, were led by the feminist sister of the main mill owner, one of the earliest of Gandhi's long string of devoted female disciples. Management was led by her less visionary brother, whose wife was also a Gandhi partisan, and who, for all his defensive bluffness, had himself been Gandhi's first important financial backer in India. Together with a few other early adherents—an energetic Bombay social worker, a mousy male secretary, one of Gandhi's squad of attendant nephews—this little group formed a mock family, thick with oblique affections and equivocal motives, which the intrusion of the strike threw into precisely the kind of psychological disarray in which an inspired tease with a passion for toying with others' emotions could effectively maneuver. "I am handling a most dangerous situation here," he wrote exultantly to one of his sons as irresistible sister and immovable brother set out on a collision course, "and preparing to go on to a still more dangerous."

After such promising beginnings, however, the affair turned out, on the surface at least, to be a bit of a fizzle. Seated beneath a bulbul tree Gandhi lectured to thousands of people each afternoon on the principles of Satyagraha. He extracted, almost without quite realizing it, a sacred pledge from the workers neither to resume work nor to cause any disturbance until their demands had been met. And, when their resolution began to fail, he launched the first of his seventeen famous "fasts to the death." In the end, despairing of the moral fiber of the workers ("After twenty years' experience I have come to the conclusion that I am qualified to take a pledge," he told them with headmaster rudeness. "I see you are not yet so qualified.") he negotiated a settlement between the sibling antagonists which saved the workers' pride, the owners' pocketbook, and his own reputation.

It seemed to Gandhi a rather sordid end to what was to have been a moral revolution. ("My co-workers and I," he wrote later in his Autobiography, "had built many castles in the air, but they all vanished for the time being.") But for Erikson it is the point at which Gandhi set definitively off down the road to sainthood, the point at which the philosophy of militant non-violence freed itself from his personal biography to become part of the collective consciousness of modern India:

…Casting Ahmedabadis against one another [The Event] was largely a local show, like a rehearsal before a provincial audience. This [becomes] especially clear when we look back on Ahmedabad from the first nation-wide Satyagraha exactly one year later…. Then hundreds of thousands of Indians of all regions and religions would be on the move; the British Empire itself would be the principal counter-player, and world opinion the awed onlooker. But at least Ahmedabad [was] a real, a craftsmanlike rehearsal, in spite of a few devastating shortcomings such as earnest rehearsals bring to life.

At Ahmedabad, teasing was finally raised to a philosophical plane, taunting exalted into a religious act. To an extent this had already occurred in the agitations in South Africa. But there it had all been rather pragmatic, ad hoc, a day-to-day experimentation with styles and devices, immediate reactions to immediate injustices. At Ahmedabad, where the personal, social, ethical, and practical flowed into one another in such a way as virtually to dissolve the line between private emotions and public acts, such ideological innocence could no longer be maintained. The inner connection between Satyagraha as individual experience—what Gandhi taxed the workers with not having—and as collective action—what he taxed himself for not controlling—was openly exposed, and with it the fact that shaming men into virtue was a complex and treacherous business, both less selfish and less pacific than it looked.

The violence that non-violence contains, has, of course, often been noted; since Nietzsche, it has been a commonplace. But what Gandhi came, after Ahmedabad, to believe—and in so doing plunged himself into a forest of puzzles—was that this contained violence was precisely what gave nonviolence its moral grandeur. As a weapon of the weak, Satyagraha is reduced to cowardice, it is what the defenseless must do to survive; as a weapon of the strong, it is the highest form of courage, the willingness to suffer evil rather than commit it. From someone powerless to strike back, turning the other cheek is a token of submission, a victim mollifying his tormentor by dissembling his rage. From someone competent to strike back, and even to kill, it is a provocation, an assertion of moral superiority which an aggressor, whether with renewed brutality or crushed repentance, must necessarily acknowledge. The road to true non-violence passes then through the attainment of power, that is of the means of violence, a doctrine which, when stated in the context of India fifty years ago, breathes the same chill of desperate logic as it does in that of the contemporary United States:

What am I to advise a man to do who wants to kill but is unable owing to his being maimed? Before I can make him feel the virtue of not killing, I must restore to him the arm he has lost…. A nation that is unfit to fight cannot from experience prove the virtue of not fighting. I do not infer from this that India must fight. But I do say that India must know how to fight.

I have come to see, what I did not so clearly before, that there is non-violence in violence. This is the big change which has come about. I had not fully realized the duty of restraining a drunkard from doing evil, of killing a dog in agony or one infected with rabies. In all these instances violence is in fact non-violence.

Today I find that everybody is desirous of killing, but most are afraid of doing so or powerless to do so. Whatever is to be the result I feel certain that the power must be restored to India. The result may be carnage. Then India must go through it.

Whether one hears Malcolm X or Dean Rusk in these quotations—and it is part of the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't quality of Gandhi's Truth that one can hear something of both—this is clearly dangerous doctrine; the carnage after all did come, martyring Gandhi with it, and, as I write, Ahmedabad, of all places, is the scene of the bloodiest communal riots since Partition. The moral doubletalk to which it can lead is apparent, not only in Gandhi ("…Our offspring must be strong in physique," he said, urging Indians into the British Army. "If they cannot completely renounce the urge to violence, we may permit them to commit violence, to use their strength to fight and thus make them non-violent"), but, on occasion, in Erikson as well:

In view of the values which the Jews of the diaspora have come to stand for, the belated proof that Jews could fight a national war, may impress many as an historical anachronism. And, indeed, the triumph of Israeli soldiery is markedly subdued, balanced by a certain sadness over the necessity to reenter historical actuality by way of military methods not invented by Jews, and yet superbly used by them. I would go further: is it not possible that such historical proof of a military potential will make peace-loving Jews better potential Satyagrahis?

Yet, however one may prefer the bleak candor of Realpolitik to images of a saddened soldiery fighting to advance the cause of pacifism (as Burkhardt said, there is enough hypocrisy in the world already), the argument that a sacred pledge to abstain from the use of force can have moral reality only with respect to people who have a genuine possibility of effectively using force is surely correct. And, as Gandhi himself recognized ("…This new aspect of non-violence which has revealed itself to me has enmeshed me in no end of problems…. I have not found one master-key for all the riddles…. My powers of thinking fail me…") the acceptance of this hard truth introduces a paradox into the very heart of Gandhian doctrine. As ideological slogans, "Peace Through Strength" and "Strength Through Peace" do not sit altogether comfortably together.

Not, at least. In thought. In action, Erikson argues, this contradiction was transcended by the sheer force of Gandhi's commitment, his readiness when faced with the immediate possibility, a possibility he had had usually himself specifically created, to get hurt rather than to hurt. Like Luther and like St. Francis, two other men with a subversive sense of humor, Gandhi was "a religious actualist," a man for whom truth resides neither in tradition nor in doctrine, but in "that which feels effectively true in action." In the carefully staged politico-moral dramas which he called his "experiments with truth"—Ahmedabad, the salt campaign, Hydari Mansion—Gandhi made his argument that the active decision not to do harm was the basic law of life come alive both to himself and to large masses of Indians. Stymied by the paradox that non-violence is the reciprocal of strength, power the prerequisite of self-command, his "philosophy" dissolved into a collection of colliding homilies and Indic eccentricities. Fired by the same paradox, his "method" focussed into a rising series of studied provocations designed to expose at once the pretensions of colonial society and the impotence of political brutality.

In attempting to clarify the anatomy of this exercise in collective truthfinding, Erikson follows a famous remark of Nehru's to the effect that what Gandhi accomplished for India was "a psychological change, almost as if some expert in psychoanalytic methods had probed deep into the patient's past, found out the origins of his complexes, exposed them to view, and thus rid him of that burden." Erikson constructs an extended parallel between the technique developed by Freud for renewing growth in neurotic individuals and that developed by Gandhi to restore hope to a crippled people. Both relied on engagement at close range between the agent and the subject of change; both attempted to give the subject courage to change by confronting him as a full and equal human being with a latent capacity to trust and love, rather than as a lunatic, an inferior and enemy, or a savage; both eschewed any form of coercion, even moral coercion; both regarded as critical the agent's openness to change as well as the subject's, and saw the process of "cure" as involving a deepening of insight and consequent selftransformation, on both sides. And so on. Satyagraha is Analysis writ large; Analysis Satyagraha writ small. Politics and therapy coincide.

Perhaps one should not expect an analyst, even an heterodox one, to come to any other conclusions. ("When I began this book, I did not expect to rediscover psychoanalysis in terms of truth, self-suffering and non-violence," he concludes somewhat ingenuously. "But now that I have done so I see better what I hope the reader has come to see with me, namely, that I felt attracted to the Ahmedabad Event…because I sensed an affinity between Gandhi's truth and the insights of modern psychology.") But there is in this analogy a rather serious defect: in a clinical encounter ultimate interests merge, in the political one they do not. It is the deliberate exclusion of extrinsic concerns from the therapeutic situation, the stripping away of everything but a common concentration on emotional exploration that gives it, when this in fact occurs, its enormous force. With politics it is just the reverse: the wider the range of divergent concerns with which it can manage to cope the deeper it cuts. As models for each other, the consulting room and the textile strike seem peculiarly likely to mislead.

Yet, even if the therapeutic image of political process, like the therapeutic images of art, law, or education, fails at a general level to do justice to its object, and even distorts it, with respect to Gandhi that image was, as Erikson clearly demonstrates, centrally relevant. And this in turn reveals why, even when brought down to the solid outlines of a polished method, Gandhi's teachings remain, like the man himself, ambiguous and only half-convincing.

Gandhi was, as Erikson is, powerfully attracted by a therapeutic view of politics—one which abstracts from the realities of group solidarity, divergent interest, social hierarchy, and cultural difference (and this in India!) in order to concentrate on exploiting the emotional involvements of individuals in one another's lives. At Ahmedabad, he had a situation in which such exploitation was possible, and though, characteristically, the strike failed, the therapy worked. "I have never come across the like of it," he said in his final speech to the workers. "I had had experience of many such conflicts or heard of them but have not known any in which there was so little ill will or bitterness as in this." And a few days later he wrote to the Bombay Chronicle to justify his own role which the paper had questioned as wasting large talents on parochial issues, "I have not known a struggle fought with so little bitterness and such courtesy on either side. This happy result is principally due to the connections with it of Mr. Ambalal Sarabhai [the millowner brother] and Anasuyaben [the labor-leader sister]."

Removed from this intimate context, he would never know it again. And in attempting again and again to re-enact this family drama on the national stage his career revealed both the intrinsic power of attraction that a view of politics as a process of inward change possesses—its ability to move men—and its radical inability, having moved them, to deal with the issues—whether workers' wages or the threat of Partition—thereby raised.

The contrast which appeared already at Ahmedabad between Gandhi's extraordinary ability to shape the personal lives of those immediately around him and his inability to control the direction of the strike as a collective act grew greater and greater as he extended himself across India and into larger and larger mass settings, and became, as violence followed violence to the climax of Partition and his own assassination, the distinguishing feature of his career. Nehru was wrong. Gandhi did not psychoanalyze India, he (though of course not alone) politicized it; and having politicized it, could not—a fact our own "religious actualists," taunting power, toying with social passions, and finding truth "in that which feels effectively true in action" might well ponder—in the end control it.

"Who listens to me today," he wrote just six months before his death,

…I am being told to retire to the Himalayas. Everybody is eager to garland my photos and statues. Nobody really wants to follow my advice…. Neither the people nor those in power have any use for me.

Today, when his centenary is being celebrated by men for whom he is neither a personal presence nor a moral force but a marketable national treasure, like the Taj Mahal, this is even more true. Erikson's penetrating book, more convincing in describing the dinosaur than in judging him, deepens our understanding not only of the inward sources of personal greatness but those, as well, of its self-defeat.