Book Reviews

Labyrinths of Collective Memory

Arun Joshi's novel ‘The Last Labyrinth’ is unique in the sense that it demonstrates very clearly inherent patterns of "collective consciousness" and "racial memory" as discussed by Jung and Frazer among psychologists and Northorp Frye, Leslie Fiedler, Miss Bodkin among modern myth critics. India with all her mysticism, ancient religious wisdom, concepts of eternal cycle, sacrifice, caste structure, Krishna and Brahma is strewn all over the novel. This novel is a dance of ancestral  grip over modern mind of man. Even though the main character of the novel Bhaskar claims to be an atheist, his thinking, mind and voice are full of racial memory. The way Bhaskar talks, and dreams and the way his mind works shows the dark layers of ages of experience over which he has little control.

About a good work of art, Carl Jung writes - "we are reminded in nothing of everyday, human life but rather of dreams, high time fears and the dark recesses of mind that we sometimes sense with misgiving." This stands true for ‘The Last Labyrinth’. A great work of art does not alert you, or shock you; it rather lulls you into dark alleys of the unconscious mind. It reminds you of things you have only an inkling of. 

Awake or asleep, alone or in company, Bhaskar all of a sudden hears the song "I want, I want, I want". "Hunger of the body; Hunger of the spirit" seem to be the central themes of this novel. It is the insatiable physical and mental thirst of Bhaskar that takes him to mysterious but enchanting heroine of the novel, Anuradha, to seek the shares of Aftab's company, to Benaras, to Gargi and finally, to Krishna. This hunger is nothing but the present guilt of a race that feels that it originally believed in satisfaction and content rather than hunger for more and more and more. The song "I want I want I want" is not a personal neurosis of the protagonist or the writer but mental guilt of a whole race. "The artist is to be freed from the charge that his vision is merely a symptom of some personal psychic maladjustment and from the charge that his symbols are merely subjective distortions." This yearning of Bhaskar "I want, I want, I want" throughout the novel, is explained also at times. He is running after fame, women, money and power, He is horribly hungry for all these things and yet he says "I knew that money was dirt, a whore. So were houses, cars, carpets. I knew of Krishna, of the lines he had spoken; of Buddha at Sarnath, under the full moon of July setting in motion the wheel of Righteousness." It is the combined racial memory which is speaking these words through Bhaskar, a man who is running after the very things he is condemning - money, cars, carpets!

The city of Benaras is again one big enigma of the novel. Bhaskar cannot stand the city, its narrow lanes, its shabby people and its strange traditions. Why, then, is he drawn, to Benaras like a magnet to iron? He goes to Benaras again and again. A multi-millionaire of Bombay that he is, he eats pan, walks naked feet, goes to temples and gets in stampedes, draws inspiration from the burning pyres at Manikarnika ghat and so on. He may like it or not, he has a definite realization of belonging to this most ancient city of the world. This city is the bridge that unites him to his fellow beings. "This city at least, we had in common.”  He feels that he too "was familiar" with Benaras. Benaras had stirred "in me of some long dormant essence of a different kind." He cannot resist his unconscious mind rushing to him with all its force when he sees the city of Benaras. He does not feel that he has entered a new city. He belongs to the place. All his past memory starts dancing in front of him. "So, this was the city that had been famous before Rome was known or Cyrus had built the Persian Empire." Pages after pages Joshi's pen flows on the mystery that is Benaras. Manikarnika Ghat reminds Bhaskar of his father and his little book of the Upanishads. When Aftab shows Benaras and Ganga - "He put it as though indicating a personal possession. Bhaskar's mind starts whirling and swooping while sailing through Ganga as though he is crossing Vaitarini itself – "I felt as though this was not Ganga but some unknown stream, in some unknown segment of the universe leading to a reality I had not yet known." The way Benaras annihilates Bhaskar shows the merger of his individual memory in the big ocean of collective memory. He (the writer) becomes one with us all in the presence of our-ancient Gods, the protagonists of fables we think we no longer believe. The mysterious lanes at night awake and arouse the unity of minds. The moments of pain, crises, ecstasy, and wonder remind the sensitive soul of the oneness of souls. The fact is that the world nocturnal is in some sense the world of all of us. 

Myth critics say that primitive man still lurks within each of us. The modern man, a man of automobiles, television, computer and internet still "recreates nightly in his dreams the primordial symbols of ancient Myth." Archetypal patterns discussed at length by critics include such images as guilt ridden wanderer, the mysterious cave, fountains, buried grains etc. ‘The Last Labyrinth’ comes very close to these symbols when Bhaskar talks about closed caves of Ajanta where for the first time he consciously linked himself to his racial and wider past. Bhaskar himself comes very close to the image of a guilt ridden wanderer. Bhaskar again and again visualizes himself lost in a dark cave. The dark cave haunts him. He feels "voids of caves and voids of the sky; the terrible vacancies of lokalok". It is a cave of his private and at the same time collective racial fantasies, recurring dreams and obsessive ideas.
Jung places these experience above "actual conscious insight" These recurring nightmares, compulsive behavior, involuntary crying is Bhaskar's, what Jung calls, "psychic energy" because in these experiences lies the key to understand his, apparent behavior. Psychic energy is "the play of opposites" and isn't Bhaskar's mind a play of opposite forces of individual will and ancient latent consciousness? Bhaskar is torn apart between Bombay (modern) versus Benaras (ancient), plastics (business) versus Krishna (God), Anuradha (mystery) versus Geeta (reality). He is a man swinging between the two poles of faith and atheism. Ages and ages of immovable faith does not let Bhasker rest when he denies the existence of God. Anuradha insists that Bhaskar does not need her. She says this to him even when he is crying helplessly in her arms. Finally she sends him in search of Krishna and presents him with an icon of Krishna. He needs faith, which is Anuradha's answer to his song – "I want, I want I want ....." Even the psychiatrist says that Bhaskar needs religion and faith when he discusses with him his mental complications. The psychiatrist talks about a spiritual solution'. Joshi quotes a line from Kierkegaard, which I feel can calm the turbulent waters of Bhaskar's mind – "Prayer does not change God but it changes him who prays".

Arun Joshi gives religion an important place at every critical juncture of Bhaskar's life. Religion strikes him when he is most vulnerable. So it is true for all men. Religion commands when someone dies, or marries or is born. Rituals like funeral haunt Bhaskar.  Religion, the only rock like reality of life strikes him at every crucial turn of his life. He may ignore religion but within him, he knows that it will strike again some day. Northorp Frye talks about archetypal symbols to which writers compulsively turn. Here, god, rituals, ancient feel are definitely such archetypal symbols. The myth is the central informative power that gives archetypal significance to the ritual and archetypal narrative to flashes of inner illumination.

It is a matter of speculation that this novel gives the reader a familiar feeling. The responses can be easily foreseen by the reader himself. It seems simply obvious that the last labyrinth can be nothing except death. It needs no teaching to tell as to what is the last mystery, the last solution, the final salvation. We know it. When Bhaskar asks Aftab about the last labyrinth, he replies naturally "'why, death, of course". And again one may ask, why this of course. But' we know it, don't we?

Joshi also takes into account the impression of the immediate archetype, i.e. the parents. Joshi has shown the way parents can infect a child's mind with questions. Bhaskar's father is dead but has left with his son, his theory of the First cause. The talk of eternal cycle never actually leaves Bhaskar. His father had said - "Every things happens in cycles. Birth, Growth, Destiny and Death." Howsoever he may detest his mother's undying faith in Krishna he cannot get rid of the feeling himself. When finally he goes to the mountain temple in search of Krishna, he meets a young boy. The story is touching when we know the young boy's mind has been corrupted by his grandmother. He had been set by the lady in search of a crystal pebble with a star. "The thought depressed me that a child so young should have been contaminated in such a manner. This, too, was corruption, although of a different sort. For all one knew, he would spend the rest of the days searching for a crystal pebble with a star. And become a nut in the process." One cannot deny that restlessness has been implanted in Bhaskar by his immediate past i.e. his parents.

As the novel progresses, the voice of the ancient mythical world gets more and more established. Very little doubt remains. "I had heard of people who, staring into flames had enjoyed the Eternal Bliss; others had discovered their oneness with the Brahma. A man I once travelled with - one of the most sophisticated I have ever met - claimed he had seen in such a flame his previous incarnations." This is the voice of inherited wisdom which has a stronger imprint than the voices of the surrounding, actual world. The way Bhaskar prays to God to grant him peace through dead Anuradha sets the supremacy of the racial memory in the novel.

The question arises whether Arun Joshi has been conscious of these inherent undercurrents in the novel. In all probability, he has been. The psychiatrist refers to Carl Jung - "He took out a book from a shelf and read out something. It had touched me, moved me briefly to another plane. The book was by Carl Jung. I bought it later. A scatter of Jung's words passed through my head.” ‘The Last Labyrinth’ with other novels by Joshi, seems to be a conscious effort at depicting unconscious processes. Off and on, Bhaskar seems fully aware of the unknown world that lies within him. He is drawn towards these inner forces magnetically. "I hear the voices of dead people", he says. The death of elders and the awareness of their dead existence burden the protagonist's already heavily loaded mind. "You walk into your parents house after they are dead and the house starts talking" - it is this approach of the impossibility of escaping the past that gives Joshi's writing the fatalistic tone that it has. The novelist is completely aware of the heavy burden of not only the immediate past but also of the centuries that have gone in shaping an individual. None can pull away from the past nor can deny it. About Aftab, Bhaskar thinks "could Aftab get away from the legacy and fill this emptiness with plastic power?" After all, "somewhere behind him, his troubled and fiery past still loomed."

Jung Carl says,  

"The unconscious mind is capable at times of assuming an intelligence and purposiveness which are superior to actual conscious insight." 

The whole of this novel seems to be an illustration of the above statement. A man is an event in a chain of events. The past breeds the present and from the womb of present, future is born. Roots are important. Collective memory of mankind and that of a particular race or region reign supreme in the unconscious mind of an individual. Bhaskar is what he is without wanting to be what he is.  

1. Jung, Carl. 1933. ‘ Modern Man in Search of a Soul’. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc.
2. Jung Carl. 1938. ‘Psychology and Religion: the Terry Lectures’.  New Haven: Yale University Press.
3. Joshi, Arun. 1981.  ‘The Last Labyrinth’. New Delhi: Orient Paperbacks.
4. Fiedler Leslie. 1952. ‘Archetype and Signature’. The Sewanee Review, IX.  


More by :  Prof. Shubha Tiwari

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