Kerim Friedman sent me a link to Ruth E. Kott’s “Language duel” (The University of Chicago Magazine, Sept.-Oct. 2010), about Yigal Bronner, “the first scholar to seriously study Sanskrit puns and bitextual poems”:
Called slesa, the literary device was used by Sanskrit poets from the sixth century to as late as the 20th. The same text can be read multiple ways simultaneously. Different from an allegory, Bronner writes in Extreme Poetry: The South Asian Movement of Simultaneous Narration (Columbia University Press, 2010), slesa “typically involves a metamorphosis of the entire utterance—nouns, verbs, and prepositions—in a way that creates a new sentence with a new vocabulary.” Slesa can inhabit a word, a phrase, a sentence, or an entire piece. A word like naksatra, Bronner cites as an example in his introduction, which means “planet,” can also be read as two separate words: the “negative particle na and the word ksatra (warrior).” In commentaries printed alongside a slesa poem, single verses are usually discussed as two separate ones….
In Extreme Poetry, Bronner traces slesa’s evolution from its first-known use by sixth-century poet Subandhu. A century later slesa was part of most narrative poems, “often occupying entire sections or chapters and typically appearing at the centermost plot juncture,” Bronner writes. By the early eighth century, poets were merging the two great Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Structural and plot parallels lent the two tales to slesa. When the male protagonists, the Mahabharata’s Arjuna and the Ramayana’s Rama, attract nonhuman females, both men spurn the women; Arjuna refuses and humiliates the “dancing-girl from heaven” Urvaśī, and Rama physically harms demoness Surpanakha. When the two epics were fused, poets came to embrace a new aesthetic ideal, Bronner writes, in which “telling a single story was no longer the highest goal for a work of narrative art.”
The use of slesa continued, with fluctuating popularity, until colonial times, when it “gradually came to be seen as the epitome of everything that was decadent and distasteful about South Asian culture.” The bias against “the clever manipulation of language in literature,” says Bronner, has its roots in the Romantic movement, which valued simple, unembellished literature. Since then, Sanskritists haven’t touched the subject. “Few living scholars have actually read a bitextual poem,” Bronner writes, “and no modern scholar has seriously analyzed one.”
The piece ends with an intriguing comparison:
Poets who use slesa, says Bronner, aren’t trying to be vague or abstract. Comparing a slesa poem to James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, he notes a difference between “creating ambivalence and creating two or more very clear readings that are not at all meant to be ambivalent.” Although Sanskrit poets played with language, they didn’t try to confuse or misdirect readers: “The idea is, ‘We want you to read both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and maybe a third meaning at the same time,’” Bronner says, “‘but we want you to get exactly where you want to go.’”
Fascinating stuff—thanks, Kerim! (My old Sanskrit professor would be unhappy with me if I did not point this out, so: technically, slesa should be śleṣa—the two s’s are quite different phonemes.)