(REVIEW) States of the Body Produced by Love by Nisha Ramayya
Immersing herself in the rich, tangled folds of Nisha Ramayya's States of the Body Produced by Love (Ignota, 2019), Rhiannon Auriol explores the book's engagement with Sanskrit, Hindu goddesses, the production of meaning, world-making and warmth of bodies in process.
I began States of the Body Produced by Love with the most minimal knowledge of Sanskrit; beyond the notion of how uncomfortable it is when white people get Sanskrit mantras performatively tattooed on their wrists, I had encountered regrettably little of this language which Nisha Ramayya describes as ‘poetry itself’ (18). But what else could you call a language which has 96 different words for ‘love’?
The book begins with an urge that we fall in love with the Mahavidyas, the ten ‘embodiments of one supreme Goddess’ (3), that is, the Hindu goddess Shakti. By the final page what you have really fallen in love with is the mysticism of Sanskrit: the ‘language of the gods’ and its ‘pleasure of syllables like so many pearl ornaments’ (29). As well as having the largest vocabulary, a single word in Sanskrit contains multitudes, a vastness of meaning which Ramayya illustrates throughout by offering vignettes of ineffable definitions, tiny poems in themselves. My favourites include ‘taramgamālinतरंगमालिन्, the sea as garlanded by waves and ratnanidhi रत्ननिधि, the place where pearls are kept’ (25). Each syllable truly is a sort of secret pearl, and the place where they are kept – well, that’s impossible to articulate. And it is disarticulation itself which States of the Body navigates: how to express ‘the supreme stage of language that transcends words, actions, meanings’ (3); the problem of definition, the elusiveness of language and the production of meaning.
Smaradaśā स्मरदशा, f. state of the body produced by love (ten states are named: joy of the eyes, pensive reflection, desire, sleeplessness, emaciation, indifference to external objects, abandonment of shame, infatuation, fainting away, death).
This subheading to the book’s titular section immediately reminded me, in its surreal specificity, of Borges’ a certain Chinese Encyclopaedia, where the writer taxonomises animals into 14 categories:
those that belong to the Emperor,
those that are trained,
those included in the present classification,
those that tremble as if they were mad,
those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
those that have just broken a flower vase,
those that from a long way off look like flies.
The French theorist Michel Foucault, upon encountering Borges’ encyclopaedia, felt that it shattered ‘all the familiar landmarks’ of thought, and exposed the limitations of the ‘ordered surfaces…with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things’. Similarly, I find myself revelling in the multiplicity of language that States of the Bodydraws back the curtain on: a linguistic topography of myth and enchantment, a literary terrain which challenges all the ‘cherished classifications’ by which we organise the world. Why stick to rigid categorisations of words, of meanings? Why create a reality like that? The instinct of the dominant languages of Western patriarchy is to order, to control things through strict articulations. And the influence of this kind of meaning-making is difficult to unlearn: as Ramayya so presciently writes, ‘I come up against the desire to be literal’… ‘I crouch in definitions, dragging lamps.’ In this murky twilight-zone the reader cautiously feels their way forward, interpreting through instinct, producing their own meanings. The body is not literal; neither is desire. Instead of asking what it means, perhaps what we should really be asking is ‘why is it beautiful?’
In States of the Body, the literal is pitted against the mystical and the metaphysical. The English language’s limitations are called out in light of the greater diversity of Sanskrit – its far richer capacity for beauty and spiritual connection. Ramayya demonstrates this opposition through elucidation of the colonial blindness in which lexicographers such as Samuel Johnson worked. With his A Dictionary of the English Language, Johnson wanted fixed connections between words and their meanings; he wanted to ‘embalm’ language like a corpse in its dictionary grave. As Ramayya recounts, this proved impossible. The problem was philological: an assumption of English’s primacy, of its distinctness from anything relating to the ‘East’. What a blow for western supremacists then when in 1786 what we now know as Proto-Indo-European was identified through the study of cognates - words across languages that nevertheless share etymological origins. PIE is the parent language from which the languages of Sanskrit, the Germanic languages, and the Latin languages as well as Persian evolved, all of which share a huge number of cognates. The example that Ramayya uses looks at the cognates of the word ‘father’, or ‘Sky-Father’ (designating a deity). There is the Sanskrit Dyaus pitr, the Greek Zeus pater and the Roman term Jupiter: pitr, pater, piter, father. English is not primary, and what’s more it is, according to Ramayya, a laughably insufficient language with which to ‘tame the wild profusion of things’. This is demonstrated incontestably in States of the Body even from just the word smaradaśā and the ten states of the body it may convey: Sanskrit does far more in one word than English could in a hundred.
But let’s think more about this term body. This term love. The ten states (dasa दशा) of the body produced by love, which Ramayya approaches through ten poems, reflect the ten avatars of the Mahavidyas. As embodiments of mantras the Mahavidyas acquire a symbolic dominance in the book. They are simultaneously linguistic in nature and yet are conceived with a physicality as avatars of the goddess Sakti. The name itself - maha-vidya महाविद्या - can mean great or full knowledge, skill, incantation. Through her focus on the Mahavidyas, Nisha Ramayya explores the relationship between form, magic and the power of language — the way in which the incantation of Sanskrit words not only creates but embodies a tangible reality. Sanskrit is by nature an oral language, manifested in the throat and received as vibration: the vibration of the body sent out into the world as sound energy. It reverberates. It detonates. It creates changes in energy states; in states of the body.
This extends even further in the section ‘Notes on Sanskrit’ where Ramayya describes the Sanskrit alphabet as ‘the body of the goddess, divided into lots of little mothers’. In turn these letters are said to shape the form of the universe, not just metaphysically but as foundation stones, a process comparable to the transformation of phrases into poems. It suggests the intrinsic relationship of language and the body; that the forms of Sanskrit are also the structure of a more divinely conceived reality. This echoes the structure of poetry: each letter a vehicle for magic; each syllable a pearl. As Sarah Shin and Rebecca Tamás write in the Spells anthology, released by Ignota Press in 2018, ‘Spells are poems; poetry is spelling’. To say mahavidya is a spell in itself, invoking the goddesses without any elaboration needed. This has the effect of uniting language with the bodies of the goddesses, suggesting that ultimately one produces the other, and that not only words but gods may be cognate. Ramayya develops this idea to incorporate the deities of major global belief systems - ‘Is Zeus Isis Jesus Krsna Christ?’ (17). Perhaps, after all, Sanskrit tattoos are authentic representations of the language: written on the body, Sanskrit is experienced rather than read, in a nuanced unity of language & body, the divine and the material. But it is easy to get lost in the complexity of these concepts. As Ramayya expresses, ‘The Mahavidyas are metaphors…if I’m not careful, I allow them to mean everything’.
What States of the Body affirmed for me more than ever was – to paraphrase Wittgenstein – that the limits of my world are the limits of my language. I look up the grammar. I watch a youtube video. I try the words out loud; the shape of them produced by the throat. ‘That goddess doesn’t mean what you think it does’. Neither does that word. Neither do the wild profusion of existing things, ‘the warmth of academic contexts’. In her poem ‘Death’, the last poem in the smaradaśācycle, the final state of the body produced by love, and the final meaning of smaradaśā, Ramayya finds beginning. In language which seduces and enchants like a spell, Ramayya teases out ‘the ripple of definitions’ to tie ‘the loose ends of your desires in your mouth’. Love is destroyed in order for it to begin again.
Thank you to Tom Dervan for looking over the first draft of this piece.
States of the Body Produced by Love is out now and available to order from Ignota Books.
Text: Rhiannon Auriol