Lakdas Wikkramasinha as Percy Shelley

Sri Lankan poet Lakdas Wikkramasinha (1941-1978) and his English Romantic counterpart Percy Shelley (1792-1822) have several assets which a sympathetic reader may see as parallel traits:

Lakdas, writing in post-independence Ceylon and moulding in him a strongly articulated anti-imperialist strain is the author of a rich body of postcolonial verse which attack the British Crown and its colonial impede. His popularly quoted Don’t Talk To Me About Matisse, The Three Sisters, In Ancient Kotmale and several other poems substantiate this trajectory. Shelley, at one level, was a strong advocate of anti-elitist, anti-regal sentiments; and this is best seen in his later poems such as To The West Wind, England in 1819 etc. In fact, poems written in and after 1819 showcase the growing tension in Shelley, for whom a popular undermining of the establishment was a necessity.

Shelley’s grave

Relating to elite roots and being preoccupied with their lineage both Shelley and Lakdas have made their ancestry a pillar in their literary work. Shelley, in many ways, graced the elite, VIP circuit and drew from its social, cultural and political complex in his maturity as a writer. For instance, as much as Shelley calls for socio-political rebellion to topple the privileged class (to which he, too, belongs) Lakdas, too, calls forth revolutionary changes to the class system in poems such as Discarded Tins (1970). While he becomes obsessed with his own genealogy in his 1976 collection O’ Regal Blood and other poems dealing with his walauva ancestry, the same social fabric is scathingly attacked in poems such as The Death of Ashanti (1974), To a Servant Girl etc. Lakdas, for the record, is said to have battled poverty and the burden of a then bankrupt family saga, giving a curious “insider-outsider” tinge to his work that deal with class.

Both Shelley and Lakdas are marked for their passionate, earnest deliveries and their sense of violence which permeate their writing. Shelley’s works such as Men of England, England in 1819 etc have sentiments that blatantly call for Georgian blood. Lakdas’ poems frequently cut across a potent range of homicide, suicide, treachery, guns, bombs, knives, swords, arson, fire, madness, rape, taking of poison, drowning, child abuse etc.

Mt. Lavinia Beach

Both poets draw on Classical allusions —– Lakdas Wikkramasinha, if at all, at a lesser vein. Yet, his sense of the classics and their indoctrination is seen in his ‘Myrah Poems’. In his Sinhala poetry — for Lakdas was a bilingual writer — a definite Modernist impulse can be noted, where his subject matter, tone, texture as well as the style and structure of the writing resonate early Modernist accents. His Sinhala verse, as in Jaanakeeharane Saha Venath kavi, showcase the individual and the abstract; deviating from the politically conscious, critically perceived trajectory of his English poems.

Both Shelley and Lakdas, in spite of the potential and promise they offer, die in the relatively young 30s. Shelley’s tragic death takes place at 30 while Lakdas’ demise occurs at 37. Coincidental enough, both deaths are caused by drowning, making the end too too romantic for these two vigorous and rebellious spirits.

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Robert Bloch’s “Psycho”: The Crane Factor.

Robert Bloch’s Psycho (1959) is popularized and better acknowledged as a “psychological thriller”. The story, as most of us may know, deals with Norman Bates, a provincial motel owner and his condition of “split personality”, which we arrive at at the end of the narrative. Norman, in spite of his introvert and diffident appearance is identified as the killer of two persons who happen to stop by his motel – the “crimes” are committed “as mother”: the immersed personality taking over. The book was later turned into a successful film venture by Alfred Hitchcock (1960) with an equally successful remake (1998) with other inspired productions, including parodies. Translations of Psycho are widely circulated, which includes a popular Sinhala translation by Senaratne Weerasinghe.

In spite of its thriller aspect and the consistent suspense generated, the novel is dense with irony, which is subtly woven into the text. The novel is moved by a theft by a company clerk, Marion Crane, who crosses states in hope of a “new start”. She is set to meet up with her boyfriend, but her plans go awry as heavy weather forces her to pull over to a wayside motel. Upon her arrival at the Bates Motel Marion discovers the largely diffident, introvert owner who is internally stirred by Marion. The narrative becomes ironically playful when Norman’s hobby is found out to be taxidermy. His specialized interest there, again, is the stuffing of birds: a subject with which his inner room is filled. Incidentally, Marion’s (Mary) surname, too, is Crane: a bird name and she ends up being hacked to death in the bath by Norman’s “mother”.

With the big cash gone missing with their missing clerk, Marion’s employers hire Private Detective Arbogast to look into the disappearances at hand. Arbogast is hot on Marion Crane’s trail and correctly arrives at the Bates Motel. Arbogast takes pride in his “scent” and decides to hunt down for clues at the motel. His investigations are spot on to the ironic extant that he, who is confident in his sleuth skills, scents out death and is sidelined to the same fate as of Marion: the object of his chase.

Norman Bates is exposed by Mary’s sister Lila Crane who, along with Mary’s lover Sam, arrives in search of the missing Arbogast. In a sequence that is memorably cinematographed Norman is finally trapped and apprehended in his own cellar. The motel runner taxidermist is thus caught in his own cellar where he stores his taxidermist paraphernalia; and by another Crane, too, at that. Irony is further underlined as the two cars in which Marion and Arbogast arrived at the motel are pulled out from the nearby bog. Finally, Arbogast had arrived at his destination; but, in a totally unexpected “un-lively” way.

Psycho is a study of personality and of tendencies in what is generally analyzed as “split personality”. It is ironic how Norman, who comes across as a shy, diffident man – a fellow “without personality” – has embedded in his profile not one, but two “persons”. The idea of the “double” is seen where he assumes the “roles” of both son and mother. However, a “double” can also be seen in the Crane sisters, Mary and Lila. While Mary is more frivolous in her interactions, vulnerable to danger and is deceptive in her dealings, Lila portrays her foil, with qualities of being morally solid and of being cautious. Marion is daring, but submits to her venturing spirit as she becomes an unassuming victim. Lila, on the contrary, is the “resolver” of the mystery: one which had already engulfed more deaths than can be desired.

The novel also foregrounds the idea of “journeying” – each character is seen to journey both literally and morally. Marion, for instance, makes off with the company deeds, journeying in search of potential happiness. Arbogast journeys in search of the truth behind Marion’s disappearance. While these characters seek happiness or enlightenment (truth) in their movements, neither of them succeed in arriving at their desired destinations. By contrast, the one character that is stagnant – both in time as well as in terms of space – is Norman. Norman is in an inescapable moral and psychological dilemma and occupies a tragic past, connecting it to / connecting to it his present. Ironic as it may be, all these characters, therefore, display signs of victimization both in social and moral capacities.

The most widely known passage / scene of Psycho, perhaps, is the “bathroom scene”. This constitutes of a voyeuristic sequence where Norman secretly watches Marion in her bathroom. She is later “found to be” killed in the bath, with the water running. This infiltration of “intimate spaces” and the deprival of comfort and security permeate the narrative. From the financial odds in Marion’s own life she shares with Sam, in the eerie appearance of the motel to Norman’s own emotionally unsettled life this strain of anxiety and insecurity can be traced. They all seek “comfort” in their own ways – morally acceptable and otherwise as they may be – but fail in the process. Norman’s comfort in his own quiet retreat with his “mother” there “by him” is a flimsy refuge in a world civilized by its own rigid and uncompromising regulations. Bloch’s text emphasizes on this last poignant note even as the two cars are pulled out from the lake, in the concluding passages.