A work of genius deserves an equally brilliant critique. But since the mere mortal in me cannot, for sure, write beyond eaughings and what-whatings, I turn to Seneca, who put forward in his writings the idea that, “there is no great genius without some touch of madness.” S.P. Somtow, perhaps in resembling his own creative brilliance, presents a glimpse of how the world gives birth to a literary genius – depicting, in particular, how a young and privileged intellectual constructs, contemplates, and makes sense of a world in chaos… of a world in madness. In Jasmine Nights, we see a reflection of that “lovely mess in the mind” found in Somtow’s literary craft as he blends philosophic musings with religious mysticism, historical allusions with epic fantasies, and supernatural visions with youthful and comical imaginings.
With this, Jasmine Nights, as a literary masterpiece, cannot be simplistically classified as a mere story of initiation; for while the novel depicts a young man’s journey towards self-discovery, the work also aims to demystify mankind’s inherent pursuit of understanding the ternary alliance of life’s great mysteries – namely: death, love, and sex. Man has long been preoccupied by this trinity of mysteries — death, for its obscure finality; love, for its enduring complexity; and sex, for its endearing pleasure. Somtow, in his novel, attempts to construct these three as foundational quests for discovery towards an individual’s development of being — towards one’s journey from innocence to experience, from naïveté to maturity, and from enigma to the demystification of self.
In other words, the life of Little Frog – except of course for his material privilege and stature – resides in us; for we all keep narratives of our first encounters with death, our initial struggles for love, and our introductory encounters with sex. Little Frog, for his part – amidst the scent of Jasmine surrounding his paradise – probed deeper into life’s great mysteries primarily through imagination, acquired and influenced heavily by his exposure to Western classics. Moving in relation to his social upbringing and reality however, he finds himself caught between the duality of man’s construction of the world: between the East and West, black and white, yentafo noodles and bacon, between likay and Greek plays, temple fairs and Limbo Rock parties — all of which signify how Little Frog’s life becomes, in itself, an epic battleground primarily between the language of the heart against the language of intellect.
Language, particularly our acquisition and possession of it, performs a fundamental role in uncovering truths about our basic assumptions and preoccupations of the world – as mentioned: death, love, and sex. In the case of Little Frog, death, for language of the heart, is a passage for rebirth, a part of the Buddhist wheel of life; for the language of intellect, however, death is dealt with resistance or, in Dr. Richardson’s reference to Dylan Thomas’ villanelle, death is about “raging against the dying of the light”. Love, on the other hand, for the language of Little Frog’s heart, is embodied in Samlee, because of her enigma and devotion to mysticism; while, for the language of intellect, love – as Little Frog sees it in his Aunt Ning-nong – is treated as “rubbish”; existing solely as a calculated arrangement for convenience and responsibility. Lastly, sex, for the language of the heart is an inexplicable union lost amidst intoxicating smells of nam pla and jasmine; while, for the intellect, sex is demystified through the satisfaction and brief release of a somewhat “uncontrollable sneezing” confined inside a packet of rubber.
Indeed, the epic battle between the language of the heart and mind is at the core of Little Frog’s linguistic dilemma. He is caught between listening and expressing himself through the words of Western masters versus engaging himself and affecting the lived realities of people outside his paradise. Here, Somtow depicts a crucial and necessary phase in the development of a young intellectual’s trail to literary artistry and greatness. Because while the world, inherited by the young writer, is constructed in the constant friction between opposing dichotomies, Somtow’s work is able showcase that one can arrive at a syncretic understanding of dualities. In Little Frog’s conception of the play, for instance, he is able to demonstrate the possibility of bridging the “mythic and the down-to earth” and creating a “grand synthesis of East and West” using borrowed language and stolen lines from English literary masters, while employing his friends to play roles contrary to their epidermic appearances.
It is notable that, in the novel, Somtow does not allow the privileging of either Thai or Western culture. Instead, the author works toward the realization of a grand scheme that will unite the language of the heart and mind as well as merge imagination and reality. Indeed, this is a reflection of greatness on Somtow’s part; for it must be noted how this idea has been echoed repeatedly by countless writers and thinkers, both postcolonial and Western. Hegel, for instance, described the formation of truth in the synthesis of thesis and anti-thesis. Hesse, on the other hand, demonstrated the juxtaposition of Eastern and Western thoughts and consciousness as a common theme for most of his novels. Derrida, moreover, sought to shake the center and deconstruct the structure of binary oppositions. Furthermore, Bhabha put forward the idea of hybridity, mimicry, and ambivalence as the “in-betweens” that will destabilize binary opposition constructed by colonial authority. Through Jasmine Nights, Somtow puts forward roughly the same idea as other great thinkers of our times – syncretizing both language of the heart and mind in order to demystify and harmonize the madness found in this constructed world of ours.