Monday, May 18, 2015

Aravinda: A Moral Masochist?


Viragaya novel is a turning point in Sinhala literature. Literary genius Martin Wicramasinghe vibrantly portrays Aravinda’s character in Viragaya digging deep in to his inner psyche.

Arvada’s conscious experience and ideas running through his mind are central part of the novel.  His emotions, conscious and unconscious psychological conflicts are described in a literary style by the author. Viragaya can be considered as one of the first and best psychological novels in Sinhala literature. 

Martin Wicramasinghe was excellent in character scrutiny. For instance he presents Piyal (in Gamperaliya) who is a round character that experienced personal   growth through a life struggle. Piyal is a type A personality - ambitious, highly status-conscious, sensitive, and impatient. On the other hand Saviman Kabalana (in Yuganthaya) is an egocentric intellectual businessman who has self-seeking needs to climb the ladder of prosperity. In Viragaya Martin Wicramasinghe introduces an atypical, sensitive but relatively inactive non hedonic character named Aravinda.

According to the author this unique character was his own creation. But there are some parallels between Aravinda and Tissa Kaisaruwatthe -one of the characters in Gamperaliya also created by the same author. Furthermore there are some similarities between Aravinda and Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov – a novel that was published in 1859. Ilya Ilich Oblomov is a Russian nobleman who cannot seem to find the ambition to accomplish anything and incapable of making important decisions. Like Aravinda Oblomov fails to express his love for Olga Ilinskaya. Aravinda and Oblomov share an endemic lassitude which is known as Oblomovism. Oblomovism is the tendency toward apathy and inertia.

Oblomov decides he must work out a plan but never quite gets around to it. He had expected much from life as a young man, but, finding his first job in an office trivial and meaningless-just pushing useless papers and writing silly reports-he had resigned in disgust and taken to his bed. Later in the story he gets up, goes into society, falls in love, plans to marry-but the thought of having to straighten out his affairs is too much for him-so he relapses into his former state and lives out the rest of his slothful life (Dunea,  1978). Oblomov's syndrome represents a melancholic man’s disinclination.  There are similar tendencies in Aravinda’s character.  

Wicramasinghe describes Aravinda’s introversion personality dimension in its finest details. Aravinda is an introvert who is hesitant and reflective. He focuses on internal feelings rather than on external sources of stimulation. His reservedness and introverted mindset guides his destiny. He is a unique character and differs in his enduring emotional, interpersonal, experiential, attitudinal, and motivational style.

As described by Wicramasinghe, Aravinda is a righteous character trapped in biological instincts and cultural pressure. The complexity of Aravinda’ s character reveals the inner world of a man who was brought up according to the Sinhala Buddhist village traditions and how he struggles to fulfill his hidden biological desires leading to a dramatic transformation. Living in a collectivistic culture he exhibited a higher degree of conformity. In addition Aravinda is lacking in confidence, easily frustrated and insecure in relationships. 

As John Donne said no man is an island. Man is a social being and as such, one of his innate needs is the desire to form interpersonal relationships with other human beings. In other words being social is basic to all humans. However, biology and society are not the only influence on people: there is also the influence of culture (Taflinger, 1996). The American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead saw an individual as a product of culture that shape the person in unique manners.

Some experts speculate that culture is part of human biology. Culture operates through biological mechanisms—brains, hormones, hands—and the causal pathways by which it acts are certain to prove densely tangled with genetic causes (Richerson, & Robert, 2001).  The Sinhala Buddhist village culture had dramatic impact on Aravinda.  His ideas, morals and behavior were shaped by a culture that echoed non violence, non hedonism and strong morals.

Martin Wicramasinghe knew the importance of culture and its impact on an individual. He was aware of the -cultural interactions, culturally-determined behavior and individual characteristics. Wicramasinghe indicates the socio-cultural factors that governed Aravinda’s behavior pattern.

Culture is the general expression of humanity, the expression of its creativity. Culture is linked to meaning, knowledge, talents, industries, civilization and values. Culture and customs are at the center of the social order in various communities. As described by Hogan (1996) social roles, life events, and social environments change during the life course, and such factors have been suggested as important influences on basic personality traits.  Aravind’s life and personality was shaped by the Sinhala Buddhist village cultural and moral traditions. However Aravind’s childhood experiences and life events transformed him further. The culture and childhood experiences affect his moral behavior.

According to some Sociologists morality is a culturally conditioned response. Human morality is a key evolutionary adaptation. Moral behavior is the legacy of an evolutionary past in which individuals behaving pro-socially simply had higher fitness than other group members, and hence their pro-social behavior is selfish, not altruistic (Price, 2008). In this context Wicramasinghe posed a question: what constitutes a good life? Is it to follow asceticism and renounce worldly pleasures or embrace it? Aravinda tries to practice asceticism but when his biological urges come in to action he was shifting between theoretical morality and lived morality finally leading to moral ambiguity. Hence Aravinda failed in asceticism.

According to the mundane assumptions Aravinda is a failure. His ambition to become a doctor and apparent   hematophobia (fear of blood) and aversion to dissect dead bodies prevented him from pursuing his goal. There are certain evidences to consider that Aravinda was impacted by Necrophobia.  It was resonated as a hidden persistent fear.

Freud's case study “Wolf Man” narrates Infantile Neurosis. According to this case study as a toddler the subject had witnessed his parents having intercourse. It increases the subject’s castration anxiety. Similarly young Aravinda was troubled by castration anxiety. His self-alienation is stemming from apparent castration anxiety.

Freud stresses the importance of castration and of the ego's defenses against castration anxiety. He speaks of the relinquishment of oedipal object cathexes and their substitution by identification with parental authority, which forms the nucleus of the superego; of desexualization and sublimation of the libidinal strivings of the complex and of aim inhibition and transformation of these strivings into tender impulses. (Loewald, 2000).

For Freud, sexuality is always psychosexuality, the sexuality of the subject of the unconscious. Freud regarded castration anxiety as a universal human experience. The castration complex is the instance of the humanization of the child in its sexual difference’ (Mitchell 1982). With the castration complex Aravinda was introduced   into the world of social rules, regulations and roles. However Aravinda’s castration anxiety may have affected the formation of the super-ego, ego development. It affects his socialization process.
There are a number of social factors affect Aravinda’s destiny. The untimely death of his father and subsequent financial problems forced him to give up his education and start a petty job. Hence his ambition to climb the social ladder was disrupted. Aravinda is compelled to live a simple insignificant life. Internally he becomes confounded.

Aravinda’s early life experiences were complicated and his preferred attachment figure was his father. Freud believed that the father begins to play an important role in development when the child enters the phallic stage of development (Shaffer, 2008). One can assume that in pre-Oedipal years Aravinda’s primary figure was his father and he made an immense impact on his later life.
Early experience influences later development. Some of Aravinda’s behaviors were stemming from his childhood. The early experience account for individual differences in many aspects such as cognition, behavior, social skills, emotional responses and personality (Malekpour, 2007). Several theorists have suggested that the role of attachment may center on the way in which children respond to sources of threat and challenge, and the extent to which children are able to draw on parental support and comfort as a means of coping (Kobak, Cassidy, Lyons Ruth, & Ziv, 2005).   

Ainsworth (1989) described “affectional” bonds. According to Bowlby (1982) affectional bonds is a type of attachment behavior one individual has for another individual. Affectional bonds are persistent rather than transitory and are centered on a specific individual. The affectional bond has strong emotional significance. Aravinda exhibits shallow affectional bonds.

According to the novel Aravinda has a cold relationship with his mother. It’s reasonable to believe that Aravinda’s insecure attachment in childhood had major impact on him.  Insecurely attached children develop internal working models that consist of negative expectations about the self in relation to others (Bowlby, 1982). Aravinda has difficulties in forming secure attachments in adulthood. Also it leads to moral masochism.

Masochism is a residue of unresolved infantile conflict (Blum, 1976). Masochism "arises from sexual overvaluation as a necessary psychical consequence of the choice of a sexual object (Freud in 1905). Sigmund Freud claimed that repressed feelings of guilt lead to a need for suffering—a phenomenon he called “moral masochism”.  According to Lebe, (1997) formation of severe masochism is the relationship between an indifferent, possessive, or rejecting mother and a helpless child in the earliest years, before object constancy.  

The Hungarian Psychiatrist Margaret Schönberger Mahler who developed the separation–individuation theory of child development vastly wrote about mother-infant duality.  According Mahler regression of social behavior could be resulted by maternal deprivation. Although Aravinda did not experience maternal deprivation he was distancing himself from the mother. Therefore Aravinda was affected by numerous unconscious psychological conflicts.

Who was Aravinda?   Was he a moral masochist? This is a serious question. Perhaps Aravinda had the unconscious need for punishment. Throughout the novel readers can find self-torment self alienation and self-sabotage in Aravinda’s actions. In the original account in Three Essays, Freud tends to see sadism as the primary condition, masochism a kind of sadism turned back on the self, and both powered by a more-or-less fungible drive to libidinization (Gardiner, 2013). Aravinda was guided by the unconscious sense of guilt. It emerges as a form of obsessional neurosis.

Jacques Lacan highlighted that that obsessional neurosis designates not a set of symptoms but an underlying structure. Obsessional neurosis could be clinically mistaken for a psychosis (Lacan, 1953). Apparently Aravinda never had any psychotic features but his obsessional neurosis was evident for a greater degree. Rosenberg (1968) sates that depression is a common complications of obsessional neurosis. As described in the novel Aravinda exhibited foremost symptoms of depression in the latter stage of his life.

Did Aravinda have an unconscious wish to lose? The researcher Rosenthal (2015) specifies that pathological gamblers have an "unconscious wish to lose," an idea first expressed by Freud and Bergler. Likewise Aravida has an unconscious masochistic wish to lose his relationship and endure emotional pain. Aravida‘s moral masochism is a visible trait. He has an   unconscious need   to seek castigation from others. When his elder sister verbally abuses him Aravinda shows extreme passiveness. In addition he invites Bathie and her mother to stay in his home knowing that dirty rumors are already spreading in the village.

When his girlfriend Sarojini offered her love and gave her consent to live with him Aravinda faces a moral dilemma. Living together is an unacceptable option for him following religious and cultural traditions. Socio-cultural and religious taboos prevent Aravinda to take a radical decision and to be with his girl friend. Yet he had no any other viable option to suggest her. Although Aravinda was sexually exited by both internal and external cues, his indecisiveness lack of confidence jeopardized the relationship. Sara marries his best friend and Aravinda becomes lonely for the rest of his life. 

At this point Wicramasinghe indicates that Aravinda displays lower self-confidence than Sarojini. As a girl Sarojini was bold enough to suggest living together or de facto relationship when they faced opposition by Sara’s parents and Aravinda’s relations. But Aravinda becomes inactive and ambiguous. He is indecisive.  It shatters their relationship beyond repair.  

When Sarojini got married to his best friend Siridasa, Aravinda was not jealous but heartbroken. He tries to forget the past and adjust to his present tedious life. He represses his biological urges and lives like an ascetic. But his libido remains ambiguous.

Did Aravinda experience gradual personality changes? Seivewright, Tyrer and Johnson (2002) indicate that change in personality status could occur in neurotic disorders. There are gradual personality changes in Aravinda and finally he becomes an emotionally numbed -dormant character.

Aravinda has a number apathy related signs in his final years. Apathy is generally defined as a lack of motivation and decrease in activities of daily living   performance. He has lack of effort, diminished concomitants of goal-directed behavior, unchanging affect and lack of emotional responsivity to positive or negative events. After he lost Sarojini and Bathie Aravinda’s apathy increased.  

Aravinda experiences social loneliness as well as emotional loneliness. As described by Clinton and Anderson (1999) social loneliness specifically indicates a lack of companionship and is related to the number of close friends. Emotional loneliness, in its turn, indicates a lack of intimacy with close friends and has nothing to do with the number of friendships. Aravinda has diminished inspiration to participate in social situations and activities. Also lack of perceived competence.  His emotional detachment and apathy could be due to melancholic depression.  

Aravinda seems to be having more restricted socio-sexual orientation. Simpson Gangestad (1991) illustrated Socio-sexual orientation which describes individual difference in the willingness to engage in sexual activity outside of a committed relationship. Individuals with a more restricted socio-sexual orientation are less willing to engage in casual sex; they prefer greater love, commitment and emotional closeness before having sex with romantic partners. However in Aravinda’s case his restricted socio-sexual orientation leads to sexual deprivation.

Aravinda’s sexual deprivation and sexual repression make him an isolated person. McClintock (2006) states that sexual repression is often associated with feelings of guilt or shame being associated with sexual impulses. Aravinda’s sexual deprivation and sexual repression has guilt based history. Adding up it is further reinforced by the Sinhala Buddhist village cultural traditions. 

French philosopher Michel Foucault believed that the Western society suppressed sexuality from the 17th to the mid-20th century. As a British colony Sri Lanka was affected by Victorian morality. Even though the Victorian literature emphasized strong morality, in 1956 Martin Wicramasinghe valiantly conversed about de facto relationship in Viragaya.

Chattopadhyay (2011) points out that Victorian women were rarely offered fresh active fictions bearing imaginative possibilities of challenge. From infancy women were kept in ignorance of their own bodies to experience puberty, defloration and sexual intercourse as mystery. There was a noticeable sexual ‘amnesia’ in women. Aravinda’s girlfriend Sarojini challenges Victorian morality and attitudes. Wicramasinghe describes female sexuality and sensations via Sarojini‘s character. Hence the reader finds that Sarojini was more advanced than an ordinary village girl of that era.

After Sarojini left him Aravinda had no interests in worldly pleasure or accumulating wealth. His desolation and nostalgia begins to grow. He was sexually deprived. Aravinda’s loneliness makes him to get close to his young servant girl Bathie. He begins to develop concealed erotic desire towards her. Bathie‘s beauty evokes his repressed content. Aravinda struggles between morality and biological instincts which leads to a despondent condition in him.

When Bathie was small Aravinda had a fatherly love which gradually transformed in to a hidden desire without any physical intimacy.  However he repressed his sensual desires due to ethics and moral pressure from the society. This condition could be explained using psychoanalytic tools. In Moses and Monotheism, Freud showed that ethics originates in "a sense of guilt felt on account of a suppressed hostility to God”. He further states thus.
Analyse any human emotion, no matter how far it may be removed from the sphere of sex, and you are sure to discover somewhere the primal impulse, to which life owes its perpetuation. ... The primitive stages can always be re-established; the primitive mind is, in the fullest meaning of the word, imperishable. ... Mans most disagreeable habits and idiosyncrasies, his deceit, his cowardice, his lack of reverence, are engendered by his incomplete adjustment to a complicated civilisation. It is the result of the conflict between our instincts and our culture.

Aravinda’s non –hedonistic attitude stemming from his cultural background and from his parsimonious childhood. His self-mortification is deeply embedded. But when he finds Bathie is arousing his biological urges he gradually tries to get close to her breaking social taboos. There are vast social and age difference between Bathie and Aravinda, however his erotic desires obscure these differences.

Anyhow Bathie finds no erotic attraction in Aravinda. Assuming her middle aged master’s motives Bathie shows strong resistance sometimes exhibiting rude behavior. When Aravinda comes to know that Bathie has a lover he becomes a jealous man.  He becomes furious.  Aravinda’s sexual jealousy is a complex emotional state that filled with anxiety, worry, sadness, anger, hate, regret, blame, bitterness, and envy. His thoughts are egodystonic. However he covers it up. It does not develop in to pathological jealousy or conjugal paranoia.

Following Bathie’s refusal to stay in his home and her decision to get married to her lover make Aravinda more discontent. He feels the abandonment.  He becomes emotionally shut-down and numbed. Bathie’s departure creates an emotional imprint on his psychobiological functioning. Bathie was his background object. Now the object is lost. Aravinda was prevented from expressing his sexuality for the second time.

At this point Aravinda’s physical and mental health are in jeopardy. His guilt and self-inflicted suffering grows. The emotional crisis leads to melancholia which pronounced in physical channels. We see some depressive elements in Aravinda after he lost Sarojini and Bathie. His Anhedonia (inability to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable) causes him to detach from social relations further. Since Depression and moral masochism are inseparable (Markson, 1993) Aravinda’s moral masochism leads to more seclusion. He is struggling with feelings of alienation.

When Aravinda became seriously ill Bathie returns. She looks after her old master like a father. She has fatherly love towards him. At this stage Aravinda’s feelings are immensely numbed. He dies while he was on Bathie’s care.

Wicramasinghe’s Viragaya highlights meaninglessness and absurdity. Perhaps Wicramasinghe grasped the concept of absurdity, developed by the French Philosopher Albert Camus.  According to Albert Camus life is meaningless unless one is willing to take a leap of faith to the divine or, alternately to commit suicide. And his third alternative was: acceptance of a life without prima facie evidence of purpose and meaning (Papadimos, 2014).  Moreover Camus introduced two central concepts: absurd and the rebellion. Aravida was a rebellion who refused to lead a traditional life. 

Albert Camus suggested metaphysical revolt to combat meaninglessness and absurdity. According to Camus metaphysical rebellion is the means by which man protests against his condition and against the whole of creation. It is metaphysical because it disputes the ends of man and creation. Aravinda launched his metaphysical revolt when he lost his girlfriend. But he was unsuccessful.

Aravinda alienated himself from the society and was critical about the social traditions and social institutions. His alienation was a silent protest.

Seeman (1976) elaborated the concept of alienation by fragmentation of the phenomenon into six variants named powerlessness, normlessness, meaninglessness, self-estrangement, social isolation, and cultural estrangement.  Alienation is considered to be a condition that leaves no one unaffected, but does impact people in different ways and extremities in relation to their status in society. Aravinda gradually lost the sense of social belongings (connectedness). His interpersonal relationships were shattered. He lost two key persons in his adult life which pushed him to a dim solitude.

According to Baumeister and   Leary (1995) belongingness appears to have multiple and strong effects on emotional patterns and on cognitive processes.  Lack of belongingness creates a solipsistic nihilism in Aravinda.  Isolation and self estrangement are two further consequences of alienation, possibly leading to loneliness, anxiety, or even depression (Hobart, 1965). Aravinda shows some elements of depression in the latter part of his life.

Following socio cultural taboos he repressed his biological urges.  But he had no moral fiber to fight back social and cultural walls that kept him trapped. His moral masochism leads to ambiguity in personal relationships.  

In a world where everything is absurd, meaningless and impossible “the only ultimate significance must be one which includes, or accepts, the meaninglessness of all recognized values and concepts (Shah, 2012). Hence in the latter stage of his life Aravinda accepted the meaninglessness and his own destiny. Eventually Aravinda dies as an isolated man who could not full fill his inner desires. Although he failed in his material life he faced his own death without any fear or anxiety. He was not consumed by the death anxiety.

Death is an event, the cessation of life. Death is a powerful human concern that has been conceptualized as a powerful motivating force behind much creative expression and philosophic inquiry throughout the ages. Confronting death and the anxiety generated by knowledge of its inevitability is a universal psychological quandary for humans ( Lehto & Stein  2009). Death anxiety is likely a universal human phenomenon given the biological architecture of emotional memory concomitant with higher-level cognitive structures that permit futuristic anticipation and prediction (Yalom, 1980).  The conscious awareness of the inevitability of death could provoke fear which is called thanatophobia. Thanatophobia is an exaggerated, specific, structured fear of death. 

Aravinda faces his final days with courage and vigor.  He had no dread, or apprehension. Eventually Aravinda becomes a hero by defeating death anxiety. He overcomes the fear of the unknown.


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 Dr. Ruwan M Jayatunge M.D.


  1. The longest English writing I ever read non-stop. Started to read an 'Art' and finished reading with some best artistic 'science'. Never thought before so deep of 'Aravindas', 'Piyals', 'Saviman Kabalanas', 'Thissa Kayisaruwattes', "Oblomovs' or even Martin Wickramasinghes'. Thanks!

    1. Dear KM , Aravnda is the most complex literary character

  2. Good research, A vibrant account of the top creations of Martin Wickramasingha. Thanks for this.

  3. A few of us had a very lengthy eMail discussion based on this post.

    With their permission, I will later publish en edited version of that.

  4. Interesting article with analytical facts making us to pause in the middle and think again . As KaMi said never thought about those characters in such deep. Some facts are familiar , some facts are totally new and filled my knowledge .
    You provoked me read Viragaya again.


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