Monday, May 1, 2017

Ezra Vogel : Deng Xiaoping and Transformation of Modern China

Professors at the Harvard University are often foremost in exploring new subjects for writing books; accordingly, during the last decade the Harvard University saw a frenzy of book writing on China. Much of this resulted in a fairly good number of books on Chinese economy, business, governance and politics.    By comparison, Ezra Vogel's "Deng Xiaoping and Transformation of Modern China" is a scholarly and solid work of contemporary history and it brings out detailed political biography of Deng Xiaoping and his tryst with the destiny in the post-Mao China that was bedeviled by excesses of Cultural Revolution.

 This work, running into 800 pages, is a political history of a period that saw a monumental change in the way China reshaped itself and challenged the world order.   To a patient reader it is a lucid and detailed account of economic reforms Deng initiated in a China whose economic growth was stifled under a local brand of socialism nurtured by Mao.    These reforms, within a period of thirty years, were to hurtle China ahead of all the big nations and pose a serious economic and strategic challenge to the mighty US.  In 1977 at the time of the death of Chairman Mao, the country was in the throes of the ravages and  moral degradation brought about by the Cultural Revolution. It was a providential arrangement that a person of Deng’s skill, dedication and capacity for relative moderation was available to carry the mantle of leadership.

 For several reasons Ezra Vogel’s job of writing the story of Deng’s leadership was a tough one. Chinese ways of chronicling leaders’ lives,  normally stuffed with excessive praise,  in accordance with the relative importance and hierarchies of leaders have to be understood first.  Reconciling these difficulties with the western writers’ penchant for painting an intimate and informal portrait of the subject of the biography also has its own problems.   At places, therefore, Vogel hurries through Deng’s personal details and delves deeply into drab policy making, presumably because the official records are full of such details. Despite these inadequacies of resources and materials required for a biography, Ezra Vogel has largely succeeded in presenting a portrait of Deng Xiaoping that is authentic and riveting. He is portrayed vividly, both as an eminent political leader of China and as a human being torn between the compulsions of a huge complicated governing machine and his own conscience.
A few points need to be made here on the portrait of Deng that stands out from Vogel’s long work.  Deng may have lacked Mao’s charisma and other attributes but he was a man of details and of performance. He did not have Mao’s capacity to move masses and lend them a grand vision of future; but Deng had a pragmatism and a great sense of his times with which he could deliver and decide what was good for people. Mao held sway over people’s hearts, and in turn people were ready to be led blindfolded wherever he led them, at times with disastrous results. Deng   put road-map before his people, broadly agreed to a blueprint and basic tenets of execution, developed consensus among colleagues and followers and gave freedom to his people to show results. And this worked immensely well in a society that had suffered from absurdities and violence of Cultural Revolution.  

Mao was a visionary and a dreamer and a poet who subsisted on books and a sense of history.  Pragmatic Deng was not merely an astute administrator with a keen eye for details; he had an ability of peeping into the future and preparing for it. Mao had hardly traveled outside China and cared little for the world. Relatively, Deng had traveled extensively through the world and knew that he had to keep China appropriately on the world map through alliances and friendships. He had been  to France as a student apprentice at the age of 15, worked there and cut his teeth working with the Communist Party there. He was also in Russia for a fairly long period and was conversant with communist movements in other countries. He had firsthand experience of war and conflicts during the Communist Revolution and served as Commissar with the Red Army, administering and managing the territories occupied by the Army. And after the Communist Revolution he occupied important positions in the government.  All these stood in good stead for Deng when he became preeminent communist leader and administrator and made China an engine of world economic growth. Deng was a tough diplomat but knew how to cultivate personal relationships with heads of states and win friends. He took personal interest and initiative to improve relations with countries like US and Japan. 

 Deng had always been an efficient administrator and he initiated administrative reforms whenever he had been entrusted with important positions by Mao. Twice he fell out of Mao’s favor due to maneuverings and machinations of Mao’s close aides including politically ambitious Jiang Qing, Mao’s third wife who ruined several careers during the Cultural Revolution. Despite these disruptions, he survived and kept his spine straight. 

Putting China on the path of high economic growth needed some economic reforms that ran counter to the socialism. It needed adopting some aspects of open economy, abandoning system of collective farming, committing to international trade, system of incentives for agriculturists and farmers, encouraging FDI (Foreign Direct Investments), liberalizing system of administered prices etc. And yet Deng managed all this while retaining his hold on the Communist Party. Managing this change and moving on the high trajectory of economic growth needed deft political management. Although the economy was being run like an open economy, China still continued to loudly avow its socialistic credentials. Managing these contradictions and developing consensus among various factions tested Deng’s skills and mettle. And he succeeded.

Apart from economic reforms, Deng’s contributions proved outstanding in two important sectors. After Cultural Revolution and especially after he took over reins after Mao’s death, Deng moved decisively in reforming education sector, especially universities, higher education and research and development. He freed the universities of the socialistic leaders and their pernicious ideologies and promoted merit/performance based systems. If Chinese universities and higher education are gaining universal acclaim today, it is mainly because in late seventies and early eighties Deng took up an intense program of University Reforms and gave priority to research and development. His second important contribution pertains to creating internal mechanism for peaceful and consensual succession of political leadership from one generation to the other.  

 Private Deng was a family person, given to wife, children and grandchildren. Although not very educated himself, he had great respect for education. His wife was a university teacher and taught physics. During Cultural Revolution Deng was under political attack and his son was targeted and roughed up by red guards. He ended up being crippled for the rest of his life and Deng nursed him during his illness. Deng was not vindictive but nursed strong personal emotions for the excesses committed during the Cultural Revolution.

Clearly, Deng occupies a unique position in the History of China. Without him China would not have become a world leader.   And yet, it seems that at times Deng’s role has remained somewhat ambiguous and even negative in certain aspects.  Especially, in issues relating to political reforms, he failed to appreciate democratic and intellectual aspirations of a China that was in the process of momentous transformation.  It appears that he was somewhat apprehensive, even timid when it came to issues of political reforms. May be, perhaps he had seen how political reforms unleashed by the Soviet leaders in eighties brought the mighty Soviet Empire to a tottering end. And this could be a reason  why in 1989 he chose to crack down on the agitating students in the Tiananmen Square.  Deng may have been much softer and far more positive than Mao; however, there is no evidence that he did anything to further the interests of liberalism and democracy in China. On the contrary he appears to have always stifled even the slightest dissent that he feared would snowball into demand fro political freedom. Historians and scholars still argue whether he could have handled the Tienanmen students' demonstrations in 1989 somewhat differently so as to keep the doors for political reforms slightly open.  Further, intellectuals as a class in China never looked to Deng with any confidence the way they looked to Zhou. During the Great Leap Forward and Mao’s other earlier disastrous adventures, Deng does not appear to have made any attempts to protect liberals and critics.   

Ezra Vogel’s book on Deng Xiaoping tries to capture all these and other aspects and presents a fairly balanced portrait of a great statesman, who brought China on the world map of high development. It's a work on political economy of  Reforms in China that provides insights into interplay of forces that shape and mold the way we develop.  It’s a book teeming with great details on how Chinese leaders managed the great challenge of tight rope walking between capitalism and communism.  

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Steven Pinker :Degenerate Past, Idyllic Present


How many times, during the last week, were you overcome with the  feeling that in general things are going from bad to worse? How many times were you beset by the nasty thought that people are becoming disagreeable and dishonest as compared to their ancestors in the past? And  ask yourself honestly, whether or not you felt seriously that people are becoming more and more violent these days? 

May be perhaps you are watching too much of television where experts keep on talking of all things that are bad with us. Taking up from a few bad examples and isolated cases from here and there, that are surely not representative of the human race, these experts start building up future scenarios and in the process they  frighten you into believing that we are all, the whole world for that matter, going from bad to worse. 

  But wait; don’t be so pessimistic about your present or future. Perhaps we have been taught to treat the past with reverence and present with suspicion.  Professor Steven Pinker, the well-known Harvard Professor of psychology does not think that the world is becoming more violent! He says that we are better and luckier than our forefathers in that we are living in an age that is perhaps the least violent in human history.  His researches on human behavior and history of human violence tell us that if anything, human race is steadily moving away from violence and increasingly embracing new ways of cooperating and co-existing peacefully.  He argues that there is every reason to believe that in future human beings would co-exist more peacefully than they ever did.

Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angeles of Our Nature” is a huge book that very assiduously argues that there has been decline of violence in history. The thought that “things are going from bad to worse” is so deeply engraved on our mind and it comes so easily and effortlessly to mind that we do not feel any need to systematically explore the truth in it. And Steven Pinker has   carried out the task of studying the past violent behavior and our conceptions of our own nature competently.  The book may have become somewhat unwieldy and his argument longish; but he succeeds in convincing you.

He argues that we compulsively believe that human beings harbor an innate drive of aggression; and even if under certain circumstances it is repressed, it still keeps simmering there inside us and surfaces with more intense force.  In a nuanced and reasoned argument, backed by historical evidence and science, he shows that man is not innately violent or aggressive and that human violence has different motives.  He also argues that during the evolution of societies human violence has been shown to be amenable to being tackled fairly effectively. Violence enters in human beings and societies via different survival and existential strategies. These may include basic predatory violence, violence from urge to dominate over adversaries, violence from desire to take revenge etc.  Human beings are not inherently violent and hence violence can be contained by creating certain conditions in society and groups; conditions that reduce violent behavior.

Humans may not be innately good, but neither are they evil. Moreover, they have a better side of their nature where they can co-operate and be altruistic. They have conscience and can feel pain of others. It is with  empathy that man  cultivates higher faculties, shows altruistic behavior and creates art and literature.  During the last few centuries, reason, empathy and other better faculties of human beings have combined to forge more humane forms of cooperation and coexistence. Abolition of slavery was an important stage in human history that ushered in an era that culminated in acknowledging dignity of human beings. Decolonization of a large number of societies/nations after or around the Second World War was another step that recognized innate dignity and worth of societies and human beings and contributed to diminishing violence.    After the Second World War the idea of Human Rights has so much underlined the universal foundation of our existence that it has become a dominant theme of relationship between societies and nations. Feminization and  increasing concern for dignity of women in societies is another reason for bringing down violence.  Increasing commerce and international trade has engaged human beings in meaningful activities and peaceful behavior.   Large business organizations that operate throughout world constitutes influential site that greatly contributes to peaceful behavior.

This is not to argue that all is well and violence has been abolished. What he has argued is that in last several centuries, man has been able to create conditions and mechanisms through which human beings have come to  recognize dignity of human beings and it has helped reduce violence.
Steven Pinker’s book is all about this. But it’s also much more than this. He has carefully researched our long history and here you find valuable  insights in the progress made by man.  It sketches journey through wars and economic activities as humanity’s major vocations.  There are details of cruelties associated with religions and empires and cruel punishments of the past. There are harrowing details of slavery and also narratives on how slavery was abolished.   He identifies various forces and factors that led to this transition in human history. There are interesting stories drawn from history and basic insights in human behavior through history.  

It is  sobering to see that Professor Pinker is very discerning and cautious when it comes to making sweeping and optimistic statements about future of man. Pinker’s book tells us that  traversing the path of peace is like tight rope walking, difficult and requiring calmness of mind.

 Pinker’s book, however, does not tell us that in human life stupidity and wisdom exist side by side and human race has not always chosen wisdom over stupidity.  He also does not   explain why  the twentieth century was the bloodiest century in human history that saw more than 180 million people die of war and violence.  He does not tell us very frankly that history presents cases where people forget what good they have learnt for a few moments and lapse in their old habits with disastrous results for the posterity. He does not tell us that all the progress we talk about also comes with a rider: need fora constant vigilance on our own behavior! 

And yet I am impressed with his argument for it is based on reason and evidence; and it is based on deep insights into man who, despite moments of stupidity, moves ahead with hope.    

Monday, June 6, 2016

Book Review “Ignorance”: Milan Kundera

 Yearning to return to our native lands and original places of abode is not merely a noble feeling; it is also one of the strongest emotions that rules and drives us.    But for Milan Kundera, who was born in Czechoslovakia and later settled in France, nostalgia is a far more  complex feeling that comes with different significances.
 Czechoslovakia was born at the end of the First World War, disappeared during the Second World War and reappeared thereafter. It was literally effaced from the map of European Civilization during Russian occupation till about the fall of communism in 1989. How would a fine novelist like Milan Kundera  find such changes in the status of his motherland land when he is swept by that noble feeling of nostalgia? And how would that generate different possibilities of human existence? Milan Kundera’s novel “Ignorance” is deep meditation on the feeling of nostalgia as it comes up with moving pictures, insights and some important questions.   The story moves around two strangers---a man and a woman who had earlier met but once----who are visiting their motherland after a long gap; it’s a story about what happens to them and what happens between them. 

 Yearning for our origins, homelands and native places is a powerful emotion that makes people do great things; it is also at the core of great narratives, literature and creative acts.  It is a theme that runs deeply through our shared history and literature. Two examples are worth mentioning: Odysseus (in Odyssey) in western mythology and Ram (in Ramayana) in Indian mythology.  Odysseus returned to Ithaca after a gap of about twenty years, ten years of war and ten years of search for motherland. After great struggle he returns ultimately to Ithaca only to get embroiled in further killings and adventures.   He comes back to Penelope, his wife, his own men, his own land and nation; and he finds himself in some murky and violent affairs that had precisely been created due to his long absence from Ithaca. Even Penelope first refuses to believe him. He has to prove himself to her and to others. How much do the inhabitants of Ithaca care for him after his leaving Ithaca? Not much!  In his absence they lived their own time they did not share with him. There is   a long discontinuity in time, life and events. To them he belonged to a period that was not theirs. He lived outside the pale of their existence, in darkness and nobody wanted to know where he was and what he did. And hence after his return he finds that painful distance and abyss that separates him from his own people.

This distance and abyss is also manifest in Ramayana, the famous Indian epic where King Ram and his wife Sita return to Ayodhya after a period of fourteen years!  Even during the fourteen years, Ram and Sita were separated for some time as Ravana, the villain, had abducted Sita; she was rescued  after Ram killed Ravana.  Ram ultimately  returns to Ayodhya  with Sita.  But this sense of satisfaction proves only short lived as under the pressure of public opinion Ram was required to abandon his own wife.  Sita had been abducted by Ravana and remained in his custody for a fairly long time, a fact the Indian people at that time would hardly accept.  Ramayana ends in the tragedy of Ram and Sita. Again the longing for the homeland generates a complex set of events!

 Returning to one’s own motherland with  after a long gap may apparently be a happy affair. But not always; at times it would be far more complex. We mostly leave in the presence and the present concerns; our memory of the past is buried under layers of later experiences and these past memories surface sometimes only under the powerful pull of nostalgia. The shared memories may under such circumstances be available to the one who is plagued by nostalgia and not to others.  Such asymmetries of memories make people strangers even in their homelands.

No wonder then Milan Kundera finds “Nostalgia” a powerful theme that becomes far more fertile in generating different experiences and different possibilities of existence. Alienation, nostalgia and home-coming runs through Milan Kundera’s “Ignorance”, which is a beautifully crafted novella. This is the story of Irena and Josef, two strangers originally from Czechoslovakia, who had left Czechoslovakia in the past, had met only once when they left Czechoslovakia and who later on meet briefly in Prague while on their respective short visit to their motherland. Their love story, that began and apparently ended in their only visit twenty years ago, remains deeply etched in their minds. How do they react to each other when they meet after twenty years under similar circumstances?  Were they really welcome in Prague? Was their visit spiritually and historically redeeming enough that would elevate nostalgia that propelled them to go to Prague?
  When Joseph and Irena ultimately return to their homes from Czechoslovakia, they had seen, in bits and pieces, the reality of homecoming. The contrast between surge of longing and the belittling hard realities they face in Prague is the high mark of this novel. And in this story Milan Kundera finds large spaces for meditating on such concepts as alienation, yearning for motherland, love and nationalism; he explores and demonstrates some dynamics of how the communities and nations (and even families) look to estranged people who had once left their homelands and yet carry a deep   sense of belongingness to their erstwhile nation. He also shows how lofty feelings of nostalgia that elevate and raise men from the ordinary and the mundane, ultimately encounter the petty concrete details that make loftiness feel its own weight.  

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Year of Lear: James Shapiro

 I have never been a formal student of literature and never studied Shakespeare in class room. I read Shakespeare as I went along. And that’s greater reason why I feel that Shakespeare is perhaps the world's greatest explorer of human nature. James Shapiro's "The Year of Lear" is an important contribution to the ever increasing body of scholarly works on Shakespeare and it shows how Shakespeare's observant mind used the contemporary debates and concerns in shaping his major creative works!  That such a passionate work of great scholarship should appear during the year that marks 400th death anniversary of Shakespeare also proves that with times posterity's interest in Shakespeare has not declined a whit, and that Shakespeare still continues to be an important  industry that keeps generating quality works on his life and works! While reading "The Year of Lear” I was most impressed by James Shapiro's marshalling of facts as also his passionate exposition of the spirit of the  period he has written about.

James Shapiro argues that the year 1606 was truly eventful in social, political and religious life of the English people. The year saw great upheavals and tempests that continued to reverberate for  many decades to come.  It was also the most important and productive year for Shakespeare, for he wrote three major celebrated works during this year, "King Lear", "Macbeth" and "Antony and Cleopatra".   Shapiro further demonstrates that the happenings of this  period have deeply etched the high creative contours of these three major plays written in 1606.  His book is not merely about Shakespeare’s creativity. It goes beyond Shakespeare and gives a live demonstration of how great writers and artists deeply engage themselves with the complex social forces   that shape destinies of societies and give rise to   dominant narratives and literature of people.  In that sense Shapiro's "The Year of Lear" is not merely an unravelling of Shakespeare's Act of Creation but also a contribution to the study of creativity in literature.

After an intense survey of major themes unfolding in the third year of the reign of James I, Shapiro shows that the period was marked by three or four interrelated dominant social, political and religious themes. And he shows that   these themes were uppermost in the mind of Shakespeare during this period and they powerfully resonate in his three creative works of this period. If literary works are deep meditations on the life and all its afflictions, then here was Shakespeare deeply reflecting on the tumultuous events and themes that were sweeping the English nation. 

The first theme concerned with the union and the division of the kingdom/s---the issue that became important after James I succeeded Queen Elizabeth---- and this forms the core of King Lear.     King Lear's very scheme of dividing the kingdom among three daughters was fraught with political unwisdom and ineptitude! Shakespeare also built around this politically unsustainable proposal a wretchedly unethical and immoral scheme emanating from the senile king's lack of judgement.  The story of King Lear was thus modified by Shakespeare in the light of the contemporary acrimonious debates, and what resulted was perhaps his greatest work "King Lear".

The second was the deep simmering religious disharmony that surfaced violently in the form of seditious "Gun-Powder Plot" that would have blown up the entire parliament along with the King. In November 1605 the nation was shocked   to learn about this conspiracy when the plot  was busted. This brought to the fore the old rivalry between the Protestants and the Catholics and the passions started running high. The spirit of sedition, murder and conspiracy was in the air and was picked up by Shakespeare and grafted on a Scottish story to present Macbeth, one of the greatest tragedies Shakespeare wrote.

 The third theme in the year 1606 was the high profile visit of King James's brother-in-law (King of Denmark) and the accompanying atmosphere of courtly manners and styles masquerading social biases and deep conflicts in the society. And this formed an important influence in the writing of Antony and Cleopatra. With detailed arguments and impressive facts and records James Shapiro shows how the general debates arising from this visit are reflected in the making of Antony and Cleopatra, one of the masterpieces of Shakespeare.

  The fourth important contemporary theme was about witchcraft, the toxic atmosphere of miracles and psychic phenomena. Considerable debate was raging on this issue and in many cases it was argued that such phenomena were either tricks or the reportage of the gullible and the simpleminded. Moreover, many such cases were shown to be closely related to Catholic/Jesuits giving it a political undertone.  This theme of witchcraft has recurred in Macbeth and in King Lear and has aesthetically enhanced   magical suggestiveness of various events in these works. 
1606 was also a year that saw ravages brought about by plague and its social and psychological implications and personal tragedies. All these found reflections in Shakespeare’s plays.

James Shapiro's book  demonstrates that all literary and artistic creativity stems from the 'Now and the Present' of the life; and the great literature, however fanciful it may be in terms of its presentation and rendering, is always rooted in the life of people and the mores of the society. 

 Passion with which James Shapiro writes is unique. His book is also a contribution to history of England during the reign of King James I. As one continues reading the book one feels as if one is a part of the then society of the 16th century England of King James I.  It was great pleasure reading this book that was timely brought out during the Shakespeare festival.  

If Shakespeare has survived for over four centuries and has emerged stronger and greater, it is not merely because of the merits of his literary works alone.  It is also because of abiding faith and total devotion of scholars like James Shapiro.    

Friday, December 25, 2015

Voltaire's Candide

At last, a few days ago I could finish reading Voltaire’s “Candide”. Like many other classics in my personal library, “Candide” had long been queuing up in my reading list, and it remained there patiently for quite some time without much movement. 

“Candide” is a convoluted story of adventures of a young man, Candide, as his fate takes him to distant lands. Candide comes from almost a royal family except that he is an illegitimate child. He is taught by his tutor, Pangloss, who is a philosopher shaped mainly by ideas of Leibniz. Leibniz believed that all that has just happened is not merely result of some  grand and divine design but is also something that is the best under the given circumstances. Nothing could have been wiser or better for human beings than the situation obtaining here.  “Candide” denounces and negates this philosophy mercilessly and loudly! No wonder “Candide” is a classic that ushers in new European thinking of enlightenment and of human triumph that seeks to  accord central place to man. 
“Candide” is a short work, of only about 150 pages, full of adventures and fantasy stories we normally find in adventure books. But this story of adventure though fascinating, is not entirely enjoyable.  It’s funny as also dark. It is this contrast between the hilarity and the crudity, light and the darkness, hope and despair that is a source of troubled thought for the reader.   The contrast continues as more  adventures continue to pour in, sometimes to complicate the story and at other times to simplify it. The entire series of adventure is designed to test  Leibniz's idea that whatever happens, happens for the best and that the situation that is obtained is the best possible one in the world.   The characters (except the hero, Candide) simply go ahead with events as if they are acting according to a script   written for them.  Everything is accepted uncritically, everything is justified and rationalized. How can it be otherwise for this world is the creation of the God himself? And how would God create something that is not perfect? Pangloss and Candide keep on arguing tediously as the train of adventure moves on.  The trouble in the mind of the reader is that he senses a medieval world that is at loggerheads with the spirit of enlightenment! 

 Voltaire’s Candide is thus a biting satire and a mordant travesty of Leibniz's philosophy  that justifies everything that comes to the lot of man.  Candide moves out of his protected environment and tests the philosophy he has been nurtured in; and he finds something shockingly different. He finds that the world outside is not merely cruel but continues to be   inhumane to the hapless players who experience hierarchies of cruelty, violence, indignity and inequity of every kind. As one reads and follows Candide’s and his colleagues’ adventures and their tryst with their misfortunes one   wonders what good is there in this world! Violation of human beings and its acceptance   without a finger being raised against such acts of cruelty by the victims of religious, social, political and economic realities   forms the core of Voltaire’s Candide.  At the end of the novel Candide gets thoroughly disillusioned by the philosophy that seeks to justify this world and decides in the end that gardening perhaps is the best activity for human beings. In this work, Voltaire excoriates   contemporary philosophers, politicians, statesmen and religious and social leaders for continuing to peddle the philosophy that leaves little volition, freedom and dignity to human beings. 

Candide, though a satire, presents a pessimistic view of the world and makes a gloomy reading.  It is full of violence against human beings, with the basest violation and worst indignities reserved for women. At once dark and funny “Candide” is a great work of criticism against a world order that thrives on the annihilation of the spirit of the weak.

In the end Candide, thoroughly disillusioned with the philosophy of his mentor, concludes that the best activity that human beings can do is to nurture and develop “Garden”. Gardening here may signify a simple and positive activity that supports life; it may also mean tending with love and affection all human activities. It may also mean confronting the world and bringing about great forces that are life enhancing and life perpetuating.  It also means an attempt to demystify philosophies in the face of robust life and live it in simple ways.

Though “Candide” was written in 1750s it is still a modern work for it creates and endorses a tradition of asking fundamental questions about existence of human beings.  I find Voltaire’s “Gardening” a good solution to the troubled mind and to the troubled world beset by the exasperation of choosing between complex options.   For it supports and enhances life. It is the simplest available philosophy that needs perhaps no justification through first principles.



Monday, March 18, 2013

“War and Peace”: From Literature to Subaltern History


“War and Peace”, both in terms of its scope and message is an extraordinary novel. It has a special significance in Tolstoy’s literary oeuvre.    It brings out a great artist’s strengths and peculiarities, and also discontinuities, contradictions and ironies.  With all these, it stands out as an original work of great beauty and substance. But what is generally not acknowledged is that it is also   an important commentary on history and makes outstanding contribution to the discipline of historiography. The dominant view of history in the nineteenth century, until the coming of Hegel and Marx, was that the political leaders, emperors and the aristocracy were the makers of glorious history and the common man was merely a consumer of this history and someone who draws inspiration from it.    “War and Peace” was the first major literary experiment that tried to demolish this view and made serious attempt to place the common man and his life at the core of history. It was a unique literary attempt that tried to reclaim for the common man the central place in historiography that is always largely expropriated by dominant classes, powerful political interests and those who claim to run the powerful business of peddling history.  

It was almost about 150 years ago, in 1863, that the first draft of the novel was completed, though it was not until 1865 that it started getting serialized in a magazine. Some sources doubt these dates and indicate that Tolstoy may have started writing the novel in 1865.    Not satisfied with these earlier drafts, and having made many changes, Tolstoy almost rewrote the entire novel to bring it to the text that we today know as “War and Peace”.  Whatever it is,   reading this novel of over twelve hundred pages   is a difficult project.   In addition to the 1200 pages, there is a 60-70 pages long   chapter, known as Part II of the novel, where Tolstoy somewhat gratuitously and often to the increasing annoyance of the tired readers, unleashes his own ramblings on what, according to him,   history is.  

  I could read this mega- novel, somehow, only because I was on a longish leave and was convalescing from a long drawn fever. But not all Tolstoy lovers are so happily lucky.  I feel that   sheer size of the novel could be problematic to many book lovers who approach “War and Peace” with enthusiasm. It is likely that book lovers who   decide to read this classic and leave it unfinished at various stages may constitute a goodly number. It was  tenacity born of  passion for Tolstoy’s works that sustained me through, for I read the novel again after 15 years when I was on my sabbatical. But luckily this time  I was guided to “War and Peace” by no less a person than the great Isaiah Berlin, whose famous classic  essay “The Fox and The Hedgehog” even today continues to provide deep insights into works of Tolstoy, especially his “War and Peace”.

Tolstoy’s Views of History and Historiography

During the 1850s Tolstoy was increasingly being drawn to historical writing. But he did not want to write historical romance and was certainly not interested in fictionalizing history. Like all intellectuals of the nineteenth century Tolstoy was influenced by various strands of historicism. If history is a clue to understanding everything about human beings, he certainly, especially as an artist, wanted to understand how history is made, created, recorded, and its myths perpetuated. He was   interested in showing discrepancies between the actual unfolding of the history and it’s often   deliberate and one-sided recording and writing by the political establishment. And this he wanted to demonstrate through work of art, through a novel.  

 Tolstoy was not merely   critical of the manner in which historians write political history selectively. He denounced   the practice of traditional history writing and described it as selective chronicling of political and military events from the view point of   political establishments. He came heavily   on such great historians as   Gibbon and Buckle and dismissed their histories as empty and devoid of all meaning. According to him they were sweeping and rambling narratives from which were removed all that was human. He was also not very happy with Hegel’s view of history. He had read Hegel, but was not impressed by his idea of Directional History where flow of history moves relentlessly irrespective of the human beings that participate in it. He  despised the idea of   movement towards a predetermined and preordained goal or objective.  He felt that such an idea would preempt human beings and would leave no volition to them in their   universe. As an artist he viewed freedom of human beings in different situations as central to life and human drama, and hence he was not enthused by   Hegel’s project. And yet like Hegel and Marx he too believed in some arcane law that governed unfolding of history irrespective of historical players; but he could not precisely articulate it.

Tolstoy believed that the existing practice and art of writing history missed many dimensions of human motivation and creative activity. An ideal history to him was a larger history of Man who negotiates his universe in all its creative aspects, social, economic, aesthetic, artistic, and literary.   Tolstoy was looking for a much larger, grander and livelier narrative. He wanted a history,   kicking and bustling with innate human activity, of which war and political maneuvering was merely an outer, if rabid, manifestation. 

 More than heroes and emperors he was fascinated by the common man who continues his life in all its complexity.  He believed that history was not made by emperors and the so called great heroes. It was made, according to him, by common man who lives his life courageously despite all the turbulence he finds himself in.   The common man, the ordinary man at work and in his own home, was thus the hero of Tolstoy’s history. He rejected all versions of history in which this ordinary man, who is evolving spiritually, is absent.

The Art, Vision and Aesthetics of “The War and Peace”

“War and Peace” happens on the background of the Napoleonic Wars that were fought between 1800 and 1812, especially Napoleon’s Russia war. It is the story of four Russian aristocratic families, Bolkonsky, Bezhuhov, Kuragin and Rostov. It is the story of their private relationships and public responsibilities and important off-war happenings in these families. The three heroes, young aristocrats from these families---- Andrei, Pierre, and Nikolai--- experience war in all its gruesome and absurd reality. Although nations avowedly wage war in the name of such lofty concepts as nationalism and patriotism, in reality in the theater of war and on the actual battlefield, there reigns confusion, crassness, cowardice, madness and a great cloud of meaninglessness. Still more frightening is the prospect of these events being presented by   historians to the posterity as great heroic events unfolding from the brilliant strategies and grandiose plans of the military leaders, generals and others who   stand tall and appear to  dwarf all that is around them. 

The emptiness and meaninglessness of designs and the plans of the   emperors and generals and their irrelevance to the common man who conducts his affairs courageously even under such dispensation of madness and disaster is the theme of the “War and Peace”. The heroes of the “War and Peace” carry with them this dark vision of   meaninglessness   in their life as they strut back home with dull heavy feet: a false history written on the basis of events that were a disgrace to humanity, as great meaninglessness descends on such   concepts as nationalism, patriotism, valor, glorious national history and so on.   And from this dung of activities rise grand heroes of the history, the Napoleons and the Alexanders whose contrived images and   reputations distort the vision and the values of the generations to come. 

Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” contains several pages of moving descriptions of   events that occur on battlefields. There are passages and pages that do not merely make scenes alive in the minds of the readers but radiate pure light of human wisdom. Tolstoy works with words and phrases to carve out rare   sculptures   that shall live as long as human race lasts.    Many critics, however, detested Tolstoy’s commentaries on history that are sprinkled throughout the novel.  Turgenev and Flaubert, Tolstoy’s contemporaries, adored “War and Peace” but felt that serious references to history and commentaries jarred on the literary achievements. It is this dazzling vision and great aesthetics that made readers, especially historians and social scientists neglect Tolstoy's philosophy of history! They regarded Tolstoy as an amateur and a dabbler and dismissed his views of history as his passing views in literature.

  Tolstoy’s Fragmented Vision: Aesthetics of art and Ascetics of Spiritualism

 Despite his great literary talent and ability, Tolstoy is more known as a philosopher of divinity, simplicity and ascetics. And hence perhaps, when it comes to his views on history he is, unfortunately, simply dismissed.   This is mainly because Tolstoy’s enduring reputation was founded more on his later   works such as “What is Art?”, “Confessions” and his later literary works such as “Resurrection” etc. Not that his better works such as “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” are not acknowledged.   They are regarded as his masterpieces; however, rarely is an attempt made to reconcile the earlier masterpieces with the later day literature that is written in the language of a high priest, a teacher of humanity   and a quaint spiritual leader. When it comes to Tolstoy's art, his earlier works such as "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina are often cited without referring ever to his philosophy of history! And when it comes to Tolstoy's philosophy or thought, it is generally his later works that are cited.    Unless, therefore, one understands evolution of Tolstoy from an aesthete and a philosopher of history to a saintly preacher of humanity, it is difficult to understand the continuing presence of the two opposite movements in his mind. In absence of such an attempt of tracing his thought and philosophy, his musings and critique of history and history writing went largely unnoticed; and when it was noticed it was dismissed as jarring on novel's aesthetics and natural flow. 

 Isaiah Berlin wrote a beautiful essay on Tolstoy with a catchy title “The Fox and the Hedgehog” where he brilliantly brings out Tolstoy's philosophy of history.  He discusses many strands of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and concludes that Tolstoy’s literary vision was fragmented and that it had much to do with two very strong internal currents that moved in opposite directions. One was a great artist of humanity recording aesthetically everything that went with Man with all contradictions there are. The other was the spiritual nihilist that was set to negate and even destroy everything that fell short of his own spiritual ideals. With increasing age this opposition in his mind increased; and in his later days (especially after publication of “Anna Karenina”, which immediately followed “War and Peace”) the spiritual nihilist got the better of the aesthetic and artistic Tolstoy. But these opposite traits in his vision become   louder and more pronounced   in “War and Peace” where his art and his spiritual nihilism manifest through the long and yet fairly cohesive narrative of over 1200 pages. In understanding this drama and the aesthetics, readers have often not paid much attention to his important views on history in which he tried to place the common man at the very center of the history.  He stands for a Meta narrative of the history where the Man is the centerpiece and is depicted in his entirety, with all his contradictions and achievements.  

Tolstoy’s Contribution to Subaltern History

Subaltern History is a fairly new trend in history writing. It is writing of history from the point of view of the common man, from the point of view of those who have been the victims of an unjust order. We do not acknowledge it but   Tolstoy’s attempt of reclaiming for the common man the center of the history writing   was one of the greatest things that happened in literature. This was Tolstoy’s contribution to the history of ideas and to the history writing. He sought to give dignity to the common man by trying to put him at the center of the universe.

 Most of the historians and thinkers did not look at the “War and Peace” from the point of view of any serious historical discourse. As pointed out above this may have to do with the size and complexity of the “War and Peace”. Moreover, many serious readers get enamored of the pure aesthetics and the literary vision and   pay little attention to the discourse on history that runs throughout the novel.

 History of ideas is a strange discipline; it is difficult to say when and how an idea becomes popular, powerful and then perpetuates its dominance.  It is significant too, that while Karl Marx was busy explaining   how history unfolds, Tolstoy too was revealing great insights in history and history writing and was trying to place the common man at the center of history and history writing. Marx’s project claimed to be more scientific and was written in the language of science that was becoming a norm in the nineteenth century. Tolstoy’s project was equally ambitious, one may say. However, its language and medium was different; it was literature.

 We often regard literature as something that is unsubstantial and peripheral to our hard disciplines such as science, technology, economics and sociology. There are, however, powerful works of art and literature that affect us in great measure.   We often fight shy of acknowledging such influences. But literature is one great way of evaluating and criticizing and representing our very life that is shaped by these hard disciplines. Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” is such a work that reminds us of the power of literature.



Saturday, March 2, 2013

Two Hundred Years of "Pride and Prejudice"

 Milan Kundera tells us that each great work of art and literature has its own inner voice and that its creator creates work while listening to the inner voice of his work.   It is this inner voice, the sum total of all the wisdom that human race possesses collectively, that drives and shapes   great works of art and literature.  Such works, therefore, hold a continuous  dialogue with successive generations of readers.  We call such works   "Classics".

Jane Austen's novel, "Pride and Prejudice", first published two hundred years ago in January 1813, is such a great classic.   Today, even after two hundred years of its publication, the novel entertains and speaks to the old and the young alike in the same measure as it did perhaps a hundred years ago.  Why has the novel   not   finished telling what it started telling two hundred years ago?

"Pride and Prejudice" is a story of   three or four marriages. There is nothing great about this; we have had better novels giving more insights into marriages since Jane Austen wrote this novel.  Moreover, there were women writers, some preceding her and others her contemporaries, who wrote on women's issues more eloquently and more competently. And many critics argue that George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte are better women writers, both in terms of style and literary merit, than Jane Austen.

And yet "Pride and Prejudice" is unique in its universal popularity, with more than a million copies being sold every year. A likely reason is that it was almost for the first time that a story of a woman was told by a woman with her own voice, with her inner womanly insight and in a style that could come only to a woman. The eighteenth and nineteenth century English prose had lofty, brilliant and literary style, the style that was fashioned by Gibbon and Dr. Johnson. And even women writers of that period could not escape being influenced by this style. Jane Austen may not have been a great writer of her times.   But she   developed a unique style of her own.  Austen’s unique style evolved as she tried writing   with insights and instincts of a woman.   And Jane Austen was creating a character that was trying to make a room of her own in a society that was so dominated by men. It took out the best in Jane Austen --satire, wit, humor and brilliance—as she portrayed a funny society in which her protagonist was trying to survive with dignity. That her prose scintillates with intelligent conversation at the dining table and in the drawing room may be another reason why she became so interesting and so readable. It is this brilliance that makes "Pride and Prejudice" greatly readable today. And it also makes this novel   a darling of the world of the movies and the TV.  During the last seventy years since the beginning of the movie and the TV, on an average one TV show or a movie on this novel was created every ten years or so. The BBC TV serial that was made in 2005 took the media by storm, and it generated great curiosity in the minds of the viewers about the nineteenth century English literature.

  And what does "Pride and Prejudice" describe? It portrays young women   in search of husbands. You also meet mothers and aunts in search of husbands for    their daughters and nieces.   Mrs. Benet, the worried mother of five daughters, is rightly obsessed with the project of marrying her five daughters in good families. And the young ladies, who want to get married, preferably with gentlemen with higher income, expect different things from marriage. The elder daughter, Jane Benet wants a simple marriage that would enhance her economic security and social status through marriage. Her friend Charlotte compromises and marries Mr. Collins, the clergyman, whom Elizabeth Benet had found quite detestable. And Elizabeth Benet, who secretly loves Darcy actually refuses to marry him once she believes, somewhat erroneously though, that he is too proud and that he had worked to break Jane's marriage with Mr. Bingley.   There are surely more and predictable complications in this comedy of marriages, with the pride and the prejudice ultimately making way for marriage.  Elizabeth Benet, Jane Austin’s heroin and protagonist, is conscious of her being a woman and wants security and status through marriage; but she also wants dignity and a space of her own in this world that is dominated by men. The novel is exploration of Elizabeth Benet’s search for security, dignity and a degree of freedom.  Elizabeth Benet, and her coming to terms with a world dominated by men, is appropriately sustained by her brilliant and scintillating dialogues and drawing table conversations. Jane Austin is at her best when Elizabeth Benet speaks and moves and thinks.

In 1929, Virginia Woolf wrote a beautiful essay “A Room of One’s Own”, in which she argued that women writers need to have economic freedom and a space and a room of their own. Without these, she argues, a woman cannot bring out her soul from within and pour it in her writing.  In this essay she reverts to a number of women writers with their stories. She keeps on coming to Jane Austen.   

Although Jane Austen was luckier than her other colleague women writers in that she received some encouragement from other members of her family, she still suffered from many disabilities as a woman writer. She had no room, no space of her own; she could use the study and the library only when men folk in her house did not use them.  She was often required to hide her manuscript from other members of her family because ordinarily women were not expected to write. Writing was a luxury that was allowed her and perhaps she was required to often acknowledge her “luxury” by hiding manuscripts.   She never married.  Whether in her father’s house as a young lady or as an established writer later when she stayed with her brother, Jane Austen did not have a room (a physical separate room) of her own. She wrote often in a passage in her house and perhaps did not complain much.

While we celebrate two hundred years of the publication of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”, we should not allow ourselves to lose sight of the disabilities that restrained her creativity.  It is ordinarily believed that her literary oeuvre remained slight, with a tally of about six novels only, mainly due to the Anderson’s disease that claimed her life at a young age of forty two. But I believe it was mainly the pride and the prejudice of the society she lived in that largely kept her away from producing more literary works.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Salman Rushdie's Memoirs of Joseph Anton: Who Controls Story?

  I have just finished reading “Joseph Anton: A Memoir" written by Salman Rushdie and released last week. It is a remarkable autobiographical account of the days when Salman Rushdie was under death threat issued by Iranian Head Cleric Ayatollah Khomeini for his controversial novel “Satanic Verses”.  Islamic fundamentalists considered this work of fiction as an insult to the prophet Mohammed and the Quran, and this resulted in world-wide protests and ultimately in  death sentence being awarded by a theocratic order.  This was a throwback to the medieval period when burning heretics at the stake  was not considered abnormal.  In our times we have hardly come across a work of pure fiction whose author was sentenced to death simply because that work is not acceptable to a group of people or a community. This is the perspective and the running theme of this beautiful book. It is a wonderful story of how a community of believers tries to control the story and the narrative of people and how the struggle for freedom of expression   generates different perspectives in this complex world.

The Decade of Death 

 Ironically, serious trouble started only after a wave of religious protests from India, Rushdie’s own country, led to government of India banning this book. It was only after the Indian Government took this extreme step that the world Islamic community started realizing that there may be something in the book that offends Islam and Muslims.

 The “Fatwa” (literally meaning an order) to kill,  issued by the Islamist Fundamentalists of Iran and endorsed by the Iranian Government was not merely a symbolic disapproval of Rushdie’s work of art or an empty threat; following the Fatwa, the Islamist fundamentalist groups, spread in various parts of the world,  made several attempts to track down Rushdie and kill him.  In a period of ten years Rushdie moved about secretly, surreptitiously and was closely followed and protected by British police. Initially, to escape death it was made mandatory by the police to keep shifting his dwelling place after every few days. He was always in the company of his protectors who camped in the same house/flat that he occupied.  Death literally hung over his head and even people who otherwise were friendly started avoiding him lest they were exposed to the bullets of the Islamist fundamentalists. Even airlines refused to carry him for fear of attracting the wrath of  fundamentalists. During this period, his protectors wanted him to take up a name, an alias, so as to keep his movements secret. He took up the name, “Joseph Anton”, built up from the names of his favorite authors, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov.

 During the ten long years of the “Fatwa”, Rushdie saw disaster on every front: fractured relationships, broken marriages and depression in personal life. He also found himself engaging with a strange world that was at worst hostile and at best indifferent to his cause.  And yet he rebelled against all that was out to crush him. During the period he traveled secretly to America and other European countries, visiting literary events, universities and meeting  political bosses and  leaders who mattered and who could be roped in on his side in the battle for freedom for expression. He wrote two novels during this period and had them published. On the whole, with a few exceptions, the entire community of writers   stood solidly behind him. But the world of writers and artists is perhaps as abstract and as fragile as the freedom of expression he was fighting for. They stood behind him, but he  found that the world out there was practical, cruel and businesslike.   The support of the community of writers may have given him strength to stand firmly in this battle, but it was not sufficient to end his loneliness and isolation.

Freedom of Expression, Electorates and Cheddar Cheese

 We do some lip service to the cause of freedom of expression from time to time. But this is more like endorsing an ethical principle or taking up a theoretical position in academic life. With the death dancing over your head and the threat of death becoming grimmer with the passage of time, a theoretical meditation on the concept of freedom of expression ceases to be a literary problem. It becomes a problem of survival and a problem of life and death. It is a warlike situation.   And Rushdie, who lived with this problem intensely for over a decade, discovered the other sides of this problem too. He thought that the Western society and the polity would firmly stand behind him in this struggle. He was, however, proved wrong. British and American politicians may have given him necessary protection and some assurance in person; but they perceived this as his own personal battle. In the Muslim protesters of their country they saw their potential voters and they did not want to offend a group of citizens just for defending an abstract and rather vague principle of freedom of expression. British Prime Ministers and other statesmen kept themselves away from him and did not allow themselves to be even photographed lest it be construed  that they publicly backed him. And when he called on Bill Clinton, American President, in a bid to request him to support him and persuade the Iranian government to retract the Fatwa, Clinton had to publicly explain, rather defensively, why he met Rushdie.

 Some countries were more bothered about their trade relations with Iran and perhaps wondered if it was really worth endangering trade relations with Iran for the so called freedom of expression.  Some countries wondered if such a pro-Rushdie stance would adversely affect the sale of ‘cheddar cheese’ to Iran and thereby jeopardize their  national economy. Further, to his disappointment, Rushdie also saw other religions and religious groups strongly condemning his book. He saw a strange solidarity in the community of religions when these groups perceived him to be not only an enemy of Islam but an enemy of all religions.

 Although Rushdie survived the Fatwa and the death, some of his colleagues and those involved in the publication of the book paid the price with their lives. The Japanese translator of the “Satanic Verses” was stabbed to death. The Italian translator was stabbed and was seriously wounded. A friend who took initiative to have the paperback edition of the book published in Europe went in coma after he took in several bullets in his body, and remained in the hospital for more than six months.  

 Who Controls Story?

This book narrates a fantastic story of what hell and suffering Rushdie underwent and how he spent a long period condemned in isolation, humiliation, with death constantly hovering over his head. One wonders how strange the world of writing and  writers is and how the convoluted and fierce battles for controlling the story and the narrative are fought among various institutions, political, religious, social and others and how fragile, abstract and relative is the  freedom of expression in our society.   Rushdie's book is an important part of the twentieth century history of struggle for Freedom of Expression. At the heart of Rushdie’s struggle is the crucial problem: who really controls the story and the narrative? Do we really have control over what we feel, think and write? Who exercises this control? Is it the State? Is it the Community of people who share some belief and feel that people’s stories and narratives threaten their community? 

Struggle for Freedom of Expression

As the book progresses, there arise several questions    and the reader starts meditating on these problems.    Is the freedom of expression of writers and artists absolute with no limits to it? Is there a legitimate point up to which society may tolerate writers and their writing?   Is there only one way that the artists and the writers relate themselves to the society, with one provoking the other and the other  getting provoked in turn? Was the world around Rushdie, even  his world that was supporting him, secretly getting exasperated by his arrogance, indifference and obsession with his own self? And lastly, was this really a struggle for freedom of expression of a writer or a personal battle of Salman Rushdie? The book raises these and other issues, some directly and still others not so directly. As we progress with the book, we  start wondering if  Rushdie was not fighting a personal battle, with the world around standing neutral? 

What does one feel after one finishes reading these memoirs? Rushdie’s   memoirs  are brilliant and scintillating and there is lot of storytelling here. The narrative and the story is authentic and the memoirs are told in third person, presumably because the writer can in this flow ensure some kind of an objectivity.  There is also a lot of reflection on the theme and Rushdie has shown again and again that he is not merely a writer of fiction but a thinking writer. Rushdie's memoirs form perhaps the most important document in the history of struggle for freedom of expression of writers in the twentieth century. 

 But Rushdie's memoirs are also not what many had expected they would be.   I am not sure if he has made sufficient efforts to understand his adversaries, his tormentors and sometimes even his supporters. One suspects that Rushdie  knows only one perspective and denies all others.  Further, he has not been able to hide bitterness, animosity and sometimes loud and strong passions against his tormentors. This is understandable. However, what is not understandable is that he has not been able to show enough gratitude towards his protectors and all those who stood behind him.  

Rushdie is in a hurry as if he is on a battlefield and really  comes off in these memoirs more as a Roman warrior obsessed with only two states, victory and defeat. One may argue that this is what the situation was: a struggle for life and survival.  But then literature is much more than this. Literature is not battle. It is a story, a narrative of the battle, and has to be told in a perspective,  a story seen somewhat telescopically.  True and great art is born of the magical touch of love, healing and understanding, which need to come with such a long telescopic vision. Rushdie may be a brilliant writer, a great craftsman of words, a great fighter; but I am afraid, his memoirs still fall a little short of what we might call Great Work of Art.