Saturday, February 25, 2012

Octavio Paz : Locking Horns with Writers

“On Poets and Others” is a book of essays by Octavio Paz, the great Nobel Prize Winner poet, essayist, thinker and diplomat from Mexico. It contains essays on remarkable poets, thinkers and philosophers, novelists and literary personalities  he met in his life. Although some of the subjects and persons  he writes on  appear   rather dated, the themes and topics he discusses are still   relevant today.    

What would you expect when one of the greatest poets   writes in polemical and stylish prose on such issues as dissent of the intellectuals or the decadence of an ideology or comments on the increasing psychic schism and divided conscience of modern man?   He may not be always right, and sometimes you will find him not very agreeable; and yet he will engage you, allure you.  The poets, intellectuals and other literary personalities, which are really his subjects of writing, come in the picture as if incidentally.  He writes on them with love and penetration, but in the process he unfolds something much larger and greater. He creates a World of his own.  

Amongst the poets there are Robert Frost, Walt Whitman and Charles Tomlinson.    His essay on Robert frost   captures some magical moments of interaction between the  two when young Paz calls on old  Robert Frost on his Vermont farm.   Robert Frost speaks to him on  how he sees the world around him and how he communicates with  stones, farms, trees,  hills, knolls and everything around him.  They speak on relationship of poet with his tradition; they speak on how poet challenges tradition, creates the language for his poetry and how he creates a new world of his own.  They agree readily that solemn poets, humourless professors and howling prophets are dangerous entities and be best avoided.     People cannot face the reality of the self that descends on them in solitude, and hence they are in search of new schemes that give them speed and restlessness.  The tragedy is that man is running away from himself, says Frost.   Paz beautifully recaptures and plays the tunes of magical moments of their meeting on the Vermont farm.

Other essays cover such personalities and subjects as Dostoevsky, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Jean Paul Sartre, Jose Ortega Y Gasset and others. All these are brilliant pieces and narrate the writer's encounters with great minds. They  constitute an insightful commentary on how writers and intellectuals engage with the world which they help shape.  I shall briefly discuss only three essays from this collection: essays on Dostoevsky, Sartre and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

 He argues that though Dostoevsky wrote in the nineteenth century, he is still a modern writer and his writings always appear contemporaneous and relevant to our times. Dostoevsky very competently explores the working of the mind of the modern man that is torn by various forces. It is the fragmented soul and the divided conscience that he explores in his writing and it is, argues Paz, very relevant to our times.  In eighteen sixties and seventies, in his writings Dostoevsky portrayed consciousness of full many generations that were to rule   Russia in future. Dostoevsky was describing something in his writing that actually came into being later in twentieth century. Stavrogin and Ivanov who ultimately commit suicide in “Demons” (or “Devils”) are the victims of nihilism and are possessed by a peculiar spirit that is indicative of the coming of the Russian Revolution, its ideology and absence of the process of dialogue. Ideologues do not enter into a dialogue. They rant and make speeches and indulge in soliloquies and impose on others what transpires from this spirit possession. It is depiction of this consciousness, argues Paz that is the sign of Dostoevsky’s authentic writing.   

 I think Octavio Paz’s analysis of the modern consciousness is very correct and appropriate. It needs to be added that in the twentieth and twenty first century this process of fragmentation of the self is further   accelerated by uneven economic development, barriers of cultures and traditions and absence of dialogue and communication.    Whichever way one looks, fragmentation of the self, lack of wholesomeness and   resulting fractured and distorted vision of the world constitutes  a large part of our existence with which we have to come to terms.

 While we can agree with Paz in hailing Dostoevsky’s portrayal of the Self in the modern world as very authentic and realistic, we need to mention that Dostoevsky presents many problems to his readers.  Amongst his novels, the “Crime and Punishment” is deep and philosophically engaging, and the “Brothers Karamazov” succeeds in depicting the existential dilemma of living authentically in the modern world. Both these novels and especially “Brothers Karamazov” repose faith in life and warn against abstraction of life. However,   affirmation of life comes so late and through such tortuous path that winds its way through violence, poverty and depravity that one wonders whether Dostoevsky was really aiming for these at all. Moreover, Dostoevsky’s glorification of the strange mixture of Russian tradition and religion, not to say his maudlin and sentimental scepticism of the West leaves one wondering and somewhat confused.    His other   novels, especially  “The Idiot”, present a very garbled vision   of man.  While, therefore, Paz’s fresh insight into Dostoevsky’s writing is welcome,   to an ordinary reader Dostoevsky’ world still appears dark, sombre and ambiguous.

 Was Dostoevsky a nihilist?   Paz answers that he was not.   There is no doubt that as a young person he was a revolutionary. However, as time passed he increasingly came to identify himself largely with the Russian tradition and old Christianity. Much of his writing was critical of not only nihilism but also of the western influences that were trying to undermine the local tradition. Dostoevsky, argues Paz, refuted both, nihilism and western ideas.  Even in “Crime and Punishment”, Raskolnikov, another product of the then extant Russian nihilism, ultimately realizes the value of human life. This again confirms Dostoevsky’s position as a novelist of the modern rising consciousness in the traditional societies that were being assailed by western ideas and modernity.  

 Paz’s essay on Dostoevsky, though at times bordering on oversimplification and at other times deliberately avoiding complexities, is a great testimony to his love for Dostoevsky. But more than that, its vision, lyricism and flow demonstrate with lucidity the   organic relationship between affairs of a nation and its literature.

Paz’s essay on Sartre too is very trenchant and insightful. Though unusually and highly critical of Sartre, the essay has great style and it shows power the pen can wield in destroying myths and reputations.  The essay very directly indicts Sartre, and I have rarely come across writing that demolishes anything so brutally and with such force.    He says that as a philosopher Sartre was certainly very formidable but that also underlined his limitations. Sartre may have been very scholarly, but much of his work was a continuation of others, such as Heidegger for example, without whom Sartre’s work could not have existed independently. As an artist, Paz says, Sartre had his limitations. He did not possess   creative powers and   capacity of a novelist to create the world and to populate it with   characters. His writing was full of abstractions and lacked authenticity. It did not, somehow, connect with the real world.  But he had great passion and emotion with which he debated and argued.  There was so much of passion and emotion in his thought and writing that it removed his writing farther away from reality. His hobnobbing with Marxism turned out to be a serious matter as it lent respectability to Marxism and in a strange way prolonged its tenure longer than was natural to it. Although, later on he admitted his mistakes of judgment in this case, he had already gone so far as to assert that all the leftist autocrats were at heart great non-violent souls and merely carried a mask of violence for the sake of appearances. 

We all  have read writers who have denounced Sartre and showed him up as a hypocrite and a diabolical intellectual machine. But Paz appears to be doing more than this in far less words. Sartre has rightly been criticized from many groups and many sides. And yet I find this assessment of Sartre rather harsh and one sided.  Mistakes of judgements by ordinary people are usually seen as blunders when they are committed by great men. This is what perhaps happened to Sartre.   One feels that before judging Sartre so harshly, Paz should have recorded, for sake of fairness alone, Sartre’s contribution too.    Sartre   revolutionized the whole world of intellectuals and gave it power and prestige.  His intellectual contribution during Resistance Movement during the Second World War was greatly hailed and became a world event.  Sartre was honest, intellectual, philosophical and fiercely independent, not amenable to compromising with powers. He gave voice to intellectuals and demonstrated how intellectuals can speak up to the power.  Had Paz mentioned some of his contributions perhaps the essay would not have looked as prejudiced as it looks!

Paz’s two essays on Alexander Solzhenitsyn too are very remarkable and insightful. Hailing Solzhenitsyn’s work “The Gulag Archipelago” as important he dwells at length on the various threads of Solzhenitsyn’s dissent and explores its anatomy. And in that he offers some very important insights into Russian history.  He argues that Solzhenitsyn’s dissent is not an ordinary dissent of an intellectual reared in western tradition that centres on individualism and   political freedom.  Solzhenitsyn speaks from an ancient tradition, and that his ancientness is that of the Old Russian Christianity that has passed through the central experience of the twentieth century---the dehumanization of the totalitarian concentration camps----and has emerged intact and strengthened.  While agreeing with Solzhenitsyn’s criticism of the Russian regime he also brings out Solzhenitsyn’s limitations especially his partially blind world view that is mired in some typical traits of Russian history.  Paz, in this essay, has done some very skillful tight-rope-walking here; and reading this essay is a tribute to his graceful and lucid writing that tends to seek both, truth and justice.  

I have already said in the beginning that   a few subjects that Paz handles here appear dated somewhat in perspective! And yet I would say the collection of essays is worth reading simply because despite globalization, the world has really not changed as much as we think. The Russian state   has still not been able to extricate itself from the historical clutches of its traditional bureaucracy; if anything Putin’s Russia appears as picturesque as portrayed by Paz.   Hubris and   arrogance of the western democracies that he discusses here have not abated a whit!  And Paz’s observations that the systems of local and traditional beliefs, especially in the emerging Eastern and Southern economies would evoke a strange ensemble and would play increasingly important role in world economy and politics also appear correct!

Even if, therefore, the collection of essays was published in 1986, it still makes sense to read Octavio Paz;  for the wisdom he brings with his essays is rare and unique.

Umberto Eco : Speaking Mahatma's Language

Umberto Eco is one of the finest novelists of our time.  He is also an important philosopher, a great scholar of semiotics and aesthetics of the medieval period. Some of his brilliant novels include “The Name of Rose”, “Baudolino”, “Foucault’s Pendulum” and “The Island of the Day Before”.   Although  an Italian, Umberto Eco represents represents rich European tradition and culture.

 “Turning Back the Clock” is his latest collection of fine essays on war, peace and media populism in our times. These   essays focus on the major world events that occurred between 2000 and 2005.  Eco sees in the pattern of these events something that is fundamentally new and   unprecedented.  So much so that he   wonders whether we are not going back in history and remarks, “Almost as if history, breathless after the leaps forward made in last two millennia, is drawing back into itself, returning to the comfortable splendours of tradition”.  This theme  returns and haunts his essays as he brilliantly takes up one topic after another.

Are we really going back in time? 

That things would go somewhat back, he argues, was indicated by the events that followed the fall of the Berlin wall. The return of  Afghanistan at the centre of the global prospects of peace after fifty years of   cold war, modern versions of traditional crusades, the resurgence  of anti-Darwinian polemics, reappearance of Christian fundamentalism, streaks of fascism here and there, Eco argues, may be signs of history being rewritten.  It is not possible to comment on all the essays here. It is, however, possible to list briefly the concerns  he addresses in his essays.  Eco appears to worry on three counts.

 First he draws attention to widening gulf between people’s aspirations and its understanding by politicians.  He is rightly worried about the increasing disconnect between people and their rulers and politicians. Especially he is worried about the unthinking wars that were launched by major democracies and their political leaders. That today’s politicians and statesmen rarely care to listen to  dialogue history holds with the present is one serious complaint he voices.  This is further exacerbated by their excessive dependence on experts and technocrats.

 He is further worried by the media populism that is generating lot of confusion in the minds of people by resorting to simplifying the terms of intelligent debates and converting important debates into Manichean “yes or no” polls.

And lastly he is worried by the increasing power of technology over science which he says may spell disaster for man. The universe of technology is encroaching on man’s sphere of autonomy, volition and reason. This is the fear he expresses in his important essay on science and technology.

Eco’s essays, brilliant and insightful, speak the language of truth and non-violence. They    examine many aspects of our existence and plead for more reason and more wisdom. Though erudite, his essays speak    universal language of peace and reason. I shall go further and say   that many essays in this collection speak the Gandhian language of Truth, Non-violence and Universal Peace. 

Magical world of technology : Are we jettisoning reason?
For constraint of space I shall mention only one essay, “Science, Technology and Magic”   that demonstrates how close he is to Gandhi. Eco argues in this essay that in our daily life and especially in mass media, the terms science and technology are interchangeably and wrongly used with the result that science and technology are often presented as magic in human life. Science and its investigations are more philosophical in nature and they underline the relationships between  cause and  effect.  Science tries to comprehend and understand the world.  Technology, on the other hand, gives power to human beings. This is the power of getting anything done by just pressing a button. An ordinary man does not care to understand the principles of science on which technology is based. He is more interested in getting things done quickly, by pressing a button and summoning at his fingertips great power and extra-ordinary intelligence. Technology encourages taking short cuts to  relationship between cause and effect and goes directly to harnessing power by pressing a button. We are so much used to  fast and instant results given by technology   that the whole thing resembles working of magic.

           Eco is very insightful on the issue of technology. And he perhaps voices concerns that were shown by a galaxy of great thinkers and activists that would include Tolstoy, Thoreau, Goethe and Mahatma Gandhi.    This attitude of the modern man of pressing a button for getting things done, and neglecting the processes of science   for attaining all kinds of pleasures and privileges and successes is abominable.   The philosophy of technology is to get maximum convenience and pleasure at no costs.  It is this that lies at the core of all evil: trying to get everything in the world without paying a price for it.    If this is what we do and if magic and its power is all the language we speak and understand, then somehow we are jettisoning reason from our social and human discourse---a serious matter with grave consequences for Man. Science is supposed to extirpate all magic and establish a Universe of Reason. But with complex technology and its instant, naked and brute power of pressing a button, the Universe of reason slowly gives way to the    Universe of Magic; and then this Universe of magic and power returns with all its dark portents and ranting soliloquies of triumph over the nature.

      Mahatma's language

            It is this universe of magic that Eco fears the most. And it is this fear of wielding unthinking power without ever trying to evolve spiritually that made Mahatma Gandhi and other traditionalists look to science and technology with suspicion. Mahatma Gandhi   hated lofty   technology for the simple reason that in course of time its magical and easily exercisable power would somehow dehumanize man’s relationship with himself and with the nature. Over years Gandhi may have slowly and perhaps carefully allowed some bare minimum technologies in his moral and ethical universe; however, his philosophical opposition to all technologies sprang from his fear of power flowing through science and technology and blindness it causes in human beings. Had I not read this powerful essay I would have never known how close Eco and Mahatma are on the issue of technology and power that flows from it.

The longish essay titled “The Return of the Great Game”, describes how Afghanistan has remained a thorny issue for about two centuries and how despite the world undergoing vast changes, it returns and occupies the centre place in the architecture of war and peace  of the world. And he does it through a number of anecdotes and stories of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson that have a reference to Afghan war and in which Dr. Watson had been wounded. This  essay is remarkable, both for its contents and its style.

 This volume has other essays on emerging fundamentalism, media populism, on war and on our dreams.  They are written with great style and poise and they sparkle with wit and humour. They present to us a gleam of the changing world and try to give meaning to the events that are unfolding around us. And I think that all intelligent and thinking people should read them.

 As to Eco’s fear, whether history will move backwards we cannot say anything.   However, the concerns he underlines are important and statesmen and decision makers should stop for a moment to ponder over them.  Every generation and its thinkers feel that they are living in unique times and amid great and mind blowing events that are set to bring great change. History does sometimes come back and sometimes plays out remaining parts; and, therefore, there is a need to learn lessons from history and gain some insights. Eco’s fear may be genuine but then history is perhaps the most wily and elusive discipline and proves mankind wrong every time something is predicted.  At least I do not think that history is going back or we should be pessimistic about our future unless we ourselves will that way, lose hope hand over  ourselves to the dark and retrograde  powers that wait for an opportunity.

 In the aftermath of the Berlin wall being pulled down Francis Fukuyama wrote  his celebrated piece “The End of the History…..” and majestically declared that  directional history has come to an end. Nobody, not even Fukuyama, really believed that   history has thus ceased to flow in   Hegelian or a Marxist sense. In the meanwhile   capitalism has undergone substantial changes and finds itself in a crisis; but the world has not ceased reading and studying Marx and Hegel. Eric Hobsbawm informs us that in   Marx’s birth centenary year, he was retained by a large American Airlines to write an article on “The Communist Manifesto” in the airline’s on-flight magazine. If  capitalism has gone that far, surely we  shouldn’t be afraid of history coming back and playing out remaining parts!

Although, therefore, Eco’s essays are very good I find his fears somewhat  unfounded!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Hind Swaraj and Evolution of Mahatma Gandhi

Recently, while Anna Hazare was fasting against corruption, there was an unsavory confrontation between his activist followers and the parliamentarians and it sufficiently muddied   our public life.    A friend of mine wrote to me a mail pointing out that there was nothing wrong perhaps in slamming the parliamentarians, for even Mahatma Gandhi had called the British Parliament “a whore” and “a sterile woman that produces nothing” in his classic work “Hind Swaraj”. The logic was that if the great Mahatma could describe the institution of parliament in such derogatory words, there was nothing wrong in hitting out at the parliament or the parliamentarians.

It is a fact that Mahatma Gandhi did describe British Parliament in these words. However, somehow, I did not feel that my friend was quoting Gandhi correctly and in context.  Quoting a great man in support of our arguments of today is   a problem, for often what he said on that occasion was appropriate to that particular stage of his development. Great men evolve continuously. Today they are not what they were yesterday and what comes from them cannot be quoted as gospel truth. Further, people learn mostly from their experience of life and therefore they are often at frontiers in creating and recreating new universe of experience and meaning for the benefit of the humanity.   Mahatma Gandhi said that the truth was his pole star and that he went wherever his pole star led him.  But following the pole star is not a simple thing.  There are often embarrassing discontinuities, singular points, false leads and sure setbacks.   Should we not then take more precaution in quoting great men?

  Gandhi wrote Hind Swaraj in 1908 while he was returning to South Africa. Gopal Krishna Gokhale whom Gandhi regarded as his Guru found the book utterly detestable and described it as crudely written. Anybody who reads the book even today would agree with Mr. Gokhale. “Hind Swaraj” is not a commentary on the western political system; it is not a constructive argument that advances an acceptable alternative to our existence.  Its canvas is much larger. It is a thoroughgoing and acidic criticism of the Modern  Civilization.   It negates everything with great force and vigor.   Gandhi denied everything that we adore today. He denounced with special force modern health care, hospital systems, railways, technology, science and practically all modern institutions that go with our life.   

But what is important, and what is not acknowledged is that the Mahatma gradually veered round, though very slowly and imperceptibly; and he substantially changed his position in course of time.   He himself acknowledged such shifts in his opinions and did   mention that in view of the dynamics   of life, no one should quote him out of context. He also further said that if he is to be quoted at all, his latest views on the subject should be referred to.   That is also perhaps a reason why he shuddered at the thought of being canonized by his followers and the laity!

Gandhi changed his views, at least in practice substantially since the publication of “The Hind Swaraj”; though his moral vision was largely defined by “The Hind Swaraj”.  By mid nineteen twenties he was making concessions to some “genuinely good and friendly technologies and machines” such as Sewing Machine for example. His opposition to technology sprang mainly   from fear of human beings being enslaved by the machine. He opposed it also on the ground that machine may replace man and bring upon large scale unemployment.
 His opposition to railways had vanished too early and we can say at least this safely, that no Indian statesman traveled so much, so frequently and so easily across the breadth and the length of this country by railway as Gandhi did.   Following Gokhale’s advice Gandhi traveled ceaselessly across the country for over a year, mainly by railway, after he had come to India from South Africa.

Thus Gandhi went on changing his views, but what is important is that he took responsibility for changed views. A Gandhi who would not, in early nineteen twenties, easily agree to the inter-caste marriage of his son, changed so much, that by late nineteen  thirties he would attend marriages only if they were inter-caste marriages. Gandhi, who   dominated his wife in the style of a typical traditional Hindu male chauvinist, increasingly regarded her friend in later life.   In an age when women generally did not come out of the house, Kasturba used to sit along with him on dais in public life.   Importantly,   it was under Mahatma that the Indian women came out in large numbers in social and political movements and fought along with the men folk.  

Gandhi may have called, in his youthful, forceful and rather nihilistic tone, the British Parliament “a whore” and “a sterile woman that produces nothing…”, and yet in 1933 he led the Indian delegation to England for the ‘Round Table Conference” to parley with the British Government and to demand from them Parliamentary System and Dominion Status for India.  And again in the forties we see his enthusiasm for parliamentary system and the representative democracy.

But perhaps an important phase in his life, according to me, unfolded during his   meaningful dialogue and close relationship with the young Jawaharlal Nehru. Although philosophically they were worlds apart, they were and remained very close to each other;  they argued long and ardently, each trying to convert the other to his point of view. Gandhi came to issues from tradition; Cambridge educated Nehru was thoroughly modern. Gandhi suspected science and technology; Nehru considered science and technology as key to human progress. Gandhi glorified villages, simple life and primitive economy; Nehru was practical when it came to technology and economy. But they had a strong common bond in that they both strongly believed in basic human values, democracy, dignity of human beings and non-violence.  Though nothing happened on the surface, Gandhi perhaps yielded sufficiently. And about Jawaharlal, we can only say that he had lost to Gandhi completely since the time Gandhi came in his life.    Evolution of the Mahatma over the years and silent submission of Jawaharlal Nehru to the Mahatma are perhaps of one piece and form  the most beautiful and engrossing poetry that flows alongside the story  of our struggle for freedom.

Today “Hind Swaraj” appears a far cry and may serve as a moral vision and a youthful dream of a yet evolving great statesman and it can be used for a limited purpose of explaining the origin of Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas. Every thinker has a moral vision that is at once inchoate and primitive and this moral vision lies deeply rooted in his psyche.  “Hind Swaraj” should not, I believe, be   quoted in the context of a movement that is conducted in a democratic framework for its tone is sufficiently nihilistic.

  Lastly, “Hind Swaraj” was written largely under the influence of Tolstoy and in a Tolstoyan language, the deliberate high language of the great preacher of humanity.  Later on Gandhi came on his own; and in nineteen twenties, thirties and in forties he evolved uniquely in his own way through his own experience. And he left Tolstoy much behind.

 I regard Gandhi as a great nihilist in the tradition of a motley collection of mainly western spiritual nihilists such as for example Tolstoy. But Gandhi was very shrewd in dealing with his innate nihilism. He said that he rejected all technology and all machine including his body that is also a machine of some sort.  But as all mystics of all spiritual faiths--- Eastern, Western and mystics of all hues-----allow some tenability to the Body, (for without it the  existence and the whole range of spiritual experience including Moksha  is impossible)  he also allowed in his own way, various physical forms such as  technology, social relations and political organization  for  a bare minimum. This was a practical arrangement that served his purpose and his mission of spiritualizing politics and social life.

Incidentally, I feel that Tolstoy and Gandhi, the two great nihilists, evolved in their respective lives in opposite directions. Tolstoy started as a great and accomplished artist and an aesthete, working creatively with different themes and different colours. Perhaps, he could not control his innate nihilism and hence ended with an extreme vision that denied everything; so much so, that ultimately   he rejected even his own creative works. Gandhi, on the other hand, started in a singular Tolstoyan vision and evolved over time and ended  with an inclusive vision that accepted everything.