Categories
Magazine

Ribeyro – a short story

Julio Ramón Ribeyro, 1974. Photo: Alicia Benavides. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Ribeyro – a short story

Amit Chaudhuri

This is a response to Antonio Muñoz Molina’s The Hour Of Ribeyro

I had just sat down in a train going to London when I heard a muffled ding and knew an email had come in. It was from Pankaj Mishra: he had sent me a link to a ‘recent reconsideration of the Latin American novel’ which he ‘thought… would interest you… Especially, this paragraph…’ What followed was a quote – elliptical ruminations that caught my attention but whose provenance was unclear: ‘“The literary ostentation of many Latin American writers. Their complex of coming from peripheral, underdeveloped areas, and their fear of being taken for uneducated. The demonstrative will of their works… Prove that they can also encompass an entire culture and express it in an encyclopedic sheet that summarizes 20 centuries of history. Nouveau riche aspect of his works: heteroclite, monstrous, ornate mansions…”.’

When I opened the link, I found the essay was in Spanish. But I wasn’t sure if it was an essay or a story, partly because of the lines in the quote: ambitious but fragmentary; historically acute but also solipsistic and dreamlike. ‘I guess you’ve selected parts of sentences in the quote, then translated them?’ I wrote back. ‘Anyway, it makes for an intriguing assemblage. I read long ago that Marquez wanted to bring in bad taste too, among other things, to his fiction. But – and I may be wrong – these writers seemed to have often brought in something [altogether] more conventional [instead]. Sadly, I can’t read the article as it’s in Spanish. Much interesting critical work going on in the non-Anglophone world – including Bengali, even today.’ (The ‘altogether’ and ‘instead’ appear in square brackets because I have only just added them.)

Pankaj replied that he had, in fact, translated the short essay in its entirety. He was learning Spanish; it was his first attempt at translation. I found the full text he then sent me (on the body of an email) invigorating. A living writer, Antonio Muñoz Molina, had written about a dead one, Julio Ramón Ribeyro, and about Ribeyro’s daily journal in particular, to which belong the discontinuous sentences quoted above. It was as if I could hear myself in the essay; as if not only my voice but my and others’ history as writers – a history I’d almost lost interest in – was being returned to me. I had, through a bit of cosmic mistiming, been fated to write my short plotless novels in the age of the global novel, of the great ‘Indian’ novel, and in 1999 I’d spoken about ‘the tautological idea that since India is a huge baggy monster, the novels that accommodate it have to be baggy monsters as well… Indian life is plural, garrulous, rambling, lacking a fixed centre, and the Indian novel must be the same’. Now, through Molina’s essay, and through Ribeyro (Pankaj had only mentioned their last names, and they’d stayed with me), I encountered myself and the alien habitat called the ‘Indian novel’ in other milieus – milieus in which I vaguely knew such tensions had existed, but which were confirmed to me, through the translation, with a new urgency. Through Ribeyro, the great writer of short stories and (as Molina points out) the great notebook- or journal-keeper, I revisited the despair of writers who cannot execute great plans or narratives. Seepersad Naipaul’s despair at never being able to bring his stories to proper fruition; and his son VS’s sense of boredom, later in his own life, with the ‘well-made story’, leading to the writing of The Enigma of Arrival. My own initial sense of futility at not being able to carry out the big tasks, and my love of the short novel and brevity in every literary tradition – a love for which there was probably no term in English.

Did Ribeyro exist? I couldn’t be sure. I had never heard of him, but I’m ignorant of so many things. So wonderful was the position of marginality he occupied in Latin American literature that he could have been a critical concept or invention that Molina (who probably did exist) had come up with. Ribeyro, the man who had pursued fragmentary forms while his contemporaries created monumental works and became ‘global writers’, seemed too necessary and revelatory to be real. Only a fictional character or an idea could be so compelling, so felicitously right.

I recalled a conversation I’d had, by coincidence, with Pankaj when he visited me once in Cambridge in 1998. As we’d walked down alleys past colleges, I’d said that ‘if Rushdie hadn’t existed, the postcolonialists would have invented him’, which was greeted by a roar of laughter. (A month ago, a historian said the same thing to me. When I pointed out that I’d had the thought before, she asked me if I’d written and published it somewhere, and if she might have picked it up unconsciously – but I don’t think I have.) This is not a cavil against Rushdie, whose work I have taken pleasure in. My remark emerged from the fact that I found it possible to speak to students about Midnight’s Children – one of my responsibilities in Cambridge, where I was writing a book, was to teach a course on international literature – without having really read it. I wasn’t teaching them Midnight’s Children, of which I’d probably read to page 60 – but the novel would come up in the way landmarks do, and I found that it had reached, in postcolonialist vocabulary, a level of abstraction where one could hold forth fluently on it – as one might on an idea – without needing to really encounter its specificity. Later, when I resumed reading it, I discovered many details and characteristics in it that I thought original and enlivening. But postcolonialism, ‘India’, and the ‘global novel’ had made this materiality abstract, so that different paragraphs could be quoted from the book with the same commentary for each: ‘Notice the hybridity; the polyphony; the chutnification and admixture of Indian and English words… English, or “Hinglish”, is now an Indian language’. It is as if the actual paragraphs or sentences themselves didn’t exist in their particularity.

If the postcolonialists invented Rushdie – and not, you noticed after the triumphal rhetoric ebbed, an especially interesting one – because they needed a Rushdie, the anti-postcolonialists must have had their inventions too. One of these is Pierre Menard, about whom the one eponymous essay that exists begins: ‘The visible work left by this novelist is easily and briefly enumerated’. The tone of the sentence and the slightly dismissive emphasis on ‘visible’ suggests that to judge a writer by their work (which would imply that the greater its enormity and volume the more its significance) is too easy a task; and this comprises a useful starting-point for the anti-postcolonialist and anti-globalist, who are arguing for the indispensability of in- or semi-visibility. Menard’s major unfinished work comprises fragments of Don Quixote: ‘He did not want to compose another Quixote – which is easy – but the Quixote itself’. This dismissal, and redefinition, of the ‘easy’ is continued in the essayist’s account of the strategies Menard tried out when embarking on his project: ‘The first method he conceived was relatively simple. Know Spanish well, recover the Catholic faith, fight against the Moors or the Turk, forget the history of Europe between the years 1602 and 1918, be Miguel de Cervantes. Pierre Menard studied this procedure (I know he attained a fairly accurate command of seventeenth-century Spanish) but discarded it as too easy.’ In contrast to postcolonial readings of paragraphs in Midnight’s Children, where each one satisfies certain necessary prerequisites and ends up being the more or less the same as the other – that is, the paragraph becomes an abstraction – the essayist writing about Menard makes an anti-postcolonialist comparison of paragraphs from Cervantes and Menard to draw our attention to radical differences:

It is a revelation to compare Menard’s Don Quixote with Cervantes’s. The latter, for example, wrote (part one, chapter nine):

…truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counsellor.

Written in the seventeenth century, written by the ‘lay genius’ Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other writes:

…truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counsellor.

History, the mother of truth: the idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as inquiry into reality but as its origin…

The contrast in style is also vivid. The archaic style of Menard – quite foreign, after all – suffers from a certain affectation. Not so that of his forerunner, who handles with ease the current Spanish of his time.

*

Ribeyro, in a sense, is – in Molina’s essay and Pankaj’s translation – the latest invention that anti-postcolonialists have thrown up in order to alter the terms of the discussion. For now, it doesn’t matter if he exists. Coming into contact with him has created an opening.

Note: the word ‘anti-postcolonialist’ has no existence outside this story.

Categories
Symposium 3: Reassessments

Reassessments: Mission Statement

Jamini Roy’s Mountain Peaks, Impressionist-style, from his early work. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Cow, by Jamini Roy, in his characteristic patua style. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Reassessments: Mission Statement

Amit Chaudhuri

[Note: The 3rd symposium in the ‘literary activism’ series took place in Calcutta in January 2017. The speakers were Jessa Crispin, Simon During, Simon Glendinning, Anjali Joseph, Saikat Majumdar, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Karthika Naïr, Marco Roth, and Amit Chaudhuri.]

Literary and intellectual history is neither an evolution nor a linear movement. It’s a narrative of stops and starts, mainly because it’s shaped by, and dependent on, reassessment. All kinds of reassessment punctuate literary and intellectual history, but, to me, one of the most interesting has to do with a refutation of the theoretical, and with the reclamation of minor figures. For examples of how such movements are generated, we could go back to Nietzsche drawing attention, in The Birth of Tragedy, to the way the moral-ethical-intellectual Socrates turned to music-making in prison in the days before his death. Or, more recently, we might think of Ranajit Guha’s short book, History at the Limits of World-History, and note not only the precedence this Subaltern Studies founding father gives to poetic language over history-writing late in his life, but also the bewildered response of those who followed and admired Guha’s work.

For me, then, ‘reassessment’ comprises an opening-up that’s disorienting and possibly utopian, and has a particular role to play today, in the years after the waning of critical theory. It belongs to a tradition of argument, dissent and possible anti-idealism, which asks us to understand the turn in terms that go beyond the nationalistic or the celebration of the little, the small, the vernacular. I’m thinking now of poets like Philip Larkin and Seamus Heaney, both of whom rejected the influence of W B Yeats for relatively minor poets like Thomas Hardy and Patrick Kavanagh; of Ezra Pound, who said to an important forbear at a certain point in his life, ‘I make a truce with you, Walt Whitman -/ I have detested you long enough’; or of the artist Jamini Roy, who turned from his academic training in European realism to the Kalighat patuas. ‘Reassessment’ asks us to read these gestures – and our own gestures and turnings away – as being more than conventionally political or aesthetic. What sort of creative and intellectual history are they making a case for?

Amit Chaudhuri, January 2017

Categories
Symposium 3: Reassessments

Possible, not Alternative, Histories

Two pictures of the sun god Surya in his chariot, Jwala Prakash Press, 1884. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Possible, not Alternative, Histories

A Literary History Emerging from Sunlight
Amit Chaudhuri

I’m looking back at the title to remind myself of what it is. ‘Possible, not Alternative, Histories’. I want to do something here that’s reckless because it’s very ambitious. I want to tell you about my reading. And, in the process, I wish to describe or allude to glimpses or hiccups or revisions that are germane to a discussion on reassessment. And also talk about not only my history, but a possible literary history. By ‘possible’ I don’t mean a history that doesn’t exist, but possible ways of looking at history. I also wish to distance myself from the term ‘alternative history’: it feels exhausted. Certainly, if somebody of my ethnic and cultural background spoke about it, they’d inevitably do so with a particular inflection and emphasis. I’m distancing myself from the idea of ‘alternative histories’ in order to enquire into what histories it might be possible to speak about and describe, and in what way.

In order to do this, one must first create and explore a space that one might call, for convenience’s sake, a ‘fictional’ space. This ‘fictionality’ facilitates a critique, a certain way of speaking, which wouldn’t be possible in a sombre piece of academic writing. Let me try to give you an example. I’m obviously not referring, when I say ‘fictional’, to writing about characters or telling stories. I mean a particular tone which you can’t reduce to irony, a tone that’s serious but at the same time indeterminate, and most profound when parodying itself. Borges was a great practitioner of this register; it’s moot as to whether his most significant critical insights occur in his mock-essays or in his essays proper. What is the difference between the first and the second? The instances of type 1 and type 2 that come almost randomly to mind from his oeuvre are ‘Pierre Menard, the author of the Quixote’ and ‘The Argentine writer and Tradition’. In ‘Pierre Menard’, the narrator points out that the eponymous author ‘did not want to compose another Quixote – which is easy – but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide – word for word and line for line – with those of Miguel de Cervantes.’

Famously, this mock-narrator goes on to quote from Cervantes’s Don Quixote and then from Pierre Menard’s, to analyse their differences, and showcase the latter’s originality:

It is a revelation to compare Menard’s Don Quixote with Cervantes’s. The latter, for example, wrote (part one, chapter nine):

…truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counsellor.

Written in the seventeenth century, written by the ‘lay genius’’ Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other writes:

…truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counsellor.

History, the mother of truth: the idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as inquiry into reality but as its origin…

The contrast in style is also vivid. The archaic style of Menard – quite foreign, after all – suffers from a certain affectation. Not so that of his forerunner, who handles with ease the current Spanish of his time.

The question of what gives to writing its modern or archaic or national characteristics comes up again in ‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, which, in the collection Labyrinths, is classified as an ‘essay’ rather than, as ‘Menard’ is, a ‘fiction’. Borges, here, makes a series of proclamations that distinguish him from his Argentine contemporaries and what they take to be the attributes of Argentine tradition. Among the better-known of Borges’s statements are these: ‘What is our Argentine tradition? I believe we can answer this question easily… I believe our tradition is all of Western culture, and I also believe we have a right to this tradition, greater than that which the inhabitants of one or another Western nation might have.’ In other remarks to do with the accoutrements of culture, Borges observes: ‘Some days past I have found a curious confirmation of the fact that what is truly native can and often does dispense with local colour… Gibbon observes that in the Arabian book par excellence in the Koran, there are no camels; I believe if there were any doubt as to the authenticity of the Koran, this absence of camels would be sufficient to prove it is an Arabian work’.

In both the fiction, ‘Pierre Menard’, and in this essay, Borges is at his most incisive in complicating the business of cultural and historical markers: he’s countering whatever it is we take to be the visible characteristics of a 17th-century Spanish work (Cervantes’s Quixote), a modern cosmopolitan text (Menard’s recreation of Cervantes’s novel), an Arab book (the Koran), and Argentine tradition. For Borges, there are no clear or definite features that proclaim a work to be Spanish or Argentine or Arabic, although each is definitely what it is because it’s Spanish or Argentine or Arabic. The register in which Borges explores this crucial insight (crucial to him and to the modern reader burdened with an over-determined notion of culture) is the register of ‘fictionality’: there’s almost no difference, tonally, between the invented scholar who presents the reader with Menard and the ‘Borges’ who begins his essay with ‘I wish to formulate and justify here some sceptical proposals concerning the problem of the Argentine writer and tradition.’ Who are we to take more, or less, seriously – the narrator of the Menard ‘fiction’ or of the essay? It’s worth adding here that, like Borges, Roland Barthes, too, is a writer whose work constantly inhabits the peculiar domain of fictionality; his provocations are enabled by tone: ‘we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.’ It’s as wrong to take this sentence from Barthes as a simple declaration, to divorce it from its narratorial voice, as it would be to do something similar with any of the remarks in ‘Pierre Menard’. It’s appropriate that Barthes, like Borges, must invent a particular authorial register in order to debunk the notion of the author’s continuing, reassuring presence. To understand Barthes, you need to not only follow the argument, but to be alive to tonality. The tone of fictionality is not ironical; that is, it isn’t saying, ‘The opposite of what I’m saying is actually true.’ It’s disruptive. It allows the critic to become fiction-writer, and say what it isn’t possible to in academic writing.

*

My use of the word ‘possible’ is meant to gesture toward ‘fictionality’. The foundation and starting point of my account of certain shifts in literature in the last three decades refer to a particular turn in the 80s that affected us all. This turn was taking place on various levels, and I will restrict myself to two – the emergence of global novel, which encompasses what we used to call ‘magic realism’, novels to do journeys, novels to do with maps and the way cultures come together. The global novel proposed – I will use a perhaps harshly simplistic binary here – that a bourgeois domestic setting was integral to the conventional Western realist novel, and the non-Western novelistic imagination implied the emigrant’s journeys, border crossings, hybridity, and cartography. In other words, it’s difficult for the novels of ‘other’ cultures, generically speaking, to be about a bourgeois apartment. There was also talk of polyphony. Since the global novel opens on to multiple cultures and the manner in which they encounter and mingle with each other, it necessarily must be home to, and echo with, a hubbub of many voices. It will be polyphonic.

This wasn’t entirely unrelated to the new and largely unprecedented interest in philosophy at the time in literature departments. Here, a particular version of Derrida came into being, with a special style of interpreting his words, drawing attention to, for instance, his first work, Writing and Difference, where Derrida introduces the concept of play thus: ‘the absence of the transcendental signified extends the play of the signifier to infinity’. This unbridled incarnation of play segues, in fiction, into polyphony, which segues into the global novel of the journey: the extension of ‘play’ is also a new, political idea of narrative, a moving out from the shackles of realism into the limitlessness of globalisation and its historical precursor, the discovery of the New World (the subject of ‘magic realism’). I’m not saying that the philosophical and narrative turns are identical; but they come to occupy a particular tone – not only celebratory, but also triumphalist. With ‘play’ comes the notion of laughter. At this time, laughter emanates from Bakhtin too, with a specific political significance, a significance that immediately adheres to the ludic.

*

These developments announced the death-knell of the apartment, and the view from the window. All of that had been rendered imaginatively peripheral by the turn in the eighties. Oddly, inappropriately, it was at this time (1986, to be precise) that I began to think about moving from poetry to writing my first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address, which, in some senses, was a book about a house, and which I conceived of in spatial terms.

I want to give you a brief prehistory of this moment. I grew up in Bombay over the sixties and seventies. It was around 1978 that I became a poet-manqué; a modernist- manqué. There must have been a sizeable group of us from the middle and upper-middle classes who, in that period of hormonal transformation, were angst-driven. Theories of misery excited us; there was a buzz around two words in particular. The first was ‘existentialism’, a term that everybody was familiar with in Bombay, especially leading ladies like Parveen Babi and Zeenat Aman, who’d refer to it in interviews in magazines dedicated to film gossip. The other word was ‘absurd’. Of course, we understood these words in the light of teenage self-interest. Life was absurd for us as teenagers. We found a great deal of our experience fell under the purview of the existential, of absurdity: we tended to adopt, at once, an interior and metaphysical way of looking at the world. The moment we engaged with and immersed ourselves in this perspective and its language, we ceased to notice – simply weren’t interested in – the physical. I was oblivious, for instance, to Beckett’s humour. I was mainly concerned with the word that had associated itself with his oeuvre – ‘absurdist’, which sounded close enough to ‘absurd’. There were aspects of his theatre which appeared to confirm that, in the second half of the twentieth century, the contemporary imagination’s conception of both the world, stripped to its essentials, and of the proscenium was basically a post-holocaust landscape, minimal, with few physical or living details. Then there were the terms that Sartre had put out there: ‘contingency’, for instance, which led back urgently to Camus’s ‘absurdity’. Existence was contingent rather than pre-ordained; its lack of meaning or purpose made it ‘absurd’. The teenager in me would have seen this statement less as a celebration of the role of chance in creation and creativity than as a confirmation of the acute pointlessness of life that suddenly becomes clear to a seventeen-year-old. (Both Camus and Sartre were Frenchmen and literary writers, with the Surrealists as part of their intellectual antecedents: so the idea of the contingency of existence carrying an echo of the joyously accidental provenances of creativity can’t be entirely dismissed. What in Camus and Sartre is tragic affirmation is preceded, in Breton and Aragon, by a sense of release regarding the same conditions of chance in relation to creativity.)

Much of the academic interpretative apparatus around modernism still carries that teenage passion: it sees fragmentariness of form, Beckett’s minimalism, and Kafka’s parables – to take three examples – as allegories of the twentieth-century human condition. That is, its readings are mimetic, its meanings metaphysical. It largely ignores the physical.

*

The scenario I’ve sketched above would vanish by the mid-eighties with the upsurge of the ludic. Theory, postmodernism, the global novel: these would render the absurd and the existential obsolete, just as it had made a particular spatial sub-tradition within modernism – the view from the window in the apartment – marginal.

In my life, too, a change was taking place: it coincided with my parents moving to St Cyril Road in Bandra after my father’s retirement. It led to me discovering, during my visits back home from London and then Oxford, the flowering in these lanes on the outskirts of Bombay. For me, too, it became necessary, by the time I was twenty three or twenty four, to leave the absurd behind. Thinking back, it wasn’t as if I was really aware, from the early to mid-eighties, of the changes to do with the postmodern novel, or with the poststructuralist conception of play. But I needed to abandon a world defined by a sense of the self and its penumbral shadow subsuming everything in its interiority. For me, this interiority was partly the legacy of a teenage misreading of modernism and Continental philosophy. I had to step out. This resulted in a remaking of myself, whose consequence was my first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address, a book unlike the poems I’d been composing from my late teens to the beginnings of my twenties, quasi-modernist testimonies to the tragedy of the contemporary world. The subjects of my novel were not only a house and a street in Calcutta, but joy.

In spite of this embrace of joy and play, my turn was unconnected to the cultural untramelling I delineated earlier, which characterised the new fiction and philosophy. For me it had to do with reading D H Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. Lawrence’s novel gave me what I hadn’t found in my own misreadings of modernism. At that time – the early eighties – T.S. Eliot was still to fall into disrepute. He was viewed as the founding father of modernism in Anglophone poetry, but, as importantly, his work contained features that could be misread, and which lent themselves to, and, in my mind, converged with the melancholic history to do with the existential and absurd. His use of Dante in the epigraph to ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ as well as in strategic insertions in The Wasteland provided an impetus for an allegoric reading of modernist poetry – formally, verbally, thematically – as if it were somehow a metaphysical representation of the human condition. The epigraphs and quotations, especially as they derive from theInferno, set a frame for reading. So did remarks such as these, where Eliot invokes a cultural mimesis that make us see modernism as a symptom, an allegory, of historical or personal extremity: ‘We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results.’

When I was sixteen, and until I was twenty three, I believed modernism was, on one level, a formalist representation of the fragmenting of human, of Western, civilization, and the tragedy of that fragmenting (‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’). This reading was inextricable from a metaphysical position on value: that it, like meaning or meaningfulness, must come from elsewhere (in this case, it emanated from a unitary Western civilization that was now lost). In Sons and Lovers, I found no attempt to summon an extraneous source of value; there was no civilisational sense of loss. I was astonished by it. Sons and Lovers carried within it a polemic which emerged from its anti-metaphysical position: its writing returned me radically to the significant fact of physicality, the fact of living in the ‘here and now’, and of living this life. Sons and Lovers is an early work, but its polemics are prescient of the provocative claims Lawrence made in a work he wrote not long before he died: Apocalypse, his eccentric gloss on the Revelations, which begins: ‘Whatever the unborn and the dead might know, they cannot know the beauty, the marvel of being alive in the flesh.’ Sons and Lovers is saying the same thing many years before he formulated those words in Apocalypse. The ‘unborn and the dead’ is, among other things, Lawrence’s euphemism for Western tradition and its inheritance; ‘being alive in the flesh’ a reference to a moment in literary history that’s ameliorated by a radical idea of value. This arc is important to me; it enacts an ongoing rejection on behalf of the physical which I first accessed through Lawrence and which I could not access in my misunderstanding of modernism or the existential. This refutation of interiority has to be distinguished from the postmodern and poststructuralist turn.

*

Now, where did Lawrence get this from? Possibly from the Nietzsche of The Gay Science. How important The Gay Science is to literature, as is the Nietzsche that says ‘yes’ to life, who exhorts us, ‘Embrace your fate’! Why is he saying this? Perhaps it might be connected to the fact that – like Lawrence, for whom the encounter with Italy and sunlight was a transformative experience – for Nietzsche too, the idea of Italy and the encounter with it comprise a revaluation. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche speaks repeatedly of Italy, and Genoa. He also refers to the luxury of a summer afternoon. In other words, Nietzsche’s sense of the release from interiority is happening through sunlight. Sunlight is not a metaphor for the enlightenment; it’s a way of speaking about ‘being alive in the flesh’ – physical existence – but it’s also a way of broaching the dissolution of the self upon its encounter with sunlight. When, in Apocalypse, Lawrence exhorts us that ‘whatever the dead or the unborn might know, they cannot know the marvel of being alive in the flesh’, he’s rejecting an extraneous meaning that comes from ‘elsewhere’, and derives its validity from a source, universe, or epoch outside our own. He’s rebutting the kind of superstructure on which not only is religion built, but the idea of meaning too. There are overlaps here with what Derrida made a case for in, say, De la Grammatalogie. But what’s happening with Nietzsche and Lawrence is quite specific and singular, because it involves a particular physical encounter with the sun. Lawrence reminds us in Apocalypse, when pointing out that ‘the mind has no existence by itself, it is only the glitter of the sun on the surface of the waters’, of what the encounter involves: dissolution.

The tradition or lineage of renewal I’m establishing here includes Goethe. Italian Journey, Goethe’s record of his wanderings in and around Rome, Naples, and the Italian countryside, is not only an account of architecture but of weather and of the sun, of the difference of the European South from the Nordic darkness from which value is supposed to derive. The memory of Italy never leaves him. He’s reported to have asked, before he died, for ‘more light, more light’. Apparently, his actual words were closer to: ‘Could you pull down the second shutter so that more light might come in?’ That’s a very specific instruction. Tagore, in the 1890s, when he’s in his thirties and journeying up and down the Padma on a houseboat, overlooking his father’s estates, writes to his niece Indira Devi, ‘Like Goethe, I want more light, more space’. Goethe is probably invoking Italy on his deathbed, attempting to return to that sunlit moment. Tagore’s memory adorns Goethe by adding space. ‘More light, more space’ – space takes us back to the self’s dissolution into emptiness. So light (which we can only perceive within space) and emptiness are connected both to each other and to the self’s dissolution, while simultaneously affirming physical existence. This is an unrecovered tradition in the West which counters Western metaphysics. Its origins are uncertain, but it goes back at least to Diogenes. Here is a philosopher who instructs Alexander (when he goes to him to honour him and asks, ‘What can I give you?’), ‘Could you stand back? You’re blocking the sunlight.’ This is a gesture toward all the traditions to which sunlight is not a pure metaphor for enlightenment but a reiteration of the immediacy of the physical now and the dissolution of the psychological world of value (‘What can I give you?’). Diogenes’s response is unhesitant because the rejection of the metaphysical, of meaning that comes from another source (and which other source of meaning might be more powerful than the Emperor?), is an urgent matter before the unmediated quality of sunlight.

In Tagore, the exclamation to do with ‘more space, more light’ must be viewed in the context of what’s often, where he’s concerned, a Nietzschean position on saying ‘yes’ to life. The first two lines of his song ‘jagate ananda jagnye amar nimantran,/ dhanya holo, dhanya holo manaba jiban’ (‘I’ve been invited to the world’s festival,/ Human life has been blessed’) appear to contain a startlingly egotistical observation: they actually comprise an assertion. There’s an odd implicit hiatus between the first and the second lines, so that they could function as independent statements about ‘embracing [one’s] fate’: ‘I’ve been invited…’; ‘Human life is blessed’. Tagore doesn’t even bother to use ‘so’ or ‘therefore’ – tai in Bengali – at the beginning of the second line to connect it, explanatorily, to the first (ah, so that’s why human life is blessed – because I’m here); he could have, easily. Both lines become standalone proclamations about the miraculous contingency of ‘being here’, ‘alive in the flesh… only for a time’. But to believe that one’s been invited to participate in existence, and to call existence a ‘festival of joy’ (Tagore composed the song in 1909), is an extraordinary as well as an extraordinarily obdurate thing to say for a man who’d suffered many untimely bereavements in his family. There was his wife Mrinalini’s death in 1902, his daughter Renuka’s in 1903, and his younger son Samindranath’s in 1907 of cholera at the age of 10. Tagore’s song is the most unexpectedly Nietzschean instance of poetry saying ‘yes’ to life. (So, in Thus Spoke of Zarathushtra: ‘Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you have said Yes too to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamoured…’ In another song by Tagore that I know because it was my mother’s first recording, something like Nietzsche’s disorienting insight – ‘then you have said Yes too to all woe – is presented in a variation: ‘dukhero beshe esechho bole tomare nahi doribo he./ jekhane byathha tomare sethha nibido kore dharibo he’ – ‘I won’t fear you because you’ve come to me in the guise of sorrow./ Where there’s pain, there I’ll clutch you intimately’. )

*

A great number of Tagore’s songs, in one form or another, praise light. Light is not only synonymous with consciousness, but with the contingency – the chance occurrence – of being alive. To acknowledge light is also an act of affirmation. How does this love of light come to one who belongs to a climate in which it’s freely available? Shouldn’t one, in such a context, cease to notice it? Maybe we who live in countries such as the one Tagore and I belong to – where there’s more of the sun than where Nietzsche or Goethe or Lawrence lived – still develop, at a certain point in our lives, the same sense of being a migrant, a visitor, in the way Nietzsche did when he was in Italy. That is, we, who live in climates that are less dark, still can’t take the sun for granted. Maybe it’s just the interruption of night – I can’t vouch with certainty for the reason – but, at some point, like migrants, we become aware of the sun. Historically, as we notice in the early Sanskrit texts, the poets began to praise it in direct relation to the fact of existence.

I place myself in that tradition. Unlike the global novelists who left behind the melancholy of the absurd – often in the interests of the ‘play’ which was so wonderful in Derrida but took on a slightly sterile expression in postmodernity – for me there was something else: I was allying myself with another lineage by the mid-eighties (possibly because my student days in London hardly had any summer days in them), involving sunlight.

*

This brings me, finally, to two shifts in fiction and in reading – instances of critique – that defined the nineties. These were significant shifts, I think, but never clearly mapped or described.

The first had to do with nostalgia. I think that, in the time of the global novel, there grew in many a longing for a value that emanated not from the energy of globalisation and the free market, and the fiction it was generating, or from the polyphony of the postcolonial novel, but from a European idea of seriousness. Let me discuss, very briefly, three novelists whose reputations represent this longing; then move swiftly to three other writers connected to what I have been saying about sunlight. All of this happened from the nineties to the early twenty first century. The first three novelists – W G Sebald, J M Coetzee, and Roberto Bolaño – emerged in a particular way, the reputations occasionally related to posthumousness, untimely death, or silence: in concordance with our desire for something from the prehistory of the global novel. To be perfectly clear, I’m not talking about their achievements, but the manner in which they were often read and valued.

Sebald seems to be prized primarily as an impossibility: that antediluvian beast, the European modern. Susan Sontag sets the tone in the two questions with which she begins an essay – an act of championing crucial to the shift mentioned above – published in 2000 in the Times Literary Supplement: ‘Is literary greatness still possible? Given the implacable devolution of literary ambition, and the concurrent ascendancy of the tepid, the glib, and the senselessly cruel as normative fictional subjects, what would a noble literary enterprise look like now? One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.’ The adjective she uses to describe the ill-fitting nature of his enterprise is ‘autumnal’. It’s no surprise, then, that, for Sontag, Sebald is powerful at this moment within the flurry of global Anglophone publishing because he’s ‘both alive and, if his imagination is the guide, posthumous’. His provenance is decidedly European in a classic twentieth-century sense: his ‘passionate bleakness’ has a ‘German genealogy’. This essay is a vivid testament to Sontag’s own millennial yearning. Her essays on other Europeans – Barthes, Benjamin – are extraordinary portraits of temperament: both of personality and of an age they might embody without intending to. Her piece on Sebald is as much about the impossibility of Sebald as it is about him. It articulates an anachronistic need – unaddressed by the triumphalism of the postmodern and the postcolonial – for the European’s sense of tragedy. Of course, Europe is actually irrelevant. Unlike Sontag’s other essays, she’s less concerned with Sebald’s ‘genealogy’ than – through the compulsions of her need – with his singularity.

J M Coetzee satisfied a different, and equally profound, requirement, and one that seemed to have no place in the ethos of the literature of globalisation: that of a person who, in the midst of extreme politics, should either be completely silent or speak only in figurative language. Coetzee is, for us, Coetzee precisely because he’s not Andre Brink or even Nadine Gordimer, because he refuses to speak in their language and terms, or in a directly interventionist way. Asked to address a crowd of more than a thousand at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Coetzee refused to either say anything or engage in conversation. Instead, he read out a story before the rapt audience. Coetzee satisfies the crowd’s deep longing – a residue of modernity – for silence and allegory in a literary universe that, since the eighties, gives a political meaning to polyphony, to the act of ‘giving voice’ to something. The value of the kind of gesture now synonymous with Coetzee is extraneous to his actual work. It’s seemingly out of sync with the time, and appeals to a seriousness within ourselves that’s out of sync with globalisation.

The third figure, Roberto Bolaño, reminds us – inappropriately, in the new millennium – of a tradition to do with failure, elusiveness, and a resistance to the sort of ‘boom’ that Marquez and other practitioners of the global novel came to represent. Bolaño’s world – often to do with obscure little magazines and the intensity of the literary in marginal locations – descends from Borges and Pessoa, weird Anglophile writers, whose tonality, as I said at the beginning, is unclassifiable, cannot be part of any boom, and actively militates against participating in a tradition of national characteristics. Pessoa, of course, remained largely invisible as a poet during his lifetime; and even his posthumous fame is based on the invisibility of Pessoa, since we can’t say who this seemingly ordinary person, divorced from the heteronyms through which he wrote poetry, might be. Bolaño became famous in Latin America just when he was dying in 2003 at the age of fifty. His fame in the Anglophone world – related to this anomalous need for invisibility in the midst of visibility, for failure where writing was newly, and exclusively, in union in success – came later. According to Larry Rohter in the New York Times ‘Bolaño joked about the “posthumous”, saying the word “sounds like the name of a Roman gladiator, one who is undefeated”‘.

In what way these writers’ works perform in the traditions they’re implicitly or openly associated with is another matter, and not my concern here. Nor am I going to dwell on whether they bring back to the contemporary world the legacies of Benjamin, Kafka, or Borges. Their reputations satisfy a counter-need in the ethos of the global novel; and those reputations exist in the same space in which the global novel does. They now exemplify a type of singularity, prickliness, and recalcitrance – very different from the loquaciousness of a Rushdie or the exuberance of Marquez – created within, and fashioned by, globalisation.

*

I end this ‘possible history’ with four people connected, for me, with a quiet reassessment that took place in the world, or at least in me, in the nineties. It was a time (we have forgotten this now) when we discovered that some artists – especially those we hadn’t thought of in that way – loved sunlight. The first comes from the very centre of that older tradition, and carries my sense – maybe misprision – of what the absurd is. The occasion was the posthumous publication of The First Man by Camus. The book appeared in France in 1994, and in Britain in the following year. It was out of place in at least three spheres: his own sphere of stoic despair; in the dominant tone set in the eighties by Grass, Marquez, Kundera, and Rushdie of textual, cultural, and political exuberance (and play); and in the alternative tone of a paradoxically postmodern modernism being established then by Sebald and Coetzee (Bolaño would come almost a decade later), of melancholy, reticence, and posthumousness. The posthumous nature of The First Man couldn’t be fetishized: it confirmed not the author’s tragic attitude to existence (as Sebald’s death did) but a startling refutation of the deep metaphysical unease that was synonymous for many with his work. The refutation had less to do with post-structuralism’s critique of ‘Western metaphysics’ than with the sun. It was extraordinary to find that Camus had a body, and that he was aware of it. The awareness arose in The First Man the moment – as with Diogenes – sunlight touched the skin. This is an acknowledgement of the sun quite different from – in fact, it’s a rebuttal of – the allegorical colonial ‘heat’ of The Stranger: ‘It was a blazing hot afternoon.’ In The First Man, sunlight makes the narrator conscious of Paris (the home of the human as intellectual) as a place of exile, of his homesickness for Algeria and his love of existence, just as Nietzsche was moved to embracing his fate after his experience of Italy:

Jack was half asleep, and he was filled with a kind of happy anxiety at the prospect of returning to Algiers and the small poor home in the old neighbourhood. So it was every time he left Paris for Africa, his heart swelling with the secret exultation, with the satisfaction of one who has made good his escape and his laughing at the thought the look on the guards’ faces. Just as, each time return to Paris, whether by road or by train, his heart could sink when he arrived, without quite knowing how, at those first houses of the outskirts, lacking any frontiers of trees or water and which, like an ill-fated cancer reached out its ganglions of poverty and ugliness to absorb this foreign body and take him to the centre of the city, where a splendid stage set would sometimes make him forget the forest of concrete and steel that imprisoned him day and night and invaded even his insomnia. But he had escaped, he could breathe, on the giant back of the sea he was breathing in waves, rocked by the great sun, at last he could sleep and he could come back to the childhood from which he had never recovered, to the secret of the light, of the warm poverty that had enabled him to survive and to overcome everything.

To read this passage in 1995 was to register, with shock, what it had made newly available. ‘His last novel luxuriates in the… sensuality of the sun,’ said Tony Judt in The New York Review of Books. ‘Nowhere else in Camus’s writing is one so aware of his pleasure in such things, and of his ambivalence toward the other, cerebral world in which he had chosen to dwell.’ Judt hints at, but doesn’t fully explore, what the ‘escape’ from Paris described above constitutes, and what it means both to the legacy of continental philosophy and to the ubiquity, at the time, of the global novel. I’m not dismissing the latter, and nor am I negating the importance of the Derridean critique I so admire. But here is something else, which I’d encountered when I’d read Sons and Lovers; a lineage opened up surreptitiously in the nineties with the discovery of The First Man. The second node in this lineage resurfacing at the millennium’s end is represented by Orwell’s essays. Their rediscovery qualified the allegorical Orwell: it took our gaze away from the metaphysical terrain that dominated our idea, from school onward, of the ‘Orwellian’, as exemplified by the slightly absurdist proscenium space of Animal Farm and especially 1984. With the essays, it’s not only a question of sunlight – it’s a question of love. I suppose this is the word I’ve kept out of my discussion, which Camus mentioned in the context of his numbness in Paris and his love for Algeria and for the sun. Orwell’s love of everyday aspects of English culture included even its food. At one time, to champion English food was to take up a shockingly provocative position that, in Orwell, becomes an embrace of the physical and the un-grandiose, of ‘all things… entangled, ensnared, enamoured’. English tea, English food, English second-hand bookshops, ‘dirty’ postcards on an English beach – the very joyous absurdity of Englishness becomes an argument against the absurdist, metaphysical, parable-like shape of 1984. As with Camus, the reappraisal of Orwell, who expended no more than five to six or seven hundred words on these subjects, was unexpected and sank in slowly. Its significance to the post-globalisation era is still not clearly delineated.

My third reassessment is a personal one, related once more to my search for a refutation of the metaphysical, but in a way that had little connection to the various critiques raised by Derrida, Said, and postmodernism. I realised – again, in the nineties – that Ingmar Bergman, whose cinema, when I was a teenager, seemed integral to the penumbral darkness we took so seriously in the seventies, was not so much a proponent of allegory as an artist of physical existence. I had seen Smiles of a Summer Night, but somehow not noticed it. When you’re responding to allegories of the human condition, you fail to see the physical. It was as if I’d watched Smiles of a Summer Night daydreaming about what the word ‘Bergman’ signified, and missed the carnality and mischief, Bergman’s promiscuous love of sunlight and joy. Once I began to notice these details in the film in the nineties, it was if the lineage of the sun, and of physical, sensory experience, had revealed itself – as in Camus – in the heart of the metaphysical and of the dark. I saw how much of a presence sunlight, and the joy it bestowed upon the moment, had been in Wild Strawberries; again, it had passed me by completely when I’d viewed it, in the late seventies, as the work of an agonised allegorist dealing in symbols. Even The Seventh Seal, about death, medieval mythology, and the winter, was, I now saw, essentially a comic work, its bleak but clear light illuminating the dance of death at the end as it would a dance of life.

My final example of reassessee is the author who was recruited, from the start, ever since his posthumousness defined the twentieth century, as the arch parable-writer and prophet of absurdity: Kafka. It’s only in the last fifteen years that I’ve paid more attention to the anecdote that relates how the friends who listened to him read from his stories doubled up in laughter at what they heard. About two decades ago, revisiting ‘Metamorphosis’, I marvelled at Kafka’s devotion to physical detail. I marvelled, too, that I’d ignored these details on earlier readings of Kafka’s writing as allegory. The appeal of the metaphysical had made his exactness redundant. Here is an account of Gregor’s sister trying to figure out what might appeal to her brother after his appalling transformation:

She brought him, evidently to get a sense of his likes and dislikes, a whole array of things, all spread out on an old newspaper. There were some half-rotten vegetables; bones left over from dinner with a little congealed white sauce; a handful of raisins and almonds; a cheese that a couple of days ago Gregor had declared to be unfit for human consumption; a piece of dry bread, a piece of bread and butter, and a piece of bread and butter sprinkled with salt.

The juxtaposition of bones, sauce, bread, and newspaper, the dry and understated poetry of the list, the hilarious but wrenching double-edged positioning of the cliché, ‘unfit for human consumption’, comprise, together, an example of how a sentence might embrace fate. Once I discovered it, I found Kafka untethering himself from the remnants of teenage interiority.


First delivered as a talk at the symposium on ‘Reassessments’ in 2017 and then collected in The Origins of Dislike (2018).

Categories
Symposium 2 : Deprofessionalisation

What We Do: Deprofessionalisation and Legitimacy

From Sukumar Ray’s Abol Tabol (1923).

What We Do: Deprofessionalisation and Legitimacy

Amit Chaudhuri

I first heard the word ‘deprofessionalised’ from Ashis Nandy, about a decade ago. In the course of conversation, he had said amiably, ‘Mushirul Hassan calls me a “deprofessionalised intellectual”.’ With quiet satisfaction and perhaps gratitude, he added that he couldn’t have maintained his singular status without the support of the CSDS, the institution at which he was a Fellow. I immediately took to the word and to the idea. The negative prefix ‘de’, as in ‘demobbed’, suggests a certain lack of volition (as one doesn’t choose to be but one is ‘demobbed’) in relation to occupying this category, while hinting at a quality of belatedness, of following an epochal shift (soldiers are demobbed after a war). These echoes made the state of deprofessionalisation attractive in a counter-intuitive way. That Nandy should have found an institution to pay him for undertaking this project of calculated unemployment, and unemployability, was fortunate and appropriate.

This is not a talk about Nandy. What I hope to put together here is a series of moments. But I wish to stay with Nandy just a little bit longer, since the episode I’ve referred to comprises one of those moments. What’s odd about Nandy, and what has made him resistant to our latent notions of professionalisation, is that he doesn’t have a clear disciplinary denomination. In the programme for this symposium, I’ve described Nandy as a psychologist (since psychology accounts for his training and inflects his interpretative apparatus) and as a cultural commentator (because of his wide-ranging inclinations and also as an acknowledgement of how he’s read). But he’s clearly no public intellectual in the American sense, given his language is too arcane and pedagogical to fully inhabit the public sphere. Nor is he really an exemplary post-Independence academic, as his output isn’t pedagogical or disciplinary enough. To a certain extent, Nandy has had to make up his own pedagogy as he’s gone along. Maybe the best definition for him would be the problematic and open-ended category of the ‘writer’. The fact that we never actually speak of him as a writer probably speaks of our steadfast attempts to professionalise him and others like him.

Here, let me say a few words about my own relationship to that word, ‘writer’, which evidently involves the pursuit of a species of accomplishment or knowledge that no one wants to easily own up to. There was a time when I understood perfectly V S Naipaul’s sense of fraudulence about committing it to his passport in the blank space next to ‘Profession’. It took him six novels to finally shake off that anxiety to do with being identified with what is possibly – despite the undeniable fact of publication (a word that, of course, contains ‘public’ within it) – a covert ambition. Today, I still find myself unsure about using the term of myself. The one thing that has pushed me towards it is, paradoxically, an institutional position I have held since 2006. The position comprises a title that is itself a generic description: Professor of Contemporary Literature (at the University of East Anglia). Apparently to be a professor means, first of all, to profess who you are; only on the basis of this disclosure can you then profess to others. If anything, the invocation of the word ‘professor’ in order to describe myself creates a sense of unease in me that exceeds the sleight of hand I still feel I’m in involved in when I call myself a ‘writer’. This is partly because I never entered academia, as a student, for any other reason but to further my project of becoming a published novelist. I played around with the thought of dropping my doctorate but completed it to keep up appearances. But I was successful in my agenda: my second novel was published a week before my viva in June 1993. Since then, I held a two-year research fellowship but no regular job until I took up the post at the University of East Anglia in 2006. About that institution, I felt as I had about England when I was a student: that I happened to be in it at a certain point of time, and that I was there for longer than I thought I would be. I always expected – and expect – to go back one day to where I came from. One thing I’ve noticed about myself in this period is that I’ve made it a point, semi-consciously, to hold on to my personal email address, and to use the institutional email address sparingly. The latter is an area of domicile; I inhabit it in name only. My personal email address, on the other hand, isn’t ‘home’; it’s an anywhere; it has no actual identity. That I often use it for institutional work isn’t inconsistent with this fact. It’s in this period, especially in the last six years, when I’ve been increasingly trying escape being called an academic, that I find myself admitting, with far less prevarication than before, to being a ‘writer’.

*

The period I’ve mentioned – between 1993 and 2006, the time when I was more or less unemployed, engaged in the experiment of being a full-time writer – was remarkable for the changes it either encompassed or consolidated in connection with ‘professsionalisation’.

Developments in America in the sphere of what might loosely be called the ‘literary’ were at once self-perpetuating and polarizing, bringing another dimension to the relationship between the worlds of ‘creative writing’ and ‘literary studies’. ‘Creative writing’ would become a self-contained economy in the US; it’s an economy that has been taxonomised more recently by the novelist Chad Harbach as, simply, ‘MFA’. It comprises students of creative writing who, upon attaining doctorates in creative writing, then become teachers of creative writing; in contrast, say, to an earlier lot of teachers, who would be appointed to those posts on the basis of novels they’d published. MFA teachers publish novels, too, but there’s a growing number of such professors who, according to Harbach, are read and known only in the ecology of MFA. Harbach compares and contrasts ‘MFA’ with what he calls ‘NYC’, or writers published and disseminated by mainstream New York publishing houses. What’s also striking is how the self-sustaining specialization of MFA finds an unmistakable echo in American literary studies. On the one hand, MFA is, of course, the ‘other’ of literary studies. It pursues an ethic of craft, the sentence, the appropriate adjective, and the placement of the comma, deriving its advocacy of the value of writing from Flaubert and from US editors, such as Gordon Lish, who present a powerful parody of Flaubert. Literary studies’ eschewal of literary value is also an eschewal of the seemingly fragile world enshrined in MFA; on the other hand, though, it mirrors it perfectly. The true subject of the scholarship and discussion within American ‘literary studies’ since the nineties has neither been literature nor the critical theory that problematises literature, but the works produced by scholars of literary studies. The auto-nourishing ecological model that has, according to Harbach, characterized ‘MFA’ is also one that almost entirely shapes American literary studies. The animosity and distance between the two is very real; but so is the particular mode of professionalisation that defines these competing pedagogical domains.

*

For me, ‘creative writing’ was a rumour till I taught literature to MFA students for a few months at Columbia University at the end of 2002: there, I confronted it as a discipline for the first time. But the kind of professionalisation it represented was, to me, a distant threat or problem. Even the term ‘writer’, about which, as I’ve said, I had a Naipaulean hesitation, was less troublesome, less of an immediate concern to be grappled with, than the word ‘novelist’. It had begun to speak for me. Yet both it, and the genre it derived from, the ‘novel’, were uneasy constructs, and my fidelity to them was, by the end of the nineties, wavering. The ‘novel’, as much as the ‘novelist’, seemed to involve a set of guidelines that might be of no interest to those who are practicing or exploring that form, or who inhabit that role. The word ‘novelist’, as a proprietary definition, underestimates the ambivalence practitioners sometimes feel towards their practice, or the genre or form they’re using. It is, then, salutary to be reminded by the writer Kirsty Gunn of Virginia Woolf’s disavowal of these terms in a diary entry on Saturday 27th June 1925, when she’s composing one of her greatest pieces of writing: ‘I am making up “To the Lighthouse” — the sea is to be heard all through it. I have an idea that I will invent a new name for my books to supplant “novel”. A new — by Virginia Woolf. But what? Elegy?’

In 1999, I returned to India, having published three novels, and about to publish the fourth in 2000; then I began to deprofessionalise myself. On the face of it, this might refer to the process by which I left the next nine years open-ended, publishing my fifth novel only in 2009, using the interim to bring to light a book of stories, another of poems, a critical study, a collection of critical essays, edit two anthologies, and record and perform music (which I had also secretly been doing earlier, though the notion of a secret performance is probably an oxymoron). All this was certainly integral to my deprofessionalisation. But I wasn’t only attempting to part ways with the ‘professionalised’, however one wishes to interpret that term. Increasingly, I wished to break with mimesis, and the mimetic tendencies of both the novel and the novelist in the last twenty five years.

The novel, unlike other literary forms – the poem, the story, the essay, the novella – is primarily identified with completeness. Whatever other traits it may have that makes the genre heterogeneous, its formal rejection of synecdoche makes its capacity for accommodating, representing, engendering, and reflecting a world, or the world, its most characteristic feature. In some ways, it not only reflects the world, but is continuous with what we understand the world should be. To abjure this characteristic, as a novelist, is to say, contrarily, that you are ill-at-ease with the mimesis deep within the form. Neither mimesis nor completeness in fiction can, however, be wholly reduced to the practice of realism. Novels might be fantastic or hyperbolic, but those very traits of the fantastical or hyperbolic might be mimetic, as in the case of Latin American fiction, or a particular kind of Indian novel in English. Think of Marquez’s apparently provocative remark, that the bizarre transmogrifications of his fictional terrain are actually not bizarre at all, but a record of the reality of Latin America, and you begin to understand the particular modulation of the mimetic compulsion – the project of creating a narrative language adequate to representing a culture – in the ‘magic realist’ novel. Formal mimesis – whereby pastiche, allegory, or fairy tale come to somehow be related to how we represent the globalised or multicultural world – was far more pervasive in the nineties than a mimesis to do simply with how characters speak or how settings are described.

If the novel today is mimetic of how we understand the ‘global’, the cultural, the novelist too has as much a representative role to play as the genre of his or her choice. The novelist must be as complete in his or her identity as the novel is in its. The primary way of doing this is to produce novels, and to do so with regularity, every two or three years. The market has reified this pattern of productivity: it dictates that the novelist abide by it in order to adhere to a fundamentally mimetic principle. You must produce a novel every few years, it suggests. How can you be a novelist if you stop writing novels? It’s a chain: the novel gives us the world; the novelist gives us novels. This is the market’s parody of romantic organicism: ‘as naturally as leaves to a tree, or not at all’, Keats had said of how poetry should come to poets; and the market ensures that the novelist will need to write novels in the same way (periodically) that trees come into leaf or cows produce milk. Ian McEwan has, since the late eighties, been the exemplar of this mimetic function. To break away is to depart the parameters that govern the representational.

Let me, here, introduce two brief variations on this theme. In a literary ethos in which a reliable means of identifying who a novelist is is essential, and the recurrent production of novels the most reliable mode of identification, the example of the author of the successful first novel is, paradoxically, central to how we now construct or conceive of this identity. In the shrunken time, the ‘now’, of globalization, the first novel is not a beginning: it’s a culmination, a triumphant declaration. For the market, the author of the successful first novel is forever a ‘novelist’, whether or not they ever write a novel again; the novels to come are, in a sense, irrelevant. Here, the Naipaulean hesitation is incongruous and anachronistic, as are the niggles of fraudulence.

The second variation has to do with an actor I haven’t mentioned so far: the reader. The main question regarding deprofessionalised time has to do, I suppose, with what one is doing with it. This is pertinent not only to the writer, or to the matter of what writers do all day, but also to the person who’s absorbed in reading. In the interview in which Kirsty Gunn makes that pointed reference to Woolf, interviewer and interviewee spend a short while discussing the inexplicable time we spend reading books. Reading literature is hard work, notes the interviewer; it entails learning how to read. ‘People often see me and they’ll say: what have you done all day? If I tell them I’ve been reading they’re often confused.’ Gunn responds: ‘There’s a great Bill Hicks joke about that. A waitress comes over to him and says: what ya readin’ for?’ The same could be said of the time spent listening to music. It no longer possesses that bewildering exclusivity. Living memory tells us that there was an age when we would buy a record and listen to it on a music system for about an hour. What were we doing in that duration, seated on a sofa and staring ahead of us?

*

I’d like to bring in a more conventional and sociological meaning of the word ‘deprofessionalisation’ at this point, to do with how globalisation and the market, which create a function for the writer, a function defined by a rate and type of productivity, also create contexts that take away the writer’s metaphoric and literal functions. One of the most acute observers and spokespersons for the writer’s loss of function is the Croatian novelist Dubravka Ugrešić.

Ugrešić experiences a loss of function on several levels: of one who was a Yugoslav writer who had to ‘wake up one day as a Croatian writer’ (notice the studied echo of Kafka); of one who believed that writing and freedom of expression were all on the ‘other side’, in the democratic West, only to discover, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent disintegration of various nations, that the market in the ‘free world’ chose producers of books over writers of books; of one who might have served a function in the ‘free world’ as a writer from a socialist state, except socialism had vanished. All this Ugrešić realised, like Gregor Samsa, upon waking up one morning: the transformative abnegation from definition that would now dominate her work and life.

Ugrešić then went on to become a precise analyst of not just the writer’s irrelevance, but the irrelevance of their compulsion – their malady or gift, whatever you wish to call it – in the new age. As Kafka knew, the malady – the deviation from normalcy – was both a curse and a claim to uniqueness because it only occurred in a few. So his ‘hunger artist’ confesses before he dies: ‘I always wanted to you to admire my starving,’ to which the overseer replies, ‘We do admire it.’ ‘But you’re not to admire it,’ protests the hunger artist, and utters, by way of explanation, his last words: ‘Because… I couldn’t find any food I liked. If I had found any, believe me, I wouldn’t have made any fuss, and I would have eaten to my heart’s content, just like you or anyone else.’ (This is Michael Hofmann’s translation.)

The reason the hunger artist died was because he was no longer needed; the crowd ‘got used to the oddity… people walked past him. Try and explain the art of starving! It needs to be felt, it’s not something that can be explained.’ But what if starving could be pursued and ‘felt’ by everybody: what then would be the hunger artist’s fate? It’s such a moment Ugrešić confronts in the recently globalised world as she sits in a New York hotel, reading the New York Times Book Review, struck in particular by a ‘lengthy’ review of a novel by Ivana Trump, a Czech beauty queen, a champion swimmer and skier, and ex-wife of Donald Trump. In her latest branching out, Ivana Trump has written a novel: the Times reviews it favourably. ‘I wouldn’t have noticed it,’ says Ugrešić of the review, ‘if Joseph Brodsky hadn’t received in the very same issue an unjustly malicious review of his latest book Watermark. One reviewer vilified Brodsky for his language “jammed with metaphors,” and the other praised Ivana for her analytical intelligence…’

Brodsky is now the hunger-artist, but not because his malady is no longer intriguing to others, or because it’s found a cure, but because there’s apparently nothing peculiar any more about the DNA that would have meant he was doomed to the malady. The writer is robbed of his ‘condition’ and sense of predestination, of being for some reason unable to escape his compulsion – the compulsion which he disguised as his craft, and which came to characterise him to others. In the new age, it’s not the singularity of the malady that loses significance; it’s the singularity of the genetic make-up that made it inevitable. This makes the artist pointless. As Ugrešić puts it, ‘[H]aving become a writer of world renown, it would have been difficult for Brodsky to become a brilliant skier, while it was easy for Ivana Trump to go from being a skier to a writer, even a brilliant analyst of political conditions in her former communist homeland…’

*

The hunger artist’s life revolves round two axes: the craft or art of starving, and an entity called the ‘crowd’. Walter Benjamin, avidly attentive to Kafka, introduces the ‘crowd’ as a key player as he constructs, in his essay, ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’, a history of the rise of the nineteenth-century realist novel. This ascendancy he connects not to the author’s wish to reflect society, but society’s – or the ‘crowd’s’ – new and unprecedented desire to see itself reflected in this burgeoning genre. ‘It became a customer; it wished to find itself portrayed in the contemporary novel, as the patrons did in the paintings of the Middle Ages.’ So there’s a remarkable process of democratisation at work here, supplanting both an exclusive aristocratic clientele and the services of elite portrait painters, energising, through mass readership, narrative portrayal. We live in the shadow of that moment in which the transition from the portrait painted in an opulent room to the public domain of widely disseminated fiction took place. The aftermath of the transition lasted for more than a century, but, in the 1980s, another comparable transition occurred. From now on, the crowd no longer wanted to ‘see’ itself in a work of art or in a novel; more and more, it wished to be – for a limited duration, even – the artist or novelist. At the heart of this was the emergence of karaoke, and a space for amateur, tuneless, and infectious music performances. Today, needless to add, we have the cell phone as the most significant facilitator of this second moment to do with the ‘crowd’. In the interim have been released the variegated performers of amateurism, deprofessionalisation, and reprofessionalisation: the fascinating everyday photographers and makers of short films on mobile phones and YouTube on the one hand; on the other, the celebrity chefs and comedians whose memoirs and children’s books are now the mainstay of reputed literary publishers. We must add to this an influential school of karaoke politics whose very lack of professionalism is alluring in an era in which the professional politician is contemptible; thus, the viability of the ragbag Aam Admi Party and of the rebarbative Donald Trump. Here, an ontological predisposition, or affliction, or talent, like an artistic temperament, or a mastery of prose style, or the hunger artist’s mysterious disaffection with food, must seem out of place. It’s in this context that we must place Ugrešić’s parable on Joseph Brodsky and Ivana Trump.

Let me refer in passing here also to the writer and critic Marina Warner’s testament to ‘quitting’ (her word) the university – Essex – where she’d had a position for some years both as a professor and a writer (much as I do at East Anglia). The thoughts she put on record in the London Review of Books after resigning are now well known. They trace the arc of how a writer who was trying to do something different within the department increasingly found herself unable to proceed, given the new, largely commercial, criteria related to measuring the importance of academic activities of departments (such as ‘impact’), leaving her with no choice but to ‘quit’ and return to being a full-time writer. The untold story proximate to this narrative – as I put it to Warner later – has surely to do with how, in Britain, much the same sort of transformation has characterised publishing in the last two decades. To mimic Ugrešić’s tone, it was easy for a respected professor to give up her job and go back to being a well-known writer; but what happens when the well-known writer ceases to be publishable? I reproduce my words from an email: ‘I was struck by the similarities [between recent changes in British universities and]… what has been happening in the world of publishing for two decades now: the solemnity of terms like “impact” is foreshadowed by the often theological nobility attributed to commercial ambitions in the name of “great writing”. The matter is little spoken of, though. Editors are “quitting” all the time, but can’t, apparently, go public about why they change or lose jobs, because they have to stay in the industry in one incarnation or the other: as publisher or, increasingly, as agent. Meanwhile, writers, alas, can be dropped, but they can’t quit.’ We come back to Ugrešić’s dilemma, whether it’s crystallised via the New York Times, Joseph Brodsky, and Ivana Trump, through Kafka, or through a decision taken by a publisher to stop publishing you. You may become unviable as a writer; but how do you stop being a writer if you can’t rid yourself of the habit and the act of writing?

*

Let me end with a brief coda on the words I referred to when I began – Mushirul Hasan’s term for Ashis Nandy, ‘deprofessionalised intellectual’ – and address the question they implicitly raise, to do with legitimacy. Legitimacy is especially pertinent to the intellectual’s position in contemporary India.

I admit that my thoughts come partly as a response to a thoroughly engaging essay by one of India’s best-known writers, Ramachandra Guha, on the paucity of right-wing intellectuals in this country. Why are there so few, he asks, of any real note or merit; isn’t the absence of such figures the reason why our presently dominant right wing is driven conceptually by shamanism, demagoguery, and magic? It’s a good question, though it sidesteps the matter of how the extreme right has, in the past, been adept at appropriating the inheritance of the most angular of philosophers – like, say, Nietzsche. There’s also the curious business of writers on the left occasionally making a philosopher with dodgy political affinities their intellectual mentor – Heidegger comes to mind as precisely such a mentor. There’s a befuddling blurring of lines, then, not only to do with the intellectual history of the ‘right’ and the ‘left’, but with how discrete and competing lineages are invented.

However, what exactly does Guha mean by the term ‘intellectual’? The outline of who this person might be occurs very early in the essay, when Guha contrasts the intellectual to the ideologue.

One must distinguish here between the work done by intellectuals and that done by ideologues. Each academic discipline has its own protocols on what constitutes serious scholarship. Historians dig deeply into primary material, whether letters or manuscripts or state documents or court records or temple inscriptions; and sociologists and anthropologists do extended fieldwork in the locations they study. Their first-hand, original research is then written up and analysed, and presented in scholarly papers in academic journals or in books brought out by established publishers. The judgment on one’s scholarly work comes principally from one’s colleagues—first, before it is published, as part of the peer-review process practiced by professional journals and book publishers, and then, once it is in print, by how often the work is cited.

There is a distinction to be drawn between intellectuals and ideologues, who are more interested in promoting their political or religious beliefs than in contributing to the growth of knowledge. The writings of ideologues are rarely based on serious or extended research.

What we’re being inadvertently introduced to here is a familiar habit of thinking, to do with legitimising the intellectual. The term ‘deprofessionalised intellectual’, really a tautology – for you don’t choose or desire to be an intellectual any more than you elect to think – must, in the context being set up by Guha, appear a contradiction in terms. But surely the difference between the intellectual and the ideologue can’t be ascertained by comparing the marks of legitimacy to the ideologue’s apparently illegitimate air; or contrasting the rational and verifiable (as shored up by archival research) with the unproven and the speciously dogmatic? Do thought and insight necessarily have to subsist on evidence? Surely what’s important here is the significance ascribed, or not ascribed, to process. The ideologue is invested in fixity; since thinking is a process, the one who thinks finds themselves situated in, and as a result often reflecting on, the nature and value of process, which brought them to intellectual life in the first place. But if the one who thinks – the intellectual – is, without much reflection, conflated with an idea of the social scientist or the historian, only parts of whose practice are mentioned inasmuch as these legitimise the practice – ‘primary material’; ‘first-hand, original research’; ‘peer-review’ – then we’re confronted with a gesture that’s over-familiar to us in India, and which itself represents a kind of fixity. What’s been notable where Guha is concerned is how the more wayward aspects of his work and sensibility – his affinities with Verrier Elwin and CLR James, his enthusiasm for cricket and his beginnings as an anthropologist – have, as his reputation has gone mainstream, been downplayed for a more generic role: that of the historian. In fact, Guha, unusually for a historian, often prefaces his remarks with the words, ‘Speaking as a historian’, as if to be one depended on a Cartesian declaration. This is what sometimes happens in India: being a ‘thinker’ culminates in becoming a spokesperson for a discipline. One speaks as, and for, this or that; it’s the discipline that needs confirming and upholding, as it upholds one’s work. What we end up opposing the ideologue with is not thought, but legitimacy.

A word on ‘research’. Since the rise of the historical novel in India and in Britain, ‘research’ is meant to professionalise the time of writing fiction, to take it out of the inexplicable domain that reading a book or listening to a record on the hi fi once belonged to, so that one might have an adequate – a respectable – answer to the question, ‘What do you do?’ The questioner is going to be less anxious if the reply, ‘I’m a novelist’, automatically implies, ‘I engage in serious research’. Of late, in India – where the notion of research is deeply embedded in our regard for the plausible, the verifiable, and the professionalised – I’m often told, ‘You must do a lot of research,’ when I admit to writing novels. To which I’ve begun to say, ‘Yes, but not for particular books. I’m doing research all the time.’ If one is engaged in uninterrupted research – as any writer or artist is – the question of the writer’s use of time, of activity and productivity, once more becomes unsatisfyingly open-ended, and other questions – to do with how we think, work, prepare to and speak of work – must take the place of the recurrent one about what we do.

Amit Chaudhuri is a novelist, essayist, poet, and musician. He conceptualised the ‘literary activism’ symposia, and is the editor of this website.

Categories
Symposium 1 : Literary Activism

Mission Statement

Nandalal Bose, Untitled (Picnic on River Bank), 1959. Courtesy Harvard Art Museum

On Literary Activism

From the mid-1990s onwards, we witnessed a convergence between literary language and the language of publishing, for it was publishers, increasingly, who told us about the ‘masterpieces’ they were publishing (the word, like the literary itself, had by then been disowned by most literature departments). We also became spectators, in the sphere of literary publishing, of a species of activity that added a fresh – and what soon became an indispensable – dimension to the publishing of novels and, indeed, how the novel would be thought of: a mode of intervention that can only be approximated by the term ‘market activism’. The bolder agents and publishers abandoned the traditional forms of valuation by which novelists were estimated, published, and feted, and embraced a dramatic, frontiersman style of functioning that involved the expectation of a reward more literal than any form of cultural capital. Writers too made a pioneering contribution to this scenario. Andrew Wylie’s acquisition of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses and Rushdie’s defection from his erstwhile agent is one example of the radical break effected by market activism. Vikram Seth interviewing a selection of London agents before finally choosing Giles Gordon to represent his novel A Suitable Boy is another. Then there are Martin Amis’s moves to a new agent and publisher for The Information and the trajectory of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, from its discovery by Pankaj Mishra (then the chief editor at Harper Collins India) to the flight taken by the agent David Godwin to India to meet Roy: all events in this landscape. Market activism was not, as many of these examples remind us, unconnected to the idea of the discovery of new literatures. Certain instances that form this narrative might have started out as straightforward acts of literary valuation (such as Mishra’s excitement over Roy’s novel), and then, as they developed inexorably, become full-blown instances of market activism.

Against roughly two decades of publishing, disseminating, and reading fiction and literature shaped by such exemplary actions, one might now ask about the place today of literary activism. What is ‘literary activism’? The question has various implications, since we presently live in an epoch succeeding the financial crash of 2008, when publishing houses and bookshop chains – even the book itself – and all the other paraphernalia of market activism (some of which intersects, significantly, with the paraphernalia of the literary) are in disarray, or passing into extinction. Nevertheless, we continue to speak of the literary, and the habits of reading and writing, in the curious, inadvertent, but potent mix of urgent market-speak and superannuated literary criticism characteristic of the past two decades. No robust new critical discourse has emerged. What values, then, in the present context, is literary activism drawing our attention to, and what are its ends? Is literary activism a response both to the successes and, lately, the failures of market activism, or does it argue for a view of writing, writers, publishing, and the literary notwithstanding the market? Does it differ from market activism? For instance, how do we distinguish the journey that David Godwin made to India from the one Naveen Kishore (founder of the Calcutta-based independent publishing house Seagull, which came into its own internationally in the mid-2000s) made to Germany to acquire world rights from Suhrkamp’s Petra Hardt for the works of writers including Thomas Bernhard? Godwin’s entrepreneurship resulted in fanfare, and a substantial reputation – for the author and agent certainly, but also for the viability of the literary novel; Kishore acquired rights on ‘trust’ from some of the leading German authors of the twentieth century, and often for small sums of money.

Is literary activism similar to what was earlier known as ‘championing’? If so, in what manner do the writers being championed participate in the fashioning of a context for championing? (This question arises from the matter of ‘trust’ to which Kishore alludes.) What is literary activism’s relation to the emergence of ‘new literatures’, and in what way is that relation reminiscent of, or divergent from, the relations created in the past in this regard by market activism?

Maybe these questions can be set against two relatively recent events that would qualify as literary activism. The first is the South African critic and academic Derek Attridge’s contribution to the rise in the reputation of the South African novelist and short story writer Zoë Wicomb. Attridge’s criticism has argued for a revaluation of Wicomb’s writing in a way that has led to a genuine upsurge of interest in her work in the past five years; but this interest cannot be simply connected to a fresh narrative of ‘new literature’. Also, Attridge’s work on Wicomb is part of a project neither just for a national (in this case, South African) literature, nor a postcolonial one. Both Attridge and Wicomb are migrants who live in the United Kingdom; yet the interest in Wicomb as a result of Attridge’s advocacy is not entirely reducible to an interest in the literature of migration. Wicomb, situated as she is at the crossroads of longstanding obscurity, artistic achievement, Attridge’s preoccupations, South African literary history, and migrancy, reflects all these concerns in the shifting way that the ‘literary’ does. It’s this shifting quality that, in the end, the context of literary activism in Wicomb’s case foregrounds.

The second example makes it necessary for me to make an autobiographical interjection. In 2008, I proposed to Peter D. McDonald of St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, that we nominate the poet, critic, and essayist Arvind Krishna Mehrotra for the post of Oxford Professor of Poetry in 2009. My reason for thinking of Mehrotra was that he defeated almost every prevalent convention of what a postcolonial or Indian writer might be, and that his criticism reflected the anomalousness of his literary practice. I know that Prof. McDonald was in agreement with me in this assessment. The point of the nomination was not simply to create a comic disruption, as when Benjamin Zephaniah became a contender in 1989, and a competitor to Seamus Heaney. But neither was the point to win the elections. We intended to fashion an event; but, in retrospect, it seems that the irrelevance of winning was in some ways a feature of its conception – not because of some quietism, but because the tertiary status of winning gave us the freedom to make the maximum possible impact from revisiting, in Mehrotra, the notion of the cosmopolitan writer. So there may well be in literary activism a strangeness that echoes the strangeness of the literary. Unlike market activism, whose effect on us depends on a certain randomness which reflects the randomness of the free market, literary activism may be desultory, in that its aims and value aren’t immediately explicable.

2014