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).

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.

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.


Symposium 1 : Literary Activism

The Piazza and the Car Park

Piazza, George Street, Oxford, 2017.

The Piazza and the Car Park: Literary Activism and the Mehrotra Campaign


It was 1989. I was a graduate student at Oxford. I had made little progress with my doctoral dissertation and I had written a novel that had almost, but not quite, found a publisher. One of the routes that had taken me in my fiction towards Calcutta was Irish literature – its provincialism and cosmopolitanism, its eccentricity and refinement. So I was pleased when I heard that Seamus Heaney was the likeliest candidate to win the elections for the Oxford Professorship of Poetry. Paul Muldoon’s anthology The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry had reintroduced Heaney to me: the magical early poems about the transformative odd-jobs men of a prehistoric economy – ‘diviners’ and ‘thatchers’; the features of that economy – wells and anvils; the Dantesque political cosmology (Heaney’s overt response to the ‘troubles’) of Station Island.

A diversion was caused by the nomination of the Rastafarian performance and dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah. It was a strategically absurd nomination, made in the political tradition that periodically produces a fringe contender from the Monster Raving Loony Party to clear the air. Meanwhile, Heaney himself had begun subtly to remake himself as a postcolonial poet since Wintering Out and particularly North By ‘postcolonial’ I mean a particular allegorical aesthetic to do with power, Empire, violence, and empowerment: an allegory that, in Heaney’s case, had seen him scrutinising, since 1971, Iron Age John Does buried for centuries in the peat and Tollund men who had once been the victims of state violence; it now also involved the glamour his words imparted to bottomless bogs and to Celtic orality. There was a hint of magic realism to North’s politics and poetics. In retrospect, I realise this reinvention on Heaney’s part was making me uneasy.

Naturally, Heaney won by a wide margin. The poet’s lectures were thronged with students and Heaney’s performances often had the dazzling quality of brilliant undergraduate papers. There was another narrative unfolding in these lectures, though, which would become clearer when they were collected in The Redress of Poetry, some of these thoughts having already been rehearsed in The Government of the Tongue. It was to do with Heaney’s exploration of artistic delight alongside his increasing disquiet about, and premonition of, the emptiness of the poet’s life in liberal democracies. Against this he had begun to counterpoise, more and more, the exemplary aesthetic and moral pressure that East European poets experienced under punitive, totalitarian regimes. Those regimes seemed to become a kind of inverse pastoral for Heaney: enclosed, isolated, and capable, paradoxically, of producing the great artists that the West no longer did. Was Heaney at a dead end? Had he been made less creative somehow, or less powerful – not only by success, but by the inexorable collapse of those regimes that had unwittingly legitimised what for him was the only great poetry being written at that time: regimes that, one by one, began to fall almost immediately after he took up the Professorship?

A decade is a long time in the life of a culture, and much changed during the 1980s. But arguably far more changed, and changed unthinkably, between 1989 and 1993. The American writer Benjamin Kunkel, founder-editor of the journal n+1 and the author of a book of essays on Marxism and capitalism, Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis, said in an interview published in 2014:

…I’m now old enough to remember when the Cold War just seemed like a permanent geological feature of the world. And then it just vanished. Then people would talk about how Japan was going to be a wealthier economy than the United States in ten years. It would have seemed totally insane that there was going to be a black president and that gay people were going to get married… 1

Kunkel is telling us how difficult it was, and always is, to predict the outcomes that we now take so for granted that we no longer even think about them; no longer, experientially, perceive a discontinuity. But perhaps he’s also telling us how hard it is to remember – actually to feel the nearness and veracity of a time when it would have seemed ‘insane’ to make those predictions. The imminence of a changed world order, a new cultural order, and the ignorance of that imminence are only two features of that world to which Kunkel is referring – for that world also had an infinity of other features whose reality it is now almost impossible to recollect, let alone feel. In order to remember, we need to rely on a species of voluntary memory, that is, a willed remembering whose consequences are largely predetermined and shaped by the conceptual structures of the present; so we are led to recall large categories, but not what it would have meant to inhabit them. Kunkel is trying to imply the lived immediacy of inhabiting a moral order by one of the strategies through which we can move beyond voluntary memory – by gesturing towards, and recuperating, the unthinkable: ‘It would have seemed totally insane…’ In this business of recollecting the world before the free market, before globalisation, voluntary memory misleads, and the flicker of involuntary memory throws up, as ever, an array of fragments and sensations, but doesn’t, in itself, instruct us in the ethics of the vanished order, an ethics we have critiqued but whose proximity we no longer sense. So it is almost impossible now to remember – as it was impossible then to predict the fall of the Berlin Wall and the advent of President Obama – that poetry was the literary genre to which the greatest prestige accrued until the mid-1980s; that one might have spent an afternoon talking with an acquaintance about the rhythm of a writer’s sentences (in my specific instance, the novelist I have in mind is James Kelman, the acquaintance an English graduate student in Oxford whose name I have now forgotten). In the same way, it’s hard to recall that we didn’t think of success in writing mainly in relation to the market, and in relation to a particular genre, the novel, and to a specific incarnation of that genre, the first novel, possibly until 1993, when A Suitable Boy was published, or maybe a year earlier, when Donna Tartt’s The Secret History appeared. It is now difficult to understand these examples as watershed occurrences in an emerging order, and difficult to experience again the moral implications of living – as I lived then, and maybe Benjamin Kunkel, who is much younger than I am, did too – in an order that was superseded.

This might be because the brain or mind or whatever you call it – our entire emotional and psychological make-up – is geared to cope with death, not just our own, but especially of our loved ones, with whom we identify the founding phases in our lives. Upon a significant death, we mourn the irrevocable closure of that phase; then, pretty consistently, we find it almost impossible to comprehend what it means for that person not to be alive.

This mechanism constantly translates into our experience of the everyday. In Oxford, I recall a dimly lit car park next to the cinema on George Street that was finally turned into a fake piazza in which a market now congregates on Wednesdays. I find it difficult to recall the car park except theoretically. But I know very well that it was there. I have to rely on a moral variant of voluntary memory, on a willed excavation, to bring it back. This excavation – this ethical variation of voluntary memory – is increasingly important to those of us who have lived through a bygone epoch into this one. Without it, we accept the timelessness, the given-ness, of whatever is equivalent to the piazza in our present-day existence. In other words, voluntary memory – or that form of excavation – must take us towards what from our point of view is plausible, but essentially unthinkable: not just the past’s ignorance of its own future, as in Kunkel’s anecdote about a world presided upon by the Cold War and unable to conceive of its own contingency, but the past studied from the vantage point of a present in which we know the Cold War to be a historical fact, but unthinkable. To truly attest today to the existence of the car park, or our habits of reading before the free market, is, to use Kunkel’s word, ‘insane’: or uncanny. We presume, immediately upon taking on new habits, that those habits are inborn reflexes. We are shocked to hear that poets were central to the culture; that writers once deliberately distanced themselves from material success. The past, as we reacquaint ourselves with these unthinkable facts, begins to look like that rare thing: compelling science fiction – utterly new, and unsettling. Our excavation is perhaps all the more important because we have been inhabiting, for twenty-five years, an epoch or a world in which there has been really no contesting order, no alternative economic or political model. Only through a moral variant of voluntary memory might we, who belong to a particular generation, intuit a diff erent order and logic which isn’t really recoverable, and which challenges the present one – the piazza – simply by exposing its contingency, its constructedness.

What are the features, since the 1990s, of the piazza that have almost obliterated our memory of the car park, making us doubt if it existed? Let’s enumerate, quickly and crassly, some of the obvious developments in literary culture, focusing on publishing and dissemination, and the ways in which they converged with a rewriting of the literary. Let me restrict myself to Britain, my primary location during that time, taking the developments there to be in some senses paradigmatic. For one thing, most British publishing houses, as we know, were acquired by three or four German and French conglomerates, leading to a version, in publishing, of the Blairite consensus: a sort of faithful mimicking of the absence of true oppositionality in British politics following the creation of New Labour in the image of the Thatcherite Tory party. Bookshop chains such as Dillons and Waterstones emerged, at first heterogeneous in terms of their individual outlets, then becoming merged and increasingly centralised. As many of us also know, the Net Book Agreement collapsed – that is, the agreement that had protected books from being sold under an agreed minimum price. Offers and price reductions not only became possible, they became the context for what determined shelf space and, thus, what was read. The books on price reductions and three-for-the-price-of-two off ers were those that had been deemed commercial by marketing executives – the new, unacknowledged bosses of the editors and publishers – and bookshop chains, the new, unacknowledged bosses of the marketing executives.

What we were presented with, then, was a stylised hierarchy in which the author, at its bottom, was, like a monarch in a parliamentary democracy, celebrated or reviled – because, as with the monarchy, there was no real agreement on whether the author was really necessary – and in which even publishers and agents played stellar roles only within accommodations predetermined by marketing men and bookshop-chain bureaucrats. This is not to say that agents or publishers didn’t believe in unlikely or unpromising books. The shift lay here: they believed in them in the cause of their untapped market potential. However, with the creation of a new marketing category, ‘literary fiction’, market potential would only be expressed in terms of aesthetic excellence. Almost no publisher would say, in their press release: ‘We believe this novel is going to sell tens of thousands of copies.’ They would say, instead: ‘We believe this novel puts the writer in the ranks of V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie,’ a literary formulation based upon analogies and juxtapositions that made perfect sense to the public. Belief is a sacred constituent of radical departures in literature and publishing: so it appeared, by a slight adjustment of language, as if the literary were being invested in.

Here was a commercial strategy that would not speak its name, except in the context of a kind of literary populism: ‘More and more people are reading books.’ At the top of the hierarchy was the figure the marketing men scrambled to obey: the reader. The word ‘reader’ possessed a mix of registers: it evoked the old world of humanistic individualism that had ensconced the act of reading, while, at once, it embraced the new, transformative populism. This populism worked so well in culture precisely because it didn’t dispense with the language of the old humanism even though it rejected almost everything it had stood for; it simply embraced that language and used it on its own terms.

Who, by the way, was the ‘reader’? He or she was an average person, put together by marketing via the basic techniques of realist writing (as Woolf had accused Arnold Bennett of creating characters by making them an agglomeration of characteristics).2 The reader was, according to marketing, unburdened by intelligence; poorly read; easily challenged and off ended by expressions of the intellect; easily diverted by a story, an adventure, a foreign place or fairy tale, or an issue or theme of importance. This reader was transparent, democratic, and resistant only to resistance, occlusion, obscurity, and difficulty. Writing must assume the characteristics of the ‘reader’: the term for this process, in which literature took on a desirable human quality, was ‘accessibility’. In order to genuflect to the ‘reader’, who, despite being invented by marketing staff, disappointed them constantly, jacket designs had to be adjusted, and literariness programmatically marginalised. But, crucially, the notion of the ‘reader’ made it possible to claim that literature was, more than ever, thriving, so that it wouldn’t seem that its humanistic context had been made defunct, but, instead, extended and renewed. There were more and more readers. New literatures were coming of age: ‘like a continent finding its voice,’ the New York Times had said of Midnight’s Children more than a decade previously, though the pronouncement still seemed recent in the 1990s. Abundance was curiously repressive. Here, via the later incarnations of Waterstones and the Booker Prize, with their ambition to capture readers, were early instances of what would become a typical convergence between the vocabulary used canonically, and retrospectively, to describe a renaissance with the ethos and vocabulary of boom-time.

Speaking of renaissances, what was the academy doing at this point? By the late 1980s, critical theory and its mutations – including postcolonial theory, which would take on the responsibility of defining and discussing the increasingly important literature of Empire – had begun to make incursions into Oxbridge and other universities. The departments of English, by now, looked with some prejudice upon value and the symbols of value, such as the canon; problematised or disowned terms such as ‘classic’ and ‘masterpiece’; often ascribed a positive political value to orality, which it conflated with non-Western culture, and a negative one to inscription or ‘good writing’, which it identified with the European Enlightenment. Some of this was overdue and necessary.

Meanwhile, publishers robustly adopted the language of value – to do with the ‘masterpiece’ and ‘classic’ and ‘great writer’ – that had fallen out of use in its old location, fashioning it in their own terms And these were terms that academics essentially accepted. They critiqued literary value in their own domain, but they were unopposed to it when it was transferred to the marketplace. Part of the reason for this was the language of the market and the language of the publishing industry were (like the language of New Labour) populist during a time of anti-elitism. Part of this had to do with the fact that publishers adopted complex semantic registers. For example: from the 1990s onwards, publishers insisted there was no reason that literary novels couldn’t sell. This was an irrefutable populist message disguising a significant commercial development. What publishers meant was that, in the new mainstream category of ‘literary fiction’, only literary novels that sold well would be deemed valid literary novels. Academics neither exposed this semantic conflict nor challenged the way literary value had been reconfigured. When, in response to political changes in the intellectual landscape, they extended the old canon and began to teach contemporary writers, or novelists from the former colonies, they largely chose as their texts novels whose position had been already decided by the market and its instruments, such as certain literary prizes.

Experts, critics, and academics took on, then, the role of service-providers in the public sphere. This dawned on me in 2005, when I was spending a couple of months with my family in Cambridge. Watching TV in the evening, possibly Channel 4, we chanced upon a programme on the ten best British film directors; the list had been created on the basis of votes from viewers. As with all such contemporary exercises, it was an odd compilation, displaying the blithe disregard for history so essential to the market’s radicalism. Chaplin had either been left out or occupied a pretty low rung; Kenneth Branagh might have been at the top. Each choice was discussed by a group of film critics and experts (such as Derek Malcolm) who, in another age, would have had the final say. Here, they neither interrogated the choices nor the legitimacy of the list; they solemnly weighed the results. Respect and a species of survival skills were their hallmark. If Channel 4 viewers had come up with a completely different list, it would have been accorded the same seriousness by the experts. They were here to perform a specific function. The programme made me realise that it’s not that the market doesn’t want the expert or the intellectual; it simply wants them on its own terms. The arbiter of taste and culture and the expert – whether they’re a film critic, or a celebrity chef, or a Professor of English judging the Booker Prize – is a service-provider. The circumstances – such as the ‘public’ vote that had gone towards the list, or the six months in which the Booker judge reads 150 novels (two novels nominated by each publishing house) in order to choose the best literary novel of the year – will invariably be absurd from one point of view, and revolutionary and renovating from the point of view of the market. The expert, in a limited and predetermined way, is a requisite for this renovation. The genius of market activism lies in the fact that, unlike critical theory, it doesn’t reject the terminology of literary value; it disinherits and revivifies it, and uses it as a very particular and powerful code. This accounts for its resilience.

What’s interesting in this scenario is how far the consensus about the logic of the market extends, encompassing what might seem to be rents in the fabrics. Take, for example, the phenomenon of ‘pirated’ books in urban India, more or less coterminous with the emergence of the mainstream ‘literary novel’ in the nineties. ‘Pirated’ books are cheap copies, illegally reproduced and sold at traffic lights and on pavements. Confronting them, you have the same sense of disapproval and curiosity that you might towards contraband. In other words, the sight of ‘pirated’ books provokes an excitement and unease in the middleclass person that recalls, from another age, a response to the avant-garde and the out-of-the-way; the word ‘pirated’ adds to the aura of illegality. Only when you scrutinise the titles do you realise that pirated books are no alternative to the bookshop chain. The selection represents the most conservative bourgeois taste; popular fiction, horoscopes, best-selling non-fiction (Mein Kampf is perennially available), and Booker Prize winners are arrayed side by side.

Any notion of ‘literary activism’ positions itself not against the market, but the sense of continuity it creates. For instance, literary activism needs to proclaim its solidarity with, as well as distance itself from, the old, invaluable processes of ‘championing’ and reassessment. Distance itself because, in the age of the market, publishers and marketing institutions such as the Booker Prize themselves became champions. Their primary aim was to enlist the notional ‘reader’ in greater numbers. In one of the many semantic convergences of the period, the language of praise and championing, so fundamental to criticism and its influence, fl owed, with the Booker Prize and publishing houses in the 1990s, into the market’s upbeat terminology of ‘bullishness’. (It would be worth knowing when betting was introduced in the run-up to the Booker results. Ladbrokes, the British betting company, seems to have been operating in the Booker arena from 2004.)

Let’s have a look at how the Booker Prize morphed from a prize judged by novelists into a fundamental device for ‘market activism’ in the 1990s, with juries comprising politicians and comedians. The off -kilter agitation caused by the Booker was, even by the late 1980s, not so much related to the excitement of the literary, which has to do with the strangeness of poetic language (or as Housman put it, ‘if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act’), as it was an effect of a hyper-excited environment. The principal way in which the Booker achieved this was by confirming, and allowing itself to be informed by, the market’s most value-generating characteristics: volatility and random rewards. The market never promised equitable gain and wealth for all; what it said was: ‘Anyone can get rich.’ The distance between equitable gain (the idea that everyone can be rich) and the guarantee – ‘anyone can get rich’ – seems at first a matter of semantics, and non-existent; but it is very real and is reproduced exactly by the distance between the reader in the 1970s and the ‘reader’ in the time of market activism. In the age of full-blown capitalism, anyone can get rich through the market, and, also, anyone can get poor; and these occurrences are disconnected from anachronistic ideas of merit and justice. In this disconnection lies the magic of the free market, its ebullience and emancipation. So the Booker Prize implicitly proclaims: ‘Anyone can win.’ As long as the work in contention is a novel and is in English, both qualifications embedded in, and representing the globalised world, we can peel away the superfluous dermatological layers of literariness by agreeing that the essay, the story, and poetry are ineligible and superfluous. ‘Anyone can win’ suggests a revolutionary openingup typical of the language of market activism. As the Booker’s constituency – for some time now, a worldwide one – accepts the fact that anyone can win, there is, ritually, a degree of volatility about the construction, announcement, and reception of the shortlist – of late, even the longlist – which captures the agitation that propels market activism. Famous writers and critically acclaimed books are often ignored; at least one unknown novelist is thrown into the limelight; one putatively mediocre novel is chosen. The book is severed from oeuvre and literary tradition, as if it existed only in the moment; the history, development, and cross-referencing that creates a literary work is correctively dispensed with.

Since the history of so-called ‘new literatures’ such as the Indian novel in English is tied up thoroughly (especially since Midnight’s Children ) with the Booker Prize and the manner in which it endorses novels, we subsist on a sense that the lineage of the Indian English novel is an exemplary anthology of single works, rather than a tradition of cross-referencing, borrowing, and reciprocity. The random mix on the shortlist and the incursion of first-time novelists as shortlisted authors, often even as winners, might echo the sort of championing that drew attention to new or marginal writing; while it is actually enlivened by the volatility of market activism. Each year there’s the ritual outcry from critics and journalists that the judges have missed out on some meritorious works. This outcry is not a critique of the Booker; it’s germane to its workings and an integral component of its activism. The culminatory outcry comes when the winner is announced; the result is occasionally shocking. Again, this phase, of disbelief and outrage, is an indispensable part of the Booker’s celebration – its confirmation – of the market’s metamorphic capacities; the prize would be diminished without it. This randomness should be distinguished from the perversity of the Nobel, where a little-known committee crowns a body of work marked by the old-fashioned quality of ‘greatness’, or rewards a writer for what’s construed to be political reasons. The Nobel’s arbitrariness is bureaucratic, its randomness a reliable function of bureaucracy.

Partly the Booker goes periodically to first novels or to unknown writers because its form of activism dispenses with the linear histories and body-of-work narratives that conventionally define literary histories and prizes such as the Nobel; it responds to the market’s compression and shrinking of time, its jettisoning of pedigree in favour of an open-ended moment: the transformative ‘now’ of the market, in which anything can happen, and everything is changing. The fact that Indian writing in English since Midnight’s Children has been handcuff ed to the Booker means that it exists in this perpetual now, that its history is periodically obliterated and recreated each time an Indian gets the prize, leading Indian newspapers to proclaim every few years: ‘Indian writing has come of age.’ The first novel of this type, published in the 1990s, came to embody this compressed timeframe in which speculation occurs, fortunes are lost and made, radical transformation effected. Publishers who contributed significantly to market activism appropriated this sub-genre and, by often calling books that were yet to be published ‘masterpieces’ (the publisher Philip Gwyn Jones’s pre-publication statement about The God of Small Things, ‘a masterpiece fallen out of the sky fully formed’, comes to mind), made pronouncements in terms of the market’s compression of time, its subtle re framing of context and linearity, its insistence on the miraculous. The word ‘masterpiece’ itself became a predictive category, connected to the market’s bullishness and optimism, rather than a retrospective endorsement. When a publisher proclaims today: ‘The new novel we’re publishing in the autumn is a masterpiece,’ they mean: ‘We think it will sell 50,000 copies.’ No novel that’s expected to sell 500 copies is deemed a ‘masterpiece’ by a contemporary mainstream publisher. Gwyn Jones’s statement about Arundhati Roy’s first novel needs, then, to be read as a prediction rather than an assessment, and a prediction made in the domain of a bullish marketplace. On the other hand, the Booker’s retrospective accolades – ‘Which book would have won in 1939?’ – again disrupt conventional histories and aim to bring past texts into the ‘now’ of the market’s activism.

The most striking instance of a publishing house and author inhabiting this ‘now’ through a literary concept that once represented historical time is the publication of the singer Morrissey’s first book, Autobiography , in 2013 as a Penguin Classic, the rubric evidently an authorial prerequisite. In 1992, Vikram Seth undertook a pioneering form of market activism by interviewing literary agents in order to decide who would be best equipped to auction A Suitable Boy to UK publishers. Notwithstanding Seth’s commercial and critical success with The Golden Gate , he had only written his first (prose) novel. Meetings between authors and agents usually take place on fairly equal footing, with the weight of authority slightly on the side of the more powerful party. Seth’s unprecedented style shifted the balance in the interests of the novel’s commercial success and the sort of advance on royalties he thought it deserved. Morrissey’s pre-publication mindset, two decades later, represents an evolution. No overt mention is made of figures or of the advance; it’s the standard of the ‘classic’ that’s at stake. It’s as if Morrissey grasps the reification of literary concepts in the ‘now’ of the marketplace. Once, critics spoke ironically of the ‘stocks and shares’ in a writer’s books being high or low with reference to their critical reputation; today, the same statement is made without irony and with a straightforward literalism. As part of this reification, however, certain words – such as ‘classic’ – become ironical, and come close to signifying a guarantee that needs to be fiercely bargained for. That Morrissey’s hunch was right was proved by Autobiography climbing immediately to number one on the bestsellers’ chart upon publication. It would surely be the one Penguin ‘classic’ to have had such an entry and such a run.


This, then, is what the piazza began to look like by the mid-1990s. We may have been bemused by what was unfolding in the first two years, but by the third year we believed it had always been like this. We had no memory of the car park. This no doubt had to do, as I suggested earlier, with the way the mind converts the dead into a fact: the dead are incontrovertible, but we don’t know who they are. But partly it was the effect of the compressed time and space of globalisation, of inhabiting an epoch in which materiality was shrinking and our principal devices could be fitted into the palm of a hand, and periodically replaced. Personal memory, cultural institutions, and popular culture responded to this shrinkage, this ethos of recurring disposability, variously, for distinct but contiguous reasons. While literary language was acquired by publishers for the purposes of marketing, literary departments reneged, as I’ve said, on any discussion that connected value to the passage of time: they disavowed the ‘masterpiece’, ‘canon’, and ‘classic’. Popular culture not only annexed these concepts, it produced its own terminology of eternity: for instance, the word ‘all-time’, as in ‘all-time favourite guitarist’ or ‘all-time great movie director’. ‘All-time’, it soon became evident, covered a span of five, maybe ten, years; that is, the time of deregulated globalisation – ‘all-time’ was a means of managing the classic. In consonance with the eternity conjured up by ‘all-time’, popular culture – and even the so-called ‘serious’ media – abounded, and still abounds, with lists: ‘ten favourite movies’; ‘hundred great novels’; and so on. Lists at once mimic and annihilate the historicity of the canon; they reduce time, making it seemingly comprehensible; they exude volatility and are meaningless because the market is energised by the meaningless. Given the pervasiveness of the ‘all-time’, it wasn’t surprising that it was difficult to give credence to the car park.

But other things were happening during the 1990s in my life that didn’t quite fit in. I was rereading, and often discovering for the first time, the modernism of the Indian literatures as I prepared to compile the Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature. In 1992, I’d also turned my attention to Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, whose poetry I’d read on and off since the late 1970s and whose anthology, The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets, published that year, seemed to be making an intervention on behalf of a discredited tradition, contemporary Indian poetry in English, without having recourse to the new interpretative apparatus. His primary intervention was the making of the anthology itself, where he brought poets and their work together in a way that redefined their relationship to each other without either explicitly rejecting or taking for granted the notion of a pre-existing canon. This was a way of looking at literary history that neither fitted in entirely with the old humanist procedures of valuation (Indian poetry in English had never anyway really been a legitimate subject of such authoritative procedures) nor subscribed to the prevalent methods connected to the postcolonial, the hybrid, or even to list-making, since Mehrotra’s juxtapositions seemed to be exploring and arguing for a particular experience of the literary.

I recalled, as I was thinking of essays to include in the Picador anthology, a long, polemical critical article that Mehrotra had published in 1980 in a little magazine out of Cuttack called Chandrabhaga and edited by the poet Jayanta Mahapatra. The essay was ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes’, and I was eighteen when it came out, but I still had a sense of its central tenet: simply put, the Indian poem in English has no obvious markers of ‘Indianness’. Similarly, the poem produced by the multilingual imagination has no visible hierarchy in, or signs of, the manner in which a multiplicity of languages inhabits it. With hindsight (and upon rediscovery of that issue after a strenuous search), this argument read like a prescient rebuttal of precisely one of the sacred dogmas that came into play from the 1980s onwards: that, in the case of the multicultural literary work, the admixture and its proportions were immediately noticeable, and it was therefore possible to applaud and celebrate them, rather than necessarily the work, accordingly.

Exactly when the idea came to me of getting Mehrotra nominated for the Oxford Professorship of Poetry, I can’t recall, but it was obviously post-1989, with the Benjamin Zephaniah nomination pointing towards a course of action. Not that I was thinking of Mehrotra in terms of his potential comic disruptiveness; but some sort of unsettlement was going to be welcome. Besides, I felt Mehrotra would make for a genuinely excellent lecturer, and his self-aware position as an Indian modern made him, for me, a far better choice for the Professorship than the sort of ‘great’ poet who’d lost his tenancy in the emptiness of evangelical liberal democracy during globalisation.

The Picador anthology came out in 2001. The director of British Council India, in a moment of generosity, commissioned a poster exhibition as a response to it. I asked Naveen Kishore, publisher of Seagull Books, an imprint known for the beauty of its jacket designs, whether he’d take on the brief of producing the posters. Naveen created an elegant series using black-and-white photographs he’d taken himself, playing with typeface and selecting one randomly chosen quotation from pieces in the anthology per poster. One poster bore a line from Michael Madhusudan Dutt; one a remark from a letter Tagore had written; another a quote from ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes’; another simply displayed the title of an A.K. Ramanujan essay, ‘Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?’ There were several others. Peter D. McDonald, who teaches English at Oxford and saw some of the posters I’d taken there with me, was struck especially by the Mehrotra quote that Naveen had used, a slightly edited version of this long sentence: ‘Between Nabokov’s English and Russian, between Borges’s Spanish and English, between Ramanujan’s English and Tamil-Kannada, between the pan-Indian Sanskritic tradition and folk material, and between the Bharhut Stupa and Gond carvings many cycles of give-and-take are set in motion.’

The sentence is doing something that isn’t obvious at first. The back and forth, or the ‘give-andtake… motion’, between ‘Ramanujan’s English and Tamil-Kannada, between the pan-Indian Sanskritic tradition and folk material’ et cetera, isn’t an unexpected sort of movement – between the ‘high’, and the ‘low’ or ‘popular’. It’s the transverse movement across the sentence, connecting Nabokov, Borges, Ramanujan, the pan-Indian Sanskritic tradition, and the Bharhut Stupa to each other – characterising another kind of ‘give and take’ that enables these very analogies – that constitutes its departure. It signals Mehrotra’s unwillingness to be constrained by conventional histories of cultural interaction or influence across the ‘East’ and the ‘West’ – so that he slyly sidesteps them or appears inadvertently to ignore them. There’s a transaction between the high, the sacred with the vernacular and the profane, the sentence claims; this much is conventional wisdom. But the sentence also claims that such a transaction characterises every culture, in ways that puts cultures in conversation with each other. These conversations between cultures aren’t to do with ‘diff erence’ (in which, say, the East might play the role of the irrational, the West of Enlightenment humanism); nor do they represent a conciliatory humanism, in which East and West seek versions of themselves in each other. Instead, Mehrotra behaves as if each pairing represents comparable literary trajectories that echo and illuminate each other; one of the things that the sentence declares is that the colonial encounter is hardly the only way of interpreting the contiguity between the West and the East, or even the ‘high’ to the ‘vernacular’. The echoes that comprise the conversation (‘Borges’s Spanish and English… Ramanujan’s English and Tamil-Kannada… the pan Indian Sanskritic tradition and folk material’) exist independently of each other, but their overlaps aren’t entirely coincidental. They can only be noticed and connected in a head such as Mehrotra’s, in whom, in some way not entirely explained by colonialism and the Empire, with their restrictive itineraries, these histories (catalogued in the sentence) come together. The echoes, overheard by Mehrotra, signal a liberation from those clearly demarcated histories of cultural interchange.

It was around that time that I asked Peter to read ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes’ in the Picador anthology, and also to consider the thought that Mehrotra be nominated for the Oxford Poetry Professorship. I hoped that Peter would be drawn to Mehrotra’s larger statement, indeed to his work. This did become the case; so I’m not surprised to find an email query in my ‘sent’ inbox, addressed to Peter on 23 January 2009, when the opportune moment had clearly arisen:

Dear Peter, I notice they’re looking for a new Professor of Poetry to dawdle beneath the dreaming spires. Should we conspire to get Arvind Krishna Mehrotra nominated?

Peter replied an hour later, saying he was going to try to enlist colleagues in the department and then proceed with the nomination, for which ten ‘members of congregation and convocation’, or fully paid-up Oxford University employees and/or degree-holders, were required. I alerted the Irish poet-critic Tom Paulin, who was out of sorts but still teaching at Hertford. Peter photocopied ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes’ from the Picador anthology, I poems from Middle Earth: New and Selected Poems and The Transfiguring Places (the books, like those of most Indian English poets, were out of print) at a shop in Gariahat in Calcutta, and scanned and sent them to Peter, for circulation, and also to Tom, who said he would decide after he had investigated further.

Who is Arvind Krishna Mehrotra? No full account could be given to people – and I include, here, some of the nominators – who knew little of him and his work. All that could be done was to put samples, the essay, and a short biography out there and hope that this would open up a conversation that would introduce, in the lead-up to the elections, a new set of terms. Some might have noticed that Mehrotra, born in 1947, was a ‘midnight’s child,’ but that neither his work nor life carried any news of the nation as we’d come to understand it. The middleclass suburb figured in the most characteristic poems. He was born in Lahore. He grew up in a small town, Allahabad, and was educated there and in another one, Bhilai, and was later a graduate student in Bombay. Still later, he’d spend two years in Iowa, homesick for India, but there was no whiff , until the 2009 campaign, of Oxbridge about him. Allahabad was an intellectual centre that was moving unobtrusively, by the time Mehrotra was seventeen and already entertaining ambitions of being a poet, towards decline. And yet Allahabad is where he discovered Ezra Pound and the Beat poets, and, with a friend, brought into existence a short-lived little magazine, damn you/a magazine of the arts, echoing Ed Sanders’s New York periodical from the early 1960s, Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts. The publication’s name, it seems to me, is intent on turning Sanders’s challenge into a Poundian imprecation, from one who clearly shared with the narrator of ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’ a combative impatience about being ‘born / In a half savage country, out of date; / Bent resolutely on wringing lilies from the acorn.’ What sorts of lilies? At nineteen, he was a youthful and exasperated satirist in vers libre, in a declamatory mode borrowed from Ginsberg, opening his long poem to the nation, Bharatmata: A Prayer, with: ‘india / my beloved country, ah my motherland / you are, in the world’s slum / the lavatory.’ It was 1966, two years after Nehru’s death, a time in which the late prime minister’s projects of industrialisation and austerity continued doggedly to be pursued. Then, around 1969-70, something magical happens, and, in rhythms and imagery that glance knowingly both at French surrealism and American poetry, Mehrotra begins to produce his first mature poems, which are often parables about suburban Allahabad:

This is about the green miraculous trees,
And old clocks on stone towers,
And playgrounds full of light
And dark blue uniforms.
At eight I’m a Boy Scout and make a tent
By stretching a bed-sheet over parallel bars… (‘Continuities’)

At least two things strike us as we acquaint ourselves with Mehrotra’s life and oeuvre. The first has to do with movement. How does a person who has moved relatively little encounter and even anticipate the contemporary world of ideas and letters – in an age without the fax and internet, in which the speediest epistolary communication is the telegram? It’s a mystery that has no adequate explanation. Yet scratch the surface of the life and the history that produced it, and you find that Mehrotra exemplifies not an aberration but a pattern. It’s a pattern that defines both India and much of literary modernity, and Mehrotra embodies it in the singular way in which he traverses the provincial and the cosmopolitan. This would have always made it difficult to present him in the campaign as a postcolonial who – like Derek Walcott, according to his supporters – had somehow transcended his identity into the realm of universality. (‘With Walcott, you need only to remember the name,’ an English professor had said dreamily to students.) Mehrotra, like Allahabad, was an anomaly, and modernity was local and anomalous. The second thing that becomes clear quickly is Mehrotra’s indifference to creating an authentic ‘Indian’ idiom in English. Instead, like the speaker of a later poem, ‘Borges,’ he seems content to let ‘the borrowed voice / [set] the true one free’. In an email to me he once admitted that, as a young man, he’d turned to French surrealism because he wanted to escape ‘the language of nightingales and skylarks’. The same could presumably be said of his lifelong preoccupation, as both a poet and translator, with Pound, William Carlos Williams, and the emphatic dialogue of American cartoons. What’s notable is the historical and creative intelligence latent in this statement: the notion that neither the English language nor Western culture is a continuous and unbroken entity, that each is heterogeneous and will contain within itself breaks and departures (such as French surrealism and the diction of Pound). No break need be made from it, because that’s probably impossible; instead, a break might be effected through it by deliberately choosing one register or history over another. Modernism and Pound’s poetry, then, aren’t absolutes for Mehrotra; they constitute, instead, a breakdown in ‘the language of skylarks and nightingales’.

This breakdown will resonate very differently for an Indian – for whom ‘Western culture’ is an ambivalent but real inheritance – from the way it will for a European to whom that inheritance is a given. It also means that the Indian poet in English will be less of a creator busy originating an authentic tongue, and more like a jazz musician, listening acutely to the conflicting tonality – nightingales, skylarks, the Beat poets, Pound – of what surrounds and precedes him. Out of this curious tradition (which in no way precludes Indian writing: Mehrotra’s translations include versions of Prakrit love poetry, of Kabir, and of the contemporary Hindi poet Vinod Kumar Shukla, and it’s often at the moment of translation that the registers I’ve mentioned are counterintuitively adopted), he must make something of his ‘own’.

The enervating, bewildering, and thrilling elements of the Mehrotra campaign are too many in number to enumerate here. Let me recount a few points, some of which are already familiar to those who kept track of the event. We ended up recruiting a mix of well-wishers and personal contacts, all of them distinguished in their fields, as supporters, some of them already admirers of Mehrotra. Among the latter were the novelists Geoff Dyer and Toby Litt and the Romanticist Jon Mee. Tariq Ali was made to reacquaint himself with the work and became one of the most vocal supporters of the candidacy; Tom Paulin joined the campaign once his investigations confi rmed the value of the candidate; Wendy Doniger and the philosopher Charles Taylor discovered Mehrotra for the first time and came on board; Homi Bhabha pledged support and mysteriously vanished; old friends and recent acquaintances including the scientists Sunetra Gupta and Rohit Manchanda, the historians Shahid Amin and Ananya Vajpeyi, the political thinker Pratap Bhanu Mehta, and the literary scholars Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, Swapan Chakravorty, Uttara Natarajan, Rosinka Chaudhuri, and Subha Mukherjee – all ‘members of convocation’ – put in their signatures. A lot of leg-work was put in by Dr Sally Bayley, then a part-time lecturer at Balliol College, and she didn’t seem to mind off ending the faculty’s inner circle, comprising, among others, Hermione Lee and my excellent former supervisor Jon Stallworthy. I was thinking of approaching another literary friend, the poet Ruth Padel, for a signature, when, curiously, she announced her candidacy and approached me for mine. Ruth is charming, and a good poet and speaker, but her hands-on approach to her own nomination was unprecedented; nominees are historically aloof from electioneering. Whether her style was an appropriation of the methods of market activism, to which the author’s cooperation in, and production of, PR is oxygen, I can’t decide; some form of activism it certainly was. Later, after the whole abortive 2009 elections were over, Tariq Ali, in a fit of anger, would, in an email to me, call Padel’s a ‘New Labourstyle campaign’, a style manufactured in the 1990s and discomfiting to the old Left.

Still in the early days of the lead-up to the elections, I wrote a sonorous paragraph that was only slightly tweaked by Peter: ‘Arvind Krishna Mehrotra is one of the leading Indian poets in the English language, and one of the finest poets working in any language. Influential anthologist, translator, and commentator, he is a poet-critic of an exceptionally high order. Mehrotra has much to say of value – of urgency – on the matter of multilingualism, creative practice, and translation (in both its literal and figurative sense), issues that are pressingly important in today’s world. He is not an easy “postcolonial” choice, for he emerges from a rich and occasionally fraught world history of cosmopolitanism; but he is proof – as critic and artist – that cosmopolitanism is not only about European eclecticism, but about a wider, more complex network of languages and histories. For these reasons he would make an excellent, and timely, Professor of Poetry at Oxford.’ This was circulated widely and put in the fl yer; Peter sent it out along with the poems and the essay into the English faculty. By now, the official candidate, Derek Walcott, was in place. Poems by the three contenders appeared in the Oxford Magazine, chosen by Bernard O’Donoghue of the ‘official’ camp, but enough of a devotee of poetry (and a gentleman) to convey his admiration for Mehrotra’s verse to Peter.

One thing Mehrotra had on his side as a writer was age – he was sixty-two. In the time of Romanticism and in the Modernist twentieth century, early death or suicide was the writer’s sole means of unfettering themselves of conventional valuation and breaking through instantaneously. In the shrunken time of globalisation, in the eternity of the piazza, when the constant cycles of boom and bust that governed the market ensured that many economic and cultural lifetimes could occur in a decade, the writer needed to simply survive, to grow old, so that he might outlive those cycles, the piazza’s eternity, into a mini-epoch (maybe a period of bust) when the literary is again visible. This crucial task, of growing old, Mehrotra had performed perfectly. Just as the market had triumphantly annexed and put to use the language of literary valuation disposed of by literature departments, the literary activist after the 1990s must ideally study the patterns of the free market, its repetition of boom and bust, its unravelling, to employ those rhythms on behalf of the literary. In the (often selfdestructive) unpredictability of globalisation, the literary writer’s function is to wait; and not die.

The story of the 2009 elections threatened to become sordid in the contemporary manner reserved for celebrity when The Independent, and consequently The Sunday Times and other papers, carried a report about how a dossier had begun to be circulated about Walcott’s past misdemeanours: in particular, his alleged sexual harassment of two students, one at Harvard University and the other at Boston, in 1982 and 1996 respectively. These instances, however, were no secret. Before very long, Walcott withdrew from the race, with Padel earning great resentment from the ‘offi cial’ camp as she was accused of first alerting the press to Walcott’s undeniable history – a charge she strenuously denied. Many in the ‘inner circle’ pointed out that the only honourable course of action for the two remaining candidates now was to withdraw. Among those who advocated this course of action was a different Peter McDonald: the Irish poet and Christ Church lecturer. (I’ve always believed that Oxford is a place of inconvenient doppelgangers.) All this time, another upheaval was taking place, unreported: various faculty members were discovering, via the emailed scans, a compelling poet and essayist in Mehrotra. So much so that Mehrotra became the first contender who, as a losing outsider, gained as many as 129 votes. Padel won handsomely with 297 votes on 16 May and in so doing became the first woman to be elected to the post in 301 years. She resigned nine days later, admitting, after her involvement in the matter became undeniable: ‘I did not engage in a smear campaign against [Walcott], but, as a result of student concern, I naively – and with hindsight unwisely – passed on to two journalists, whom I believed to be covering the whole election responsibly, information that was already in the public domain.’ Tariq Ali and others wondered why Mehrotra wasn’t made Professor by default, as did a New York Times editorial on 26 May, which pointed out: ‘The only person who comes out well in all of this is … Mehrotra… Oxford would do well to confirm him and allow everyone to move along until the next election, five years hence.’ But Oxford declared the elections invalid, so paving the way for Geoffrey Hill’s uncontested appointment to the post the next year: another ‘great’ poet hobbled in some ways by the political order under liberal democracy, envious, occasionally, of the authoritative suffering caused by a now-historic totalitarianism.

What the 2009 elections are largely remembered for is Padel’s radical, discredited, sui generis style, leading at first to success and then disgrace, but which widened the arcane sphere of the professorship into the logic of the epoch: the activism of the marketplace, where volatility now takes on the incarnation of literary value, now of justice, but remains otherwise irreducible. It is remembered for those regal, glacial categories or objects, such as Walcott’s reputation, and, on closer examination, the undemocratic ‘inner circle’, that transcended the workings of the market, but were vulnerable for precisely this reason and in a way appropriated. As for the Mehrotra campaign, which approached the press only on behalf of a poetic and critical practice and not ethnicity or identity, and which fell on neither side of the dichotomy, its fate, despite its impact, was to be not properly noticed and remembered. Perhaps it’s integral to literary activism that it not be properly remembered or noticed, but experienced, uncovered, excavated, and read?

I should mention, before I conclude by reflecting on our adventure, that there was an attempt to push Mehrotra’s candidacy into a postcolonial rubric, and then also to claim that he threatened to split the valuable ‘postcolonial’ vote. That his candidacy was deliberately distanced from such a positioning – echoing Mehrotra’s own description of the Indian multilingual poem as something that possesses no reliable signs of identity – should be something we consider when we account for what the aims of literary activism are. The official Oxford dispensation didn’t know what to make of Mehrotra, as he didn’t come with mainstream markers of literary pedigree; nor was he a hero of the new peripheries; nor did he embody market style. His behaviour as a candidate was impeccable, but the nature of his candidacy was on more than one level resistant. If resistance, or difficulty, enlarges our notion of literature, then the inner circle was, in turn, resistant to such an enlargement. After Walcott’s withdrawal, it instructed its members and students – despite the fact that many of them were increasingly aware and appreciative of Mehrotra’s merits – to abstain from voting: otherwise, there was every chance that Mehrotra would have won.

Our intention – the pronoun includes Peter D. McDonald, myself, and Mehrotra, who had graciously accepted our proposal in the first place – was, I venture, never to win. This doesn’t mean that the campaign pursued a romantic courtship of failure; not at all. Rather, our marshalling of people and resources was worldly and political but being liberated from the thought of victory meant our activities could take on dimensions that would otherwise have been proscribed to it; it allowed Mehrotra to plot and devise his lectures in the way we had plotted the campaign, as a deliberate long shot that should succeed. To the literary pages of the Hindu Mehrotra proclaimed that he would ‘broaden the scope’ of what had been a ‘Eurocentric’ (an unusual wordchoice for Mehrotra) job, and that he wasn’t losing sleep over the imminent results. As it happens, Mehrotra and I had a long-distance phone conversation not long before the voting, and he said to me that he’d had a sleepless night at the not-wholly-improbable prospect of winning. It would have been a disaster – for him. In his way, Mehrotra was miming the elusiveness and difficulty of the literary as Padel had the methods of the market. This threw a kind of light, for me, on the event.

1. David Wallace-Well, ‘How Benjamin Kunkel Went from Novelist to Marxist Public Intellectual,’,

2. Virginia Woolf, ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown,’ in Virginia Woolf, Selected Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 32.

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

This essay was originally presented at the inaugural symposium in Calcutta in December 2014. It was collected with other papers in a volume called Literary Activism: A Symposium, edited by Amit Chaudhuri and published in 2017 by Oxford University Press and Boiler House Press.