Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Edward Said, late style, and Orientalism

On Late Style, the second book by Edward Said to be published posthumously (after Humanism and Democratic Criticism in 2004), is a book about an intriguing subject - one that Said, although he left behind an unfinished manuscript tidied up in this book by his friend Michael Wood, had been thinking about for many years before his death - "the relationship between bodily condition and aesthetic style."

"Does one grow wiser with age," asks Said, "and are there unique qualities of perception and form that artists acquire as a result of age in the late phase of their career?" In his introduction Wood - himself a critic of exceptional powers, and a writer in my opinion of more exciting prose than Said - elucidates what the awareness of impending death does to human beings. "[D]eath does sometimes wait for us, and it is possible to become deeply aware of its waiting. The quality of time alters then, like a change in the light, because the present is so thoroughly shadowed by other seasons: the revived or receding past, the newly unmeasurable future, the unimaginable time beyond time."

Said's idea is to show how the work and thought of some artists near the end of their lives "acquires a new idiom, what I shall be calling a late style." It is an intriguing project with a powerful central thesis, and certainly Said finds some good approaches towards his material in his long introduction. He says, for instance, that while some late works reflect "a special maturity, a new spirit of reconciliation and serenity" (Shakespeare's romances are the paradigmatic example), there are also striking examples of artistic lateness "not as harmony and resolution but as intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction". In late Beethoven, for instance, there is a eccentricity that speaks "of a self-imposed exile from what is generally acceptable" that appears to derive from his own awareness of an exile soon to come.

These are good, persuasive thoughts, but overall this is a somewhat clunky book. Some of this of course owes to the fact that it was unfinished at the time of Said's death (many reviews therefore felt compelled, somewhat pointlessly, to consider the book itself as an example of the subject it dealt with). My guess is that while it was not quite manuscript standard, nor could it be denied to Said's considerable audience both among university audiences and lay readers worldwide. But I found it hard to derive much pleasure from this book. Even the introduction, where some of the best writing is to be found, is bogged down by a long and circling discussion, not always germane to the subject, of the life and work of the German theorist Theodor Adorno, whom Said admired immensely - indeed, in this bit of the book Adorno seems alarmingly to be almost a lens through which Said sees the world, and some of the praise dished out seems decidedly peculiar ("He opposed the very notion of productivity by being himself the author of an overabundance of material…").

Some of the individual figures Said deals with are from the world of Western classical music (Said himself was an accomplished pianist), and as my knowledge of this area is poor I shall not comment on this part of the book. But the sections that deal with writers often expend a great deal of time and energy over simple points, and feature some of the contorted thinking and phrasing for which academic style is commonly excoriated. There are some excellent paragraphs on the utterly distinctive work of the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, whose work often concerns separation and exile ("One of Cavafy's greatest achievements is to render the extremes of lateness, physical crisis, and exile in forms and situations and above all in a style of remarkable inventiveness and lapidary calm.") But the chapter on Lampedusa's novel The Leopard and the film by the same name by Visconti is unexceptional, and the chapter on Jean Genet, another man whom Said revered, is perhaps the worst in the whole book. It consists mostly of personal reminiscences of meetings with Genet, a man who lived for some time among the Arabs and who supported the Palestine cause, and which shuttles back and forth between the puzzling and the preposterous. For instance:

Much more important that commitment to a cause, much more beautiful and true, he says, is betraying it, which I read as another version of his unceasing search for the silence that reduces all language to empty posturing, all action to theatrics….[H]e entered the Arab space and lived in it not as an investigator of exoticism but as someone for whom the Arabs had actuality and a present that he enjoyed and felt comfortable in, even though he was, and remained, different. In the context of a dominant Orientalism that commanded, codified and articulated virtually all Western knowledge and experience of the Arab/Islamic world, there is something quietly but heroically subversive about Genet's extraordinary relationship with the Arabs.
"Orientalism" - that word appears in this paragraph almost as a slur, and perhaps Said's most permanent contribution to scholarship is that he should have changed almost singlehandedly, with his 1978 book by the same name, the established meaning of a word which had been in use for centuries to refer to an academic discipline that centred around the study of Oriental cultures and languages. Said charged, instead, that Orientalist scholarship was for the most part a discourse that reinforced established stereotypes of "the Orient", and was thus indirectly complicit with Western colonialism, which was based on an assumption of Western superiority and a contempt towards "the other". The book attracted sharp criticism almost from the very beginning, but its influence within the academy was so huge that it soon generated a mini-industry of scholarship advancing Saidian ideas.

"Whatever its flaws," the scholar Malise Ruthven wrote in an obituary for Said in 2003, "Orientalism appeared at an opportune time, enabling upwardly mobile academics from non-western countries (many of whom came from families who had benefited from colonialism) to take advantage of the mood of political correctness it helped to engender by associating themselves with 'narratives of oppression', creating successful careers out of transmitting, interpreting and debating representations of the non-western 'other'." From my personal experience of six years studying the humanities at two different universities, I would say this is correct, and it is my opinion that Said's influence was mostly for the bad, not least in the field of literary criticism, where (although Said was himself a critic of the highest class) it has generated a great deal of obtuse, tendentious work. But the revisionary sense attached by Said to the word has now become pervasive. Understood as part of a larger imperialist project, "orientalism" has, in a decolonized age, now become an attack word for the other side, as it were.

Readers interested in understanding this debate in greater detail might want to turn not only to Orientalism but also to a good recent book, For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies, by the scholar Robert Irwin. Irwin's book takes issue with Said's thesis, and supplies an account of the great wealth of valuable scholarship done by the Orientalist scholars - Edward Pococke, Silvestre de Sacy, Hamilton Gibb - of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is, writes Irwin, "mostly a story of individual scholars, often lonely and eccentric men" working without institutional backing. "Since there was no overarching and constraining discourse of Orientalism, there were many competing agendas and styles of thought. Therefore this book contains many sketches of individual Orientalists - dabblers, obsessives, evangelists, freethinkers, madmen, charlatans, pedants, romantics."

Irwin's work on the subject is not easily available online, but here are some essays on Said and Orientalism by other good writers: Christopher de Bellaigue's review-essay "Where Edward Said was wrong", the Australian academic Keith Windschuttle's essay "Orientalism revisited" some years ago in the New Criterion, and Charles Paul Freund in "The end of the Orientalist Critique" in Reason. Said's 2003 essay on the 25th anniversary of the publication of Orientalism can be found here.

To return to late style and Said's own work, here is an essay by Said, "The Rage of the Old", that advances some of the ideas in On Late Style. Said, Ruthven writes, "was better at elucidating distinctions than formulating systems", and some of this facility can be seen at work in a feisty essay from 2002, "Why The Many Islams Cannot Be Simplified" (this piece continued Said's long-running battle with the scholar of Islam Bernard Lewis). Two affectionate accounts of the enormous range of Said's life and work can be found in these obituary essays from 2003 by Michael Wood and Christopher Hitchens.

Irwin is also the editor of a very good anthology of classical Arabic literature, Night and Horses in the Desert. An essay by him on Kahlil Gibran can be found here.

And finally, an old Middle Stage essay about the sense of dimming life force and impending death in the work of two early twentieth-century novelists: "Life winding down in Cather and in Saratchandra".

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

"I've Forgotten Myself Yet Again"

I've forgotten myself yet again,
I've made myself hard to find,
I've hopped aboard a different train,
And left myself behind.

Now I trawl my memories up and down,
Searching for my colour, my stamp,
But for every month and in every town,
There moved a different man.

I wished a question and a puzzle to be,
To all those whom I met,
But now a question and a puzzle I am to me,
I realized this when...I forget.

I pounce on this and seize on that,
And of these things form a shape,
But there's no rest or peace to be had,
In my ill-fitting, guesswork drape.

I see that people's lives are baskets which,
They stock up from bottom to top,
My zigs and zags have made a hole,
From which everything did drop.

Now I'm a self-forgotten, unsteady man,
At least now that can't change,
Or can it? - it can't! - or perhaps it can
I feel - I feel so strange.

O friends! you say you know me well,
You can tell when I am near,
You hide the food behind the fridge,
And stow away the beer.

You know my essence, my quiddity,
Help piece me together once more,
Let me not an unmanned frigate be,
Drifting from bank to bank, shore to shore.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Books That Shook The World, and our shaken world

In a week in which Mumbai was badly shaken up by a series of heinous bomb blasts (I got off a train on the Western line just half an hour before the blasts, and thus narrowly avoided being sent up to that special enclosure in hell for the souls of departed literary bloggers, bereft of any books but full of copies of the Times of India and the Hindu), here is a set of not bombs but books that shook the world - works that have served for hundreds of years to open people's minds and fruitfully complicate their worldviews. This month Atlantic Books brings out a series of short "biographies" of some of the most influential books in history, each written by a distinguished writer. The first few volumes include Christopher Hitchens on Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man, Francis Wheen on Marx's Das Kapital, Simon Blackburn on Plato's Republic, and Bruce Lawrence on The Qur'an. A slightly later release is the American satirist P.J. O'Rourke on Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations.

Already some bits and pieces of work found in these books is available online: Wheen's excellent essay on Das Kapital in the Guardian last weekend argues that we should look at Marx's opus not as a work in the tradition of classical economics but more as a piece of literature, and O'Rourke argues in a recent issue of the Weekly Standard that Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which almost nobody has ever read, is a vital to an understanding of The Wealth of Nations. People hold very different opinions of who was the greater thinker, Marx or Smith, according to temperament or political persuasion, but a piece in the Economist from 2002 notes that "titles in print about Marx outnumber books about Adam Smith by a factor of between five and ten". And certainly, while our universities and large swathes of India have a great many people who call themselves Marxists, I've never in my life come across a Smithist, which suggests paradoxically that Smith may have been the harder man to emulate. An edited extract from Hitchens's book on Tom Paine appears here.

About the blasts: they were a nasty shock, but not particularly a surprise. We live in what history may later call the age of terrorism, and Mumbai's trains are easy and tempting targets. We need much better security systems for our train coaches (which are really not much more than boxes on wheels), and perhaps a special vigilance force, to man entrances and exits of stations and to travel on trains themselves. Multiple entrances and exits to stations, often created by people breaking down walls and jumping over fences, must be sealed off, and walking on the tracks made a punishable offence. (This would also root out an almost daily tragedy of the city, that of people being run over while crossing the tracks. The yearly toll of this - 3500 by this estimate - far outstrips the toll of Tuesday's dead.) Thus, the one positive of this disaster is that it may enforce a long-needed modernisation of our creaking systems, as also a better enforcement of the rules already in existence but blithely ignored by both the public and the authorities.

Clearly all this will not be cheap, but life should not be so cheap either. I can think of a simple measure to raise the money. Mumbai's citizens would gladly pay a safety surcharge of 50 paise on every local train ticket bought, and perhaps an extra Rs.5-10 on their season tickets. At about 60 lakh passengers a day, that should raise the necessary funds simply enough, and soon enough, for our 2000-odd trains going up and down every day. The world has changed for good, and the enemies of our open society lurk within our ranks - it is possible we pass them every day on the street. It is hard to pull out such threats by the roots. We need to take all the steps needed just to survive in these new uncertain times, before Tuesday's disaster is revisited upon us.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Dnyaneshwar Kulkarni Changes His Name

My story "Dnyaneshwar Kulkarni Changes His Name" appears this month in First Proof 2, Penguin's yearly anthology of new Indian writing. Here is the first paragraph:

Dnyaneshwar Kulkarni had endured a wretched morning. It was the month of October; the sun came out early, hot and fierce, and Dnyaneshwar was rather frail of constitution. Five minutes at the bus stop was enough to make him feel faint. Inside the crowded bus it was, if anything, more uncomfortable. The journey from the suburbs to the city sapped his energies even before his work for the day had properly begun; by the time he got off at Girgaum he felt he was running a temperature. Then, as he was crossing the road, the strap of his sandal abruptly gave way. How strange that, when he had been wearing it for a good eight months without complaint, it should give way on just this day! Dnyaneshwar broiled in the heat for another five minutes while an indolent cobbler ran some stitches through it. Next, as he was taking the railway bridge over Charni Road to get to Marine Drive, who should appear all of a sudden but a ticket checker. Dnyaneshwar protested that he had no intention of taking a train, and that all he wanted to do was to get to the other side, but the TC said he’d heard that story a million times before, and fined him a hundred rupees for travelling without a proper ticket. Furthermore, the TC was one of those people who insists on making out a receipt for every wallet they lighten; not satisfied with plain ‘D. Kulkarni’, he elicited Dnyaneshwar’s full name and wrote it out in bold letters—DNYANESHWAR KULKARNI—as Dnyaneshwar watched horrified, grasping the extent to which unseen malevolent powers surround man on all sides, subtly directing the workings of the visible world towards their own ends. By the time he entered the Directorate of Records, Dnyaneshwar’s head was throbbing like a cement mixer. Who would have thought it would be such an ordeal just to get to his destination?
Dnyaneshwar only goes this far here, but he goes much further in the book: into the Directorate of Records, back to the railway station, to a Gomantak restaurant, and finally to watch one of the greatest Hindi films of all time.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

The acid thoughts of Sasthi Brata

A recurring figure in modern literature is that of the Questioning or Dissatisfied man - distanced, for this or that reason, from the customs and codes of his own society, but also rendered strangely immobile, apathetic, rootless by his rebellion, and almost chronically discontented and splenetic, ill at ease wherever he goes and whatever he does - the figure, in other words, of an alienated human being. But this condition, while never pleasant, is nevertheless a fashionable attitude towards life, which is why it is the task of readers coming across this predicament in literature, whether in autobiography or even fiction (for fiction can be untruthful), to judge whether it is genuine or merely a pose - fruitful dissatisfaction with fossilised ways of life, or merely the caterwauling of a selfish being.

Reading, in fits and bursts over the last month, Sasthi Brata's My God Died Young, a flaming autobiographical work in English first published in 1968, I judge it to be six parts solid, worthy, caustic writing to three parts romantic angst and egotistical flailing (consider the very title of his book) to one part flab. The best parts are very powerful, but that even when Brata is on less solid ground he sometimes searches out his own egotism and immaturity. "I wrote this book to try and understand myself," he says at the beginning (he was not even thirty when he wrote it), and autobiography, he knows, "demands honesty". One feels that the two sides of Brata are somehow intertwined, and that we must learn to take the good with the bad. Nearly four decades after it was first published, there is still something for the contemporary reader in Brata's journey towards self-understanding. If his ideas and language have dated slightly, the kinds of pressures and predicaments he describes have not - he still speaks to our times.

Brata was born in 1939, the youngest child of a prosperous Bengali business family. A late and probably unexpected arrival, he "was not awaited with any sense of excitement" at his birth, and wonders if this has anything to do with his lifelong attitude "of strained resentment with the world". A spoilt child, doted upon by his mother, he received a traditional Brahminical upbringing, strewn with constraints, boundaries and taboos, and an education at a stern Catholic school that imbued in him feelings of guilt at any kind of perceived transgression, such as his awakening sexuality (He rightly remarks of this type of complacent writhing moralizing Christianity, still commonly found in Indian convent schools, "Adolescence is the most impressionable period of life. We were taught values which were obviously perverse at a time when we were defenceless.").

"Thanks to the twin pressures of a Brahmin home and a nonconformist upbringing," Brata notes, "most of the time I move around in the steel braces of subconscious inhibitions." Most Indians will be conversant with this feeling. Indeed, one of the arguments advanced by Brata's book is the extent to which our adult lives are in thrall to conceptions and attitudes formed in childhood. University at Presidency College in Kolkata, and a love of debating, freed him somewhat of these shackles. He studied science, flirted with fashionable Marxist ideas, believed he was a young genius and prophet, fell in love, agonised about religion, and contemplated his place in the world. Later, unhappy in enclosed, stratified India, he moved West, and decided to pursue a path as a writer. Everywhere he found that obstacles to his dreams lay not just in the conventions of society and the shape of his personal destiny - as some people like to believe - but also in something marshy and tortured in his own nature, even more generally human nature.

Brata's confessional language has a powerfully persuasive air. " "I hated my family and since I was a part of them, I hated myself too." "My outward actions were frenzied and daring because the inner man was so tame and ordinary." "Even the most genuine emotion [I felt] was centripetal, tending towards myself in the centre, with the other person as an incidental circumference. I don't believe I had any real feelings. I sometimes wonder if I do now." "I move about in a thick viscous cloud, always looking over my shoulder to see if anyone is watching." "I was the shadow of a shadow. It is always hard to build a life on such foundations."

Many readers will perceive that is not that some of Brata's feelings, particularly about his pervasive egotism, denote an abnormal man, but rather that most people manage to go through life without realising these things. The effect of Brata's work, even its more extreme formulations, is to point us towards greater self-knowledge. As when he observes, thinking about the failure of his relationship with a girl he loved deeply and in particular about his callous and hurtful behaviour towards her:

'Love' is an exposition of personality, essentially against the grain of ordinary experience. To be viable, we have to conceal. Sophistication, manners, tact, in a word all the qualifications of civilized living, insist on our ability to appear different from what we really are. To love someone else, we have to reverse the processes of our conditioning. We have to be naked, giving, non self-possessed. This is hard. There must always be a fight. Few people win. At best it is an uneasy truce, with the ego forever ready to stage an unexpected ambush.

Some of Brata's phrases - fusty Britishisms, and curious analogies to English examples rather than native ones of the kind one can still find in, say, a professor of English in Kolkata - are a mark of his time and place and his education. The old midwife who delivered him "looked as close to the Witches in Macbeth as Shakespeare could have imagined them to be." How could Brata know how Shakespeare had imagined his witches? "A great gulf had come between [my father and me] and not even a risen Lazarus could hope to bring us together again." Lazarus? Even if he did manage to rise, it is hard to imagine him doing so to reunite a Bengali youth and his father.

But a great many of these pages bear the strong stamp of Brata's personality and experience - it is not just his thoughts that are of interest, but also the power of his language (this at a time when, I think, there was no great respect anywhere for Indian writing in English). "The years of childhood are slow and timid; the transition to youth comes in a sudden rush." On Kolkata's College Street: "Bookshops cling like running sores all along its sides; bazaar notes, made-easies, a-pass-in-half-an-hour, sure-predictions, stare at the passer-by from the shelves." The only poor word in that exciting sentence is "stare".

Brata's restlessness and dissatisfaction are infectious. "I believe there is a basic contradiction," he writes of his unwillingness to live in India, "between the premises of Indian society and the kind in which I wish to live." That is a contradiction which - in an age of matter-of-fact corruption and easy bad faith, intellectual sterility, and petty moral censoriousness to go with our traditional smugness and hypocrisy, our willingness to abide in self-made prisons - a great many Indians are feeling as, in our opening-out world, we all become more and more different from each other. Brata is unembarrassed about writing a sentence like, "How [does] Man achieve dignity other than by asserting the freedom of his will?" No contemporary writer would capitalise that word 'man' unless he was being ironic.

Brata can be pleasurably caustic. "I am often reminded of the 'great Indian heritage' and of 'an Indian sensibility'. I am aware some people have made professions of exploiting these myths….Such a vision possibly exists. It does not consist in the mere fact of destitution, hunger, famine, and superstition." Or, of his decision to move West, "It is the obsequious, cringing facet of Indian personality that I despise. Hosts of explanations are given for this aspect of Indian character. But I have only one life to live. I would rather have an 'essay in failure' on my epitaph than die in the comfortable niche of mediocrity."

My God Died Young culminates in a beautifully realised scene in which Brata, having returned to India for a visit, is persuaded by his parents to "view" a potential bride. Reluctant but also curious, he submits to all the rituals of the arranged-marriage experience, driving to the would-be bride's home with his parents, listening patiently to her father reeling off a list of her achievements, scrutinising and being scrutinised by the gathered women of the girl's family. He asks the shy, veiled girl a couple of questions in front of the entire company, and hears her sing a song at his mother's request. Despite his reservations he is impressed with, even entranced by, the girl. At the same time the curious scene in which he is the chief player arouses in him a strange horror and repulsion expressed in these beautiful sentences that simultaneously evoke both a burgeoning, thriving life and and a kind of moral blindness:

The girl sat there like a Goddess. And for a moment I felt that no one but a Goddess could have her forbearance, her beauty, the sweet maddening melody of her voice. Restively, my eyes swung round to her, so calm, so removed, so enchantingly graceful like the swift green curves of spring. Then over the rest of those hard deadening faces, severe and resolute, presiding over the closing cries of an auction mart.
My God Died Young is a pensive, cranky book - the kind of work that results when the narrator is both impatient with the hypocrisy of the world and despairing of himself. Readers may find in it echoes of Naipaul or Nirad Chaudhuri - like them, Brata is always asking the question: "Why do we live in this way and not in any other?". There must be more writers like Brata in other Indian languages, but even so he remains the kind of discontented, questioning figure of whom we do not have enough - it seems clear to me we do not have enough.

Other posts on Indian writers of splendid English prose: Ramachandra Guha, Attia Hosain, Pankaj Mishra, Altaf Tyrewala, Siddharth Chowdhury and Minoo Masani.