Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Anjum Hasan and the Indian Shakespeare

In a beautiful section midway through Anjum Hasan’s novel Lunatic In My Head (Penguin/Zubaan, 2007) – in my estimation one of the best scenes in the history of the Indian novel – we see the middle-aged college lecturer in English literature Firdaus Ansari, one of Hasan’s three protagonists in the book, going to class in Shillong to teach William Shakespeare’s As You Like It to her students.

Firdaus, we know by this point, is still a spinster, lives with her grandfather, feels herself slightly over the hill, has a much younger Manipuri boyfriend called Ibomcha, is still a virgin and slightly squeamish about sex, and has been struggling for several years to complete her M.Phil on marriage in the novels of Jane Austen. She feels profoundly alienated from her life circumstances: at the beginning of the chapter we find her looking at herself in the mirror and thinking that “There was no connection between her and her image; if she got up and walked away, this woman whose eyes were boring into hers would remain.”

Firdaus is not looking forward to teaching As You Like It to a bunch of uncomprehending and disinterested students. And, even though she has some ancient notes on the play, handed down from teacher to teacher over the years, she trembles before the immense authority of Shakespeare, the demands he makes on those who serve as mediators and interpreters for him. The double-edged words of Jacques the fool, we are told, “could still jangle Firdaus’s nerves”.

We see Firdaus begin to read out a passage from the play to her class “of whispering backbenchers, cautiously gum-chewing middle-benchers, and girls with looks of blank sincerity up front”:

“He that a fool doth very wisely hit, Doth very foolishly, although he smart, Not to seem senseless of the bob: if not, The wise man’s folly is anatomised, Even by the squandering glances of the fool,” she read out [...].
She began to haltingly explain Jacques’ twisted lines. “The idea here, girls, is that Jaques feels that by being a fool, being given the charter, the freedom to be foolish, is liberating. Why is it liberating?...Any ideas?”
No one responds, so:

Firdaus read out impatiently from her fading notes. “Jacques says to Duke Senior that his only suit or requirement is that he be allowed to wear a motley coat, one that will signal to the world that he is a fool. In addition, that is withal, he must have freedom as large as the wind to quote blow on whom I please unquote, that is, direct his foolish wit or witty folly towards whomever he chooses. Those who are most provoked by his folly, Jacques goes on to say, are those who must laugh the hardest. Why is this so...? That’s what I was asking you,” she broke off to say, “...if you have any clue about this, but you obviously don’t. Anyway...why is this so?” She continued reading. “Jacques explains that this should be obvious to people, as obvious to them as the way to the church is. The fact is that the person who hits a fool, which can be taken to mean hit not in a literal sense, but figuratively, that is he who criticises or berates a fool, might appear smart but is actually very foolish. [...] For if he criticises a fool he exposes himself. He exposes himself and his folly is laid bare within brackets anatomised. Even the squandering glances, that is, the casual fun that a fool might poke at a man...”
It is by any standard an incoherent, fumbling explanation: there is much dross amidst scraps of sense. But just as Jacques’s chatter is wise foolishness, so Hasan’s portrayal of her protagonist is one of clarity routed through incoherence. By not punctuating Firdaus’s talk as Firdaus herself directs it (“...quote blow on whom I please unquote”, “...which can be taken to mean hit not in a literal sense, but figuratively”), Hasan gives us a sense of how Firdaus’s students are hearing her lecture, and how puzzling it must seem to them.

And by showing how Firdaus, while feeling frustration at the sluggishness of her students, is herself not willing to walk with Shakespeare without the crutch of her notes, Hasan has the courage and the confidence to present us with a fairly damning indictment of her protagonist, whose reproaches to her students mask the fact that she, too, is – to borrow a phrase from Othello – “perplex’d in the extreme. The most meaningful words in Hasan’s passage are not those that make some sense of what Jacques is saying, but precisely the most superfluous ones: phrases like “In addition, that is withal” and “within brackets anatomised”, which show that Firdaus is actually on the same side of the fence as her students. It is a genuinely novelistic passage, teeming with crisscrossing meanings: as a result of the author’s artful layering, the words point out towards Shakespeare and back towards Firdaus at the same time, and we understand not just the place of the fool in Shakespearean comedy but the feelings of inadequacy felt by Firdaus.

Firdaus knows that her students must grapple with Shakespeare “simply because he was standing in the way, he was unavoidable”. She is quite right: in the castle of English literature, the biggest suite of rooms belongs to Shakespeare. But why? For what reason? Firdaus’s reverence for Shakespeare, and the incongruity of this fairly representative classroom scene narrated by Hasan, help crystallise a peculiarly Indian attitude towards Shakespeare, which is to see him as the gold standard of sophisticated “high” English, as a dealer in proverbs and precepts, and, finally, as some kind of transcendent genius, a god who never put a foot wrong. Shakespeare is standing in the way, and we bow before him: we have not broken free of a colonized relationship with him.

Even when we do not comprehend Shakespeare, or faintly comprehend him, we are sure that he was great: the very fact that we do not understand what he is saying proves it, and just to say his name is to bask in reflected glory. Shakespeare is supposed to be good for us, as green vegetables are. I remember how, in school, my seventh standard textbook had a passage from Hamlet which excerpted Polonius’s immensely tedious words of advice to his departing son Laertes. The councillors of education who chose it presumably thought that it was an edifying passage that would be good for students, and by presenting Polonius’s speech out of context, chose to totally ignore the fact that we are at some point supposed to laugh at Polonius’s longwindedness. The dramatic situation counts for nothing; the highflown words for everything.

This Bardolatry, perversely, has the effect of diminishing our enjoyment and appreciation of Shakespeare, because it defines, a priori, the terms of our engagement with him, instead of giving us the chance to apply our all faculties on Shakespeare’s enormously knotty and complicated language in an open field, as it were. Shakespeare’s language is certainly extraordinary, but what is extraordinary about it is that it is not necessarily “good”, or grammatically correct, or coherent in its syntax: it is a language of both beauty and craziness, of thrilling energy but also grinding stasis.

Indeed, I have on occasion heard some grizzled Indian Shakespeareans declare that they cannot bear to read anything but Shakespeare (there used to be a figure like this in many English departments in India, and their eclipse is in its own way rather sad, because in many cases they have been replaced by figures who, waving the flags of new critical theories, are convinced that Shakespeare’s reputation is a conspiracy of British imperialism, or that he represents not artistic genius but a coalescence and personification of the social and ideological energies of his time) – they cannot bear to read anything but Shakespeare because the language of “modern literature”, with its slang and its cuss words, seems debased by comparision. But actually Shakespeare himself is full of curses, scurrility, ribaldry, and slang, now given a patina of respectability by the passage of four centuries.

Shakespeare (but not the Indian Shakespeare) is as rude as anybody in the canon, for the exigencies of his dramatic and intensely practical art, which thrived or withered according to gate receipts, required that he write for groundlings as much as sophisticates. A line like “Now is he total gules” (Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2, meaning “now he is totally red with blood”) sits uneasily with our view of Shakespeare as representative of high culture: it could belong just as easily to a rap song.

In fact, it is imperative that we read Shakespeare without rose-tinted glasses, and note (alongside his wondrous density and compression of sense; his startling nominalizations and verbalizations, compound words and neologisms; the knotty texture of his thought; the marvellous and supple rhythms of his lines) his often gratuitous wordplay, his shambling and over-long metaphors, his immense sententiousness, and his tendency to say in ten lines what he might have done in two. As Frank Kermode writes in an essay called “Writing About Shakespeare”, “There is a way of treating Shakespeare...as a very good but sometimes not so good poet, as sometimes but not always clearly a writer of genius – as always, indeed, a writer and to be considered as such.”

Just as Firdaus is all the more sympathetic for her weakness, so too the richest Shakespeare, the most intriguing Shakespeare, is one whom we discern as being both grand and grandiloquent, both untouchable and fallible, a wizard with words whose trade also forced him into hackwork, and whom we might imagine sitting in his room after a long day at the playhouse, sometimes short of inspiration, and saying to himself, like Richard II, “I cannot do it; yet I’ll hammer it out”.

At the close of that passage in Lunatic In My Head, we see Firdaus back home after an eventful day. Once again the ghost of Shakespeare insinuates itself into her consciousness, stands in the way:
In bed at night, listening to her grandfather coughing his chronic cough, Firdaus, still in complete possession of her new-found clarity, realised – with the shock one might feel when an old ache suddenly vanishes – that all self-confidence was connected to language. If she could clearly articulate what she felt, if she could find the right words, if she could speak them forcefully into the world, she would be able to make an impress on reality. [...]
She felt calm and drowsy. Her nose hurt less now. At the very border of sleep, Jacques’ lines came back to her: ‘Invest me in my motley; give me leave to speak my mind, and I will through and through cleanse the foul body of the infected world’, and she knew that in some roundabout way he was speaking about the power of language too, about the power of the tongue, its wit and cunning, its ability to make men reveal their deepest selves.
“Invest me in my motley; give me leave to speak my mind, and I will through and through cleanse the foul body of the infected world” – these ringing words might be read as Shakespeare’s coded appeal to his audience, and indeed as the imprecation of every writer to his or her imagined reader.

And here are links to some essays on Shakespeare which I have enjoyed most over the years. Some of these provide an perspective, from a point of view roughly corresponding to my own though infinitely more subtle, on the main currents in Shakespeare criticism in the last twenty-five years; others directly address questions of language and performance:

“The Case for Bardolatry” by William Kerrigan – one of the most thrilling essays I’ve read in a decade of reading Shakespeare criticism (“Bloom’s literary constructionism is no less extravagant–and no more subject to proof–than the New Historicists’ social constructionism. It is probably wise not to enter into the ultimately empty arguments supporting these two contrasting claims. They can instead be regarded as antagonistic Weltanschauungs of late-twentieth-century literary intellectuals–a particularly clear instance of the ongoing battle between those inclined to see literature largely in terms of society or politics and those inclined to see society or politics largely in terms of literature”);

“The One and Only” by the great Shakespeare scholar Anne Barton, with whom I had the good fortune of studying (“Most biographies, John Updike has observed, ‘are really just novels with indexes.’ That seems especially true with lives of Shakespeare.”);

“Blueprints for Performance” by the theatre director Richard Eyre (“He chose to write in a form in which narrative and character are revealed in words and actions rather than description, and which uses time, space, gesture, movement, speech, colour, costume, light and music, and aims to be truthful while always being unreal. It thrives on metaphor: a room becomes a world, a group of characters a whole society”);

“A Man For All Ages” by Jonathan Bate, co-editor of the recently released Complete Works based on the First Folio and author of the brilliant book The Genius of Shakespeare (“Shakespeare's enduring appeal cannot, however, be said to rest solely on his linguistic virtuosity, nor on the proposition – favoured by some of today's politically minded critics – that he achieved world domination simply because of the power of the British empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. At one level, he is ‘not of an age, but for all time’. He works with archetypal characters, core plots and perennial conflicts, as he dramatises the competing demands of the living and the dead, the old and the young, men and women, self and society, integrity and role-play, insiders and outsiders. He grasps the structural conflicts shared by all societies: religious against secular vision, country against city, birth against education, strong leadership against the people's voice, the code of honour against the energies of erotic desire”);

“Stages of Thought” by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum (“To write philosophically about Shakespeare, or any other great author or artist, one needs not so much philosophical learning, or even philosophical argument, but a genuinely philosophical temperament, puzzled and even humble before life's complexities, and willing to put one's sense of life on the line in the process of reading a text. As Plato rightly said, it is no chance matter that we are discussing, but how one should live. The philosopher needs to turn to literature because literature gets at depths of human experience, tragic or comic, that philosophical prose does not reach; but then the philosopher will need to show the imprint of that complexity, to reveal something of the pain or the joy that the work evokes from his or her own character”);

The first chapter from Shakespeare's Language by Frank Kermode, and an excerpt from Kermode's The Age of Shakespeare (“The commercial development of [Elizabethan] drama was one more sign that the world as regulated by liturgy was being supplanted by a world more concerned with capital and labor – a world in which time itself had a different quality”)

“Whose Bard?” by Thomas Jeffers (“And the Russians? Alexander Pushkin, Ivan Turgenev, and Fyodor Dostoevsky had some wise, and Leo Tolstoy some foolish, things to say about Shakespeare, but the one who did the most for him—translating the plays, prompting their production, and recreating the Elizabethan world—was Boris Pasternak. Gross gives him four entries, including this about the atmosphere of Romeo and Juliet, well caught in Franco Zeffirelli’s film version (1968): ‘Outside the windows ring the daggers of the quarreling clans, the blood of Capulets and Montagues streams in the streets, while in the kitchens, cooks’ knives clatter and scullions squabble over the endless dinners. And under the hubbub of cooking and carnage, as under the thumping beat of a noisy band, the tragedy of hushed feelings is played out in silent, conspiratorial whispers.’”);

“Translating Shakespeare”, an interview with the French poet Yves Bonnefoy (“The stage offered Shakespeare all the possibilities of the spoken word, characters in whose speech the stereotypical thinking of a society, its sexism for instance, would flourish and abound, but in which more lucid intuitions and even remarks of a subversive nature could also be heard, giving the author a chance to deepen his relation to life, to death, and to aspects of existence that are authentically real. And all along, through the fiction that structures the plays, there are situations, events, and figures that can be presented in such a way as to reflect symbolically or emblematically the playwright's thinking about poetry and poetics”);

An excerpt from Playing Shakespeare, an invaluable handbook of advice for actors by the legendary director of Shakespeare plays John Barton ("I may be cynical but I don't believe most people really listen to Shakespeare in the theater unless the actors make them do so. I certainly don't. I know that it's too easy for me to get the general gist and feeling of a speech, but just because I get the gist I often don't listen to the lines in detail. Not unless the actors make me. What I want to explore are the ways in which they can achieve that.");

“The Kingmakers” by the British director and actor Michael Pennington, on the great Shakespearean actors Lawrence Olivier and John Gielgud (“Olivier had a gift for play – for believing that he could become anything he wanted - and an ability to spring any number of physical surprises. In comparison, John Gielgud, who transformed himself brilliantly elsewhere, in Pinter and Chekhov particularly, played Shakespeare as if in unending rapturous tribute, the language harrowing him like fire”);

“The Shakespeared Brain”, a marvellous essay by Philip Davis, author of the recently published and widely praised book Shakespeare Thinking (“In particular I mentioned to him the linguistic phenomenon in Shakespeare which is known as ‘functional shift’ or ‘word class conversion’. It refers to the way that Shakespeare will often use one part of speech – a noun or an adjective, say—to serve as another, often a verb, shifting its grammatical nature with minimal alteration to its shape. Thus in Lear for example, Edgar comparing himself to the king: "He childed as I fathered" (nouns shifted to verbs); in Troilus and Cressida, ‘Kingdomed Achilles in commotion rages’ (noun converted to adjective); Othello, ‘To lip a wanton in a secure couch/And to suppose her chaste!’ (noun ‘lip’ to verb; adjective ‘wanton’ to noun). The effect is often electric I think, like a lightning-flash in the mind: for this is an economically compressed form of speech.... Could we make an experiment out of it?”)

“Reviving Ann Hathaway” by Eric Ormsby (“There remains the matter of the notorious ‘second-best bed’ which Shakespeare left to Ann in his will. This bequest seems grudging at best, contemptuous at worst. But as Ms. Greer notes, a bed represented a substantial legacy at the time: A modest bed had the same value as a cow, a sumptuous bed was worth as much as a cottage. Furthermore, Shakespeare doesn’t seem to have been lavish in the other provisions of his will; even his more substantial bequest to his daughter Judith is hedged about with niggling restrictions. ‘The most eloquent Englishman who ever lived,’ as Ms. Greer rightly describes him, seems to have been something of a Scrooge at the end. But to read contempt into his bequest to Ann of the ‘second-best bed’ (the best was reserved for guests) may be unwarranted. It could have been a legacy of affection as well, the coded bequest which only a loving wife would understand, the solid symbol of a lasting bond”);

“The death of Kings”, a symposium of Shakespeare actors, directors and scholars each listig his or her favourite play from the histories (Simon Schama: “ Henry IV, Part II is better called a memory play than a history; it is the most lyrical Shakespeare ever wrote. And it needs the most delicate touch in its direction and acting to draw out the autumnal pathos. The most heartbreakingly vivid scenes come from the mouths of the old as they spirit themselves back beyond the ache of their brittle bones to the lusty lads and lasses they still feel themselves to be. Whatever else ails them, their memories are as bright as gems”);

“100+ of the best books on Shakespeare”, again by Jonathan Bate (with selections like“Richard A. Lanham, The Motives of Eloquence: Literary Rhetoric in the Renaissance (1976) – dazzling study of Renaissance rhetorical formations of the self, which deserves to be, but is not, as well known as the work of Greenblatt and others” and “Peter Hall, Hamlet's Advice to the Players (2003) – prescriptions of the RSC founder and self-confessed ‘iambic fundamentalist’”);

“Can You Stage A War? What Shakespeare Knew” by the theatre critic John Heilpern (“There’s one thing –and one thing alone – that Shakespeare couldn’t do. He couldn’t show wars onstage.... Far from telling us how battle scenes should be staged, Shakespeare takes great care to instruct us not to stage them. The prologue to Henry V is an inspired, ironic apology: ‘O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention! / A kingdom for a stage, princes to act / And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!’”);

And finally, “Everything and Nothing”, a captivating little fable by Jorge Luis Borges (“The story goes that, before or after he died, he found himself before God and he said: ‘I, who have been so many men in vain, want to be one man: myself.’ The voice of God replied from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I one self; I dreamed the world as you dreamed your work, my Shakespeare, and among the shapes of my dream are you, who, like me, are many persons—and none.’”)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

On Vaclav Havel's To The Castle and Back

In one of a series of grand revolutions that swept over Europe in 1989, the Czech playwright Václav Havel, then the most prominent dissident in his country and indeed one of the cogent critics of totalitarianism in the world, was swept into Prague Castle on the wings of what came to be called the Velvet Revolution. It was a fairytale conclusion to a lifetime of difficult and often lonely political opposition that had included several years in prison.

But if that moment was romantic, the years that followed, and which are described in Havel's new memoir To The Castle and Back – one short term as president of Czechoslovakia, and the two full terms at the helm of the Czech Republic – were mostly prosaic. The man who previously had followed the path of his conscience and had freely spoken his mind now entered, half-willingly, the world of bureaucracy, diplomacy, suits and neckties, compromise, caution, acronyms, and rhetoric – entered the massive precincts of Prague Castle, one of the oldest and largest seats of a head of state in the world, "almost literally a city within a city" – a site whose architecture seemed designed specifically for murky and furtive conduct. "Just think of those long corridors! They actually seduce one into a kind of life in the corridors of power, invite one to invent and spread rumors, to weave intrigues." To The Castle And Back might be read as an account of idealism in politics as tempered by the push and pull of worldly forces: of the castle of the self in the castle of power.

Havel’s book is actually a tripartite collaboration between himself, his long-time friend and translator Paul Wilson, and the respected Czech journalist Karel Hvizdala. The work is not one continuous narrative, but a selection by Havel of notes, memos to Castle staff, and diary entries between 1993 and 2005, interspersed with long, thoughtful answers to probing questions by Hvizdala.

This makes for a highly appealing structure in which, as in politics, profound and mundane concerns are thrown at each other. Here the President can be heard making a grand point about democracy as “a relationship to the world and to society, a way of thinking” or voicing fears that the Czech Republic "would forever remain in a sphere of dubious quasi-democracies, teeming with populists and nationalists"; there he is found arriving to the conclusion that “We need a longer hose for watering”, or asking “In the closet where the vacuum cleaner is kept, there also lives a bat. How to get rid of it?”, or stating, "I'm sending a percel of shirts for Mrs. Ouskova." Havel’s memos to the staff emphasise the quotidian and practical aspects of politics, and his replies to Hvizdala the larger shape of his thought and the range of his concerns.

Here, by way of illustration, is a question by Hvizdala about the European Union, which was established in 1993 and which the Czech Republic joined in 2004, alongside other formerly Communist states who had existed for several decades behind the Iron Curtain of USSR-led communism:

Hvizdala: The old member states have contributed significantly to the development of the new members who are all less evolved because of long years of communist rule. Do you think that we can ever pay them back? What do you say when you are reminded of this subsidization?

I think that we have an opportunity to pay them back in a certain way already, and one can even see situations in which we are already doing this. I'm thinking about our political voice. The European Union occasionally still suffers from the old European disease, which is the tendency to make compromises with evil, to close one's eyes to dictatorship, to practice a politics of appeasement or even of accommodation, vis-à-vis totalitarian systems, that is determined by economic interests. Some politicians, those who have not experienced fascism or communism, are incorrigible in this regard. I think that the new members of the European Union, who have a relatively recent experience of totalitarianism, are perhaps duty-bound to take a more principled position – should it occasionally be necessary – and to monitor the European Union in this regard, or educate it. It's in everyone's interest. Accommodating evil has, so far, never forced evil to retreat, or to become more humane; on the contrary, it has always made life easier for it. In the end, when confrontation came, the price that everyone had to pay was infinitely higher than the cost of a firm stance.
Unsurprisingly, one of the main themes of To The Castle and Back is man's struggle with language, and also a writer's love of ordered and precise language – indeed the durability of language in a world of transient things. Caught up in the drudgery of statecraft, he muses, "How wonderful it is, by comparison, to be a writer! You write something in a couple of weeks, and it's here for the ages. What will remain when presidents and prime ministers are gone? Some references to them in textbooks, mostly likely inaccurate."

Among the tasks that Havel is seen taking most seriously is his speechwriting: a recurring issue of these pages is the pressure of composing speeches for all kinds of occasions. “For many years now, my weekends have more or less all been occupied with the writing of speeches," he is found complaining in 1998. "It's awful." Elsewhere, he reveals why the composition of speeches take so much out of him: "I try to write speeches as if they were short poems. They have to have a beginning, a structure, an end, their own melody, energy, and drama. Otherwise it’s impossible.” And at the close of the book we find this beautiful meditation on language:

The beauty of language is that it can never capture precisely what it wants. Language is disconnected, hard, digital as it were, and for that reason, but not only for that reason, it can never completely capture something as connected as reality, experience, or our souls. This opens the door to the magnificent battle for expression and self-expression that has accompanied man down through history. It is a battle without end, and thanks to it, everything that is human is constantly being elucidated, each time somewhat differently. Moreover, it is in this battle that man in fact becomes himself. As an individual, and as a species. He simply tries to capture the world the world and himself more and more exactly through words, images, or actions, and the more he succeeds, the more aware he is that he can never completely capture either the world or himself, nor any part of the world. [...] It's a Sisypean fate. But it can't be helped: man will carry the complete truth about himself to the grave, though someone, in the end, will know that truth after all: if not the Lord God, then at least the great memory of Being.

"I think that the moral order stands above the legal, political and economic orders, and that these latter orders should derive from the former, and not be techniques for getting around its imperatives. And I believe that the moral order has a metaphysical anchoring in the infinite and the eternal." These words late in the book contain the essence of Havel's thought, and if Indian readers find them familiar, it may be because they so closely resemble the thought of Gandhi, who, like Havel, sought to restore the spiritual and ethical dimension in politics, and whose thought, like that of Havel, achieved an extraordinary balance of idealism and realism. Havel, like Gandhi, insists that external change is meaningless without a change within; his observation, in his book Letters To Olga, that
The importance of the no­tion of human responsibility has grown in my meditations. It has begun to appear, with increasing clarity, as that fundamen­tal point from which all identity grows and by which it stands or falls; it is the foundation, the root, the center of gravity, the constructional principle or axis of identity. . . . It is the mortar binding it together, and when the mortar dries out, identity too begins irreversibly to crumble and fall apart
would have been unquivocally endorsed by Gandhi.

Havel’s place in history, grand themes, distinctive organization of his material, fidelity to language, powers of self-scrutiny, and commitment to "living in truth" make for a work that should become a classic of political literature.

And here are links to enough essays by or on Havel to keep you going for a couple of days: "Kicking The Door", an essay published in 1979 ("The strange thing happened then: I became suddenly furious..."); "On The Temptations of Political Power", a speech given in 1991; "A Word About Words" ("thanks to the miracle of speech, we know, probably better than the other animals, that we actually know very little, in other words, we are conscious of the existence of mystery"); "The Need for Transcendence in the Postmodern World"; "A Farewell to Politics"; "Stories and Totalitarianism"; "Politics and Theatre" ("A friend once said that politics is 'the sum of all things concentrated.' It encompasses law, economy, philosophy, and psychology. Inevitably, politics is theatre as well...In a theatre, our consciences are touched but responsibility ends when the curtain drops. The theatre of politics makes permanent demands on us all, as dramatists, actors, and audience") "Civil Society and Its New Enemies" ("Human beings are not only manufacturers, profit makers or consumers. They are also – and this may be their innermost quality – creatures who want to be with others, who yearn for various forms of coexistence and cooperation, who want to influence what happens around them")"Edvard Beneš: Dilemmas of a European Politician"; "Redefining The West"; "The Intellectual and Politics"; "The Spires of Renewal"; "Politics and Conscience"; "What Communism Still Teaches Us", and lastly, perhaps Havel's most famous essay "The Power of the Powerless".

And here is an old interview with Havel conducted by Michael Bongiovanni "in semi-clandestine conditions at Vaclav Havel's home" in June 1989, shortly before the Velvet Revolution ("What we want, here and now, are simple, elementary things. Without reference to any ideological framework, beyond all ideology. We aspire to a share in the basic values of life, those which simple common sense and elementary human dignity demand we should be entitled to."), and another interview from 1993 published in the literary magazine Artful Dodge. Also, here is an essay called "Exit Havel", written by David Remnick on the occasion of Havel's departure from office in 2003. The philosopher Michael Hodges and the political scientist Jean Bethke Elshtain usefully discuss Havel as a "performer of political thought" here.

And some old posts on books by or about politicians: Rajmohan Gandhi's biography of Mahatma Gandhi, Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope; Jawaharlal Nehru as a writer of English prose, and the memoirs of General Pervez Musharraf.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

On Steve Coll's The Bin Ladens

Since the day nineteen hijackers owing allegiance to Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the name “Bin Laden” has reverberated around the world as shorthand for a benighted medievalism, an intransigent anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism, and a murderous hatred of the West, of secularism, and of “infidels” – the obverse, in short, of civilization as much of the world knows it.

But, as the New Yorker staff writer Steve Coll shows in his new book The Bin Ladens, Osama’s background is far more complex than what he himself portrays it to be. His break in the early nineties from his massive family – for long the biggest business group in Saudi Arabia – and from all that they stood for (persistent modernization, business ties with America, fealty to the corrupt ruling dynasty of Saudi Arabia, a love of material and secular pleasures) occurred very slowly and tentatively. Coll’s book is simultaneously the biography of a terrorist and that of a great business house. Indeed, Osama only makes his first appearance a quarter of the way into The Bin Ladens.

Coll’s story begins in the 1930s with Mohamed Bin Laden, an impoverished but enterprising Yemeni national who came to Jeddah in search of work and set up as a contractor in construction. Mohamed’s trade gradually flourished, and he came close to the court of the Al-Saud, the ruling dynasty of newly formed Saudi Arabia. Mohamed’s links with the court would set his own dynasty firmly in step with that of the Al-Saud for decades to come.

Mohamed was a much-married man – he sired 54 children from several wives, and Osama was one of seven children born in the same year. A construction contract funded with American money in January 1951 – half a century before 9/11 – marks the first appearance of the name “Bin Laden” on an American state document.

Private jets were a luxury enjoyed by many Saudi notables, and Mohamed had his own jet, manned by an American pilot who took him from site to site. Mohamed’s death in a plane crash in 1967 would be the first eerie episode of a long list of links between members of the Bin Laden family and plane crashes. Most of Bin Laden business was divided up, as per Islamic law, between the many children, but the burden of running it till many of the children became majors rested upon Salem, Mohamed’s eldest son and Osama’s eldest brother.

Coll’s extended portrait of Salem, an energetic, garrulous bon vivant who loved to live on the edge, makes for the most pleasurable section of his massive narrative. Salem extended his father’s system of patronage, forging links with many members of the next generation of the Al-Saud. He drank wine and ate pork without inhibition, and inherited his father’s love of flying, buying himself several jets and acquiring considerable proficiency in flying them. He flew frequently to America, where he invested copiously in businesses and real estate, and supported several girlfriends all around the world. As the oil boom of the seventies made the Saudi kingdom flush with money, the Bin Laden family rose higher than ever before. But Salem himself died tragically in a plane crash.

All this while Osama, whose mother had remarried after being divorced by Mohamed, was acquiring an education at an expensive private school in Jeddah. This was where he came into first contact with radical religious rhetoric, through a teacher who owed allegiance to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Osama’s devotion to the word of God and his fastidious observance of rules – he would avert his eyes while speaking to women outside the family – was not seen as unusual by his family in a country where, as Coll remarks, “religion was like gravity” – everpresent – and the influence of the austere Wahhabi school was strong.

After attaining maturity Osama worked with the Bin Laden group as a junior executive, while enjoying a life much higher than his position because of his stake in the family business. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 would be the making of Osama. He moved to Pakistan to work as a fundraiser for the cause of the mujahideen, the Arab militia who had arrived to join the Afghan resistance, and his profile rose within his country and within his own family. In Pakistan, Osama came into contact with several radical preachers (Abdullah Azzam, Ayman al-Zawahiri) who taught him the lines of his polemic – Christians and Jews want to take over the world; the West is tempting the Muslim world with lowly material and carnal pleasures; it is the duty of every Muslim to wage jihad against these forces – while exploiting his access to wealth.

It is worth noting that Osama’s current face – that of a rootless, transnational holy warrior, a voice speaking to the world from an abyss, plotting its doom – was only consolidated after his family broke off all ties with him in 1994, followed shortly afterward by the Saudi government’s cancellation of his citizenship. Left without the consolations of family or motherland, Osama was now on his own – Osama first, and Bin Laden second. He lived for a while in Sudan, and then, under pressure from the Sudanese government, moved to Afghanistan in 1996.

In his speeches and essays (his skillful use of new media like satellite television and the Internet is totally at odds with his hatred of modernity) he now railed against the Al-Saud dynasty and its defenders; against practices like usury, which he had formerly endorsed; and most relentlessly against the United States. In exile he became something of a "global news junkie" trawling the internet and magazines for material he could use. In his library in Afghanistan, books about American foreign policy and anti-Semitic screeds lay alongside "traditional Koranic texts, faxed essays from radical Islamic scholars in Saudi Arabia, and bits and pieces from Western media reports".

Coll's close analysis of the moods and rhythms of Osama's speeches over the years (collected recently as Messages to the World, a volume edited by Bruce Lawrence and published by Verso) shows how, immediately after September 11, Osama's morale took a dip, as the American invasion of Afghanistan he had anticipated bowled over the Taliban instead of meeting with the resistance that the Soviets once had. Heavy bombing around him led to Osama believing that his death was imminent, and in December of 2001 he composed a mournful will and testament. "[N]ever before had a document attributed to him conveyed such despair and exhaustion", writes Coll.

But the long winter passed, Osama found himself safe, and he returned to a life of incitement and provocation via videos and speeches broadcast over the Internet. His spirits were lifted once again after the Iraq war, which he saw as a chance to mobilise the potential of the entire ummah. in 2008, nearly seven years after he shook the world, he remains at large, a spectre who looms in every discussion of world politics. But Coll’s brilliant book, with its emphasis on “the universal grammar of families”, shows us an Osama Bin Laden more contradictory, more fragile, and more vulnerable than the Osama we know.

"Young Osama", an essay by Coll on Osama's youth, can be found here, and the first chapter of The Bin Ladens is here. A good long interview with Coll in a recent issue of Der Spiegel is here.

And some other pieces of interest: Samuel Huntington in conversation with Nathan Gardels on Bin Laden; "The Hunt for Bin Laden" by Declan Walsh; and "What Were The Causes of 9/11?" by Peter Bergen, who has written a widely praised book called The Osama Bin Laden I Know; "Terrorism's CEO", an interview with Bergen; and, most recently, "The Jihadist Revolt Against Bin Laden", a piece by Bergen and Paul Cruikshank just published in the New Republic.

Lastly, Osama has a very funny walk-on part as "OBL" in Mohammed Hanif's charming new novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes, about which I will have a post soon.

A shorter version of this piece appeared recently in Mint.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

In Pratilipi

My long essay "Anjum Hasan and the Indian Shakespeare" appears this month in the second issue of the bilingual (English-Hindi) and bimonthly literary magazine Pratilipi. The essay reads some passages from Hasan's splendid novel Lunatic in my Head (Penguin/Zubaan, 2007) through the prism of Indian attitudes towards Shakespeare. The essay will be on the Middle Stage next week, along with a set of links to great essays on Shakespeare.

Hasan's novel is also among the six Indian novels shortlisted for the Crossword Book Awards 2007. Among the English novels shortlisted for the award, my reviews of Lunatic in my Head and Amitava Kumar's Home Products, which I also liked very much, are here and here. Among the shortlisted non-fiction books, my review of Rajmohan Gandhi's biography of Mahatma Gandhi is here, and I have a long interview with Ramachandra Guha, the author of India After Gandhi, here. I noted with some regret that I had not read or written about a single one of the shortlisted novels in translation from other Indian languages.

And here are some selections from the new issue of Pratilipi:

"Exiled From Poetry and Country" by Uday Prakash; "Eating The Breeze" by Samurna Chattarji; "January 4, 1960", five poems in Hindi and in English translations by Udayan Vajpeyi; "No Book To Blow The Mind" by Vivek Narayanan; "Translating Ann Jäderlund on the Ghats of the Narmada" by Teji Grover; "The Missing", three poems in Hindi and in English translations by Mangalesh Dabral; "Death and the Self" by Rustam Singh; "The Role of Dalits in the 1857 Revolt" by Badri Narayan; "Wilderness", a story by Sara Rai, and "Between the Pink", six ghazals in Kannada and in English translation by HS Shiva Prakash.

I will have an essay in each new issue of Pratilipi for at least the next year. Each essay will be devoted to a close reading of a work of Indian fiction.