Late Work And Shying Away From Decay And Death

In ‘Late Francis Bacon: Spirit and Substance‘ Colm Tóibín writes:

It would be easy to imagine…that Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice was written toward the end of his life. In fact, it was written in 1911, when Mann was thirty-six. It is a young man’s book; its images of desire, decay, and death could not be so easily entertained by a writer facing into late or last work.

Tóibín does not make clear why we would imagine that Death in Venice “was written toward the end of [Mann’s] life” but be that as it may, of more interest here is the claim that an artist (of whatever stripe) would find it difficult to entertain “images of desire, decay, and death” in “late or last work.”

Tóibín has found himself making this claim, I suspect, as a way of pushing further the speculative query by Edward Said with which he opens this essay:

In his book On Late Style…Edward Said ponders the aura surrounding work produced by artists in the last years of their lives. He asks: “Does one grow wiser with age, and are there unique qualities of perception and form that artists acquire as a result of age in the late phase of their career?”….he also questions the very notion of late serenity:….What if age and ill health don’t produce the serenity of ‘ripeness is all’?”

Said further ponders…the sheer strangeness of Ludwig van Beethoven’s late string quartets and his last piano sonatas, their insistence on breaking with easy form, their restlessness, their aura of incompletion…the feeling that they are striving toward some set of musical textures that have not yet been imagined and cannot be achieved in Beethoven’s lifetime….these late pieces wish to represent the mind or the imagination not as it faces death but rather as it faces life, as it sets out to reimagine a life with new beginnings and new possibilities.

The obvious counterpoint to Tóibín’s claim is implicit in Said’s first query: as artists approach death, they, like other humans, find a new openness to the very idea of death and non-existence and the bodily decay that precedes it. An excellent example of this might be Roger Angell‘s essay ‘This Old Man’ which begins with the following lines:

Check me out. The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the K.G.B. No, it’s more as if I’d been a catcher for the Hall of Fame pitcher Candy Cummings, the inventor of the curveball, who retired from the game in 1877. To put this another way, if I pointed that hand at you like a pistol and fired at your nose, the bullet would nail you in the left knee. Arthritis.

Now, still facing you, if I cover my left, or better, eye with one hand, what I see is a blurry encircling version of the ceiling and floor and walls or windows to our right and left but no sign of your face or head: nothing in the middle. But cheer up: if I reverse things and cover my right eye, there you are, back again. If I take my hand away and look at you with both eyes, the empty hole disappears and you’re in 3-D, and actually looking pretty terrific today. Macular degeneration.

And so it goes on. Angell, of course, is writing an essay on old age; he is not working these images into his sports writing. What about other writers? I will rest content with another example: Phillip Roth, whose late work was replete with such ‘images’; he never  shied away from them. Comments with support or refutation for Tóibín’s claim welcome.

Israel And A Jewish Solution To The Palestinian Problem

When I was eight years old, my mother told me the story of the Jews. We were on a month-long vacation, the mother of all road-trips; our destinations included the mountains and the valleys of Kashmir and the Garhwal. One day, after a long and tiring drive through innumerable twisting roads, we had reached our long-sought destination for the day, a charming forest bungalow, and after we had eaten dinner and settled in for the night, she drew my brother and me close to her and told us their tale.

It was a story that haunted and inspired me: a story of suffering and perseverance, of persecution and survival, of endurance and persistence in the face of adversity. It was a tale of dispersal and flight, of resistance, of the preservation of the things most precious to the Jewish identity. She told us of the Holocaust, of the unimaginable horrors of the concentration camps, and then, she told us of Israel, and its creation as a safe haven, finally, for an eternally persecuted people. She told us of a land reclaimed from the desert, made fertile and populated by a people who saw within its borders a chance to make their lives anew, away from the death and destruction that had been visited them during mankind’s most horrible conflict. She told us of their continued fight for survival through the wars that followed; their continued and enduring resilience. She told us of their learning and culture; she told us of their intellectual accomplishments in science, literature and the arts; she told us of the value they placed on education and lifelong learning.

And, then, unforgettably, bringing up the example of the Rothschilds, she told us of Jewish philanthropy, how a long-oppressed and suffering people had taken their immense, hard-earned wealth and used it for the greater good, deciding that their pain would be unique only in that they were determined to not let others suffer as they had, that they would do what they could to decrease the sum total of the inevitable pain and anguish that is every human’s lot on this earth.

I do not remember if my mother told us about Palestine and its dispossessed people. Perhaps she did, but only briefly. Perhaps she meant to tell us another time. Or perhaps she did, but I could not pay attention, for I was riveted by other components of the tale I had just heard.  Perhaps my mother only told me the Exodus version of happenings in the Middle East, and elsewhere. All stories are incomplete; this one surely was.

I grew familiar with the story of the Palestinians much later; the moral burden that placed upon the residents of Israel and perhaps Jews everywhere, only became clearer to me much later in my life. By then, because of the story I had first heard as a eight-year old, and its storyteller, and because–other than Edward Said–the strongest and clearest voices that pointed out Israeli missteps were always Jewish, I had come to believe–even as figurative scales fell from my eyes–that a resolution of the ‘Palestinian problem’ lay within the moral, intellectual and political reach of the Jewish people.

It might be their sternest challenge yet, to find the moral clarity and the political courage to undo undoubted injustice, one which Judaism’s ethical codes most certainly instruct them to.

Hot, Bothered, and Devout: The Religious Policing of Sex

Yesterday, I posted a review essay on a pair of books by SN Balagangadhara and Rajiv Malhotra that critique the field of “Indian studies.” In my essay I attempted to place into some context the recent controversy over the recall from circulation of Wendy Doniger‘s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History.

Amongst the many charges leveled at Doniger’s writing is that she has “hurt” the sensibilities of devout Hindus. This accusation is often made against many modern scholars of Hinduism; Balagangadhara and Malhotra are part of this chorus. Thus, in my essay I noted the former’s critique of Jeffrey Kripal and Paul Courtright‘s  psychoanalytical takes on the mysticism of Ramakrishna Paramahansa and the legend of Ganesha and his conclusion that Kripal and Courtright were “indulging in mischief” and doing “violence” to “the experiential world of the Hindus.” Malhotra, of course, has been vigorously accusing Doniger of a variety of sins: her treatment of sexuality and sexual themes is one of them.

So, rather unsurprisingly, a centerpiece of these critiques is the offense caused to religious sensibilities by that which is supposed remain between the sheets.

I think we are entitled to be suspicious that whenever Hindus—in India, or elsewhere— or other devout folks–all over the world–get offended by academic or cultural responses to their religion, it invariably has something to do with sex, the one business that gets everyone hot and bothered under their cassocks and lungis. Reading Balagangadhara’s language of “violence” against Hindus, one would imagine the darkest depths of anti-Hindu sentiment had been plumbed. Rather disappointingly instead, it turns out Hindus are like religious prudes everywhere: sex and their gods or their saints do not go together; they are chaste, virtuous, asexual creatures. What a letdown for the civilization that gave us Khajuraho.

By saying this, I do not mean to diminish the ascetic strains in Hinduism—like those pointed to, ironically enough, by Wendy Doniger—but rather to combat the impulses present in the responses to the scholarship of Kripal and Courtright that seek to cover up the erotic and sexual strains in Indian culture at large. Such stereotypical and clichéd outraged responses are, after all, not even in accord with Indian cultural mores. Risqué versions of tales taken from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata often make the rounds in India; there are too, among the young ‘uns, dirty ditties galore about its characters to be sung out loudly and coarsely. Those who sing them, and tell lewd jokes by the dozen about characters from the great Hindu epics, don’t seem to be hurt by their activities.

Balagangadhara and Malhotra owe us an explanation of why so many Indians do not seem perennially offended by such practices. Could it be the vaunted Hindu tolerance and syncretism—spoken so glowingly of by Malhotra—is found here in the implicit understanding that powerful cultural and mythological imaginaries are unlikely to be diminished by a few academic theses? Intolerant reactions do not sit well with the picture these two worthies paint for us of an endlessly patient and resilient tradition.

Unsurprisingly, Balagangadhara and Malhotra, and their fellow “outraged”, claim to speak for too many, and seek to control discourse. Some things never change. For all the exalted theistic conceptions that the supposedly devout seek to foist on us, they descend all too quickly from the sublime to the sordid, from lofty metaphysical conceptions to just good old scoldings about dirty talk. There is nothing new in this outrage; just a tired old policing of sex.

SN Balagangadhara and Rajiv Malhotra on Reversing the Gaze

On 12 February, Penguin India announced it was withdrawing and destroying—in India—all published copies of historian Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009). Penguin’s decision came after reaching an out-of-court settlement with Shiksha Bachao Andolan, which, in 2011, had filed a legal complaint objecting to sections of Doniger’s book. Amidst the vocal expressions of concern over the damage done to free speech and academic freedom in India were also thinly-veiled suggestions that justice had been done, that the right outcome—the suppression and quelling of an academic work that supposedly offended Hindu sensibilities—had been reached. A prominent voice in this choir was of one Rajiv Malhotra, who noted on his Twitter account that Doniger was merely the ”idol of inferiority complex Indians [sic] in awe that white person studies Hinduism,” that Penguin’s withdrawal of her work was justified in a world in which “media bias” in an “intellectual kurukshetra [sic]” had led to a “a retail channel controlled by one side.”   

This dispute over Wendy Doniger’s work is merely the latest instance of a long-running contestation of how best to study India and all things Indian.

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Reading Native Son

Partha Chatterjee describes his experience of first reading Edward Said‘s Orientalism:

I will long remember the day I read Orientalism. It must have been in November or December of 1980. In India, this season is classically called Hemanta and assigned a slot between autumn and winter. In Calcutta, where nothing classical remains untarnished, all that this means is a few weeks of uncertain temperatures when the rains have gone, the fans have been switched off, and people wait expectantly to take out their sweaters and shawls. I remember the day because the house was being repainted and everything was topsy-turvy. I sat on the floor of the room in which I usually work, now emptied of its furniture, reading Edward Said whom I had never read before. I read right through the day and, after the workmen had left in the evening, well into the night. Now whenever I think of Orientalism, the image comes back to me of an empty room with a red floor and bare white walls, a familiar room suddenly made unfamiliar. [As cited in S.N. Balagangadhara, Reconceptualizing Indian Studies, Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 35]

In 1991, I was gifted Richard Wright‘s Native Son by a girlfriend of mine. I had not heard of Wright; I certainly had not read Native Son. I was–as might be surmised–callow and ill-read.

A few days after receiving this generous gift, I began reading it; I will long remember the day I did. It was summer time in New Jersey; the nights came late, providing some relief from the muggy heat of the day. I had driven back from work, eaten an early dinner, and then retired to my tiny bedroom to read; my two roommates were still occupied elsewhere, one at graduate school, the other at work; I had solitude and quiet and time, near perfect conditions for reading. I propped my pillow up against the wall, rested my head against it, stretched out on the modest futon mattress that served as ‘bed’ and read Native Son.

I read Book One: Fear and Book Two: Flight. Then, as I read Book Three: Fate, and as Bigger Thomas approached his final, irresistible fate, I felt as if the world, and the place I had previously inhabited in it, was fast becoming unrecognizable. And yet, simultaneously, I was becoming more comprehensible to myself; suddenly I understood . As I lay there, slumped, stunned, struggling to take in the dramatically new portrait that Wright was painting for me of race, class, subjugation, and resistance, I felt as if the walls of the room I was in were moving back, somehow expanding to accommodate a growth I felt within me of something I had never experienced before.  I couldn’t stop; I continued to read, sickened and fascinated in equal measure by the tragedy whose contours had been traced out for me in such eloquent fashion by Wright. I knew I would never see my past life in the same way again; I didn’t think I would ever feel as I had before I read Native Son ever again. Now, whenever I think of Native Son, I think of that evening, that room, and its walls, seemingly being pushed back by the expanding consciousness they enclosed.

Aimé Césaire’s Immortal, Eminently Quotable Line

From Notebook of a Return To My Native Land:

For it is not true that the work of man is finished,
That we have nothing more to do in the world,
That we are just parasites in this world,
That it is enough for us to walk in step with the world,
For the work of man is only just beginning and it remains to conquer all,
The violence entrenched in the recess of his passion,
And no race holds a monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of strength, and,
There is a place for all at the Rendezvous of Victory.

— Aimé Césaire

I read the closing line of that excerpt first in Edward Said‘s The Politics of Dispossesion: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination and since then, have quoted it extensively in conversation and also used it as the epigraph to the concluding chapter of my book Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket. (There, I quoted it in the translated form that I first encountered it: ‘there are enough spoils at the rendezvous of victory for everyone’.)

Why am I so enamored of this line?

It is, of course, as all great segments of poetry are, simple and powerful simultaneously. With one stroke it dismisses the notion of politics as a zero-sum game and dispenses with the temptation to indulge in the raising of false dichotomies as barriers to action. It is evocative: the ‘rendezvous of victory’ is a yet to be attained destination that calls for journey and sacrifice, but not alone, rather, we do so, in the company of others; and what we will find waiting for us at the ‘rendezvous’ will not be a grimly parceled out, diminishing set of ‘spoils’; rather the rendezvous promises enough for all. The translation in the excerpt above has some advantages over the one I first encountered: by speaking of ‘a place for all’ as opposed to ‘spoils’ we sense the table being set for all, an act of generosity that informs and enriches us even as man is sometimes opposed to man.

So with one beautifully phrased line Césaire exposes the falsity of the notion of inevitable conflict, of those who must lose in order to ‘let us win.’ It rejects the inevitability of a grimly Spencerian or Malthusian notion of survival, and the bleak vision of life it brings in its wake, and replaces it with one where man’s actions may lead to a flourishing of not just his life but that of others as well. Our interactions with others become not invitations to deprivation but opportunities for enrichment instead. Thus it urges us to imagine the ‘rendezvous of victory,’ of final attainment, of resolution as a more capacious, generous, place or notion than might have been imagined. Political conflict is typically painted for us in the relentlessly grim colors of survival, conjuring images of the polis red in tooth and claw, its ecology requiring inevitable sacrifice. Césaire urges us to replace it with the idea that political interactions with others can be mutually enabling.