So many writers are returning their awards these days that soon we will be able to buy Sahitya Akademi prizes from the street vendors under India Gate. Most of the people I know don’t care; they don’t read much and when they do, they’re apt to crack open Chetan Bhagat rather than Satchitandan. I do care; literature is at the heart of intellectual culture. When we say freedom of speech, we really mean freedom to write.
In India, the written text still matters; writers haven’t been completely eclipsed by TV and video. Yes, commercial interests can be worse than big brother; Huxley is a greater prophet than Orwell. The state threatens our freedoms, but the market makes them irrelevant. Which brings me to my rant: we need to question our conception of freedom. It’s not enough to quote Tagore, break down the walls that constrain our minds, laugh at a couple of villagers who still believe in demons who swallow the moon and relax while being smug in our superiority.
Sure, we live in a neo-colonial state with Victorian ideas about morality and propriety; in contrast, even the most ordinary of liberal values appear liberating. Yes, it’s OK in 2015 for a woman to walk in public while her bra strap is showing. When our streets, theaters and newspapers are threatened by thugs who want to dictate how we dress, whom we marry and what we eat, rebellion is easy: kissing a lover in public gets the TV channels at our doorstep.
The thinker and the novelist have it easy: all it takes is basic decency, some familiarity with the rules of argument and a commitment to rationality and you’re set.
But but but…. is that enough?
A part of me says that this liberal view of freedom is even more constraining than the traditionalist’s bullying, replacing iron chains with silken ones. The liberal conception of free speech (in India, if not elsewhere) reeks too much of “inculcating scientific temper to uplift the masses.”
We pay too much homage to rationality. That homage comes in two forms, corresponding to two deities: the god of instrumental rationality and the god of theoretical rationality. People in power, whether conservative or liberal, secular or religious, love instrumental rationality. It’s the force behind development, it’s the technical underpinning of market capitalism as well as state socialism. When we say technology, what we really mean is the use of instrumental rationality for domination. Mines, Dams, Bombs and Planes on the hardware side and Laws, Stock Markets and Hedge Funds on the software side. It unites Modi and Nehru, both of whom recite the mantras of instrumental rationality. Its monuments are their temples. I am not sure if any writer has returned his or her Sahitya Akademi Award because a new dam was built, but it’s equally clear that instrumental rationality has killed orders of magnitude more beings than all RSS shakhas put together.
Fortunately, I think sensitive people the world over understand that instrumental rationality has run its course, that it doesn’t matter whether it comes in the form of a Tesla or Terminator, it’s not what we need. Theoretical rationality is another matter. String theory doesn’t get you a job but it doesn’t destroy the planet either. Plus, it’s deep, profound and fun.
I was a fervent believer in theoretical rationality. Even now, I have a soft spot for it. It’s no longer the unalloyed truth, but it’s still deep, profound and fun. However, it’s exceptionally important today to recognize that theoretical rationality isn’t the whole truth.
Let’s start by looking at its defence. After the relentless carnage of the last five hundred years, we have become clever at separating science from technology. Quantum physics: good. Atom Bomb: bad.
Who thinks that’s a plausible defence? Not me. Think about the two extremes:
- Theoretical and practical rationality are closely related and can only be kept separated for propagandist purposes. The same scientists work on the bomb and the equation.
- The two are quite different, in which case theoretical rationality is so woefully incomplete and toothless that we can’t take it seriously as a guide.
In either case, we would be well advised to take the claims of theoretical rationality with a rock of salt.
I am not done yet, for this is an essay about writers, not scientists.
If scientists are the keepers of knowledge, writers are the custodians of the imagination. Yet, litterateurs have voluntarily accepted greater limits on their imagination than any tyrant could ever impose. For one, we restrict themselves to the human world. Our novels and short stories abound with exquisite human characters but the nonhuman world doesn’t appear except as a backdrop. Rocks and trees and turtles aren’t characters in our plays. They’re in the domain of science.
What about science fiction and fantasy? Don’t they teem with non-human agents? Yes, but the dominant mode of science fiction writing is so instrumental that the characters aren’t ever explored in depth. Second, the “other” in these forms of writing is alien, not like us. Literature without intimacy isn’t a vehicle for empathy. The greatest modern literary genre — the novel — is profound in its deep exploration of subjectivity. How can we adapt it toward the depiction of beings, of things even, that have been constructed as devoid of subjecthood?
It’s not enough that we expand our list of subjects to include non-humans, though that’s a welcome move. We can’t stop there, for our very notion of subjectivity is suspect; it’s a construction that goes hand in hand with the notion of objectivity. Together, they are the bedrock of the division between the human and the nonhuman, between the social and the natural. For objects to disappear, subjects will have to vanish as well.
Scientific rationality can’t bridge that divide, only imagination can. String Theory can’t make the universe come alive. In fact, one of the monumentally negative outcomes of theoretical rationality has been a universe that has no meaning, no significance; it’s a universe in which human beings crawl in loneliness and despair as the only creatures that are also beings. We send probes out into the stars asking if we are alone. Meanwhile, billions of other beings are being tortured on our planet. Shouldn’t we at least be open to the possibility that the death of meaning is a product of our (lack of) imagination rather than an intrinsic property of the cosmos? Who better than the philosophers and the poets to bring back that sense of wonder and openness?
Which is why it’s tragic that writers have sequestered themselves from their imaginative responsibilities. Especially Indian writers, who have inherited a long tradition of intimacy between the social and the natural, of being that hasn’t been fragmented into man and beast. But first, we have to take responsibility; there’s no freedom without it. It’s because writers take responsibility for human experience that they receive the freedom to create new fictional human worlds. It’s only by taking responsibility for a wider universe will they receive the freedom to create more than human worlds.