It was not perhaps a coincidence that there was a tirade of criticism last week directed against a popular literary genre among Pakistan’s Urdu readership. First it was Viewpoint Online, who calls itself a progressive dissenting voice, dedicated a whole issue  to the thread; then I came across this article in the Opinion pages of The News. Later, as it usually happens these days, the links, quotes and banners got viral on Twitter and Facebook pages.
Right from the onset, I must put it as a disclaimer that I have never been a great fan of this largely indigenous genre which we can loosely term as a quasi-spiritual commentary or conversation centered on social issues or self-critique. I have myself criticized radical as well as dogmatic conservatism in the land of the pure, its cultural narcissist as well as ahistorical tendencies, and thought patterns drawing on exclusivist and authoritative narratives. Therefore, my motivation is not to present an apologetic on behalf of these spiritual/ mystic romanticists but rather to question the nature of extended criticism from voices that portray themselves as liberal progressive.
Even if one ignores the platitudes, baseless generalizations and ad hominem remarks of these so-called social activists and freelance writers, its really difficult to even remotely access it as a social or literary critique. Some of these critics come out as not more than stubborn angry children, employing flimsy arguments to insist on some hazy desires. Some of them employ vague categories to verbalize obscure point of views, and ironically, do not seem to have a clue what they should actually contend in order to present a meaningful critique intended to ultimately evolve into a dialogue.
One Arshad Mehmood hilariously embarks upon an Aristotelian tone, from a supposedly higher intellectual pedestal, where he speaks about a stringently homogeneous entity in Pakistan called ‘common man’ . While apprising us in an assertive tone not less than Toynbee or Ibn Khaldun, he shares his theories of civilizational progress and gives us a verdict that the this ‘common man’ wrongly considers Iqbal as philosopher and Dr. Abdul Qadir as scientist. Another one throws around a commonplace assumption that ‘We‘ are an ‘emotional‘ nation and therefore lack the ability to critical analyze and decipher truth, and then takes on the regressive and allegedly hypocritical attitudes of Sufi bureaucrats. Yet another one criticizes the minimalist reading indulgences of masses and the shrinking book world ruled by best-selling Babas.
But while all these critics prattle about change, lament the so-called regressive attitudes, beats their chest over the intellectual stagnation of common man, they never take their reader even one step closer to the characterization of the original problem – of course, from their standpoint – and therefore, the overall critique comes out to be too bogus for any serious attention. In a nutshell, it is nothing more than some noisy claptrap.
While trying to distinctly characterize Russian attitudes to life and art as opposed to French ones, Sir Isaiah Berlin once enquired  whether it would upset the French people if someone proves that Honoré de Balzac was serving as a spy for French government or that Stendhal indulged in illegal operations at Stock Exchange. It is not the place to relate the profound characterization of Berlin, but just suffice to mention that, according to him, there are at least two diametrically opposite attitudes to life and art, that is, 1) to primarily understand writers as individuals responsible for all their fictitious, public or private utterances, or 2) to understand them instead as ‘purveyors’ with a foremost duty to provide as good an object as possible.
In this backdrop, isn’t it too obvious even to a cursory reader that all these so-called Babas ultimately tried to provide the best possible product in the most captivating ways, according to their respective degrees of creativity. Therefore, for instance, Mumtaz Mufti’s passionate adventures sometimes on the boundaries of soft eroticism to his later platonic romanticism with higher-truths, Qudrutullah Shahab’s autobiographical sketches relating relationships with politicians, dictators and his alleged supernatural mentors, or Ashfaq Ahmed’s conversations on radio or TV are merely products of some really good purveyors. All of them were creative craftsmen who experimented with various literary art-forms and also explored truth as any other common individual who has ever walked on earth.
Why must we judge them rather than their art, especially when the former endeavour is not likely to transform into an objective discourse, since the artist is no more available to speak as an individual? Is it essential, rather fruitful, that an artist must be projected as a public property to testify for his self-deceptions, allegedly wicked twists and turns or ascribed versions of truths? Are all the artists, and other individuals in general, fully aware of all the historical forces of their times?
Would these so-called liberal voices take it as fair critique, if their conservative interlocutors, for instance, call Ghalib an opportunist toady of British Raj for composing panegyrics eulogizing Queen Victoria? Must we all resort to ridicule each others’ sensibilities and desecrate each others’ cherished ideals and respective world-views? Must we make strong cases for burning books and effigies?
But this is about understanding, and then objectively criticizing art and how it interacts with life in supplying the most essential humanistic truths, and whether such a demand is somehow intrinsically embedded in the art. There is more to it, in other more intricate dimensions related to collective conscience of our imagined community. And as it is meaningful, with usual allowances for exceptions, to talk about Russian, French, German or Chinese attitudes to life and art, is it also meaningful to speak about a Pakistani conscience in a more or less same fashion?
Coming back to Russian attitudes, our enlightened critics taking on fake scholars may benefit immensely from the Belinsky’s celebrated letter to Gogol criticizing publication of a treatise in which the latter called back Russian people to ancient patriarchal ways and find spiritual awakening in serfdom. Belinsky’s letter, besides being a literary masterpiece, is a marvel of social critique challenging the truth supplied by Gogol’s literary tract. Here is a popular quote from the letter describing the nomenclature of Russian individual according to Belinsky:
Take a closer look and you will see that it is by nature a profoundly atheistic people. It still retains a good deal of superstition, but not a trace of religiousness. Superstition passes with the advances of civilization, but religiousness often keeps company with them too; we have a living example of this in France, where even today there are many sincere Catholics among enlightened and educated men, and where many people who have rejected Christianity still cling stubbornly to some sort of god. The Russian people is different; mystic exaltation is not in its nature; it has too much common sense, a too lucid and positive mind, and therein, perhaps, lies the vastness of its historic destinies in the future. Religiousness has not even taken root among the clergy in it, since a few isolated and exceptional personalities distinguished for such cold ascetic contemplation prove nothing. But the majority of our clergy has always been distinguished for their fat bellies, scholastic pedantry, and savage ignorance. It is a shame to accuse it of religious intolerance and fanaticism; instead it could be praised for exemplary indifference in matters of faith. Religiosity among us appeared only in the schismatic sects who formed such a contrast in spirit to the mass of the people and who were numerically so insignificant in comparison with it.
Of course, my purpose is not to extend a social commentary on our particular attitudes to life, art, religion and truth, and whether there are any possible comparisons or contrasts with the Russians, but just to showcase the essential literary traits of incisive, albeit objective, criticism. Its merely a Dummy’s Guide for people like Arshad Mehmood, who are supposedly content in throwing away terms like ‘scientific attitudes‘ and ‘progressive thinking‘ without trying to describe an iota of what these categories actually entail and how they can shape up an alternative world-view in contrast to an allegedly misplaced religious and spiritual outlook.
I do not claim to be a judge of art or literature, but one can always smell intellectual naivety when it is due to lack of enough reading. Perhaps in the view of these so-called leftist liberal critics, a sound critique essentially means to speak from a romantic point of view where an artist is ultimately judged in terms of degree of conformance to a superficial integrity and a kind of commitment to some vague moral ideals which are only in the mind of some critics with a specific bent.
Unfortunately in the end, when we cannot even begin to portray a prototype Pakistani individual in any social or philosophical sense at this point of our short history, these liberal progressive products can neither be understood as an objective social commentary nor an erudite literary critique.
In my humble view, if Pakistani conservatives ascribe to religiously romantic and narcissist world-view, the malady of Pakistani liberalism lies in plagiarized and simplistic thought-structures. If we want to ascribe to an ideal of compassion and create meaningful discourse, we have to create spaces allowing diversity to flourish. Rather than absurd generalizations, there have to sound critiques based on accurate archetypal characterization from contrasting standpoints.
And lastly, if some liberal voices in Pakistan hold a world-view of extreme scientific materialism in which human being is merely understood as an animal of his desires, they should boldly come out in the intellectual arena and make an effort to create a meaningful discourse rather than ridiculing sensibilities of common man through flimsy twaddles. Like that remarkable decade in Russia from 1838 to 1848, we desperately need the birth of an indigenous and diverse intelligentsia, which can invent new and fresh forms of objective criticism and evolve productive discourses.
- ViewPoint Online Issue 148.
- Isaiah Berlin, The Birth of the Russian Intelligentsia (Russian Thinkers).
- In Vissarion G. Belinsky, Selected Philosophical Works (Letter to Nikolai V. Gogol). It is the same letter, reading which in a circle of Petrashevsky adherents, Dostoyevsky was condemned to death, a punishment which was later commuted to penal servitude.