Alexander Herzen: My Past and Thoughts

Beyond doubt, the most beloved literary monument among all genres in my library. Going through this 700 page abridgement from the original four tomes can only leave you with the desire to read the original Constance Garnett translation of complete four volumes. Its so unfortunate that Dwight MacDonald decided not to include that long essay, ‘A Family Drama’ in this abridgement for editorial reasons.

70069Its very hard that something socio-politically meaningful and interesting can be uttered about Herzen’s memoirs by a South-East Asian reader in 21st century. However, from the perspective of an ardent lover of Russian literary tradition and an admirer of that peculiar milieu, Herzen, at times, comes out as deeply disquieted, hot and bothered reactionary; at other times he is a genius social critic, questioning reactionary zealousness and republicanism with the equal force. But overall, his characterization of bourgeois mentality is the strongest part of contemporary interest that protrudes out of the narrative, with capability to even hook a reader who is not that much aware of Turgenev’s Bazarov — the superfluous man —, Bakunin, Belinsky, or even Mazzini or Garibaldi.

The whole Western-Europe of middle of 19th century comes alive in these memoirs and at times, stares at your face not letting you blink your eyes. There are passages which have unsurpassable literary force in whole classic modern literature; for instance, the angst laden ones such as,

All Italy was awakening before my eyes! I saw the King of Naples tamed and the Pope humbly asking the alms of people’s love – the whirlwind, which set everything in movement carried me, too, off my feet; all Europe took up its bed and walked – in fit of somnambulism which we took for awakening. When I came to myself, it had all vanished; la Sonnambula, frightened by the police, had fallen from the roof; friends were scattered or were furiously slaughtering one another…And I found myself alone, utterly alone, among graves and cradles – their guardian, defender, avenger, and I could do nothing because I tried to do more than was usual.

have the kind of old school nihilistic tinge, which Herzen characterized more fully in his famous letters to Turgenev and the essay titled, The Superfluous and the Jaundiced (1860). However, its in the later years when Herzen developed, and displayed, his true literary and critical acumen beyond just the art of blending the personal with the historical. His musings on relationship between art and bourgeois life are so confounding, as well as accurate that one is forced to pause, reflect and perspire in the process. Here is a passage:

Decorum, that is the real word. The petit bourgeois has two talents and he has the same ones, Moderation and portrait-alexander-herzen-astafievPunctuality. The life of middle class is full of small defects and small virtues; it is self-restrained, often niggardly, and shuns what is extreme and what is superfluous. The garden is transformed into a kitchen garden; the thatched cottage into a little country-town house with an escutcheon painted on the shutters; but everyday they drink tea and eat meat in it. It is an immense step forward, but not at all artistic. Art is more at home with poverty and luxury than with crude prosperity or with comfort when it is an end in itself; if it comes to that, it is more at home with a harlot selling herself than with the respectable woman selling at three times the cost of the work of the starving seamstress. Art is not at ease in the stiff, over-neat thrifty house of the petit bourgeois, and in his house is bound to be such; art feels instinctively that in that life it is reduced to the level of external decoration such as wall paper and furniture, to the level of hurdy-gurdy; if the hurdy-gurdy man is a nuisance he is kicked out, if they want to listen they give him a halfpenny and that’s that. Art which is pre-eminently elegance of proportion cannot endure the yard-measure; a life self-satisfied with its narrow mediocrity is stigmatised in the eyes of art by the worst of blots — vulgarity.

But that does not in the least prevents the whole cultured world from passing into petit bourgeois, and the vanguard has arrived their already. Petit bourgeois is the ideal to which Europe is striving, and rising from every point on the ground. It is the ‘chicken in the cabbage soup,’ about which Henri Quatre dreamt. A little house with little windows looking into the street, a school for the son, a dress for the daughter, a servant for the hard work—all that makes up indeed a haven of refuge—Havre de Grace!

Bourgeoisie, the last word of civilisation, founded on the despotism of property, is the ‘democratisation‘ of aristocracy, the ‘aristocratisation‘ of democracy. In this environment Almaviva is the equal of Figaro—from below everything is straining up into bourgeoisie, from above everything is sinking down into it through the impossibility of maintaining itself. The American States present the spectacle of one class—the middle class—with nothing below it and nothing above it, the petit bourgeois manners and morals have remained. The German peasant is the petit bourgeois of agriculture; the working man of every country is petit bourgeois of future. Italy, the most poetical land in Europe, was not able to hold out, but at once forsook her fanatical lover, Mazzini, and betrayed her husband, the Hercules Garibaldi, as soon as Cavour, the petit bourgeois of genius, the little fat man in spectacles, offered to keep her as his mistress.

And with such kind of incessant, untiring, almost magnetic prose, he continues to take notes around the dying old world and its emerging new forms. As he himself says in a rejoinder to one of his critical interlocutors, he has no solutions to speak of. He was like a man sitting beside a patient on his death bed describing him his disease.

As Isaiah Berlin observes elsewhere, the chief reason for these memoirs being a supreme masterpiece is that the writer does not commit himself to any single thesis with a clear purpose, rejecting all general solutions of his time, may it be the optimism of Bakunin or Marx, or pessimism of Burckhardt or Tocqueville; thereby grasping,

…as very few thinkers have ever done, the crucial distinction between words that are about words, and words that are about persons or things in the real world. Nevertheless, it is as a writer that he survives. His autobiography is one of the great monuments to Russian literary and psychological genius, worthy to stand beside the great novels of Turgenev and Tolstoy.

Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers

Russian-Thinkers-w00“Describe, don’t explain”. Though Wittgenstein perhaps wrote those words while discussing the epistemological value of science, one has to read Isaiah Berlin in order to see their true expository demonstration. This is no ordinary achievement. In more than one way, its an indispensable text; that is, its a marvel of literary criticism, a classical description of the inner-most structures of Russian thought, introduction to some of the brilliant minds and intellectual giants of 19th century Russia, and most importantly, an exquisite commentary on the history of ideas that made the modern world.

But while achieving these goals, Berlin does not try to supply judgements, leaving reader with a lot to chew. As I said, its the description that is perhaps much more important than the explanation; the latter has the tendency to eject the enquirer out of the domain of possibility, which in a way brings the creative process to a terminus.

On a different note, would anyone believe that a collection of essays about Russian literature and thought can prove to be a page turner? Well, to tell you the truth, it might not be unless the reader is at least familiar with major trends of Russian literature. For instance, two essays included in the volume -‘The Hedgehog and the Fox‘ and ‘Fathers and Children‘ – may fail to inspire a sense of awe without a decent familiarization with Tolstoy and Turgenev and if those who have read ‘War and Peace‘ and ‘Fathers and Sons‘, its a bonus. Moreover, if you are not familiar with Herzen, Belinsky or Bakunin, Berlin makes a point to generally characterize these trends of liberal intelligentsia before taking the reader finally to the outliers of the whole liberal spectrum.

Besides lucidity of prose, the greatest aspect of Berlin’s exposition is fine categorization of social and political trends in literature, and how he supplies archetypes of thought for an informed as well as uninformed reader. His point, for instance in the starting essay, that Tolstoy could neither be characterized as a Fox or Hedgehog and his ultimate conclusion that he was a Fox trying to portray as a Hedgehog is so illuminating and potentially powerful that one is forced to place intellectuals in these relative compartments for the rest of one’s life. Then there are subtleties like Turgenev being an archetype for liberal predicament, which are expounded with such force that now we have a way to describe various ideological movements of 21st century through the models of Russian thought.

An illuminate experience, a gripping read and a force to make you fall in love with Russia as well as Isaiah Berlin’s immense literary canvas.

Archetypes of Revival (I): A 12th Century Philosophical Experiment that Gave Birth to a Civilization

Abstract idea and experienced reality are two simplistic manifestations of the classical philosophical duality involving mind and matter. While our world-view seems to be shaped up entirely by the visible forces around us, ideas play an equally important part in ineffable ways. It is impossible to construct an enriched and complete picture of the present, if it is oblivious to the history of ideas. Therefore, it is impossible to speak of a holistic or ideal world-view without resorting to a corresponding stream of ideas. The ideal human being of Quran is not disconnected from his environment and essentially explores truth in the whole macrocosm.

In this backdrop, while the specialized intelligentsia is already cognizant of the diverse ideological dimensions, it is important to expose the common Muslim populace to the core universe of ideas that shape up modernity as we experience it now. This series is an attempt to do that in a widely accessible language and a crisp informal format. The primary aim is either to introduce a largely forgotten part of the scholastic and literary tradition, a novel sublime aspect underlying a modern perception, or some original vital insight that faded away in the sands of time.

******

Robinson_Cruose_1719_1st_editionCan you imagine any young kid finishing high school without ever coming across The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe?  Forget young readers, forget book-worms, forget the old lovers of young-adult literature; I am speaking of anyone who has ever put his hands on English literature. Written in 1719 by Daniel Dafoe, it is among the claimants of the auspicious stature of first English novel, and widely believed as a true travelogue upon its inception.

However, there is seldom a casual reader who can trace the legend back to the 17th century roots of literary tradition with an autodidact character at its center; and few are aware about the Arab-Spanish mentor of this optimism in human reason and contemplation, Ibn Tufayl (d. 1185).

Almost six hundred years between Dafoe and him, we know very little about the life of Ibn Tufayl, except that he was a polymath, serving as a physician and adviser of Sultan Abu Yaqub Yusuf (d. 1184) of the Almohad dynasty ruling Morocco and Spain. It is unfortunate that his complete interdisciplinary work is lost, except his philosophical experiment involving an isolated autodidact, named Hayy Ibn Yaqzan; literally translated as Alive, Son of the Awake.

It is the story of a boy, the nature of whose existence is shadowy to an extent that there are two completely rivaling accounts of Ibn_Tufayl_02his origins. One account ascribes his origin to spontaneous generation from matter; the other is necessarily a legendary human drama in which a royal infant somehow grows up away from society and culture. Being isolated from all intelligent life, he gradually becomes conscious, thereby discovering shame, jealousy, aspiration, desire, eagerness to possess and practical reasoning. He experiences love through affection of his foster doe, and death, as it ultimately departs.

To know is necessarily an obligation for Hayy Ibn Yaqzan. Desperately seeking meaning, his search guides him to explore various disciplines such as anatomy, physiology, metaphysics and spirituality. He deduces the presence of God through contemplating  the unity of cosmos and its boundedness; and in his ascetic code of conduct, he seeks satisfaction and salvation.

After thirty-five years of isolation, he finally meets Absal, a hermit refugee from a land of conventional religious believers. In Absal, Ibn Tufayl modeled a religious divine who has learnt many languages to gain mastery of scriptural exegesis. Absal’s first reaction is a deep sense of fear for his faith as he encounters an exotic being. As they interact well, Absal endeavors to teach Hayy to speak and communicate, in order to make him aware of knowledge and religion.

However Absal soon discovers that Hayy is already aware of the truth, to envision which, Absal’s own intellect bears nothing except revealed symbols.

Judging Absal’s good intentions and the veracity of his message, Hayy proselytize to this religion and Absal introduces Hayy to his people. As Hayy gets familiarized with civilization, two basic questions continue to puzzle him in great deal. First, why people must need symbols to assimilate and express the knowledge of the ultimate truth; and why can’t they just experience the reality more intimately? Second, being completely oblivious to practical religion, he continued to wonder why there is an obligation to indulge oneself in rituals of prayer and purity.

He keeps on wondering why these people consume more than their body needs, possess and nurture property diligently, neglect truth by purposefully indulging in pass-times and fall an easy prey to their desires. He finally decides to accompany Absal to his land, thinking that it might be through him that people encompass the true vision and experience truth rather than believing it with their seemingly narrow vision.

What follows is a tale of a neophyte philosopher teaching ordinary people to rise above their literalism and open another eye towards reality. His interlocutors on the other hand, recoil in their apprehensions and being intellectual slaves to their prejudices, close their ears. He consequently realizes that these people are unable to go beyond their usual appetites. He also grasps that masses of the world are only capable to receive through symbols and regulatory laws rather than being receptive to unstained and plain truth. Both men eventually return back to their isolated world but this time Hayy as the teacher and Absal as his disciple. They continue searching their ecstasies until they met their ends.

CrusoeBuildingIbn Tufayl’s singularly survived legacy extends in diverse dimensions and its canvas is vast. Its theological and philosophical themes were employed and transformed throughout the various phases of European enlightenment.

It isn’t just one curious aspect that many centuries later, the metaphysically preoccupied Hayy Ibn Yaqzan is transformed into a shipwrecked sailor, predominantly occupying himself with inventions and utilitarian exploration of nature. As Malik Bennabi – an acute observer of modern condition – observes, the genius of both the narratives lies in characterizing the solitude of their respective protagonists. In this respect, time for Robinson Crusoe is essentially a concrete cyclic happening of acts, such as work, food, sleep and work again.

Nov. 4. This morning I began to order my times of work, of going out with my gun, time of diversion, viz., every morning I walked out with my gun for two or three hours, if it did not rain; then employed myself to work till about eleven o’clock; then eat what I had to live on; and from twelve to two I lay down to sleep, the weather being excessive hot; and then in the evening to work again. The working parts of this day and of the next were wholly employed in making my table; for I was yet but a complete natural mechanic soon after, as I believe it would do anyone else.[1]

This is pretty much the condition of a modern individual where the void of solitude is filled with work, each of us occupied ibn_tufayl_03mechanically with the object at the centre of our world of ideas, diligently busy in constructing our own proverbial tables.

On the other hand, what fills Hayy’s solitude is an overwhelming amazement, the adventure starting by experiencing wonder in the ultimate nature of life and death of his beloved foster-mother, the gazelle.

When she (the gazelle) grew old and feeble, he used to lead her where there was the best pasture, and pluck the sweetest fruits for her, and give her them to eat. Notwithstanding this, she grew lean and continued a while in a languishing condition, till at last she died, and then all her motions and actions ceased. When the boy perceived her in this condition, he was ready to die for grief He called her with the same voice, which she used to answer to, and made what noise he could, but there was no motion, no alteration. Then he began to peep into her ears and eyes, but could perceive no visible defect in either; in like manner he examined all the parts of her body, and found nothing amiss, but everything as it should be. He had a vehement desire to find that part where the defect was, that he may remove it, and she return to her former state. But he was altogether at a loss how to compass his design, nor could he possibly bring it about.[2]

Thus, it is ultimately in the nature of failure to identify this defective part where Ibn Tufayl tries to locate an ineffable reality beyond the material.  

Ibn Tufayl’s philosophical romance has been regarded as one of the pioneer autodidactic works surviving from medieval scholastic tradition [3]. But besides being an influential narrative   with rich literary possibilities and themes such as those transformed by a modernist like Dafoe  it was a precursor to important medieval interactions between the schools of Thomas Aquinas and Averroists, and invited modern appraisals from mathematician rationalists like Gottfried Leibniz [4].

Voltaire and Quakers admired it for its appeal to reason, and Bacon, Newton and Locke were possibly influenced by it to various degrees too. Traces of Ibn Tufayl’s original literary pointers are also found in Rousseau’s Emile, Kant’s Ground of Proof for a Demonstration of God’s Existence, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Darwin’s Origin of Species among others.

Especially in the context of Muslim tradition, its contemporary value lies in rich possibilities to bridge gaps between reason and revelation. It lays down a perpetually self evolving construct where reason and reflection are the essential keys to the doors of  timeless revelation. Ibn Tufayl’s voice still echoes loud, struggling to tell us that rejecting either would imply rejecting a part of truth.

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  1. Daniel Dafoe, Robinson Crusoe, Penguin Classics 2003
  2. Lenn Evan Goodman, Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan: a philosophical tale, 1972.
  3. There have been some attributions to an earlier work involving similar but limited themes to Avicenna.
  4. Samar Attar, The Vital Roots of European Enlightenment: Ibn Tufayl’s Influence on Modern Western Thought, 2010

Among Dogmatic Slumberers (II): Failing to Read the Intended Texts

malalaBy now there would be hardly any Pakistani who haven’t witnessed the purist and self-righteous pseudo-intellectuals ripping apart their vocal cords over national media, criticizing Malala Yousafzai, the 16 year old girl who was nominated for Nobel prize earlier this month.

The sanctimonious brigade in land of the pure is known for creating a hysteria for eliminating, banning and victimizing the other by declaring him impure. Sadly, with the ever-reducing space for decent and objective intellectual discourse, it has now become impossible to even voice one’s considered opinion without being targeted by the purist camp, which has been fed persistently with fallacious and concocted ideologies.

Consequently, its pretty much futile to forward an objective critical discourse. Disagreement is simply not an option any more. To disagree, one has to keep quiet, look down and give way to stronger vocal cords; and since reason and persuasive dialogue is overpowered by the rhetoric and bellowing, there is no use extending any counter-arguments to baseless claims.

Therefore, when your fulminating interlocutors give damn to someone like Syed Ameer Ali or doesn’t consider it an enough casual rejoinder that Iqbal didn’t care to suffix salutations of peace be upon him after Prophet Muhammad’s name in his famous lectures, it is perhaps waste of time to indulge in critical discourses.

In fact, it seems like a bad dream to live in such times where we are witnessing a book being critiqued for not interjecting salutations within the script. I am sure its nature’s way of narrating a gag to let the universe have a good hearty laugh on us and throw us in the dustbin of history. It seems like we are undergoing a proverbial Copernican revolution where a minority is insisting that universe is heliocentric. 

However, we must not let hope be the casuality, and no matter how little, we must try to create a space to extend a discourse. I would request all cynical purists who are making the book controversial through over-sensationalized and misplaced religious, social or political critiques to please:

  1. Remove the lenses of bigotry and prejudice and read the book in a casual way. Its not a great book so comparisons with Anne Frank’s diary are perhaps out of proportion. However, I would hate to speculate that it might be considered a great classic if Pakistan continues on its usual disastrous course and experience a people’s tragedy comparable to holocaust. This, in my humble yet optimistic view, is impossible, God willing.
  2. Not even a very well-written work either; understandably so, since its from a young girl, take it as an ad lib commentary by a 16 year old kid which is most probably composed by Christina Lamb in readable language. To our so-called second grade media intellectuals who have issues with Lamb’s reputation: Yousafzai is not synonymous with Lamb.
  3. At least try to add a minimum possible of degree of objectivity in your criticism and don’t read the book as a contentious well thought-out academically assertive work of literature. Moreover, if your argument is that one sheds away her academic credentials if one is seen in party with some Baloch tribal chief, there can be no possible counter-argument which you should expect. This is not even an ad hominem; its simply shameful.
  4. When you quote, please do so with the purpose of discussion and critique rather than ridicule or cause agitation and shock among the masses who haven’t read the book. Please learn to read and understand the texts. They are meaningless and misleading without a context. Those who are calling it interpretation of her father’s ideas, well what, if I may ask, is wrong with that? All 16-year old kids think their fathers are cool. We, as fathers and mothers, have right to impart our version of goodness into our children. We may disagree with each others’ views but disagreeing with other’s interpretation of history, politics, religious or social issues doesn’t make one anti-Islam or anti-Pakistan.
  5. It might be a very interesting work for western audience, specially when Lamb ostensibly lets Yousafzai speak (in my view Lamb has added historical and political bits to it where necessary for coherence of discourse), but have very little for Pakistani reader in terms of engagement with the text. However, you must understand that you are reading a very brave girl who can stand eye-to-eye with adversity and horrors in conditions where most of us would end up compromising our liberty or would simply run away. She is a brave girl, mentored and taught life by an audacious father. We must be proud of her and listen her carefully since we have a young hero towards whom we can point our children to look-up to.

Lastly, lets try to read the same book which the author has intended to write; please don’t end up reading the book which you intend to criticize, apriori.

Voice of the Creature Thrown Back on Itself: The Sorrows of Young Werther

Our Soul discovers itself when we come into contact with a great mind. It is not until I had realised the Infinitude of Goethe’s imagination that I discovered the narrow breadth of my own. -(Iqbal, Stray Reflections)

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Sorrows of Young Werther

The fact that so many people read it merely as a melancholic tale of unrequited love, kind of corroborates how we, in general, are unequipped to naturally reflect on the amazing complexity of our being’s existence in time. In fact, regardless of its original biographical bent, this beautiful narrative is as much about the inexplicable nature of our very existence as it is about the Goethe’s intended catharsis through his protagonist. It is a simple and strong statement regarding man’s fateful desires and seemingly blurred lines between the free-will and determination.

In other words, its Goethe’s way of asking whether a man can choose to be happy or to put it more precisely: is it possible to achieve happiness as an ideal or even pursue it, without being perturbed by nature’s innumerable dictating factors?

I thank you, Wilhelm, for your heartfelt sympathy, for your well-intentioned advice, but beg you to be quiet. Let me stick it out. Blessedly exhausted as I am, I have strength enough to carry through. I honor religion, you know that, I feel it is a staff for many weary souls, refreshment for many a one who is pining away. But–can it be, must it be, the same thing for everyone? If you look at the great world, you see thousands for whom it wasn’t, thousands for whom it will not be the same, preached or unpreached, and must it then be the same for me? Does not the son of God Himself say that those would be around Him whom the Father had given Him? But if I am not given? If the Father wants to keep me for Himself, as my heart tells me?–I beg you, do not misinterpret this, do not see mockery in these innocent words. What I am laying before you is my whole soul; otherwise I would rather have kept silent, as I do not like to lose words over things that everyone knows as little about as I do. What else is it but human destiny to suffer out one’s measure, drink up one’s cup?–And if the chalice was too bitter for the God from heaven on His human lips, why should I boast and pretend that it tastes sweet to me? And why should I be ashamed in the terrible moment when my entire being trembles between being and nothingness, since the past flashes like lightning above the dark abyss of the future and everything around me is swallowed up, and the world perishes with me?–Is that not the voice of the creature thrown back on itself, failing, trapped, lost, and inexorably tumbling downward, the voice groaning in the inner depths of its vainly upwards-struggling energies: My God! My God! Why hast thou forsaken me? And if I should be ashamed of the expression, should I be afraid when facing that moment, since it did not escape Him who rolls up heaven like a carpet?”

And then besides being a heartsick soliloquy of an enervating young lover, its also about those walnut trees which were cut down by the vicar’s wife, those tears in the schoolmaster’s eyes who broke that news or the little Hans who just stop existing one day.

Those of us who do not have the requisite literary skills to fully appreciate the true sorrow in Greek tragedy, would perhaps find nothing better in literature to provoke us to shed a spontaneous tear or two.

To Cultivate Hatred as a Civic Passion

islamic_intoleranceshia-kafir

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“Why are you after the Jews in particular?”

“Because in Russia there are Jews. If I were living in Turkey, I would be after the Armenians.”

“So you want the Jews to be destroyed?”

“I don’t want to destroy the Jews. I might even say the Jews are my best allies. I’m interested in the morale of the Russian people. It is my wish (and the wish of those I hope to please) that these people do not direct their discontent against the Tsar. We therefore need an enemy. There’s no point looking for an enemy among, I don’t know, the Mongols or the Tatars, as despots have done in the past. For the enemy to be recognized and feared, he has to be in your home or on your doorstep. Hence the Jews. Divine providence has given them to us, and so, by God, let us use them, and pray there’s always some Jew to fear and to hate. We need an enemy to give people hope. Someone said that patriotism is the last refuge of cowards; those without moral principles usually wrap a flag around themselves, and the bastards always talk about the purity of the race. National identity is the last bastion of the dispossessed. But the meaning of identity is now based on hatred, on hatred for those who are not the same. Hatred has to be cultivated as a civic passion. The enemy is the friend of the people. You always want someone to hate in order to feel justified in your own misery. Hatred is the true primordial passion. It is love that’s abnormal. That is why Christ was killed: he spoke against nature. You don’t love someone for your whole life — that impossible hope is the source of adultery, matricide, betrayal of friends . . . But you can hate someone for your whole life, provided he’s always there to keep your hatred alive. Hatred warms the heart.”

(Umberto Eco, The Prague Cemetery)

 

Among ‘Unliberated’ Liberals (I): Bogus critics unpack the so-called baloney of Pakistan’s literary ‘Babas’

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 [1] 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.

Ashfaq AhmedOne 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 [2] 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 Nikolai Gogolspiritual 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.[3]

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.
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  1. ViewPoint Online Issue 148.
  2. Isaiah Berlin, The Birth of the Russian Intelligentsia (Russian Thinkers).
  3. 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.