Posts tagged: China

Life of the text and that of the city…(my presentation to the India-China Writers meet organised by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi 28th nov. 2014.)

Life of the text and that of the city…

          By Purushottam Agrawal.

 

 

 

Brian Clark’s play, ‘Whose life is it anyway…’ , is about the agency of choice. Who will decide whether a person suffering from paralysis neck down should be ‘allowed’ to end his ‘miserable’ existence or must continue to live, as life per se is ‘sacred’ and under no circumstances the individual himself can be given the authority to end it; even if it is his own.

Why should my mind have gone back to the performance I watched almost three decades back in Delhi? As a matter of fact, whenever I think of life and its inevitable corollary- death, the play comes back to me; even if I am thinking only of the influence of life on the creation of literature.  The question is valid here also- whose life we are thinking about when we talk of the ‘influence’ on literature?

Is it author’s own life or life of the text? The text has a pre-life even before it takes shape in the words chosen and arranged by the author. And, every writer and reader knows for a fact, that once having come into being a work of art surpasses the life of its creator.  We are concerned here with life which influences the process of this coming into being. Hence the question—whose life?

Is it only the author’s life limited as it is both by time and space or is it a life larger than the one experienced by the author? Is it only the ‘real’ life or something ‘more than real’ to recall the title of David Shulman’s recently published, fascinating history of imagination in south India?

Does the life directly experienced by writer alone influence the act of writing? Does the ‘direct’ experience really make a description or reflection more authentic? The ‘authenticity’ claims rooted in the ‘real, direct’ experience of the author are not exactly new. In the late fifties and early sixties, many writers were justifying exclusively middle class concerns and ethos of their writings  in the name of ‘authenticity of feeling’. Once again, it is claimed by many these days that only s/he who has suffered on the margins, as a woman, as a colored person or as a Dalit can relate ‘authentically’ with that experience and reflect upon its cultural importance. This stance might sound politically correct at the first glance, but will it sound so under a serious philosophical scrutiny? So far as literature is concerned, does this ‘aesthetics of authenticity’ really point to the way of authentic creation and reception?

In the first place, any writing is actually writing of the memory. You do not right the experience per se; you commit its recall to words and that with an obvious gap between the moment of experience and the moment of its recall. Some additions and deletions are natural corollaries of such recall. The moment of experience outgrows its raw ‘authenticity’ in the very process of creative recall. A writer might have suffered in his life on the margins of the society, but in most of the cases, at the moment of writing, s/he is already part of the middle classes. Writer’s vocation as a rule is a middle class one, and one’s identity by definition consists of multiple social roles and relations.  Emphasizing only the ‘cultural’ or ‘ethnic’ aspect of identity might be tempting as a strategic stance, and precisely because of this, it hides more than it reveals. The middle class writer recalls the experience of margins from the vintage point of middle class status. Does this fact have a bearing on her choice or not?

Any sense of ‘identity’ (in literature or in politics) is bound to lack in authenticity, if it is confined only to the cultural or ethnic aspects, ignoring the social class part of the story. To be frank, the identity discourse without a reference to the political economy of class-system is bound to end up in the company of historically reactionary politics, because it rejects the very idea of the commonalities of those sufferings which emanate from the social structures, and hence can be ameliorated only by a shared struggle. The politics of cultural identity with its exclusive emphasis on the difference has contributed to waning of shared dreams of emancipation.  Moreover, we all know only too well that a piece of writing is ultimately judged on the basis of the depth and width, which the writer has been able to give her/ his memories of life-experiences.

And it is not just the writer’s life and experience. The whole point of writing is the perspective you put your experience in; perspective which includes your consciousness of the collective memory as codified in the language of your choice, your sense of being in flow of a continuous praxis called tradition, and the acute, mostly agonizing dialogue with the moment of history you are placed in. Realizing the significance of such dialogue, Aristotle tried to make amends for his guru’s act of expelling the poet from the ‘City’. He recognized that, ‘poetry is more subtle and philosophical as compared to history as poem is a universal expression while history expresses a certain context’.

In other words, it is not your individual life, its experiences and memories, but the potential life of the literary work which plays the determining role in the act of writing. The writer has to go beyond his own life to bring creative work to life. The very act of writing and of reading as well, is an act of trans-migration of ‘self’- an act of ‘par-kaya pravesh’ (assuming the body of other) – to recall a telling phrase from the cultural vocabulary of India. (Incidentally, I had articulated this idea way back in 2000, in an essay written in order to ‘face’ the question- ‘what is literature?’).  The primary tool of this act of ‘assuming the body of other’ is of course, imagination which must be in the process of constant refinement. The classical Indian poetics has the right term for such imagination-Pratibha- etymologically signifying ‘illumination’. This illumination works on what the ends of literature and art- creative as well as receptive.

Those who know the Hindi  novel ‘Tamas’  by Bhisham Sahni can never forget the opening sequence wherein a character is slaughtering  a pig and the text is setting the tone of the disturbing narrative the novel is going to unfold. The scene was praised by everyone not only for its metaphoric suggestion but also for its vividness; in fact, it would not be that suggestive if it were not that vivid.

And the writer himself has this to say about the sequence, “I never had the opportunity to know someone in the profession of skinning the animals, neither had I ever witnessed a pig being slaughtered, had no idea of the process at all. In fact, before writing this episode, even after, I continued to try to get some idea, how a pig is actually slaughtered.”

It is the agonised dialogue between the imagination (both at writer’s and reader’s ends); the cultural memory and the sense of location in tradition and the concerns and ambitions of the individual writer that makes the life of the text possible.

Meer Taqi Meer active in the 18th century, witnessing the tumultuous events that condensed in themselves  historical cataclysm put it most succinctly. Let me end with that succinct and poignant admonition from the poet:

“O tearful eye, still in deep slumber/ open the eyelids a bit, deluge has inundated the city”.

(किन नींदों सोती है, चश्म-ए-गिर्यानाक़, मिज़गाँ तो खोल, शहर को सैलाब ले गया।)

We all have to open the eyelids to the deluges that are inundating the city…it is not just my life, but the life of the text and that of the city….