“Persephone, like the toads, always rises from the dead…”
I find both communists and liberals very disagreeable. I do not like them. This is because, as I sought to argue in an article kindly published by IndiaFacts some months ago (Communists and Liberals: Two Faces of Elite Reaction), they represent a particularly virulent form of elite reaction rooted in contempt for popular will, legitimacy and lived culture. There is, however, a man of the Left for whom I make an exception – I do not let my general dislike of the Left cloud my estimate of him. Despite his political beliefs, I greatly admire him. This man is Eric Blair, the author of the much read and loved Animal Farm. His pen name was George Orwell.
Eric Blair, aka Orwell, sympathized with the socialist vision and was a member of Britain’s Independent Labor Party. He even fought the fascists in the Spanish civil war as a partisan of the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification. Though he was a foot soldier of the communist ideology (something I am uncomfortable with), I give him credit for possessing the physical courage to fight one of the evilest and most authoritarian political ideologies to have ever emerged. Communism is bad enough, but fascism was worse.
I admire Orwell (let us stick to the famous pseudonym), however, not for his battlefield exploits but because he possessed a quality which today is rare in those who engage, and articulate their opinions, in the public sphere. He was an aesthete; he believed in beauty and looked for it in the world around. He even managed to find it in the toad. Yes, the humble toad which crawls out of the earth when it rains. With a simple, earnest lyricism only he was capable of, Orwell made the toad a symbol of the never ceasing renewal of life, and of Persephone, the daughter of Mother Earth and herald of spring in Greek mythology. In Some Thoughts on the Common Toad, an essay published in 1946, he wrote thus –
“Before the swallow, before the daffodil, and not much later than the snowdrop, the common toad salutes the coming of spring after his own fashion, which is to emerge from a hole in the ground, where he has lain buried since the previous autumn, and crawl as rapidly as possible towards the nearest suitable patch of water… Persephone, like the toads, always rises from the dead at about the same moment.”
He hints in the essay that not all share in his wonderment at, and joy of, witnessing the eternal cycles of life and all the charms that grace them. Probably he was addressing his philistine comrades in the Left when he asked,
“Is it wicked to take a pleasure in spring and other seasonal changes? To put it more precisely, is it politically more reprehensible, while we are all groaning, or at any rate ought to be groaning, under the shackles of the capitalist system, to point out that life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird’s song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some such natural phenomenon which does not cost money…”
At the end of the essay Orwell seems to realize that the beautiful, unceasing cycle of life that spring is but a part of is a truth greater than any other. It does not depend on the ideologies we humans profess or the power we wield –
“…the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.”
I assume that it was Orwell’s sensitivity as a human being, his ability to perceive beauty and see in it a potential to liberate and humanize the spirit, which later made him a critique of Soviet communism. Animal Farm and 1984, Orwell’s most famous works, are widely seen as its allegorical denunciations. After all, the Soviet communist regime was one of the most repressive and barbaric to have ever existed on the face of the earth. I do not know if Orwell died an apostate of the Left, but anyone who has read the aforementioned novels can assume that he had his faith in it considerably shaken by the time he breathed his last (Orwell died in 1950, a year after the publication of 1984). I am sure that his receptivity to beauty played a role in him recoiling from the Left. He could recognize the ugly untruths that it was bandying. Satya and sundara, as we have always believed in Indic thought, are facets of each other. Orwell was led to satya in the final days of his life for he could perceive the sundara. But, alas, many around us today are not as conscientious towards satya because they are blind to the sundara. Typically, as I observe, these are the chic, urban ‘liberals’ and left leaning ‘radicals’ populating our university campuses, voluble on the internet, or waging those brave battles for social justice in the rugged settings of the IIC (India International Center) lounge. I have met my share of these types and know that they are impervious to truth because, I believe, they are insensitive to beauty.
That ‘Patriarchal’ Onam Image
In our Bharatiya civilization, we variously thank the fecundity of the earth and nature whose renewal Orwell described in a quasi-mystical language a little more than seventy years ago. Festivals in every region of our vast country celebrate the spring and the harvest. One of the many harvest festivals of our country is the Onam. Let me recount here a kerfuffle that the approach of Onam once triggered in the Jawaharlal Nehru University – a campus roamed by many a ‘liberal’ and ‘radical’.
This incident occurred several years ago when I was a research scholar at the Center for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. If any of my contemporaries at JNU are reading this article, perhaps they might be able to recall it. It was the month of August and Onam was just some days away. Like all years, the Malayali students on the campus were preparing to celebrate the festival with cultural performances and a dinner. There was this Malayali fellow on the campus who was an excellent illustrator; he designed a beautiful poster that announced the event to us all. If I remember correctly, along with declaring the date and venue of the Onam festivities, this poster depicted a young sari clad woman with flowers in her hair arranging a rangoli. There was nothing even remotely sexual or vulgar about this imagery. Incredibly, however, after this poster was stuck upon the walls and notice boards of the many hostels and academic schools of JNU, a number of ‘radical’, left leaning campus feminists began a raucous campaign against the lad who had created it. They called him patriarchal and found his poster grossly offensive for he had dared to use a woman as a decorative motif. I vaguely remember that this budding artist had to tender the offended ladies an apology. Had he not, his academic career could have been destroyed, or irreparably damaged, even before it took off. JNU takes gender related offences very seriously.
The offended ladies were blind to the poster’s (very pleasing) aesthetics since they were blind to the satya that Indic tradition closely associates the sacred and the feminine. The Indic religious imagining, unlike the Abrahamic, does not hold womankind responsible for humanity’s ‘fall’ and its incurring of some ‘original sin’. The creator of the poster was not being ‘patriarchal,’ I think he was just expressing a truth that deeply inhered in his cultural subconscious. Probably that is why he could not think of a trumpeting temple elephant or sheaves of harvested paddy as the archetypical Onam image. His poster depicted Onam by foregrounding the feminine. But how could the offended ‘feminists’ be blind to these satyas and, consequently, the saundarya of what the young artist had created? Partly, it was because their social and political outlook was steeped in ‘cultural Marxism’ – the practice of discovering the ‘ideological premises’ of cultural production and be lividly offended by those. But largely it was due to the reason that these ‘radical’ young women were privy to an intellectual tendency (‘cultural Marxism’ is but a part of it) that is best describable as the worship of the twin deities of untruth and ugliness. The Indian ‘liberal’ too is equally privy to this tendency and hence is generally blind to the cultural and ethical truths that inhere in the traditions and practices of our country. He is also very prone to not finding any beauty in them. Plainly put, the Indian ‘liberals’ and ‘radicals’ are passionate patrons of asatya (untruth) and the vikrita (the gross and the horrid). How have they come to be so?
I Feel, therefore I Am
The experience and creation of beauty is the outcome of coherent, rational thought. It is, in other words, the result of intellection. If you noticed, Orwell leaves us with a cogent reason of why in his experience the emergence of the toad from the earth and the arrival of spring were so beautiful – ‘it made life worth living’. Further, he uses the resources of the intellect to harmonize his experience of beauty with a higher truth – the beautiful and everlasting cycles of nature carry on regardless of temporal facts such as bureaucrats and dictators. It cannot be gainsaid that creating beauty – composing a raga or symphony, or painting a landscape – requires even greater conscious intellection.
The same goes when you critique these varieties of artistic output – you must follow an intellectual method. You first apply your reason to discern the particular rationality (melodic structure, purpose, technique) at work behind a raga, symphony or painting. Then you critique the thing within the framework of its own inner logic (its satya). So, you might say that a certain raga or symphony is deficient or incoherent in its melodic structure or that it does not realize the full potential of its purpose – for example, that it sought to evoke sentiments of peace or amour, but failed to do so. For a painting you might say that the particular combination of colors that it employs, the form(s) that it evokes, suggest a deficiency of technique on the part of the painter. You do not however, if you are a critique in full possession of you mental faculties, put yourself outside the inner logic of a work of art to critique it.
You are, thus, entitled to feel let down if a purposefully amorous symphony such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik (‘A Little Night Music’) does not arouse amour in you (in me it doesn’t). But it will be rather funny of you to ignore the conscious purpose of the Nachtmusik (evoking amour) and call it ‘Islamophobic’ just because Mozart also composed a keyboard piece called the Rondo alla Turca (‘The Turkish March’). Its prestissimo (very rapid) tempo is allegedly inspired by the ferocity of the Turkish cavalrymen’s charge. Similarly, you might fault a classical singer for not rendering raga malhar with sufficient skill and failing to evoke the mood of the monsoons. But it will be ridiculous to call the singer racist for having rendered this raga while parts of Africa or South East Asia were submerged under flood waters due to an excess of rains. It will be similarly ridiculous to accuse a painter of nurturing ill will towards the plains dwellers just because he is given to painting snow-capped hills.
However, a lot of cultural production these days is being critiqued in such a manner. What you feel about a work of art is paramount, not what it consciously intended to achieve or articulate. Apparently, this entitles you to critique it without at all taking recourse to the intellect and accuse it of every sort of ulterior motive. Thus, it is sufficient to feel that a harmless Onam poster is ‘patriarchal’ while ignoring completely its inner logic (the alignment of the sacred with the feminine) and conscious purpose (declaring the date and venue of Onam celebrations, not asserting the superiority of men over women). The behavior of the offended young women at JNU was actually the part of a much greater trend infesting the academia, both in India and abroad (wherefrom generally our ‘liberals’ and ‘radicals’ hail) – feelings are increasingly privileged above the intellect and employed to critique all things under the sun. The social sciences, especially, are completely under the thrall of this tendency. They are today in the hands of people who have largely abandoned the Cartesian premise of knowledge-seeking – ‘I think, therefore I am’. With this lot, instead, it is, ‘I feel, therefore I am.’ The result is that most of those in the social sciences’ circuit today, and this will include nearly every ‘liberal’ and ‘radical’ I have seen, are high priests of untruth and ugliness. They are impervious to truth and beauty (in art and elsewhere) since accessing these requires one to use the intellect. But how could things come to this pass? I think that this situation has been brought forth by an amalgam of intellectual attitudes which emerged in the west at various points.
The Apocalypse of Reason and its Four Horsemen – Rousseauian Sentimentalism, Romanticist Imagination, ‘Postmodern’ Randomness and Chronic ‘Discourse-ism’
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), political philosopher, novelist and amateur composer, was the impresario of the cult of sentimentality in eighteenth century Europe. Rousseau’s life was lived amid the heady currents of European Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement to liberate the European spirit from the bondage of custom, blind belief and clerical Christianity with the aid of reason. Rousseau, however, swam against the intellectual currents that swelled and foamed around him. He, writes Will Durant in his very readable book on western philosophy, “had little faith in reason.” He was all feelings. His book Discourse on the Origin of Inequality contained, we learn from Will Durant, “arguments against civilization, letters and science” and urged humanity to “return to the natural condition as seen in savages and animals.” With sentimental idealism, and with an apparent lack of reason, believed Mr. Rousseau, human society will cease to be unequal once it reverts to an original ‘state of nature.’ Rousseau the novelist could be downright lachrymose. His most widely read novel La Nouvelle Heloise (published in 1761) was meant to cause the readers to give a “free rein to feeling”.They were expected to copiously weep as its noble, tragic heroine Heloise suffered and suffered in love. Rousseau sought to turn his readers into Rousseauian sentimentalists.
To my eyes, it appears like Rousseauian sentimentalism today stands resurrected and is running rampant in the social sciences, both in the west and in our own country (since we slavish ape all western trends). This is why we see our ‘liberals’ and ‘radicals’ (mostly individuals educated in the social sciences) being so susceptible to abandoning intellectual method and giving a free and completely thoughtless rein to their feelings. Now, that would have been harmless had they restricted themselves to weeping over romance novels; but they don’t. Driven by misapplied feelings, they spread lies and canards about all they cannot, or do not wish to, access with reason (it could be an Onam poster or the Goods and Services Tax). They are harmful.
Rousseau and his intellectual output are seen as the precursors of a literary and psychological fashion called Romanticism that swept Europe in the nineteenth century. I would suggest that besides being Rousseauian sentimentalists, our ‘liberals’ and ‘radicals’ are Romanticists as well. This is since Romanticism “privileged the imagination” and its “defining feature…was the value it placed on feeling…as opposed to reason…”That the ‘liberals’ and ‘radicals’ possess a feverish imagination and privilege it (along with feelings) above the intellect ought to be obvious to all those who have observed, or dealt with, them (I have). They can be extremely imaginative in accusing you of crimes you have not committed. They can also be pretty random when at it. Make an innocuous remark like ‘I find the color green rather tacky’ within the earshot of a ‘liberal’ or ‘radical’ crowd and you could be accused of nurturing Islamophobia. The same could happen if you declare that you prefer Pandit Ravi Shankar’s sitar playing to Ustad Vilayat Khan’s (this has happened to a friend).
Besides the Romanticist outlook, the irrational randomness of the ‘liberal’ and ‘radical’ imagination derives from an academic fashion called ‘postmodernism’. It is today dangerously in vogue in the social sciences. The earliest uses of the term ‘postmodern’ in the English speaking world are ascribed to the likes of Arnold Toynbee (historian), C. Wright Mills (sociologist) and Irving Howe (literary critic). Toynbee had meant by it an age when the bourgeoisie are no more socially dominant, while for Mills and Howe it was a time engendered by the erosion of modern political ideas like liberalism and socialism.
‘Postmodernism’ was, however, theorized as an intellectual attitude by the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard in his hugely influential tract The Postmodern Condition. Lyotard identified the ‘postmodern’ as a historical juncture when the “grand narrative has lost its credibility”. One could understand a ‘grand narrative’ as a long tale marked by a unity of plot unfolding through history. To establish his case, Lyotard cited the instance of the ‘grand narrative’ of science which, according to him, had ceased to be believable. In this ‘grand narrative’ science had played the heroic agent liberating people from priestly tyranny, or it was the component of a larger ‘speculative spirit’ engaged in exploring the foundations of knowledge. Science derived its legitimacy, a general consensus upon its usefulness, from this ‘grand narrative’. However, in the late 1970s, while authoring his tract, Lyotard observed that science is no more deriving its legitimacy from a ‘grand narrative’ but “interlocutors involved in ethical, social, and political praxis.” What does this mean? It means that science was no more regarded useful because it discharged some objective function – liberating the mind from priestly influence and leading it to a truer understanding of the world. Now it was seen to be useful or otherwise as per the ethical, social and political prejudices and practices of discrete individuals. So, in the ‘postmodern’ framework you are perfectly entitled to critique and dismiss science as a pacifist or a feminist (even if your scientific knowledge is zero) – since science produces weapons and most scientists are men. This is indeed very commonly done now.
Nowadays, the ‘postmodern’ frame is so commonly adopted in the social sciences that they, and the people trained in them, are in the grip of a completely irrational randomness. The ‘postmodern’ frame of mind is generally the reason why our ‘liberals’ and ‘radicals’ are so hard to engage with and are incapable of accessing truth or beauty of any kind. Being ‘postmodern’, they could use anything – some part of their ethical, social and political outlook – to critique anything under the sun, even if they know or understanding nothing of what they are critiquing. This makes them disapprove of all humanly understood truth and beauty. The ‘radical’ JNU feminists did not use their artistic competence (they did not have any) to disapprove of that beautiful Onam poster and its truth – they employed their left-leaning, misdirected feminism that discovered something to dislike in all Indic imagery.
Finally, the concept of the ‘discourse’ (an offshoot of postmodernism) is a vital factor why reason has been generally banished from the social sciences and, consequently, the minds of our ‘liberals’ and ‘radicals’. In what sense do they wield this concept? To understand, let us resort to another French philosopher called Michel Foucault. Discourse, writes the wise man in his very influential book The Archeology of Knowledge, is “the totality of effective statements” (about a thing or an idea, it is basically a lot of people talking or writing about the same stuff). As per this French sage, discourse is very potent. The statements that make it bear the intentions “of the speaking subject…what he meant, or, again, the unconscious activity that took place, despite himself, in what he said…” (italics mine). Across the world these days, sage Foucault’s ideas enjoy very wide currency in the social sciences. The result is that they have come to treat all artistic and literary production as the constituent units of some discourse or the other (patriarchy, racism, colonialism, you just name it) in terms of what they might be ‘talking about’ (often decided very arbitrarily). The conscious individuality of the author or the artist is thus increasingly discounted when evaluating literature or the fine arts. I am quite doubtless that the young women who were so mortified by that Onam poster had fully internalized the Foucauldian ideas (they were all enrolled in the various disciplinary centers of JNU’s School of Social Sciences). They, perhaps, viewed the poster as the constituent unit of a vaster ‘discourse’ of patriarchy, made up of men talking about women – the poster too ‘talked about’ women by depicting one and it was drawn by a man. They also, I guess, assumed that the ‘unconscious activity’ that motivated the artist was the disparagement of women. After all, how can one ascribe any other motive to the ‘discourse’ that is patriarchy?
In fact, the extent to which ‘discourse-ism’ grips our ‘liberals’ and ‘radicals’ today was amply indicated by the slander they inflicted on the innocent and thoroughly delightful Bahubali movies (parts one and two). It was just some months ago when they accused the two films of nurturing ulterior casteist sentiments. Well, that was because they found the ‘caste discourse’ operative in them with their lead characters, Amarendra and Mahendra Bahubali, being of the Kshatriya Varna. Of course, it was immaterial to the kill-joy and irrational ‘liberals’ and ‘radicals’ that neither film had even the briefest shot (leave alone a scene) that promoted caste in the slightest manner.
So, dear readers, the next time you debate a ‘liberal’ or ‘radical’ – on social media, in your own or someone else’s drawing room, in a restaurant, or café – do not be frustrated to discover that all the logic and reason employed by you is not making the slightest impression. Know that you are not engaging with a rational individual, but with the Rousseauian sentimentalist, the arbitrarily imaginative Romanticist, the completely random ‘postmodernist’ and the inveterate addict of ‘discourse-ism’. Know that you are talking to someone impervious to satya and blind to the sundara – a worshipper of the twin deities of untruth and ugliness.
Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays, Penguin Books, 2009, p.239.
Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays, p.241.
Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays, p.242.
Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays, pp.243-244.
The Story of Philosophy, Pocket Books, New York, 2006, p.321.
The Story of Philosophy, p.321.
 Robert Darnton, ‘Readers Respond to Rousseau: The Fabrication of Romantic Sensibility’ in The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, Basic Books, New York, p.231.
 Michael Ferber, Romanticism. A Very Short Introduction, OUP, 2010, p.10.
Romanticism. A Very Short Introduction, p.16.
 Perry Anderson, The Origins of Postmodernity, Verso, 1998, pp.5 and 12.
 The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, University of Minnesota Press, 1984, p.37.
 The Postmodern Condition, pp.31 and 33.
 The Postmodern Condition, p.40.
The Archeology of Knowledge, Routledge, 2009, p.29.
The Archeology of Knowledge, p.30.
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Disclaimer: The facts and opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness,suitability,or validity of any information in this article.
The author is Assistant Professor of History at O P Jindal Global University