The loyalty test for literature
A few years ago, a publishing house brought out three books — Smriti, Samskriti, and Sahiti — which collected most, if not all, of the articles written by the great Malayalam poet Akkitham Achuthan Namboothiri over many decades. The contents ranged from his memoirs of the practice of ritual inside a fadingBrahminical world to discovering the potentialities hidden in Malayalam poetry as it evolved in the last century. Viewed synoptically, these collections were a testament to the evolution of a human mind as it learned to reject blind traditionalism but was sensitive enough to know that mere rejection was not enough.
Hearing about this new publication, a friend asked me naïvely: “But does the poet belong to our side?” Here, “our side” referred to partisanship in Kerala’s highly charged politico-literary environs where groupthink, virtue signalling, and loyalty tests are rife. I didn’t press this friend — a well educated, politically earnest, socially conscientious man — for further qualification. But his eagerness to reduce a capacious mind such as Akkitham’s into an identifiably marked box wrapped with ideologically matching ribbons revealed an old and familiar set of allegations levelled against literature. These include: literature can’t be trusted to represent reality, literature speaks without a legitimately earned authority, literature subverts aspired moral orders, and literature’s role in the formation of ideas among citizens must be contested. This litany of suspicions — a corpus of arguments that some have called a kind of ‘anti-literature’ — has had old and prominent votaries from Plato, who proposed to throw out the poets from his Republic, down to our times.
Whether it be Mahasweta Devi, Perumal Murugan, O.V. Vijayan, Joe D’ Cruz, or S.L. Bhyrappa, literature, or more specifically littérateurs across the political spectrum, have been subject to various litmus tests. These critiques have acquired manifold representations in everyday life — outright bans, physical threats, rejections from peer groups, exclusion from laurels; at their heart, however, is an old familiar attack that philosophical and political minds have repeatedly levelled against poets and other engaged creative minds. The earliest such instance is from Xenophanes of Colophon (570-470 B.C.E), who found special ire for the poets Hesiod and Homer. To attack Homer in ancient Greece was tantamount to aiming at the fount of all Greek knowledge of great antiquity. Xenophanes’ charge was admirably straightforward: “Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods all sorts of things which are matters of reproach and censure among men, theft, adultery, and mutual deceit.” He thus accused Homer, the pater familias of Greek imagination, of corrupting the listeners by providing examples of debauched lives rather than instructing them on moral virtues.
The critique of Xenophanes’ contemporary Heraclitus, one among the earliest of philosophers, was sharper and more explicit in its prescription. Heraclituswrites, echoing what many an apparatchik in charge of committees has dreamed of doing to authors: “Homer should be turned out of the lists and whipped.” As for Hesiod, the writer of innumerable verses of great beauty, Heraclitus basically calls him an old fool: “Hesiod is most men’s teacher. Men think he knew very many things, a man who did not know day or night! They are one.” These poets, the philosophers charged, spoke a language that was indistinguishable from the beautified babble of the common folk. Not just were they filled with untruths, but their utterances didn’t even speak in the language of truth: reason (logos).
Today, in much of the Western world, thanks to secularisation of knowledge and life, poetry or literature is no longer deemed worthy of such attack. In fact, it is not even deemed capable of outrage, far less sacrilege. At their most provocative, Western writers (such as Michel Houellebecq) are accused of violating norms of civic decency in a multicultural society. In contrast, that we in India still seek the ban of books and burn effigies of writers tells us that as a society, we still grant writers the power to be sacrilegious, to deny the sacred of its potency. We still presume not just that their word can represent reality, but that it also has the power to alter our lived worlds. This, no doubt, buttresses the vanity of writers but more importantly, it also reveals a society where the vocabulary and performance of religious sanctions have found analogous expressions in a wider secular context.
Our new gods — caste consciousness, party, political leaders, ideology, historic figures — come like the old gods, armed with their own grammar of violence to punish the supposed transgressor. The distinction, however, is that while our old gods were often at peace with doubters of their transcendence, our new gods demand unyielding expressions of loyalty. We often mistake these demands of fealty for their show of strength, but in reality, these loyalty tests only speak to the fragility of ideas — ideas that work in practice only if they have, like some telephone calling plan, prepaid admirers.
A version of this piece appeared in The Hindu on November 5th, 2017.