Friday, April 13, 2007

The Necessity Of Flowered Man

The definition of the Public Intellectual escapes the best of us but can humanity escape the importance of the Public Intellectual?

God is dead. Marx is dead. Lenin is dead. Gandhi is dead. I am alive and not feeling too well myself— Graffiti, JNU, May 1983

By Amit Sengupta

I think therefore I am. I don’t think therefore I am. I am not the public. I am not The Intellectual. The public is not The Intellectual. So who is the Public Intellectual? From which etherised planet of self-righteous, high moral ground has he found his residence on earth? What is his destiny and why should he exist? In which existential realm of unfolding history? Is she/he only interpreting the world, or is she/he interpreting the world to change it? And what are they wanting to change? What? Why?
The cabaret. A subversive space of body and mind in pre-Hitler Germany. It was not a sex show. The working class, intellectuals, dissenters, would gather in these dark joints full of smoke. Also anti-fascists, mostly communists. Marlene Dietrich used to perform in one of these black holes of clandestine rebellion before she became a Hollywood legend in post-war America. Apart from sanitising the banks and publishing houses, the first thing Hitler did was to ban all the cabaret joints. The smoke moved elsewhere, floating subversion, all through the Holocaust, when great German philosopher Martin Heidegger joined the Nazis and burned the books.
But the books returned. Like Samizdaat during the Stalinist purges, the underground literature, when poets, writers and dissenting academics disappeared, when Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were banned. So was Anna Akhmatova. When Vladimir Mayakovsky, the people’s poet, almost anarchist but committed to the Bolshevik revolution, was asked to write poems on tractors and agriculture, he committed suicide. And the fact is, they banned Beethoven during the Cultural revolution in Maoist China, even though Karl Marx loved Beethoven.
Almost three decades later, in June 1989, when thousands of Chinese students were using Gandhian satyagraha at the Tiananmen Square seeking freedom and democracy, and moments before the tanks rolled in, the public speakers were playing two musical masterpieces — the beautiful communist anthem, the Internationale, and, yes, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. What would Marx, one of the greatest ‘public intellectuals’ of all time in history, have said to that?
Irreverence, denial, anti-joke, laughter as life-affirmation; obscenity as liberation; caricature and parody as rebellion, funerals and carnivals as mass protests, as folk celebrations of the ‘plebeians’, camouflaged under feudal tyranny, the banal tyranny of banal mediocrity, as in our times, the lyrical anti-narrative below the sacred space deifying the Gods, the satanic verses — with the holy text between the unholy text, the text as oppressor, language as power. The politics and philosophy of thought-control. Of liberation.
There are stories within stories. Eyes within lies. Wisdom outside knowledge.
There is this story about Gabriel Garcia Marquez meeting his grandmother after he wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude. He told her the story. She laughed: “Oh! This? I can tell you much more crazier stories.”
Most intelligent men and women hate to break their satiated, frustrated, domestic bliss, the public bliss of false recognition and designed semi-contentment. They become boring and meaningless, trapped in atrophy, condemned by their own brilliance or mediocrity, their ideas don’t seek out or break through anymore. They are not even Sisyphean slaves, waiting for that momentary pause of clear thought. That is why they are so few who can dare to put their heads under the guillotine, shake and stir and dissolve their own fixated paradigms, experiment with the heady adventure of ideas, stick their neck out, challenge the establishment, resist the one-dimensional discourse.
All men and women are philosophers. That is why, Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, who broke through the reductionism of Marxism, said all men and women are intellectuals, and not only those fated to be ‘class intellectuals’. All who can use their skills, intelligence, memories, hands, eyes, touch, senses, feelings, experiences, histories, oral traditions, craft, learning, unlearning — they are all intellectuals. The cobbler, weaver, blacksmith, carpenter, plumber, farmer, those who till the soil, understand its soul, the seasons, the craftsmen, the woman who cooks and preserves, the man who digs your grave: they too are intellectuals — if such a category must exist.
Should such a category exist at all? And why must it exist?
Noam Chomsky was recently elected through an Internet poll as the No. 1 intellectual in the world. Chomsky laughed it off saying his friends must have voted for him. Arundhati Roy also laughed it off, “You mean, that intellectual beauty contest?” she said.
The cattle trade of beauty apart, Chomsky has repeatedly shifted the radar of ‘manufactured consent’ not only through his huge body of knowledge, but also through his sharp, polemical, rigorous, public, political stances against the new empire of culture and commodity, and the many fetishes of power and new-militarism. Chomsky has inherited a great tradition of intellectual and public dissent, where the body of work of an individual has often coincided with the catalytic political currents of struggle across Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa. Hundreds of thinking stars went chasing the red star during the Spanish civil war against Franco’s bloody dictatorship, young Christopher Caudwell one among them, who died fighting. Of his many books, The Crisis of Physics and Illusion and Reality were pathbreaking. In the latter, a quote from Lenin, which he wanted to use as an epigraph, explains a few things: “Communism becomes a mere empty phrase, a mere facade, and the communist a mere bluffer, if he has not worked over in his consciousness the whole inheritance of human knowledge.”
Later, in France, Jean Paul Sartre was grappling with the dilemmas of Stalinism in the epoch of fascism and cold war: a philosopher and novelist who created an original, activist existentialism of freedom (every man is responsible for his own freedom), he and his writer-companion Simone de Beauvoir broke the private-public domain of bourgeois, sexual, family suffocation, she especially, with a refreshing feminist sensibility in the enduring landmark work, The Second Sex. They never became card-holders of the party, but their was never a ‘cause’ which they did not take up, including Sartre’s famous public debate with student leader Cohn Bendit in Sorbonne during the electrifying May uprising, 1968.
The cia killed Salvador Allende in Chile. Pablo Neruda travelled the world, especially the third world which apparently no more exists, reading his magical poetry among workers, but internalised his friend, Allende’s death, like his own. Meanwhile, Spain’s greatest poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, Neruda’s comrade, was picked up and murdered by the cia-backed military. His crime was obvious: he was a people’s poet, and he was a thorn in their flesh.
In recent times let’s not forget hundreds of intellectuals, writers, artists, academics who have broken the threshold of conformism with the greatness in their craft, whose brilliance made them integral to popular and marginal consciousness, who dared to face the death squads and consciously challenged the status quo: among them, writer Ken Saro-Wiwa of Nigeria, who was hanged. In our times, when writers (including Indo-Anglian writers, Karva Chauth guest editors etc) are chasing nothing but money and publicity, novelist Orhan Pamuk has now decided to take on the Turkish establishment, not because he is an activist, but because if he has to be intellectually honest about what he writes, his past, he can’t dissolve the mass elimination of Kurds and Armenians in the Turkish Armenian snow, the snow becoming red, like blood.
Pamuk should take a lesson from Czech writer and former President Vaclav Havel when he was leading the post-Perestroika Velvet Revolution in his country. He said, if I am quoting him correctly, “I often think when I go to bed that I would never find it surprising that next morning I will land up in a jail cell.” Havel might have become what he has become, but to me, this is the finest definition of a ‘public intellectual’, if there is such a category.
In India, before and during and after the freedom movement, Sahir, Sajjad Zaheer, Balraj Sahni, Munshi Premchand, Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chugtai, Rajender Singh Bedi, Yashpal, Rahul Sankratayan, Salil Choudhury, Ritwick Ghatak, Harindranath Chattopadhyay, Kaifi Azmi, Muktibodh, Suryakanth Tripathi Nirala, Sukanto, Bhisham Sahni (so many names are missing): it’s a long, radical tradition we have inherited and discarded so easily for the pathetic soap of the Shahrukh Khans and Ekta Kapoors. These greats were not compulsive marginals or artificial celebrities. They were inside our homes, in the most interiors of our private selves, uncomprisingly anti-establishment, rebels and failures, great minds and souls, the slow, sensitive, intimate song of the long road which haunt us in the most unlikely of times, in the strangest of places.
That is why the Sahir song comes back yet again: Woh subha kabhi to aayegi… Like the El Salvador slogan in the early 1980s: The Dawn is No Longer An Illusion.
Nov 05 , 2005
Source: Tehelka

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